December 2, 2020

Car batteries, Stoicism, and the myth of the outside world

The more complicated an object, the more likely you need specialized training to understand every facet and function of the parts within. Automobiles provide a good example. Most people either drive or spend a significant time around one. In addition, many of us have had the “pleasure” of jump starting the dead battery of one. Adam Savage, a special effects expert, points out:

In theory, cars are fairly simple. If they don't start, it's either the fuel system or the electrical system. Teach yourself about the path of each in your engine and tracing it is fairly straightforward. But at the beginning, mastering each new system seems like an unreachable shore. The car is effectively a black box.

Unfortunately, in practice, automobiles are not simple. For example, I admit I can’t jump start one without embracing that oldest and noblest tradition of reading instructions. Given the variety of engine designs and battery locations across automobile manufacturers, trying to solve my issue without instructions or prior knowledge would prove an exercise in futility – not to mention dangerous. Why, then, in academia do we try to skip instructions when writing our theses and dissertations? In addition, why are we confused when addressing similar feelings of futility?

In the previous example with automobiles, entire service industries of trained experts exist to provide help. With academia, research, and the application of knowledge, we look to scholarly experts to provide similar help. Trying to contact one of these scholarly experts, however, can produce feelings of futility without instructions (and no 24-hour hotline for midnight phone calls). To understand futility, we need to explore the concept of ‘futility,’ examine examples in the life of experts, and describe experiences of futility in higher education. I’d also like to look into Stoic philosophy and some of the parallels I drew in my time as a graduate student. All of these ideas helped me ‘maintain’ some semblance of sanity as a student.

In a 2012 study of Belgian schools, a sense of futility was shown to negatively affect academic performance among ethnic minority students and working-class families. Through the Belgian educational system’s “free parental choice” philosophy, parents can choose their children’s school. As a result, this led to segregation along socioeconomic and ethnic lines. Students within these populations, felt that the education system worked against them and viewed efforts to encourage academic success as futile. In addition, educators responded to this sense of futility with the belief that these students were “less teachable.” By creating this feedback loop, many students internalized these beliefs as fact and became unmotivated to work towards change.

In graduate school, these issues can be complicated by proximity to experts in your field. Around professors, your primary academic interactions will revolve around a group of experts judging your success in pursuit of your graduate degree. In my program, for example, my thesis committee served this function. When interacting with other students, also in pursuit of graduate degrees, you will experience the influence from their many beliefs, ideas, and habits. While your professors want you to complete your graduate degree successfully, they have a limited time for individual students due to class loads and departmental meetings. Your colleagues, although more readily available, lack the developed expertise of your professors. As a result, graduate students with varying levels of expertise often give poor advice with the best of intentions. Trying to find help feels futile, you may feel the work towards your graduate degree feels futile, and futile goals can never be achieved. Why bother? Well, in the immortal word of Douglas Adams, “DON’T PANIC!”

There will be periods of time in your graduate journey where you sleep rarely, obtain all food from a vending machine, and accept life outside of school as a myth. While there is nothing that will eliminate these periods of time, changes in perspective can reduce how futile your goals feel. You can overcome the feeling of futility towards your end goal.

In philosophy there is a school of thought known as Stoicism. This philosophical thought process has been observed across social demographics, with two of the principle sources being a Roman Emperor and a Greek slave turned teacher. I’d like to focus on the latter, his name was Epictetus. Many of the surviving principles he espoused are preserved through the writing of one of his students. Among these, many reflect on control in your daily life.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, [whatever are our own actions]. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, [whatever are not our own actions].

In the context of graduate school, there are key parallels. Your perspective, effort, and goals are (mostly) in your control. Everything else, including the circumstances surrounding your graduate education, is not in your control. The latter often feeds your feelings of futility. Your professors, however, overcame their feelings of futility in graduate school and completed their degree. How? I would argue that they read the instructions.

Though expertise can be found in others, the only access to this expertise might be in writing. In architecture, we quote sources such as Vitruvius’ De architectura frequently. Having died in the first century BCE, Vitruvius is somewhat difficult to get in contact with. His writings, on the other hand, contain valuable observations on fundamental principles of design (e.g., the proportions of the human body). If I was looking for observations on internal human anatomy, I could look at the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci for his observations of cadavers. I suggest, when trying to make your goal seem less futile, find an expert with applicable ideas in a different field. Philosophy ended up being my best choice, although it took me a while.

During grad-school freakout 208-F, I made a series of appointments to speak with my committee members. My chair gave some great advice regarding the manner architects describe the built environment. My committee member within our department explained some best practices in formatting. My third committee member explained the methodologies used in his field (anthropology) and how they might influence my methodology. After all of these meetings and expertise imparted upon me, not a single thing stuck. I had fallen into the futility I felt.

Studies on depression among graduate and undergraduate estimate 13% of undergraduates show symptoms associated with depression. In addition, these same studies link the academic advisory relationship with professors to the levels of depression reported by participants. I received good advice, from experts in their fields, who have been through the graduate process. However, like many graduate students, I was depressed. I did not understand their advice, could not translate the messages, and absorb the lessons in the moment. I did this for over 4 years.

The big change came with a discussion over lunch with a colleague. I explained the lack of understanding I felt, and the futility of trying to translate expert to novice. My colleague brought up an important question; why haven’t [I] looked for outside help? I was trying to translate new knowledge without having an expert-to-novice dictionary. As with changing a battery, however, instructions make the process feel less futile. I needed a translator. After having a former professor translate and explain, I still didn’t understand very much. I did, however, have a rudimentary perspective on improving future advisory sessions with my committee. For some reason, my feelings of futility (regarding completing my graduate degree) decreased. How? Why?

By complete accident I had adopted and applied Epictetus’ principle. While I could not control my ability to understand ‘in the moment’, I could control my response to this lack of understanding. By acknowledging my inability to understand without a translator, accepting that I could not change that lack of understanding on my own, and seeking someone who spoke expert, my perspective changed. As the behavioral sciences remind us, positive reinforcement can be a powerful motivator. Not viewing my graduate degree as an unreachable goal was a very positive reinforcement.

As I progressed towards completion of my thesis, I constantly needed to find translators. While our capabilities vary wildly under pressure, I have yet to meet anyone who spoke fluent expert. Given the eccentricities of professors (and their many dialects of expert) interpretation was often needed. Academic advisory meetings were no longer a futile effort to create unintelligible notes, but an understanding I could not control followed by a response I could control. I was still depressed, and the feelings of futility never truly left, but they became more manageable.

So, as a graduate student, acknowledge the limits of your control and respond to them by taking control elsewhere. If you feel like you can’t understand your professor’s advice, seek a different perspective. In my case, this was someone else’s point of view, which is perfectly fine. You rarely leave the studio or lab to get food, much less get a chance to do meal prep in advance? Fruits and cheese in a Tupperware can be a simple substitute snack throughout the day. I used grapes and precut cubes of Swiss cheese (they keep well in a refrigerator and grabbing a bag of each takes minutes in a store). The effort is limited to grabbing your lunch on the way out the door. Your goals feel unachievable? Reassess the immediate goals. If you are having trouble with larger goals (finish a full chapter), break them down to smaller goals (finish one page, one paragraph, or even just one sentence). In this series, I wrote an entire blog centered on learning page count accumulation. I had to switch my perspective again to build the page count as an addition to (then) current writing, rather than a replacement. You cannot change the end goal, as completing your graduate education is your reason for being in higher education, but you can find manageable steps that accumulate progress towards your end goal. As Epictetus acknowledged:

Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.

Following graduation, I had the perfect chance to let these lessons ripen. After making the choice to seek a PhD, I began contacting universities and asking questions. One of the universities on my list was in England. After finding a professor there with similar interests I contacted the admissions department with several questions. The majority of responses included the phrase, “You could do that, but wouldn’t it be better to…” and were uninformative. In retrospect, these answers should have been “I don’t know,” and advice on where I could find that information. Several email exchanges later, I moved on. I could not control the lack of information presented. I could not control my contact’s willingness to provide information. This made seeking this information feel increasingly futile. What I could control, however, was my goal. Rather than making attendance at a specific university my goal, I made my goal a PhD that would help me develop my expertise. I had no idea where that might happen, but I could acknowledge the limits I had in finding information at any one location, and respond with different perspectives and searching methods. If someone answered with information I needed, I could pursue the option freely. Hopefully you can find that same feeling of relief by seeking things you can control.

In conclusion, while I can’t control your feelings towards my perspectives and experience, I can respond with the hope these can help you somehow. I can also suggest Epictetus’ philosophy on control applies to graduate school. After all, we all become philosophers at some point, usually around the 3rd day without sleep.

A Philosopher's school is a Surgery: pain, not pleasure, you should have felt therein. For on entering none of you is whole.