Saturday, June 2, 2007

The Spoon and the Knife: Entering Graduate School

When Horace over at To Delight and to Instruct called for people to post advice about grad school, I was immediately suffused with so many ideas that they formed a logjam and I was unable to write on any of them (Oooh ooh ooh! Tell them about funding! No, the market! No the lack of social life! How not to write a seminar paper! ooh ooh ooh!).

But Dr Crazy has brilliantly cut through all that to go to the heart of things, the most fundamental and serious change that occurs in grad school: the reshaping of one’s identity from that of student to adult academic. And this is, I think, the hardest part to survive, or even really, truly get your head around. And I don’t know that telling anyone about it or giving them advice will help them “get it.” It may have to be experienced to be understood. (For example, in grad school (although not when I was first applying to grad school, I should note) I was told constantly how bad the job market is, and how unlikely it was that I would get any position, much less a cushy one at a research school in a beautiful location, but this did not sink in --- I rationalized it away --- until I actually tried to go on the market. So too might prospective grad students not truly hear the advice we are giving until they actually go through this process.)

As an undergrad, I took a class on a certain author and read a Very Big and Crazy Mindfuck of a novel. The professor liked to say that when you embark on an experience as big and strange as this, it changes how you think. It literally remaps neurons and synaptic connections in your brain. (I loved that idea; it fits so well with the book. Of course, thinking about it now I note that intensely training for a marathon, or doing calculus problems, or making burritos all day for an entire quarter probably also drastically changes one’s neurons, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.) This seems to be an appropriate metaphor for how anywhere from five to ten years of intense schooling, culminating in completing a book of original research, will change one’s self image, one’s way of thinking, and one’s very identity.

For one thing, you will be reading large quantities of theoretical writings that will remap how you think about identity and how self-conscious you are about it. I was recently browsing through some discarded academic journals in the mailroom and found an article that describes this process well in Pedagogy* (vol. 5 no 1, Winter 2005), by Calvin Thomas, “Moments of Productive Bafflement, or Defamiliarizing Graduate Studies in English,” where he was talking about how one has to have a certain level of masochism in order to contemplate the idea of oneself as a broken, contingent, decentered subject as it is described in psychoanalysis and poststructuralism. It’s true. After you learn that you are a node in an institutional machine, determined by your place in history and larger structures of psychology and language, it is hard to think of yourself as a unique individual who has been the same essence and personality ever since she was Cleopatra in a previous life (can you tell I have some hippies in my class this quarter? Freakin’ hippies. Why were they all Cleopatra or an Indian princess in their previous lives, and not some random peasant living in squalor?)

So anyway, you go off to grad school thinking “I love reading and I want to talk about how great literature is!” (chirpy voice here) as Dr. Crazy puts it, the “good student” who wants to please and to be good, and when you get to grad school you encounter a lot of challenges to this way of thinking simultaneously:
  • you have to work harder to get by than you did as an undergraduate (just as our students are often shocked that the same amount of work they put in for high school will not enable them to pass a college class).
  • you suddenly have to learn how to teach (or teach yourself how to teach, depending on how good, bad, or nonexistent your TA training or pedagogy courses are).
  • you may have to compete for scarce funding. You definitely have to compete for scarce attention, as profs are busy and will take on a limited number of students. Your performance in seminars and your ability to “talk the talk” of other grad students that you find so alienating will have an effect on your success here.
  • you are expected to find your place in “the academic debates” (that you may not have even known existed prior to grad school) and to become conversant with everything that has happened since the Theory Explosion of the late 60s (you probably did not even know yet that this happened). When looking at these debates, you discover that love of literature and the “great works of literature” model have not been “in” academically for generations now, and that you will have to read works “against the grain” as much as you accept the strategies of the Author (who is dead, by the way).
And most confusingly, every time you try to talk about this confusion with a professor, or ask for help or the “right way” to be doing something, you will be gently but firmly told to go wrestle it out yourself. The entirety of grad school is a long process whereby profs take the training wheels off your bicycle and tell you to try it on your own. This brings me, at long last, to my title. Undergraduates want, to varying degrees, to be spoon-fed. Just tell me the right way to do it, they say. Just tell me what you want. Why wasn’t that spelled out on the syllabus? Will that be on the test? These questions come out of fear, fear and the anxiety about getting it right. Grad school is new and different and confusing and I think we all have similar fears about doing what “they” want, doing everything the "right" way. We want to be spoon-fed, to be told exactly what to do. But grad school, leaving aside for a moment the lack of paying jobs on the other end, is training you to become a professor, an adult. Someone who is self-directed and self-motivated. Someone who can figure things out for herself. Someone who leads, who teaches others. If grad school taught us with the spoon method, we would be completely ineffectual at the professor level; we would crash and burn.

We may want, at least unconsciously, to be spoon-fed, to have things easy while in grad school, and instead they hand us a swiss army knife and tell us to hack our own way through the jungle.

(this would be psychoanalytic theory. This, Marxist-feminist analysis. The Foucault doohickey will be incredibly useful for navigating the institution of the university itself. Is it taking a long time to cut down that tree? Hello, you came in with an entire cohort. Why are you going it alone rather than sharing the work?).

Of course grad school is not easy, and there is no magic way to get through it easily; telling you all this will not make it easy or any less of a severe psychic change. But I hope that being ready for this will make it less of a wrenching shock.

Now, to what extent is it fucked-up that grad school is this way, and to what extent is this structurally necessary? Ah, and how fucked-up is it that as grad students and adjuncts and new professors we have to turn to blogs to get this kind of mentoring, warning, and helpful advice for how to be academics? That will be the subject of another post.

*In going back to actually find the name and title I was struck by how much interesting stuff was in Pedagogy, especially the reviews, which were of books about teaching, graduate school, unionization and contingent labor --- good stuff; you should all get on your proxy servers and check it out. But articles behind a library institution wall will not help those who are still planning to go to grad school, and so I think our advice here, for free and easy access on the web, is still very important.


Dr. Crazy said...

This is a really, really fabulous post, Sis. 1. I LOVE the swiss army knife metaphor :) and 2. I really love the bullet points you offer, especially the last one. That is what ALL students considering going to grad school in English should read, and read twice.

Jane Dark said...

Splendid post. And thank you for the link to the Pedagogy article, as well.

Tiruncula said...

Over here from ee's place to fangirl your visual metaphorics and especially the fabulous purple-osity of your blog.

*is beginng to think she didn't have her identity adjusted in grad school because she had such a thoroughgoingly 19th-century-style training*

undine said...

Very true--and how apt that you chose for the analogy a tool that is also a weapon.

Sisyphus said...

Hooray for commenters! Thanks everybody.

Undine: all tools can also be weapons; I remember this from reading Scarry's _The Body in Pain_ as part of my "hello you're in grad school let's blow your mind now" process.

Tiruncula: I agree, what could be better than purpleosity? Not much. And I first read _Discipline and Punish_ and _Jane Eyre_ in the same grad seminar, so I quaver in fear of your nineteenth-century style training.

And thank you Jane and Dr. Crazy --- I'll have to post a follow-up about what reading for the field exams did to me, now that we're on the subject of reading books for the love of it.

Horace said...

Great Post...I'll definitely be including this one in the compendium...