Saturday, June 2, 2007

More on Grad School

This is exciting -- we're having a conversation! I just want to affirm that I did not mean to imply that Dr. Crazy said that grad school was academic hazing. That's something that a couple of us started discussing in the comments.

Dr. Crazy today posted a clarification of her views. And I want to speak back to them because I'm all excited about this conversation. (Isn't this what is so exciting about the internet?!!!) I totally agree with Dr. Crazy that the transition from "good student" to independent thinker and scholar is a big and difficult transformation. Like her, I don't really think that it's possible to go through such a transformation without pain and discomfort.

What I do think is a problem is that, at least in my institution, graduate students feel that they get mixed messages. One message is "become an independent thinker." But the other is to submit to processes that are opaque and trust that faculty are making the best decisions for us, often without our voices and behind closed doors. Decisions about graduate student funding are made behind closed doors at my institution, for example. Some choices about which students get special positions are made in seemingly prejudicial ways. (It looks a lot like certain professors playing favorites. If it's not, it would really help grad student morale to know that.) Grad students are mystified by many of the processes that determine our lives. All I would want is some transparency and dialogue. I've known many students over the years who "don't want to make waves, because these are the people who write our recommendations," a view I totally don't agree with. Faculty are not to be blamed here; if grad students do not explain how processes seem opaque, then faculty are just not going to know what the sources of the grad student climate are.

I want to go on record here and say that I don't think that faculty members are trying to make grad students' lives harder. In fact, my department has been blessed with a number of faculty members who are very interested in grad students' opinions, if we will only give ours to them. Many grad students don't take up that agency -- and for that I don't know what to say. Maybe that's a part of that "good student" syndrome. What I fear is that some students, at least, leave my institution still trying to anticipate what will please others; I don't think that this is what becoming a professional is all about.

I will say also that many of my colleagues would tell you that not all faculty members are interested in listening to grad students' concerns. People have said to me that if we "complain," the faculty don't feel they need to address our concerns because they know that sooner or later we will leave. They just wait us out. I don't know that I think this is fair, at least of the faculty I've worked with. But I will say that there have been times that I have definitely gotten mixed messages: be an independent thinker, but don't use your analytical powers on this department. I can understand that it might seem more difficult for faculty members to have a bunch of grad students around who all wanted to make change. But I think learning how to be a productive member of a department is one of the things that the faculty should help us do. If they keep us out of that side of things, then we're missing an important part of our professionalization: service.


gwoertendyke said...

ee--i think what you are saying is part of being a graduate student, one shared by most programs. the whiny negative grad student is a long-known cliche and as soon as you step away it becomes easy to see. because i took so long to finish i saw as soon as i wasn't on campus. but i also protested the first year, wrote scathing letters of dissent to particularly entrenched (and on the wrong side, i thought) faculty members, in short, i was a very politically active grad student. but after lamenting how little change could be made at the institutional level by grad students, i settled into my work and my eyes opened. i think what Clara commented on dr. crazy's recent post is astute--

this is not at all meant as critique but as my observations from my own dept, myself, and my good friends in grad school, all of us went through this process.

Sisyphus said...

Demystification! Yes.

Ah, well, there's complaints, and then there's refusing to be pushed around. I have been in and out of the shitter at my dept. for loudly protesting "that's fucked up" when that was so, or for calling attention to unfairness in the department. (I should note that I started this long before I figured out that it could be detrimental to my status or that it was not done in grad school.) I would say that this is part of not being the "good student" and becoming an adult, and I would also say that intimidation is an effective technique for maintaining the status quo. And I don't want to be part of a department or a profession that ruthlessly squashes justified dissent. So I'm willing to push against the boundaries of the profession, and if they kick me out for telling some hard truths, like the exploitation of most teachers, as adjuncts, then I'm willing to go. I'm not willing to do "whatever it takes" to get the promised (possibly mythic) tenure track job.

gwoertendyke said...

i'm not at all suggesting that we should ever stop dissenting or that accepting exploitation is a reasonable position. i would also never accept being intimidated into submission. expressing personal distaste for something in your department or faculty is one thing(perceived as the cliche i refer to, unfairly), and institutional change is quite another.

i only meant to suggest that graduate students are at the bottom of the food chain and remain so until the do their work and cycle out into a slightly less exploited position. we all struggle against this in our own ways and the struggle is where it is at. i don't ever for any reason think you or anyone should do something that feels like an unaccpetable compromise for a job, ever, for anything! so sorry if my previous comment came off this way at all....a little wine blogging can sometimes create havoc:)

Tiruncula said...

Hear hear, adjunct whore!

As someone who has very little patience for the maintenance of institutional structures for their own sakes, I'd advocate a don't-take-any-shit/call-it-like-you-see-it attitude not only as a necessary and responsible form of witness, but for the preservation of sanity. You need to work hard to maintain perspective when you're deep inside the graduate school experience. Now that I teach grad students, though, I can see clearly the difference between the students who have enough self regard to call bullshit when necessary - who are invariably those who most have their shit together because they are aware of what they need to be doing for themselves professionally and personally - and those who whine and complain as a substitute for doing the work they need to do in their own lives.

September Blue said...

Well said! (And, um, hi, since I don't think I've met you before, either.) I'm also lucky to have a very supportive department that does genuinely want to hear about our concerns, but learning when and how to complain is still a really difficult (although, I think, valuable) thing to do.

It's easy to see department politics as this huge, complex, intimidating spider-web that we can't escape from and can't understand, and conclude from that that we shouldn't ever make any movements in case the spiders start heading our way, but that hasn't been the case in my experience. We seem to be worried that the department can't tell the difference between whining and legitimate complaints, but we need to acknowledge that difference ourselves, at the very least. And I think I'm a happier and more professional academic-in-training for feeling confident enough to do that, these days.

Earnest English said...

AW: First off, YAY to wine blogging! Obviously, I think institutional change is very very important. If nothing else, grad students have a different vantage point on the department -- one that faculty members don't usually see. My department has been pretty supportive of me. But without a lot of grad student speaking up, it's hard to get lasting institutional change.

Sis: I too have been in and out of the shitter in my department. I think you and I feel the same -- part of why I'm in the academy is because of social justice issues.

T: I'm so relieved. If you can see the difference between grad student complaining and grad students who are voicing real concerns, then surely others see that too! YAY! So glad to have you weigh in here.

SB: Welcome to Absurdist Paradise! Yes, knowing how and when to voice concerns has been a huge education for me in grad school. For me -- more prone to saying things in blunt and terrible ways rather than being silent -- it's pretty much been trial by fire. At my most desperate moments, I've pissed people off! Though I'd rather do that than be quiet.

I guess it's that being a "good student" thing that keeps other people quiet. But I was never that good of a "good student." For me, being good is being true to myself. Which also, sadly for me and my professionalism and if I don't watch it my career, means saying what I think. I'm trying hard to become more politic without sacrificing who I am.

Thanks all for your comments! Sometimes when I mount my soapbox, no one responds and I feel all alone!

Anonymous said...

EE, oh, yes, this makes so much sense. My uni went through a massive shake-up years ago when all TAs unionized, and our department was particularly effective -- so they've changed a lot of their processes to deal with these issues, and there are grad student liaisons and committee members all over the place, who actually *do* have voices and communicate with other students about what's going on.

I don't know how common that is at other schools; perhaps I have imagined that it is when in fact it isn't common at all.

In some ways, my grad school career has felt really strange because working in a corporate culture for four years prepared me so well -- and so a lot of classmates have had to negotiate pitfalls that I was able to avoid. What you say about faculty members being willing to listen if only graduate students will give their opinions -- well, I see it happening here, too -- faculty aren't quite sure how to start the conversations, and/or grad students are too nervous to start it. (And with good reason, of course, since as you say you can't count on all faculty members). I start things, because my job-training taught me to, and faculty ask sometimes why other students aren't as forward. When they do, I explain my background, because the last thing I want to do is make other people look like inefficient communicators.

But I still feel weird and guilty about it. I haven't figured out yet how to improve the situation.

Anyway, thank you for this post.

Earnest English said...

JD, I wonder if it is that issue of having had another work life that makes it seem so obvious that things should be said. Of course I was the squeaky wheel at the various businesses where I worked too. I guess it's in my character. But I'm going to think more about those who go straight through and who really don't know their worth outside of the academy. I didn't work in a corporate environment though; maybe I'd be more politic if I had. Maude Lebowski over at vaginaphilosophy recently said that she felt that the academy was pretty corporate as well. Hmmm. Very interesting.

I don't know what to say about being a faculty person on the other side watching the grad students. Makes me sad all around somehow. I'll think more. Glad to have you here!

Jane Dark said...

EE, your being the squeaky wheel (and a lot of the things you've blogged about, in general) have made me feel better about myself. (I am working on a post about my insecurities, oh joy).

But I have a whole post up right now about the value of taking a break and working in business before going to graduate school, because I think it can make a huge difference -- and though I know people who are successfully going straight through, I think that doing so can be a source of major hardship.

Professor Zero said...

What I found odd was that, after having been enouraged to be an intellectual subject and all from freshman year on, at dissertation time what seemed to be expected, all of a sudden, was something a lot more like a high school "research paper." It was weird.

In general, what I found was that after years of intellectual maturity in college and through the Ph.D. exam, at dissertation time and in assistant professordom they wanted to infantilize and limit ...
I am still furious about it as you can tell and I r.e.f.u.s.e. to do it to any of *my* students.

You have to be doubly mature to keep up the kind of self regard you need to produce when the institution seems to want both originality and independence and also infantilism and conformity
- simultaneously, I have never understood it at all.