Full Circle: My Story So Far | Obstinate Obscurity

Cynthia Bateman

The (more than) ten years I spent as a practicing Registered Professional Nurse were the most rewarding, professionally speaking, of my life thus far. They were also the most trying–from the physical exhaustion that comes with running up and down halls for thirteen hour shifts, to the mental and emotional fatigue that accompanies such closeness to the pain and suffering of fellow beings. Ten years working with cancer patients, be they medical oncology or critical care bone marrow transplant candidates and recipients, wears one down. I left my nursing career because I was exhausted and because being surrounded by pain and disfigurement all the time had begun to alter how I viewed the world. I left nursing because the ethical lines I thought ought to be so clear in the medical industry were, for me, blurring at an alarming rate. I left nursing because of all the ways it was bringing me down, turning me into someone I wasn’t liking–someone who saw the world as a sorrowful and increasing hostile space. What never occurred to me, though, was the idea that while I might leave my nursing career behind, nursing might never leave me.
I resigned from my position at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in the summer of 2010, over four years ago. In addition to needing a brighter outlook on life in general, I also left nursing to pursue an academic career that, I hoped, might help me respond to questions I had about how humans get along together and how humans get along with other species. Following that fateful road trip to New Mexico in the summer of 2006, during which I encountered my first feedlot and experienced (what I would later learn in an introductory ethics course) a textbook example of ontological shock, I started back to college in the spring of 2007 to understand how that Texas feedlot, that horrid space of stench and isolation and desolation, existed in the “America” I so naively believed in. Upon completing my philosophy degree in 2010, however, what I learned about myself, about that feedlot, and about “America” was how complicated, caught up, dependent, and fragile we all are. Yes, I had gone back to college in search of answers. The daughter of a welfare mother, I grew up thinking education was the answer to everything–the way out, the way in, and the way up.
Needless to say, my philosophy degree left me wanting more…more answers, more understanding, more awareness of a world I knew so little of. Between my desire to leave nursing and my dissatisfaction that, another degree in hand, I still didn’t understand the world around me, I decided to pursue another degree–this time a master’s degree in rhetoric and composition with an emphasis in composition pedagogy. How did I get from nursing to philosophy to the teaching of writing? Simply (not at all): creative writing. During my undergraduate days as a philosophy student, I completed a minor in creative writing. I worked with amazing professors in the English department at SIUE like Adrian Matejka, Geoff Schmidt, Sharon McGee, Nikki Schmidt, Valerie Vogrin, and the incomparable Eileen Joy. Under their guidance I learned how much I loved to write and to read literature. I completed my creative writing senior project with Matejka. Through a study of historical fiction using Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter as an example, I wrote my first piece of science fiction and for the first time ever realized that I could, though my writing, create a world in which everything and anything was otherwise. To Professor Matejka: if you don’t know, if I never made it clear, the semester I spent studying with you was the most liberating and hopeful of my life.
Looking back, I should have pursued creative writing and/or literature at the graduate level. But I didn’t. I got scared–talk of no jobs, limited possibilities (at the MFA level) for top-notch programs (let’s face it, I am a decent writer, but I am no Adrian Matejka). To move from a successful career as a registered nurse to a (likely) unemployed English major, especially given that I had a young daughter to raise, was not a career change that interested me. So yes, I chose to pursue my MA in rhetoric and composition for two main reasons: career outlook and rhetoric’s proximity to philosophy (though, I now understand that this “proximity” is unstable). To my surprise, what I learned during my MA, though my work with professors Sharon McGee and Matthew Johnson in particular, is how much I enjoyed teaching writing and critical inquiry and how good I am at it. Students, at it turns out, are not that different from patients, and I learned quickly that the nurse in me was alive and well in my first-year writing classrooms. Just like during my nursing days, I was (and am) best at the bedside, smack dab in the middle of all the drama. It just so happens that the “bedside” is now small group learning and conferencing and one-on-one chats during office hours. Like bedside nursing (and especially critical care bedside nursing), small-group teaching (my style of interaction in the classroom) feels as close to the frontline of action as I might ever get–hands-on, sleeves rolled up, squatting on the floor in the middle of circled desks while four sets of eyes look to me for guidance and inspiration. My time as a MA student taught me how much teaching (as I do it) is like nursing, like the best parts of nursing.
It was during the first semester of my MA at SIUE that I encountered Karen Barad’s “Posthumanist Performativity.” I remember the day I came across the essay. My husband had rented the edited collection, Material Feminisms, for some project of his own, and he’d left the book on our coffee table. I picked it up just to flip through it and found Barad’s essay by accident. Through that essay, I became interested in how rhetoric, as discipline, addressed species other-than-human, and just like that, I was back at many of the original questions that had brought me back to college in the first place. I wrote my MA thesis on rhetoric’s posthuman performativity, and I applied (and was accepted) to doctoral programs based on that same work.
As exciting as my time in graduate school was at SIUE, what I realize looking back is that, required academic work aside, I stopped writing. That science fiction story I wrote with Matejka was the last bit of fiction I had written until recently. I also realize, in part out of the necessity of the demands of graduate school, that I stopped reading fiction. I became all about the rhetoric, and in the process, that part of me that lit up in my philosophy classes, that came alive while creating art, and that overflowed with passion about literature and the questions great fiction helped me ask begin to fade away. And again, when faced with the decisions of moving on to a  doctoral program, I chose pragmatism over passion, and in the fall of 2012, I began my PhD in rhetoric and composition.
Let me clear: I have always enjoyed the work I’ve done and the questions I’ve asked in rhetoric. But there is a difference between enjoying something and being on fire about it. I left nursing to find something that set me on fire, that made me feel alive and feel life in the world. At thirty-seven years of age and with my only daughter about to enter college next year, if now is not the time to follow my passions, I don’t know when will be. And so, I have decided to change disciplines, to move from the rhetoric program to the English and American literatures program at USC Columbia. This move has not been made lightly, and I am aware of the challenges that a PhD in literature presents in terms of the job market. But more than afraid of the horrible job market, I’m excited by the possibilities that this path of study holds for me and the opportunities it affords me to return to many of my original questions about humans, animals, science, and how we (don’t) get along while, simultaneously, providing me the space to (re)discover my creativity. I wrote this three-page short story the other night–utterly horrible in terms of content (and probably style) but imaginative and hopeful.
I worry that some of my rhetoric colleagues may not understand my decision, and that’s okay. I guess I’m not asking for understanding (though I do hope it comes in time); I’m just hoping for well-wishes. I am still a rhetoric scholar and do love teaching writing. I’m just a literature scholar too.
In closing, Aerosmith’s “Full Circle,” because though it has taken me awhile to figure out how, I (once again) understand education to be the way out, the way in, and the way up…you just have to be brave enough and smart enough (which may equal old enough) to follow the educational path that calls out to you (preferably the first time around). I have, indeed, come full circle.