“This is not a warm and cuddly place”

It was the year of applying to grad school. I had seen the admissions rates. I had looked at reading lists. More than one of my acceptance letters had reminded me of the state of the job market. I had seen  this video . When a faculty member at a northern school confronted me with this phrase, I thought I had it figured out. Of course, under these conditions, there’s no way doing PhD in history could be warm and cuddly.

But that’s not what the faculty had meant. They were referring to departmental culture, as I was explained, to the fact that the department consisted of top scholars who traveled often, had limited time for their advisees, to the fact that they would expect a lot of work and independence from their students. There was to be no handholding.

I reminded myself that this was a school that for no apparent reasons other than tradition and the fostering of competition admitted some students with full funding packages and others with funding contingent on their first two years of progress.

I did not end up joining that program.

But this story is not unique. The same way organizational cultures vary somewhat but not tremendously from investment bank to investment bank, so are graduate programs remarkably similar from field to field, school to school, and sometimes even country to country. A few months ago, I attended a conference of European historians in Tallinn, Estonia, and it was remarkable how similarly conversations there unfolded – the same anxieties over the job market and the pressure to only consider academic careers as “successful” ones, the same humblebragging over inhuman hours of work put in to research or reading.

Again, some of this culture is a product of structural and economic forces that are similar around the world. I’ve read my Marx.

Some of it, though, functions largely a marker of distinction, a sign of initiation. Take, for example, reading loads. During the coursework years of a history PhD program, students are routinely assigned two or three books per class (that’s six-to-eight books a week, kids!) – an impossible reading load for any kind of comprehensive reading. The purpose of this – as far as I’ve heard it articulated – is to teach students to read strategically, to read for argument and method, to read with a purpose. To skim.

Now to a degree, this is true – academic reading, like ice skating, is a skill that only improves with practice. Yet there is an argument to be made that the “standard” reading load for a graduate course in the humanities – a book or two plus articles – is grossly inflated. From personal experience, a class that, for instance, comprises of a selection of chapters from several key works enables both a deeper and more comprehensive engagement. In any case, proper reading strategies are rarely explicitly addressed, students are often just expected to acquire them through osmosis.

At the same time, it generates a permanent sense of anxiety, exacerbated by the fact that there are not set “hours” for PhD studies. Conceivably, you could be working all the time. During the end of the semester, when students have to both grade and be graded, they probably will be working all the time. You get an academic version on anatidaephobia – the fear that somewhere, somehow, someone is working more than you.

What is remarkable, though, is that instead of questioning this system and working out ways to make it more humane, students often internalize it. Complaining over the amount of books one has to read for a class is done with a level of sincere despair, but also with a level of equally sincere pride – look at how intellectually accomplished I am. During the year of general exams, conversations are often about the length of one’s… list, rather than the intellectual argument that they’re making. On more than one occasion I’ve felt slightly embarassed to admit that one of my advisors only wanted thirty books in his list, believing that deep reading is better than “comprehensive” reading (can any amount of reading actually be “comprehensive”?)

What’s pernicious about this pressure to read competitively is that plays out along class and gender lines. Having done my undergraduate degree at an Ivy League school in the US, I pretty much knew what graduate reading looks like and how to do it. By contrast, a friend, whose undergraduate experience was spent in Europe still finds the reading loads baffling and time-consuming. In a world where diligence is gendered female and initiative is gendered as male, who do you think ends up doing more work?

Yet this question remains unaddressed as a problem rather than simply a feature of graduate school that one has to deal with. For one, this leads me to think that people are generally aware of the different ritualistic functions that graduate school entails, the discourses and practices that signal that you are a part of the “insiders”. Breaking these codes is dangerous stuff.

But not as dangerous as having 6 out 10 graduate students reporting feelings of hopelessness and depression. So while addressing the broader economic and social problems that contribute to this is beyond any single one of us, maybe we should have a conversation about the aspects of graduate school stress that amount to self-inflicted wounds.

So maybe it’s time to have a conversation about this.  

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