Saturday, June 02, 2007

More on Becoming an Academic

I wanted to follow up to my post from yesterday morning in response to the conversation that's cropped up in comments and perhaps to clarify my position a bit.

But before I get on with the clarifying and the responding, let me just say that I'm really glad that people have found something that resonated for them in that post - or really in any of the posts that I do on this here blog. It's funny: I never thought when I started blogging that I'd be at it 3 years later, and I certainly didn't think that I'd have anything to say that people thought was insightful or even just worth reading. I don't edit much in this space, and I certainly don't draft posts and return to them later to polish them. And, as a friend of mine recently said of Dr. Crazy, "you're one long-winded bitch," and so I'm often amazed that people slog through some of what I write here. But so anyway, thanks for reading. And thanks for thinking about the stuff that I write. It really does mean a lot to me.

Ok, so now with that out of the way, let's get back to this whole becoming an academic thing. First of all, I want to clarify that I do not think that professors at grad institutions are maniacally plotting the destruction of grad students' identities. I think that perhaps it came across that way, and I really don't think that's true at all. I think that if this process is one of degrading and rebuilding that it's not because there's some diabolical master plan at work to fuck people up. I think that even though people do get fucked up as part of the process, that the process itself isn't designed to fuck people up. If that makes any sense.

See, here's the thing. How does one become the sort of person who decides that graduate education is for them? Well, by and large, a person has to have been the sort of person who was a good student. Now, being a good student includes many characteristics, some of which I will list: wanting to please one's instructors, being good at following directions, being good at understanding expectations and meeting them according to a recognizable set of rules. Now, the problem, as I see it, is that these characteristics aren't necessarily ones that serve graduate students well. At least in my PhD program, what instructors wanted was not for pleasing them to be at the top of my list of priorities, to follow precise directions, and to do my work in response to the recognizable set of rules. Rather, what they wanted of me was for me to stop being the good girl and to become a thinker. They wanted me to have my own ideas - not just ideas that would please them - and they wanted me to make a case for those ideas under my own steam. They wanted me to push myself. They didn't want the perfectly crafted, perfectly appropriate response to the material - they wanted originality and nuance, even if I missed the mark a little bit. Now, we say we want that of undergraduates, but the reality is that if an undergraduate follows all of the directions and does all of the work and maybe has an insight or two, that produces an A. Especially because there are a lot more bites at the grading apple, just being more than a little bit competent and being very organized and excited about school can get a good student far. Not so, in graduate school. Yes, you still need to be competent and organized and excited, but when your entire grade comes from one long paper and a presentation, the fact of the matter is, you need to be sort of brilliant, too. And when you've spent all your life hitting markers that have been clearly laid out in front of you, that demand is confusing. How can I brilliantly respond to the assignment "write a seminar paper about something in this course" when there is no assignment sheet? No prompt? When I don't know how to even think about how to go about proposing an idea of my own? I've always been a good student, so now I don't know who I am!

For me, this is the primary crisis that graduate education causes. And it's not a process of "hazing" at all - it's not really about "oh, only the great and the good and the lucky get to become part of this elite club" but rather it's about something more fundamental to what true scholarship is: it's about requiring people to move beyond being "good students" and toward being actual intellectual subjects. The problem is, nobody actually explains that this is what is happening. And when faculty suggest to students that they might think about graduate school, they fail to mention that being a "good student" will no longer get them where they want to go. In fact, they tell students that because they are such good students that they should go to graduate school. THIS is where the process of fucking up the professoriate begins.

And the fact of the matter is that even if every requirement was presented with a strong rationale, and every seminar gave explicit instructions to graduate students about the exact expectations for student performance, I'm not sure that it would help much to ease that transition from being an acolyte into being a master. Because, that, really, is what we're talking about. Moving from being the submissive to being the dominant. And graduate school is the liminal space between those two categories, and that is going to fuck with anybody's head.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about is more personal to me, I guess, though I suspect some of you will share this experience, too. I think the second major thing that made grad school such a breaking down of who I was before has to do with the fact that I did not attend an elite undergraduate institution and that I do not come from an educated family. Most of the people I went to high school with (a public high school, in a border suburb) did go to college, but they went to college for degrees that easily translated into jobs that took them right back to our hometown. Even those who sought further education tended to go to law school, and so they went right back to our hometown, they live five minutes from their parents, and everybody got married by 30. Some people got married and divorced and married again by 30. But the point here is that what graduate school meant in a very real way for me is that I can never go home again. That's not to say that I am not close with my family or that I don't maintain friendships with people from high school or college, but graduate school meant that my life was going to be very different from the life that I was expected to have. And so if my identity upon entering graduate school was effaced and replaced with something else, there really wasn't another option. In order to survive not as the smartest girl in the mediocre state university classroom but as the rough-around-the-edges-waiting-list-admit to very good PhD program at Fancy Research University, I needed to learn how to "pass" with all of the children of academics and doctors and lawyers and politicians, the best and the brightest, who were my peers. And in learning how to pass, I also had to bury parts of myself that didn't fit in with that crowd. Again, there was no way for me to avoid doing this. If I had resisted, the strain would have been too much and I would have had to drop out. In taking the path of least resistance, I had to become a completely different person, at least for a time.

Now, one of the great things about the job that I have is that it has allowed me to get things back that I had to bury during graduate school. Whereas my working class background was vaguely shameful in graduate school (parents who make politically incorrect jokes, a mother who says things like "it don't work" and "ain't" on a regular basis, extended family members on welfare, etc.), it's now an asset, because my students come from those kinds of backgrounds, too. And my colleagues really value me, too, in large part because of this hybrid identity that I now have. Yes, I'm an intellectual, but I'm no longer passing. Well, most of the time. Sometimes one still has to pass, like at MLA :) But this job helped me to figure out who I am again, and really, I'm not interested in losing that, which may mean that even if I make another run at the market that I won't be any more successful than I was this time around. Ultimately, having this job means that I don't need to be whoever "they" want me to be. And I think that's something I value about having gone through that process last year - I value learning that I'm not interested in leaving this job at all costs. Some prices are just too high to pay - and definitely too high to pay twice.

But that's the thing. In saying all of this I'm not advocating the way that graduate school tends to fuck up people's lives as a necessary evil, but I also don't know that there is any solution to that problem. I don't know that one can arrive at a formula for valuing people's personal lives in balance with the intellectual demands that the profession makes. I don't know that a person should leave the kind of intensive training that graduate school offers without being changed in some deep and crucial way.

The question then becomes, for me, how to negotiate the new identity that one attains through that education. Graduate school may strip a person down in ways that are painful, but one can't go on with one's life moaning about that forever. One can't even go on with one's life in graduate school if one can't get over that fact. So how does one get over it? Well, for me, it's meant coming to some kind of acceptance and reconciliation of these two halves of my life - the professor part and the "this is where I come from" part. It's meant trying to take the good from both, rather than being all about trying to reject the things about both that are stifling or bad or whatever. It's meant forging friendships with people who "get it" so that this new identity is not ultimately isolating but rather something that actually brings good things into my life. And, I suppose, it's meant working pretty hard to think about all this stuff so that I don't become one of those professors who tells my "good students" that they should really think about graduate school without trying to advise them about the seriousness of the decision, not only financially and intellectually, but also personally and emotionally.

So are academics fucked up? Yeah. Does part of that trace back to experiences in graduate school? Yeah. But it also has to do with having nearly complete autonomy over one's time, going through intense periods where there are too many people and too much face time and then intense periods of isolation when one is writing and one doesn't see enough people in order to be healthy and normal, having to move to Egypt-land for the elusive tenure-track job and so you only know people you work with, and any number of other things. These things fuck a person up. Are people from some backgrounds more fucked up than others by these things? Yes, I think they are. Are people who are single more fucked up by these things than people who are married and have kids? Yes, I think they are. But it all doesn't come down to graduate school, why the professoriate is fucked up. It comes down to a whole host of factors that have to do with choosing this life. Is it worth it? Again, I'm going to say that most of the time I think it is, because at the end of the day, I really believe that it's important to explore ideas and to open up new ways of seeing things and relating to the world and to spend time and energy really thinking about things that matter. It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.


Grrrrl Problems said...

OMG, Dr. Crazy -- this captures so much of what's fucked me up for the past five years. Thanks for articulating it in a succinct way (no, seriously -- I'm not being facetious!). You included all of the relevant details of the experience that fuck people up in just the way that it does.

One other thing that I'd add is that if your non-academic life isn't reasonably stable or settled when you enter grad school, it's also going to get very fucked up. Ex and I started dating just after he started grad school, and I think his training there contributed to our relationship's demise.

adjunct whore said...

ok, this one actually made me cry a bit. because first, the first year of grad school when it dawns on you that you are doing it alone, that nobody will guide you, produced an immediate return to vulnerability. luckily, i was never quite the "good" girl-student, always arguing on the margins, so that aspect of grad school wasn't the source of the angst.

but the real choking up comes in the more personal aspect of your post. while my roots were not as different as you suggest yours were, i still became an entirely different person. because becoming an intellectual, a scholar, is transformative, and if you really do make the transformation into wanting it and understanding the work and loving the work, you're a wholly other being at that point from your parents, unless your parents are also professors (mine aren't). my family is basic middle class, but my degree still separates me from them, and the way i think, speak, and perceive the world changed utterly.

i transformed so much, in fact, that i am one of those people also who went to grad school married, got divorced as a result of the amount of change, and now am with another academic. wierd. on a side note: i went to school with a bunch of people who became doctors, ivy leaguers, ect. right away, i never fit in with them, i was the fuck up. but you know what, i wouldn't want to and am grateful for my humanities phd instead.

as usual, you capture something crucial here.

Earnest English said...

Dr. Crazy, I appreciate your clarification here. In the post on my blog, I really didn't mean to imply that you had said that grad school was or should be hazing. But that's what we started to discuss in the comments. (I'll check to make sure on my post that that is clear.)

Perhaps it's an issue in my particular institution, but for me and for people around here there has exactly been the kind of transition from "good student" to thinker that you describe. If that were it, I would agree with you that there is nothing to be done about grad school and associated pain. But there are also many opaque systems that radically affect grad students' lives. Grad students at my institution are overworked (faculty agree on this) and are also given so many contradictory messages through these systems. At the same time that we're supposed to become thinkers and independent intellectuals, there are also, at least in my institution, a number of systems in place that infantilize us, actively discouraging us from taking up agency and becoming the independent thinkers that we should be. Many of my colleagues (not me) get the message that we should not use our brainpower to try to understand and perhaps change those systems that have so much control over our lives. We're simultaneously supposed to become independent thinkers and also be good quiet students -- at the same time.

That is what drives me nuts. Thanks for engaging in this discussion which has helped me figure out what I mean! =)

Dr. Crazy said...

Don't even get me STARTED on the havoc that grad school wreaks on romantic relationships. I don't know a single grad school relationship that was born during grad school that didn't die there, too. A few people incoming with marriages had their marriages survive, but that was the exception, not the rule.

AW: I'm glad the post spoke to you, but I hate it when I make people cry! Stop that now! Have a drink! Immediately!

EE: I don't think your post implied that I talked about hazing in my post - I really was just responding to the way the discussion in comments veered. And I do think that at some institutions the problems that you describe ARE there - I just wanted to make distinct what I think is a universal across programs (at least from what I can tell) vs. specific institutional problems that exacerbate the universal stuff I'm talking about. Does that make sense?

"Maude Lebowski" said...

well, since i'm going through my own plight of inadequacy right now, i won't leave a long comment. i'll perhaps just join in on my own blog, but to you, and every one else who's commented, all I have to say is AMEN to all of you.

ya'll all my new heroes!

Sisyphus said...

Dr. Crazy, yes. Yes! You have hit it. Everything Earnest English says is still there, but beneath that there is some fundamentally life-changing process to grad school. I think I'll post on this.

Terri said...

like adjunct whore, i too felt like crying, in particular after paragraph #7 (that sounds like i'm making a joke about your long-windedness, but it really was paragraph #7). the part about coming from another world, one where i'm the first person to graduate college, where my aunts steal sweet and lo packets from restaurants, where my family still can't understand why i went to school for 10 years and only make a professorial pittance, etc. that whole "I can never go home again" thing really just wiped me out. it is just. so. true. but i agree with you, dr. crazy, that the transformation and the more fluid identity one gains become more valuable than the imagined security of clinging to a previous incarnation of one's identity. but somehow reading it like that (i can never go home again) triggers some sort of nostalgic chord.
thanks for this.

k8 said...

These posts are really great. Grad school's been odd for me, but in a different way. I wasn't a good student-type of person. I didn't care much about pleasing teachers unless I thought they deserved my respect. Yes, I came close to failing some classes. I did a lot of "outside reading" supporting my own interests.

So, I don't understand the 'good students' and the need to please. This isn't to say that I don't like praise - like anyone else I lap it up. I feel like I'm being forced into good student mode, though. And it makes me wonder if I'm losing what I've been praised for - unconventional creative thinking. The irony being that it is my past bad student behavior and self-sponsored education that probably developed the ways I attack issues. There's definitely loss, although I hope it's temporary.

The isolation is something I think does need to be dealt with. For a project I worked on, I had to check out the literature on grad school attrition and guess what the number one reason for leaving a grad program is: isolation. Isolation from other grad students, from professors, etc.

The thing that really freaked me out, though, was how many of my fellow grad students were the children of professors. Talk about having an inside track on 'the life.' I shouldn't have been surprised - people do sometimes take up the same profession as the parents. So, there was that, and the fact that I felt like/feel like I've stepped back into middle school.

Professor Zero said...

I get it. Re the post grad school f-ed-up-ness:

"going through intense periods where there are too many people and too much face time and then intense periods of isolation when one is writing and one doesn't see enough people in order to be healthy and normal, having to move to Egypt-land for the elusive tenure-track job"

These especially are hard for me. I wish I had *more* autonomy over my time, though ...

Terri said...

ok, just want to say that i'm a bit embarrassed by my mixed metaphor of triggers and chords in my earlier post. maybe my nostalgia sent me clear back to new jersey, where we say things like "me and him are going to the shore."

phd me said...

I couldn't agree more with what you've written here, and in the other post, about the loss of and change to identity. Mine started to fray in undergrad, when the working class kid went to the elite undergrad and got all twisted up about who she was and who she was going to become. That push and pull bled over into life after undergrad and created some havoc but grad school and entering academics completed the process.

I've quoted Wolfe before but, boy, did he know what he was talking about: every time I visit Home Town, I realize that I can't go home again. I simply don't fit. Not that I ever did, quite, but it wasn't as painful when I was living there and immersed in the day-to-day. Now, I can "pass" in academic circles but I can't with my own family. Pretty damn alienating.

Thanks for writing about this, Crazy. It resonates with so many of us!

Jane Dark said...

I didn't get the sense that you thought professors were maniacally plotting, for what it's worth. My understanding of the situation, at least at my department, which is remarkably caring and humane in many ways, is that many (though not all)of the professors are dealing with shitstorms of their own, with service and publications and conferences.

I think it's challenging to set up spaces where both sides can comfortably communicate with each other. I am a grad student, but know professors in the department who don't feel like grad students voice concerns, and thus don't feel like they know how to help them. And of course the grad students are nervous about voicing concerns (sometimes with good reason).

Here is another problem: I think that there is a tendency among graduate students to imagine that their tenured and tenure-track professors are not fucked up. At least, not fucked up in the way that they see themselves. I've caught myself doing this occasionally -- thinking "Oh, the people on my committee are not fucked up at all. Clearly, since I know I'm fucked up, I must not fit in here."

But that's an illusion. They're just at a later stage of fucked-upness, or at a different stage of recovery from it. So I can stop myself from letting this upset me. But I think that the default assumption that professors are not fucked-up contributes a great deal to graduate student anxiety.

Again, great post.

Second Line said...

I think it was Tim Burke who termed grad. school "cotillian for eggheads." It's really not a bad description. Although I might amend to "dictatorship of the eggheads." And while one needn't necessarily become one of these, one had better learn how to play the part ... or else.

Karet said...

Very insightful post. I must say, though, that I'm surprised that the subject of class comes up so much when you discuss academia (last MLA, too) -- mainly because academia really its own class and not at all an extension of the “upper-middle class”. Most of America’s “upper-middle class” is Republican, lives in suburbs, and spends its free time watching CSI rather than reading books. Unless you come from a family of academics, grad school is a unique experience that makes it difficult to talk to regular people of all classes.

Dr. Crazy said...

I think the reason class seems such a major issue to me is that even in the upper-middle-class of regular America, I think there is more value placed on education generally. Not that people necessarily USE it in their day-to-day lives, but they do belong to book clubs and recognize the necessity of a college degree, at minimum, if only because it's necessary to support the lifestyle. In my family, I have cousins in my generation who've dropped out of HIGH SCHOOL and that's not seen as a problem. I'm like an alien in that context, whereas people with college degrees at least have a kind of mystified respect for what I've achieved. I guess that's where the class thing comes in for me. You're right, it is a class all it's own - the intelligentsia - but I think it can be easier to "pass" in more solidly middle-class circles as a member of the intelligentsia than it is to pass in a working class context.

thelogicoftheuniverse said...

I found this post incredibly interesting, and I might have some questions once I have more time to read it in depth. I actually come from the other side as compared what you state as the typical grad student. I am very good at thinking creatively, researching and developing my own ideas. However, I am not good at following directions, caring about pleasing my professors, etc. Basically, I got into grad school solely on my recommendations (embarrassing gpa and test scores).

Karet said...

Dr. Crazy, I see your point about the value of education for the upper classes. I do think certain advanced degrees are much more respected than a PhD in English, though – say a law degree, or an MBA. English professors are sort of regarded as poorly dressed, frumpy eccentrics.

Second Line said...

Academe, though, brings us the marxists in Armani, and all those "eccentrics" with the faux British accents waxing on about their wine collections. And I'm not trying to be cranky here. This is the stuff I over hear in the office every day. Woe be to the beer drinker ... even the good beer drinker.

Manorama said...

I have to say that your characterization of what it's like for a new grad student to write a seminar paper--"no assignment sheet? etc"--was not my experience at all. All three senior seminars I took as an undergraduate (in History, Women's Studies, and English) required a paper with no prompt, and the upper level English courses I took also had very loosely worded, non-directive paper assignments. In the courses I teach, both composition and literature, students write papers for which they come up with their own arguments based on the themes/ideas that interest them. There isn't some kind of prompt or assignment sheet, just an explanation of the "parts" of a literary argument that they should work through. I don't know if my experience is because I attended a large research university for both undergrad and grad school, but writing a seminar paper really wasn't that anxiety-inducing, and it seemed pretty clear what I was supposed to do. That is not to say that my writing didn't improve a hell of a lot, mostly because I was being introduced to new sub-fields and new ways of framing my arguments.

Also, in terms of learning to use phrases like "always-already" and all of that stuff, I definitely don't think that it kills off someone's former least, not for everyone. Some folks are very, very conscious that it's a matter of speaking to a different audience, not a personal attack on them or how they talk or think. It's just like we teach our students to make rhetorical choices that resonate with particular audiences. Yes, it takes time to learn theory speak, but I just don't think that translates into losing an identity. This might be because I've taught every year of grad school except my first year, and have designed and taught my own courses the whole time, so at the same time I've been learning theory speak, I've also been required to speak in ways that are accessible to undergraduates, and that counts as being "successful" as an academic. So maybe that's why I never felt like learning to use a very specialized language was killing off some part of me.

Finally, I disagree that the violence you mention has to happen. There are faculty who don't reproduce it, who don't make you think the undergrad you was stupid, and who don't take that approach when mentoring grad students. The more you perpetuate the idea that it's necessary, the less visible it is for grad students that there are faculty who do not take that approach, and it doesn't have to be that way. Three people on my diss committee are examples of that, and my dissertation writing group regularly touches on how to critique without reproducing a language of pettiness and violence in our written work. There's a change brewing, and it's too bad that maybe it wasn't something you could access, but that doesn't mean it's just the way it is.