A Rant

A few days ago, at a party for a student who finished her PhD, I heard a professor and a fellow grad student make a joke about how grad school is supposed to be easy and fun. I gritted my teeth a bit and managed to merely make a comment about how that’s not necessarily true, but I was honestly kinda pissed off. This is something I’ve heard repeatedly from faculty and other grad students, all of whom are, coincidentally, able-bodied white men. Now, before I keep going let me just state that grad school isn’t easy and fun for all able-bodied white men, nor is it necessarily awful and terrible for women, people with disabilities, people of color and all intersections therein. We’re talking about cultural trends, not hard and fast rules.

My experience, though, hasn’t been fun or easy and I’ve actually had a professor tell me that I was doing grad school wrong because of that, basically saying that I didn’t belong if I wasn’t having a good enough time. Well, I’m sorry that I haven’t enjoyed being insulted, dismissed, harassed, sabotaged, and then having the temerity to be affected by all those things. I’m sorry that I haven’t found it fun to be treated like I’m broken because I had the arrogance to simultaneously be disabled and a woman. I’m sorry that I don’t have a good time when I get my ideas talked over (at best) or shouted down (at worst) and then a male colleague gets to say the same damn thing minutes later and be taken seriously. I beg forgiveness for being hurt when I have to sit and get homophobic crap thrown at me while faculty just shift uncomfortably in their seats. I hope I can pay penance for my anger that my mental disability has meant I’ve needed more help and understanding, but I’ve had that need thrown back in my face as weakness or poor work ethic.

You might read that and think “Clarissa, why are you still in grad school” and honestly some days, like today, when I’m tired and close to burning out I don’t know. I love learning, I love the kinds of math that I get to work on when things are going well, and I love teaching. That means grad school should be great for me, but in a lot of ways it just hasn’t been. I’m tired of constantly feeling like I have to prove myself because the default is to assume that I don’t really deserve to be here or that I’m not good enough to earn a PhD, when in reality I’m having to try so much harder all the time than some of my fellow able-bodied white male grad students who have stay-at-home wives that take care of everything for them and yet they feel like they have the right to look down on me because my life isn’t effortless.

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3 thoughts on “A Rant

  1. Yikes. Seems incredibly presumptuous and narrow-minded to just straight up assume and expect grad school to be _easy_ and _fun_.

    I mean … it’s one thing that you can try your best as an advisor to actively help your students, and you can help build a welcoming and enjoyable work environment and all that stuff… but that’s a pretty far cry from it being easy and fun.

    In fact, by the very nature of research, it shouldn’t be easy: going beyond what you know yourself never is; and extending the state of human knowledge by definition goes beyond what you know yourself. And PhD studies are researcher training.

    And by the very nature of doing something hard, it shouldn’t all be fun. Trying and failing is essential to solving hard problems with little if any existing guidelines; and failing is not particularly much fun.

    It seems to me that more or less by definition grad school isn’t supposed to be either of them – and if it was for you (like it in some parts was for me), you are lucky AND you have the benefit of more than a little privilege helping you along the way (both true for me, too).

    Sheeeeeeesh.

  2. I think it should be fun, in the same way that everyone who wants a pony should have one. More importantly, it shouldn’t be horrible, and it’s disgusting that the people who are culpable in making it horrible dare to blame you for their own shitshow.

  3. I’m a white man

    Yeah, that’s a pretty disrespectful, condescending, and privelege-unaware comment to make. Dicks. Anywhere traditionally associated with success accumulates assholes.

    That said… life is shit for everyone who makes it shit. I know plenty of white men who mostly complain that things don’t go their way. That’s fine with me, I don’t judge them for it, but if they focused their attention on how fucking great everything is they might have a better time.

    And (speaking from a place of ignorance but desire to help) the same goes for lesser-privileged. Anyone who is at grad school in the first place has a level of privilege which is not available to much of the world — but it’s not really about that. It’s about focus. People sometimes get mad at me when I tell them that they are in charge of their experience — I maintain this belief about myself nonetheless; I need this belief to live the happy and free life that I do. If you want to have fun, you can do it, it all happens inside. Do you want to have fun? What’s a strategy you could use to have more fun in your situation?

    Love,
    Luke

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