Breakdowns and Breakthroughs, AKA Midterms

Dear Grad School Diary,

Midterms is a magical time of the year. One minute you’re fine, plugging along and finding your groove. You know midterms are coming up but you feel more or less ready. You think you can handle it, that it can’t get the drop on you this time. Then, everything inexplicably turns upside down and inside out and reality warps and you are instantaneously sick and exhausted and everything sucks.

The Breakdown
I honestly thought I was going crazy this week. On Tuesday, I had a lovely coffee chat with a classmate and headed off for a meeting with my professor and an evaluation to be a foreign language TA next year. I had prepared two questions to ask my professor about which graduate conferences to attend and which summer language programs to apply to. She answered those questions easily, but then started asking me her own set of questions for which I had no answers. What were my field examinations going to be in? What seminars was I taking to work on my dissertation ideas? Did I have concrete dissertation ideas? I didn’t know what to say. The meeting was a whirlwind. I had gone in feeling that I was making good progress and I left doubting that I knew anything at all.

I immediately went to another office down the hall for my TA evaluation. The first meeting had run late so I didn’t get to brush up on some fundamentals as I had planned . Still, everything seemed to be going fine at first. I was having a conversation in Japanese with the teacher, trying to keep up with the flow, get my point across, use big words, and vary my grammar. Then, she pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and asked me to write down what she dictated. The sentences were simple; I understood them perfectly. But when I put pencil to paper, I couldn’t remember how to write simple characters for things like “library” and “study.” In East Asian studies, “character amnesia,” the forgetting of how to write characters due to the prevalence of typing, gets all of us. We can recognize characters but not always produce them on demand. Even though I knew that character amnesia was a real thing, I felt so stupid. I left wondering if I was qualified to teach first year Japanese despite the fact that I have helped teach it before.

I returned to my dorm to study for my Classical Japanese midterm feeling like I was the biggest failure. As I studied with my classmate for the exam, I heard about his world was falling apart too. In the morning, I woke up feeling exhausted and I only got more tired from there. I had classes and meetings for seven hours straight. I walked home with another classmate, and he was seriously doubting if he belonged in grad school too. Several of my colleagues got sick and couldn’t come to class. We were all only half way through the week.

All the common pressures of grad school seem to team up and kick you when you’re down. You can go from confidence to crippling self-doubt overnight. I made it a point to include above the miserable conversations that I had with my friends because it is so important to remember that you are not alone. On the first day, I thought I was the only one going crazy and the only one who couldn’t handle her business. But by being honest about my feelings with my classmates, I found out that I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t crazy. We were all going through an incredibly stressful time, and we are all feeling not quite up to the task we’ve undertaken. People say that ‘misery loves company’ like it’s a bad thing, but the truth is that the company really helps. We all took strength from each other because we tend to be much more generous to others than we are to ourselves. 

The Breakthrough
The good news is that midterms can’t last forever. Eventually you do make it out of that dark tunnel of stressful days and sleepless nights. To celebrate, we went out for sushi and drinks. Then I went home, took a long hot shower, and got a good night’s sleep. My dad always says that no matter how terrible things seem at night, everything is better in the morning. And he’s right. This morning, everything was better.

And I don’t mean that things went back to normal–I mean that everything weirdly and suddenly got better than they had been before midterms. I got up, had breakfast, and read the articles assigned for my class on Religion & Ethnography. Up until today, I had powered through the readings, highlighting key phrases here and there, listening in class but feeling out of my depth. I felt like I didn’t have any strong opinions or comments for class. But today was like a breakthrough. I found that I could make all of these connections between this week’s readings and past readings, and there were several passages that I marked to bring up in the next class. What happened?

Here’s the deal. The beginning of a course on an unfamiliar topic is exciting and you’re usually fresh from a break, ready to learn something new. Once the excitement wears off, the course seems more and more difficult as you realize how much you don’t know. You wrack your brains week after week to make sense of it and cram every stray theory and fact into your brain. But midterms itself is a moment where you have finally gained enough momentum that, with one more push, something clicks and things start to make sense. Then it’s a sprint to the finish line, making as many connections between all the available sources as possible to cement your new understanding.

Breaking the Cycle?
Is the breakdown worth the breakthrough? Do we really need to spend half a semester tearing ourselves down to build ourselves back up a little better–rinse and repeat? Some professors have explicitly told me that this dizzying cycle is what makes a grad student into a professor. I’m still not sure about that. But I do know this: we don’t have to go through that cycle alone. Although my first impulse is to put on a brave face and act like I am handling everything just fine, that masquerade wouldn’t do me or my friends any favors. We would just be fooling our friends that we are perfect and fooling ourselves that we are alone. Being honest about our mental health won’t eliminate all the obstacles in our way, but it will help us get through the breakdowns so that we can push on to the breakthroughs.

Ginger Grad


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