Monday, March 09, 2009

Grad School Makes a Snob of Us All, But Usually I Fight the Impulse

Except for when I don't, that is.

Here's the thing. The place where I did my Ph.D. is not the most highly ranked school in the whole world. It's not too shabby, but in terms of those Big Lists of Where Programs Rank, it's not one of the ones featured in the top 10 or even in the top 25. Now, there are lots of reasons for this, few of which have to do with placement of its grads in t-t positions or with the success of its Ph.D.s once they end up on the tenure track. Basically, those big lists are based entirely on surveys, and since my program is a small one (because as far back as when I was admitted in 1997 they were already limiting the number of people that they admitted to fit how many people they could fully fund for 4 years, which meant my entering cohort numbered a whopping 6 or 7 people, if memory serves) and because the department itself has just one or two people covering each primary field in literary study (as opposed to having a slew of faculty for each specialization, so yes, I took classes all over the map during coursework and never TAd for a professor in my actual field), well, it's not necessarily going to do the greatest by the standards of the ranking people. That said, I was surprised to realize only after I'd gotten in just how stiff the competition is to get admitted to this program, and I was surprised to realize after I graduated just how highly people seem to regard me once they find out where I did the Ph.D. Anecdotally, I can tell you that the highest praise I've heard about the program is that it turns out, without fail, original scholars - scholars who aren't just shadowing their mentors but who really do independently interesting work. I can also tell you that as of when I finished the program (not sure about the stats now), my program placed more of its grads in t-t positions within 3 years than did Harvard (a number 1 program according to those who rank).

Now, I give all of this background to indicate a few different things. First, I'd never have applied there if I'd realized how good of a program it was. I went to a mediocre regional university for undergrad (unranked), and stepped up to what at the time was a top 75 grad program at a large urban public for the MA (they've since risen in the rankings). My Ph.D. program was a "reach" but I thought at the time that it was a reasonable one. (Apparently, after being on the wait list and somebody cooler than me passing their offer up, it was. But looking back now, I'd never have applied there.) So, I wasn't naturally inclined to snobbery, or to thinking that I was "worthy" of ending up at a top institution. Second, though, this was a grad program in the Northeast, and its faculty did think quite highly of themselves (and rightly so, I should add). So whatever my inclinations before I entered the Ph.D. program, I did learn how to be a snob there. I learned the difference in how people treated me with Fancy U. on my nametag at conferences, and I learned from my peers, who had gone to Ivys and Elite SLACS for undergrad, to look upon those in Lesser Programs with derision. (Needless to say, I didn't mention my humble beginnings much.) And I learned from my mentors what "real scholarship" is "supposed" to look like, and to perform scathing critiques of anything that didn't fit that model.

So, ending up at my current institution in a tenure-track gig meant I needed a bit of an attitude adjustment. I mean, first of all, that institutional affiliation on my nametag doesn't inspire people to chat me up anymore, unless they want to ask about how I'm surviving living in a place where people have three teeth, don't wear shoes, and marry their cousins. (Note: I'm actually in an urban area, but this is the stereotype of the whole state, an unfair one.) Second, my students are so not about the snobbery. Not only is it just not part of their m.o. personally, but also they will call you out on it if you display it in their presence. And not in a good way. Third, in order to be happy here, I had to stop caring quite so much about where I "rank" and where my students "rank." That's not to say that I don't push myself (I do) or my students (they'd probably be the first to tell you that I push them far more than they would like), but I push myself because I still have ideas that I'd like to pursue, and I push my students because I want them to have ideas. All of that rankings static doesn't mean much to me, in my current role. And yet, sometimes that educated snobbery rears its ugly head.

I was having a meeting a while back with BES about her senior thesis. (Incidentally, she's doing tremendously interesting work, but WOW am I needing to play mind games with her to get her to do it! She's pulling all of the things I remember pulling when I was dissertating - the freaking out, the avoidance, the anger, the refusal to revise, the apologies, the feelings of inadequacy, the elation.... all of it. It's very exhausting to go through this again from the other side.) Now, let's note that I'm pushing her to do work beyond what I really would expect her to do for a senior thesis. She can do more than that, so why not encourage (read: force) her to do that, right? She says she wants grad school, so better to let her know that expectation now than later, right? (Note: I've also let her know that she's already far exceeded the bar for a senior thesis, so I'm not totally sadistic here. She claims, on good days, that she wants to be pushed further.) But so anyway. We were having this meeting, and she'd recently returned to the secondary criticism to beef up her claims, and she mentioned that she came across this article that by the title had seemed like it would be awesome, but when she read it, the person was doing all of the things that I always tell her not to do, and she totally thought that it sucked and totally got why I tell her not to do those things because she hated reading something by somebody else who was doing them.

Now, good professor that I am, I wanted to know what the article was. I wanted to be sure that she wasn't just setting up a straw man (or lady) but that she was really engaging critically. I really didn't start off thinking that I was doing anything more than that. So she showed me the citation. And this is when the beastie of my Inner Grad-School-Educated Snob reared its ugly head. I should note that this only was possible because BES and I are "friends" of a sort, and so I sometimes forget that she's my "student" per se, but rather think of her as a junior colleague. This is no excuse for what follows, but it is an explanation.

First, I saw where the person had published the offending article. Before I even knew what I was saying, I dismissed the article because "that's not a real journal - everybody knows that." I then went on to explain all of the reasons why it's not a "real" journal. (Let's just note for the record that I've published in venues that aren't rigorously peer-reviewed, though they are important venues in my specific areas of interest, and while I'd argue that these are more meritorious than the journal that so offended me, others might say the exact same thing about places I've published.) Where things got out of control was that I then looked up the article in a database, and said, "Oh GOD! You're so right! This is awful!" which wouldn't necessarily have been the worst thing in the world to do, but then I proceeded to google the writer of the article.

I know. I'm a total asshole. And yet, the universe rewarded my googling with a wealth of information. The author received hir Ph.D. from an unranked institution, all of hir publications were of similarly low quality, and ze worked at a religiously affiliated institution (think statement of faith) in, well, I'll just say it, in Texas. I then waxed catty about all of the ways in which this piece of scholarship was wrong, based on the fact of it, and explained how the fact of it was underwritten by all of the googled information.

It was at this moment that Awesome Colleague from Another Department (ACAD from this point forward, and let's just say that she also has an awesome baby - well, toddler - who loves 90s dance music and will burst into song with lyrics like "Girl.... booty round... I just wanna... down" at the dinner table, and he is, indeed, also bilingual, and he is AWESOME) called across the hallway (her office is across from mine, and our doors were open), "CRAZY! I can't believe you! [guffaw] I never knew you had it in you!"

This brought me back to my senses, and I explained to BES that I'm a snob, and a bad person, and that this is why you don't want to go to graduate school, because seriously, it can instill such jerkitude in a person who is, like me, without couth. BES, sweet student that she is, said, "Dr. Crazy! You were just being honest! And I hated the article before you told me all of that!" And I said, "You shouldn't encourage me! I am not a generous person! I am bad!"

And then we giggled. Indeed. She and I giggled together. I have encouraged her through my bad behavior to emulate my bad tendencies. It's really quite sick. And it's exactly what happened to me throughout my education. I thought such horrifying snobbery was "cool." It is so not cool!

But then, in all of the rage-inducing curricular nonsense, what I realize is that while I may exhibit bad behavior that looks like (and even is) snobbishness from time to time, I'm not, ultimately, an actual snob. Actual snobs are about keeping people out. They're about keeping things "exclusive." What I'm about is not that. I'm actually totally about inclusivity. Now, I'll admit: a prejudice reared its ugly head when I saw the journal in which the article was published. But all of the subsequent info that I got - the institutional affiliation and institution that granted the Ph.D. - all of that wouldn't have mattered if when I saw the article I would have judged it awesome. All of that other stuff was ultimately secondary to my judgment of the article. This is not to diminish the ways in which I am a jerk, or to justify them, but it is to say that I made my judgment long before I found out more information about the author. The information that I found out confirmed my judgment, but it didn't make it for me.

What actual snobbishness is, in my recent experience, has nothing to do with how the snob (so-called) perceives the quality of scholarship or knowledge or teaching or anything else. It doesn't have to do with where an object of derision publishes, nor does it have to do with what that person publishes. Actual snobbishness has to do with trading on your grad program (highly ranked) as a way of putting yourself above other people (colleagues), even though you've not developed more than 5 new courses in your time at this institution (6+ years) and even though you've published in a fashion that is mediocre for this institution and inadequate for any instituion with more prestige. But you went to a fancy grad program! You're special! You know more than any of your colleagues, junior or senior, even if those people whom you claim to know more than have published books, went to excellent grad programs, teach amazing and innovative courses! All of the work that those people are doing, well, it just doesn't really count, does it? Because you've got this pedigree from an institution of rank. (And yes, I'm using rank here with the connotation of stinky firmly in my mind. Although, I'll say this, one of my most awesome mentors - unaccountably - got her Ph.D. at the same place. So all things are not created equal, even in this instance. In other words, the issue here is not the program. It's how people who went through the progam are using the fact that they did so for their own ends.)

I still feel badly about inviting BES into my snobbery in the way that I did. I don't think that it was necessary, or that I really taught her very much by doing that. If I had it to do over, I would probably have validated her sense that the article wasn't good, but I wouldn't have gone to the efforts that I did to diss the writer of that article. That was lame of me. It's not something I'd like to repeat, nor is it something that I'm proud of.

That said? If I've got to be a snob, I'd rather be the kind that exerts that tendency toward making my students do better. I'd rather be the kind that doesn't think that the fact that I went to X grad school means shit; I'd rather think that I'm the kind who thinks that what matters is her book. I'd so much rather care about making something new out of what I've learned than about remaking what I myself experienced as a student, as if that is "the best," just by virtue of it being what I myself experienced. Sure, doing something new might be a mistake. But isn't making a new mistake better than perpetrating an old one upon one's students? Just because it's the done thing? Just because you need to validate your own experience? And authorizing that with your pedigree? That's being an actual snob. And that's not what I am.

Perhaps I'm just a recreational snob? Yep. I think that's about right. But at least I am sensible enough to know that even recreational snobbery sucks.


Brigindo said...

I wouldn't label that as snobbery. I get what you're saying about "bad" behavior in front of BES, but quite frankly we're all human and sometimes we show our human side in front of students. I don't really think that is so bad.

But also bad scholarship is bad scholarship and it often ends up in lower tier journals--as it should. I think giving students clues to what is and isn't acceptable scholarship (which she seemed to know already) is a good thing. But no, not what I'd call snobbery.

Good Enough Woman said...

As a beginning (but older) Ph.D. student, I'm curious to hear a list of the things that the article did that you hate. A brief list, perhaps?

jennyfields said...

I want to comment on the post. However, I have some arbitrary things to say just now.

You describe my people. Your stereotypes are telling. We may be close...

I wish you were my honors thesis adviser. Mine is so busy. I feel like I'm at the bottom of her list. I feel bad when I want time with her. Feel like I'm always intruding. I've written most of my thesis on my own so far.

What you have with BES sounds lovely. I would like to have that kind of relationship with a mentor sometime.

Anonymous said...

this is relevant to my current post, (which says almost nothing, actually, but that I'm conflicted about the class I'm teaching), because one of the reasons I'm not thrilled with the current class I'm teaching is that the course description is wrong in a way I've been taught not to be wrong by my grad institution. People from my grad institution are taught to practice the discipline in a specific way, owing to certain core assumptions.

The thing is, I'm not sure all of that translates very well to a regional comprehensive. The point of the lower level courses at my grad institution is to initiate students into the field as such (as the department thinks it should be practiced). Here, it's much more about exposure to new information/ideas. In the former case, there's a presumption that students already have *some* basic information--and generally, they do. And in that case, the way the course is taught here would not work, practically or intellectually.

Here, though, they need that first exposure because they haven't had it, so the course serves a different function, which makes its form understandable, if not particularly desirable.

Even though I can articulate that, I still feel this sort of righteous indignation that I have to teach it when the very premise of the course is against my training. I do think if I were in this institution long-term, I would work to make certain changes. And yet...partly what I need is to get over it, I think.

at the moment, that leaves me feeling like this is the last place on earth I want to work long term.

The Steel Magnolia said...

I second Good Enough Woman. I'm not sure I've done a great job directing senior papers, so I'd love to see a list.

AcadeMama said...

I think the episode between you and BES is much less about snobbery than you might think. Rather, I think what BES did reflects a developmental progression in academic reading and thinking. That is, I think that, as graduate students, we start our MA programs still learning how to read critically and take into account other scholars contributions as ones that are often affected by personal, political, and/or methodological agendas. Figuring out what a particular critic is saying in an article is relatively easy (most of the time), but figuring out how and why they're saying it, what methodological assumptions are being made or ignored in the process, and paying attention to the sophistication and technique of a scholar's research practices (or lack thereof) takes much, much longer. In fact, I didn't completely grasp this stage until I began researching for my dissertation--better late than never :) I remember reading articles or book chapters and *knowing* that the research was a bit shallow or that the writer's argument wasn't terribly sophisticated or that important textual evidence had been ignored. I started noticing a pattern in the "bad scholarly work" that eventually corresponded to the kinds of journals you mention in your post, and it actually helped me feel a bit better about my own work. Not because of where I'm training or who I'm training under (a rock star in my field). I felt better because it seemed like if I could notice these things in the scholarly work of others, then I should be able to see and prevent these elements in my own work. It made me feel like, "Hey, if this crap can get published, then I know my work can too!"

I guess this is a long way of saying that it seems like BES has learned to differentiate strong scholarly work from weak or ineffective scholarly work, and this is a required skill for being an academic. Kudos to you and other faculty members for helping her learn this skill at such an early stage.

Jonathan said...

I'm also quite curious about what type of journal you're talking about here. It seems as if it were found via an index, such as MLA, so I assume that it is a scholarly journal, just not a very good one? And you told your student that "everybody knows" that this is the case? I think I'm pretty well informed about various scholarly journals, and I'm even in the same field, and it's not clear to me what you're thinking of. (Though, given the title, I could very well have the same reaction.)

undine said...

This is fascinating. I've never looked up anyone by institution and grad school, but there are some journals where, after reading more than 5-10 articles from them, I've decided that they don't rigorously screen the things they publish.