Some lessons I didn’t know I learned at grad school

I am slowly packing my apartment with the oversight of some companionable chaperones. Last week, my benefactor was the first friend I made in grad school more than ten years ago. I poured them a glass of wine, ordered Thai food, and pulled out two crates of notebooks and overstuffed folders that have been languishing in one of my closets since I moved into this apartment five years ago. Enormous staple-bursting single-sided printouts made up a sizeable portion of this cache. In our early graduate school days, we printed out entire chapters and essays to mark up and discuss in class.

There’s no sense in hanging onto them now. Should I wish to chase the ghost of an idea I learned from one of these packets, I could find it online and mark up a digital copy with an ease I could not have imagined when I was budgeting out my computer center print job ration for the semester. Besides, having recently worked at a special collections library and archive, I have a good sense of what is happening on a molecular level to these haphazardly stored files. The mission was to unburden myself of as much moldering old paper as possible.

I saved a few of my own papers with professorial approval scrawled in the margins. I saved one of the official letters sent by my university, informing me that I had been awarded a teaching assistant stipend of $13,994 plus a $6,006 supplement because of my fellowship. “This is a historical document,” I explained to my friend. “Look at you,” they replied, “an extra $667 a month!” I realize how fortunate I was, of course–on my $20K/year I was able to I live alone in the city, just a few blocks from the Reading Terminal Market where I bought cheap groceries I had plenty of time to cook. But I also remember feeling every bit of that financial gift, wondering whether my classroom contributions were worth that extra $667 a month (for nine months).

Most of the rest of the papers went into a box to be recycled, although we read aloud some scraps for nostalgia’s sake–including the first essay I completed as a shiny new grad student.”‘Two Sides of the Same Klein Bottle,'” read my friend incredulously. (In my defense, most academics are very bad at a titles.) They flipped through for marginalia and saw that the professor had highly praised the essay and commented “Let’s talk.” Picking up the next assignment for that class, they read the professor’s suggestion that the paper might become an article, and again “Let’s talk.” My friend made a disgusted noise, then apologized. “Not that this isn’t an impressive performance…” they began. “…except that it definitely was not, not in my first semester of grad school,” I interrupted.

Because the Klein bottle paper was the first academic essay I submitted in my first semester of graduate school, I was very anxious about meeting my professor’s expectations, so I dropped by his office hours to chat. I remember the meeting favorably: we talked through some points of my argument and he reassured me that I was on the right path. As the next assignment approached, he emailed me to inquire whether I needed to meet again to discuss. I was flattered, but did not respond right away. After the next meeting of our weekly class, he called after me as I was on my way out. I paused near the doorway, burning with embarrassment for being singled out in front of my classmates, although I could not put a finger on why. “Did you need to see me about your paper?” the professor asked. I said that I did not need to meet, and had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do. Then I hoofed it.

A soft-spoken second-year PhD student was waiting for me in the hall. Quietly, looking as red-faced as I felt, he gently explained that the professor had a tendency to single out young female students, take them to the ballet, things like that. Did I understand?

I did understand. (And I’ve never forgotten how odd it sounded, the taking of young female students to the ballet, but the implication was clear as ice.) I did not meet with that professor alone again. As it happened, I was already starting to distance myself from Lacan and the whole boy’s club of psychoanalytic literary theory, so I did not take a class from that professor again either. I did not consider it a loss.

Thanks to that mortified but determined young man, there’s no #MeToo story there, at least not for me. (There were other whispers, and about ten years later, this same professor voluntarily resigned from a leadership position as the department underwent an EEOC investigation following allegations of misconduct involving a different faculty member.) But seeing these flattering notes on my naive little essays made my friend and I shudder. I was not acquainted with the term “grooming” at the time, nor had I an inkling that academia was anything less than a paradise of equality and meritocracy. At 24, I did not yet have words to explain the unspoken lesson in the hallway, but I absorbed it anyway.

I extracted from the crate an enormous green folder bulging with so many papers that I had to lay it on the ground to dust it off, exclaiming with dismay at my past self for this egregious misuse of materials. When I opened it, I saw that its immense volume included printouts and notes from an introductory course in women’s studies–the course that I often say was the most meaningful class I took in graduate school. The class was attended by students across disciplines (I remember students in philosophy, psychology, media studies, and dance), which gave me a glimpse into how scholarship looked in other departments. The class gave me my first encounter with the concepts of compulsory heterosexuality and feminist epistemology, which for the first time gave me language to describe what has always felt to me like a complicated relationship with my femininity. The class is probably also the first place where I truly reckoned with my white privilege; for a long time, I assumed that being a racial minority in my hometown gave me a special pass, but as we delved deep into discussion on the black feminist writers I already knew and loved, I realized that I had a lot left to learn.

As I reflected on these memories with my friend, they recalled a particular class meeting which culminated in our beloved and respected professor asking them to stop talking. They did not remember that I was also present in class that day and expressed chagrin that I had witnessed what was a mortifying moment, if an instructive one. It’s not my place to tell their story, but that class meeting was mortifying and instructive for me too.

It sounds terrible out of context, so let me try to explain. Many of our conversations in that class were heated. I recall a session when we were discussing This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of writing by women of color. One of my white classmates expressed frustration with the book’s depiction of whites: how was she supposed to learn from this book, she asked, when it clearly had such a low opinion of her? I was struggling too: the place I saw myself most in the book was Audre Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly,” in which Lorde respectfully but fiercely criticized the white scholar’s erasure of black history in her book, which purported to be a base text for radical feminism. I felt raw and unnerved by this letter: as a white literary scholar who loves and writes about black literature, what erasures and intellectual violence had I unknowingly been perpetrating?  I have never stopped thinking about that question; I’ve been thinking about it again very recently, having learned that Nella Larsen’s Passing (precisely the book I worried about mistreating) is being made into a film by a white female director (with two smart and stellar actors as Claire and Irene, so I remain cautiously optimistic). It was painful, but it is better to ask the question than to never ask it.

The memory I shared with my friend and classmate was a day our class was discussing black feminism and queer feminism–two perspectives that are not opposing sides in any respect, but we were learning and misunderstandings were inevitable. The discussion got loud and agitated quickly. There were raised voices. I think I was quiet; I remember feeling like a child watching their parents fight as our professor tried to give everyone space to be heard while making sure the conversation continued to move forward. That meant that some of the white students were told to stop speaking for a time. It hurt! But it was not wrong.

I knew that I learned in that class that sometimes the most supportive thing I can do, as a white feminist, is to be quiet. (Obviously it’s also important to speak up when it means showing support, but I feel that this is a skill adjacent to knowing when to shut up.) What I didn’t realize I learned at the same time is that sometimes progress looks like conflict. I am a deeply conflict-averse person. I hate arguments, and to be fair, I think many disagreements can be resolved peaceably and respectfully. But tempers flared high in that classroom because what we were discussing mattered so much. It’s not wrong that people got angry, or hurt, or tearful. It was important.

Later that week, I unearthed another set of files–this one in a handy plastic box with clasps and a handle. The papers in it are dated from before my last move, but apparently when I moved I still thought them important enough to keep close at hand. The contents were folders that contained employee handbooks mixed in with printouts of early versions of my dissertation chapters, and spiral notebooks that were filled with job notes from the front and research notes from the back. Handling them gave me a powerful sense memory of the balancing act I was attempting in those days: literally flip-flopping from professional to professorial, carefully notating the responsibilities for jobs I wanted and also ideas from journal articles I printed out to read on the train. Most painful was the notebook I was apparently using for every aspect of my life from winter 2009 to summer 2010.

It made me feel a little sad for 2010 Sara, to see how much she was trying to do while having so little to go on. The prospectus notes preceded the oral exam notes in the notebook even though the oral exam preceded an entire semester of prospectus research and writing–how badly I wanted to get ahead of the game! There were notes and lists from early informational interviews I had with publishing professionals, when I knew little about that industry and even less about what job opportunities besides teaching and editing there might be for an English PhD candidate. Let us not speak of the poems.

On the other hand, how amazing it was to see all of those turning points laid out side-by-side. The methodical way I researched and annotated every step of my academic and professional journeys, all in the same notebook because that’s the tool I was most confident using. The gusto with which I chewed up my broken heart and spat out furious verse and purple prose. The to-do lists and shopping lists which aren’t mentioned in the tweet: supplies to lay in and steps to take to host parties and writing groups where we drank too much wine and co-wrote absurd poems on index cards, which helped me momentarily set aside the pain of losing two potential futures I had once cherished.

I’m not sure what the lesson is there, but I kept the pink notebook.


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