Archive for September, 2013

September 30, 2013

Grad School Tour

by Tabitha Kidwell

I’ve just gotten back from an 11-day, 1,500 mile road trip that took me to visit 4 PhD programs, my dad, 2 cousins, my step-brother, 3 former college roommates, 2 friends from Indonesia, and 2 babies. Doesn’t sound like I had time for all that, does it? Now that I think about it, I do feel pretty ambitious. In fact, this blog post is also fairly ambitious, so I won’t judge you if you just skip to the end right now.

Oh, still here? Great! So, the main purpose of the trip was to visit grad schools. I tried to start the grad school search last year from Indonesia, and got totally overwhelmed – every website looked the same and I felt like I couldn’t even begin to sort out which would actually be best for me. Plus, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in an education program, or applied linguistics, or second language studies, or TESOL, or one of the other variations on the theme of language teaching. I’m so glad that I decided to wait a year, even if I feel like my life is on hold right now. If I had applied to the schools I was thinking about a year ago, I would have ended up in a program that was totally wrong for me! Better to take a year now and end up in the right program rather than rush into somewhere where I would be miserable for 5 years… or 6, or 7, or more! Actually visiting programs made it all so much clearer.

I started out at Indiana University, which was great. At Indiana, they actually have two doctoral programs that touch on foreign language education: Second Language Studies, in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Literacy, Culture, and Language Education, in the School of Education. I talked to faculty from both, and learned that the SLS program focused more on non-traditional language learning and adult learning. Given that my interests are traditional language learning in a school environment, it was clear I belonged in the School of Ed. This is too bad, because the most promising source of funding is associated with the other program. Still, they were great hosts and planned a busy visit for me – I even got to visit a class on foreign language teacher professional development, which pretty much exactly matches my interests. The department had a great vibe and it was clear that there was a supportive community. But it’s in Bloomington, Indiana. I met up with my cousin Brendan, who is a senior there and president of his fraternity. “What do you think about living in Bloomington?” I asked. “It’s sweet!” he said “The bars are always packed, there are always huge parties!” “Ok, but you do realize I’m 31, right?” “Oh, yeah, right… yeah, that would suck.” So that’s a drawback. The jury’s still out on IU.

Then I continued on to Madison, Wisconsin, which definitely would not suck. It is such a fun town, surrounded by lakes, with lots of fun neighborhoods to poke around, and no shortage of good cheese and beer. I stayed with Autumn and Esteban, two fellow fellows from Indonesia, and it was a treat to see them on American soil! The University of Wisconsin had the same situation as IU, with a Second Language Acquisition and a World Language/ESL Education program, and it was again clear that I belonged in the latter, though it seemed easier to take classes from both programs. The education program seemed good, and I think I will probably apply to UW!

After that, I swung through Milwaukee and had dinner with my college roommate Sebass and her two little girls, then drove to Chicago to stay with my cousin Kelly and her boyfriend. We ate pancakes, went to the OSU bar, we went to another bar, I told fortunes, we got pita pit, we went running. It was a bit of a blur. We also met up with my step-brother and step-sister-in-law (is that a thing?) for the Bears game, which I gather is an important thing in Chicago.

Then I continued on to East Lansing, Michigan, where I stayed with my dad. I wasn’t thinking too seriously about Michigan State, but thought I would go talk to the program director since my dad works with her and had already talked to her about me and, hey, you can’t hurt anything by making another contact, right? At Michigan State, the only program that was quite right for me was the Second Language Studies program, but it seemed like a great program with a strong chance of getting funding! It was clear that there was a lot of support for graduate students and a good community. But it is located in East Lansing, which, after years of visiting my dad, basically seems like Bloomington with a mall. So we’ll see about MSU.

So then (almost finished here) I went to Detroit, where I stayed with Gibbons, my college roommate (I will insist on calling her by her maiden name until… oh, forever) and her husband, Mr. Gibbons (not his name). We had a blast going on a couple of long runs, hanging out in Royal Oak, and going to Beerfest at the Detroit Zoo (tigers love beer). I also made it to that school up north. As a born and bred Ohio State fan, it is difficult for me to say this, but… I LOVED MICHIGAN. Shh, don’t tell Brutus. I kinda just visited U of M because it was on the way – they don’t actually have any program specifically focused on language learning. I would be in a “Teacher Education” program there. But I realized I already have a B.S. and an M.A. in foreign language education, and I want to be a teacher educator, so a Teacher Ed PhD might not be a bad idea. Also, they said the words “guaranteed tuition, stipend, and healthcare for 4 years for all PhD students.” And they clearly had a strong and supportive community. And Ann Arbor would be a really fun place to spend the next 5 years! So, with apologies to Woody Hayes, Jim Tressel, and Urban Meyer, Michigan might just be my first choice at the moment.

After a little jaunt through Cleveland to see my friend Michelle and her newborn son Henry, I was back in Columbus. Now it’s time to start applications – definitely to Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maryland, and maybe a couple others. It’s funny, before I came home this summer, I pictured myself going to grad school somewhere exciting and urban. When people asked what PhD programs I was interested in, I rattled off a list including Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, NYU, UPenn, BU, Harvard, Georgetown, etc. Now that I am home, I picture myself somewhere calm and midwestern. Part of that is related to the type of program I want – big state universities are where you can find big schools of education with a variety of doctoral programs and – very important – funding. But it also is related to the fact that I’ve been far away from home for the last two years and now I don’t want to go so far away. I’ve gravitated to schools and places that are comfortable and familiar to me. I was born in DC, within metro distance of UMD; my dad lived in Wisconsin when I was in high school and college; and you cannot be grow up a Buckeye fan without being acutely aware of the existence of Michigan. My life has been, and will be an adventure, but there is nothing wrong with having adventure somewhere familiar. Say, somewhere with beer, cheese, and Big Ten football.

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September 11, 2013

Tabitha’s search for meaning

by Tabitha Kidwell

I just got back from a great week spent in San Francisco visiting my friend Katie and cousin Jimmy. I had originally bought the tickets with the intention of visiting the grad programs at Stanford and UC Berkeley, but as I researched more in the meantime, I realized neither program was quite right for me. So I went on long, exploratory runs, ate Indonesian food with Katie, and got drinks with Jimmy, but mostly spent my time wondering “why am I here?”

I’ve been having thoughts like that a lot recently. Without a whole lot to fill my time, I often end up wondering about the meaning of life. Not in a suicidal or depressed kind of way, just in a general, perplexed manner. If I were working, I would say my life was focused on improving the lives of my students or making something meaningful with my colleagues. Married people can say it is about building a relationship and a life together. People with kids can devote their lives to their children. But I don’t have any of those things. As someone who is unemployed and lives with her parents, what, exactly, is the point of me?

I realize this is a very Anglo-Saxon, protestant-work-ethic kind of problem. I should just chill out and watch all five seasons of Breaking Bad already. I’m trying to cure myself of this nagging, self-doubting affliction through careful deployment of French wine, Indian food, and Latin American novels. But what appears to work best is finding things to do that remotely resemble work. It seems that am a work-a-holic who needs to define myself by my work, and my drug has been cut off. So I’ve tried to find substitutes, like helping with my sisters wedding preparations, researching grad schools, and running my credit history.

But the truth is, I’ve been so stressed out by having nothing to do that I haven’t gotten much done. It seems like I’ve been home a long time, but today only marks two months since I arrived home from Indonesia. That makes me feel better about not really doing anything besides getting my head on straight. Two months seems like an appropriate amount of time to do that. The “return culture shock” has been harder this time than in the past – I spent the first few weeks confused and intimidated by life in America, then I embraced it, then I rejected it (remember when I was going to move to El Salvador?), then I basically went into hiding and felt overwhelmed by the crushing amount of free time. But now I feel more like myself. I feel capable and powerful. Today, in a bit of a maniac rush, I made a profile on an online English teaching website, set up visits to 4 grad schools, and pounded out a first draft of my Statement of Purpose. So now I have a purpose. Once I revise it, I’ll tell you what it is. Maybe I’ll throw the meaning of life in there as a bonus, too!

September 4, 2013

In Defense of the Fat Flight Attendant

by Tabitha Kidwell

A friend from my running club recently posted this on Facebook:

Dear Flight Attendant:
Your a$$ is too big. When I am well within the confines of my seat and you are able to bump my shoulder you need a new profession!

This really upset me, as did the “likes” by several other runner friends who have been unfailingly supportive of others trying to reach their own fitness goals. A post about an old/gay/ugly/black/asian flight attendant would be a clearly inappropriate judgement based on looks or superficial factors from a short interaction. But it’s somehow okay to comment on someone’s weight, especially when you yourself put a lot of time, money, and effort into being a healthy and strong individual. There’s a certain “healthy privilege” in our society today – people seem to think, if they have been able to make good choices and take care of themselves, that others should be able to do the same. Shirts emblazoned with “No Excuses” testify to this, as do the “Half Their Size” magazine stories touting the benefits of grilled chicken breast and long walks with the dog. But there are plenty of potential excuses and reasons to be heavier, not limited to genetics, injury, mental illness, working two jobs to make ends meet, and even gut bacteria. For that matter, who is to say that you even need an excuse and shouldn’t just be happy as you are?

I thought about commenting on this Facebook post, but I decided not to. I actually admire this friend for being the sort of person who speaks their mind without worrying about the consequences (the irony that she would not hesitate to tell me if she thought I was wrong is not lost on me). Plus, this post came after a long early morning flight where her sleep was regularly interrupted by someone else’s posterior, and I suspect it was intended to come off as sarcastic. The friends that “liked” it probably were amused by this friend yet again brashly telling it like it is. I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and let it go.

Except that I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I realized that the reason this struck a chord with me was not an impulse to defend the marginalized elements of society – it was about me, and my own experiences. Isn’t it always? It’s bigger that this off-hand facebook post – it’s about calling people fat, and equating their size and their value as people. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone – just last week, I gleefully – gleefully! – told someone that the bitchy girl I went to high school with is now fat. I wouldn’t have been happy to see that she was depressed or infertile or had cancer, so why should I feel any pleasure to see that she has gained a few pounds?

The link between weight and self-worth runs so deep in our culture that is easy even for the most respectful, grounded, and healthy people to take it as a given. I have been lucky enough to be at a healthy weight my entire life. Even at times when I didn’t exercise and ate terribly, I didn’t gain that much. And the only way I’ve ever lost much weight was training for marathons – running for hours at a time as if I were running down an antelope. That’s just the way my body works, and it’s a blessing. But, after a lifetime of exposure to the “skinnier the better” paradigm, I still wasn’t happy with my body. When I went to Indonesia two years ago, I thought “no restaurants, no alcohol, lots of fresh veggies – perfect time to lose those last 15 pounds!” I started with counting my calories, and ended by totally losing it. With little control over the rest of the elements of my life in a country 10,000 miles from home, I obsessively controlled my diet in a way that experts are starting to call disordered eating. I went on a juice cleanse. I counted raisins for my oatmeal. I would run 4 extra minutes so that I wouldn’t feel bad putting sugar in my tea. I would calculate that I had consumed 800 net calories by 6 PM, then would eat an ice cream bar for dinner, and go to bed hungry, sick, and sad. These erratic eating habits continued for over a year, and when I finally came to my senses I was 15 pounds heavier than I had been when I started. My thighs rubbed together, I had to buy new clothes, and I felt terrible about myself. I consider myself a fairly grounded, self-aware person, but the little bit of stress and homesickness that came with living in Indonesia pushed me over the edge.

So we’ve got to give people a break. If math – calories in vs. calories burned – were the solution, I would have lost the 2 lbs. a week my livestrong app was calculating for me. If it were just a matter of staying under 1200 calories or exercising 30 minutes a day, we could all have Heidi Klum’s body. But there are so many factors that science and medicine don’t understand. No one would choose to lug around 100 extra pounds. Those of us that have good genes, the free time to exercise, and the disposable income to buy healthy foods should feel good about themselves and leave it at that. Some of my endurance athlete friends work their butts off and deserve to be really proud of how strong they are – but we have no idea what other people are going through at any given moment. I’m so grateful to be able to walk across the terminal, lift my carry-on bag, and fit in a standard airline seat. And to know that I have no place judging someone who can’t.