My big fat learning experience

I started the fall semester a younger and more idealistic man than I am here at the halfway point (fall break). Still, I survived (and thrived) and things are looking up. September was my transition month from going to grad school to being a grad student: that is, I can say now that if the task or decision before me has nothing to do with 1) my job or 2) school, then its value is marginal and I have to consider whether to spend time/energy on it. (The beauteous Liz, of course, excepted.)

What was so different about this semester?

  • I started with one class that met twice a week, but when I added a second class (on the advice of my advisor), the extra class's workload was such a shock to my organizational systems and my schedule that my legs are still quivering.
  • Last spring, I had two two-hour classes: one met Tuesday morning, one met Monday evening. It was very easy to accommodate my work schedule, my writing group, and still get schoolwork done.
  • This fall, I have two morning classes, each one is 75 minutes. One meets on Mondays-Wednesdays at the relatively decent hour of 9:30 a.m., the other on Tuesdays-Thursdays at a tremendously inconvenient 11 a.m. The latter class means I don't get to work until after 2 p.m. Since I work a mandated 45-hour week (if I work less than 45 hrs, I get paid less), this means staying at the office till 9 or 10 p.m., meaning all that I can do when I get home is have a late supper, unwind, and go to bed. (Unless I have homework due the next morning, but that's another story.)
  • The extra class disrupted my usual commuting and parking habits. I missed one session driving around looking for a parking space. Lesson learned: as much as possible, reduce the randomness of finding a parking space. I was lucky early on in the semester, but the luck didn't hold. So, I was tipped to a park-and-ride lot halfway to Hillsborough, which is further out from campus, but there are always plenty of spaces. However, the extra distance means that I'm now commuting via bus and car about 8 hours a week.
  • The start of the fall semester coincided with the end of the federal fiscal year, and I had a stiff schedule of deliverables to meet with a hard deadline of September 30. Of course, a major 10-15 page paper was also due on September 25. Criminy. And the first half of October was spent helping my team recover from a major project meltdown. So I couldn't sneak any reading or research at the office--when I was at work, I worked. Big blocks of time for schoolwork can only happen on the weekend.
  • The paper was a literature review, which I'd never done before. I got some great advice from my friend and mentor Cassidy and some great tips (especially from Cal Newton's Study Hacks blog) on smart ways to research and write such a paper. The main thing is, it took a lot of time to learn how to manage the overall project, then it took time learning the subject matter, then it took time pulling it all together. I used a vacation day on Sept 24 (my 46th birthday, as it happened) to relax and go over the paper. I discovered to my horror that I'd written an annotated bibliography instead of a literature review. So I totally recast the paper that day and evening (a loverly way to spend a birthday) , got to bed at a decent hour, and succeeded in getting an excellent grade. Note to self: learn RefDesk or Zotero to format citations!
  • Along the way, I learned to make use of the interstices of time available to me. The posts on scheduling time by Cal and Proto-scholar helped me really leverage Google Calendar more and visualize my commitments. I decided to routineize my schedule as much as possible. So, even though my Tue/Thu classes happen later than my Mon/Wed classes, I still rise at the same time every day, get to the bus stop by 8:30 a.m. at the latest, and use the block of time spent on the bus and slurping coffee before class to do my readings for that day or that week. (I always print out the next week's readings on Thursday or Friday.)
  • During my lit review, I fell down the rabbit hole of technology by spending an afternoon messing with CiteULike, which, to be fair, did lead me to some articles that I used, but that I finally saw to be not as useful to me as I had expected. I also spent my first research afternoon tweaking my Windows setup, trying out various programs, etc. Total procrastination monkey. That's when I simplified my methods (remember the Extreme Programming motto, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work"). I will be trying Cal's new method of using Excel as a research database (again, Proto-scholar adds to the conversation) for my current paper, whose themes have been pre-defined by the professor. I'm also trying out Zotero, to see how it does with citation export (though this may violate the "do the simplest thing" principle).

My manager, who's getting his MBA, had a teacher who often repeated the motto, "Don't wish it was easier--wish you were better." I thought of that often during my transition period--I can't change my deadlines, I'm not going to drop the classes, I can't make the buses run faster, I need to maintain my 45-hour work schedule so I can meet my financial obligations.

And so, at some point, I realized that all this meta-thinking and self-management is part of the learning experience. I've had to re-frame a typical workday from 8a-5pm to 12pm-9pm. I have to dedicate some portion of the weekend to making up time I miss from the office, which means getting better at scheduling. I had to drop my writing group and my banjo lessons, so I could focus my disposable time on school. Many of the habits and routines of my old life that I thought immovable I now see as malleable and, in many ways, optional. Liz has been great about taking on some of my old chores and agreeing that some chores (like yardwork) will have to wait for my attention until the semester is over.

I've also discovered that, even with this tough schedule, I like taking 2 classes at a time. I find that jamming together the class readings causes me to see connections that I would miss were I taking each class on its own. There's also the pressure of trying to meet my obligations that obliges me to make faster connections and discover new ways to re-frame current problems or speed up time.

When I eventually signed up for next semester's classes, I picked one 3-hr class that meets on Mondays, and then picked a Monday-Wednesday class that meets in the morning. I've cleared it with my manager that I will be out of the office on Monday but will make up the time on Saturday and throughout the week. It's an unconventional schedule, but I'm living an unconventional life right now, and that's also something I needed to learn.