Friday, June 01, 2007

Remembrance of Things Past: Becoming an Academic

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.


Hilaire said...

What a great post. So right on.

I, for one, feel as if grad school really quashed some parts of me that I value, and that the quashing is kinda permanent...I just realized it this year, as I was teaching a lot of stuff that is like the writing I used to do, that I value - and also had great students doing that kind of writing. It made me sad - I don't really know how to undo the violence that grad school did...Although, come to think of it, I wonder if perhaps the paper I presented earlier this week was a bit of a return to that form, for me. And though it wasn't great, the paper, it's important because it symbolizes that return. Huh - interesting. Well, anyway, thanks for inspiring these new things to mull over!

Flavia said...

This description rings largely true to me. What I felt, all through grad school, was that I was never capable of doing the thing in front of me, and only long after that time had passed did I feel I could. So for example: just after passing my orals, totally stressed out about putting together a dissertation prospectus, I thought, "gee, I finally know enough that I could really feel confident in those seminars I took my first and second year! Why can't I just start over?" And then, after writing a crappy 60-page dissertation chapter, I thought, "God! I totally know how to write a 20-page seminar paper now. Why can't I be writing seminar papers? I'm not ready for chapters."

For a long time, I really thought that this was me--that I was just woefully underprepared for grad school, and that I should have gotten an MA first, or taken whatever undergrad classes all my classmates must have--those classes that seemed to have made them so smart and so confident.

But then I realized that this is just how grad school works. A bad seminar paper--and let's face it, most of them are pretty bad, looked at now--isn't a sign that you're an idiot, just as a good one isn't proof that you'll be able to write a dissertation or a book worth reading. You write seminar papers as practice, as a way to build skills. Nothing more. In that sense, grad school really is a long apprenticeship, though not a pleasant one. Thanks for sharing your own experience.

Britt said...

Thank you so much. Knowing that other people acknowledge these feelings is just what I needed to hear!

Earnest English said...

Yet again Dr. Crazy I think you've nailed it on the head. When I want to scare people, I say that grad school is like the military -- they break you down in order to build you anew. I do wonder if this is necessary. Is this because grad students need to cultivate a whole new identity in order to become scholars and teachers? Is there another way to do this? What role do opaque systems and seemingly-arbitrary hoops in which graduate students have little agency play in this? And what does this mean for the kind of people who make it through?

At some level, I do think that it's just part of the painful process of developing a new identity as a scholar and teacher. But I wonder if there are more humane systems of encouraging this kind of identity work.

I know that I like the person I've become, but I've lost things too. I almost don't remember that other person and will probably need some time to figure out what I've lost and gained. I hope I can keep in touch with the experience of grad school as well as you have, Crazy!

Anonymous said...

I think recognizing it for what it is helps. I had one professor who talked about grad school this way. He talked about things like seminars in terms of tennis. When you're learning tennis, you just go out and hit balls. You don't worry about doing it right, you just hit some balls as a way of practicing the vocabulary of motion. Only later do you start working on technique. That took a lot of pressure off the papers I wrote for him.

He also talked about grad school in terms of the complete breaking down of one's identity in order to build it again. He borrowed a lot of language from Buddhism to describe it (he is himself a Buddhist). Anyway, that has also been a helpful way for me to think during coursework and exams. It didn't solve every problem but it really did help me interpret my own experiences.

At the same time, he was the only one who talked that way and I haven't really been around him since I finished exams. That was about the time my advising relationship really started falling apart. Since then, I've felt more or less totally at sea in terms of interpreting what's happening to me. I sound like the total academic saying this and my pre-grad school self could not have made this sentence but I think developing a discourse that helps students narrative their own experiences in meaningful and helpful ways would be the first step toward humanizing the process.
And I don't mean a lot of useless crappy talk about work/life balance. I mean an honest discussion of the process you describe, a chance to reflect on who I am and am becoming.

is that why i blog?

Anonymous said...

narrativize, that should say.

Dr. Crazy said...

That's a perfect grad-school-enabled sentence, A., and I agree, and for me, it is a large part of the reason why I blog. Throughout grad school I kept a journal, but it did not serve the humanizing function that you describe, perhaps because of the inherent solipsism of the journal medium.

As for is this necessary? Hmmm... Well, I think it's necessary to realize that one doesn't know everything and that one doesn't necessarily have the whole "school" thing under control - and I think that's how the vast majority of grad students enter grad school - we've been good students all our lives, and somebody has to shake us and say, "guess what? that's not what this is about. Not at all." Can that be done in a way that's less... horrifying? maybe, but I can't think of a way that would have worked on ME that was less horrifying.

If others want to comment - don't hesitate! I'm really enjoying the discussion that's taking place, and I think that many might ultimately find it useful or comforting.

Sisyphus said...

Yep, some people liken it to the military, others, like Bill Pannapacker when he was the GSC president, compared it to a cult. It is a process of completely breaking down the self to rebuild it as a new one. Not only does it reshape how you think and bind you to the structures of power in the academy (where are all the fire-and-brimstone radicals? Ah yes, they quit the program halfway through because of the lack of overt political-ness) but it also grafts a new class identity on to you.

Having survived it this far, I'm pretty cool with it, like some academic version of hazing or child abuse: that was the way we did it in the old days, damnit, and you too should have to follow the tradition! I'm not sure it _can_ be done in a less violent and self-shattering way (which is why I mentioned that I resemble victims of Stockholm Syndrome). I'm also struck by talking to fellow grads a couple years below me and noticing how distressed and shattered they were by what I felt was an _easy_ process, comparatively; the fact taht they had more profs being helpful and non-intimidating and mentoring than I ever did didn't seem to make it easier for them. So is it a _structural_ mind fuck more than any specific incidents? Hmm.

Horace said...

This is required reading, I think, Dr. C. Listen I'm going to do a post that asks folks to plumb their archives for other "good advice for grad students" type posts. I know you have others in there...any chance you could email me with a few links?

psychphd (to be) said...

That was an amazing post - and as a first year grad student it was a real comfort to read.

V said...

I had to leave my economics program ABD because of major depression. I was not a shrinking violet; I had done my undergrad in a really good school and had been in the workforce for a while. However, graduate school made me feel intensely envious of dead people. The whole purpose of my graduate program seemed to be to figure out who would be the "most promising" and pretend that the rest did not exist. The most promising somehow happened to be white and male. Otherwise, to be part of that club, you had to engage regularly in a game of mine is bigger than yours while pretending it did not matter. I guess economics is not a good example since it is an unabashedly sexist field. However, there is something very sick about graduate school. I'm not going back, and it is their loss.

Dr. Crazy said...

V- I've heard similar tales from a friend of mine who's in a criminology PHD program. Look, as I said to my student, there is no shame in not finishing a PHD in whatever subject. Whatever the dynamics of the specific program, it's going to be fucked up. You're right: it is their loss.

undine said...

This does sound true, but don't you hope that, as faculty, you're not perpetuating this particular version of boot camp/sorority hazing? Don't we all try not to?

I am fascinated by the "does my job have meaning?" idea because for me, it always does: the God of Visa and American Express gives me a sense of meaning, every single month. And besides, don't we like our students? It sounds as though you care about them a lot, and most of us do, I think.

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, my situation, while not unique, is not universal, in that I teach at a university without grad students in my discipline. I'm expected to do all of the "let's celebrate students!" bit, but then I add in some, "hey, you should know this isn't what it will be if you go to grad school," for good measure, while not actually treating grad students like crap (not that I'd ever want to do that, but that it's not in my job description to do so, so I don't deserve any credit for not.) I suppose how I most often feel is like I've got to warn them that this can happen to them, because so many of my colleagues spin a version of this experience that elides the real horrors of what I experienced. So do I want to perpetuate it? No. But do I want students whom I support to go to the best graduate programs possible? Yes. And do I fear that they'll be chewed up and spit out if I don't tell them my horror stories? Yes. So maybe I'm equivocating, but I guess my thing is that I can't make the realities that I experienced not true, so I'd much rather tell my students about them than keep my students mystified, as I was.

And I agree that the God of Visa and American Express give me a sense of meaning every single month! I suppose the thing is, as far as talking to students goes, that I don't trust the people who actually teach graduate students to care for them (which probably is a horrible thing to say, but I think that's what I feel - I mean, there's a reason my student's emailing me about her worries and not her current professors). The students - the student that I was - don't go into it thinking about it as a job. They think about it as a vocation. And when they get beat down, sometimes they cannot hang, especially when in this field they can't necessarily expect a decent paycheck at the end of it.

undine said...

Yes, you're doing a good thing by telling them rather than leaving them to find out for themselves. I just wish that grad school was a little more like what they think it's going to be like and a little less like Lord of the Flies.

Earnest English said...

Hi all. I started a response to the perpetuating-the-grad-school-hazing question, but then it got so overblown and out of control, I finally just put the darn soapbox on my own darn blog:

In the time I took to wrote it, the convo has gone on. I really appreciate that we're talking about this. I think it's important that we all think about what we can do to make sure that we don't perpetuate the bad parts of our experience. One important thing to do is to warn students, as you do Crazy. But we also need to be sure to not justify the awful parts of grad school. We need to do something about it. More on this on my blog.

David said...

Fantastic discussion. I was quite involved in the grad student organization and every year we would warn the first-years about how miserable they would all feel at the end of first quarter and then again at the end of the second year of the masters program when they were trying to finish up their degrees and the big research papers and such. It doesn't really change from year to year. I've been in the kind of program where the discussion of the 'year off' happens quite often. Some take between undergrad and grad, some wait until between MA and Phd and most actually make it the rest of their lives. But to talk to U/G or MA students and tell its okay to take a year off and to see the relief on their faces is pretty amazing. The faculty will often hint at it for students who seem unprepared, but to hear from their fellow students gives them a space to step away without feeling like being a failure. That is of course what all of grad school is about, never become the person who failed, particularly in a spectacular way. The one who didn't pass their MA exams, or their doctoral exams, or what have you.

I personally have been through a couple experiences where the purpose was to tear you down and remake you. My high school did that and grad school did that. My U/G didn't, and I came away feeling like I wasted a lot of time and wasn't that much better for it.

Professor Zero said...

This is a fascinating post which I will come back to and read more slowly, and think about. My experience in graduate school was not like this - it was the first time in my life I had *not* been debased etc. (except, well, undergrad, but the thing was in undergrad, they didn't know me - in grad school they did know me and were *still* not mean, it was amazing!) - but if it is the common experience then that *really* explains a lot of what I have been seeing, and not understanding, since - !

Professor Zero said...

And hmm, also really briefly ... Lord of the Flies, I find that professordom is a lot like that and it still really surprises me, I have not reconciled myself to it. As in, it is the reason I have seriously considered quitting, for years: I do not like to spend my days around people who behave in this manner. It taints me and hiding inside books is not enough of an antidote. But if people get specifically trained to it in graduate school then that explains a lot, and I can be a little more understanding/charitable about it.

Is it an American thing I wonder? I went to graduate school on the Pacific Coast and abroad, and there were just a few people who acted the way you describe ... always from the U.S./Northeast. They were assistant professors and we used to ascribe it to that - nerves and all, and perhaps no social life in high school, we said cattily - and we called it "junior faculty syndrome." It was worse in men than in women and the worst cases were found in Princeton PhDs, we discerned at the time. Very many of my professors were foreign and did not act like that. I mean, they were serious and tough and all, but not immature jerks.

But then when I started working these jobs (East of the Rockies, and in the U.S., but maybe it isn't regional after all) "junior faculty syndrome" seemed to be the rule rather than the exception, and it did not go dormant with tenure.

But: seeing this post and the discussion makes me think - aha, at last I understand it - what I see as this useless, needless, and destructive hazing starts *in grad school* for many people and is part and parcel of the whole deal ... ?

Knowing this, I understand a lot more about what is going on and what the nature of the universe I am in, is ... and it is therefore easier to figure out how to deal.

Thanks for posting and for letting me rant!!!

adjunct whore said...

thank you thank you, dr. crazy. it is so important, i think, to demystify grad school....when i was applying, i had a few professors say quite frankly not to do it because of the job prospects. one in particular gave me advice that i have never forgotten--he said it isn't the smartest people who finish and get jobs, those people are almost always abd for life--finish if you start. he also said not to worry if you don't go to yale, harvard, et al, that often times these students do *not* get jobs over state school educated doctoral students.

and finally, flavia's remarks resonate with me utterly: you're always one to two steps behind, which means everything we do, for the first time, we do blind and horrified. so i just defended my dissertation and by the end i finally knew how to write one. so silly but those above us (like you ass. profs for me) continue to generously advice the next level and thank god for that.

Clara said...

I would like to comment as someone coming from a different cultural perspective, being a German grad student in American literature at a German university. A lot in your post, Dr. Crazy, resonated with me and so did the discussion here. What surprised me, however, is that most of you seem to regard the "institutionalized" aspects as rather negative and pressuring. For me, even though I understand the feelings, this seems rather ironic, since we here in Germany usually lament the total lack of institutionalization and feedback in our Ph.D. programs--here, it is very common to have a meeting with your advisor about very 4 to 6 months as your only response to your work. In my experience, being so on your own fosters the very same feelings of inability and "not-readyness" that you described.

I have been working on my dissertation for roughly two years now, and I slowly start to gain more confidence as I am beginning to see some kind of progress in my work. It has taken incredibly long and it has been painful, anxiety-causing and depressing most of the time. Probably, there is more of this to come. Still, I think I wouldn't want to miss the experience and so far, I believe that I have grown rather than been crushed--both as a scholar and as a person.
Ultimately, I think there is very little you can do about the external conditions to make it less painful. It is important to get all the help that you can get and find support inside and outside university, get your time management right etc. But the actual work on the diss you have to do by yourself and in the end, it's the pain that makes you stronger, and better in your work.

Jane Dark said...

This is a really excellent post, and thank you for articulating it. I'm curious, though -- am I correct in thinking that you went straight from undergrad into graduate school? I worked for four years in between the two, and the experience of becoming a professional clerical employee was similarly traumatic in a lot of ways (though not all). And the transition into graduate school was nearly painless, because I'd learned so much. So the post I have up now is about realizing the similarities between graduate academia and the professional corporate culture.

Neophyte said...

It took me a while to process this (read: talk myself down from the roof), as I'm entering an M.A. in the fall and have my eyes on a not-too-distant Ph.D. Now that I've processed it, thank you.

LK said...

I'm still reading through some of the comments so I will only record a couple thoughts here... since I just finished my Ph.D. (last week). It took me forever, I quit half-way through & was well on my way to a very nice non-profit management career. And then I realized that in order to be me I have to do research & teaching. Maybe a simplistic definition of being an academic, but... I love ideas, I live & die for ideas, I firmly believe a poem has inherent value and can change the world, and it seems to me being an academic is still the best job where one can practise these kinds of beliefs. And if the system of academia has become skewed against that, it's broken, and leaving it behind will not help to make it better.

What Dr. Crazy and others have said about losing yourself or at least a part of yourself to get through grad school is what resonated with me. I was able to return to grad school once I found myself again, and could write as myself again, with my ideas and - largely - my words.

I always felt that most of my problems stemmed from the fact that I was not, in fact, ever really a good student. I suck at following directions, always did, even when I was very little. I've gotten good grades only when I cared deeply about course and its subject, which (very sadly) is perhaps no longer an entirely viable method for getting through school for someone who is an undergraduate now, or even entering grad school now. This really worries me, as I think it shows the most worrisome parts of corporate culture creeping in on the world of ideas. I mean the kind of corporate culture that's all about the sales pitch, with interchangeable, identically clothed employees, pointlessly long hours and a feverish pursuit of constantly growing productivity, largely measured by the degree to which you appear to be productive towards others. It means far too much focus on appearing to fit in rather than the substance of what people do.

Matt said...

Oh gosh, thank you so much Dr. Crazy. A friend sent me this within a few days of finishing my first year of a Masters and I couldn't even look at it till now, having had a severe case of "who is this person (me) and why has one year of graduate school completely unlearned them from how to, say, read, or, say, write stuff." And to not believe a friendly compliment when it happened. It was so bad that I began to dread reading anything at all because it would just be one more example of an approach or thought that I hadn't be able to come up with and wouldn't know what to do with if I had. I hadn't pictured it quite as being broken down to be built up again, but that makes a lot of sense to. So long undergrad self.

deanna szabo said...

What a wonderful blog. LK! Agree & identify with so many of your comments!!! I'm in the middle of a Master of Teaching in Melbourne, Australia and am considering pursuing an academic career. *Considering*. I have problems with the modern workplace- exactly as you say- business world values encroaching on academia/knowledge/ideas. Ideas should have nothing to do with money.