Monday, June 4, 2007

On Grad School, or, Somehow this turned into a substantive post

[Note: Because this ended up being a rather long post about grad school and Its Effects, I'm linking to Horace's Call For Posts on the subject.]

[ETA: I've edited and added a bit below, because I realized that what I wrote originally about grad school may have been overstated, and didn't exactly express what I was trying to say.]

All right, I don't really have much to say, because I haven't actually been doing much of, well, anything. But my readership has dropped precipitously this week, so I do feel a certain obligation to at least say Hello and that I do plan to write something in here again someday. Something that may be amusing, perhaps, or that may simply satisfy whatever voyeuristic urge it is that leads us (and I may only be speaking for myself here) to read other people's blogs.

Also, I've been following some of the various discussions (on Reassigned Time, and Practica, and Academic Cog) about grad school and what it means; I'm thinking vaguely about writing something about it, but haven't made up my mind. So don't hold me to this vague thought, or anything. I have a lot to say about the good and bad of grad school--but so much of the last few years has been made up of alternately complaining about and celebrating the process, that that particular font of wordiness may be exhausted. I'm not sure. The thing is, grad school seemed better and better to me as I got closer to completing it. And then the job market came along and fucked with my emotions for a while, but I don't really blame grad school itself for that (I mean, the market sucks, but I have no idea how that could be resolved, given the state of the world). So I don't know.

I guess what happened (okay, here I go, but maybe only for a minute) is that the first few years of grad school were psychologically very messy. I had no idea what was going on. I felt that I had to pose and compete and I was still utterly lost--at the time, I blamed this almost entirely on my not having taken any theory courses as an undergrad. But then a few semesters went by, and I got to know some other people from my year in other departments (my department was tiny, and my cohort even more so), and learned that they were all baffled, too. And that many of the people who spoke up a lot in seminars were doing so because they felt an obligation to fill the silence. (This in itself could easily be the topic of another post....) And then I found something that I wanted to work on, and began to specialize. And, in short, I started to feel more like myself--still like something of an impostor, of course, but as though my personality didn't have to be smothered under a big pile of "problematizes" and "liminals" in order for me to take myself seriously.

Here's the thing: For some people, like me, it takes self-confidence to admit that you don't understand something. And I adamantly did not do this until I was maybe in my third year--but good god, it was so refreshing once I did. I should note here, however, that I often voiced things to other grad students that I didn't say in seminar. Basically, what I'm advocating is an easing-up of the anxiety to appear a certain way at all times; one shouldn't just spout off one's opinions and display one's ignorance in class. But, in class, it is okay to ask the occasional thoughtful question--even if that question exposes the fact that you don't know everything that's going on. Maybe this is obvious to other people, but it wasn't obvious to me--not for a long time. It took work for me to get there.

Here's a little illustrative example. In the honors seminar I took as an undergrad, we were asked to write a short response to the question of why we engaged in literary scholarship. The other students, by and large, had big high-falutin' reasons--perfectly good reasons, about effecting social change and understanding our culture and the like. I probably didn't think about the assignment much, to be honest, but I do remember the answer that I came up with: Because we like it. Because we enjoy reading and talking about books.

That sounds kind of faux-naif to me now, but I meant it sincerely. And what I think happened to me when grad school stopped angsting me out was that I remembered that that was what I was there for--to read books and talk about them--and that I fundamentally enjoy doing that. I don't need to be all Marxist or Lacanian or whatever, and Derrida just doesn't do it for me, okay? I want to read cool shit and find interesting angles on it. Again, this isn't the kind of thing I'd say in class, but it was important for me to keep it in mind as I did my own work and wondered what on earth I was going to write my dissertation about.

Remembering that was like coming back to myself, and it meant that I didn't care so much about coming across as the most brilliant and polished and accomplished scholar in the world. As a result, I believe that my work improved: I was more willing to ask questions, say what I thought, and try out different ideas. My dissertation ceased to be terrifying. My life certainly improved. My self-image did, too.

So I don't see grad school as having annihilated my personality, or re-formed me as a different kind of person. Rather, I went through a shift kind of like the shift I went through early in college, when I was intoxicated with my freedom (not to mention all the alcohol and drugs) and found myself trying to be something that I wasn't, quite. I was so concerned with having the biggest, fullest College Experience that I wasn't really doing what I wanted to be doing, and once I stopped worrying so much about being a particular way (I'm not even sure what that "way" was--uberliberal quasihippie experimental supersocial college girl, I guess), I felt this tremendous relief, as though I'd come back to myself. And while the "alternative" self that I was trying on in grad school was different, the experience was in many ways the same--only where in undergrad I worried about missing a party, in grad school I worried about not finishing my reading.

Same basic idea, though.

So okay I wasn't really going to write all of this, but hey! It seems that I had Something To Say.

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