On Failing, Fear, And Learning to Learn Better

I’m halfway through my first semester back in college. So far, I’ve:

  • borrowed, begged, and asked for help to pay my bills without a dayjob.
  • come down with a cold that turned into bronchitis, which meant I…
    • couldn’t go to a doctor because I no longer have health insurance.
    • spent 3+ weeks sleeping.
    • got behind in some of my online classes and had to drop my traditional (in-person) classes, because I couldn’t manage the 35 mile drive EACH WAY to campus while sick.
  • added new online classes to keep my status above full-time.
  • took quizzes, tests in all of my classes; did homework; participated in discussions – basically, all the parts of a class, with a mix of grades from As to Cs.
  • figured out how much I didn’t know about going to college with my life the way it is now.

Or to put it another way: I struggled. I set goals I didn’t meet. I was sick and exhausted, I fell behind, I left myself down (and probably some other people, too), and I felt like a failure.

Because, to be honest, in some ways I am failing. I am not doing as well as I had hoped, making this transition back to college. That’s just a fact.

Yesterday, I wanted to give up. It wasn’t the first time, but it hit me hard. I took a huge risk, going back to college now, doing without a dayjob. I’d hoped to do more freelancing, but being sick meant I haven’t pursued any new work for weeks, so I haven’t even had that income. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of support – thank you! – and with that comes the internal pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. If I don’t do well this semester, I’ve wasted this time, this opportunity. Put my son through this for nothing. Leaned on people who were there for me without anything to show for their faith in me.

It’s tempting to quit. Scrap this whole semester. Recover from being ill. Catch up on everything I’m behind on. Start fresh next semester.

Yesterday, I told my person how awful I was feeling. His response was perfect: that it sucked to feel that way, but I wasn’t a failure, I wasn’t alone, and we’d sit down and talk about where I’m at, and what I need. Just it’s okay to feel defeated and let’s sort out where you really are vs what you’re feeling and you’re not giving up, so make a plan based on your options now.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do all along, and what I needed to be reminded of. I’m not giving up. I’m not running away. Just because it’s harder than I expected or no fun or I’m not succeeding as easily as I want – those aren’t reasons to quit. That’s not who I am.

Instead, I reconsidered the goal posts. (It might be three semesters at community college before I can transfer, instead of two. Would that really be so bad? No, I guess not.) I thought about why I’m struggling. (I definitely need to study more, and research beyond the textbook, to find the information the class assumes I know but I actually don’t.) I thought about why I had certain expectations of myself, and why I judge myself as harshly as I do. (As my friend Mary told me, “You’re not failing. You’re tired. And that’s okay.” Until she said it, I wouldn’t have seen myself that way.)

As much as I hate to feel like a failure at this moment, I think I can learn from all of this. The lessons for me will be: don’t give up, and learn how to be a better student.

Going to school now is not like when I was in college before, and assuming I could easily pick up where I left off is part of what threw me off course. Another part of falling behind was that some of my classes are second or third classes in a series I started when I was in college six or so years ago… I’d thought that because I’d aced those courses before, I’d be okay now. It turns out, I’d forgotten things I didn’t know I was missing.

In some cases, like my International Business class, the work is mainly conceptual. I can read the textbooks and consider the ideas presented, and I’m able to access the information when I take the test. Easy. No problem. In other classes, Accounting and Econ, it’s more terms and formulas that I haven’t been using. Like taking Spanish 2 a decade after you got an A in Spanish one, without so much as having asked “donde es la Bibliotheca?” one time in between.

As of late last night, I’ve caught up on all of my schoolwork. There are things I can’t make up, which will affect my final grades, but going forward I can stay on top of my assignments. I’ve looked at how I study, how I plan my work, and figured out what I need to change. I’ve had to create a new system of tracking what’s due, and what I need to study for. I print out study guides and watch instructional videos. I stay up late to take online tests after my son’s asleep. I examine every wrong answer, every mistake, every failure.

We’re not always going to immediately succeed. Not at college, or writing a novel, or anything in life. Mostly, when we fail, we want to stop trying and do something else. Some people, that’s all they do: run from one thing to the next to the next, looking for that instant and easy success, followed by the admiration of others, and if they don’t get it, they move on again. I can’t do that, not if I ever really want to change my life.

I am tired of failing. I have so done much of it the last couple of years. But when I stop trying to sweep my mistakes under the rug, I start learning from them. Learning to accept that I’d screwed up. (Everyone does.) Learning how to fix my problems. Learning to be brave, to try new things, take bold chances. Learning how to learn better.

I may not get all As this semester, and I may feel dumb a lot of the time as I try to learn this stuff, but I’m not alone, and I’m not quitting.

Class I’m taking, Fall 2015

In case you missed it, I’m going back to college, starting at the end of August, as part of my four-step plan for world dominion success:

1) Go back to college. Finally get a Bachelor’s degree. (In something more likely to lead to a permanent position.)

2) Get a good job with decent benefits, where I am sufficiently valued that I won’t be a faceless, disposable, cog in the machine.

3) By staying on budget, get out of debt, and begin to line the cave with gold (aka, build up a savings).

4) NEVER WORRY ABOUT SUPPORTING MY FAMILY AGAIN.

After meeting with my advisor, I ended up registered for 17 units. Six classes. Basically, everything they’d let me take. That means that in the Spring, I only need to take three classes, all online. I’ll take at least four in order to be “full time”, but having that cushion of space means I’ve got room to take something where if the registrar suddenly figures out I need one more thing to graduate…

By next summer, I’ll have an AS degree in Business Adminstration, and I’ll be ready to do my year at state to get my BS.

To that, this semester I’m taking:

Intro to Databases
Principles of Accounting 2
International Business
Principles of Microeconomics
Fundamentals of Speech
Principles of Biology 2 (+ lab)

I’ve got to be on campus for the Speech and Bio classes; I was hoping to avoid it, because campus is 30 miles away, in another county. So it’s classes plus a 45 minute commute, each way, three days a week. At least the trip is beautiful, a winding drive through rolling hills and farmland. And it’s better to do this commute now, in the fall, before winter and five months of snow kick in.

I’m getting closer to actually being able to pay for all this. I’ve secured grants to cover my tuition itself. Not covered? Books. Lots of heavy, expensive books. Even renting them instead of buying them, they’ll run just over $700 for this semester, and I need that money in the next two weeks before classes start. (On top of my usual bills + groceries this month.)

Well at least it's not just me...

Well at least it’s not just me…

So if you’ve got work that needs doing, email me, maybe?

Big Life Change: I’m going back to college (and how you can help)

I AM OFFICIALLY A COLLEGE STUDENT (AGAIN).*

It was a tough decision. Being laid off from my job last month means that I have the time now to finally finish up my degree, and to actually switch to a major which will make me much more employable than my previous work in Art History. But with no opportunity to get Pell Grants or loans for school, I’m not being paid to attend college — I’m just adding full time school to my regular life, and without a day job right now, I’m already struggling to make enough money. How do I decide to spend money on college when I don’t know whether I’m paying my rent in a few days? How do I not go to school when I have this opportunity now, it will make me more employable, a much better freelancer, and generally a more useful person?

Ultimately, I decided to do my best, and make this work.

I’ll be going for two semesters at community college for an AS in Business Management, and then two semesters at state for a BS in Business, Economics, and Management (with a minor in public administration). I still need to come up with part of the tuition so I can start school — asap! — but I’ve been awarded grants that will cover 80% of classes and books, maybe a little more. It’ll be tough, balancing work, kid, and full time college, but hopefully I can get to where being unemployed and in debt is somewhere I never have to be again.

That’s if I can find the rest of the money to get started. If any of you have ever wanted to take a workshop from me, hire me as an editor, proofer, book designer, anything — or even loan me money until after the semester starts, now would be the time that I really need it.

How you can help:

  • I’m happy to offer a discount to anyone who books me for editing this month. Take advantage of me!
  • My next workshop — Plotting the Short Story — begins on the 15th. If you’re interested in a low-cost online workshop, packed full of exercises and advice from me and your fellow students, please check out my upcoming workshops. With school and work, I’m not sure how many of these (if any) I’ll be able to offer next year. Now’s the time to join us!
  • Don’t need any work done now but you’d like to help me buy textbooks and school supplies? You can donate to me via PayPal.

If you’ve got other work you’d like to discuss with me, need a mailing address, or have questions, please feel free to contact me at cuinnedits at gmail.

Thank you.

* At some point I should probably also tell the story of I used up all of my federal grants and maxed out my student loans going to the University of Pennsylvania, only to have it run out one semester before graduation… But that story depresses me so much. Maybe next time.

More from Folklore: Aesop’s Fables

We’re moving on to The Conference of the Birds (link goes to Wiki) in tomorrow’s class. Before I switch gears, I wanted to share some facts and thoughts on a misunderstood genre of writing: Aesopic fables.

The word “fable” comes from the Latin “fabula” (a “story”), itself derived from “fari” (“to speak”) with the -ula suffix that signifies “little”: hence, a “little story”.

Aesop’s fables have grown from an early group of Greek stories – attributed to a single source – into a genre, describing a type of stories, regardless of author. We now refer to this body of stories as the “Aesopic tradition”. Fables are generally short, insightful, tales, meant to convey a message in only a few sentences. There are several parts to a fable, not all of which are required but most of which appear over and over again. These include:

  • the moral, with or without an explanatory promythium or epimythium
  • using animals or gods as main characters
  • often explains acts of nature, such as why an animal is of a certain color
  • not (originally) meant for children

promythium is an explanation of the fable’s moral placed before the story, just as an epimythium comes after the tale. It became very common to add these notes to fables, particularly in the middle ages, in case the reader didn’t get quite the same message that the author intended. When a fable doesn’t have these notes, it’s said to have an endomythium – the moral of the tale is inside the story, and we’re supposed to know what it is.

These moral messages go back to the beginning of fables and speak to the point of having a fable in the first place. Early scholars talk about the original Aesop, who cannot be proven to have existed at all but who may have lived in the 6th century BC, as an angry, sarcastic, stumpy, misshapen, dwarf of a slave*. He was born deaf and mute, but – after helping a priestess – was granted speech as a gift by her goddess. He promptly used his new gifts to denounce his master, the slave system, and pretty much everyone and everything he ran into. He told allegorical stories in order to explain his meaning to people he assumed weren’t as smart as he was, and eventually so angered the people of Delphi that they framed him for stealing in order to have an excuse to shove him off of a cliff. Moral of that story: being smart and clever won’t help you if you’re still an ass to everyone around you.

His stories lived on long after he did, through the oral tradition. Socrates and Aristotle wrote about him; Babrius wrote his fables down for (possibly) the first time; and Pheadrus, Hesiod, Epicharmus of Kos and Phormis all wrote their own fables. The tradition carried on through the middle ages (the Church had several of its own fable writers), found popularity again in 17th century France, and into modern day. There’s significant evidence that the fables didn’t originate with Aesop but that he was himself carrying on an earlier Sumerian tradition of story telling using animals**, but it’s Aesop who gets the fame.

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Folklore: Great Story Collections

Last week I started back at the University of Pennsylvania, after a year off. I’ll be finishing my last semester this Spring, and graduating with a BA in History of Art in May.

In addition to the math and biology lecture class and bio lab I must take to graduate, I also got to pick two others to round out my semester. I went with World Music (I’m writing a paper for that class that I’ll probably post here when it’s done) and Folklore: Great Story Collections. With my work in anthologies it seems like a perfect fit, and I love classes that have interesting reading lists.

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