Monday, October 11, 2010

20. Few ideas are exchanged.

Perhaps the single greatest disappointment for new graduate students is the realization of how little graduate school resembles a community of the life of the mind. To suppose that five percent of your time interacting with other people in your shared academic setting will be devoted to genuine intellectual discussion is to make a generous estimate. That is at the outside edge of what you can reasonably expect, and most of those conversations will go on between you and your professors. One of the factors that suppresses discourse is the fact that your peers are your competitors (see Reason 2). Another is jadedness. Another is just plain tiredness.

With your fellow graduate students, you will complain about teaching, complain about funding, and complain about department politics. You will share insecurities even as you try to hide them. You will hear a great deal of bragging, usually under a veil of pretense that is easily seen through by everyone listening, and sometimes responded to in kind. You might even enjoy a few warm conversations in the context of shared experience, but you will rarely hear anything from your peers that makes you think. You may hear nothing of the kind at all.


 

21 comments:

  1. This is a really good point. It's something I haven't thought about much, but now that I am thinking about it, I really don't remember too many "genuine intellectual discussions." I've just finished a nine-year stint in grad school, and there was indeed a whole lot more complaining and wallowing in insecurities than anything else, except maybe drinking. There was a lot of drunken rambling that pretended to be genuine intellectual discussion but was really just drunken rambling.

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  2. I was a naive small-town girl when I applied to graduate school. I thought my cohort would not just discuss the main issues in our social science field, but would also engage in intellectual exploration outside the social sciences: trips to the local art museum, discussions of our favorite authors, etc.

    I quickly learned the following lessons:

    1. Few people in graduate school adhere to the liberal arts ideal anymore. If you're in psychology, you don't care about T.S. Eliot; if you're in sociology, you don't care about Titian. In other words, don't expect to discuss art, literature, or philosophy unless you're actually majoring in art, literature, or philosophy.

    2. Most graduate students aren't even all that educated about the field as a whole. They pick a subfield--maybe two if the program requires it--and that's generally all they learn about for the next 10 years or so. If you're in continental philosophy, your colleagues in analytical philosophy might understand or even respect your work.

    3. We're too tired and stressed to even discuss our own specialties most of the time. If one of your grad school friends is working on his dissertation 8 hours a day (in addition to teaching), he might not feel like discussing its substance with you when he meet up with him at the bar. He'll just want to blow off steam about his jerk of an advisor, about how his progress is slowed down because the university didn't give him a fellowship, etc. Our intellectual passions often get obscured by frustration, exhaustion, and the pressure to make enough money to get by.

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    1. I think this website is very, very good. I wanted to give my experience as an assistant professor. This definitely continues on the tenure track and I will give you an example. My field is poetry and I have an interdisciplinary approach. When I was interviewed and brought to campus, the faculty seemed interested in my research. What I can say is that, as each year passed on the tenuire track, the intellectual curiosity about me and my research disappeared. Now it is true that I taught in a very mediocre university in a fairly poor city in the South, but it goes to show you that the intellectual excitement totally went away in my department. I am not teaching at that university anymore and, part of the reason is because the place turned out to be something else.

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  3. The last sentence in # 2 should read "might NOT understand."

    See how graduate school rots your brain?

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  4. Agree.

    This was my biggest disappointment as well.

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  5. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I haven't found this one to be the case. The most rewarding intellectual experiences I've had recently have been at meetings of my dissertation writing group. Reading and discussing my friends' work, and hearing their thoughts on mine, has really helped my thinking. Their projects (in literature and history, fwiw) have been genuinely interesting to hear about and intersect with mine in surprising ways. I'm really not trying to sound smug or anything; I would just say that people considering grad school should bear in mind that reason #20 isn't universally applicable.

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  6. Anonymous, that posted the Oct. 26 comment: perhaps you're not smart enough to know that your peers are intellectually jerking off in your face. Is that a PhD in Education that your aspiring to?

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  7. If you'd like to see three folks trying to prove this one wrong, check out the Christian Humanist Podcast on iTunes. Perhaps I'm one of the lucky ones like Anonymous number five, but we've had a grand old time.

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  8. The poster who wrote the comment below is sorely mistaken. Few people in _English departments_ care about T.S. Eliot. These days you're more likely to find them enthusing about Facebook or cell phone ring tunes or other ephemeral blips. I would go so far as to say that caring about T.S. Eliot (i.e. literature) is a sign to most that you're hopelessly out of date in your thinking. Add this, then, to reasons not to go to graduate school. It will kill your love of books.

    1. Few people in graduate school adhere to the liberal arts ideal anymore. If you're in psychology, you don't care about T.S. Eliot; if you're in sociology, you don't care about Titian. In other words, don't expect to discuss art, literature, or philosophy unless you're actually majoring in art, literature, or philosophy.

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  9. As an aspiring PhD in Education let me help you out with the difference between your and you're. You appear to have problems distinguishing correct usage. That's something we cover in education...during the K-6 years.

    Anonymous said...
    Anonymous, that posted the Oct. 26 comment: perhaps you're not smart enough to know that your peers are intellectually jerking off in your face. Is that a PhD in Education that your aspiring to?
    October 27, 2010 5:11 PM

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  10. To "Me": As a teacher, I do hope that you treat your students with more respect than you treated the Anonymous person who posted the Oct. 26 comment. That was very rude, and not something I like to hear from colleagues. If we can't treat each other with respect, then how can we teach our students to be kind to each other?

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  11. I'd like to second the Oct. 26 Anonymous and say that this has not been my experience at all. It may be that my peers are simply flaunting their knowledge in my face, but when I share my ideas I get a sense that they are genuinely excited about discussing this stuff. I've had good conversations about literature (in our fields and out of them), philosophy, religion, and pop culture.

    This often wasn't the case at my undergraduate institution, where many of my colleagues were flouters of theory language with little interest in the university beyond our department. So I really think this just depends on where you go. You can't know what it will be like in advance, but you can meet some grad students from a department before you enroll there and try to take a guess.

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  12. I also feel many graduate students feel reluctant to share their ideas with colleagues because they fear they might get "stolen". With all the expectations about having "a distinctive voice" in academia, even though thousands of people might be working on the same topic, any new argument is precious to the graduate student who is struggling to justify her/his own relevance.

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  13. wow. this is a sad, sad blog. i am sorry you all had these bad experiences!! i am in grad school right now in canada, studying adult education and community development & i would have to say i totally disagree. i am feeling stimulated all the time, having interesting conversations, talking to folks that really care about decolonizing education, radical perspectives on learning and social change, etc. i know that's not everybody's experience, but i just want to provide the Pro's side for any prospective students out there who are questioning grad school. do your homework, think about Why you wanna go to grad school? Is it something you may better learn informally/through everyday experiences/activism, etc. ? Then make your decision. But don't believe that everybody in grad school is 'out to steal your ideas' and against having interesting conversations!

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    1. My reply to your comment is that when you do a Ph.D it is really wonderful intellectually. You are in a prestigious environment and ideas are important. It is when you leave the Ph.D institution that it can often become a very stale environment if you end up in a mediocre place.

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  14. This is true and sad. I tried to share with people thoughts, but never succeeded. Later I found that I can learn the ideas without them. So now I become one of those who don't generally share ideas. I will give them some hints and make them think sometimes though.

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  15. I liked talking to other graduate students that were either funded or linked to NASA (Voyager 2 bypass of Saturn) about their aims for data analysis. Unfortunatly we were in the Challenger year...I was the first one to report it since I was wearing a Walkman to drown out the gum-chewing Chinese students. I was called a liar



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  16. I surmise after reading the above comments, it depends on the institution or even cohort that can make the educational stimulation malnourished. My experience has been akin to this post, but I can that this isn't the only one. I guess I received a lemon of a doctoral experience. :'(

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  17. This blog is right on the money (or, more appropriately for graduate students, the lack thereof), and this Reason is no exception! The dearth of intellectual stimulation at every level of graduate school is devastating, if that is what one has hoped to encounter before enrolling. My high school was an academically oriented boarding academy (yes, a little snob factory), and there I had vastly more exchanges that were intellectually fulfilling, because we didn't have the pressure, the urgent need to conform, and so forth. Conversations in grad school were either griping sessions, as noted by other posters, or the ritualised, pointless, asinine farce of the seminar, in which most of the participants a) haven't read the book anyway; b) lack the background knowledge to understand the argument; c) are too busy posturing and trying to impress the professor (with hopes of recommendations down the line) to make genuinely inquisitive queries.

    Keep the Reasons coming!!!

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  18. To much anonymous comments...I have to study now...and, oh,I must keep reading the other posts as well.

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  19. This blog is right on the money (or, more appropriately for graduate students, the lack thereof), and this Reason is no exception! The dearth of intellectual stimulation at every level of graduate school is devastating, if that is what one has hoped to encounter before enrolling. My high school was an academically oriented boarding academy (yes, a little snob factory), and there I had a vastly greater number of exchanges that were intellectually fulfilling, because we didn't have the pressure, the urgent need to conform, and so forth. Conversations in grad school were either gripe sessions, as noted by other posters, or the ritualised, pointless, asinine farce of the seminar, in which most of the participants a) haven't read the book anyway; b) lack the background knowledge to understand the argument; c) are too busy posturing and trying to impress the professor (with hopes of recommendations down the line) to make genuinely inquisitive queries.

    Keep the Reasons coming!!!

    ReplyDelete