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.
2 years ago