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?