Perhaps it's resolution-making hangover inherent in the start of a new calendar year and simultaneous beginning of another semester, but I've felt particularly optimistic about my future in graduate school recently. But, I'm going to choose to remain optimistic here and choose to believe that it's recent intellectual discussion - of the sort I honestly thought I'd be a part of when I got to graduate school (back when I was young and innocent - and thus could potentially recapture this enthusiasm when necessary by engaging in similar discussions.
What discussions you ask? Well, just seeing the active community here and getting a feel for what it means to be a part of it is inspiring! It's that feeling of remembering what it is to discover people with a similar interest, who are trying to change the world in the way that you've always thought about. For me, it's writing about science for a wider audience - something I've tried to take on at varying times only to face the frowning disappointment of advisers and bosses and interesting combination of Socratic method-manipulation methods that made me feel as though I was "choosing" to give up this pursuit in favor of more "practical" paths.
(The irony of giving up on writing for individuals who might use the information in order to conduct research that will only ever be read by a few, many of whom will never use it in the so-called "real world" is somehow lost here. Or at least it rarely seems appropriate to point out when meeting with one's adviser, in case you were thinking about it.)
The other type of discussion happened in my first life (it's a pun that makes sense later, just go with me here...) in the form of a discussion about second life. If you told me that I'd be going to a 3-hour class lecture where we would be talking about Second Life, an online world like that in The Sims (follow the link for an explanation), I would have informed you that I'd be bringing my rusty spoon so that I can begin the difficult process of removing my own appendix just so that I could entertain myself (it's always good to give people a warning when considering doing surgery on yourself in a public setting). But I actually loved this discussion. I have ideas for blog entries here and even for potential research projects and an independent study/seminar-type thing to campaign the for within the department.
Honestly, the subject matter probably isn't why I found the discussion so rich as much as the way in which it flowed and was conducted. We all simply sat around and talked - it was more like lunch with friends than a regular "facilitated discussion" in a classroom. We expressed opinions, had some disagreements, and were able to really question our professor - who is unquestionably brilliant. And what makes it more interesting is that this particular professor is particularly effective in these types of discussion because he is so genuinely eclectic - he works with NASCAR and Richard Petty and races cars while studying driving in simulators; he can quote Paula Abdul as easily as quantum mechanics and occasionally sentences contain references to both; he reads the New York Times and most every popular psychology book out there; he's written papers for anthropology, sociology, education, management and general business, as well as psychology and statistics journals. Basically, he can relate to all of us because of his varied interests and he manages to use our interests in order to engage us and bring us all back to the topic of interest (he did it with Second Life and we're ultimately going to work on a project to create an evaluation tool to be used within Second Life).
It's sort of funny because most of us graduate students don't appreciate his "lectures" until later - referring to the process as a sort of latent learning. It's only after you leave his class that you sort of put the pieces together and realize how much you know, how he drew you into seemingly obscure topics in order to help you understand the "official" course topic. To be fair, he does often get off topic and doesn't always manage to make the connections back to the official material, but given the difficulty of these strategy (and the fact that he seems to teach more graduate classes than any other professor AND still manages to publish), I'm a bit more forgiving than others. Or maybe just jaded enough to appreciate when a professor manages to make me think - even when I'm exhausted and have very little desire to do so. After all, I foolishly thought that graduate school would make me think and help me to form enough research ideas to last a lifetime, rather than simply create a (sleep) debt to last eternally.
The Value Of Discussion