Tag Archives: Academia

An Open Letter to my Former Students

Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash

Today is the third morning in a row I’ve woken up exhausted from narcolepsy. This occurrence is nothing new.

What’s different this time is that it’s the third morning in a row I’ve woken up from a dream about teaching. It’s always the same dream, though the details are different: I’m unprepared for class and make a fool of myself in front of the students.

In the dream, I feel myself losing control of the situation, the classroom, the students. My humiliation becomes deeper and deeper. I don’t know what to do. Then I wake up.

Thank God.

These types of dreams are not unique to narcolepsy. Though because of narcolepsy, my dreams will last significantly longer and be in much more vivid detail and color than a typical person’s.

I also just happen to be house-sitting in the Chicago suburbs right now, an area where I lived for 9 years as a psychology professor, except for the year I took a sabbatical. Coincidence? I’d bet not.

After my sabbatical, I handed in my resignation for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list was because I didn’t want to teach anymore. I often did not feel comfortable as a college professor and that’s something I’m still feeling the effects of today.

Part of my discomfort was because I lacked confidence. My entire time in graduate school I had undiagnosed narcolepsy. While I could handle the exhaustion and sleepiness in undergrad, I fell further and further behind in graduate school.

Yet, somehow, through the Grace of God, and perseverance on my part, I graduated with a doctoral degree. And yes, I also have dreams where I am back in graduate school and I still have to defend my dissertation.

I wake up from those dreams, too. Thank God.

A good friend of mine, who is a social worker, recently suggested to me that part of the problem was that it’s hard to take seriously the concerns of someone in a top-tier doctoral program who believes they are failing in life. By the sheer fact I had excelled enough in college to be on a full-ride in grad school, including tuition remission, stipend, and health insurance, I couldn’t be too much of a failure.

Another part of my discomfort with teaching is that being a psychology professor was never my life’s dream. It became the next best option after I listened to someone who said to me, “you can’t be a high school English teacher. Those kids will walk all over you.”

High school English teacher also had not been my life’s dream, either. It became the second-best next-best option after I listened to several people say, “you can’t get a job as an English major. You’ll never make any money and you’ll end up working at a department store.”

So, psychology professor became the goal. And I achieved it. I’m really glad I did because I met some wonderful students along the way. You know who you are. Thank you for being amazing and awesome and I hope you are doing well.

I also met some not-so-wonderful students. I didn’t get to know them in any situation other than the classroom, and that is how I judged them. That was my mistake. And, again, something I am still feeling the effects of today.

Unfortunately, these students also know who they are.  How I treated them is one of my biggest regrets with teaching.

I let these students down. They are the ones I now suspect were most like me during my time in graduate school, struggling and uncertain and maybe even feeling like they were not supposed to be in school in the first place. I was often rude to these students, allowed myself to become offended by my assumptions about them, and treated them with arrogance and condescension.

To these students: I am so sorry. I wish I had been a better teacher for you, the type of person that I needed when I was in school. I didn’t see myself in you and your struggles and for that, I am sorry.

Another of my regrets is those students I met at the end of my teaching career. After 21 years of pursuing a life that never really felt like mine, I was on the verge of making my dreams come true after handing in my resignation.

I tried not to check out, but in the end I did.

To those students: I am so sorry. I never wanted to give you a bad classroom experience or an educational experience that was less than you wanted or needed. That wasn’t fair to you and the time and effort you were putting into your studies, and for that I am sorry.

To any student who may recognize themselves in this post, please know that I think about you often and hope you are living a good life. Thank you for teaching me such valuable lessons, and I am so sorry if they came at your expense.

If there are any students out there reading this who are struggling, please know you are not alone. You have my heart and prayers. I have been one of you and in some ways I still am. Please reach out to me if you need help.

Finally, to any student who has ever been told they couldn’t or shouldn’t pursue a goal, go for it anyway. No one can predict the future.

Sincerely,

Kelly Kandra Hughes, PhD

Former Associate Professor of Psychology

 

 

 

 

 

Memoir Monday – August 29th, 2016

Fifth Post 2

When I read (well, listened through Audible) to Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote one quotation stuck out to me more than any other.  “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work,” so said Chuck Close from Inside the Painter’s Studio.  I shared this quotation with a good friend of mine while I was giving her a ride to work and in her typical fashion she neatly flipped it into

“Losers have no discipline.”

As someone who does not like to classify themselves as a “loser,” I realized early on in this process that there’s more to writing than just saying I was going to do it.  Sure, I had already resigned from my tenured job as an associate professor because I wanted to be a writer (amongst other reasons), but I was still in what I consider the “contemplation” stage.  I know the transtheoretical states of change model (precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) are more related to health behaviors than habits, in general, but I think there’s something to it, especially for my transition into a writer’s life.

If we start with the first stage of the model, the precontemplation phase, this is when I was still buying into the notion that salary, benefits, and accumulation of goods was how I should be living my life.  It felt safe and secure, and so I continued ignoring my ever-growing list of professional and personal dissatisfactions.

It wasn’t until I was getting ready for my sabbatical that I considered a different way of life.  I was moving to NC from IL and I had to decide what to do with all my stuff.  I had a rental house full of furniture, media, and knickknacks and other than a few nice things, most of my belongings had been with me since my school days.

I decided to get rid of it all, look for a furnished apartment in Chapel Hill, and then invest in high quality home goods once I returned from my sabbatical.  But once I started selling, donating, and giving away my belongings, I couldn’t stop.  It felt so freeing!  Things I thought I could never part with (like favorite books and clothes), I now gave away with complete joy and abandon.  It got to the point where one of my colleagues jokingly asked if I was dying, that’s how much of my belongings I gave away.

So while I was free and unencumbered of stuff on my sabbatical, I realized I could shed the dead weight of my professional life, too.  More than anything else, what I had enjoyed with my career in recent years was writing.  I began to meditate on what a life like that would be like and thus I fully entered the contemplation stage of the transtheoretical model.

Up first – where I would earn income from?  As I’ve already written about, I knew full well that writing can be a challenging field professionally.  But being a writer, especially of children’s books, was now my life’s goal, and I wasn’t going to let fear stand in my way.

Up next, where I would live?  My heart has always belonged to Chapel Hill and I feel very much at home there.  But then I woke in the middle of the night and it came to me – I could be a professional house/pet sitter in the meantime.  I thought this would be perfect, considering I love animals, and I had already dabbled in this with family and friends. As an added bonus – I wouldn’t have to buy any stuff again.  EVER!

So I had a plan for my basic necessities to be covered and without having rent or utilities to pay, earning a substantial amount of money would no longer be a necessity.  Now I was ready to prepare to be a writer.  I continued NOT buying anything I would have to tote around with (some clothes being the rare exception), resigned from my job, bought a new computer, gathered up all my notebooks, and started writing (a little bit).  I didn’t write every day, even though many days I could see stories in my mind.  I had a hard time prioritizing it, especially when my narcolepsy wasn’t as under control as I would like.

I dabbled in writing challenges and prompts, miserably failing at NANOWRIMO in November, but occasionally I would be able to crank out a short story or children’s story.  I had completely stopped working on my YA novel for reasons I couldn’t explain.  I got sidetracked by meeting my husband (coincidentally enough, we met after I attend a writers’ group in Naperville) and eloping in Nashville.  But then it hit me, one day in the spring when I was thinking about writing, I realized 

I WAS BEING A LOSER AT WRITING!

And I didn’t want to be a loser (even though I had already come to terms that “failure” would be okay).  I wanted to win!

I immediately started a writing practice – a minimum of 500 words every day.  I favorited a list of writing blogs and online resources to pursue on a regular basis.  I listened to the Great Courses How to Publish a Book.  I brought a notebook with me everywhere to jot down story ideas.  I started submitting stories to contests, publishes, and agents.  At first, it was scary and hard, especially the unknown processes of finding publishers and agents, but once I got into the swing of things, I found it energizing and exciting.  I was now full swing in the action stage of the theoretical model.  So all that’s left is for me to maintain, now.  And I think I will because as I told my friend that day in her car, “I DON’T WANT TO BE A LOSER!”  It just took me a little bit longer to get there.

Memoir Monday Third Post

 

A few years ago, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of academics.  There was a general lament about a lack of time many of us were experiencing in order to get all of our professional and personal responsibilities done.  I offered up the meditation I had started practicing for that specific semester: “Every morning when I start my day, I set an intention to get done everything that needs to get done.  And, surprisingly, I find I have more time that I ever thought possible.”

The conversation could have gone one of two ways after that because my comment was jumped on by two people with very different responses.  The first one said, “A-ha; that you need to get done,” but the second person snapped in a much louder voice, “Do you have a disabled spouse or an elderly parent living thousands of miles away?”  This person was referring to my colleague at the table who had just addressed both those concerns as reasons why she was feeling so pressed for time.

A part of me wanted to cry, feeling like my colleague had personally attacked me, while another part of me wanted to retaliate with indignities such as, “No, but I have an autoimmune sleep disorder that is currently not responding to medication,” or “I have a cousin dying of cancer at the age of 43.”  But, instead, I responded with, “Yes, you’re right.  Thank you for that reminder.”  This was, however, two years in to my regular meditation practice and so I chalk up my immediate peaceful response to that.  You go, enlightened Kelly!  Gandhi point for you! (Please note I did not come up with the term Gandhi point.  I heard it in a student play at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and I have been using it ever since.)

When I got home that night, unenlightened Kelly took over and I spent more time than I care to admit crafting responses to my colleague in the event we would have the same exact conversation over again with the same exact people.  In retrospect, however, it was good for me spend some time processing what happened because I later came to the conclusion that what bothered me the most is that I felt like my life was somehow invalidated because I didn’t have an ailing spouse or aging parent I couldn’t see on a regular basis.

This was not the first time I felt this way, nor was it the last.  I do not have children and for most of my academic life I did not have a husband.  So when I would engage in conversations with my colleagues about how “busy” we were and I would mention how I was spending my time, taking my dog on a lovely winter walk or spending the perfect afternoon sitting by the DuPage River, watching the clouds roll by,

I felt judged and ridiculed by my colleagues who rolled their eyes or commented on my single status as the reason why I could indulge in such luxuries.

But then a close friend of mine made this remark when I shared my plan to quit my job: “That’s because you have the privilege to do so,” and I felt the same invalidation of my life.  I had been so excited to share my dream of becoming a writer, but then all of a sudden I felt like a spoiled little girl being reprimanded by someone for indulgence.

I began to question why I had been lucky enough to be born in a financially stable, upper middle class family which afforded me multiple opportunities in my life to further make me financially stable and secure.  Not only was I able to graduate from college and graduate school completely debt free, I was able to find an academic job which compensated me with ample vacation time and decent money.  So much so, that I am now able to invest full time in writing as career without having to worry about a steady source of income for the foreseeable future.

Here’s what I realized, though:

just because I perceived someone to have a certain opinion of me, doesn’t mean that it’s accurate

or taking the words of spiritual guru Wayne Dyer, doesn’t even make it my business.

I feel strongly that writing is a spiritual vocation for me and after decades of not writing, I find myself having a lot to say.  I do believe that stories, writing, and, really, any type of creativity or art, can change the world for the better and I am finally ready to take up my part in this process.  So to entertain others’ opinions of me or to feel guilty about things I have no control over, doesn’t serve me and it certainly doesn’t serve my writing.  Because I envision a world where there are not haves and have-nots, where we all have the privilege of following our dreams no matter what they are, who we are, where we come from, or what our current circumstances are.

So I am going to keep on writing and working on staying true to myself.  It’s not always easy and sometimes I fail miserably.  I do, though, appreciate those of you who are reading my words, even if you disagree with them or question my choices.  Perhaps you may have even rolled your eyes at my ideological vision (in which case MINUS 1 Gandhi point for you).  But for those of you sending me love and support on this journey, I am ever so grateful (and PLUS 1 Gandhi point to you!).