Friday, June 1, 2007

Earnest's Soapbox: Grad School and Academic Hazing

Today, Dr. Crazy wrote a post on Becoming an Academic and grad school. As usual, I thought she was right on the money and felt compelled to comment. Some of us got started in the comments on whether academic hazing was necessary. So I began a comment that became really long, so I've decided to write about it here because I really really care about this and I feel bad about hijacking Dr. Crazy's comments in order to get out my soap box. After all, if you can't hold forth on your own blog, where can you?

So let me get out my soap box: I would argue we have to be careful to not perpetuate the idea that graduate school should be a kind of boot camp where identities are broken down in order to be built back up. Graduate school is certainly a kind of identity transformation that is be quite painful. The identity shift and grad school itself exacts a psychological and emotional cost. Many grad students I know have quietly confessed to me that they are on antidepressants. I've heard jokes that my department funds the counseling center. My recent blogreading suggests that this is true in more than just my institution. (In my program, most of the women and some men are prescription medicated, while many men self-medicate.) Now those of us who got through it or are getting through it are understandably proud of our fortitude. I, for one, am proud I'm almost done and that I've made it this far. But this should not blind us to the fact that this system excludes people who may be wonderful scholars and teachers but who are not, for whatever reason, willing or able to pay that emotional and psychological cost. This does not mean that they aren't as smart as we are. (Maybe it means that they are less likely to put up with shit, while many of us have proven that we can put up with shit.)

Of course this is tied to the overwork issue. If the people who make it through grad school and get jobs are the workaholic maniacs and we leave behind all the more balanced people, then what is the academy going to look like? Well, then we have a bunch of workaholic maniacs who expect that other people should also be workaholic maniacs. Who expect their grad students to be workaholic maniacs. And the grad students who make it are the ones who can fit themselves (or be broken down and recast) into the mold that is set out for them -- in this example, workaholic maniacs. And the cycle goes on.

So what I'm worried about here is that if we reflect on our own experiences and find that grad school was boot camp, that doesn't mean that grad school should be academic boot camp. We should at least remember that such a stressful system means that there are going to be certain kinds of people who make it through and people the academy, the ones who are willing to take antidepressants and feel that their inability to cope is a personal failing and hide their shame rather than calling a spade and spade and saying that grad school is just painful and sometimes soul-destroying and shouldn't be.

I'm completely willing to say that grad school is really not about learning, in a lot of ways, that it is about this identity transformation. (Which is not to say I haven't learned in grad school, because I have. I've definitely learned how to teach myself and maybe, if some of my evals can be believed, how to encourage undergrad students to teach themselves.) I completely value this identity transformation, because it allows me to build a life that will let me teach myself and focus on issues with others that I really really care about (including, obviously, this one). I was willing to make compromises, learn the talk, walk the walk, find ways of arguing about issues so other people would respect my ways of thinking and credential me. I'm sure I was remade in this process -- and it was painful. I hope that the compromises don't prove compromising in the kind of longterm way that some of the commentators and Dr. Crazy speak about. But should graduate education really be academic hazing? I would say no. It should be about the love of teaching and scholarship.

For me, thinking about the grad student I knew who I thought of as a star who went home and cried every day and the many students I've talked with who felt belittled by opaque processes they didn't understand (shouldn't people be bringing us in to the process as preparation for professorial life?) makes me wonder how I can help make this place more socially just for those who want to pursue graduate-level scholarship. I don't mean it should be easy. But there's got to be a better way for credentialing professional scholars than breaking people down emotionally and psychologically, seeing how much they can take. You understand, I'm not saying that people deliberately do this -- that is, torture grad students. In fact, the faculty I've worked with have been very supportive and encouraging for the most part as well as generally open to my concerns about grad school. But if hazing is the result, shouldn't we apply our thoughtful and credentialed brains to it? Maybe it is inevitable that grad school is an identity transformation, but can't we do something to support grad student development? Call me an idealist (no one who knows me in RL would), but I think we can do better. What can we do to make things better? How can we apply the lessons of our own experiences to make things better for others and not perpetuate the experiences that make us feel that it was academic hazing?

By the way, this blog post is the closest I got to any kind of work today. I guess I can't consider this revising my dissertation. Maybe I can turn it into an article??? =)


k8 said...

Right! Additionally, I think that the pittance we live on makes us even more vulnerable to all of the other stuff. Which really does make us a bit like new military recruits. I think I'll try not to think about that any longer, though.

Professor Zero said...

"But there's got to be a better way for credentialing professional scholars than breaking people down emotionally and psychologically, seeing how much they can take."

Yes. This is just a way of replicating existing hierarchies, and it is very authoritarian.

malaguti said...

Universities are institutions, and institutions are like machines: they have to run, for whatever purpose. Given this premise, universities tend to promote people who have such low self-esteem as to sacrifice anything to be accepted as cogs in the wheel. Even when it pretends to foster one's own humanity - as it is in the humanities - academia simply wants to perpetuate itself. The machine has to run. The best operator is the one who asks no questions.

Monday James said...

I'm pursuing my doc in English, and I've been insulted in the most blatant and condescending manners imaginable. On top of that, I'm a Black female pursuing world literature, so, I'm getting the hazing from African Americanist females who think I should be a Black feminists, and white males who think I'm in over my head. Through it all, though, I've resisted being remade. I was insulted so much as a kid that there's not much else anybody can do that's more humiliating than what's already been done in high school.

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