Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: February 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Part Two of "And the Oscar for Best Grad School Movie goes to..."

       OSCARS! In honor of this day, I’ve devoted a two-part blog to the representation of graduate school in Hollywood films.
       So, as you noted from Part One, there aren’t so many movies set in graduate school or even with grad students as characters. To recap, most films that people come up with when asked this question feature LAW or MED school students, but not arts and sciences PhD students.
      I think I assumed there were at least a few good ones, because I rationalized that I must have had some kind of image in my mind about what graduate school “looked like” before I… signed up for it. I assumed that that image came from either novels or movies. But after some investigating, I realized this “image” must have come more from novels than movies, or maybe just from something that I made up in my head based on romantic ideas of scholarship and academia that came from the pleasure I take in reading and being alone in a library.  Wherever I got my “ideas” from, it probably wasn’t from movies, because, the truth is, there just ain’t that many movies out there.
       That said, with a little digging, I was able to come up with a list of my own with some additional titles on it for us to check out. I haven’t seen all of these, so I won’t attempt to rank them or call it my “Top Ten” or anything like that. But, here’s a little filmography of movies featuring some element of graduate school. Criteria for this list: the movie has to have a character that either is, or was, a graduate student during, or just previous to, the action of the movie. Alternatively, if the character refers to graduate school in a significant way (teaching perhaps?), or was significantly shaped by graduate school, meaning that he or she is living a scholarly life that reflects a graduate school education, I also included the movie. Finally, the said graduate program cannot be law or med school.
        Proof (2005): I don’t want to give away the plot, because it is a great little movie if you haven’t seen it, but the film involves graduate level math work that, within the world of the movie, would revolutionize the mathematics world. Originally a play.
        Possession (2002): main characters are literary scholars in pursuit of the identity of a famous Victorian poet’s lover to whom he wrote beautiful letters.
       The Addiction (1995): main character is a philosophy grad student turned into vampire! Sounds amazing!
       The Shape of Things (2003): Features a romance between an English lit major and a graduate art student. Also originally a play.
       The Last Supper (1995): A group of graduate students host a series of murderous dinner parties during their summer break. Seems like an interesting representation of grad students!!
       Tenure (2009): Not exactly grad life, but in this film, with the young professors trying to get tenured, it has the atmosphere of grad school.
      Marathon Man (1976): Never saw this but apparently, according to IMDB, Hoffman’s character is a history grad student.
      Wonder Boys (2000): Can’t remember if these students are undergrad creative writing students or MFA students, but either way it has the intense feeling of what I would imagine a competitive MFA program to be like.
     PHD the Movie (2011): Piled Higher and Deeper, our favorite grad-school comic, made a movie this year! Making the rounds at Universities all over the country – expect witty and satirical portraits of grad life, just like the comics.
      Naturally Obsessed (2009): Documentary, not fiction, it follows the life of grad students in the microbiology department of Columbia University. Seems like it might be a good one to watch!
      Okay, so maybe all of these aren’t “grad school movies” the way Animal House, Rudy, St. Elmo’s Fire, and With Honors are “college movies” – but you get the idea. If you've seen any of these, write in and let us know how accurate the depiction of grad life is!!!
     To conclude: On a message board thread about this very topic, a poster asked, “Given the types of people who go to grad school and the life drama that ensues there, I'd think grad school days would be rich fodder for fiction/fictionalized memoir. What am I missing?” This question parallels the one I proposed in my last blog entry. The response to this post, by someone (with the handle “Brain Glutton”), also parallels some of what I was thinking as I realized that most “grad school” movies featured law or med students:
“Audience appeal. If the subject the characters are studying is an important part of the drama -- and it is, to real-life grad students -- then the scenario is too intellectual for most people -- too intellectual for most intellectuals, in fact, if involves a grad program outside their own field of expertise. To make it accessible, you have to make it about a law school or med school, something that produces professionals whom the average person has to deal with, and who do things the average person understands at least in general principles.”
          There are a couple of points here I’d like to discuss. First, I love how Brain Glutton doesn’t pull any punches. She, or he, answers right off the bat – What’s missing? “Audience appeal.” BAM. Right across the face. Then we get the assessment explaining why a movie set in graduate school would lack audience appeal: “Too intellectual,” not “accessible,” not dealing with “things the average person understands.” This reasoning assumes at least two things: that movies are usually made to appeal to the widest audience possible (which is probably true); and that academic intellectual pursuits are not widely appealing (which is probably true in the US at least.) Hence, therefore: movies about academic intellectual pursuits are not usually made. There’s a great little syllogism.
       What do you readers think about this assessment? I would love to hear your thoughts! 
       Enjoy Oscars Night!!! Make sure to fill out your scorecard!! Until next time, Liza

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And the Oscar for Best Graduate School Movie goes to....

       It’s Oscar Week!
       As the red carpet events draw nearer by the day, as I’m making sure I’ve read and considered all predictions and arguments, as I double-check my Oscar scorecard and consider last minute changes, wondering if Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spenser (both brilliant) will split the voters for The Help and allow Melissa McCarthy (human and hilarious) to take the category, wondering if a dark horse like Nick Nolte will surprise everyone, wondering if the lovely adventure in literary nostalgia Midnight in Paris has a chance to take home a statue, as I look forward to Sunday to settling in with pizza, wine, and popcorn for one of my favorite nights of the year, I begin happily reflecting.
        I reflect on the years past when I have always made time to watch this event, even when movie years hadn’t been particularly exciting, or when the nominees hadn’t reflected the truly inspiring movies of the year, or when I hadn’t even had time to see any movies during the entire year. I reflect on the movies I am grateful to have seen this year, taking time from my graduate studies to escape into the magic of Midnight in Paris, the laughter of Bridesmaids, the triumph of The Help, the enterprise of Moneyball, the catharsis of Warrior, the soaring spirit of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
       I think about the movies I have yet to see, one of which I may choose as a reward for myself in the coming months as I finish a chapter, or present at a conference, or complete a dreaded and toilsome task such as doing my laundry.
       Finally, as I close my books from the day’s work and settle into my pajamas, sinking into the couch, I begin thinking about how the movies have always helped me reflect on my own current station in life. I think with awe about the enormous, undeniable debt that Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers owe to the institution of graduate school, having over the years inspired countless creative and poignant cinematic explorations of the trials, tribulations, triumphs, hardships, heartaches, hilarity, incidents, accidents, and ultimate life-affirming redemption in the life of a graduate student.
       Or… err, um…. My reflection comes to a screeching halt as I bolt upright on my couch. Well, okay maybe not countless… but there are some, right? I mean, at least a dozen or so good movies? about graduate school?
       I’m sure I’ve seen some. As I reel through the movie-memories in my brain, I sort through all the undergrad movies and boarding school movies and law school movies and… hmm.
       But I’m sure I’ve settled in for a good rom-com between two grad students falling in love…. for a hefty drama about someone’s nervous breakdown leading up to his dissertation defense…. a twisted absurd surrealist depiction of the way graduate school propels a soul into the next realm of existence and possibility….
       Um. Well actually… Let me Google this.
       How pleasantly surprised am I to see a list come up! “The 7 best grad school movies of all time.” Okay, I say, here we go. As I click on it, I think dubiously, “Seven?”  Then I force the doubt away. Seven: yes. I mean, it’s not 10, but “Top Ten” --  that’s an arbitrary convention anyway. Okay, so let’s go with seven! Seven great movies dedicated to exploring the idiosyncrasies and uplift of graduate life. I fold my legs crisscross under me and pull my laptop onto my lap.
       Already as I read the intro, I like what I see. The author boldy asserts, “But what about those movies focusing on graduate-school living and the difficulty of appearing classically sharp while subsisting on a penny-pinching budget? Why does a character named ‘Booger’ receive all of the hooplah while graduate-school movies garner the attention of day-old French fries in the campus cafeteria? It's time to dust off the brush off and pay homage to the seven best grad school movies of all times.” I couldn’t agree more.
       Okay so here we go. Number 7 is none other than ….. Patch Adams. I start to feel a little bit of a confused, slightly sinking feeling, remembering that this was one of the absolute worst movies I’ve ever seen, and also remembering that this movie was not about someone in graduate school but rather about someone who got kicked out of medical school. Hmmm… if this is any indication of the rest of…. Well –
       Then I squash the negative voice inside my head and rationalize to myself that it’s still early! After all, we’re only on number 7! I mean number 7 out of 7.  We’re fine. Okay. No big deal.  We’re building up.
       Hope renewed, my eyes move down to Number 6… Legally Blonde. Well, but wait a minute. I mean, sure, I love Elle Woods and all, and her video admissions essay and the bend and snap and all of that… but that’s law school. Well but there are plenty of movies about law school… I was talking about “grad school,” like English and history and anthropology and physics majors writing dissertations and having teaching assistant adventures...
       Sigh and regroup. Okay. Maybe #5 can redeem us all.
       Flatliners.Grrrr…..Med school!!!
      #4 –The Paper Chase.Hmmm…Law school!
      #3--Rounders – DOH! law school AGAIN!
      #2--Beautiful Mind… okay, well, yes, Princeton, etc…maybe… but really more a portrait of a extraordinary mind rather than an extraordinary matriculation.
      #1…. Drumroll…. GOOD WILL HUNTING! Okay, yes! There is a dorm room love scene, I think, (even though Minnie Driver’s character is a med student…perhaps pre-med?) and math problems written on a chalkboard done by a non-graduate student, and a jerky professor, and a (pseudo) intellectual (pseudo) invective in a Harvard Bar. It’s everything I ever wanted in a movie about the life of a graduate student.
      With utter defeat, I glance over the list again.  2 medical school movies, 3 law school movies, one movie about an incredible mind who spent his life at Princeton University, some of which as a graduate student, and one movie whose title character is actually against the idea of institutionalized higher education.
      Where are the inquiries into the life of a scholar, pursuing truth, beauty, and intellectual liberty through higher, higher education? Where ARE the stories of the self-made man and woman who pursued intellectual triumphs while “penny-pinching” through most of his or her 20s and early 30s, sacrificing some basic conveniences or niceties of life that, with any luck, comes with a BA, for something he or she believes is worth studying, worth immersing oneself into? 
       Or do the life choices of a graduate student seem so uninteresting, so trudging, so slow-moving, so pain-staking, so rewardless to outsiders -- or to graduate students themselves? --  as to make it not a viable setting for cinematic reflection?
       I’ll need a few days to sort this out. Perhaps a little more digging.... 
       Part Two of “Best Graduate School Movie” coming on Sunday!
       In the meantime, what movies can you think of that best represent the grad life? Post a comment here or on FB! 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Comprehensive Exams: What's At Stake?

          A recent column by David Brooks on The Chronicle’s website stood out to me because of its title, “As Smart As I’ll Ever Be.” Immediately, I thought to myself, “That must be about comps.”
          Yes, it was. As I read the column, in which the author recounts his exam year experience of reading, studying, and preparing, I remembered my comprehensive exams, which happened to be around the same year as the author’s. I resonated with Mr. Brooks’ nostalgic and reflective tone. Like Mr. Brooks, I often remember my exam prep as a time full of motivation and revelation.
          Lots of images and ideas in the column sounded familiar to me. Brooks describes his study scene, and his realization that this studying would not only help him get his degree, but also form the foundation of his career: “As I organized titles into ever-growing piles in my basement, I saw potential courses emerge. I started jotting down ideas for new syllabi. The process of going through the books helped me imagine teaching from them. For one of my four fields, the written exam became a survey-course syllabus with an annotated bibliography, including a justification for each reference.”
          Like Brooks, I, too, studied in a basement. For me, I found that I required some kind of physical space that could match the mental spaces I was carving out in my mind for this information and these ideas. And I remember thinking the same things – finding threads around which entire courses could be designed. It was exciting. Brooks writes, “Suddenly I was reading with the intent of organizing my impressions into a big, and hopefully clear, picture of those fields, rather than for the immediate, frantic task of cranking out another seminar assignment.” It was true – comps studying changed my view of my field entirely. It was a chance to zoom out, to take what I had found under the microscope and see how it fit into the whole literary organism.
          I always tell my friends, both within and outside my program, that I have never felt smarter than I did when I was waist-deep in studying for comps. Brooks alludes to this same feeling, and also notes that others he talked to felt the same way.  He writes about his talks with his colleagues about their experiences: “I sensed a degree of nostalgia that I have never heard anyone associate with, say, writing a dissertation.” As someone who is writing her dissertation now, I think that rings true, although I of course don’t know for sure since I am currently writing the diss rather than looking back on it. But what rings true to me is the difference between my feeling during comps studying and my experience writing the diss. Unlike during my exam year, I don’t feel smart writing my dissertation. I often feel overwhelmed and like nothing is good enough.  But during exam prep, I felt sharpened, and productive. I felt like I was making discoveries. I'm not exactly sure why the two periods in my academic career feel so different. Maybe it purely the veil of nostalgia. But who wouldn’t be nostalgic for a time of intense and revelatory intellectual and personal discoveries – a time when you felt smart and purposeful and motivated? On the timeline of someone’s life, those kind of moments or periods of time may be precious and rare.
          Towards the end of my exam prep, at dinner with my parents one night, I remember a comment that my dad made that shaped the way I understood my experience of studying for exams. This always sticks out in my mind, so thought sharing the anecdote on this blog may help me sort out why this seemingly off-hand comment has stayed with me.
          Let me set the scene: I had emerged from the basement of my childhood home, where I had set up a temporary “exam study room” with a bed, desk, and all my study materials. I was starving, ready to break for a meal before my night-time review session. I had come to look forward to my night time session  -- in the last month before my oral exam date, before bed each night I played a game with myself. For this game, I made index cards each day with important names, themes, titles, authors, characters, critics, and contextual threads written on the front. On the back of the card, during the day, I would write everything I knew. Then, that night, before I’d go to bed, I’d spread these cards out on my bed, so that they covered my entire bed spread. I wasn’t allowed to go to bed until I’d talked through each card.  I found this game to be a great way to review the studying I’d done during the day, or week, and also to practice speaking orally about the topics, which I knew was a different skill then just knowing the information. Anyway, that evening, I had just set up my cards for the night, and my plan was to eat dinner, hang with my parents for a bit, and then head downstairs for my game of literary solitaire. 
          I was lucky that I was able to move back in with my parents for exams, for financial reasons as well as time-saving reasons such as being able to share dinners with them sometimes instead of cooking for myself.  My parents were so generous with their time that semester, and so supportive and understanding. I realize that not everyone has the comforts of their mom and dad’s support during exam time! So I was feeling grateful that I could take a break and have a nice dinner with them.
          Anyway, during the meal, the three of us began discussing something that had nothing to do with academia or literature. I actually think we were discussing a new Bruce Springsteen song. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember my dad looking at me after I spoke and saying, “Maybe you are getting too smart to talk to us.” My first reaction was embarrassment. I apologized and blamed it on being immersed in comps studying. But the comment startled me – I hadn’t realized the kind of “mode” that comps studying had put me in. I finished dinner and went back downstairs, to play my game. But I ended up thinking long and hard about my dad’s comment.
          In the end, I was grateful for the comment in two respects. One, it made me aware that my studying was restructuring, hopefully permanently, the way I saw connections between my field and the world at large. Studying was indeed, a comprehensive act, and it was helping me draw together small threads of analysis that I had been accumulating and weave them into larger bolts of thought-fabric. I was seeing a bigger picture, thinking in ways that allowed me to make connections and draw important conclusions.
          The second reason I was glad my dad made the comment was that I didn’t want to walk around sounding like a jerk.
          “As Smart As I’ll Ever Be” made me think back and reflect on my exam experience. And my dad’s comment always makes me remember that graduate school, if nothing else, is helping my thoughts, views, and thinking skills to constantly evolve and grow.  I’m not the same person I was before graduate school, before comps, and before beginning my dissertation. And being aware of this evolution helps me see both the pros and cons of the graduate experience. Ultimately, it helped me realize what kinds of forces were shaping my views of the world -- and being aware of what shapes your thoughts is so important if you ever want to offer the world some original, truly creative new ideas.  
          All of this also makes me realize that grad life is real life – it’s part of the journey of who you are, who you become, and who will be. So, now that you’ve heard one of mine, what were your exam stories? Or, if you have yet to take them, what questions, fears, anticipations and expectations do you have? Comment and discuss!!
          In the meantime, I’ll be working dutifully on the dissertation, trying to reclaim some of little piece of the intellectual self-esteem I had once staked out for myself, during comps.  Oh, nostalgia…. 

Until next time,

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Paying It Back, or Paying it Forward?

Hello Fordham Graduate World and beyond!
       Yesterday, I had a small break from my dissertation writing to meet with a former student of mine who requested a recommendation from me. This is my third rec request in the last few weeks – with grad school programs, summer internship, and scholarship applications due in January, Feb and March, I’m calling this RECOMMENDATION LETTER season!
       I really don’t mind taking the time out of my allotted dissertation time to fit in these meetings and letter writings for students. It’s actually interesting how much I don’t mind it. I get annoyed at floods on the FDR as I sit in traffic because it takes time away from me finishing my diss. I get annoyed when my dad tells a long story and it takes time away from finishing my diss. I get annoyed at my washing my hair because it takes time away from finishing my diss. But when I get a letter to write a recommendation, there is no sigh of annoyance as I re-arrange, and subtract hours from, my weekly writing schedule. Why??
       Having been a teaching associate for a few years now, I’ve had dozens of students now – maybe close to a couple hundred? (Let’s see… 7 or 8 semesters, one or occasionally two classes per semester, 16 -20 students per class…. I’m no math major, but I know that is getting close to about 200!) I wanted to blog about this subject of writing recs for students because I’ve always felt some kind of obligatory generosity in doing the deed, and I wanted to come to terms with that oxymoronic feeling I always get.
       For starters, I never feel that I am being kind when I agree to write a former student a letter. Though not written in any contract or job description, it’s nonetheless an obligation, a duty. But the feeling I get when I am asked to do it is a strange mix of resigned obligation and parental generosity, as if I am a mother finding a way to work an extra job at night to send her child to college.
       It’s part of the job, I tell myself. But there are plenty of things that are part of the job that I have a much harder time motivating myself to do. Grading student papers, for example, is most certainly a most obvious and required part of the job, yet it is somehow much harder to motivate myself to do that than it is to write a rec.
       Obligatory generosity –that’s not the best description of the emotion either. Duty, yes, but it makes it sound so formal and noble. It’s not noble because it’s not an altruistic feeling that I get – it’s a feeling of responsibility. Responsibility might be a good word here, actually. It’s a feeling, mostly, of knowing that no matter what, I owe the universe these letters, because someone else did it for me, who owed it back to the universe because someone did it for them. It’s like being a part of some cosmic network of students that reaches back infinitely into generations past.
       Paula Findlen, a professor of history at Stanford University, says that writing a recommendation letter for one of our students is “one of the most important acts of mentorship that we offer younger scholars.” Findlen also describes it as a “mutual project between the recommender and applicant,” and I agree to some extent. Findlen reasons, “We cannot do a good job without good material to write from, and the time in which to do it.” (Click here for Findlen’s article.) But in another way, it’s reciprocal in a larger sense – I’ve requested many letters from professors I’ve had, and they’ve needed letters from their professors, etc, etc. It’s like a big tree, or ripples in a pond, or a chain, or pyramid, etc, etc, insert inaccurate and clich├ęd metaphor here.
       Writing letters always makes me think not only of the relationship between me and my students, but also the one between my professors and me. I know that when I go on the job market, the letters will be an important piece of my package. So it just feels wrong, or impossible really, to refuse, to be stingy, and to resent writing a letter for a student. A graduate student is in the unique position of being an instructor in the classroom and a student at the same time. This liminal feeling is often confusing. For me, personally, writing a student a letter is one of the only acts that puts the whole scope of the academic ladder in perspective. I’d love to hear how other grad students feel about this! Send me a comment and let me know! 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Superbowl & Grad.Life!

Hi Fordham Graduate Students!
Happy Superbowl Sunday! I've given myself the day off from dissertation work to enjoy the cooking, snacking, football watching and general festivities of this day that otherwise might just be any other day-before Monday, excepting the millions of dollars spent on food, alcohol, Verizon and Budweiser endorsements, interviews, fireworks, confetti, security, new lyrics for Faith Hill, flat screen TVs and surround sound systems.  Given the crowds at Whole Foods today, it seems that many people are "all in" for tonight's game. Whether you stay in or go out, or watch the game or watch a foreign film in anti-establishment protest, everyone be safe, have fun and enjoy the celebratory vibe in the air! Remember that life is short, and we should take some joy in being with friends, family and people we love, for whatever occasion that comes along as an excuse to do so!

"Giants and the Pats in the final showdown...."
Until next time! -- Liza Z.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Semester; new blogger! Introducing...

Hello! My name is Liza Zitelli, and I will be taking over the writing duties for the Grad.Life blog! I’m happy to be in a position to take over the fine work of Alexandra Loizzo, the first Grad.Life blogger, and Naima Coster, who took over the post after Alex graduated. I took the weekend to read through the Grad.Life archives; at times poignant, at times humorous, and always thought-provoking, it was a great read! My only sadness upon reading these posts during the weekend arose from the fact that I hadn’t been a follower of the blog up to this point.
  Image: Idea go /
In fact, I didn’t even know the blog existed! To be fair, I arrived on the GSAS scene back in 2003, before (way before – almost a decade before!) the Grad.Life blog began. In fact, it was probably before most blogs began – when the blogosphere was enjoying the early stages of its big bang, just at the beginning of the era when blogs were becoming a real mainstream form of communication and source of information for institutions and programs. And over the course of the pre-blog years, I guess I got into such a routine of getting my information from Blackboard, from emails, and from word of mouth, that I never took real quality time to venture out of my information-comfort-zone to utilize, discover, or take note of some of the new updated methods of communication available within the GSAS. It makes sense (says Liza, rationalizing to herself,) that, as such a long-time student, I might have missed this boat.
Still, I was unnerved when I was offered the position of writing for the GSAS blog of which I never had heard tell, never mind had read. Having been a graduate student for so many years, in many incarnations, I want to think that I am a connected, long-term, entrenched member of the GSAS community. I began my Master’s in English here in 2003, and then have worked through several forms of fellowships and teaching associate positions, both full and part time for different stretches, slowly grinding out my up and coming dissertation. But somehow not getting the memo about Grad.Life over the last two or three years made me begin to think a lot about what it means, exactly, to be a part of the GSAS.
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Sure, we all can get caught up in the bubble of our own head, research, classes, department, teaching positions, and outside lives. But learning so late in the game that there was a blog dedicated to, and written by, GSAS students, left me feeling – I don’t know – left out, out of the loop. In the same way we need to read journals in our field, and to take advantage of professionalization tools offered by our city, university, and departments, we also need to be aware of the community resources around us. Graduate life is not just about teaching and researching. If it was, it wouldn’t really be a worthwhile pursuit.  Learning about Grad.Life was a huge reminder to me that in our profession, we have to make it part of our duty to stay connected, and stay with the times.
Ok, so lesson learned, and writing will commence for the semester! Yours truly is humbled and discomfited by my utter lack of awareness  – and also I’m afraid of karma, because now that I am going to be a contributing writer of the blog, I want to make sure Grad.Life is reaching all the students it is intended to reach, and more!! Over the next semester, I will be posting blogs that will attempt to reach out to the student body, hoping my 9 years here will be able to provide some great insights. Obviously, I will need to learn some things along the way, too! But that is the great thing about writing – it always leads to discovery.
Above all, I’m excited to be able to reach out to the Fordham GSAS community in this way after all these years of being a part of the community. Graduate school blogs, from what I sense, can be a refreshing and replenishing site for reflection, sharing, and regeneration for graduate students who want and need to know that they are not, by far, alone – that there is, in fact, a community around them – and that the community has a site in which to see, build, and shape itself.  
Until next time! Yours, Liza Z.