Learning to Learn

And with that, another year is over. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning of June. And I realize that this is month 6 of 12. But I’m talking about a year in which I’ve created my little academic bubble and languished in it. In the last mile, in those final weeks, walking out of exam after exam, fending off sleep to make word counts, holding off crippling anxiety as THE exam approached, all culminating to walking on that plane and leaving it behind. At least for three months. Three glorious months. I make it seem like an ordeal. Perhaps I need to rein it in a bit, but maybe, I’m not that far off.

One year, completely gone. And what have I contributed to the world? Hard to say. In this respect, learning seems extremely selfish. Will we students really pay it forward? Who knows. If I’m not, what has been in it for me, really? I’ve had small moments of reflection along the way, but have only now allowed myself the time to put it down in words. If I’ve spent all of this time learning, what has been the biggest lesson? On the whole, I’d venture to say that it was learning to learn. Before this year, I’d never explicitly acknowledged the challenges I have with this undertaking in a way that is productive.

Let me say now that I do not intend to discuss learning how to learn with this post. That has been done a number of times already (Coursera, TEDx, HBR, Learn.Love.Code.), and by those who make a career of studying it. I’m only hoping to relate my experience of simply getting into a mindset supportive for learning based on existing (self-imposed) barriers. This means recognizing the challenges in the first place, their foundations, and working to overcome them, a process which, I’ll posit, is one in which I need constant reminders.

I could attribute it to the nature of doctoral studies – that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, we acquiesce that we don’t know or understand everything. But I have to acknowledge that it’s my institution too. [Let it be known that I’ll give credit where credit is due, despite my reflexive scruples about the complex that comes with the ivory tower.] Learning alongside people who you respect and find amazingly capable, and finding that they’re asking similar questions, it’s encouraging. But there are times when you feel inadequate too – the dreaded, but famed “imposter syndrome”. It’s real, and it comes in waves. You periodically convince yourself that a wrong decision was made somewhere. Countless times, I’ve rationalized, “Too bad, I’m here now. If a wrong decision was made, they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll simply wait until they drive me out.” This is decidedly an unhealthy way to go about it. Luckily, the sheer number of things to do often crowds out these thoughts.

This year, remembering three key things has been important to me. And these ideas have formed the basis of my experience in learning to learn. They’re simple. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped.

  1. The Decision, with a capital D

Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This one was an accident. I simply wanted a Le Petit Prince daily planner because it’s cute. How was I to know that it would become an integral piece of my experience. Looking at it every day, I eventually took it to heart. To do what I want, I needed to make it a real, tangible, reachable goal. I came to graduate school. I came to learn such and such. With this explicit decision, I’ve invested time and money and have made inevitable tradeoffs. This is what I’ve decided to spend my time doing. Did I really want it? Well, then. I need to water it.

This seems very simple. But I hadn’t forced myself to pin it all down before. Forever the jack of all trades, master of none. The decision is key. I came back to school to learn. I didn’t come because it’s expected. I didn’t come to please someone else. I didn’t come because I was bored, or because I didn’t know the next step. I wanted to know more. Or at least have the tools to find out.

There are endless distractions. Part of coming back to school is the network. You want to meet great people, build lifelong friendships and colleagues. You want to discover all you can about the opportunities in this field and what you can contribute to it. You want to explore the city and all it has to offer. You want to move ahead, be involved, have an impact on your immediate world. And you can do these things, but not at the expense of your learning. With so many distractions and obligations pulling every which way, the dangers of graduate school can be many. It’s not merely an expected rite of passage as going to college has become for much of the middle class. The sirens of graduate school, though momentarily intriguing, can throw you off course. You’ll forget what you came here for and may find at the end of it that you’d never really decided what you wanted at all.

Deciding to learn means making an explicit decision to focus on learning at this point in time. Particularly in doctoral studies, it means realizing that your time as a student, inclusive of academic obligations and freedoms, is short. At some point, you must prioritize a topic over others, regardless of how interesting they may seem. The daily reminder of my decision and that only I can take the time to cultivate my learning kept my focus when I found my resolve wandering.

  1. Learning requires humility

She’ll probably never know how much this affected me. In the first few weeks of school, a girl in front of me in class had taped to her laptop: Learning requires humility. It was impossible to miss. And to follow it up, in jelly letters on her planner: I am wrong often. I studied this with fascination each day. She has the self-awareness to admit her pride as a significant barrier to her learning. And the commitment to remind herself to confront it each day. Directly ahead in my line of vision, I too became committed to the reminder each day. A reminder that I before didn’t know I’d needed. But I did.

Learning requires humility. I took this one to heart too. It’s no secret that I struggle with a sometimes overwhelming sense of pride. But I need to often ask myself, for what? Often, it’s become only a hindrance and not helpful in any way other than to feed my own discomfort. I made a decision to learn, and that’s what I intend to do in spite of debilitating pride and inevitable embarrassment. I will admit that I do not know. I will take advantage of my professors and peers, extracting all information and understanding. It’s part of my commitment. It’s part of the commitment that you must make to learning. Some people make it naturally. Some do not allow their pride to veil ignorance. But I find such cases to be uncommon.

  1. Grades don’t matter

Really, they don’t. Perhaps this one is relevant only to the perfectionists among us. Perhaps I can only say this as a doctoral student. It’s the very last degree. There is no more school to do, in theory. But the argument holds when it comes to learning. And it’s important. In a number of classes, my letter grade fails to convey how much I actually learned in the course. In fact, my highest grade often means that it required the least learning. (Of course, this is not always the case.) In some cases, I found that I only truly understood the material a little later than hoped – after the exam. I would venture to say that this can often be so. But learning is happening nonetheless.

The system has ingrained in us the importance of grades. You are ranked based on how well you perform according to arbitrary standards, or simply the knowledge or opinions of an individual. This seems somewhat flawed. In some respects, it can be more of an evaluation of psychological or political prowess, e.g. What does this professor want from me? Still, one doesn’t realize how deeply we adhere to the system until one make the effort to change mindset. This reminder is urgent, insistent. It must be to elude the ever-near spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing. And overcoming the threat of the spiral is so important to achieving more and discovering more. Even so, it’s a hard one to internalize, and as a result, requires constant recognition.

These have been my thoughts over the past several weeks, as I was forced to contend with inevitable questions: am I really doing what I wanted / want? Is this the life that I’ve chosen? For what? At least I can say that I’ve grown in some ways. I’ve realized some things. And what has changed the most is a newfound capacity to learn, despite challenges and despite ego. To what end is to be determined. With that, I begin summer. A glorious summer. But I will take these with me. Perhaps the formulations of my commitments will change in time. For now, I’m content with this list. That they comprise the most significant of my realizations and only a year of personal growth. Finally, it seems, in my twenty-some years, I’ve started the real journey of learning with openness and humility. I hope to make it a lifelong venture.

Writing Wrongs: Appropriate Appropriation

Some of my favourite femail exchanges are with my mom. She’s hilarious, wicked smart, and ruthlessly compassionate. With mother’s day having just passed, it’s only appropriate to share a recent conversation.

From: D
Date: Mon, May 15, 2017 at 8:30 PM
Subject: Writing wrongs – appropriate appropriation?
To: Mom

Canadian lit had a bit of a “Dear White People” moment recently. Have you read the stuff around the appropriation prize? The editor of Write magazine wrote a piece that began “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” A hook. Slightly tongue-in-cheek. But obviously tone-deaf. He could’ve made his points around writing “what you don’t know” without triggering so many people.

If you read the essay – without knowledge of the backlash – it’s not actually trying to be racist. It’s basically saying that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” especially since those voices aren’t heard very often (which, um, there’s another solution for, but hey… baby steps). It then praises indigenous writers. Sadly, throwing around the term “appropriation prize” makes even the praise sound condescending. It’s a shame too because his actual point is not a bad one.

Canada’s always struggled with its “identity” and Canadians – in all their hyphenated origins – have unique experiences of the true north strong and free. In a way, we’re all appropriating cultures of convenience at any given moment because so many of us are floating in vaguely ethnic limbos. Example: I can no longer lay much claim to Persian culture, but I’m also alien to “white Canadian” culture. Sometimes my own American accent legitimately startles me, and other times, I’m taken aback by random sprinklings of “eastern” traditionalism in my thinking. I’m Iranian for the purposes of a dinner party debate and strictly Canadian at the airport. If I stuck only to writing what I know, all of my characters would be in constant cultural paralysis, from a cis female perspective. It would get old real fast. Having more writers who thoughtfully include diverse characters in their work would make Canadian lit more representative of Canadian reality. The problem is that the words used to portray this in the essay, ignored the massive history of systemic racism, pointed out here by CBC’s Jesse Wente:

“We have to acknowledge … that appropriation is institutionalized in Canada. Not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of land, of our lives, that this is the very foundation of what Canada is based on, including laws that were written specifically to enforce cultural appropriation.”

They also ignored the other solution to lack of diversity… removing barriers to entry and enhancing platforms for more accurate representation of different experiences.

Anyway, I wanted to know your thoughts.

From: Mom
Date: Tue, May 16, 2017 at 4:54 AM
Subject: Writing wrongs – appropriate appropriation?
To: D

I went to a workshop on aboriginal art. We were expecting to learn how to integrate aboriginal arts into our grade level curriculum.

The woman stood there and talked about appropriation for 90 minutes. One of the examples she used was Justin Trudeau’s Sun tattoo. Apparently, the artist’s family frowned at him after they saw their dead dad’s art on Justin’s arm. The guy had to apologize and explain that he just wanted to appreciate that work of art. I pointed out that it was the tattoo artist’s responsibility to make sure all his tattoos were authorized before transferring them on people’s body.

Generally, she was saying that if I wanted to use a work of an aboriginal artist in my art lesson, I need to contact the artist and ask for permission. Someone raised the point that if we don’t do that for any other artist, why should we do it for aboriginal artists?

Now, let’s go back to the article: I think the prize idea was silly, but asking people to write about other cultures to bring some diversity in written work is fine. The problem is, then white writers will go even bolder and write whatever BS they think they know about other cultures. I am thinking of reading a piece on Persian culture written by a non-Persian. Hahaha. I get mad at many Persian writers for distorting our cultures by looking at it through a tiny window. Now, imagine what a clueless author from another culture can do.

That being said, I don’t understand why they even argue over this subject. We call this practice, “research.” You gather information about a topic and write your findings. Haha. You just have to not suck at doing proper, thoughtful, well-informed research, which is the problem I guess.

Originally posted on: https://femails.org/ 

Say Chees(y)

So. I bought a camera and then accidentally wrote what I’m calling a poem. Deal with it:

What if I could sell you a camera with a multi-perspective viewfinder. What if I could Instagram your thoughts through intersectional filters of race, gender, sexuality, experience. What if each snapshot countered a snap judgement.

Would you become a photographer.

Would you keep the shutter open and let the light in. Would you change your lens to capture the details. Would you develop each opinion with the delicate patience and thoughtful attention of a darkroom.

Would you hold onto the negatives and let them create space.

Waking up 15

She goes to bed 32 years old. A single mother who runs her own business. She wakes up 15 years old. Terrified. Sound like the premise for a cheesy airport novel? (or suspiciously similar to the movie, 13 going on 30). Well it is. It’s also Naomi Jocobs’ true story of losing 17 years of memory overnight due to Transient Global Amnesia.

I don’t know all the factors that can lead to something that sounds made-up, but the story did make me think… how would I feel if I woke up in my current life as my 15 year old self? Would I be happy? proud? disappointed? panicked?

At 15, I knew a few things. I knew I wanted to do something significant. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. I knew Mr Darcy was close to perfect. I knew I wasn’t athletic. And I knew I’d have to get over my shyness.

Twelve years later, I know less. But I’m arguably more athletic and definitely less shy. I don’t know what “something significant” could possibly entail and I’m suspicious of anything that pretends to fall into the category. I still wonder if I should’ve been a doctor after all to provide some level of “essential,” if not “significant,” service. And I sympathize with Mr Darcy’s pride. Or is it his prejudice…

My 15 year old self would be surprised more than anything else to wake up to who I am today. Your teenage years are supposed to be for change and development of a purposeful identity. I was relatively consistent across these transition years and instead moved the flux up to my twenties where I sometimes get the sense that I’m waking up to a different human being on an almost daily basis. I’m at once in love with the world and disgusted by it. I’m motivated by some drive that believes in an inherent good and yet paralyzed by a perceived impossibility to actually nudge anything in the “right” direction. I’m a lot more negative than my 15 year old self would suspect. More reckless too. Definitely more interesting.

The negativity would probably bother 15 year old me. I keep trying to course-correct it, grasp at glimpses of the bright and shiny. But they flit away as quickly as they come. The internet tells me to write three new sources of gratitude daily, meditate, drink water, exercise, do an act of kindness – these are supposed to shift my mentality. Apparently I’m just twenty one days of positivity habits away from bright and shiny. And I try. But maybe I like wallowing in the negative. Maybe it’s safer. Maybe it absolves me from doing anything productive because well, what’s the point anyway.

I don’t know. All I know is, 15 year old me would be confused by all the angst.

Define Successful.

My daily procrastination. My daily scroll down the newsfeed.

And there it is, the life status assessment of the day: “The bad habits you should give up if you want to be successful,” attached to a soothing photo of women doing what appears to be some form of yoga in hot springs. What success. Somehow the image does evoke a soothing “I’ve got my shit together and that’s why I have the time to be doing yoga in a hot spring” success. What life awareness.

The title is provocative only in that I can’t help but get defensive – define successful. Successful presumably means vastly different things to different people. I’d be hard-pressed to accept that success defined only by the number of commas printed on my bank account statement would mean success to me in 20 years, though it may for someone else. Likely success in this case is meant to be generic, to be whatever success means to the reader. But then, in that case, would the advice in the article ever be relevant to a person’s own so-called barriers to success? It’s bound to be a list of all the traits that a normal person can’t possibly give up if they are defined by exactly that. Normal. But I take the bait.

It’s a list. I skim through the bolded text – that’s the important bit. Yes, the little tidbits of wisdom that I can say I’ve absorbed for the day, a day unwasted. Except that I reach the end and feel that I haven’t been enlightened. There is nothing new that I can add to my hoarded treasure trove of forsaken goals on my way to a seemingly unreachable “success”.

I’m generally healthy. I go to the gym. I do things. I plan for the long-term. I take opportunities – not only the small ones I like to think. I very much take responsibility for what happens next. Perhaps too much so. I know that learning takes effort, and that I have the discretion to make that learning happen. I don’t believe that it’ll happen overnight. In fact, I’d be disappointed if it did. I gave up perfectionism long ago – I’m told failure is supposed to be healthy. I’ll keep going with that for my own sanity. I’ve learned that to be really efficient, I cannot – cannot – multi-task. I don’t need to control everything – again, my goal is sanity. Okay, I admit, I’m working on not saying yes to everything. I’m improving. I’ve most definitely given up on toxic people, just ask my friends. The real ones. Okay, I’ll make another concession. My need to be liked still hangs around, but I can’t say I’m in it for mass appeal. Dependency on television doesn’t seem to exist. In fact, the opposite seems to be the problem in my ability to be a normal social human being.

So is there anything in there? I’ll admit, a few were borderline. But for the most part, I’d say that I’m pretty satisfied in my ability to say that I effectively don’t have any of these “bad habits”. So what do I do now? If these are all that I need to give up to be successful, by my own definition, why does the path to success seem so obscure? Perhaps it’s more of a question of reaching that satisfactory definition of success. At this point, it’s more probable that I’ll never reach it simply because I’ll never be able to define it. When will I feel that I’ve “made it”? Maybe that’s a list worth reading.

A Dinner Party

Winter is the season of dinner parties. Excuses to get together with people, but stay indoors, dress up in sweaters and sweater dresses and celebrate when the sun sets early and the ever present fog leaves beads on your scarf and colors your nose.

Early evening: Accepting the invitation

It’ll be great to get out of the house. It’s an excuse to dress up, because, why not?

It’ll be fun. I’ll see people and have lively discussion. It’s my chance to be social and energetic and show that I’m a fun person.

I do things. Yes, I do things with people.

Getting ready

What kind of get-together is this? Are we talking full makeup? Or would that be trying too hard?

And what to wear. Is this too much party? Or should I be safe and go with black? Maybe it’s too sad and dark. But black is safe.

I’ll just add some color with my shoes for some fun. Heels aren’t too much. People wear heels to dinner.

Purse. No purse? Purse. Which purse? The everyday one, not too much. And coat. Definitely coat, scarf, gloves.

Okay, ready.

Wait, lipstick. Always lipstick. Yes, done.

Oh, and the champagne. Your one job. The champagne. How could you forget?

And late, of course.

The (late) entrance

Okay, hi. This is a lot of people. I’ll say hi to as many people as possible, and then just happily ignore the others that are difficult to reach. I’ll be introduced eventually. I don’t want to make a whole disturbance now. It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever see them again in my life anyway.

This is a nice spot in the room. Just nod and smile. Don’t forget to ask questions. You can talk less that way.

Yeah, I don’t understand half of what’s going on…but that’s fine. You’re the foreign one. You’re not supposed to understand. It’s a nice excuse anyhow, a nice excuse to not talk. I just feel bad that they’re trying so hard to include me. But I can also see them getting tired of that responsibility. Sorry! It’s okay. It’s okay. I can’t fix that right now.

À table

Ah finally, we’re sitting down to dinner. I can just eat. Eating is a valid excuse. It takes ALL of my attention. It does. Taking the right amount of salad from the bowl. Not looking ridiculous that I can’t get lettuce onto my fork and on a successful journey to the mouth. How to make the lettuce not overly large? Yes, that’s right. Be sure to fit the entire piece in or else you’ll look like a dumb rabbit. Dumb in all senses of the word, considering that you can’t engage in conversation like normal person right now. ALL THE ATTENTION. Okay, that’s normal.

Hm, that wasn’t enough food. I’m definitely still hungry. I thought the “I’m American” disclaimer was well-distributed at this point. There’s not really anything much left though. I can’t be the one to take all of the final drippings.

The bread! Thank God for bread. The bread will do it. Eat the bread.

I hope they don’t expect me to have followed the conversation. My brain is tired. It can only translate so much in a prolonged period of time. I also have the jetlag excuse in my pocket. I must have zoned out for the past five minutes at least. Okay, fine. Try again.

This conversation isn’t particularly exciting. Maybe I’m not actually understanding. But I think I am. Would I be having fun if I was with my own friends? Or is this really just a language thing? Or do people just get boring when they get older? Or am I just more disinterested? I think I’d still be bored if it were my own friends. Maybe I’ve been here too long. Maybe that’s all it is. This is probably what it’s like for outsiders to hear my friends and I hanging out. I’m suddenly so sorry for all of those people that have to sit through us…

Bored. Maybe this is why I don’t come to these things. Just smile. More smiling.

Woo! Dessert! This is cause for celebration.

Post hoc

Dinner, check. We have to be leaving soon. There seems to be lots of talk left in them yet. *sigh* I’m exhausted. But I still look nice.

Okay, yes? Yes?! Coats. I can do that. I have all the things. Coats, gloves, purse.

Bisous! Love you all! We should do this again? Yes, of course! Let’s do this again soon!

*door shuts*

SWEET FREEDOM.

Let’s take a walk.

A walk sounds marvelous.

You march, I march, Jack

January’s more than halfway over and most of us are getting pulled back into the current of “busy.” In part, busy wishing that this TV listing of tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony wasn’t satirical.

This week has been at odds with itself. It started with a day celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., a warrior for racial justice, economic equity, and peace. It ends with a day that hands the keys to the castle to a man whose every action, comment (and tweet) goes against these same principles. Presumably due to the past year’s events, even more of the media’s coverage of Martin Luther King day moved beyond his reveries. A grittier, more conflicted portrait was painted, making the case for imperfect dreamers who aren’t afraid to colour outside the lines, to echo inconvenient truths.

Speaking of inconvenient truths, the World Economic Forum (held this week in Davos) released its 2017 Global Risks Report citing “economic inequality, societal polarization, and intensifying environmental dangers” as top “contributors” to global development over the next decade, threatening peace, wealth and health. Nothing new, but given that “democracies” are shifting towards the political equivalent of hands over ears, eyes wide shut, twitter tongue stuck out on all these risks, we need the dreamers (which I suspect includes whoever is reading this) to step up and step out.

An opportunity to do so is coming up this weekend with the Women’s March on Washington (or Women’s March for Dignity) on Jan 21st (all genders welcome). The platform goes beyond women’s rights and takes an intersectional approach that includes civil rights, justice in the criminal system, worker’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, rights of people living with disabilities, immigration reform, and environmental protection. The governing principle states that “Gender Justice is Racial Justice is Economic Justice.” As of now, in addition to the march in DC, 615 sister marches have been planned globally. You can check here to find the one near you!