technorati tag: grad carnival
Update: The conversation continues here and also over at JJC’s place, in this thread, where In the Middle contributor Eileen Joy, in her usual awesome way, has given it a whole new “professionalization be damned” spin.
Last week Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose work and blog I love, said something that I disagreed with (the horror!). As chair of his department, he told the brand new crop of graduate students to stress less about “professionalization” and to get the most out the here and now of graduate school that they could. Actually, here are his own words:
Mostly, I urged them to take what they could from the experience of being in graduate school without obsessing to an extreme over what comes next (I believe too many graduate programs overemphasize professionalization, so that students become neurotic about conference papers and publication — as if there were some magic checklist that when completed yields a first job).
I’m sure that Prof. Cohen, in the first overwhelming months of being his department’s new Chair, is especially nostalgic for an era when the only work he had to do – whether teaching or researching – was his own, and he didn’t have to try to herd cats on top of everything else. And being a brand new Director of Graduate Studies, whose office hours are suddenly jam-packed whereas I used to be able to hear the crickets chirp in them, I can appreciate to some extent the administrator’s nostalgia. And Prof. Cohen certainly isn’t the type to wave away the idea that graduate students are already part of an intellectual community and the scholarly conversation, and that their contribution to it matters – in fact, he said something along the lines of that in the rest of his post. He seems to me an exemplary mentor of graduate students, at least judging from how he treats the graduate student commenters on his blog. And he’ll be the first to tell those who start comments with “I’m just a grad student…” not to do so.
But I have two problems with what Prof. Cohen said. First, enjoyment of the experience and professionalization are not mutually exclusive terms. Second, graduate students have very good reasons to be worried about “professionalization” – largely a euphemism for publishing, but which also includes under its umbrella going to conferences, thinking ahead to the job market (even in the early stages), keeping up with the field, becoming active in professional associations, and largely being aware of how the profession works beyond the potentially narrow world of graduate student life – and their advisors and mentors should be thinking about these things with them as well.
Graduate school can be intensely and destructively infantilizing, depressing, and soul-crushing. Part of the responsibility for that environment comes from professors and from the world at large who, with good intentions or bad, think of grad students as merely students, of people who don’t yet have real jobs, who exist in some kind of preliminary, temporary stage of quasi-adult life without all the real pressures of being a prof, of being on the tenure track, of publishing or perishing, of herding cats in the department, the administration, the classroom, and the community. This is what allows universities to call TAs and instructors “apprentices” and what allows clueless family members to think a grad student’s time is endlessly flexible and not fully booked. (Of course, that little problem doesn’t end when you get the tenure-track job, let me tell you.) It also allows well meaning mentors, who would like to see graduate students less stressed-out, to suggest to them that they worry too much about professionalization.
That’s a bit like telling a farmer not to worry about his newly planted crops. Sure, they’ve just been planted, but they don’t get to be fully grown, ripe-for-the-picking, healthy crops on their own. And sure, there are forces beyond the farmer’s control that might wipe out his crop or make the market for it terrible, but if he wants any chance of selling those crops when they’re ready, he has to tend them from beginning to end. And that means he’s a farmer – an actual, real life, fully-blown, honest-to-god farmer – from day one. He’s not practicing to be a farmer while tending those crops and then only a real farmer once he sells them. He’s a farmer through and through.
Graduate students in Ph.D. programs are like that, too. Fine, they may be junior members of the profession – I’ll allow you that – but they are still members of the profession. (See Ancrene Wiseass’s much more deliciously rantful post here. I admit I can’t do beautiful and righteous anger the way she does.) In that sense “professionalization” isn’t something they must or mustn’t learn so they can use it down the road or because it could take away from the enjoyment of their salad days; rather, it’s an identity one should assume the minute one enters a graduate program. And what’s more, it’s an identity and a way of thinking about oneself that could go a long ways toward relieving the feelings of infantilization, insecurity, and inadequacy
that from which most graduate students suffer. If you think of yourself as a professional, you’re also more likely to be treated like one. (I know, not always. But more often.) If you think of a publishable article or two as a goal while in graduate school, you’ll make every seminar paper into part of that process, rather than mere hoops to jump through. If you think of your dissertation as the first draft of a book, you’ll use books as your models and have an easier time making that transition from dissertation to book. (Though there’s still a transition to be made and that’s a post for another time.) And if you start thinking that way in the beginning of graduate program, with you eyes on the goal not only of the degree but the reason for the degree – the tenure track job – my bet is you’ll be more likely to finish on time than take extra time. The students I’ve known who wallowed or who dropped out were the most abject cases of “only-students,” the ones who frequently started sentences with “If I ever get out of here…” or “When I have a real job…” Granted, there’s no “magic checklist,” as Prof. Cohen says, but being professional, contributing to the profession now, while one is a graduate student, and not later, as if one only enters into the profession with the conferral of the doctorate, is a way to combat the potential waywardness of graduate study.
And the reality is, the job market is asking for more from job candidates. We all bemoan this, but the only people who can change it are the people with tenure. I can do a bit. I can tell my full professor colleague who thinks our just-recently-hooded job candidate’s two article publication record is “light” that I disagree (and I can mumble under my breath, “I bet you weren’t even done with the diss when you were hired”) and I will do my best to combat these things after I’m tenured. (For one thing, our older colleagues generally won’t consider a candidate who’s ABD; they prefer candidates who’ve lectured or been visiting asst. profs because they feel they can hit the ground running with our 3/2 load and research expectations. While this may be true, it also contributes to the system of instructor/adjunct/visitor exploitation. This is something I hope to change once I have a little more authority and if we ever get to hire again!) Certainly a grad student is in no position to change the state of things.
But here’s the silver lining. In his book Graduate Study for the 21st Century, Gregory Colón Semenza argues that increased pressures to “professionalize” actually pushes the job market towards some semblance of meritocracy. (I know, and he knows, that there’s no such thing really, but let’s just go with the idea for a moment.) There was a time – and there are still old fogies around who reflect this time* – when a Ph.D. from Wisconsin or UCLA didn’t stand a chance against a Ph.D. from Yale or Columbia. Now they do. If the hiring committees are judging a candidate on their ability to meet tenure requirements in research, teaching, and service, and the Wisconsin candidate has two articles, a half dozen conference presentations, a competitively selected undergraduate honors seminar teaching experience alongside a slate of other teaching experiences, and a stint as the assistant organizer of a conference or as a graduate student representative, while the Yale candidate has fancy fellowships, light teaching, a brand-name degree, and a famous advisor, chances are, all other things like the quality of their work being equal, the Wisconsin candidate will get the job. At least at my university they’ll get the job. And jobs at my kind of university are much, much more plentiful than the R1 prestige jobs.
I came out of a program that started emphasizing professionalization at about the time I arrived there, and much of the impetus came from some very saavy graduate students. I saw their advice and the professionalization they were modeling as a kind of “add-on” option to my graduate career. Had I seen it as the sine qua non of graduate study, had I thought of myself as a professional and not as a student learning to professionalize so that when I was a professional I could do it, I might have shaved off a year of dithering and been much more able to claim my work as the work of a professional. And I would’ve been a lot less depressed in those final years, which means, ultimately, I would have enjoyed myself and my life more then. As it is, I am so glad to be out of graduate school. Although I’m busier now, I’m happier and more fulfilled, and I don’t want my friends and acquaintances and students in graduate school now to have to wait for that feeling. So my advice to them – aside from buying Semenza’s book, which I think is absolutely fantastic – is to assume that you are a professional right now, not just in the classes you teach, but in the classes you take, and in the work you produce. Banish the words “student” and “school” and “study” from your vocabulary; you are now an MA or Ph.D. candidate and a university instructor, and you work on research or produce scholarship in whatever field you’re in.
Welcome to the profession. It’s good to have you here.
*I heard through the grapevine that when I was a candidate for my job, one of my older colleagues went through the applications and sorted them only by the prestige of their degree-granting institution. I have a public university Ph.D., but an Ivy BA, and I got accidentally put in the Ivy pile. Of course, the less snobby members of the committee also deemed my application worthy. And as you know, all turned out well. I even get along with and frequently find myself agreeing with that old snob from time to time. Shocking!