There are two overlapping voices in this post. They're both me. Also, TL;DR BRAINDUMP MODE! You have been warned.
I think about the things I want to get out of going to grad school and the problems I want to use those abilities to tackle. (I should write out both lists sometimes). And I think I've seen people older and wiser and smarter than me - people I admire - try to do this for years, try to change the world this way. And I've seen them hit walls and have to deal with crap that's weighed them down. Not because of any lack on their part - but because of the way the system works right now. What makes me think I can do anything at all?
But people made the system, and so people can change it. And I'm a person! And I'm a person with the ability to get other people excited.
I don't need to go to grad school - I'm not hitting walls due to my lack of credentials.
Except I am. The difference is that I'm expected to hit these walls at this point in my life, so it's not a blocker to me participating in academia. I'm still at the age and at the stage in my life where I could easily still go to grad school; maybe professors can see me as "potentially one of them in the future," so they let me in a little more, in some ways. That's probably the only thing I could do differently - the only way I could attack this from a different angle and not get stopped by the same things.
I think that teaching and learning - and I'll say "especially in post-secondary engineering education" because it's the best leverage point I can find to put myself into in making this world a hacker's world - needs to change. We can do it better. We do do it better, in open source communities. We could share that.
We need ambassadors. I could be one. I'm not the only person who could be one, but someone's got to step up and do it at some point.
Here's the way I think about changing things. I think that the only thing you really have control over changing is yourself. So you need to become part of what you need to change - because when you become part of something, it becomes part of you. And then when you change yourself, you change that thing, too. If you want to change it deeply, and if you want to get it to transform itself in a way that eventually isn't dependent on you, that's what you have to do.
I have this sense - and maybe it's arrogant to say this - that I have, or could have, a bridging-ability that very few people in the world could have. I expected to keep on continuing to be in the ivory tower, so I have a bit of the... sight left, if that makes sense. I can sometimes, for brief moments, put on the glasses of an academic. A really young, inexperienced one - but even with just that, I can, on rare occasions, see glimpses of things a lot of my friends in open source don't catch so readily. I love and admire them, and they're so far above me in so many ways - and yet I see these things! And I can explain it to them, sometimes. And I can explain them to academics, sometimes.
But even rarely is sometimes. And even that tiny bit of ability - and it's an ability I may be hallucinating, mind you - means that I can do something that nobody else I know can do, and something that I don't think they could train on as easily. (I mean, if someone else was going to grad school right now to study exactly this, I wouldn't go - but I can't find anybody else who's going.)
And that tiny bit of ability, as bad as I am at it right now, is still powerful enough for me to think "what if I actually developed that?" What if I took the time to learn more, and learn how to navigate and negotiate this world more? What if I actually worked on having Magical World-Bridging Superpowers? What could I do then? Is that something I could do that nobody else could do?
And my heart says yes.
And then it goes into all sorts of disclaimers about the lack of certainty and citations and concrete evidence to back up that yes. But it says yes, regardless.
I could always do it later.
And I could always say I'll do it later and later and later. At some point, "later" has to become "now," or it becomes a "never." I mean, before you know it, I'll be 40, 60, 80. That's a long time from now, but I also at one point thought that 23 was so old as to be incomprehensibly unreachable; I'll get there too. And maybe at that point I'll have settled down and won't be able to abandon my family (if I have one) for a couple years to go to grad school.
I've barely started with CommArch. Hasn't it been amazing? Don't I want more than a year with them before I go to school?
Who says the two are mutually incompatible?
But wait. Go back again. The teachers I admire most - and they may or may not actually work as teachers - also had struggles doing the work in education that they wanted to do. These folks are superheroes to me. I don't even ever expect to get that good.
And they have to fight and fight and fight and sometimes it goes nowhere. Not because they're not good people, or smart people. But because the system is so... freaking... broken.
And I'm scared that's going to be me, too. If I go in for grad school, I've basically committed myself to fighting this battle to fix education for the rest of my life. That's what I'm going to do - not necessarily from inside academia, but at the very least as someone who can walk its hallways even if I come from industry. It's very specific training that I'm gearing up for - I can't decide halfway through to switch and... learn... finance, or... whatever. It's too much an investment on the part of way too many people for me to back out once I start.
And what if I can't do it either?
And what if I don't want to put up with all the shit I know I'm going to have to go through for a long, long time?
I could continue to work and learn entirely in the world of industry. I could get shiny articles written in shiny papers. But would that get people to teach differently and learn differently? Based on what I've seen so far, not nearly enough. It's like universities are protected by this force field that things from the outside world bounce off of. Press, industry, anything. We need people quietly doing things.
Shouldn't I dogfood? If we ask professors to learn how the culture of open source, don't we owe it to them to send someone back to learn the culture of academia? Why shouldn't I volunteer?
Sebastian pointing out that by working on education, I'd enable people to fix themselves. "You're basically giving them the chance to become... The Next Mel (CC-BY)."
I do document things like a maniac. It's not that I'd be leaving folks behind. I'd be bringing them with me.
Lemme try to phrase the problem I want to solve.
We've got something good here in the open source world. We've got a way of learning that's tremendously powerful - it's letting us make ourselves into the types of people we want to become, and make the things we want to make. We're hackers, and we can hack ourselves, and our communities (the ones that are full of other hackers).
We can't spread that way of learning, and we can't show it to many other people; we don't know how to understand it ourselves, so we can't improve the way we do it, nor can we help others do it too. We can't yet hack the entire world, because not everyone in the world is a hacker.
And the way we operate right now, there are some people who just never really get a chance to choose to learn how to be one. That's what I mean by "worksforme doesn't work." The current folks we have in open source can do a lot of things, but we can't do everything. We need to figure out who can, and how to help them do it.
I think that academia is good at learning how to understand things; I'd like to learn how they understand "learning how to learn," so I can understand how we learn how to learn, in a way that lets us teach it.
It's also going to make me pretty tired and lonely for a long, long time. If they accept me, and I find a way to work it out with CommArch, I'm in for a long haul.
But it'll make me happy. I guess I really am masochistic.
Realistically, I'll probably have to be based on campus for up to 2-3 years for classes, though I'll shoot hard for frontloading them all into 12 months, and will probably have flexibility to travel a decent amount still. And I won't have much of a life for 5-6 years, most likely. I'm trying to make conservative estimates reflecting that I'd be studying part-time for all of this. But that's the life I want to have.
If I end up at grad school, I'm going to be at grad school. It'll be hard at first, but that's going to have to become another home for me, because I'm going to be there for a while, and I need an academic home to come from, if I'm going to be able to navigate the academic world. And so then I'll have another home.
I think that mostly I'm afraid of change and uncertainty and the prospect of going down a lonely path for a long, long time.
But it doesn't have to be lonely. It'll be hard, but it doesn't have to be lonely at all. I can bring people with me; that's why I was given the gift of documentation. I can write enough, and well enough, that others can see through my eyes. I can bring people with me - and there'll be wonderful people in that world too. And then I can introduce them to each other!
And as for loneliness - I've been there before. I've thought that loneliness was all there was, and now I know that's very much not true. Makes it hard to put myself in a spot where I might have to go back again for a bit. But I already deal with this all the time. And wouldn't it be good to know I can go back if I have to? That I'm not clinging to something due to fear I'll lose it?
If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it is yours forever. If it doesn't, then it never was.
All right. I'm going to go and write my application now. There's much about this that isn't in my hands - but I will do the part that I can do.