A pause that isn’t a pause

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No EdD classes at the moment, a pause that seems like a briefly exhaled breath, a stretch between one state and the next. We finished our classwork last month. Eight courses (two electives), fifty plus assignments, group work, deadlines and learning a whole new world view and vocabulary. Our comprehensive exam is next month – we need to pass that to carry on to the research bit. For the last two years I have been looking at May on the calendar and thinking “ah, that is when things will slow down, that is when I can breathe again”. But May turns out to be like all the other months.

I am used to operating on full steam ahead mode – juggling the usual work plus family things. My job is full, there’s always more to do and quite a bit of travel. The other stuff is often what gets me through a rough patch at home or work – I write, mess about with Twitter and #MedRadJClub and usually have a few papers and collaborations on the go. I mostly love it – which makes me lucky – and a big part of my self-image is being able to do it all, be that person who can publish the paper, do that talk, find the solution at work and then make dinner at the end of the day and also run a nice house, plan vacations, stay hydrated and exercise regularly (OK, that last part was a bit of a stretch…) None of this is unusual, we are all doing it. But sometimes we wobble, and I wobbled hard last week.

Early April was the last class, getting the comps paper done, presenting our work to our peers – passing that final course. A family crisis followed. A week ago I had to do a presentation for a grant – relating to a project that is very dear to my heart and one that we had dedicated hundreds of hours to. We just needed money to try it out. This was the 4th or 5th kick at the can to find funding. My slides were short and to the point, I felt prepared and fairly confident (we were in the final group) and it just seemed like this was going to be the time. Well, it wasn’t, we didn’t get it and I was heartbroken!

The next day (a Saturday) I had a keynote talk at our provincial association on a topic which really interests me. I’d been reading about it in class and wanted to share the ideas with my professional peers. But it was a new concept, and a new talk, which (again) takes hours and hours of prep, rehearsal and adrenaline.  Since February I had taken to waking between 4 and 5 – then just getting up to work. It was the only time that was quiet, and the only time I could write (I am writing this now while the house is asleep – except for my cat who demands to be picked up!). You can do that for a while – and it helped me write my comps paper, prepare for my pitch and write my talk – but not forever.

So, Sunday I try and get out of bed and it won’t happen. My head is aching, I feel like a black cloud has descended. There’s work to do, kid’s baseball games to watch, a gym appointment, the grass needs cutting…. Sunday stuff.  But I can’t do it.  I lie there, until noon.  I imagine quitting my job, quitting the doctorate. I struggle to understand why all this stuff is in any way important.  The life of the family continues without me – doors slam, food is made, cups of tea appear at my bedside. I think “I can’t do this anymore, my brain is fried”. It was frightening, a glimpse into what can happen if the candle burning at both ends up setting the house on fire! I got up, eventually, and went to work again on Monday but with a sense that the line between OK and not OK is very, very thin. This week I am tentative, careful – taking breaks, making sure I stretch, drinking my chia smoothies. But it is not the same.  My feelings are close to the surface, my patience is limited, my cuticles are raw.

There’s a lot of research that shows doing a doctorate is a tough gig, and can affect your mental health. I expected that to be later, maybe next year – with my transcripts piled around me and feeling like I was getting nowhere. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

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Nothing More Practical Than A Good Theory

We are almost in the middle of our EdD last course and diving down into the fine detail that will inform our piece of research/thesis/gift to the world.  At the moment we are wrestling with defining our theoretical framework before heading for our comprehensive exams in June.

Being of a positivistic bent – or at least coming from a profession that is newly academic, and mainly unconsciously atheoretical, I struggle with the concept of theory. Theory means something quite specific in science – something you test, a hypothesis.  Scientific principle tells us that everything is infinitely testable (like quantum field theory that ultimately underpins the practice of radiation therapy).  But “theory” or “a theoretical framework” in the social sciences, and indeed in grad school, is something different, a tool that no good researcher should be without.  My current bedtime reading Introducing Critical Theory (literally a cartoon book about Marxism – which is the only way I can deal with it) tells me sternly that an undertheorised student is a failing student, and our UBC Profs tell us that theory is a lens through which we examine the world.  On the other hand, there is the view that theory is for those with the luxury of being able to sit and reflect (perhaps in their ivory towers), not busy practitioners who are out there in the “real world” (wherever that may be). But figure this out and pick a theory I must!

Most of us in the EdD program are there to try and make our little bit of the world a better place. This aligns with the aim of the EdD, which is geared towards practice, examining it and ultimately improving it. A critical theory lens takes an emancipatory, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-something-about-it stance and accepts that “there are dirty problems like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and poverty to be solved” (Sikes p.45). If we look at the world and see that “mainstream research practices are generally, although most often unwittingly, implicated in the reproductions of class, race and gender oppression” (Kinchloe and McLaren, p. 304) we turn to critical theory for help – be it feminism, race theory or critical lesbian and gay theory (my wheelhouse). There are other broad theories/paradigms which we could use – ones that aim to deconstruct current ideas, or understand them – and there is good old fashioned positivism which is all about prediction. For a closer look at this try here. But I think I am a critical theory girl at heart ♥

One thing is sure, once you start looking at (any kind of) theory there are a LOT of “doctoral-level” words that need to be nailed down. I hope to have a few of these impressively roll off my tongue before the comps in June. To help you recognize them in class, impress your love object and to encourage you to sprinkle a few on your grad work, here is your free Valentine’s Day EdD bingo card. Enjoy!

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References:

Sikes, P. (2006). Towards useful and dangerous theories. Discourse : Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 27(1), 43–51

Kinchloe, J and McLaren, P. (2005) Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Denzin, N and Lincoln, Y (Eds) The handbook of qualitative research. 3rd ed. pp. 303-342. Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.

Metaphorically speaking

As we crash land into 2017 – and the start of my “serious” research year – I am starting to feel the weight of this doctorate settling on me. Perhaps like the famous elephant being felt by several blind men in search of THE TRUTH. I remember this feeling from my time as CAMRT president, looking back I have a sense of wonder that I actually worked full time, carried on raising two children and simultaneously managed a huge work load as board chair (including hiring a new CE in complete ignorance of executive searching and an inordinate amount of travel).  I am in awe of my past self, and wondering if that was a fluke or I can manage something similar with this next stage of research – despite having less brain cells, fluctuating hormone levels that make me doubt my sanity and no letup in the demands of an equally hormone-raddled 15 year old and a 10 year old entering the years of sarcasm and parental-loathing.

But when all else fails, there are always books, and stories, and language to give us solace. Reading any blog, or listening to people talk about their doctorates you can’t help but trip over the word “journey”.  We communicate with metaphor – after finishing my narrative inquiry course I am constantly struck how much we explain something by using another thing! Even my EdD notebook has the words “Go your own way” on the front*. Illness narratives – or any kind of quest – are often framed as journeys. Arthur Frank described the “shipwreck” metaphor that people with serious illness often use. Picking up the pieces, losing their compass, feeling adrift, rebuilding the boat, getting back afloat…. The doctoral journey metaphor is a well-worn path (see what I did there?)  – we encounter bumps in the road, sudden and unexpected turns, the journey may be arduous and long but we can often see the end of the road and feel triumphant when we reach it.

For your education and amusement, then, I have collated an initial list of other metaphors used by my EdD cohort and professors this weekend. Enjoy them and feel free to post others you have used/know in the comments!

The builder: the research process relies on a strong foundation; a good blueprint is essential, take time to lay the foundations well before you move ahead because you want your final edifice to be sturdy and strong.

The oil slick: your project may look amorphous and unformed, you may need to contain the boundaries, don’t let it spill over or you will lose control.

The dance: you need to start slowly and learn the basic steps, once you get into the rhythm you will gain confidence, eventually you will throw yourself into a whirlwind of artistic self-expression that is uniquely yours.

The sculptor: out of the raw clay of passion and intent will emerge the idiosyncratic and beautiful piece of work that is your contribution to the academic world. Take care to hone your tools, and think twice before you chip off a chunk, you may need to measure twice and cut once (OK, that one is a tailoring metaphor….)

The party: picking up the basics of your theoretical framework and positionality is like coming late to a party (except probably there is no wine, and you don’t have to dress up). There is a conversation going on around you (probably about Foucault) and you have to place yourself within it, figuring out what you need to say to add to the ongoing discussion.

The lightbulb: this is a bit of a cheat but one member of my cohort suggested her dissertation should be called “fumbling around in the fucking dark”. I liked it so much I decided it needed to be kept for posterity.

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*The only excuse I have for this is that it was 50% off.

So this is Christmas – you should be writing

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This week I wrap up my narrative inquiry course and look ahead to the very last (!!!) class in January. We began the EdD last summer with a doctoral seminar (aka: this is what you are letting yourself in for, and here’s a film about Hannah Arendt smoking on a couch). This January’s class is the second and last doctoral seminar (aka: I hope you were paying attention because this shit is about to get real). In June we have “comps” (aka: stand up there and prove you know what you’re talking about, and we’ll let you do some research for reals). Just in case you thought it was smooth sailing after that, there’s the research proposal next and then the infamous institutional ethics hurdle and then…… we are deemed ready to go off and gather data followed by a long period of writing, crying and dark nights of the soul. Next, that fledgling dissertation runs the gamut of revisions and re-revisions before a final submission. Oh, and then a defense. But yay, last class….

The narrative inquiry course has solidified my thinking about how I want to do my research. I knew that my story would be part of the work, but didn’t have a good idea of whether that was possible. Now I do. I am going to write a series of stories using the data from my participants, and my narrative will be part of that. I’ve also become increasingly interested in poetry. I am thinking I might use it as several placeholders or introductions to sections in the writing.

The research is on “coming out”, I have been reflecting on and reshaping some of my memories – in part to prepare and practice. Here is a gift you didn’t know you wanted – a glimpse into negotiating LGB disclosure with patients having radiation therapy treatments for cancer.

Happy Christmas – see you next year!

 He is one of them and all of them, my next patient

The bluff King of Orangeville, or Orillia, or far away Bobcaygeon

Doesn’t like the traffic, supports the Jays (don’t we all) and this disease

This indignity has caught him, like a poleax, right between the eyes

He’s warming up on day 3, unlike my hands – but you know what they say

We cover the weather (seasonal), the traffic (catastrophic) and his daughter’s wedding

He needs a suit, the wife is asking if he’ll be well enough, will he, will he?

How about that diarrhea, that pain, will he last, will he last, what do I think?

I demur, I support, I encourage. I pat his hand as we leave the room

Not long, keep still, we can see you on the cameras, wave if you need us.

Then we’re back, he smiles – my girls, my girls, you take good care of me.

How lucky your husbands are, to have such kind and clever girls.

I pull up his pants; lift him as he grips me tight, catching his breath

He looks at my bare hand, smiles. I should introduce you to my son.

By the time the words come, he has left the room. Same time tomorrow.

I move the machine back around. Seen and not seen, there and not there.

Midlife, legacies and the death maths

I recently taught a session for the University of Toronto’s MHScMRS program on “Professional Legacy” as part of their leadership course. The (frankly a bit pompous!) title and invitation came from a dinner conversation with my old friend Cate in Toronto a few months ago. We’ve both had our 50th birthdays this year. The midlife crisis is a well-worn trope, it’s become a running joke in my house (where my wife is close behind me in age) that anything and everything can be attributed to hormonal fluctuations (just try Googling “menopause”). For a few weeks after “the big 5-0” nothing seemed to be different, just a number, right? But after a couple of months I started to fret, to worry about my health, my work – my internal compass seemed to be spinning. I started to do the “death maths” – statistically speaking; we’re past our midpoint and on the downward slope – I joined a gym, introduced myself to chia and almond milk. I talked a lot to women around my age – did they feel like they were going slightly crazy? Not just the physical symptoms, did they feel like they were becoming somewhat unhinged? And, resoundingly, they did. Forgetfulness, feeling overwhelmed, health scares – and lots and lots of wondering “My God, how did I get here?” Despite the metaphor of being “over the hill” it seems that, in reality, happiness is U-shaped. Middle age is our saddest time, with the late 40s being the lowest ebb psychologically speaking After that it is actually uphill! So perhaps less of a comedy midlife crisis, and more like a normal life condition.

Gail Sheehy famously pointed out in “The Silent Passage” that women after menopause often enter a new phase of creativity. The hormonal storms that have rocked our mental boats for the past 30 or 40 years die down, and in the calm that follows we can pause and examine what we have accomplished, and what there might be left to do.  Cate and I talked about this over dinner, and how we suddenly feel that (career wise) time is running out. What we do, what we leave behind, should be meaningful if at all possible. To paraphrase William Morris, we want to devote our energy to nothing that we don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. In reading for my EdD narrative inquiry course, I also came across Erik Erikson and his theory of the stages of psychosocial development. From your 20s to around 40, according to Erikson, your life work is “love” (how great is that?). We labour to develop intimacy and connections, and to build the foundation for a life well lived with people that we care about. During middle adulthood (from 40 to about 65) we start to wonder what we will leave the world. This stage of “generativity” could be work, children, pastimes – but it is important as we move forward and if we feel that we haven’t done this well, we regret, we stagnate and, ultimately, wonder where it all went wrong. Sounds like a midlife crisis to me.

So, all things considered, I was due for a bit of introspection. Talking to Joanna, Winter and Tasha (the MHScMRS students) was a great opportunity to do that. My “work-life blend” is always busy, often difficult but usually joyful. I realised my job and my professional identity are not the same. When I bump up against the reductionist, managerial side of health care and get frustrated, I can refocus on research, education and the things that get me up in the morning. I realised that the undergraduate English degree that I turned down thirty years ago for “science” and job security, and my ongoing love of reading, and writing have been integral to where I am now in the EdD program at UBC. I realise, looking back, that the year I stopped being a radiation therapist because my father died and I just couldn’t do it anymore was the most important year of my professional life – when I started an undergraduate degree, and had the time and space to look around, to think about what I wanted to do with the rest it. I am not sure how much my own reflections about my “professional legacy” or journey were helpful to other people, but the opportunity to start thinking about it was invaluable.

Informed by:

Holstein, J. A. & Gubrum, J. F. (2012). Varieties of Narrative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, California. Sage

Sheehy, G. (1992). The Silent Passage: Menopause. New York, New York: Random House

Sawyer, M (2016). Out of Time. London, England: Harper Collins

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