Where’s the Love?

I’ve often joked about my decision to go through life with low expectations from now on in the hopes of being pleasantly surprised (rather than disappointed). My experiences in grad school have largely led to this rather cynical outlook on life (surprise, surprise). At the moment, I am currently involved with my third graduate department: the first was where I received my M.A. in history, the second was my aborted Ph.D. program in history, and the third is my not-quite-official M.A. in English. In each of these programs I was/am surprised by the number of people who leave me asking: “Where’s the Love?”

Let me explain. Grad school is rough–if you didn’t already know that, someone is sure to tell you many, many times. I often spend my days feeling like an imbecile, doubting my abilities, and trying to justify my very existence. The pay sucks (particularly as I’m not actually in a program now, so there’s no funding at the moment) and the workload is often insane. It is not a 9-to-five kind of job–it spills over into every moment of free time that I have. That said, it’s a hell of a lot of fun as well and I actually cannot imagine doing anything else. I’ve had other jobs, I’ve taken time off from school, but really, I feel at home in academia. But there are some students who make me wonder. Do they like their subject? Do they even like to read? Why are they going through all of this if they don’t love what they do? (And I know that a simple answer to the last question is that they do it because they can’t think of anything else to do, but I find this to be a lazy response and rather sad).

The reason I ask is because I have a gift for picking programs that are often dominated by people who seem to actively dislike what they’re doing. I’m not talking about the everyday complaining that everyone (and this includes people in the so-called “real world”) participates in at some moment or other. I’m talking about the people who can barely seem to sit still through a seminar. Who apparently already know so much about the subject that they have no need to respect their colleagues or professors, and who refuse to engage in discussions about their subject outside of a classroom. Closely tied to this group of non-lovers is the group of people who are so narrowly focused on their subject matter (which nevertheless seems to bore them to tears) that they have little or no time for any other subject. Perhaps this is my obvious interdisciplinary bias speaking, but I can find something to like in almost everything I study (and believe me, I wish at times that I didn’t because I might have an easier time picking a damn program). My literary interests are leaning more towards the Romantic and Victorian periods in British lit, but that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying my American lit courses. As a historian I studied Russian and American Jewish history at the Ph.D. level, and predominantly 19th-century American history as an M.A. student. But within those areas I also focused on gender, Chinese-American history, environmental history, immigration, labor, cultural history, etc. I am always shocked when I hear fellow students who feel the need to go beyond mere disinterest to actively denigrating other fields of study. Then there are the students who are actually angry that they have to take qualifying exams, or participate in department functions/speaker series (particularly if they aren’t directly tied to their pet subjects), or who are asked to…gasp…demonstrate at least a basic reading knowledge of one foreign language (and I know that languages are not easy for everyone, but if it’s an integral part of learning–to be able to participate in a wider critical discussion–then isn’t that something that one should think of before signing up for grad school and a career in academia?).

I know that not all graduate programs are like this. I was rather spoiled by the camaraderie I witnessed in Apparent Dip’s geology grad program. Students had other interests to be sure, but it wasn’t surprising to find them “talking shop” at parties (which could get quite interesting as people imbibed more alcohol). They were never exclusive to outsiders, but one could tell that they loved what they were doing. Their excitement was contagious, and even though my geology background is rather removed (I finished college nine years ago one course shy of a geology major), I couldn’t help but get caught up in the fun. Because while they worked hard, and they definitely had bad days/weeks/months, AD’s colleagues also made it clear that it was fun.

This is the aspect of graduate study that I feel has largely been missing from my experience(s). I’m doing this because I love it. I love the pursuit of knowledge, I love talking about books I read or want to read, and while it might seem that I have a love/hate relationship with writing, I have to admit that deep-down I love that part as well. I thoroughly enjoy doing research. But where are the late-night conversations about theory/books/authors that no one has really heard of? Where’s the nerdiness? And let me make it clear, my Ph.D. program was the worst case–I should have taken a clue from the lack of organization when I visited the campus and the fact that I only met with 3 students. It was not a group of people who were excited about being in grad school. My english program is a huge step up. But there’s still something a bit off. And don’t get me wrong: I can deal with buckling down and just focusing on my work and getting to the next stage. But I miss the coffee-shop meet-ups. I miss conversations that you wish would never end. I miss the excitement of sharing ideas. Has anyone had a similar experience? Any words of advice on how to deal with wet-blankets within a program (or life in general)?


8 responses to this post.

  1. I had a little bit of the kind of camaraderie you describe here, although I wished for more. I heard lots of complaints and unhappiness in grad school too — grad school really does tend to suck the life out of people. I wonder if it’s different in other fields, like science? People’s attitudes may have something to do with the harsh job outlook in the humanities. I feel like I’ve rediscovered the joy of reading and learning now that I’m out of school — unfortunately school doesn’t always foster that!


  2. I too love studying everything. (They jest about courses on laundry lists? I would love to take a class on laundry lists! Sign me up.)

    At my program, we have had some students who said, in public, that they “didn’t like to read” or “why are we reading all of these novels” or complain that the work is too much and too hard. Luckily these people all dropped out fairly quickly as I was going to have to slap them upside the head repeatedly until I felt better. How dare you come in to the animal preserves where endangered geeks roam free and start complaining it’s too geeky!

    The other part you mention actually has two sides to it. One, I think grad school keeps us busy, and once past courses, pretty isolated, and we often feel like we don’t have the time to go hang out and just talk about things, except with our very closest friends or SOs. I don’t think we like this, as sometimes I still run into people from my cohort and we accidentally lose time chatting about “fun” things like reading for pleasure and it is really great. Guilt inducing, but great.

    The other side to this point is that we are getting these discussions in a different way later on in a grad program —- we teach about our books, read criticism, go to conferences — so I think more further along grads want different stuff than just “hey, this is a fun book.” It might be our sense of professionalization making us think we need to have every moment of book-attention “count,” but I think after a certain point the conversations really change, and they don’t resemble my all-night-talkfests from undergrad.

    So, to make a long comment even longer —- it might be the overwhelming busyness and lack of time, not the grad students’ attitudes or standoffishness, that is preventing good conversations. If you really want it to happen and other people can’t manage their time, you might need to do a little organizing to coordinate people. If they’re focused on “what will this do for me,” you could organize something even more formal, like a reading group, or a nineteenth-century tea. (Our Victorianists like having teas. Maybe yours will as well.)


  3. I think if you would have asked me about this two years ago I would have agreed that perhaps it was a discipline thing. I worked in labs and went on field trips, and that helped develop a very interactive group of graduate students. But with more exposure to other departments, universities, and students, I no longer think that can explain everything. I think many of the sciences have a natural advantage, they have communal lab/office space, and there are often groups of people working on different parts of the same problem. That makes informal discussions easy. But, I have now seen a science department where much of the student is as you describe. Many of them don’t really seem to enjoy or be very excited about what they are doing. I guess I feel that everyone knows graduate school is going to be hard, and is going to take a lot of your time. I also know that even most of the sciences are not necessarily paths to wealth (like say law school or med school can be), so why do it if you aren’t fascinated by it? I am all for people having lives outside of academia, it is crucial I think, but what I see missing in these programs is the sense that the students have little interest in developing beyond what is required. Little interest in meetings, invited speakers, new work, etc…more like it is undergraduate part 2 than preparation to become a professional. Does that make sense?


  4. Dorothy: I don’t know if the sciences are any different. I work in a geology department right now, and it doesn’t have the same feel of camaraderie that existed in other departments I’ve seen. I guess I just find myself amazed at the lack of interest–at a basic level–that I see around me. It rather saddens me.

    Sisyphus: Thanks for commenting! I wholeheartedly agree that there are elements of scholarship (particularly in the humanities and those sciences that don’t have a “lab” to serve as a sort of gathering/focal point) that are, by necessity isolating and that the kinds of conversations that people have will change over time. I guess I’m just surprised that so many people around me don’t even really seem to want to be here. Now this could just be an act of cynical disdain that they perform in an attempt to cover up their own insecurities, but it saddens me all the same. And at my current program, which is, on the the whole, much, much better than my previous program in history, I think a large part of it stems from the fact that I’m not yet “in” the program. I’m something of a wannabe grad student (hopefully that will end next semester). But I guess what I feel to be missing are the very things you mention: it can be hard to find people who even want to participate in a reading group, and there are a surprising number of students who have no shame in publicly announcing their dislike for reading (and yet somehow, they don’t leave). I have joined a writing group and a reading group (which luckily for me, drinks coffee), but on average, only 2-3 people, including myself, show up. I’m looking to be part of a support system in which it’s ok, even encouraged, to be geeky rather than disaffected (I really do want to live in a world where geeks roam free!). It sometimes feels like people approach their grad work with the same enthusiasm they might approach cleaning a toilet with a toothbrush. They’ll do it if they have to, but it seems like they look for as many excuses as possible to avoid working altogether. In my history ph.d. program only a handful of people were interested in presenting at conferences or really pushing themselves to the next level of scholarship. Grad school is just something they’re doing until something better comes along. Hopefully this will change–the program I’m in at the moment is in transition, so it might just be a matter of time before I’ll be able to launch my plan for world domination! In the meantime I’ll just write really really long comments to my own blog post and make devious plans…


  5. Thermochronic: “Undergrad part 2” hits it on the head! Because the humanities are so impacted, it’s going to take a lot more than the bare minimum to get ahead, and I feel like too many people are not that interested in putting forth the effort it takes to be a professional in the field…


  6. I was fortunate to have a wonderful graduate program, with the coffee-shop meet-ups, late night drunken conversations, etc – but that joy was definitely balanced out with a fair amount of griping and distress. I think some of the grouchiness comes from the near-poverty humanity students endure, coupled with the competitive streak students MUST bring to the table if they hope to get a job in academia upon graduating. The job prospects are so bleak – the work load so much – it can be tough to see the forest for the trees. I also think “complaining” is a way we’ve learned to talk to one another, which saddens me, but I’ve definitely noticed it – that through complaining and bitching and moaning, we have full conversations, full relationships with people. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.


  7. Group cynicism can sure make one feel isolated. I remember when I was working as a chef. During the really busy stressful times everyone was over-the-top surly, hateful, mean, suspicious. Then things would slow down and we’d all laugh at each other and have fun, (well, that’s kind of utopian, but we wouldn’t want to kill each other as much.) I don’t have experience with grad school, but I sometimes think there is an ebb and flow to this kind of thing and when it gets overwhelming I just try to wait for the flow. Or is it the ebb? Which ever one makes me feel happier. It’s easy though to fall into the “I’d rather clean the toilet with a toothbrush than sit down and write.” The “nobody wants to be here” vibe is pretty hard to overcome on an individual level as well. I sometimes try levity, but that can get you some pretty scary looks from people who are determined to be unhappy.


  8. everythinginbetween: I love to complain as much as the next person (I mean, my blog sort of speaks for itself in that regard)–but the difference I think I’m feeling is complaining with a deep-rooted love/geekiness at the base of it (in which we have legitimate gripes about workload, feeling exploited as workers, etc) and complaining when there’s no sense that any real enjoyment ever existed at the base of things. And perhaps more than anything, I’m just surprised at my own optimism. I generally like to call myself a “realist” (whereas my husband uses the dreaded term pessimist) and one thing I’m recognizing is that despite the crap, despite the bleak employment outlook and the competition, I generally have good thoughts about the future. Never would have thought that.

    Ian: I like how you put it: “people who are determined to be unhappy.” I have the tendency to feel like I need to make sure that everyone around me is feeling good and happy with things; and if I am generally happy, but they aren’t, then I immediately suppose that there’s something inherently wrong with me. In the meantime (while waiting for the ebb–or flow) I’ll arm myself with humor and just buckle down to the job at hand. And by the way–I’m really glad that I’m dealing with graduate students rather than chefs (who have knives and other sharp implements), although I don’t want to test out the cliche of the pen being mightier than the sword when the crankiness tide is in full force! 🙂


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