MFA Monday: Amanda Jackson

Good morning and happy Monday to the Framers! My favorite thing about Mondays now is our column MFA Monday. Today, Amanda Jackson is back and honest as ever. We are grateful for these wise words on boundaries.

A Jackson - Photo by Jesse ScrogginsAmanda Jackson holds an MFA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is a performer, choreographer, educator, stylist, and avid cooking improviser. Her work has been presented across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana with a notable experience at Harvard University with collaborator, Matthew Cumbie. Amanda is Co-Director of Big Rig Dance Collective in Denton, TX and Adjunct Professor of Dance at Tarrant County College Northwest. www.ajdance.org

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MFA: Little and Big Things

Part 2 –In the grand scheme of things…

By Amanda Jackson

In reading the previous blog entries shared on MFA Mondays, I realize that I run the risk of sounding redundant if I were to discuss the immensely wonderful opportunities presented in grad school. The path to your MFA should indeed blow your mind in the most fantastic ways. My offerings this week, however, may shed some light on a less glamorous side of my path towards MFA…

Each morning as I walked through the wind tunnel toward the dance building, I created some pretty outrageous scenarios in my head for how my day would pan out. A recurring scenario would be the image of a fire-breathing dragon confronting me in the doorway, telling me that I’m not cut out for grad school. Through groveling tears, I would throw myself at the dragon’s spiky feet begging for mercy and guidance. The dragon would tell me to resign and never make dance again. I was always terrified of failure and in the strangest way, these scenarios helped me feel prepared for the worst. Looking back I realize how awful it felt to begin my days with such negativity. I could even feel the tension arise in my body as I walked into the building – as if I was physically bracing myself for criticisms that didn’t yet exist. I even feel the tension now as I recall these experiences to share with you all.

As you might have gathered, I am sharing some personal experiences of discomfort. Through moments of discomfort, I learned much more about my self – beyond myself as a student – and how I’ve come to value my time and energy. What I consider to be one of the most valuable questions I can ask now is: “In the grand scheme of things, how important is it?

When reflecting on my time in grad school, I tend to question my actions of putting my “real life” on hold for the sake of completing extra favors, projects, or rehearsals – all things that basically made me feel like a better student and more accomplished artist. I missed weddings, funerals, births, and just simple quality time with close friends and family. Grad school made me quite the over-achiever. This is not a bad trait! However, what if we begin to question the value or process of “achieving” this extra work? Is the achievement simply based on completing the task? What if that project pulled your time and energy away from other tasks or people that were actually more important? What if you weren’t fully present in rehearsal? Is this extra work really that important if you cannot fully put forth your best efforts? Are you all in or just fluffing and noodling around? Even if you don’t feel like it’s your best work, did you put in your whole self? I don’t think there is a simple answer for what I am proposing. However, these are all questions that I at least entertain in my mind now that I am out of school… I’ve come to understand the value of “less is more” in order to give fewer things my best and fullest efforts.

During my time in school I also felt like I performed favor after favor… It was difficult for me to voice my concerns regarding my time and energy. Below is a list that I comprised for myself – what I learned in hindsight that may have made my life feel a bit simpler or potentially more rewarding. You might find some resonance here, too.

  • Do a favor for someone because you are genuinely generous. A colleague recently said that volunteering should be done with a generous heart. I couldn’t agree more.
  • Perform the favor because it’s something that you really want to do and you have the time and energy to do it well! Always strive to put your best work forward, even in a volunteer situation.
  • Don’t perform a favor for someone with an expectation that they’ll return the favor. If the favor isn’t returned, you might be left with feelings of disappointment and resentment.
  • For you overly generous people: Beware that others might continue to take advantage of your generosity, whether that’s their intention or not. Don’t be afraid to say “NO!” If you need advice on how to stop doing things you dislike, or disliking the things you do, visit this blog! Perhaps all you need is a shift in perspective.

Just know that there’s a ton of work to do in grad school and at some point, choices will need to be made on how to accomplish the work successfully while maintaining a sense of well being. I’m sure you’ve heard stories, but honestly the work never ends. You might even continue to work after you walk across the stage and receive your temporary diploma. So allow yourself to take breaks in the midst of all the work! Real breaks. Not the kind of break where you flip on an episode of Buffy, eat a bowl of ramen noodles, and continue fluffing your document while checking emails and reading articles about aesthetics or pedagogy. Step away from the work, slurp your noodles, and enjoy watching some vampires turn to dust. Or take a walk. Or nap. Or bathe by candlelight. It doesn’t matter. Just give yourself some real time away from your work, even if the time seems relatively brief. These true moments away might even offer some new insights into the work you’re trying to accomplish.

What I learned towards my third year in the MFA program was to take the necessary breaks in order to avoid feeling burnt out or resentful of my work. Often it felt like the task at hand was simply keeping my head above water rather than immersing myself in a rich development process… And I believe that one of the ultimate beauties of graduate school is that you have this necessary time and space to dive in, coming out at the end having developed rich new perspectives that will forever influence your art-making. Just remember to come up for air once in a while.

MFA Mondays

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