Friday, September 15, 2006

Graduate students says the darndest, most self-destructive things

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Welcome Inside Higher Ed readers. I know we all love a good bitchy post -- and this is one of those -- but if you want to read my positive advice and take on graduate student "professionalization," see my current post here. This blog isn't bitchy all the time.

Before I present the following conversation, I want to say first off that a) I really, really dig being Graduate Director and I'm finding that I'm not only good at the administrative thing, but that I also actually like it, and b) as a group I dig our graduate students and want to help each of them get what they want out of the graduate studies (which is a variety of things in our program). Sometimes they have very rigid -- and often misguided -- ideas of what they want and need, but I'm pretty good at convincing them otherwise, or of teaching them how to use the requirements that seem unrelated to their interests and make them useful.

BUT, when I have a conversation like the following, it makes me think, "Why bother?" Without further comment, a more or less accurate transcript of a conversation I had with a first-year graduate student who came to me seeking advice.

Student: I wanted to talk to you about strategies for preparing for the MA Exam.

Me: Oh, good! You're thinking ahead. Great! What do you want to know?

Student (pulling out the suggested ways of studying and thinking about it, as posted on the web site): Question 2 here talks about themes....

Me (interrupting to clarify): Just to be clear, that's not going to be Part II of the exam. The four parts of the exam are below that. The list you're looking at is just some suggested ways of making connections between the works on the list.

[Note: we have a rather old-fashioned comprehensive exam, although we keep it pretty short. We don't pretend that the works on it are "must know" works in some Bloomsian Closing of the American Mind way, but are at least representative of major periods, genres, and movements. This might seem rather a rehash of a typical English major, but many of our students are coming to us because they weren't English majors, so the exam is one way we give some of the background English majors have. To give you an idea of its short-comings and also it shortness: the entire Middle Ages is represented by The Canterbury Tales. At least it's a collection of many genres, and of course, sometimes that's all an undergrad English major has, but I'm a little annoyed that English literature seems to start in the 14th century. Sheesh, let's at least get Beowulf on there! Right, item for the agenda of the next grad committee meeting! Now back to the dialogue...]

Student: Oh, OK...well, here's what I'm really wondering: do I have to read all these works?

Me: (Stunned. Blinking. Searching for non-sarcastic tone. Trying to sound cheery.) Yes. All thirty-three. Which, when you think about it, is less than two books a month if you start now and then take the exam your last semester!

Student: But I'm not interested in most of these texts. Doesn't the exam allow you to talk about what you're most interested in?

Me: No, not exactly. You can play to your strengths, but it expects breadth. It expects you to make connections. [I then proceeded to show him a sample exam and to show him how even with a choice of questions, there's no way one can get by with just the texts or period one is interested in.]

Student: Fine, fine. I guess what I want to know is whether I can just read the Spark Notes and some critical articles and get by with that for the texts I'm not interested in.

Me (giving him the look of death): No, Mr. Student, you can't. You will fail. (Pausing) And a graduate student shouldn't even being saying that out loud.

[End dialogue]

That wasn't really the end of our conversation. There was more about what he was interested in, which he claimed we didn't offer (making me wonder why he came to our department) but which turned out to be something that one of faculty members actually does active research in (which then made me wonder if he'd bother to look at our web page at all). That's just naivite, though, and I can understand and forgive that. But to openly say to your Director of Graduate Studies, in hardly veiled language, that you would prefer to find an easy way to a degree and not have to do the work, seems so self-destructive as to be utterly incomprehensible to me. He's lucky that I'm not the vindictive type who would then tell the rest of the graduate faculty to look out for him (no, I only blog it on my anonymous blog - te-hee!), or who would judge his work in my course according to his attitude. I will judge his work on his work's merits. But he just lost my benefit of the doubt. And all of this is especially vexing after we just spent the first two weeks in my "How to do Grad School Right" course (aka my methods and professionalization course) reading Gregory Colon Semenza's Graduate Study for the 21st Century, in which he says, twice, something along the lines of 'any English graduate student not willing to read a Victorian novel on his own shouldn't be in graduate school in English,' and also has repeated advice about how not to shoot yourself in the foot.

Well, I guess I can lead graduate students to good advice, but I can't make them take it. And that's what I learned in school today.


Lisa Spangenberg said...

Holy jumpin' . . . my.

I kind of liked being able to read A Whole Bunch of New Books, frankly. I read stuff that I wouldn't have, otherwise, and liked a lot of it.

Vausey said...

Wow, that takes some balls to look the director of graduate studies in the eye and basically say you are planning to read Sparknotes and to imply that she should rearrange the MA comprehensives to suit you. Wow.

Anonymous said...

That is one hell of a story. Is this student a just-out-of-college 22-year-old who doesn't really know what work looks like?

When I started grad school, I requested and received the reading lists for my comprehensive exam areas ahead of time, at the beginning of the summer, because I was so excited to start doing the reading!

Anonymous said...

Having just semi-completed (is anyone ever "done"?) my own exam reading lists, I'm disgusted to read comments like these. But I'm also mildly and delusionally encouraged by them. While this clown probably won't ever find his way to the job market, I like to imagine -- in my safe pre-diss tower -- that, when I do brave that wooly world, I'll only be up against this sort of bonehead.

But mostly I'm disgusted.

SparkNotes?!?? Really?!?!!!?

Anonymous said...

Tar and Feather the bum! Or maybe he's dyslexic and needs to change career options.

Bardiac said...

I always raise my hackles a bit when a student (any student, or anyone else, pretty much) uses "just" in that kind of way, as in, how little work can I get away with.

Why is one in grad school if one doesn't want to learn?

Anonymous said...

Sparknotes? In grad school???


Leslie M-B said...

Thirty-three books?! The agony!!! /sarcasm

Seriously, one semester when I was an undergraduate English major, I was assigned 33 books total for four classes. And I read every word of every one of them, and I suspect most of my classmates did as well. And then on top of that I read additional books for my papers.

Needless to say, I have no sympathy for students like the one you describe, nor for undergraduates who complain about having to read 40 pages in a week.

Anonymous said...

I'm a college textbook editor -- comp, rhet, and some literature -- and once had a textbook reviewer confess that he'd never adopt a first-year composition reader that required students to turn the page more than five times per selection.

But, hey, I managed to get my undergraduate degree summa cum laude without ever doing a lick of math. Of course I regret that immensely, now that I'm older, wiser, and......well, not remotely as well-paid as people who know their way around a quadratic equation!

But this is still an astonishing story. I wonder if, on the first date, this student announces "Why don't we just skip the yadda yadda yadda, because I really don't want to know anything about you and I'll probably forget all about you tomorrow morning anyway."

Anonymous said...

As a grad student currently (and dutifully) studying for the two parts of our comprehensive exams by reading all the works on our list and having twice-weekly study group meetings, I hereby offer to bash your student over the head with a copy of Clarissa.

Except for a tight-knit bunch of "good students," the majority of the people in my MA program are just like your student. It annoys the crap out of me, especially when they want my group's study notes. Uh, no, you can't have our notes. Then they say "ok, we'll just sparknote the works," and we look at them with disdain and walk away. Only our dumbest student(s) tell the grad coordinator they plan to use the sparknotes, and surprise surprise the students always fail.

I will admit to being kind of jealous of the short reading list your school seems to have. Our list starts with the Iliad and goes through Seamus Heaney.

Anonymous said...

Good for you for being the force of change! Here, our faculty know the majority of the students can't do it, but they don't say so out loud. :) Only two or three students each year actually apply to PhD programs. The majority of our folks are high school teachers looking at the MA as a way to put them on a different pay scale. I certainly don't object to that, but we do have a lot of less-than-scholarly people in our program.

Dr. Virago said...

I used to think our program was mostly H.S. teacher -- and actually, they're usually the most earnest and serious students here! -- but of the 18 students in my first-year methods class, only 3 say they are currently working as high school teachers or looking to get back into it. Some want to be CC comp teachers -- and think they can do that with just an MA -- and, surprisingly, most are at least thinking about Ph.D. programs. Of course, not all will get *in* to them, but I'll work to help them if they'll work to help themselves!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Please tell me this person is not funded!

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Oh, dammit. Dammit dammit dammit.

I have a profound urge to book a plane ticket out to your neck of the woods and give this jackass a lecture in person.

This is the kind of behavior that convinces far too many people that graduate students are overgrown kindergarteners and encourages them to treat us as such.

PLEASE, for the love of God, folks, recognize that the vast majority of us truly aren't like this. We don't know how these people manage to get into grad school at all, and we wish they'd go away.

Dr. Virago said...

ADM -- Since we don't have fellowship funds, he's not funded in that sense. He is, however, a TA. I take no responsibility for that decision, since it was made before I was DGS, but I weep for the undergrads in his class.

AW - There's a vast difference between our MA students and PhD program students. For one thing, ours is pretty easy to get into -- and even if you don't get full admitted status, we'll let you take a course and prove yourself -- while PhD programs are very difficult to get into. I think MA programs in particular attract the "just hanging around" types, since it's not nearly as much of a commitment as a PhD program. Heck, even the application is easier. So that explains where they come from in *our* program, anyway.

Then again, I'm sure there are variations on them in PhD programs as well. In fact, I know there are -- although a lot of them are part of the reason for attrition. But they'd probably be smart enough not to *admit* to the DGS that want to coast by on Sparknotes!!!

Ahistoricality said...

Maybe I'm getting tired -- outrage fatigue -- but after a conversation like that, in which Dr. Virago made it quite clear that failure was an option, there are really only two possible outcomes. The student will take the advice offered and do the work sufficiently diligently to pass or, the student won't and won't pass. Sometimes a reality check works, and sometimes the dream drifts on, and our responsibility at that point, frankly, is to give students the grades they've earned, without regret.

Dr. Virago said...

our responsibility at that point, frankly, is to give students the grades they've earned, without regret.

Hear, Hear, ahistoricality. But I have to say, it bums me out when I've spent two weeks giving and leading the students to good advice and it all goes in one ear and out the other. Sigh.

Timothy Burke said...


The problem is that this student is stupid in three distinct ways. There's the personal satisfaction problem, where it is stupid to be studying literature if, you know, you're not interested in literature. There's the actually knowing things problem, where it is stupid to be stupid if your job is going to involve being smart.

But most devastatingly, there's the politic kind of stupidity, meaning, you don't just casually say things which are utterly destructive to your image as an academic to someone who is in the position to destroy you. A goodly portion of graduate school is about being politic; a student who so utterly lacks that at this point is in very, very serious trouble.

DelaneyKirk said...

I would have to assume this student is just attending grad school as an alternative to getting a job??

MKH said...

Not much to offer new, but dear lord. Spark Notes?

I'm starting reading for my oral exams now (a month later than I meant to, but ah well!) -- and if I'd said "oh, I don't want Old English Prose on my list, I'm not interested in that" I never would have discovered what I'm actually interested in (which, at the moment, are Alfredian translations...and much of that IS prose!!).

Le sigh. And I already feel like I'm getting off the hook because my "comps" aren't really comps, but reading lists designed as "teaching field", "related field" and "thesis field". I guess it could be worse.

Anonymous said...

Reassure yourself that this person will have to face the consequences of their own laziness in one way or another.

In my particular world lots of people develop an interest in books or in writing - sometimes through movie or role playing games, sometimes because they want to write a book, sometimes because it's cool to hang with writers, sometimes out of genuine love, sometimes because they want to write book reviews. Most of them discover how much they have missed out on and use their newfound friends as a source for reading recommendations and lots of wonderful conversations ensue and all of us learn and enjoy the books.

The ones like your grad student, however, read maybe a book a week for a bit and tell themselves they are brilliant intellectuals and have a deep literary background. They take this assumption with them when they start mixing with serious readers (I regard serious reading as addicted over a lifetime).

The more sensible then develop reading lists and take a bit more time for reading when they discover that they have read lots of modern lit fiction, but nothing medieval and that other people don't struggle through nineteenth century writers. They listen for a bit longer rather than trying to impress the world.

The remainder say "But I am a big reader and know heaps and look, I am in the literary world" and put themselves up for panels at literary events or SF events. What happens then can be very, very messy. And it does indeed come down to what reading habits they developed at school and at university. Each and every time.

EYYÜP HAN said...

"To give you an idea of its short-comings and also it shortness: the entire Middle Ages is represented by The Canterbury Tales. "

Everye tyme 'the canterburye tales' is vsid to stand in for the whole spanne of tyme fro the fall of Rome to the fall of Constantinople, a small deuil hitteth me in my heed.


Le Vostre

Anonymous said...

Oh for pities sake. You know, I like reading, but I knew when I was getting my BA in English Lit that I could never seriously pursue it beyound undergrad because there are huge swathes of English Lit I'm ... well, not incurious about, but not very enthused about tackling either.

I moved on to other areas of the humanities where I'm more interested in the broad spectrum that exists in the discipline. I never knew I'd be so turned on by Experimental Film and if I hadn't been willing to delve into it with an open mind I might not have been. Intellectual curiousity makes the student.

And how this student can grasp the historical underpinings of contemporary fiction without studying what has come before it is beyond me.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

outside of sff and a few mysteries, what literature is there after the Vietnam War??? *ducks*