The zone of delicious uncertainty
I spent this past week at the ACFAS conference, that’s Association francophone pour le savoir. I was there mostly in my role of research coordinator, organizing a couple of colloquia, so I didn’t get to choose which events to attend. Still, it was a good week, and there were some really good presentations. I even won a poster competition (ok, there were only 4 of us, but I was so excited to have a chance to discuss my research in progress).
During a presentation on children’s physical activity, the presenter, Camille Gagné, used the term la zone d’incertitude délicieuse to refer to the zone of proximal development, or optimal development (it’s originally a Vygotskian concept). She was actually talking about providing or allowing kids to engage in activities with the right amount of risk, so that there is a risk of failure, but also a chance at success. It was a great way to describe the concept, but I realized that the zone of delicious uncertainty is also the motto I live my entire life by.
One of my colleagues, who recently completed her PhD was hired, in a tenure track position at the same university she attended for both her MA and her Phd. She was describing, over lunch one day this week, how lucky she is to be a new prof at a university she knows. I am so happy for her, but I want the opposite. I want a job at a place I don’t know at all, because I crave change, and I crave that zone of delicious uncertainty. I think I began the PhD for that very reason, and it explains why whenever I reach any point of stability in my life I find a way to shake things up – move to a new country, have a baby, get a new job, start a new degree, train for a race…
There are so many new experiences, and each one is terrifying, until I do it enough that it becomes no big deal, and then I seek out the next adrenaline rush: oral presentations in front of the class, handing in papers, oral presentations in a second language, writing papers in a second language, presenting at conferences, presenting at conferences in a second language, submitting a scholarship application, submitting a paper to an academic journal and receiving the peers reviews, teaching a class, teaching a class in a second language, applying for a job…ok so the second language is unique to my experience, but also probably explains why I chose to do my PhD in French.
The zone of delicious uncertainty also includes the waiting time – will I get the scholarship? Better not to know than to be rejected. Will my paper be accepted or torn to shreds? Enjoy that time in the zone of delicious uncertainty before you have to revise and resubmit. Oh, and a prof from another university even encouraged me to apply for a tenure track job at her school, which was very flattering. I jumped into the zone of delicious uncertainty, then realized how ridiculous it would be to apply for the job at this stage (I still have another 7 months before my data collection is finished, and that’s if all goes according to plan!), but I savoured the zone for a few hours.
I am 40, and have never held down a job for more than 3 years, because of this intense craving for change, but somehow I think the academic life might work, because the zone of delicious uncertainty is always there, in the grant applications, the articles and books written, the conference submissions, the presentations (imagine giving a keynote!), directing programs, designing programs, and the list goes on…
Which reminds me, I was also recently elected (by acclamation, that means no other idiots wanted the job) as co-president of the Canadian committee of graduate students in education. I am a bit terrified of how much work this will entail, whether I am up for the task, whether I will have time to do it on top of all my other commitments and the dissertation, but hey, I am in the zone of delicious uncertainty, right where I like to be! 🙂