God, how pretentious I am to allude to Proust in a blog post title. But whatever, it came to mind, and it really does work as a headline for what I want to write about, even though what I want to write about has absolutely nothing to do with Proust.
But so anyway, the two... things (I know, awesome word choice) that inspire this post:
1. I have been back in touch with a former student who is finishing up her first year of an MA program. She's wigging. Like seriously wigging. You know the drill, oh people who've been through the first year of an MA program: What does it all mean? Why am I doing this to myself? Why did they accept me? How am I supposed to please these people? Who am I? (And for those of you in English) Why do people even study literature anyway? Poetry makes nothing happen! The whole fucked up drill. Clearly, they're doing their number on her - by the time she's done she should have a raging case of impostor syndrome (if she doesn't already) as well as to feel like somebody beat the shit out of her. I warned her, but those warnings, oh, they go unheeded. But so anyway, I've tried to give her some uplifting advice, and also to ease her fears about a seminar paper she's writing.
2. Inspiring thing #2 is that I'm hard at work on my own paper, a paper for a conference that happens every year but that I've not attended in 8 years. This conference was my first conference (when I was but a babe of 21), and this conference generated my first publication (thank you, undergraduate thesis adviser who edited that collection), and it was really my first entrance into the profession. And I went to this conference year after year, and then I bailed. Because I had to. Now I'm making my grand return (a return that will only be grand to me, but whatever). I should also proudly note that I've got a solid page and a half of said conference paper written, and pages of notes, so this bastard should be done in the next day or two.
[Aside: The Run DMC song "Tricky" just came on the iPod shuffle. Wow, is that an awesome song.]
But so anyway, both of the above have had me thinking a lot about this process of becoming an academic - my process, the process of my student - and about how one wakes up one day and suddenly those things that once seemed so HUGE - a seminar paper, a conference paper - now feel... small. How did I get to this point? Am I glad that I'm at this point?
I've long believed that the thing that graduate school does, really, is to break you down and to turn you into a completely different person. That this, and not what you read and not the ideas that you have, is the point. Sure, you pick up some skills along the way, but really, my experience was typified by the total abasement of who I thought I was in favor of this person, "the academic," that being admitted to graduate school meant I was supposed to become. Perhaps that's overstating it, but that's how it felt. I am not the same person that I was upon being admitted into my MA program. In large part, that's because if I would have stayed that person, I would not have survived.
As I watch my student progress through this process, I see how it is working on her, in ways both good and bad. When one thinks, "I'll go to graduate school," one really doesn't realize the physical, mental, and emotional toll that graduate school will take. One thinks of it as an extension of undergrad. Except that most undergraduate education is typified by a model for education that is about fostering the development of students, about bringing out the best qualities in them, showing students how to find those things within themselves that make them great and to hone those great things and to praise students for their accomplishments. It's a model of celebration, not a model of degradation. Graduate school? In my experience, well, graduate education is more about degradation. Graduate school was not about becoming the best me but about throwing all of that out the window and becoming somebody else. In fact, I was supposed to learn that Undergraduate Me was unsophisticated and reductive and a little bit stupid, and so really, I should be embarrassed to have been her. Undergraduate Me had to take a long walk off a short pier and Graduate Student Me had to replace her.
So the first thing you "learn" is that you suck. Or that maybe you had some raw material that was interesting, but that ultimately, the raw material on its own wouldn't get you very far. So then you "learn" to talk the talk. You have the same crappy ideas, but you learn how to use words like "deploy" and "bifurcate" and "performativity" and "liminality" and "always-already" and you throw some of those in for good measure, and they dress up your crappy ideas enough to get you through. But you still feel like you suck. But then you read more, and all of a sudden you're not dressing up your crappy ideas with those words but you're actually thinking in those words, and your ideas become more complex and you begin to become secure that you're not only talking the talk but also that you can walk the walk. And then you make fun of those dumb first-years who are SOOOO pedestrian. And you learn to talk yourself down in order to really make yourself look more productive and intimidatingly smart. And you only make jokes that include the wittiest of references, and yes, it's all very tedious, but that's how you survive.
And then, if you're me, you finish with this phase, and you begin to remember who "you" are again. And while you throw off some of that pretentious bullshit, you can't fully be the person you were before. You come into a new being, that is both you and not you - not you, and not-not you. (See what I mean about learning how to talk the talk?) And you wake up one day, and you're writing a conference paper for a conference that you first attended 11 years ago, when you were a lass of 21 and when you'd only just graduated from undergrad and had only just been accepted into an MA program. And you remember how that first time you were so NERVOUS and how you had no idea how to write a conference paper (or, in that case, to edit down some crap from your thesis into a conference paper), and you were afraid of all the Important People who might be in the audience and who might Rip You to Shreds? And then you realize who you are now, that you're a person who is no longer freaked out. The only angst you have comes from the fact that you have an idea that's too big for a 15 minute conference paper, and so you've got to write "tight" and that's irritating. And sure, Important People might come to see you speak, but you know those people now, and you know that they don't generally Rip People to Shreds. And even if they did, you were already Ripped to Shreds in graduate school, and so you know how to put the kibosh on that sort of thing either by making the haters feel small or by disarming them with charm and humor. And so really, writing a conference paper now isn't some Huge Mountain to climb but rather a vaguely interesting and also vaguely irritating chore.
And then you think about your former student, and the seminar paper she's writing, and you talk to your BFF about it and you both come up with about 4 different approaches that would have the potential to be totally interesting, all of which you're fairly certain that your former student won't take, but you also know that she's got to do it her way, that she's got to move through it to the point where, as a person who has become "an academic" she can sit laughing with her "academic" BFF that they would totally rock out an A on that seminar paper in a student's MA program if it were their assignment. Guffaw! Chuckle!
See, that's the thing. All these hoops you jump through - at the time they seem tiny and ringed in fire. And then, as you leap through them, and look back at them, those hoops seem wide and danger-free, like easy targets. But the problem is, when you're looking forward to those hoops, you can't see them from that future perfect vantage point. You don't realize that when you will have jumped through them, that jumping through the hoops, meeting those seemingly arbitrary goals, hitting those markers, will give you confidence. And after you do those things, you're no longer the bright-eyed undergraduate who thought, "Oh, I'd really like to go to graduate school. I really love books." And in some ways you miss being that bright-eyed undergraduate, but you can't get her back. You know too much.
And so what is my hope for my former student? I don't know. I hope that it doesn't change her in ways that do an irrevocable violence to her. I hope that she can come out feeling like she knows who she is, or like she's equipped to find out who she is again. I hope that she doesn't get beaten down to the point that she can't pick herself back up again. I hope that at some point she realizes that all of this is part of it, and that the feelings of insecurity or inadequacy that she feels are not because she is inadequate or because she is not up to the task but rather because that's what graduate school makes you feel. I hope she learns how to demand the help that she needs from the faculty in that department without feeling ashamed or embarrassed. I hope that she comes through it basically in one piece.
I wrote the bulk of this post last night, and I was interrupted by a friend who called up late - a friend who is also a professor, but who already has tenure - who's going through a bit of an existential crisis related to all of the "what's the point in being an academic?" "nothing matters anyway, so why even bother?" "why do I care about teaching people who don't want to learn?" etc. So the shit that goes with the decision to become an academic, it doesn't end. No, the choice to become an academic affects one for a good long while, in ways that can really fuck a person up. And as much as I feel like I'm pretty well adjusted given everything, I don't want to come off like I'm not all fucked up, too. Because I am. This career fucked up romantic relationships I had in my 20s and into my 30s. It means that I have friends scattered all over the country and the world and yet I have like only one real, true friend where I live, and really, a person needs friends and support where they live. It means that my family will never really understand what I do for a living and I will always feel guilty for living far away, for not having a husband and a kid (not that I'll never have those -hope springs eternal- but that I haven't figured that shit out already, like a "normal" person, at the wizened old age of 32), whatever. That's not to say it's all bad, but it is fucked up nonetheless.
But would I trade what I've chosen in order not to be fucked up in those ways? No, I wouldn't. And maybe that means that they really did a number on me, that I was naive enough to believe the lie. But what I'd like to believe is that it is ultimately worth something, to have become this person. And most of the time, I do.
5 years ago