The Happy Academic agrees: it ain't easy being a grad student…

Bitch PhD has apparently taken a (short?) break in writing about her sex life and recently wrote this post about working with both undergraduate and graduate students, particularly graduate students. She’s responding to this post from “real person” Sharleen Mondal, about the problems of being a grad student, which is in large part a response to this post from “pseudo” (is that the right word? I’m not sure…) person profgrrrl. Incidentally, both Mondal and the profgrrrl have other posts on their blogs about this stuff, but I’m not going to link to everything.

Anyway, here are some thoughts:

* I actually agree with Bitch PhD quite a bit. One highlight:

I think graduate school is a really weird place. On the one hand, we want and expect grad students to be adults, to act collegial. On the other hand, we have a lot of power over them. Think about our own faculty anxiety about not being smart enough, not measuring up, what if someone knows that we flubbed that, why are we blogging anonymously? Then multiply it exponentially. Grad students feel that everything is riding on their ability to be “good students,” a position that’s the exact opposite of being “good independent collegial thinkers.” We want the impossible from them. And often it’s the smartest, savviest, most intuitive students who sense our impatience (which has nothing to do with them, and is probably more a generalized impatience with our own jobs, especially those of us who are junior faculty), and get nervous about it, and then panic and stop being able to think.

Very true, I think. Grad students have to occupy this space of being “independent” thinkers and our students (so not too independent), of being “professionals” (if they are teaching assistants of some sort) and of still being “amateurs” (because they are heavily supervised and generally inexperienced teachers). Of course, all academics (happy, anonymous, and otherwise) have to pass through this phase at some point. I remember it and I try to sympathetic with the experience.

* I’ve written a bit about this in the past as well, mostly on my old blog. See this post, and this one. Sorry about all the spam comments here– that’s why I use blogger now.

* I’ve taught a fair number of grad classes and I’ve worked with about a dozen students on MA projects since I came to EMU in 1998 (we don’t have a PhD program, so that’s a whole different thing). In my experience, the ability of our grad students varies a lot more than the abilities of our undergraduates. In other words, the students I have in the junior/senior level classes are a lot more consistent than the students in the grad classes. So in a way, that makes teaching grad classes a bit more tricky than teaching undergrad classes.

Incidentally, my current graduate class,English 516, is going quite well. A very good group.

* I can’t really speak to the problems that profgrrrl is having with her students, or that Mondal is having with some of her teachers. But I can say this: it has taken me a number of years to get my act together in terms of teaching grad classes and I feel like I’ve learned a lot since the ’98-99 school year, the first semester I taught a grad class here.

Back then, I think my expectations were unrealistic because I wasn’t trying to “meet” the students where they were at in terms of their abilities and goals. And really, I think I was still too close to my own experience. profgrrrl suggests that junior faculty are more “current” and therefore more “demanding” than senior faculty. I don’t know, maybe. But in my own case, I think the fact that I taught a grad class only two and a half years after I finished my PhD distorted my expectations.

I guess what I’m getting at is I think it’s natural for people who actually manage to finish the PhD, get a job, and end up teaching graduate classes (and keep in mind that few academics actually get to this point) to have a sort of distorted view of reality in terms of their own abilities and knowledge. It’s also easy as a new tenure-track faculty member to feel like you’re kind of still “in competition” with your own students because you aren’t that far away from being a student yourself. For me, a little distance from my own PhD experience has helped.

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