The panics of graduate school

In the spirit of Shabana Mir’s blog, whose exceptional reflexivity about academic life I really admire, I thought I would write something about the intense anxieties that graduate school used to induce in me.

I had lots of different feelings in graduate school, and not all of them were bad. But for me, some of the hardest moments were those ritual moments where your very Being is supposed to be under examination. In concrete terms, that meant the big rites of passage: the qualifying exams, the dissertation proposal hearing, and finally the dissertation defense. It’s easier to think about them now that they’re a bit distant in time.

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Negative knowledge in the classroom

I’m in the middle of shortening an essay for publication (on which more soon, I hope), which means I have the pleasure of excising all the interesting-but-peripheral tidbits. Here’s some text that used to be a footnote (retuned a little to make sense here).

One way of thinking about a classroom is as a place of knowledge transmission. From this perspective, it’s intriguing that classrooms often evoke an intriguing phenomena that involves, not knowledge-display or knowledge-transfer, but precisely their opposite, performances of ignorance or what might be called “negative knowledge.” Karin Knorr-Cetina has written, in examining the fixation on possible causes of error among experimental particle physicists, that “negative knowledge is not nonknowledge, but knowledge of the limits of knowing, of the mistakes we make in trying to know, of the things that interfere with our knowing, that we are not really interested in and do not want to know.”

It’s worth pondering whether this category applies to a sort of anxiety about knowledge that I’ve often seen in American grad school classrooms. What I’m thinking of is the kind of conversation where people drape their statements in a shroud of qualifications, qualifications that communicate no propositional content but nonetheless index the epistemological anxiety and low epistemic rank of the speaker. These phrases are all too familiar: perhaps, it seems, in a sense, it would seem to me, to some degree, kind of, sort of, it appears, arguably, I would argue that, on one level, I could be wrong but, you know, you might say, I’m not an expert but, umm, I don’t know anything about X but, etc., etc. Such awareness of fallibility can also appear as a kind of corporeal knowledge, in posture, gesture, and tone: nervous laughs, pulling at one’s hair, avoiding eye contact, and the like. I can remember times in my first couple of years of grad school when, at the very thought of talking, my voice shook and my heart beat wildly. And it’s often the least authorized, most institutionally peripheral and lowest-ranking participants who feel this way — which is to say, in short, that epistemic hierarchy in the classroom can get written onto academics’ bodies and flung throughout their conversation.

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Anxieties of instrumentalism in fieldwork relations

From “On Sentimental Education among College Students,” by Portia Sabin, one of the only other anthropologists of universities to have done her dissertation in this field (most such anthropologists started studying universities once they already had tenure):

I went to Kat’s room to ask her something and found her on the phone and her friend Laura sitting on her couch bed. It appeared from Kat’s tone that something was wrong. I talked to Laura for a minute, and when Kat got off the phone I asked her what was the matter. She told me to sit down. Then she said, “Are you just going to use this for your study?” I asked her what she meant. She said, “You like me, right? You’re my friend, right?”

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