You may have read my previous post on grad student snobbery or, as one Twitterer put it, being “that student” in the grad classroom. If you haven’t, here it is. This post is less about snobbery in the classroom, though that does factor into the discussion. This post has more to do with what a first year grad student doing coursework can expect and, perhaps, try to avoid. I am speaking, as always, from personal experience. As the end of August nears this means that, in North America anyway, we are on the brink of a new academic year. If you are starting grad school this year, congratulations. Might I offer a few tips for when you get started? Great. Have a seat. Here are some things.
You will be exposed to all sorts of new knowledge
Yes, that’s what a graduate degree is all about. You will be taught by passionate members of your department about highly specialized subjects that expand well beyond your undergrad lectures and honours seminars. You will be expected to contribute in class and have actual things to say. You will feel nervous. Very nervous. This does not mean that you will not make mistakes, you’re expected and supposed to. That’s what graduate coursework is. Because you are expected to learn so much in such a short amount of time and you are being exposed to new things like theory and delving deeper into texts than you thought possible, two things might happen. The first thing will happen in the classroom, around your peers, and during quiet solitary study time: you will be overwhelmed and wonder what the hell you are doing there since you’re such a fraud and not smart enough. Relax. This is normal and everyone feels this way at some point. Especially at the beginning of a grad program. The second thing will happen outside the classroom and is the opposite of the first: you will cultivate, through your reading of super smart things, a kind of superiority complex and believe all those who don’t know Foucault’s and Baudrillard’s entire oeuvres or have never been to grad school are absolute morons. You will critique everything you see and hear with your newfound skills of high-level reasoning and book learnin’.
At first, those around you who are not in grad school will chalk it up to your excitement at being a new grad student, but it will eventually pall and they may just avoid you for a while until you pull your head back in (this can take a while). You will eventually realize that nobody outside of academia gives a toss for debates about post-stucturalism vs. New Historicism and instead will be much more engaged in, you know, conversation about what exciting things happened on The Bachelor or engaging in a bit of schadenfreude by poking fun at the creepy helicopter moms on Toddlers and Tiaras. Also, at this stage of the game when you’re just learning all these exciting theories and theorists, just remember that you are most likely only getting the foundational knowledge upon which current scholarship is based or pays homage to. Most of the things that are new to you are likely debates that are 30+ years old and not given much thought in modern scholarship (with a few exceptions, of course) beyond acknowledging their foundational status. Let me put it to you like this: if a grad school career were like learning a language, you might be stringing together simple sentences by the end of your first year. That is, you’ll be able to ask where the bathroom is (protip: you don’t have to ask to go to the bathroom in graduate courses, but you should try and wait until the break lest you miss something).
You Might Use That Knowledge to Be An Elitist Dick
I am, of course, only talking about graduate courses I have experience with; that is, English and the Humanities. I cannot speak for other disciplines, but I would imagine there is a similar kind of thing that happens. And speaking of English in particular, you might feel a strong urge to stand up in the middle of a public place and yell at the top of your lungs that the guy in the corner of the Starbucks voraciously thumbing his way through the latest James Patterson novel is an abomination and should be ritualistically flogged and sentenced to life in a proper library with all the great works of literature until he comes to his senses and starts reading Joyce or Coetzee. Calm yourself when this happens. Hold your breath and count to infinity. Or something. Yes, people read crappy books all the time. Because you, oh literary one, read only the finest books and you can tell the difference between the dross that commoners read and writing that actually matters. This might be true, but I would argue that at least the dude reading the Patterson novel is actually reading something. Besides, who are you to judge? He might be a distinguished pop culture scholar or maybe, just maybe, he enjoys reading that book and might get back to the collected works of Borges when he gets home. Besides, if you’re a grad student who goes to Starbucks you should be punished for your affinity for crappy coffee. That’d be my second protip about grad school: drink good coffee. And Starbucks ≠ good coffee. Ever. It’s okay to be an elitist dick about coffee, just like it is about books, but you can’t just go around attacking people unprovoked. If that same dude reading Patterson wants to get into it with you about the merits of certain books over others, you can have that debate but tread carefully. Nobody is going to listen to you if you pull rank and let it rip that you know better because you’re a grad student and nor should they. Grad school is the time when you learn how to have intelligent discussions without being unnecessarily rude. I’ve got another post just burning a hole in my brain about intelligent discourse, so stay tuned.
I don’t think I’ve covered everything with this one post, but you’ve got the basic picture I should hope. You’re in grad school to learn how to do things better: learn, discuss, write, read, and so on. You will feel the natural urge to burst out and share your knowledge with others, most of whom will not care. But you are lucky because you have a whole cohort of people with the same interests as you who are learning the same things you are and will want to talk for hours about Butler’s notions of gender performativity and Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay. So, the final protip for now would be to get to know your classmates. Have a drink at the beginning of the term, not the end, in order to break that godawful ice and lubricate discussion.