I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve embarked on the massive reading load for AST, of my experience in my Ph.D. program. See, it turns out, the post-traumatic left-overs that I’d buried in my subconscious during my relatively idyllic time on the tenure-track and, now, post-tenure life, are resurfacing. But just because you bury your traumas does not, in fact, mean that you’ve dealt with them. It turns out.
Here’s the thing. I know that some people have (comparatively) warm and fuzzy experiences in pursuing the Ph.D., experiences that are all about pursuing ideas intensely and about fulfilling their dreams of doing that and that those people don’t view the experience of a Ph.D. program as anything other than positive. Well, or there’s an urban legend out there that those people exist. I don’t actually know those people. (This is not to say that those urban legend people might not exist, and if they do, didn’t or don’t encounter intellectual roadblocks or whatever, but basically I’ve heard tell that some people aren’t totally fried into crispy ash during graduate school only then to emerge phoenix-like in a tenure-track position from that ash.)
But my experience, well, it was more of the crispy-ash/phoenix-like-return-to-life variety. I don’t actually say that to cancel out what I gained from being fried into nothingness – I actually gained a lot, I think – but it also was… well, I think I’m only realizing right now how fucked up it all was. And, well, I guess, is.
My experience in my Ph.D. program was definitely influenced by two major contributing factors: a) I was a first-generation college student; b) I went to a pretty mediocre regional state university for undergrad (pretty much as a result of being in the first generation in my family to go to college). So I showed up to my Ph.D. program (admittedly having gotten an M.A. at a decent – though not super – public R1) in many ways clueless. My Ph.D. program was a small one, at a private university in the Northeast. While it is not as highly ranked as many programs, it did (does?) have a better tenure-track placement rate than #1-ranking Harvard. There were, if I recall correctly, 7 people admitted in the year that I was admitted, all with full funding, with no expectation of teaching or TA-ing in the first year, and with a very light teaching load for the remaining years (1/1 to 2/1 – with a TA gig for the second in the years that it was 2/1 – if I recall correctly). In other words, I was sort of a Cinderella, in terms of where I ended up from where I started.
Now, the full funding for all people meant that my department did not have a snake-pit-like atmosphere, as my peers and I weren’t actually competing for resources. However, the atmosphere was intensely competitive. Intensely. Part of that had to do with the expectations of the faculty. Part of that had to do with the fact that for the most part my peers had either one or both of the following characteristics: 1) an Ivy or Elite SLAC pedigree; 2) one or both parents who were professors. Even among the few who had neither of those things going for them, as far as I’m aware, I was the one and only first generation college student in the bunch.
So, imagine me, showing up to this Ph.D. program, a very selective one, with a cohort filled with people with a kind of background that I had no clue even existed until I got there. Oh, and did I mention that I got in off the wait list? Oh, yes, I did. I spent the first semester just trying to keep my head above water. Trying to catch up. Trying to figure out how to talk the way that other people talked. Trying to demonstrate that I was a person. Like, seriously, I didn’t even know if I existed as a person in that context. By the end of the semester I’d gotten my sea legs, but I still didn’t have much of a clue.
At the end of that first year, I got my evaluation. (We’d get an evaluation letter at the end of each academic year, something that the faculty apparently arrived at in a meeting where they talked about us behind our backs and then the DGS would send us a letter.)
On the plus side, I was “a pleasure to have in class.” Because I’m Miss-Fucking-Congeniality or something. I also made “bold claims.” (That may have been a criticism, but at the time I saw it as a good thing.)
On the negative side, my “ideas and execution were lacking in sophistication.” Ouch.
So that was what my professors thought of me. As far as I can tell, my peers probably were even more critical. Because they came from highly competitive undergrad programs, or they had tons of background because of their parents’ careers, or whatever, but the point is, my peers probably thought I was a joke.
This was a different world from my experiences both in undergrad and in my M.A. program. In both of those contexts, I was a bit of a big fish in a small pond. I was that sort of student as an undergrad who would get no comments on her paper other than an exclamation point next to some amazing paragraph and an A and “Amazing!” as a comment. Note: I have some of those papers, and looking back at them, there were TONS of things they could have criticized me for doing. But they didn’t. Because (and I know this now because I’m a teacher) they probably were so excited to get what I gave them that they didn’t have the energy to push me further. (Also note, though, that this wasn’t the case for all of my undergrad instructors, just for the vast majority of them. I can’t tell you how grateful I remain to my undergrad instructors who did push me further than that. Even if I wasn’t so grateful to them at the time. And those exceptional instructors of mine totally inform my teaching now.) And in my M.A. program, I rose to the top as a person who wasn’t just getting an M.A. for kicks, and I quickly earned the respect of my professors and peers. In other words, I was entirely unprepared for people who wouldn’t think that the sun rose and set upon my brilliant pronouncements.
My life during coursework during my Ph.D. program – and even after while I did comps and worked on my dissertation – was one of constantly feeling like I had to anticipate a rebuttal, anticipate somebody cutting me down. I learned to read competitively, to think of reading as something that I had to do better than everybody else. I learned to try to one-up people in discussions, and to try to cut people down while making it seem like I was engaging with their ideas. I learned to look at a conversation about literature as a battle to be won rather than as a forum for collaboration.
On the one hand, this was good training. I am well equipped to deal with that asshole who asks a combative question at a conference, to slice through a ridiculous claim made at a curriculum committee meeting while seeming to be “collegial.” Hell, I’m even well trained to deal with that student who tries to dominate the class discussion with bullshit, or to redirect a conversation in a department meeting when nothing is being accomplished. I am not at all saying that I don’t appreciate the skills that I acquired in the environment of my Ph.D. program, because I really do.
That said, the thing that was so great for me about moving into this job was partly that my environment now is not at all that environment. Upon arriving here, I learned to read for pleasure again. I learned that you don’t always have to be prepping for a fight. I learned that, sometimes, the work that I do really is about collaboration rather than about confrontation.
But what I’ve found in preparing for AST is that I’m reading like it’s a competition. I’m reading like people are going to try to cut me down. I’m reading like the point of the whole thing is to be “the best” and to prove that I’m not just “a pleasure to have in class.” I’m reading to impress, and, though it’s not the same thing, I’m reading to shut other people down. And I’m questioning whether my current environment has made me “lazy,” while before I’d just thought it made me “happy.” And there is a huge part of me that really hates all of the above. There’s a huge part of me that thinks this is neurosis. (That last statement may have something to do with the novel that I’m reading so compulsively, though.)
Here’s the thing: it is a luxury to return to this sort of compulsive, obsessive reading. It’s showing me all the things I haven’t paid attention to in this novel, and it’s making me excited about the work that I will contribute to the scholarly conversation. Seriously: if I pursued every idea that I’ve had over the past couple of weeks, it would be 10 years of articles. It’s amazing. But I hate that all of those ideas come out of a feeling of inadequacy and fear, or competitiveness and spite. I hate that I don’t have those sorts of ideas when I’m comfortable and happy. (Note: I always tell my students that if they feel comfortable then they aren’t thinking or really engaging, and I do believe that’s true with them, so why would I think I’m exempt?)
But I guess the good thing out of all of this is that I don’t actually think that what I’m doing right now is “healthy” or “normative” or “right.” I’m seeing it as a process, rather than as “reality” or “the way things are or have to be.”
Summation: critical thinking is a motherfucker and it will fuck your shit up.
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