Oh, learning, why you so hard?

"You're postgraduates, you don't get a break!" -- Our Masters program leader every time we accidentally utter the words 'semester break'. We really must develop a better method for tracking the passage of time.

It is no secret that university works us like dogs (and if it doesn’t, what are you paying for?).

In my program, undergraduate or postgraduate, we don’t seem to have exams. To make up for this sin, instead, we have projects.

I was recently talking one of my students through her project progress when I got the distinct impression that she was glazing over. I stopped and asked what was on her mind. She gave me a small, apologetic smile and said, “It’s just – I haven’t really slept in two months.”

I instantly sympathised. By the end of my first semester in Masters, completely out of my element and intellectually deconstructed to the point I was no longer laughing at the words “existential crisis”, I felt the same.

I’d resorted to travelling with a pillow to uni and did not care how it looked. Shuttle bus trips became planned power naps between project sprints. I went through a phase of coffee-charged microsleeps and consumed cat videos like candy to stay awake. I was so tired I began lowering my standards just to get work done; my friends and I cheered that throwback undergraduate mantra that “P’s make degrees”, which is true but felt like a significant personal betrayal.

Eventually, we completed the semester and I told myself that if I could work that hard in the year ahead, this thesis would be in the bag.

So, about that.

As a tutor, I can look at projects as an objective third party and guide my students through critical road blocks. As a student, somewhere in the last three months I lost the ability to do that for myself.

I think one of the reasons I’ve struggled so much is that I’ve never had to contend with a project so close to home. I’ve never had a project incorporate its personal effect on, or drive from, me as a critical component of the context. It’s hard to be objective when you are part of the subject. I distinctly remember being asked at my first presentation about how I would manage this fact, and I said something appropriately reassuring and confident. When does steadfast confidence become willful ignorance or denial?

The notion still rails against all of my training, but one of the most confronting and important tenets of last semester was the lesson to not assume that what we’ve commonly held as knowledge, and the commonly accepted ways to develop it, are sacrosanct. Sometimes, the knowledge we’re seeking deliberately requires us to take a different route, develop our own route, and we may not always know where we’re going.

It sounds straightforward, but the idea of working through the dark without a certain outcome made the business analyst in me cry. As business analysts, we’re usually handed a brief and our job is to find the most appropriate way to get it done. We fill in the blanks.

Now, I fill in the blanks for a bridge to some vaguely known shore. I’m guided by the lighthouses of the researchers who came before me but, ugh, why is there so much fog? Why didn’t I pick a closer spot? Why do I need to keep running back to my supervisors for the batteries in their flashlights? What is this bridge even made of? Do bamboo, coconut palms and reinforced steel even go together?

I will end the analogy before someone believes I’m in architecture, but are all academics like this? I assume that you eventually thrive on uncertainty; if so, do teach me how to love that process.

I’m sure they have their own challenges, but I envy peers who don’t have to bring so much of themselves beyond the "technical" skill and knowledge to the table. I still read about developments in IT, workplace organisational and interpersonal theory. I skim functional requirements and I miss the clinical precision of that art. I miss looking at a problem and so many learned instincts sparking into action. I miss how ruthless we could be.

Learning is yielding power and control to the unknown, letting yourself be vulnerable and taking the hits, moulding that into new tools and armour. I have a feeling that analogy of armour is part of the problem.

Learning is humility. I’ve been feeling very fucking humble this year, and have often found myself unsure of when to ground my feet and push back. Questioning everything including your previously dearly held techniques, skills and knowledge is not very conducive to building new skills or knowledge.

The discomfort of learning is made all the more uneasy because the journey has been more than “technical”. I used to think I was compassionate, but this year has forced me to extend my patience, my understanding, and recognise all the beliefs or attitudes I held that were going to resist me and my work if unadjusted.

When you’re designing new technology, or new ways to use existing technology, I don’t know how many creative technologists’ relationships with friends and family start changing as they grow into more awareness. I wonder how many “agree to disagree” moments lie in my future. I find myself bracing for the way it may ultimately shift some of my closest relationships.

And on some days I wish I’d stayed away from a thesis that had anything to do with cultural heritage. But then I look into the faces of my family, the members of my Samoan community. I look in the mirror and remember all the times growing up when I was momentarily surprised at the brown reflection staring back, surrounded by my Caucasian and Asian peers, having forgotten for a moment what I was in addition to a daughter, student, and sister.

Then I realise that small wish for an easier route isn’t any less true, but it’s primarily the tired talking. That small truth isn’t as important to me as the reminder of why I resolved to pursue this research. And if I’m grateful to one thing about my life as a business analyst and public servant, it’s for handing me a bulldozer. Now I’m just learning how to use that bulldozer differently, to take it apart and find new uses for it.

So, no, we don’t have exams in our school, but we have our work cut out for us.

Growth is always difficult, but if I ultimately ask the same of my community, it seems only fair that I share a part of that struggle.