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 lots of them weren’t bad. But for me, some of the hardest things 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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He doesn’t hold back his criticism

I was looking at one of my interviews with philosophy professors and was struck by this little explanation of why he had not picked someone as his dissertation supervisor (directeur in French):

– Normalement j’aurais dû faire ma thèse avec XYZ, car c’était lui qui m’avait le plus inspiré, mais je connaissais suffisamment XYZ pour savoir que je ne réussirais jamais à faire une thèse avec XYZ.

– C’est-à-dire ?

– C’est-à-dire que c’est quelqu’un dont la moindre remarque m’aurait blessé au profond, et comme c’est quelqu’un qui ne menage pas ses critiques, je pense que, euh, j’aurais pas pu, quoi. Bon, je vais pas raconter ça, parce que c’est un peu intime, mais c’était pas possible, quoi. Voilà.

In English, here’s how that comes out:

“Normally I should have done my thesis with XYZ, because he was the person who had inspired me the most. But I knew him well enough to be sure that I would never manage to do a thesis with him.”


“Meaning that he’s someone whose tiniest comment would have hurt me so deeply, and as he’s someone who doesn’t hold back his criticism, I think that, uh, I couldn’t do it. Well, I’m not going to tell you about that, because it’s sort of personal. But it wasn’t possible, eh? Voilà.”

The cruelty of criticism can shape an academic career,  we see. Personal acquaintance with academics can trigger revulsion. And pure intellectual commonality (“inspiration”) is no guarantee of human solidarity.

That’s what I learn from this little moment. That, and the sheer sense of blockage that can set in when academics stop to retell their lives. You’re reminded of moments of impossibility, of those structural dead ends that are as much subjective as institutional. “It wasn’t possible, eh?” he summed up. As if that was the whole story (even though he also told me he wasn’t going to tell me the whole story).

(On a more positive note, this interview does remind me of one piece of practical advice. If you are interviewing in French, and are otherwise at a loss for words, c’est-à-dire? — “meaning?” — is almost always a good way to get people to keep talking.)

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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Graduate mentoring and textually mediated intellectual passion

“After you take classes, you mostly stop having a relationship with the department, and your main relationship is with your committee,” a friend of mine said last year.

So the relationship with one’s advisors is the institutionalized moment of semi-autonomy from the institution, a moment in which one’s academic situation is governed by the contingencies of evolving personal and intellectual relations, and only more distantly by the bureaucratic requirements of the graduate program.

This can evoke all kinds of intricate psychosocial dynamics between student and advisors. Being in the middle of them, I can’t really speak from experience here, but let’s look at Janice Radway’s post facto description of her advising relationship, from a 2006 interview in the Minnesota Review with Jeff Williams:

“I first studied with Russ during my sophomore year. I had come out of a very middlebrow background and loved books and reading. I thought of myself as an English major, but didn’t aspire to a professional identity or position. I thought I was going to write as a journalist. In that sophomore year, I took Russ’s class on realism and naturalism, which met three days a week. He was working on The Unembarrassed Muse at that time and offered a special session that you could attend on Thursdays, where he would talk about the popular culture contemporaneous with literary realism and naturalism. I attended those sessions and was transfixed; I was not just transfixed by the subject matter but by his investment in the subject matter. I remember thinking, “This is a job, you can actually aspire to this as a job. You might think of yourself as a teacher, as a professor even.” It sounds silly and naïve, but that really was the moment when I thought about a different future.”
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Contradictions of graduate education in anthropology

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about socialization of graduate students in anthropology, and on Friday just had a very exciting session at the AAA Annual Meetings, which I titled Trauma, tactics and transformation. I won’t repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere about the ethical need to analyze our own profession and reckon with our own moral contradictions. But I do want to report on some of the major issues I left thinking about:

  • At an abstract level, how should socialization of graduate students look as a process? Should it be auto-socialization, self-socialization, where we mostly do the work of socializing ourselves into the professional world? Or should it be faculty-directed, top-down, a process of being led into the promised land of scholarly pleasure? Or should it be group-organized, a process in which students socialize each other and form a kind of social collective that learns from and teaches itself? Of course it is all of these, but I think that often our dissatisfactions have to do with the proportions between them. Each has its disadvantages: loneliness, authoritarianism, peer pressure.
  • Thinking about graduate education is a form of reflexivity, but reflexivity has its disadvantages: it can waste time that could be better spent elsewhere; it can be a means through which we end up resigning ourselves to the present; it can even become a weapon turned against our colleagues. Still, the first question in the panel, and one that I like very much, is: what are the costs of not being reflexive? As Anneeth Hundle pointed out, these can be very concrete: the perpetuation of bad racial dynamics in a department, for instance. And it seems to me that the ethics of the status quo are inherently bad ethics, because they seem to presuppose that the actual world is as good as it can ever get.
  • But the thing about reflexivity is that you have to be reflexive even about your reflexive moments: a potentially infinite regress. And one of the new questions that comes to my mind is: what kind of recognition and reward are we looking for in questioning graduate education? Do we expect to be pleased through the validation of our peers? The panel wasn’t perfect, in those respects; everyone surely had to walk away without feeling like their concerns were fully answered.
  • Dominic Boyer argued (gently) against me that reform is impossible, and that thus we should settle for therapy. My first thought here is that even doing therapy is already a kind of reform, and that he’s understating his own accomplishments in teaching theory reflexively. (Though the crucial question might be: does he believe in therapy that cures? Or just in therapy that helps us cope with what we can’t change?) My second thought is that I don’t really care if we call it “therapy” or “reform” as long as the underlying ethical and psychological issues are being addressed. But my last thought is that I wonder if it’s worthwhile for us as graduate students to try to reform the current system at this exact moment. What if we ask instead: how will we do things differently when we are in a position of institutional power, when we have our own students; how does graduate education look when we dream of ourselves as the professors? The status quo has so much inertia that I think we need to look for hope partly in the future rather than in the immediate present.
  • Finally, a major issue, raised by Anneeth Hundle but not finished, is: how are we silenced by academic institutions? And how are these silences structured and distributed? It’s a question with no immediate answer.