Saturday, January 16, 2010

Please Be Nice to Graduate Students

I just got caught up on the kerfuffle at Tenured Radical's. (Is "kerfuffle" now the official term for academic blogosphere dust-ups?) I read through the comments, of which there are many, and was struck--as most readers were, I think--by the animosity shown by various factions. In particular, there were some grad student commenters who were furious by what they saw as the tenured writers' disdain and disrespect for people of their status.

I do not think that tenured (or tenure-track) faculty are the appropriate target for such vitriol; they a) have almost no say at all in the structure of academia as a whole, b) mostly probably do in fact feel a lot of compassion for the disappointed job-seekers, and c) in TR's case, actually expressed little that I construed as disdain or disrespect in her post or in the subsequent comments.


Remember what it's like, people--especially people who had a long period of not-having-a-job prior to having one. Remember that it is January, the time of year when you're not getting campus interviews, and have to give up on the thin hope that those schools that didn't interview in Round 1 will suddenly see your glory and give you a call. It's the time of year when you're realizing, really and truly, that those cautionary tales do after all apply to you, and that, even though you thought you knew that, you never really believed that you wouldn't be one of the Chosen. The time of year when the only person you hear about getting an offer is that asshole who irritated you with her pomposity at the grad conference two years ago. When the wikis are populated by a handful of delighted, crowing new faculty and your phone is silent.

It's the time of year when the friendly, encouraging queries by junior faculty at your institution about how the market is going strike you as hideously condescending, when your gut response is easy for you to say, getting an ivy job when you were still ABD. When the thought that you wouldn't care whether you got a job or not because what was really important was having 5-10 years to explore interesting ideas suddenly doesn't seem compelling, and you realize that you actually are basing your self-worth on something that is entirely beyond your control. When the encouragement that you've received for years--of course you'll get a good job! you're so well situated for the market!--sounds like lies (although they aren't) and you recall them with a bitterness bordering on rage. When the depths of your envy and self-loathing appall you.

So I can imagine how I would feel, when I was going through all this (for yes, the above is autobiographical! Why do you ask?), if someone said to me, Hey, you knew going in that the odds were slim; what are you complaining about? Maybe you just shouldn't have gone to grad school at all. And I can imagine how TR's post and the one at Dean Dad's could sound like that to a job seeker in this position, even though I--as someone a little more detached--can see that that is not what they actually meant.

So maybe some people are a little, well, tetchy. But hey, let's remember what a huge number of our fellow scholars are going through right now, and remember the emotional hideousness that is the unsuccessful job search (and even many successful job searches), and let us be, well, nice.


What Now? said...

You've really captured those feelings of anger and despair that one fully knows are irrational (after all, we knew these were the odds going in) and yet can't help. I spent a couple of years really, really angry at everyone who was having better success than I was, and also angry at myself for being such a bitchy person as to resent other people's good fortune. It was such a difficult time; one must have compassion for those in the throes of it.

heu mihi said...

And that feeling of anger at *yourself* for being so angry at others is particularly hard to swallow. I remember being additionally shocked and horrified by how much rage I felt, and envy--all of a sudden I seemed to myself like a much worse person than I had thought myself to be.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I just want to thank you for writing this, because it's basically what I've been thinking, but haven't had the patience to say as well as you have.

My own experience was bad enough, and I feel like I was one of the lucky ones (I've ended up leaving academia, but I did get jobs before that happened). From what I've seen of a lot of people who leave academia for not getting jobs, though, they're simply not rational about academia at this point; they're in too much pain. I don't mean that at all condescendingly, if it sounds that way.

I don't mean to suggest that this pain is necessarily unique to academia -- everyone who gets kicked out of their profession probably feels this way (although not all professions require such a time/money commitment for entry as academia, I think). Nor do I mean that everyone has to agree with the non-job-getter perspective here, about who shares what blame. But seriously, some compassion would be a good thing. And maybe the recognition that whatever people should or shouldn't have known, or should or shouldn't be able to understand, if enough people are still feeling the way that the comments at the various blogs indicate, there's a problem that's bigger than non-job-getters' bruised egos.

(I say non-job-getter just because there are probably people who've finished as well as grad students in the mix.)

Anyway, I've been seriously wanting to say this, but haven't wanted to wade into the fray, so thank you!

Sisyphus said...

Yes, this. :) You have nailed the feelings in all their horrible ambivalence and out-of-controlness.

undine said...

Thank you for saying this. I think if you're feeling raw and sore about not getting a campus interview, the last thing you want to hear is some tenured person wringing their hands about the state of the profession, even if they mean well.

It's not easy to have perspective on anything when you're feeling bruised, so encouraging "perspective" sounds a lot like "snap out of it!" Sometimes silence or a different topic would be a lot better.

clio's disciple said...

Well said. Thank you.

Thoroughly Educated said...

Well said indeed. One of the things that made me realize I was not at all on board with the value system of the department from which I just resigned was the semester in which, first, a delegation of grad students came to a general meeting of the department to ask for greater clarity in the progress-to-degree process and the assembled faculty LAUGHED AT THEM. Out loud. In their faces. And then my charming colleagues held a retreat at which they voted that the second biggest obstacle to achieving the department's goals was "prioritizing the needs of graduate students". The lack of empathy was stunning, not to mention basic good manners and defensible priorities. I'm eleven years past my time on the market and *I* remember it clearly enough. This kind of callousness is what comes to mind in response to the comments in the current kerfuffle (which I admit I haven't followed fully) about whether tenured and t-t faculty have any influence on the structural problems with employment in the academy. They may not control university budgets, but they are the ones in charge of admitting and then trying to place graduate students, and they could, at a minimum, approach those tasks in a spirit of solidarity rather than one of contempt.

Bardiac said...

Well said; I think What Now's point about the self-anger about being angry is also really important.

Kate said...

Exactly. Very well said and what I wish I had said over at TR's and Dean Dad's. I don't believe it's that either have actual disdain for grads, but those of us who somehow, magically, with some intelligence but really a shitload of luck made it through need to be more aware of how what we say might be perceived by grads.

Wow. That was a train wreck of a sentence. But you get what I mean...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

That was just a beautiful summation of those thoughts and feelings. The one thing you forgot is when your friends and friendly junior faculty stop asking, and start talking in aggressively cheerful tones about non-academic things.

I was one of the lucky ones who got an out-of-the-blue call in early March. And I really think that the third week in January is way too early to despair. But yeah. What you said.

the rebel lettriste said...

I agree that the sudden awareness of one's own ... rage, envy, despair, &c. is really disturbing.

I had rage not only at the people who were getting jobs, but also at all of my friends who hadn't gone into academe and were doing the normal life stuff like buying houses, getting married, having babies.

It felt as if I was always going to be on the other side of the window, hoping to be let in to normality.

And that is some tough shit to deal with. I wish that tenured faculty might remember and might empathize.

heu mihi said...

I feel a strange mixture of relief that it wasn't just me who felt that way, and horror that my experience resonated so well with y'all. And TE, that's *appalling*. I don't blame you for leaving.