On December 13, 2018, I passed my proposal defense unanimously with only minor revisions (the revisions turned out to not be so minor, after all, but that’s a different story).  On December 14, I flew down to Yuma, Arizona to be with my mom after she had Whipple surgery (they removed part of my mom’s liver, pancreas, and gall bladder).  Some people have cancer; my mom has cancers, including breast, lung, pancreatic and liver.  While I was sitting by my mom’s bedside, I reflected on my most significant academic achievement. 

So what?!

My life wasn’t any different and tons of work remains.  As I watched my mom sleeping and struggling to breathe, I couldn’t help but think, “Life is too short. Life is fragile. This is such a false accomplishment. Will getting the title doctor feel any different than this total letdown I am feeling right now?  And how much longer can I burn the candle at both ends – working to be a loving husband, devoted father, director, student, instructor – what’s the point?” 

The fact that I was closer to the finish than I had ever been, that I had published a book and a few articles – all seemed pretty silly.

When this tyrannical meaninglessness comes to strangle me, it’s time to find the altar in the wilderness. Yuma is a warm and beautiful place, and I went for a hike on Telegraph Hill.  The reviews for the trail described it as “paved straight up,” and it was. It was gruesome because I’m out of shape.

Telegraph Hill (Now Cellphone Hill) in Yuma, AZ. |t’s “paved straight up.”

Telegraph Hill (Now Cellphone Hill) in Yuma, AZ. |t’s “paved straight up.”

Too much time on the computer, so much so that I have “mouse elbow.” 

I counted steps 50 at a time, lungs and thighs burning.  The view was gorgeous, and at one point, I asked myself, “What will you be able to see at the top that you can’t see from here?”

The answer: “Your self-respect.”

That’s why I am following Dr. Blaschke’s advice to just “keep going.”  I am not dealing with septic shock or the horror of watching my organs fail like she was, and I wondered, If I was facing imminent death, would continuing my doctoral work hold any meaningful motivation for me? Would it help me keep fighting?

Maybe.  Maybe passing the candidacy defense is a smaller accomplishment in retrospect than it feels during the lead-up to it.  But there is this small transformation of identity.  I am no longer a “student.” I am now a “candidate,” and it took a while for this subtle transformation to take hold.  I am about to become a researcher.

And I actually care about heutagogy, and the practical limitations of heutagogy in courses where students expect and want structure, and programs that expect things like grade distributions as part of accreditation processes. I have worked to apply heutagogical principles in the leadership course I teach at the University of Alberta. I actually care about evolving and maturing online education; this stuff matters to me. I want to see what it looks like at the top.

The view from the top of Telegraph Hill.

The view from the top of Telegraph Hill.

The way down was almost as hard as the way up. Turf toe and old knee injuries. But there is the comfort of a cerveza and a fried avocado with chipotle ranch dressing waiting for me - these mundane but delicious celebrations that comprise a human life.

Then, it will be time to get on those revisions. There will always be revisions.

But there won’t always be time for a game of cribbage with my mom.