Academics on Academia: Any Questions? (Second Installment)

I had so many thoughts in response to Janni’s post, I had trouble going with one idea! I decided to start with something that came to mind after reading her post and talking with some readers via Twitter. If there is one thing that stands out to me from our communication, it’s that our experiences as Latinas in higher education are vital to highlighting and understanding how academia works. This time around I want to share one of my most vivid experiences as a graduate student:

I started out in the Comparative Literature program at my university because, as I understood it, it was the way into the PhD in Translation. (The reason why I switched from English to Comparative Literature for my MA is a whole other post in the works.) The first day of my Master’s I was so excited to be moving in a new direction and to be with other people who were as interested as I was in pursuing critical thought at the graduate level. However, that feeling of excitement left quickly after my first class; in its place came a feeling that would eventually become very familiar: a feeling of anxiety and frustration.

The first class I ever took as a Master’s student was a course titled “Proseminar in Comparative Literature,” a course where new graduate students are introduced to the conversations and issues inherent to the discipline. Throughout that semester I read texts and listened to class conversations on authors and topics I had no clue existed. Very few names stood out to me, and the ones who did I had to go back and read up on them. Oftentimes I felt lost and confused. As a result, I spent most of my time outside of class trying to figure out who these people/trends of thought were and why we were discussing them in my class. It didn’t help that the class eventually devolved from a seminar format co-taught by two professors into two-sided conversations between the professors with occasional references to the readings we had done.

I figured out (close reading has always been my strongest suit in scholarship) that most of the readings were by continental philosophers and about trends of thought that I had not studied closely as an undegrad, even with my extensive humanities education. Neither of the instructors placed these readings in context for us; they seemed to assume that everyone knew what was being discussed. Some students participated in these conversations (oftentimes those who had a background in continental philosophy), but oftentimes the professors lectured. It was an intimidating situation; add to that the fact that most of us were new and barely spoke to each other. I spent a lot of time that semester wondering what I had gotten myself into and whether this is what I wanted to do the rest of my college career. I eventually switched departments; the following semester I changed to English because I felt that would be a better fit.

Years later, I spoke to a friend who I met that first semester of graduate school. I switched departments and she stayed in Comparative Literature. We were reminiscing and laughing about that first semester, and we finally talked about how lost we both felt. Finally, someone who shared my feelings! She revealed to me that a lot of people in that classroom had felt the same way. I wasn’t alone: a lot of us had no clue what was going on. How we each managed to write a 25-page paper at the end of the semester and pass is a mystery.

As I was reflecting upon Janni’s post, I thought about the responses I received on Twitter by people who said my experience sounded very familiar to them. This made me think about my experience that first semester of graduate school. If we’re confused, if we’re unsure, if we’re lost, why don’t we say something?

This is not an easy question to answer. Melonie Fullick, in her two posts on graduate students and mental health, explains that this tendency to stay quiet and hunker down is part of the culture of academia. Moreover, there is a belief that if any of us has a problem, we are an exception and we must deal with it on our own. But oftentimes it’s not just us; we are not the only ones do not know, and we need someone to help us navigate the turf of academia. In my example above I was caught in a class that was poorly designed. If I wasn’t the only one who was lost, and if the class was meant to introduce the conversations and topics that Comparative Literature scholars are discussing, perhaps the professors could have done a better job at framing these conversations instead of assuming we all shared the same background and the same cultural capital.

Janni pointed out the importance of mentorship in navigating academia, and this made me wonder about peer mentorship. If I had a peer mentor to talk me through that first semester, would my experience had been different?

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  1. “this tendency to stay quiet and hunker down is part of the culture of academia. Moreover, there is a belief that if any of us has a problem, we are an exception and we must deal with it on our own.”

    So true. I felt the same way in my first graduate course, which was over historiography. Having never even heard the term (a failing of my undergrad education), I was completely lost when it came to understanding Foucault and Derrida and why they were important.

    • Thanks for reading, Mark! This experience, I’m finding, is more common than I thought it was. My goal is that, by talking these problems, we can find a way to change them. You bring up a good point when you mention how your undergrad education failed you in that regard. I wonder how undergraduate programs/departments can better prepare students for the intellectual rigor of graduate school…or is this something that proseminars should frame these conversations better?

  2. Wow. We had the EXACT same experience. Except my anxiety started in the PhD (in comparative literature so I, too, could study translation).

    I got out insofar as I met my (future) husband and extricated myself from much of the “social” aspect of the program. I struggled through my classes, found a supervisor who wanted to work with me on my topic, and just got through. It’s ridiculous that this is such a common experience. Someone on Twitter said that grad school in indentured servitude while the tenure-track was hazing. I’m not so sure; I think they’re both a type of “initiation” process, and not in a good way. We either suck it up and survive (alone) or we “fail.”

    Is this why we are so unable/unwilling to be more collaborative and open? Does it start as early as our grad school indoctrination?

    • I remember at one point being immersed in grad school work and loving it. I also remember I got to a point where I was overwhelmed and unhappy. That’s where I started to do more outside of my department, my school. Getting in touch with the world outside of school really rejuvenated me. It also helped that I was able to take a year off from teaching (due to my fellowship) and focus on my work. I found I was stretching myself too thin and I had lost touch from the work that I really wanted to do.

      I agree with you that grad school is a kind of initiation process. This is one of the things that motivates me to finish my PhD: we’re not meant to stay in grad school forever.


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