A Paralysis of Purpose
One year ago, I was paralyzed with indecision.
I was attempting to craft statements of purpose or responses to other prompts for a handful of PhD programs. I wrung my hands. I weighed the impact of every single word. Was I being too vague? Was I presuming I knew too much? Was I speaking to the interests of the programs I was applying to without sending my own academic interests down the river in attempt to appear appealing? Would the admissions committees see my statements and see in my writing a skill level inadequate to the task of teaching others about effective writing? In short, I worried I was the perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I was not accepted to any of the programs I applied to, and no matter how trite it sounds, I realize that was really for the best. With one exception, the programs I applied to in 2010 were not a good fit. In an attempt to be flexible in the type of program I sought, I applied to schools that did not particularly emphasize composition/rhetoric fields and the related pedagogy, even though that’s what I specifically wanted. I’ve fixed that for my 2011 (entering in Fall 2012) cycle. Only one school is making a repeat appearance, and that’s because it has something in common with the other five: my research interest in composition/writing studies and pedagogy. I’ve used the little bit of time I had between receiving the last rejection letter and starting the applications for what I’ve affectionately dubbed Round 2 to shore up (as much as was possible in 6 months) what I perceived to be the weaknesses of my Round 1 effort: I’ve presented at conferences alone and with others. I’ve taken new roles within the writing center and worked in service to the course that prepares students to become new tutors. I’ve improved the writing samples I’ll send. My GPA has only improved. I’m leaving the GRE situation well enough alone. I still have great relationships with those I’ve asked to write my letters of recommendation. Where does this leave me?
Back in the grips of Statement of Purpose Paralysis.
What I wrote above is, essentially, the same as what I need to put in a statement of purpose. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, writing pedagogy likes me (and I like it back). When I first considered what would be necessary to prepare my PhD applications months before Round 1, I perceived statements like this to be the cake part. I’m a writer who loves writing, who tutors writing, and who wants to teach writing; how could I not knock this one out of the park? Yet packaging all of this into something that reads like someone who is ready to take the next step in joining the ongoing discussion is another thing entirely. My audience, those who already do what I want to do eventually, are who I must convince that I’m prepared for that next step. And I must do it with conviction, with confidence, with mindfulness, and with the sense that I really know what I’m about.
Thus, I’ve glimpsed in myself what I must remember about many of the writers who sit next to me at the writing center tables: I’m scared to death that I’m about to be found out. Am I really capable of writing this single page that may carry my academic future within its pixels? Can I convince my audience? Do I sound like the writer they want me to be (someone who understands the writer he is, and the writer he isn’t, and the writer he must yet be)? I’m frightened that this statement, which I once thought would easily demonstrate the complex academic inquiry I am capable of, will actually reveal the man behind the curtain. Each and every word I strangle out onto the keyboard for this process must be sorted into one of two impressions I perceive it to carry: the competent, self-assured writer/researcher/professor, pursing his lips sagely in his desk chair at his tenure-track office, piles of well-read books and journals scattered at arm’s reach; or an emaciated circus dog who has been taught to mimic a human very poorly, stumbling around awkwardly on his hind legs in people clothing, a pitiable imitation.
I set out to write this here to help me talk myself through the jitters I was having, but as with all such introspective writing, I’ve come around to a solution. The realization that I am in exactly the same position as my writing center students leaves me with the obvious “physician, heal thyself” tactic: I’ve made an appointment at my own center to have this blasted thing tutored. I’ve chosen a fellow tutor I do not know well at all, with whom I have never worked. I’m sure her objectivity will be helpful in pulling me out of my own mind and showing me what I really have on the paper.
But god, do I feel sorry for saddling her with a nervous wreck for her 3 pm appointment.