Above the Cornfield

Some people enter graduate programs knowing exactly what they want to do.  It might change a little or even a lot based on mentors, research experiences, interactions with peers.  But in my experience, few students enter their doctoral studies without a clue about what they want to do with it.

If you ask me, I’ll tell you that I entered graduate school (this time around) without the foggiest notion of what I wanted to do with the degree.  I typically don’t tell people that my goal for graduate school was to use it as a platform for healing myself from the worst case of burnout I had ever seen–meaning my own burnout.  I was so far gone I didn’t even recognize myself.  When I tell people that, it makes them uneasy and just emphasizes the fact that I’m a little too intense for the general public’s taste, so it’s safer to just say I haven’t the foggiest notion.  
Adult education classes were great for my initial purpose, but now that I’m done looking backwards, what to do with the forwards?
I’ve been accused (one too many times, by the way) of having no direction in my doctoral studies which I admit is entirely my own fault. But apparently people are going to bug me until I tell them what’s really on my mind, thereby disproving my theory that if I resist long enough, people will go away.  So here’s what goes through my mind whenever someone asks me about my plan.  
Field of Dreams, is a 1989 movie starring Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones.  Keven Costner plays Ray, a man who builds a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield because a voice told him to do it.  Everyone throughout the movie keeps telling him he’s crazy, demanding explanations for his actions.  Initially Ray has no idea why he built the field, he just knows he is supposed to do it.  He questions himself.  He gets angry.  He almost gives it up.  But eventually he understands why he needed to build it, and ultimately in helping himself he helps others just like him.  
Despite the notable script inconsistencies–I mean NOTHING about the rules of this magical field is consistent–it has a lot of meaning for me, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times (not an exaggeration).  
For those of you who have seen it (or even those of you who just watched the trailer), did you see the color of the sky?  Field of Dreams came out when I was in middle school, one year after I moved from Virginia to Kansas.  I hated Kansas with a middle-school passion that drove my parents to distraction, but when I saw this movie I immediately recognized the sky, which is a true Midwestern sky since the movie was shot in Nebraska.  That color happens almost every night in Kansas, but never ever on the east coast.  The evening sky, showcased  throughout this movie, has a signature color and clarity due to the wind and wide open spaces or whatnot.  Anyhow one of my first “moments” happened when watching the very last scene of this movie. I was appreciating the sky AND the fact that I had the knowledge to recognize that sky for what it was–and I suddenly realized that this could have only happened because I had been forced to move away from my friends and see what it was like to live in Kansas.  This, in turn, softened my heart a little towards change and the unknown, which was a big step for me and probably any 7th or 8th grade female. 

But there’s more….

Ray (aka Kevin Costner) opens the film with a voice over describing his life.  He describes his college experience in the following way: “And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find….This, of course, drove [my dad] right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially my major was English, but really it was the Sixties.”

Ray chose his college not for what it was (UC Berkeley and all its opportunities), but for what it was not (his dad’s choice).  I chose my doctoral program not for what it was, but rather what it was not. Probably not ideal, but it worked for Ray so maybe it will work for me too.

Next, Ray graduated with a degree in a discipline (English), but his real understanding–his real education– was of his context–what “the Sixties” meant and how people functioned within it and after it.  I’ve spent the last two years trying to understand what higher education means–why I’m doing it, why other people are doing it, what it is supposed to do, what it is supposed to do but doesn’t, what it might do.  

VCU, my home university, has a strategic plan called Quest for Distinction. It has several pillars and themes.  Depending on what document you read, you’ll see things like: 
  • Living and learning in a global environment
  • Contributing to research, scholarship, clinical experiences, or creative expression that enhances quality of life.
  • Emphasizing human health
  • Faculty excellence
  • Community engagement and impact. 
  • Resource accountability
Now layer on top of the VCU’s Quality Enhancement Plan which is meant to align mission with practice, and when it speaks of student learning, you’ll see things like:
  • Emphasizing digital education/literacy
  • Emphasizing general education (i.e. that which transcends subjects or disciplines)
 So below I’ve concocted a picture of these key elements, and I’ve layered on all of my projects–both class projects and extracurricular projects–to show how they all align with Quest and the QEP.  Unlike my colleagues, who focus in so early on silos of disciplinary knowledge, I’m “living the dream.”  In the words of Ray Kinsella, I’m majoring in the Sixties here.  I want to know what higher education is all about.

Who am I? I am a community advocate–and that could be defined in a million ways–I see myself as a member of online communities, geographical communities, and vocational communities (and I see it as a vocation, NOT as a type of work).  I see people, I hear people, I like document what they are doing.  I like to make them feel better or help them find understanding.  

There is no weakness in preferring the helping arts over other, more traditionally-framed forms of inquiry. 

As such, I prefer the act of inspiration to innovation.  And that’s ok.

I want to see more data dissemination, more translational research, more strengths-based inquiry, more funding for less traditional forms of inquiry, more creative forms of interprofessionalism and collaboration.  I have been lucky through my work to see pockets of inspiration around the university, and yet it is not the norm.  I want to know why it is not the norm and then help work to change it.

I want to study areas of potential collaboration within and around VCU.  I want to promote best practices in communication.  I want to understand the barriers to community engagement and this includes (but is not limited to) the hidden curriculum of academe and the current pathways of data distribution.  I want to understand and engage with not only the “community”, but also the faculty (who are also a community) and work to make everyone’s lives better. 

I do not have to be the leader of record.  I am gifted in ways of leading through other, less traditional ways.  I am innovative in small ways that are as important as the big ones.  
I can build a baseball field in the middle of corn.

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