Why I Went to Graduate School

Right now I’m in the midst of skimming through the article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go (2009), and I’m wondering, Why did I go to graduate school? In the article the author, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker), describes how and why he advises his students not to go to graduate school in the humanities. He writes:

What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.

In an article published a year later (2010), Benton/Pannapacker intensifies his critique, writing:

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

Harsh. And (mostly) true to my experiences on the job market post-degree. Getting a Ph.D in the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, I was shielded from some of this structural damage (or I managed to ignore it?). Maybe it was because I was being trained to identify and resist larger structures of oppression, privilege and unequal power distribution. Maybe it was because my committee members were supportive of my work and encouraged me, for the most part, to do the types of projects that I wanted to do. Maybe it was because I was one of “those privileged few” to which Benton/Pannapacker refers, that are fully funded and have a partner with a full-time job.

I did feel the pressure to professionalize—network! network! network! and publish! publish! publish!—and to pick projects that were cutting edge and grant-worthy. And I did feel that when I graduated in 2006, I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I was 31 years old and had been, almost exclusively, a student since I was 5. While some other students in my department had acquired valuable administrative skills, I had focused almost all of my attention on researching, writing and teaching (oh and having two kids). As the post-Ph.D years went by, and my job search for a tenure-track position continued to be unsuccessful and extremely demoralizing, I kept wondering, If I can’t teach at the college level, what can I do?

Like a good little student, I kept preparing and sending out ridiculously labor intensive application packets that continued to be rejected (sometimes without acknowledgment, sometimes after grueling campus visits). It felt hopeless. I felt hopeless. But I also felt like I couldn’t stop trying. I had been told too many times, once you stop applying and working for a job, you can’t try again. Your degree has a limited shelf life and nobody will want you if you’re not active in your field as a researcher or teacher.

It has been a year since I stopped teaching. A year since I sent in an application for an academic job. And, I’m relieved. For the past year, I’ve been working on a lot of different critical and creative projects that allow me to use the tools/theories that I learned in graduate school in ways that I never had time to do when I was teaching and that wouldn’t be valued within academic spaces. I’ve also experimented a bit with how to translate my skills into work outside of the academy.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve devoted tons of time to the difficult labor of unlearning some of the most toxic (at least for me) values of the academic industrial complex: that you’re a failure and less-worthy without a tenure-track job; that academic work is better (and loftier) than other professions; that the only thing you can do with a Ph.D is teach at the college/university level; and that even though the academic life is demanding and difficult, it’s worth it…for the difference you make in student’s lives, for the benefits you receive, for the flexible hours you can have.

So, as I posed at the beginning of this post, why did I go to graduate school? In one of his articles, Benton/Pannapacker speculates that many students go to graduate school because: 1. School is what they know; 2. School is where they are praised and validated; 3.  It’s better than trying to find a job; and 4. They “think” they have a passion for a subject. In my case, I’m sure #1 applies to me. Not only had I been attending school since I was 5, but I, and my mom and 2 sisters, had been following my dad around the country my whole life as he worked in higher ed administration. School was all that I knew.

But, when I applied for graduate schools, first for a masters in 1996 and then for a Ph.D in 1999, I wanted to go because I believed (maybe a little naïvely) that the deep immersion in ideas and theories that grad school encourages, would provide me with the tools to make sense of my world/s and experiences and to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with a wide range of people. What I didn’t realize when I was applying is that I also wanted to go to graduate school to develop the skills that I needed in order to challenge those systems and structures that invalidated my curiosity, my penchant for posing questions and my refusal to ever accept that “that’s just the way things are.” My graduate training (and my later on-the-job training as an educator) in women’s studies and feminist/queer theory, gave me those skills. This training also forced compelled to recognize the limits and problems with the academy and to search for (and hopefully find) ways to resist and refuse it. At this point, I can’t say that it gave me the skills for reworking it. I’m not sure that it’s possible to rework a system so seemingly broken. 


Artifact: Awesome Button

As part of my ongoing intellectual history project, I’ve set up a new Tumblr in which I post brief accounts and archive artifacts. Yesterday, I archived a button that I received as a gift, years ago:


“Fuck this Fifties Housewife Bullshit” was a gift from two students in the first women’s studies course I ever taught: Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory University, Fall 2002. I can’t quite remember who they were or why they gave me this awesome pin. I can think of a couple of reasons: 1. They liked my class, 2. They were inspired by our discussions, earlier in the semester, about Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, or 3. They knew I was just about to become a Mom (I had revealed to all of them earlier in the semester that I was pregnant) and they wanted to encourage/support my feminist resistance to traditional gender roles.

I loved teaching that class. I was a Ph.D student in Women’s Studies. While I was in residence at Emory, from 2000-2003, I was only required to teach 2 classes as part of my fellowship and degree. Unlike at other schools, where graduate students are required to teach a lot, usually while taking their own classes, I taught these classes after my coursework and while I was studying for my doctoral exams. I was also required to be a teaching assistant for two courses, but that job was designed to serve as a mentoring opportunity, in which I worked closely with the professor and received a lot of useful feedback on my own teaching.

Emory’s program was unusual (and unusually awesome) because of the low teaching load for graduate students and the amazing amount of funding they provided for all graduate students: 4 years of full tuition + a generous stipend. Also, they put a lot of emphasis on mentoring and training students to be teachers. While I was a graduate student, I had a teaching mentor and took a class (feminist pedagogy) that was specifically designed to prepare for me teaching the Intro class. And, as I mentioned above, my role as a teaching assistant was primarily designed to give me teaching experience and mentoring; it wasn’t just used to exploit me as cheap labor.

I was lucky. I didn’t realize that until I began teaching at a research university and witnessed how much graduate students taught (as assistants who graded papers and ran discussion sections, or as instructors, who taught huge classes) and how little mentoring seemed to be formally built into their teaching.

In thinking about graduate students and how they are frequently exploited at universities, I did a little bit of online research and came across this post: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go. I also found this one: The Brutal Lives of Others: Exploitation in the Academy. I want to read them as I reflect on my experiences in and beyond graduate school.

Beware of the Single Story

A few days ago, I read Steve Almond’s essay for The New York Times, Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time.’ In this essay, he laments the demise of the Narrator and their telling of a unifying story that enables us to make sense of our world and provides us with greater meaning. He argues that these storytellers, men (uh um) like Mark Twain and Zola and Dickens and Tolstoy, told stories that didn’t “just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge[d] our moral imagination. They offer[ed] a sweeping depiction of the world that help[ed] us clarify our role in it.”

While I agree with many of Almond’s claims in this essay about the demise of the narrator, I’m troubled by his refusal (or failure) to discuss the damaging effects that Grand Stories/Unified Narratives by a Narrator have had on all of us and our understandings of other perspectives and experiences. Yes, “narration represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning.” However, this meaning is not singular and should not be revealed or articulated by any single Storyteller.

I’m reminded of a recent TED talk I watched by the amazing storyteller, Chimananda Adichie: The Danger of the Single Story.

In this talk, she discusses the dangers of hearing (or telling) only one story about a community or a nation, describing how it flattens out and stereotypes the experiences of that community or nation, ignoring or suppressing meanings that don’t fit with the dominant narrative. In our quest for a unified, singular story that brings us together (Almond mentions Obama’s failure as a narrator to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”), what stories, meanings, and experiences are we leaving out?

By linking the bad storytelling skills of his creative writing students with a larger problem of a loss of meaning and a lack of a narrator, Almond presents us with an either/or choice. Either we have a Narrator that tells a story that provides us with meaning and that invites us to collaborate on making that story real. Or we have too many unreliable narrators that only tell superficial, profit-driven stories that encourage passive consumption over active creation and collaboration. Is the choice that simple? Or that reductive? Can we build off of Adichie’s brilliant storytelling about the dangers of a single story to imagine ways of creating meaning that aren’t predicated on just one story or one Narrator?

I don’t have time to write much more about this article. However, I must briefly mention his harsh condemnation of the internet as contributing to the loss of the narrator and the death of the novel. He writes:

Our latest innovation, the Internet, was hailed as an information highway that would help us manage the world’s complexity. In theory, it grants all of us tremendous narrative power, by providing instant access to our assembled archive of human knowledge and endeavor.

In practice, the Internet functions more frequently as a hive of distraction, a simulated world through which most of us flit from one context to the next, from Facebook post to Tumblr feed to YouTube clip, from ego moment to snarky rant to carnal wormhole. The pleasures of surfing the Web — a retreat from sustained attention and self-reflection — are the opposite of those offered by a novel.

I don’t entirely disagree with what he says, but it’s only one story (and not THE story) about the internet and how people are using it to engage or dis-engage with the world outside of (or beside/s) themselves. What stories about critical, creative and meaningful uses of and engagements online are ignored when we rely on Almond’s story to provide us with meaning about the internet? Does he, as he suggests the Storyteller used to do, invite us to collaborate and make the world he imagines real? Or, does his story only center on lamenting what has been lost?

Interventions into Academics-as-Usual

Over at my Undisicplined site, I’m working on my intellectual history, from 1996-present. For the past week, I’ve been mulling over a question that has haunted me ever since I came across my Senior Thesis evaluation (1996) and my advisor’s opening lines: “This was, without a doubt, a very strong thesis. Indeed, we could not remember one in our experience that was stronger.” The question is: Am I living up to the promise that I showed in my undergraduate senior thesis?

The process of thinking through this question and detailing my experiences as an academic since writing this thesis, have been tremendously helpful in enabling me to keep pushing at my questions, conflicts and uncertainties over my current (liminal?) state as beside/outside of the Academy. Just a few minutes ago, I posted the entire essay (almost 3000 words!) on Undisciplined. I thought I’d post an excerpt describing four critical/creative projects that I completed in order to resist/disrupt/intervene in the damaging effects of my training and practice as an academic.

Intervention One

To counter the effects of this academic training, I decided to create a project that would enable me to take many of the theories about storytelling, women’s agency, identity, selfhood, memory and home and experiment with them in a different medium. Instead of writing an esoteric academic paper, I, along with my husband Scott Anderson, created a digital video about my family’s most treasured homespace, the Puotinen family farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The themes that I had been studying for years (like the tension between wanting to belong and needing to critique simplistic notions of belonging) served as the foundation for our project.

After completing and screening the first video, The Farm: An Autobiography, in 2001, we created another one the next summer, The Puotinen Women. This video, which was a continuation of themes and questions raised in the first one, also focused on the contradictory roles that women played in Finnish immigrant households and was heavily shaped by the miscarriage I suffered just before we started filming.

These two digital videos enabled me to experiment with communicating my ever-increasing feminist theoretical knowledge to audiences outside of academic spaces. And, they allowed me to use these theories to make sense of my relationship to the farm and generations of Puotinens. These videos reminded me that theories weren’t just abstract ideas and academic knowledge wasn’t just academic! They could help me understand and connect with my family and heritage.

Due to the success of those digital videos, I briefly considered shifting the focus of my dissertation so as to include them. But I didn’t. I can’t remember the thought process that went into that decision, but I imagine that I was reluctant to subject my highly personal work to the rigid (and often stultifying) demands of academic scholarship.

Intervention Two

When I was nearly finished with my dissertation, over two years after I started writing it, my mom got sick. Really, really sick. She was dying from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was working on my fourth chapter, “Working to Become Allies, Working for Alliances,” and reflecting on Judith Butler’s difficult questions, What is the livable life?, and Who gets to achieve it? I wrote a big chunk of that final section in the hospital on the day of my mom’s whipple surgery. If the surgery was successful, she might have six months to a year to live. If not, she would most likely be dead in a few weeks. The surgery was a success and, with the help (?) of chemo, she beat the odds and lived for almost 4 years.

When I look back at this chapter, and reread my section on livable life, I don’t see any evidence of the pain and fear that I was experiencing on that day. No footnote referencing my own powerful connection to the concept, serving as an intervention into the “academics as usual” prose. But, I know that Butler’s theories about the livable life, and my critical engagements with it on that day, and the days to come, was crucial in enabling me to survive that horrific month when my world shattered.

Intervention Three

I can’t remember when the idea first hit me, but in the spring of 2009, I decided to create and write in my own blog. I had been using blogs in my classes since 2007, but I had yet to experiment on one with my own theories and research. I decided to use my blog as a space for documenting and archiving all of my ideas and theories about the value of troublemaking and troublestaying. These ideas had been fermenting for over 10 years, almost since the beginning of graduate school, but I had never had time to write about them. And I didn’t make the time because these ideas—about The Brady Bunch and Jurgen Habermas; Michel Foucault and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who; Eminem, Borat and Socrates; or Judith Butler and Hannah Montana, didn’t seem as “serious” or “important” as my work in feminist theory and ethics.

From the minute I started writing on the blog, I loved it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I probably wrote more in that first month on the blog than I had written in the three years prior to starting it. And I was having fun. Finally, I was taking all of these theories that I had been learning since 1995 and not only applying them, but infusing them with my own perspectives and ideas! I was playfully experimenting with my own writerly voice and working to connect various parts of my life with my academic work. My passion for researching and writing was back!

Intervention Four

Months after my mom died, in 2009, I began writing about grief and loss on my blog. The blog gave me a space for processing my grief and for thinking through how my experiences of being in a sustained period of not-quite-grieving as my mom was unable or refused to die fit or failed to fit with Judith Butler’s theories on the value of grief. When I came across a call for papers on grief, bereavement and motherhood in an academic journal, I decided to submit a critical/creative essay for it about my own experiences with being a mother who recently lost her mother. I used my blog to document and share the process of reflecting and writing on grief and motherhood. My finished essay, Living and Grieving Beside Judith, which was published in the Journal for the Motherhood Initiative allowed me, through the process of writing it, to understand and live with my grief.

I vividly remember how powerful and profound the process of writing that article was. On one day in particular, I recall sitting at the table in my backyard and writing about Judith Butler’s chapter, “Beside Oneself” in relation to a memory of how my sisters and I sat and comforted my mom on her bed the night before her surgery. After writing out this memory, I realized that that moment on the bed had haunted me for some time. I had always remembered (whether it was true or not, I’m not sure) sitting off to the side as my sisters lay next to her. My not sitting beside her symbolized my failure to be there for my mom when she needed me most. In writing myself back onto that bed, next to her, I was forgiving myself.

And, here’s part of my conclusion:
“Living and Grieving Beside Judith,” along with my other academic interventions are, without a doubt, the most important projects related to my academic research that I have completed since starting graduate school. Some days I cannot even remember the title of my dissertation, but I will always remember what I learned and what I was able to communicate through my digital videos about my family’s farm (which has since been sold). I will always reflect gratefully on how I used the final chapter of my dissertation to cope with the uncertainty, fear and sheer devastation that I felt as my mom suddenly became someone with stage 4 cancer. I will always read through my blog with delight, remembering the various theories I’ve encountered over the years and how they connected to my life at the moment in which they were written. And, I will forever cherish the experience, on a hot summer day, of working on my journal article and being able to imagine, through writing, a way to forgive myself for what I believed I should have but didn’t do for my mom as she was dying.

Oh Bother! Target’s Everyday Collections Ad Campaign

In my last Oh bother, posted just minutes ago, I briefly discussed how I was bothered by the new Target Everyday Collections ad campaign. Here’s another reason why I’m bothered by it: it hyper-sexualizes and hyper-masculinizes African American women.

One of their ads, titled “under pressure,” features an African American woman brandishing and “firing” a water hose at a package of oatmeal. The actor is hyper-sexualized (with how she looks and the accompanying Wolfmother music) and hyper-masculinized (she’s holding a phallus and releasing its fluid). It’s significant that she’s African American; tons of theorists, like bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, have detailed the history of how Black women are depicted as overly sexualized. They are also depicted as not being feminine enough—too strong, active and powerful; more masculine. Oh bother!

This depiction of the African-American woman as hyper-sexualized and hyper-masculinized is even more disturbing when we place the oatmeal commercial beside another Target Everyday Collection commercial for laundry. In this ad, a very white woman (dressed in white) gracefully and serenely moves through a set of white, flowing sheets. She’s represented as pure, desirable and desiring (but, not desiring of sex; she just wants to find the other missing sock). Wow, it’s like right out the Cult of True Womanhood!

I want to put these commercials beside another ad that I encountered while watching football yesterday for iPhones, featuring Venus and Serena Williams. In this commercial, they play an intense game of ping-pong with the ads’ narrator, presumably a white male.

I’m not sure what to make of this. I’d love to read what other people think about the representations of the Williams’ sisters here.

For more reading: I talked about the Williams’ sisters in my Politics of Sex class two years ago.