A well-meaning professor recently complimented me on a paper I presented by declaring that I didn’t present “like a grad student.” Instead, the professor observed, I was quite professional, and my manner was polished.
Shortly after that, as I was collecting ideas for workshops for students in my department, I was told that one faculty member had worked up a great presentation. The topic? How to keep your essay from reading like a grad student wrote it. I heard about another presentation, too, one on email communication—more specifically, on how to correspond without sounding like a grad student.
At this point, I started to feel echoes of my childhood, when other kids (or gym teachers) would declare that I ran like a girl. (Or threw a ball like a girl. Or threw a punch like a girl.) To these taunts, my exasperated response was usually: But I am a girl!
And I’ve reached a similar point once more. Only now I want to declare: But I am a grad student!
We all agree, of course, that using “girl” as an insult in the 21st century is unacceptable. The use of “grad student” as a derogatory term, on the other hand, is generally unquestioned. But the usages are in some ways analogous. To chide someone for throwing like a girl is to tell them that their form is not “standard.” It’s to say: You’re doing this wrong. To criticize a grad student’s essential grad-studentness is to send a similar message: We’ve internalized all of these conventions, norms, and etiquettes, and you haven’t. So you don’t belong.
The problem with this is that, for many grad students, there’s no clear answer to the follow-up question: Well, how do I do this right?
As much as we like to think of the humanities as egalitarian and democratic, there’s a lot of unacknowledged hierarchy. Other fields—business or law, for example—are quite forthright about how to play by the rules: They may define the appropriate professorial and professional honorifics, devote whole classes to the proper writing style, even provide information on table etiquette. But it’s my impression that in the humanities (and particularly in English), one is expected to pick such things up by osmosis.
It’s not that these conventions can’t be taught to humanities students. It’s not hard to say that in writing, you should spend less time on other people’s ideas and more on your own. Nor is it hard to lay out the etiquette on when to write a thank-you note. In fact, Karen Kelsky lays out plenty of specifics in a blog post on the The Professor Is In titled “Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student.”
Many of the behaviors Kelsky describes involve a paradoxical sense that grad students tend to act both underconfident and overconfident. On the one hand, grad students are too quick to qualify their own ideas, too inclined to end each sentence as though it were a question? On the other, they’re often too willing to share their views on theory they don’t fully understand, or to be overwhelmingly negative in their comments on the work of classmates and scholars. And then there are hallmarks of grad-student behavior mentioned by Kelsky that seem simultaneously insecure and arrogant—like thinking that people in your department are out to get you.
Admittedly, it’s true that graduate students do often exhibit less-than-professional behavior, and it really is up to us to seek out help and resources in a professional manner. But the contradictory behavior Kelsky outlines is, I believe, often just a result of anxiety—about expectations, about policies, about processes. When it seems as though the same five grad students get consistently better teaching assignments or other perks, it’s easy to assume favoritism, even if that’s not overtly happening. Institutions can still go a long way in demonstrating and enforcing equity (in my example, by establishing clear criteria for teaching assignments and being transparent about how those assignments work). Here, departments and faculty advocates can be really helpful, both to look into possible problems and provide insight into systems that are frequently too complicated for grad students to quickly decode.
So here’s my plea. Faculty, departments: Help us learn the right standards, and be specific in your advice. In order for grad students to move past rookie foibles and have a fair chance in our fields, a real commitment to professionalization and mentorship is essential.
While working on this column, I kept thinking of a phrase from Dr. Who: “wibbly wobbly timey wimey.” In the show it’s meant to describe the nature of time, but it’s also a great way to characterize the experience of being a grad student. We’re pre-professionals, but we’re expected to exhibit professional behavior. We’re doing a lot of work that we’ve always done—reading, writing, research—but we’re also feeling our way through teaching and dealing with a leap in expectations and a steep learning curve.
When I asked professors directly—What behaviors strike you as “like a grad student”?—many responded with examples of students coming to class without having done their reading, waxing knowledgeable about things they don’t understand, or just making too many excuses.These comments have made me reconsider my own attitude toward my own undergraduate students, especially the ones who send me emails which give way too much information about their illness, their car problems, or their family issues. I think what my undergraduate students are trying to do is establish credibility. This is something that we, as graduate students, are doing when we produce excuses or overconfident criticisms of our own.
When people told me I threw like a girl, my usual response—“Of course I throw like one!”—allowed me to shrug off the implied insult and focus instead on improving my skills. As graduate students, we should do the same thing. Our position is insecure, interstitial, wibbly wobbly. Let’s just acknowledge that and have a much more open conversation about what we need to learn in order to become colleagues after we are classmates.
Image: Jackie Mitchell, the 17-year-old who learned pitching from Dazzy Vance and famously struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition. (Underwood & Underwood/Corbis)