Year One in the Ph. D. Program: Reflections

So my first year in the Ph. D. program is over.  It was exhausting and stressful, but overall I’m happy to get back into academia and learning new ideas.  First let me say what I’m enjoying so far.

The City

Milwaukee is very diverse, much more diverse than Utah or College Station, Texas.  It’s probably another reason why I enjoy it.  And because it’s a big city, there are plenty of things to do here.  Since I’ve been so busy with school work, I haven’t had time to explore the city yet, but I can already tell that I’ll enjoy it during the summer off.  There’s a trail along the river that I can run along, and the river goes straight into downtown.  One can literally run through restaurant patios because the patios are actually on the running path.

As I take the bus to campus, I always pass the Riverside Theatre and there are always great performers such as Chris Cornell, Lewis Black, Willie Nelson, Sarah Silverman, and Jay and Silent Bob.  Unfortunately, I never have the money to see them.  It’s a town that has everything as far as I’m concerned.

The Geography

Obviously, Wisconsin is up north which means it gets cold quick.  I haven’t lived through a summer yet, but I hear it gets quite humid.  The winters are very cold, but not to the point where it is completely unbearable.  It’s May now and it’s still jacket weather.  But during winter time, you better be prepared quick.  When it was the beginning of December, I remarked that the weather is pretty cold.  A fellow classmate said, “Actually, this is pretty warm.  Wait until January.”  Wow, he wasn’t kidding.  Milwaukee can get very cold.  Just to show you how: I was drinking a cold drink outside.  As I was sipping the last drops, the drops came down the cup more slowly until they froze!  Yeah, it’s that cold.  Overall, I can deal with it, so it’s not that big of a deal to me.

The People

The people are much worse drivers than Utah.  Maybe they’re big risk takers, I don’t know but they are much more aggressive here.  The pedestrians are more assertive too and I’m surprised I don’t see many accidents on the streets.  Other than the driving, the people are very laid back and friendly.

The University

I love Marquette!  It’s in the middle of downtown and the staff is very laid back.  The rest of the graduate students are friendly.  Everyone is willing to discuss ideas and help each other out.  With that, let me tell a little bit about what I wrote about my first semester:

Plato: I learned a lot here and read some dialogues that I’ve been meaning to read but never had the time.  I have a great appreciation for the Republic and the Gorgias.  I ended writing my final paper on the Theaetetus which is really surprising because epistemology is not my strong suit.  Overall, I argued that the Socratic Midwife passage was meant for Theaetetus because of his character.  I surprised myself because I went through the dynamics of knowledge and self-knowledge and whether Theaetetus is an interlocutor that Socrates is looking for, maybe even one who could potentially take Socrates’ place.  Enjoyable class.

Philosophy of Religion: I took philosophy of religion as an undergrad.  After my MA, I wrote a major paper about my religious beliefs and thought I’d never get back into it.  But I signed up for it and I’m glad I did.  We basically went through an anthology of religious issues and it broadened the scope of what I thought religiously.  I haven’t changed my religious beliefs, but it has given me a deeper appreciation for the arguments as well as arguing more carefully.  The final paper dealt with logical positivism stemming from Anthony Flew.  It wasn’t a topic of my choosing, but I think I did pretty well on it.

Political Philosophy: this was a totally new thing for me.  I mainly learned political philosophy on my own and so getting it from a class with other students was a real treat.  It’s a very fast-paced class; we basically read a book per week.  We went through the standards such as Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, and Mill.  But we also went through some of the topics that I’ve never studied or thought of: Critical Race Theory, Political Feminism, and Existential Politics.  I liked the latter so much that I ended up writing a paper on Beauvoir’s book trying to figure out her statement: “I’m not free unless everyone else is free.”  It was a hard topic.  I wished that I had talked to the professor about the topic because I made huge assumptions in that paper.  I got frustrated because of it, but I had to move on and realize that I still need to overcome my shyness and talk to the professors outside of the class.  Very enjoyable class, I just wish I knew about what I was getting into with my paper topic.

For the second semester, I was given the opportunity to teach which was a real treat.  I ended up teaching Theories of Ethics and Philosophy of Human Nature.  Both classes were enjoyable, but I liked teaching Philosophy of Human Nature more because it’s more up my alley.  I enjoy teaching and I really like the idea of students gaining wisdom and learning new ideas from the class.  I learned that my style is more lecture-based rather than discussions-based.  I wish I could get it to a discussion type of class, but they are relatively large classes and any sort of discussion on large classes is pretty difficult, but I can lecture no problem.

Here are the class I took this semester:

Reading French: this was actually my favorite class this semester oddly enough.  I only took one semester of French and so I didn’t know what to expect.  However, I quickly learned that when it comes to languages, there are four sections: reading, listening, speaking, and writing.  In this class, I know how to read French.  I’m barely ok at speaking French, but that’s only because of my previous encounter with it.  I can’t understand it if you spoke to me in French, and I certainly can’t write in it.  But I’m happy with it.  I eventually bought some French books and was relieved that I could read Camus in the original French, for example.  I also bought de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the original French too.  I may be overambitious, but I was happy enough that I could read French now.

Augustine: Medieval philosophy is not my strong suit.  In fact, I try to avoid it as much as a I can.  Despite all that, I somewhat enjoyed the class.  We ended up reading the Confessions and sections from the City of God, but it was mainly reading secondary sources to get a deeper understanding of Augustine.  It gets complex because Augustine isn’t very systematic and so writing a paper about him was challenging.  I was originally going to write a paper on sin, but that didn’t pan out.  Eventually, I started over and wrote a paper about pride and used Camus’ The Fall to help illuminate what Augustine meant by pride.  Again, this was too big of a topic.  I didn’t know what to write on so I had to think quickly and this is what I came up with.  It was very challenging.

Philosophy of Language: This class was mainly reading a book that will eventually be published entitled Invisible Language.  What I got out of the class was something like, “Wittgenstein was right.  If we just take the linguistic turn and see what we’re saying, then we won’t be caught up in our bewitchment of language.”  I actually got caught up in the Wittgensteinian mode of philosophy as an undergrad and a little bit for my MA.  I thought why not give it another go?  Overall, we read Wittgensteinian applications of previous philosophers and our project was to write a paper of a similar style.  I ended up writing a linguistic analysis of Plato’s Symposium.  Not my best paper, but it’ll do.

Any Problems?

Overall, let me just say that I’m extremely happy where I’m at and I couldn’t ask for anything better.  And yet, there is something that has been bothering me.  This has actually been bothering me since 2008.  See, the problem was that my specialty is in the philosophy of love & sex and Schopenhauer.  Those aren’t very popular fields so I’ve been reading them on my own.  Yet, it gets pretty discouraging to engage with the readings if you don’t have an outlet to explore these ideas, or someone to converse them with.  So I eventually temporarily abandoned them and delved into my teaching.  I tried to hone that craft by looking at my flaws and tried to get better at explaining the ideas.  For example, if I saw that I couldn’t explain Hume that well, I would go back and read books (mainly intro type) so that I could explain Hume better for the students next semester.  I tried to do this until I got to Marquette.  But by doing this, I think I lost something.  I mainly learned to skim through the surface of the material in order to explain it to intro students, but I didn’t go deep enough to really engage in the ideas.  So eventually, I just looked through the basic ideas, but never really got to a deeper level on anything.

I’m reminded of Meno in the titled dialogue.  Meno is basically getting all these ideas from all sorts of people, but he doesn’t really engage them on his own.  I’m sometimes afraid that’s what’s happened to me.  At times, I don’t see myself as a philosopher, but more of an intellectual tourist wading through the shallow ideas of thoughts, but, unlike Meno, I’m hoping to swim through the ideas of understanding.  I notice this in class as well.  As soon as the topic becomes abstract, I quickly lose interest.  Mind you, I don’t zone out.  I still get engaged in the discussions and try to participate, but at the end of the day, I end up saying, “Eh, so what?”  I look to my fellow philosophy friends and they already have developed a specialty in something that I sometimes can’t keep up with them because I don’t know what they’re saying.

At times, I look at the papers I’ve just written and I’m thinking that it’s not serious work.  Pushing myself to get to the deeper levels is challenging too.  It’s not impossible but challenging.  I think it’s analogous to writer’s block, but I have “intellectual block” where I just can’t seem to get past a stuck point.  I think that reading philosophy has many levels.  A beginning level is to quickly skim through the reading and see what the philosopher is trying to say.  A later level is to actually look at the arguments and see if the argument makes sense.  A much later level is to engage with the philosopher and try to either apply it to one’s life, or make a creative response that either accepts or rejects it.  This later level is one I’m struggling to transition toward.  I’ve always looked at these philosophers as making arguments, but I’ve never thought of myself as owning the idea.  There are a few exceptions, but those are rare exceptions.

Any Solutions?

Honestly, if there are any solutions out there, I’d love to hear them, but one thing that has helped me is talking to other classmates to get a feel for what they’re going through.  Grad school is a rough ride.  It’s stressful, frustrating, but it’s also supposed to be a learning experience as well.

Typically if I get a bad response, I sulk for a few hours, but then I get back to work much more motivated.  It’s not as if I can prove to the professor that I can do the work (after all, the grades have been submitted), but it’s to show myself that I can do this.  It’s a reminder that success doesn’t rely on others necessarily.  A really smart friend of mine says he hates school.  Not because of schooling itself or learning new things, but because he didn’t like the idea that other people would tell him if he would be successful or not.  Trust me, my friend is pretty successful.  That’s the attitude I want.  That’s the attitude I need.  I want to be successful so that I can do this, but I’m not out there proving what I can do.  Yes, grad school (or any school for that matter) does have many hoops that one needs to jump through, but I have to remind myself that it’s part of the process and after all this, I can finally delve into something that interests me and what has made me love wisdom in the first place.

One thing I’ve learned is that perhaps my papers are too big.  The topics I usually choose are probably meant to be a book topic rather than a paper topic.  One of my friends here recommended that I just read a page or a passage from the philosopher and just write about that.  Intriguingly, when I look back at my grad school work, that makes a lot of sense.  I took on too much when I did my political philosophy and my Augustine paper in which I didn’t do so well.  But I only focused on a small chunk reading (only a passage for Plato) and I did really well in the class.  The key is to focus on smaller things.  I’m writing a paper, not a dissertation.

I’ve tried out a plan to see if I can escape this type of thinking, but overall I’m not sure.  I think I just might go back to my roots and read more into my specialty, but again, my worry is that I have no one to engage conversation with.  No one is interested in the philosophy of love & sex and nor in Schopenhauer.  This summer, I want to read ahead for the classes I will be taking.  This way, I will try to balance myself.  I have started Consciousness Explained by Dennett and I’m reading secondary literature on Derrida.  I would also like to dabble through Benatar’s Better to Have Never Been.  It has a Schopenhaurian theme.  It’s a start, and I’m not sure it will work.  But I have to start somewhere.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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