1 Down, 5 To Go.

Yesterday I submitted my final term paper for the semester, which means my first year of grad school has officially come to a close.

I’m not really quite sure what to say. I wish I could say that I’ve become right at home in my new department, dove headfirst into all my classes, impressed all my professors with insightful comments during class, and produced work I was proud of. But in all honestly, none of that is true. When I look back on this year, what stands out the most is all the bad stuff.

I’ve struggled to find people in my department who I can form close relationships with. There are a handful of people I’m comfortable hanging out with, asking advice from, and even talking about my personal problems with, but they don’t feel like close, natural friendships. I still feel like I can’t completely drop the “friendly and professional” act.

As far as classes go, there were three that I genuinely enjoyed. I couldn’t get into any of the rest. I skipped the readings, often didn’t contribute to discussions, and really had to rack my brain just to find something to write about when term paper season came around. There were a few moments where I was proud of the work I turned in, but more often than not it was me struggling to meet the length requirements and breathing a sigh of relief when it was over with.

I’ve been told the first year of grad school is one of the hardest, and the reason they push us so hard is because it forces our skills to develop significantly in a short period of time, but to be honest I just…don’t really feel like I’ve improved all that much. Oftentimes I just feel way out of my league and like I still need to prove (both to myself and to my colleagues) that I deserve my spot in this program.

I know some part of this can be chalked up to the stress involved with moving clear across the country to a brand new place and leaving all my friends and family behind, and some more is just impostor syndrome, but a very real chunk of it is just…me genuinely not doing so great.

Don’t get me wrong – my first year didn’t go terribly. I passed all my classes, got involved in outreach and projects I’m passionate about, and met some amazing people. But I know I can do better. I refuse to believe that grad school is always going to feel this shitty.

Good (≠ Productive) Things

Great things I did today:

  • Woke up early (which is extra great because I’m slowly trying to shift from a 3 AM-11 AM schedule to a 10 PM-6 AM schedule. Today was 7:30! I’ve been hovering around 8 for the last week.)
  • Morning yoga
  • Caught the early bus to my class today (Usually because I’m Always Running Late™ I take the bus that drops me off just barely in time for class.)
  • The first problem set assignment for my logic class was returned and I got 10/10! 🙂
  • Felt completely comfortable giving a presentation and leading discussion in my seminar
  • Went to the gym (I feel like this is extra commendable because I walked there in the freezing, pouring rain.)
  • Didn’t forget to bring my reusable bags when I went grocery shopping

Tonight I plan to take a night off from philosophy and coursework and just do some housekeeping and relax 🙂

Today was a good day, and I’m extra happy about that because it wasn’t a good day in virtue of me being productive work-wise. I think it’s good for my mental health to separate “good” from “productive” – and honestly for the longest time those words were conceptually identical for me. It’s nice to know I’m capable of wrapping my head around the idea of them being different, especially right in the middle of the work week.

Merit vs. Need-Based Financial Aid; Notes on Constructive Conversation and Emotional Investment

This post was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend over Thanksgiving Break. I haven’t been able to write out my thoughts until now because I’ve been slammed with term papers and end-of-the-semester assignments. Now that it’s Winter Break I finally have a bit of free time on my hands 🙂

Firstly, I want to share our discussion on merit-based scholarships vs. need-based financial aid. At the beginning of our conversation, I was of the position that both were permissible. My friend, on the other hand, believed that if there was money to be given in the form of scholarships or financial aid, it ought to be given on the basis of need, not merit. This implies that schools giving money to students on the basis of merit when it could instead be given on the basis of need is impermissible. This seemed too strong a conclusion to me – accessible higher education should absolutely be made a priority, but intuitively it also seems permissible that excellence be rewarded. I would have been willing to go so far as to say that need should take priority over merit, but no further. During the course of our conversation, however, my friend brought up some considerations which have made me much more sympathetic to his position.

The main thrust of his argument centered around the idea that our society is set up in a way such that those who excel are the ones who already have the means to afford college: their parents have the resources to send them to good schools, pay for extracurricular activities, hire tutors, and afford prep classes/books. Thus, assuming that colleges and universities have a finite amount of money that goes towards covering students’ tuition and living expenses, the money should go to someone who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford college rather than someone who can, even if the latter person is someone who excels or is particularly talented. (Those who count on their talents or good grades to be their “ticket” to a college education they could not otherwise afford would still be covered under need-based aid.)

As I said, I am much more sympathetic to my friend’s conclusion now than I had been prior to this conversation. I can see why, given the way our current society is set up, we may need to do away with merit-based scholarships altogether and focus completely on need-based financial aid. While extreme, I believe the current state of higher education in the United States is flawed enough to justify it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all.

I’m still working to reconcile this with my intuitions about it being permissible for excellence to be rewarded, but perhaps the answer is as simple as saying that it’s prima facie permissible bar extreme circumstances, and we are currently in extreme circumstances. I don’t know yet.

The second thing I wanted to talk about was our conversation itself. There were a few things I really appreciated that I wanted to highlight:

First is the mere fact that the conversation happened in the first place. Speaking from experience, lots of people tend to shy away from conversations in which their views are challenged. Oftentimes their attitude is a complacent “agree to disagree” or a defensive “everyone is entitled to their own opinions”, rather than viewing the situation as an opportunity to have their intuitions challenged and explore differing viewpoints.

Second is my concession towards the end of our conversation that my mind had changed, and that I was more convinced of my friend’s position and less convinced of mine. I don’t know why there is such a stigma against admitting you’re wrong or changing your mind. That’s how you grow, after all.

And last is my friend’s demeanor throughout our conversation. I have been using the terms “conversation” and “discussion” throughout this blog post, but honestly the label “argument” wouldn’t be completely wrong. The issue of university-awarded financial aid affects my friend personally, and he was quite angered at my suggestion that universities not funnel all of their potential resources to helping need-based students.

What is interesting to me is the general tendency of society to discount the input of those with emotional investment to the topic at hand – for example, citizens called for jury duty are asked whether they have any relevant personal attachment to the case in question; “angry feminists” are dismissed in discourse; and I have personally been told on multiple occasions that people will listen to me better if I present my message in a calmer/nicer manner. But why do we do this? Of course in certain situations it is understandable, but as a widespread general principle? We need to work on recognizing we are human. Having emotions does not negate our right to be taken seriously.

An Open Book

In an effort to make this blog as authentic a reflection of my grad school experience as possible, here is a very candid snapshot of my current state:

I am very depressed. My anxiety is really bad. I’ve skipped two days of working out in a row and replaced them with binge eating. I’ve gotten virtually no work done in the past few days. I have no motivation to go out with friends. I miss California. I feel terrible.

And tonight I cuddled with my dog, buried my face into her fur, and cried for 20 minutes.

A More Personal Approach to Moral Theorizing

I recently had the opportunity to listen to a talk by Sharon Street at a colloquium held by my department. I have long been a fan of Sharon’s; when first introduced to her work as an undergrad I was blown away by the bold ambition and clarity in her writing. In fact, I often used her papers as models for writing my own.

At her talk, however, I was blown away for a different reason: the way she so seamlessly managed to intertwine our very raw, honest human experiences with the objective, theoretical rigor I have grown so used to in analytic philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the rigorous, logically-driven approach to answering philosophical questions, but sometimes – especially in ethics – I think there is a danger of being too theoretical, and thus ceasing to be of any use or relevance to us at all. Indeed, these are the sorts of considerations that have really driven my current interests in ethics. In other words, ethical puzzles or problems which arise from hyper-theoretical approaches of analysis can potentially be addressed by bringing theorizing “down” to a more “personal” level, and it is here where I want to begin my research.

Of course, there is the opposite danger of becoming too personal and leaving the sphere of rigorous exploration altogether, and this is precisely why I was so impressed with Sharon: she has managed to fully address the concerns at both ends of the spectrum without falling prey to either of the problems associated with each end. That is, she has managed to give a rigorous moral analysis of very personal, human experiences.

And, as in undergrad, this is again something I will try to model in my own work.

[For those curious, the paper Sharon presented on is titled “Finite Valuers and the Problem of Vulnerability to Unmitigated Loss”. She has asked us not to quote or distribute it, but it is part of a larger book project still in the works.]

Getting the Hang of Adulting

I’m currently writing this at 10:30 pm with a face mask on. This means: a) that I’ve finished all the things I wanted to do today before 10:30, and b) there is enough time between now and when I’m planning to go to bed such that I can relax for a bit and treat my skin – and this is a big, big deal!

In my first few weeks of grad school this would have never happened. I had no idea how to prioritize my to-do list and felt so hopelessly swamped with coursework that I didn’t even have time to do things like clean my apartment or workout or hang out with friends. As a result, I was doing nothing but schoolwork from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I wasn’t getting enough sleep; I wasn’t working effectively or efficiently; I wasn’t giving myself time to go out and relax and just be a fucking person instead of a grad student… It was driving me nuts. I was really miserable.

Fast forward about a month and a half and I’m happy to say I’m in a much better place, both in my work like and in my personal life.

I’m getting better at managing my time and my assignments. I’ve finally managed to internalize the idea of prioritizing: some readings I skim, some I annotate meticulously, and some I make sure to do before others (which is a huge break from undergrad because I always managed to get my work done on time no matter what order I did it in and I read everything). Now I’m actually getting things done ahead of time! (Also a huge break from undergrad – haha!) As for not-school, I’m working out on the regular, my apartment is clean and my laundry situation never gets quite so bad, and I feel like I’ve got a good group of friends – or at least colleagues that I enjoy spending time with.

Of course, there are still things I need to work on and I still feel homesick pretty much all the time, but overall I feel like my whole situation in general is much more manageable and I’m able to do the things I want to do. Cheers to improvement!

This will be the first post filed under the “Personal Updates” category. I think the name itself, coupled with the content of this post, makes it pretty clear what sorts of things you can expect to find in this category in the future.