Ph.D After 50

My Experiences in Graduate School as a Student in her 50s

Ph.D After 50


Before I get started, I just want to say – this post is personal. The central character is my beautiful, talented, creative granddaughter, who has actually played a prominent role in all my posts so far. But this post is different. It is one grandmother’s wish for her granddaughter.

Secondly, the post is about Korea, but it isn’t.

Okay, the groundwork is laid.

My granddaughter learns much everyday, but much of her daily learning has nothing to do with high school subjects. What she learns about most days has to do with what she is curious about. I asked her to make a collage of things she is curious about. This is her montage.

My Granddaughter’s Collage

As you can see (or perhaps not see), much of her interests lies in Korea, in K-pop bands,(the picture in the middle is of a k-pop band entitled BTS), in creative arts, (YG entertainment group in top left), in dance (IM is a dance studio in Korea), in food (especially Korean food), and in the Korean language (the text on the top right) and in the connections she has with people all around the world that share her same interests. Extending out from this, East Asian culture and history interests her as does Italian ballet, hip hop moves, living as second generation Asian American, photography and a myriad of other curiosities that come up through her connectedness. She loves learning about these things in a way that is very digital and connected. She pursues her curiosities and she is very good at it.

What gets in the way of her learning on a daily basis, however, is her schoolwork. She must take certain subjects – subjects that tick off boxes and, in the process, put her in a box and leave her bored and less than impressed with school – kind of like this cat….which I think is just a great depiction of “less-than-impressed” and “I’m bored.”

I believe my granddaughter’s boredom with much of her schoolwork stems from the many subjects she takes that do not line up with her curiosities. She’s interested in learning Korean, but can’t. It doesn’t tick off the right box – another language does that was chosen for her and she must complete the requisite number of years in. Literary analysis must be done on certain books chosen for her. “Physical Education” consists of having to read an inordinately thick and boring book on human nutrition. Something she must do although she is a tremendous dancer – but dancing, although very athletic, doesn’t tick off the PE requirement. (And just a head scratcher here, reading a big, thick boring book and taking multiple-choice quizzes on it does?)

Okay enough of that. On to what we have been studying for this week – there really is a connection. And the connection is curiosity. As we listened to Dr. Ken’s TED talk Wednesday night, it struck me that curiosity drove my granddaughter’s learning outside of school – a revelation I should have put together much sooner. She is very curious and satisfies that curiosity through her intimate connection with information on the web, you-tube, social media and her connections.

Now to my wish as her grandmother – I wish her schooling tapped into her curiosities. Why not learn Korean? Sure it’s a relatively obscure language but a language that is deemed “critical” by the US State Department. Why not world history instead of American History? Even East Asian history? How about cultural studies? How about literary analysis of contemporary lyrics? And how about incorporating dance into algebra?

Algebra and Dance

And, in desiring something different for my granddaughter, where does this leave me as an educator tasked with teaching students only one to two years older than my granddaughter? Just as I have little control of the boxes that must be ticked off for my granddaughter, I have no control over the boxes that must be ticked off for the students I teach early world history. Some may be curious – others may need to just tick of a particular box. So, in this environment how can I bring learning into my classroom? How can I incorporate the ideas that students are curious about? How can I know what they are curious about? Also, how can I balance graduate school, department expectations for my performance, the desire to step out and try things outside of my comfort zone? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

In bringing this post to a close, there is actually an idea in the Langer reading that I found intriguing and “doable” I guess you might say. Something I could incorporate in my classroom – if I indeed decided to be mindful. This idea is the idea of the “value of doubt.” Langer wrote in connection with the value of doubt, “The key to this new way of teaching is based on an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty.” This “value of doubt” does not particularly need any new technology. I think, and I may be wrong here, that it takes a mindset on my part as a teacher. It involves introducing doubt, asking questions, challenging narratives, asking for students to analyze and where possible, to invite my students to work on the ideas/events/time periods they find most intriguing – giving up certainty for uncertainty.

In my granddaughter’s world of school, certainty abounds. Boxes are ticked off and those in charge feel safe in giving her a diploma that says “You Now Are Educated With a High School Education.” Colleges feel “safe” in admitting her and the world of education remains aligned to some paradigm created by the administrators and my heart as her grandmother is haunted by what might have been.

PS. My granddaughter just read this post and said, “I approve of this post!” 🙂

11 Opinions

  • Bethany Wolters said:

    I was also struck by this idea from Langer about the value of doubt when learning about new ideas. I am in science and we easily get stuck in the idea that there is only one right answer and there is no value of discussing the wrong answer. But then you get the idea that science is stale and boring. I didn’t realize that it was exciting until I was into my second year of research for my masters. I have been thinking about adding story-telling and history elements into my classes to give students an idea of how the facts we accept as true and indisputable were not as certain and what brought about that change. But since this is not the normal way we think about science, I need to do some extra work to find these resources and ideas.

    One of my favorite classes, to this day, was a Political Geography course, because our final paper and project required us to rethink the world. We spent a lot of time study Canada and its history and politics about Quebec feeling separate from the rest of the country. It’s a similar situation to Texas and how every few years someone in Texas will propose that the state succeeds from the union and become its own state. Our class was divided into 9 groups and we were assigned one of three topics. My topic was why and how would Quebec leave the country of Canada and what would be the impact. Another topic was if you could go back in time and change something to resolve the political tension, what would you do and what effect would it have. I can’t remember the third. It was so much fun to take our knowledge of geography, natural resources and politics and be creative. While the topic was very specific, we had the opportunity to look at it from an angle that was interesting to us. I imagine that in a field list history, there are so many ways to ask students to re-imagine the past or future, but you’re right. It takes some creativity and a very open mind. I think it also takes a change in perception, that knowing more facts and dates is not as important, especially in today’s world, than really deeply understand major themes and ideas from one or two single episodes. I am going to have to change my viewpoint on this too.

    • admin admin

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply and suggestions! And I would encourage you to add historical context and story-telling to your classes! I guess, and maybe it is because of my work in the humanities, I believe that science has never really been about stale facts with one answer. Science was, and is, a process of discovery that include some great historical context stories that actually, I think, would help students understand the concepts behind the science.

  • Zhanyu said:

    Thank you for sharing. I loved the cat clip and the images (oh my goodness, dancing mathematicians! I will never look at math functions the same way again!). Similar to your and Bethany’s views on Langer, I too thought there could be much value in bringing uncertainty into the learning process. In my discipline, students often work with mathematical equations – the “plug and chug” – without fully understanding the meaning behind the variables and the limitations on when the equation could be applied. And when these equations get on the test cheat sheet, it becomes a matter of finding the right equation to answering the test questions. Not sure if learning is really taking place there…

    I empathize with your granddaughter’s education conundrum. The curriculum prescribed by the system simply cannot fulfill everyone’s educational needs. I never thought of it as too “STEM heavy” (as described in Ken’s TED talk), because I have always leaned towards the STEM subjects, but I can understand how it would not interest or be relevant to everybody. I wonder if highschools should give more credit to students taking classes outside of school, like for Korean language class…since some classes are only offered at certain schools or entirely outside school. Your blog post and this week’s topic really made me rethink about the current curriculum, and whether a “broader” education would benefit more students.

    • Faith Skiles admin

      I know! I loved the dancing mathematicians! I wish I had known about them when I was teaching algebra. And you know, I was actually helping my granddaughter with her algebra the other day and said to her, “…and after that, just plug and chug…” She’s about to move on to graphing functions beyond lines and parabolas, so the dancing mathematicians are going to come out! As for high school curricula, I have thought, for a long time, that we push students into almost a one-size-fits-all curriculum so they can be “ready” for anything they might want to do in college. I’m just not sure this is the way to go….

  • Carlos F. Mantilla P. said:

    Hi, I was totally curious about your post with that title, and yes I was looking to learn about your experience with Korean education, or something in those lines, lol… but not reading what I was expecting, wasn’t a disappointment…it was a great read…to navigate through your granddaughter’s school experience reminded me of how fortunate I was to have studied in a school that offered “non-academic” courses every Wednesday in the afternoon, we didn’t have Korean, or any other language besides English, but we had multiple arts and sports activities we could choose from…and the best part of it, there was no grade, it was more a mandatory opportunity to explore.

    As the previous comments, and your point, for some reason we tend to want to be as far from uncertainty as possible, like looking perfection, but that would be pretty boring, knowing anything to be certain…boring boring…not sure how your classes are structured (or need to be structured) but it occurs to me, similar to Bethany’s comment, that one alternative could be to have an “what if” activity, so focusing on a key historical event, what if the outcome had been different? what could the present look like? it could be hard to find the suitable situation to do it, but it is a possibility…how about giving them to opportunity to write an essay, poem, make a video, cartoons, or any other way to communicate an idea, about any topic related to the course that intrigued them?

    • Faith Skiles admin

      Yes! Isn’t perfection boring! What a great insight! I think it could also be very off-putting and intimidating to students. I do like your idea too of creative assignments. I am going to think about how I could incorporate something like that into my class. Thank you for your comment and insights!

  • Ssu-Ying (Armani) Chien said:

    I got attracted by your title! Haha interesting post! I’m from East Asian country. To be honest, I’m quite surprised that parents (and grandparents) would support their kids to do anything which they are curious about. For example, if I’m interested in KPOP and tell my parents I want to learn Korean culture and even take it as a potential career path, they will strongly discourage me at the very beginning. Because they believe only STEM area can give me better career and life!

    Additionally, I agree with you that teachers need to find a way to stimulate students’ curiosity or try to match the teaching material with their curiosity. This might be easier in graduate courses where students are more mature and the class is typically smaller, while in undergrad courses, it’s very challenging to adjust materials for every single students. Perhaps, trying to separating them into smaller groups and giving them projects instead of assignments&exams will make the class more interesting!

  • Faith Skiles admin

    Thank you for your comment! I guess I have always wanted my children/grandchildren to follow their curiosities. My children did and they all successfully navigated to careers where two out of three make more money than my husband, the engineer and STEM graduate, made at the top of his career. And whether the students in my class are STEM majors or some other major, I am working towards making class more interactive and thoughtful…or I guess you could say mindful.

  • Amy Hermundstad said:

    I really enjoyed reading your post and the comments above. There are so many great suggestions and ideas for introducing uncertainty and doubt and multiple perspectives into a learning environment. And it reminded me of your first post and the idea of being messy. Introducing topics as absolute can be much cleaner. And it can be hard and maybe messy to introduce uncertainty. But I think it could be so valuable and could encourage students to be more mindful and aware of what they are learning. I think this would lead to great discussions and great learning! I would be curious to hear about your experiences introducing these ideas into your class! Thanks for your post!

  • Soo Jeong Jo said:

    Hahaha, I am happy that she likes Korean culture as a Korean. This might be helpful for giving your grand daughter a motivation to study (?): a term “hot brain” is popular in Korea, which means a celebrity who is smart as well. Some TV shows invite idol stars graduated from famous universities, and have them solve a problem or discuss social and cultural issues. This phenomenon created a new trend among teenagers to yearn for wisdom, and think about our society in depth.

  • rob said:

    This is fabulous, I really enjoyed reading it. We all need a little more acknowledgement of uncertainty in our practice of teaching – or in just about anything for that matter. Those questions beyond complacency keep us curious, engaged, aware, and determined to continue learning and teaching.


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