Tuesday, January 17, 2006


I'll spare you the saga of graduate-school funding (yea or nay?) that I've been dealing with for the entire break, because the program hadn't figured out whom they would hire as late as last Monday. I'm sure many of you have dealt with the same situation. And, while I find this non-information epically rude as a professional practice and extraordinarily insensitive to the basic needs of students from an educator's perspective, I've accepted that my department is a slow-moving beast. I know that first year grad students in my department are not funded, but rather hired on a semester basis, as needed, and at a greatly reduced rate of compensation. (Still, a person would like to know whether they need to seek employment and funding elsewhere before, say, it's too late.) I've even accepted the fact that the ability to blow shit up is demonstrably more valuable to our society than the ability to think, speak, and write well. Humanities folks learn that early on.

What is driving me absolutely mad is the dedication the department has to graduate student ignorance. I have been confused. I have directed simple and pointed questions to people who have the answers to those questions. In return, I have received gentle smiles and circumlocution. Still confused by the original problem, and now irritated at the insult to my intelligence (I'm a GD Language and Lit major, people, I know when you're distracting me with non-answers peppered with football scores), I have consulted others in my peer group who have received demonstrably false information when they pressed for answers to their questions. Playing the good little simpering half-wit with which my professors clearly prefer to deal, I have smiled right back and pretended I'm satisfied to wait until they deign to come up with an answer, even a plausible lie. Others, knowing these ropes, do the same. Department meetings are as filled with code-words, expected mannerisms, and profoundly unpleasant pleasantries as the average Jane Austen novel or DAR function.

Let us assume for a moment that the answers to my questions, and those of my peers, might be hurtful truths. This is reasonable to assume when one sees another fidgeting away from answering a question, I think. Wouldn't it be nice if we, as students, were told what exactly was going on, and why? Even if it hurt? Wouldn't it be much more instructive, if momentarily unpleasant, if those we had charged with assessing our performance in this portion of our educational journey would say "You've done this poorly, and you failed to do that well. Here's how one goes about fixing these problems"? If the answers are not hurtful truths, just inconvenient ones, then wouldn't it be ultimately kinder to explain whatever the situation is, so that we are not left paranoid about our own abilities?

Seriously, folks, playing simpering half-wit while being openly lied to or equivocated with is extremely bad for my blood pressure. I'm not sure how many false smiles I have left, and I really don't want to release the Kraken this early in the game.

Hence, one cranky Heo.


Breena Ronan said...

Wow! I'm in a similar grad school situation and I'm not even a medievalist. I'm constantly debating with myself the merits of "playing the game" against the much more seductive qualities of honesty and bluntness. I'm tempted to crash faculty meetings, yelling "What the hell is wrong with you people!?!" I don't think it would help my career much.

HeoCwaeth said...

Hi and welcome. I too have fantasies of just being honest. No code words or mannerisms passing for manners. Just plain old evil honest me. Except that I know that would be bad for my career. I even have fantasies of professors just being downright rude to me. I'd probably hug a professor who said "I think you suck, and here's why..." at this point.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Oh, Heo. This sounds *so* familiar.

I really think academia may be one of the most passive-aggressive professions in the world, maybe especially in literature departments. How many times I've wished that people would stop being "diplomatic" and tell me the truth!

The kind of diplomacy you're describing can really mess with the ol' noggin. It gets to the point sometimes that you're not even sure when you're being criticized and you start to wonder whether any praise you get in one area is meant to call to mind an absence of praise in some other area.

And yes, yes, a thousand times yes about the ways in which grad students get jerked around by not hearing whether they'll get funding until the last possible moment. Fortunately, I haven't had to face this as much as it seems you do, but I have encountered it a few times and seen it happen to others many more. How in the world is a person supposed to make responsible financial decisions when she doesn't even know how much income she'll have--or whether she'll have any at all?

As for playing the game vs. calling it crooked, when things get very bad, I usually try to practice avoidance and meditation. On two occasions, though, I didn't, and it was absolutely worth it. Particularly because it was clear that the profs in question thought they could get away with abusing their power without opposition.

I burned bridges in both cases, but I decided I didn't want to get anywhere those two bridges were going--not at the expense of failing to stand up for myself, my fellow grad students, and my own students.

But you're right: you want to hold the Kraken in reserve as much as possible for as long as possible.

That was a long comment. Sorry. I think I need a whiskey.

HeoCwaeth said...

The kind of diplomacy you're describing can really mess with the ol' noggin. It gets to the point sometimes that you're not even sure when you're being criticized and you start to wonder whether any praise you get in one area is meant to call to mind an absence of praise in some other area.

Exactly. The absence of plain-dealing leaves students like me-- who just want the band-aid ripped off already--wondering and worrying and second-guessing everything we do. I too have considered drinking.

Jodie said...

I have two undergrad degrees, some grad hours and I've worked for two different universities for the past 15 years. I also interact on a regular basis with others who do what I do from other universities (I am not faculty).

My peers and I refer to this as "The University Way".

It's incredibly frustrating. It also seems to be almost impossible to change and those that try tend to get run over by the juggernaut of bureaucracy.

Remember, at some point you'll finish grad school and then none of this will matter.