My high school basketball coach once told me, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” I think he just wanted to motivate me to box-out more when the shots went up, but his point was that when we work unselfishly together toward goals, it benefits everyone. I never thought that basketball advice could apply to academia, until I finished my second year in the T&T program.
Academia is an uber-competitive space. Admission departments judge who gets in from who does not. Why? Because academia has to be competitive to work. For those of us lucky enough to gain entrance from admissions, the competition is far from over. The next challenge is to compete in classes, and grades can reflect comparative effort between students. As an instructor myself, I am compelled to judge student competition. Before I submit my grades, I look at grades collectively to ensure that I was fair, to make certain that the highest grades were assigned to the best performances and efforts. This view looks at academia in a harsh light, but it is hardly the entire spectrum.
At UCF, I have found that academia is so much more than competition. More often than not, I find that it is teamwork. Another platitude often spouted by coaches: “teamwork makes the dream work.” Albeit cliché, I agree. As you move forward through the program, you will become partial to your own cohort, a bond wrought from the furnace of toiling in coursework together. When times get tough, when grades dip lower than anticipated, when an abstract is accepted, or a paper is published, it is your “teammates” whom you
will reach to first–for solace, for advice, for perspective, for congratulations. But my peers haven’t been just a support network for me (I’d be remiss to not mention the immense support my brilliant professors and administrators unfailingly give). I have come to recognize the people sitting in the desks next to me as success stories. They are future doctors of philosophy. I am indebted to them for their counsel, for their esteem, and for inclusion in their own work. They enable me to participate in learning moments I couldn’t have experienced without them. They have encouraged me to submit to conferences they were attending or putting together themselves, invited me to PHP coding parties even though I was no code-wiz myself, asked me to collaborate on publications, and challenged me when an idea of mine stunk. Conversations I have with my peers are ungraded and unencumbered by power dynamics. Peers can be honest in a way that administrators and professors shouldn’t be.
During my first two years in the program, I felt a bit insecure about my scholarly voice. I was unnecessarily embarrassed to shoot a half-hatched idea in an email to a professor. I was trying to find my voice as a scholar and writer. I used to think that my professors were the only people who could help me to navigate the pathway to success, but sometimes the people who are going through the rigor with you may understand your personal voice best–when you can’t exactly type it out clearly in the time allotted for a class assignment. I think your peers help you to mature as much as the coursework and professors do.
The Texts and Technology Ph.D. program is really to thank for setting the table we all feast at. Our program is exceptional: a rising, interdisciplinary program that provides its students with a central theme that can be interpreted in many different ways, full of generous professors who will do everything they can to help you to find your voice. The double-edged sword of our program is that by offering so much opportunity, it may feel overwhelming. My advice to those of you who may feel that way is to find your voice by using all the resources around you as sounding boards. And the brilliant minds sitting next to you in the classroom are for me my favorite resource: to bounce ideas against, to collaborate with, to be of assistance to, and to be assisted by. Sometimes you need to pitch a paper topic to someone as you drive home from a night class before it is lost to the ether, and I don’t believe the professor is the appropriate person to call in that moment, but a peer is.
The T&T program affords you class time with folks from different disciplines, who may not be like-minded, who challenge you on what you may take for granted as an obvious truth. As a rhetorician, I have learned so much about my field from people from other fields sitting in desks next to me. And unlike coursework, those relationships have no culmination. Had I chosen to attend a different program, I would not enjoy such a rich experience, with such diverse perspectives, with colleagues who ask me to explain my arguments as often as I do. I find that refreshing. Explaining what rhetoric has to do with hashtags to people unfamiliar with my discipline is the best way for me to pinpoint what I’m saying. And their contribution to my ideas is always insightful, and comes from academic places I may be unfamiliar with, too. Sure, they are my friends and drinking buddies sometimes, but more importantly they are the first people to come to know my work as an academic, and they are voices I respect. They help me make my academic dreams work.
So by all means, make use of your professors for edification and guidance–they are wise and experienced, generous with their limited time. Make use of the academic resources that UCF offers–which are ample and accommodating. But don’t forget to take a look the desks around you and to value those voices as more than just friendly competition for grades. For me, my peers have had as much a hand in helping me to find my scholarly voice as the institution and my professors have. This is why I am so happy I came to T&T, because a rising tide lifts all ships. I like the voice I have found here. And I wouldn’t have found it anywhere else with any other folks.