Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: "You're Doing Great" and other fantasies of grad life...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"You're Doing Great" and other fantasies of grad life...

Hello Grad Students!
Today I've been thinking a lot about graduate conferences, most likely because I am presenting at one on Friday at the CUNY Graduate Center. The conference is entitled “Cripples, Idiots, Lepers, and Freaks: Extraordinary Bodies / Extraordinary Minds" -- it's an interdisciplinary conference that aims to look at literature, media, culture, problems of representation, and social practices through the lens of disability.
 Although I've helped organize a grad conference before at Fordham, and attended several over the years, I've never actually presented at a grad conference -- I'm so excited for the experience! I'm happy that this one is in New York City, and that I'll get to meet some great graduate students from across the city and beyond.
To me, grad conferences provide safe spaces to be bold, to try out styles of speaking and writing and interfacing, to learn to believe in your own thoughts, reactions, and responses, and to challenge yourself. I'm excited because I always find conference weekends to be so invigorating, both intellectually and emotionally.  There's something about the way a conference works that stretches me, that allows me to think in new ways, and that makes me find a renewed commitment to my work and field. Depending on my mood, I find it possible to be anonymous, and sit in the audience and think and listen, or to talk, try out ideas out loud, and make connections with people.  I find myself scribbling questions that I try to formulate as I listen to the speakers and make thoughts cohere. It's a very energizing and motivating experience for me.
There's been some talk in The Chronicle blogs about different types of conferences -- oh yes, leave it to us academics to categorize, classify, and analyze our own professional formats and venues! We've got it all divided it up by specific criteria: On what scale does it take place: nationally, regionally, or locally?  Who's participating -- professionals, graduates, or both? What kind of subject matter -- general or specialty? Is it organized by a department, a society, or a school? Is it organized around a theme, text, or author? Does it focus on a critical school of thought? Is it interdisciplinary? Will there be a publication that results from it? Who will you meet? What new ideas will you get?
All fun-poking aside, I actually do find it interesting to think about the dynamics of the "conference." Individuals tend to see the benefits of a conference according to his or her personality: some like the networking, collaboration, and the opportunity to get in front of audiences; some like the opportunity to think and have one-on-one discussions over the lunch or dinner breaks.
Interdisciplinary events have been key for me to expanding my horizons and thinking about my field (American lit) in new ways. Fordham, I feel, is pretty good about offering interdisciplinary events for the graduate community. (That reminds me -- the Communitas Event is coming up March 30th -- check here for more info about the Research Competition and the Ganon Lecture.) But I think always more can be done -- for example, my project on mental disability and literature could probably benefit from talks with neuroscience, biology, and philosophy grad students, to name just a few! I am fascinated by possibilities of stretching the boundaries of what we already know, of ways we know how to be.
One last note -- I've been thinking a lot about the purposes of professionalization as a grad student, and what some goals could be for myself at this conference coming up. I had a random idea today during yoga class, actually. I was in a particularly difficult pose that made me lose my balance a bit. As I stumbled out of the pose, someone next to me whispered, "You're doing great." As he said these kind words, my mind did a strange thing: it sort of immediately and unconsciously produced an image of myself at the conference. In the mini-movie in my mind that had suddenly appeared, I saw myself fumbling an important point in my paper, and the person next to me at the panel table whispered, "You're doing great."  The thought came up through the subconscious so clearly and vividly and unintentionally that it almost made me laugh. I mean, the class leaders always say that the class will draw out the bad stuff going on in your life, and I've definitely had emotions come to the surface during class before, but never had such a concrete narrative scenario risen to my mind's eye. I guess it made transparent some insecurities I have about presenting my work in public, but it also was a pretty clear wish for the same kind of encouraging, comforting and supportive environment in my work life that I enjoy in the yoga studio.  Afterwards, though, I got to thinking -- hey, why not? Why should the grad conferences be the safe spaces that help prepare us for the real academic world -- why shouldn't it just be like that always? Maybe the vision came to me as an intention to transform the post-graduate school world into a space that can also provide a warm kind of support that graduate conferences offer us?  Maybe the vision was telling me to use the CUNY Grad Center conference this weekend as a chance to extend my congratulations, or encouragement, or praise, to someone else. Maybe we graduate students can take this opportunity now, during this relatively short time in our careers, to use the grad conferences we create and participate in to help transform the future of our professional world and the way our profession works. Why not? It's up to us, after all, to decide what kind of world we want to be in.

-- Liza


  1. This is a terrific post and much needed, Liza. Academia is a cold place. We don't often hear from our colleagues or our teachers and mentors that we're doing a good job. Especially at the dissertation phase, everyone thinks we can manage to balance together teaching, writing, job applications, and a personal life without needing any extra encouragement. Sometimes I wish my adviser would shower me with a bit of spontaneous encouragement.

    This experience has influenced how I respond to my students and my colleagues and even my teachers. That is, I give my students A LOT of praise. This doesn't mean I only give them praise, but kind words for their efforts and output builds self-confidence, it can inspire someone to care more and work harder. I also tell students that their ideas interest me and that I'm learning from them. I would never tell a class that a set of papers is the worst I've ever received (though I know some do this regularly). I can't imagine any student would feel motivated to write anything again after hearing that comment.

    As for fellow students and teachers, I do my best to encourage efforts and express joy at their achievements. Joy, now that's a funny word to hear in the context of academia. If I ever become the chair of an English Deparment, I am going to make sure there's a little party every semester just for grad students where all the teachers are required attend for the sole purpose of talking and mingling with students and asking them about their work, encouraging them, nodding, and saying "oh, how interesting! Have you thought about ..."

    Thanks for letting me vent, Liza. I look forward to your next post!

    1. "These are the worst papers I've ever read" -- ugh, it makes me cringe to think of teachers saying something like that! Motivation and reinforcement are key parts of learning -- in fact, they are basically the only things that make learning possible. Somehow, TEACHERS often forget this fact. Everyone should take note of this comment! I feel that somehow the tendency to neglect giving praise gets passed down from one generation of scholars to the next... your comment gives me hope that we can refuse to perpetuate it and begin to change it. :)