Diary of a Mad Grad Student

My first few weeks as a graduate student at St. John’s were exciting and frightening all at once. The combined anxiety of relocating to a new city, “the City,” alone, finding a living space and becoming acclimated with a new learning environment presented significant challenges. However I have come to regard challenges as opportunities in disguise. My fear was not unfounded but warranted. This is a new life and there will be growing pains. But with those pains come a whole lot of joy.

I was apprehensive about bringing my concerns to my Introduction to the Profession professor, Dr. Steve Mentz. In my preparation for graduate school, I had been forewarned of the delicate balance of cooperation and competition that exists at the graduate level. I did not want to seem fearful or anxious when, as I initially thought, most of my fellow scholars seemed so confident in their understanding of the material and comfortable in this environment.
Dr. Mentz acknowledged my worry as natural. This is in no way an easy transition. He also encouraged me to share my experiences and studies with himself and my fellow scholars. He stressed the importance of me writing as a way to channel my worries in a way that is positive and productive. Dr. Mentz also took the time to engage me in discussion about my research interest and offer valuable suggestions as to how to begin my prospectus and dissertation research. I particularly appreciated this gesture.
My research interest leans toward Modernist/Post-Modernist African American writers of the post-WWII period namely Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. In my previous study of these writers, opposition to the black writer’s perspective from the gatekeepers of literary criticism is a constant discussion topic. Quite simply, the gatekeepers considered black literature inferior to the traditional Western canon and Western aesthetic. Through their hard work and courage these authors and others fused the Western literary tradition with the current of blues and jazz rhetoric to create a new tradition altogether American in nature. Their work is my love.
Initially, I was hesitant to share my interests. At my last institution, a historically black college, there was a natural feeling of pride in all things black. I realize that at this university my focus will be broader. Dr. Mentz advised me to widen the scope of my readings while at the same time focusing on tightening my particular research, perhaps comparing the black authors to French existentialist writers of the same time period.
In our short conversation as well as in seminar, Dr. Mentz brought to light the issue of balancing the labor and joy of study. I need to incorporate a sense of fun into this experience and I have to admit in the first few weeks I did not. I love to read and I love to learn. There is nothing I want to do more for the rest of my life than associate and collaborate with teachers and learners. Perhaps, through the challenges, never forgetting why I am here will serve as motivation to push forward.
October 11, 2011
About Steve Mentz 650 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and early modern literature at St. John's in New York City.

5 Comments

  1. “I was apprehensive about bringing my concerns to my Introduction to the Profession professor, Dr. Steve Mentz. In my preparation for graduate school, I had been forewarned of the delicate balance of cooperation and competition that exists at the graduate level. I did not want to seem fearful or anxious when, as I initially thought, most of my fellow scholars seemed so confident in their understanding of the material and comfortable in this environment.”

    The relationship between shame and scholarship that may have been consciously or subconsciously plaguing new students since September (or before…) surfaces this week in Bayard and, less explicitly, in Semenza. As Gingy discusses in her post, Bayard is concerned with the shame that circulates through the virtual library (“the realm of communication about books” [125]); this realm is actually a theatrical space that relies upon ambiguity as it seeks to conceal “individual ignorance and the fragmentation of knowledge” (126). According to Bayard, when we admit to not having read a book, we chance the “protective function” of this ambiguous virtual space and threaten not only our self-image but also that which we seek to convey to others (128). But, he encourages us to free ourselves from that which the shame builds upon—“the oppressive image of cultural literacy without cultural gaps” (129). While this Bayardian lens can help dissipate some of the shame of not having “read” Hamlet, it can also help us to assuage some of the shame, per se, of not having all of the answers upon entering graduate school, of not being a scholar “so confident in…understanding of the material and comfortable in this environment,” as Lateef shares. When reading Semenza, once can easily get wrapped up in and overwhelmed by all the gaps in one’s knowledge of the ins and outs of graduate school and thirstily read for the “answers’; but maybe, in Bayard’s way, we should embrace these gaps—after all, who could know everything about professionalism in the ivory tower prior to beginning the climb? This fear of exposing our lack of knowledge—in books or in grad school—and thus our image as “scholars” is deleterious: how would one find out that French Enlightenment writers are a viable means of expanding one’s dissertation topic; learn that one can publish separate from a university as “an independent scholar”; or gain generative feedback on one’s work at a conference and learn how much one still doesn’t know if one isn’t willing to say “I don’t know”?

    But as much as it may seem liberating to throw off shame and embrace the state of not knowing and all it can entail, Bayard and Semenza simultaneously warn us not to play this card too much. Both, in short, encourage us to eventually stop reading and futilely fill all of the gaps of our un-knowledge and just write. Semenza writes: “The thrill of standing quickly will overshadow the fear of falling” (184).

    So, then, to what extent are these ideas opposed or working in conjunction? How do we traverse this line of knowing and not knowing as students and scholars?

  2. we have all felt it, the “impostor syndrome” as it is named by Semenza. what am i doing here, will my work be accepted by the other students and/or the faculty? There is always some nervousness that comes with speaking with a professor (i am the worst about actually going and talking with profs, though i am always glad when i do), there is the fear that you will be told that you are not on the right track or not doing enough or any other potential sources of worry. it is good to see another student who is coming back not only to the work, the labor that grad school requires, but also the “joy of study.”

  3. I just finished reading Semenza and the last page in the chapter we were assigned had in boldface the words ‘Never Pretend to Know the Answers When You Don’t. The chapter is specifically about attending conferences but I found it funny how your post was about speaking and the anxiety of not knowing and how it leads to our vulnerability as graduate students. The possibility of not knowing everything about our specific topics even after we write about them will always be prevalent. There will always be some new perspective and there will always be something we’re missing. But as Semenza says, that is the whole point of writing. We should not try to come up with a conclusion to any part of a discourse but rather write so we can add our own views and give a new dimension to existing work. Like Torrie, I am always hesitant to speak to others about my work, but speaking to professors and our peers is the best thing we can do as students. If we limit our work to ourselves, our graph of progression will be smaller and slower in change. Collaboration is key.

  4. It wasn’t until I took Harry Denny”s class that I felt comfortable sharing my work with others. It’s not that I felt I had anything to hide; rather it was the feeling that I was not good enough and I was afraid of being judged by my peers. When Harry had us go into small groups and talk and share it became a wonderful experience. I attribute overcoming my fear of sharing to that class. It didn’t matter that we were of all different ages, backgrounds, educational levels — what mattered is that we all had a passion, a drive, a love for what we were doing and recognized and respected in one another that we were writers. Understanding that we could bounce our ideas off of each other was also very encouraging. I’m not saying it was all rosy for there were times that I still felt intimidated but I knew that I would become (and have become) a better student for it! So as you all have said don’t worry that you don’t have all the answers right now. They will come …. When the time is right!

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