Thursday, October 14, 2010

21. Graduate seminars can be unbearable.

Imagine sitting with a group of classmates and a professor around a table. Each of you has read a different book about a given topic, and you will each report to the class about the book that you have read. You will diligently (or perhaps not so diligently) take notes on the books described by the other students and then give your own book report. After three hours, you will go your separate ways. The professor may or may not have said much, but he probably didn’t prepare anything to say, because he understandably has higher priorities than graduate seminars. Next week, you will all read a common book and try to talk about it for three hours.

When the historian Jacques Barzun turned 100 in 2007, the New Yorker published a long piece by Arthur Krystal on the occasion of his birthday. It included a description of the Columbia University undergraduate colloquium taught jointly by Barzun and English professor Lionel Trilling from 1934 to 1975. To quote from the article:
“It was awe-inspiring,” the historian Fritz Stern, a 1946 alumnus of the Colloquium, recalled recently. “There I was, listening to two men very different, yet brilliantly attuned to each other, spinning and refining their thoughts in front of us. And when they spoke about Wordsworth, or Balzac, or Burke, it was as if they’d known him. I couldn’t imagine a better way to read the great masterpieces of modern European thought.”

You may be under the impression that you will experience something like this in graduate school. Unfortunately, you almost certainly won't.


  1. Here's a summary of my semesters of coursework. I took 2-3 courses every semester until I got to the dissertation stage. Here are the highlights:

    1st semester of MA
    Critical theory seminar with ancient man of foreign origins. Read verbatim his yellowed lecture notes from 30 years ago with thick accent while students scribbled frantically. If you dared to ask a question, he would glare at you first and then, more often than not, tell you it was a stupid question. Scintillating intellectual experience!

    2nd semester of MA
    Linguistics seminar with professor who lacked confidence and brought out immature tendencies in students. Even if you’re only 22, you should know better than to pass notes and giggle just because you don’t like the professor. Is this graduate school or high school?

    2nd semester of MA (yeah, this was a great semester!)
    Shakespeare seminar with creepy male professor. Most students were female. Creepo hit on every single one and then gave us all A minuses because no one actually slept with him. Grounds for sexual harassment complaint but no one cared enough to write it up.

    3rd semester of MA
    African American lit seminar with young, passionate assistant prof. Conversations were intense and carried on after class ended. This is what graduate school should be like. Too bad I only had one class like this in my MA experience.

    4th semester of MA
    Victorian lit seminar with very old, quaint, avuncular yet boring little man. Nobody talked. Ever.

    1st semester of PhD
    American lit seminar with Distinguished Scholar-Teacher who played the part well. I enjoyed the readings and liked this professor, but students were afraid to talk. Class discussions were awkward.

    2nd semester of PhD
    Drama seminar with a different Distinguished Scholar-Teacher but freakin’ slacker students! People, if you’re assigned to do a group project, do your part!

    3rd semester of PhD
    Poetry seminar with yet another Distinguished Scholar-Teacher (guess I had a lot of those now that I think back on it) but same freakin’ slackers. Seriously, if you’re assigned to work with someone else, don’t lose your partner’s notes!

    4th semester of PhD
    Dissertation workshop for those just getting started on their dissertations. This was my last formal class. We formed writing groups, which could have been an OK experience, except that my group members were having serious mental health issues. One was depressed (to the point of barely being able to get out of bed in the morning), and the other was visibly suffering from an eating disorder. I mention these last things not to make light of them but because, by the time you reach the dissertation stage, graduate school will have begun to take its toll.

    1. " People, if you’re assigned to do a group project, do your part!"

      One of the chief reasons why I came to loathe engineering.

  2. Apologies for the length of that comment. Your blog is cathartic.

  3. Thank you for your contributions. Don't hold back.

  4. Well, yeah, but seminars always seemed like a small part of the experience anyway compared to writing papers, meeting with profs, exams, giving conference papers, teaching, etc.

  5. staff meetings or "brainstorming sessions" in almost any other industry, while perhaps not a totally apt analogy, can be terrible and awful, too. also, tell me which other professions are devoid of competition between colleagues wrt project assignments, promotions/raises, et. al. and, of course, academe/graduate school is the only environment rife with "pride" and "pecking orders." Oh, wait...

    1. Where in the post does it claim grad school is the only environment with this sort of problem? The blog describes the reality of grad school for prospective students who may not realize what they are getting into. And based on my experience this entry is right on the mark. Almost all the classes I took in social science grad school were useless and forgettable.

  6. This is so true. All of your professors are going to be too busy worrying about research-related issues to worry about academics (at least in psychology). Also, all "intellectual" conversations are forced, and, not very intellectual at all, actually. What a waste of time.

  7. Stopped reading seriously after i read "focus is on humanities and the social sciences"

    That surely explains the boredom encountered...

  8. okay wtf where did you get this information? this leads me to believe you either attended a very poor graduate program or not at all and just base this whole blog on hearsay.

    seriously seminar is not that hard, you read the fucking text, you show up, you say a few clever things and you leave after two hours and don't have to return til next week. I'm sorry is that too hard for you???

  9. I'd love to throw your lazy ass into a fast food or factory job and see how much better you find the workload there since this is so hard for you.

  10. Yes, I can see Anon 3:19 and 3:25 points, but I'm in grad school to learn! In my Communication program, we read a ton of texts and composed long lengthy papers. But the classroom experience was horrendous. Often times, because faculty were concerned with their own research, we were assigned to present based on the week's text while including additional ones. What a waste of time these classes were. Instead of the professor teaching us or even correcting our perspectives when they strayed off topic, they checked out and just had us do all the lecturing. It was a waste of time and I would have preferred if I was given the reading list, commented online, and then done. I learned little outside what I would have learned on my own.

    However, when some professors awoke from his or her slumber, or one professor who actually took the time to compose very detailed and enjoyable lectures on applied statistics, it was a cosmic experience to listen to a scholar relate years of research and perspectives. It gave flavor to the already bland learning experience of graduate school. Nevertheless, it was far and few between.

    See that's the problem: I signed up to be a Ph.D. student, but in the end my importance was in the labor I provided this R1 university. They could care less about actually imparting me with their expertise or helping to guide my work. Instead, I was left with the onus to instruct myself. Thus, it may not be hard as you say, but it sours the educational experience of graduate school for the reason that I deeply desired to LEARN from renowned scholars rather than having to sit through other students, or even my own, presentations.

  11. Had one graduate seminar that was fucking punishing with a professor that was near-retirement, in love with himself, and cared not a whit for the rest of us. It was meant to be a seminar on lit crit and art theory at the highest level. Basically turned into him trying to teach us stuff he liked about German philosophy, watching Der Ring des Nibelungen, and reading too much Rilke. It didn't help that many of the students were...I guess I'll say weirdly eager to please him. Me being the sole person in the room that did not care about banging on about how important punk rock is/was as an aesthetic force may have had something to do with that, too.

    Finally, he forced us all (well maybe just me, since as I said, everyone else was pretty eager to please) to take signed copies of a book he'd just published. He told me a few interesting stories, and I respect the guy outside of the classroom, but I have never dreaded going to any course like I did that one and I suffer from social anxiety.

  12. Even in some Life Sciences like Chemistry, Seminars can get boring. We had to take two different seminars each semester - one main one for the entire Chemistry department and a second one for your area of chemistry (physical, organic, etc.) Some professors they invited to talk at these things were interesting, no doubt. In fact, I'm glad I got to hear them talk. Other professors on the other hand, have very boring research and oftentimes present false or "grey matter" information to all of us.

    An example of this will be when there will be long slideshows where they present their student's work, but not understand the true meat of the research. Another example is when every professor and their grandmother is only doing quantum dots, protein design, light harvesting or mixtures of the three. When I sit and watch 5 of them, I've sat and watched all of them at that point.

    The worst is that you are required to go to these things and pretend like you care for an hour and a half. Much of it can get unoriginal and blatantly boring.

    1. I recall with amusement a chemistry seminar in which a visiting researcher gave a presentation and was berated by a a department professor ... for using the word "S-shaped" instead of "sigmoidal" in describing a data plot.

  13. The point of this post is not that the seminars are hard, if anything they lack thoughtful precision, that is in part why they are mind-numbing. Ironically this is brought out by one of the derisory comments:

    "seriously seminar is not that hard, you read the fucking text, you show up, you say a few clever things and you leave after two hours"

    Should that be all there is to these seminars? To read copious dusty monographs and chat about them for several hours a week? In most of the seminars I have been involved with the professor delegates a grad student each week to lead the discussion. Each professor has varying levels of involvement, some contribute a lot, some hardly at all, but the majority lean towards the latter. The seminars do not work toward either of the goals of a phd, they do not teach you how to research and write and neither do they give you teaching experience. (unless you count coming up with a list of discussion questions about a book teaching) So I would ask what is the purpose of seminars? I think the purpose for them is socialization. They are supposed to familiarize you with the culture of academe and teach you how to act and function within it. A secondary purpose is to familiarize you with the literature of a particular field of study, but in a typical seminar you only scratch the surface of what is available.

    At best seminars are tedious and at worst imagine two grad students yelling at each other over the effect concentration camps had on Nazi war manufacturing, then you will get the picture.

  14. I was so excited to start my humanities graduate program at a very prestigious college, only to end up sitting in mostly undergraduate courses because of the lack of graduate courses in the discipline. The only thing differentiating the graduate aspect of the course was an extra paper or staying late for further discussion. One of the few classes I took at graduate level was taught be a professor with no interest in the course, who consistently left halfway through class to go home to see her kids. We of course were required to stay until 10:00pm. My whole experience was incredibly disappointing. Given how many times the professors told us how elite and priveledged we were to be there, you think they would have actually cared enough to provide graduate level coursework and stay for an entire class session.

  15. I disagree. The seminars were the best part of graduate school. I really enjoyed delving into the secondary sources and hashing them out with the others and the professor. It's unlikely I would have read all those books otherwise and never would have approached them the same way without the input of the professor and group.

    There were some badly run seminars, but more than half of mine were good.

    After comps when you begin researching and writing in earnest were the parts I hated. After the initial interest high you get when you start your research, it devolves into a purgatory that you have to slog though.

  16. Right again...don't you get tired of all these Volltreffer (bull's eyes)? :-) With one or two exceptions, perhaps, seminars that I experienced during my grad school career at two large state universities--one decidedly down-market, the other a solid R1 a notch or two below the top--were depressing affairs. The first seminar course I ever took was with a superficially charming Southern professor (white) who was absolutely obsessed with racism, so much so that I often wondered whether he was obliquely trying to expiate some kind of deep-seated guilt. (Perhaps he had once been in the Klan, or had family who were...) This man was absolutely Stalinist. You had to agree with him about everything, or else risk being obliterated.

    In another seminar, the professor assigned so much reading that not only was it impossible to get through, but the corollary also obtained: there wasn't nearly enough time in the weekly three hour allotment to even begin analyzing all of it in detail. So he simply droned on for the three hours, nonstop, whilst we dutifully transcribed the Gospel. Some of what he said no doubt had some concrete worth, but the whole dynamic was even more parrot-and-regurgitate than any high school class.

    Most of my other seminars were little more than posturing and posing, by people who were uninformed, ill-prepared, and lazy. Certainly there were a couple of worthwhile and even memorable ones, but on the whole, our blogger has it dead to rights. Seminars are unbearable, boring, fruitless and simply another hoop, as is the entire schooling--not educational--process that graduate school is.

  17. Not to worry. As the push for cost-effectiveness increases, they will no longer be seminars (outside elite institutions. ).

  18. Graduate seminars were, hands down, the worst part of grad school.

    I was a Literature PhD student, and it was clear that the other grad students didn't read the assigned texts. In fact, during one of our seminars, the student sitting next to me read Spark Notes. Yes, Spark Notes. In a graduate seminar. Every single week. Unbelievable.

    We were basically having a disingenuous conversation where everyone was making pretentious statements about books they never even read.

    It was also quite clear since this was an R1 that faculty could not care less about our seminar. They were often unprepared or made us give weekly presentations where we were the ones in charge of facilitating class discussion. Out of the 14 graduate courses I took, only 2 were worth a damn. My undergraduate courses were more rigorous and thought-provoking.