About 8 years ago, I was wading through the prospectus-writing process of my dissertation, a process considerably more painful than writing the dissertation itself. It seemed that my chair and readers were never satisfied with any aspect of the study I was proposing.
In particular, I ran into problems as I tried to define gender in a way that was acceptable to one of my readers and in a way that was acceptable to the 150 Mormon women whose writing I was studying. (For what it’s worth, I define gender as beginning with something we have because I believe in a creation, but I also believe that it’s something we do, that we create, through repetition, through performance, through culture, by constantly respeaking ourselves in subject positions.) At one point, my dissertation reader refused to pass my prospectus because my definition of gender began with a fixed notion.
I was devastated and didn’t know what to do. I turned to my husband to talk things out, then to my academic Mormon friends and to my past professors at BYU to see how they had negotiated similar situations. But I couldn’t find any solutions or answers.
In desperation one afternoon, I locked myself in my closet, away from the 3 year old and 1 year old, cleared a spot free of shoes and dirty clothes, and knelt down. I told my Father about my problem, I told Him I didn’t know what to do, but that I was sure that He could somehow help. I turned over my problem—defining gender!—to Him.
This is one example of how the process of getting an education (a formal education, in this example, but an informal education in many others) has strengthened my relationship with God. In many ways, this has been one of the best consequences of my formal schooling. I’ve been thinking about this blessing this week as my Winter semester online teaching for BYU-Idaho is wrapping up. Next Tuesday is the last day of class. In my class this semester, I have 4 students over 60, 2 students who are young mothers, and 1 student who is returning to school now that her kids are in high school and college. Going back to school has not been easy for any of these students.
I have tried to be a cheerleader for them, posting uplifting quotes in my “Notes from Sister Pavia,” and letting them know that I am praying for them. This week I found this beautiful promise that Elder Henry B. Eyring made in his devotional address at BYU-Idaho on 18 September 2001. Although it was directed to graduates of BYU-Idaho, I do think it has applicability to all out there who are involved in the process of getting an education. Elder Eyring said, “I make a prophesy . . . . Those graduates of BYU-Idaho will become—and this is a prophesy that I am prepared to make and make solemnly—those graduates of BYU-Idaho will become legendary for their capacity to build the people around them and to add value wherever they serve. . . . I further bless you that you may have the capacity to influence others. I bless you that you will be a lifter, a teacher, and leader. I so bless you in your families, in the Church, and in wherever place you may go to serve.”
As for my experience turning gender definitions over to the Lord, it turns out He could and did help. Soon after my closet prayer, my dissertation reader sent me some citations for some feminist theorists and theories that she had come upon and that she believed would help me negotiate the tricky line I was trying to walk.
So to anyone out there involved in trying to learn new things, I want to testify that this process is blessed by the Lord. He will help you as you do your best.