As a first semester doctoral student I am terrified at what the future holds. I am in this weird purgatory-esque setting where I am between two worlds. As teacher and student simultaneously, I am floating around trying to find my way. I am constantly bombarded with stories, articles, books, and blog posts about the abysmal job market, the destruction of tenure, and the abusive adjunct experience. I came to graduate school because I love books. I knew the market was bad and that graduate school would be a daunting task, but I love books. I love to read them, hold them, talk about them, think about them, write about them. I am not worried about a stinking job market. I will cross that bridge when I get to it. I have always questioned myself and wondered if this was the right attitude, or did I set myself up for a great deal of pain and regret. However, last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education I read the article “Fear and Loathing in Graduate School”, and it validated for me the reasons I decided to attend graduate school in the first place.
The title of the article plays on the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, (HB, to use Bayard’s system), which is about two men travelling through Las Vegas high on innumerable drugs. The Amazon review describes the plot by saying, “the drug-a-delic duo stumbles through Vegas in hallucinatory hopes of finding the American dream (two truck-stop waitresses tell them it’s nearby, but can’t remember if it’s on the right or the left). They of course never get the story, but they do commit the only sins in Vegas: “burning the locals, abusing the tourists, terrifying the help.” (Amazon Review). I thought this was kind of fitting as a description of the journey through graduate school as well. You feel disoriented while searching for something that seems impossible to find. You do what you can in hopes of capturing this elusive tenure track faculty position. People kind of tell you how to get there, but you still must forge your own path. As scary and overwhelming as the entire process is, it is something I am drawn to do because I cannot imagine doing anything else. As Semenza says in Graduate Study for the 21st Century, “You should become a professor because you are completely obsessed with your subject and the skills it demands and because you believe it is the single most important thing you can pass on to other people. Nothing else will do” (38).
Mark Braude, the author of the article “Fear and Loathing in Graduate School” says that one should pursue graduate work because they are passionate about their field and want to learn just for the sake of learning. As Semenza states, “if you find yourself lacking the energy to read a George Eliot novel on your own, leave graduate school now” (80). If you do not feel that graduate school is something you want to devote all of your waking hours to, you should not do it because sometimes passion is the only thing that will push you through when you are exhausted, overwhelmed, and wanting to give up. As Bayard reminds us in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read we will never be able to tackle all of the knowledge that is out there, but we must situate ourselves and let our voices be heard even if we haven’t read the books. I believe it is our duty as graduate students to enjoy the process, learn all of the things we came to graduate school to learn, and remember the passion that brought us to graduate school in the first place. I am planning to follow Braude’s advice and focus on the things I can improve. Braude says, “I am doing my best to focus on the tasks at hand: writing a strong dissertation that will hopefully advance new knowledge and spark debate, being a good teacher, learning from other scholars, and participating in the academic community.” Ultimately, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the work I have undertaken, but it does not matter. I can only work as hard as I can on the things I can exercise some kind of control over.
The comments at the end of the piece were very telling of the sometimes bitter and disheartening responses that students encounter when deciding to enter graduate school in the humanities. I cannot let those things get me down. Braude channels both Bayard and Semenza when he says, “I worry—when I should be writing.” We all must be writing even when we are afraid that we have nothing to say.