“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”
I suspect one of the reasons I became an English major is that I’m so terrible at reading social cues.
Oh, the gaffes I have gaffed in my life! I was a very awkward child, considered weird by others, and I never managed to fit it. I was pedantic when lightness was required. I mistook flirtations for competition and fought too hard. I approached interactions from my own raw needs rather than consideration for others or the social contract. I lurched from one failed interaction to another, from misread cue to inappropriate behaviour to puzzled ostracism, for years and years.
Books helped me figure out the tacit rules of social life. Books showed me patterns. Books offered models of behavior. Now, a lot of this was implied or inferred, but at least a reader was not directly acting within those social worlds, but could observe and assess. Determine patterns. Slow down the scene. Reread. Figure it out. Literature was the textbook through which I was taught all those social cues and processes I had no natural knack for.
Eventually, I learned how to act like a high-functioning social being (even if I sometimes have to ask myself directly, in the middle of some interaction or another, “What would a human do at this point?”) and I’ve learned a couple of other things as well.
First. How things happen is sometimes more important than what happens. Many social situations are governed not explicitly by the content addressed, but by tone and turn-taking, and carefully deployed deference, or smiles. In Canada we spend a lot of time talking to friends and family and strangers and acquaintances about the weather, and it’s not reallllllly about the weather, is it? It’s more a ritual of attention, or a sort of “I see you,” or “I would like to say something pleasant to engage you while we stand in this hallway waiting for the maintenance worker to find the extra key for the door.
Second. Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I spent many years in pretty grim social isolation, never sure when I would alienate my one remaining friend, and feeling lonely and nervous pretty much all the time. I wanted to fit in more than anything, but I just couldn’t. It was pretty awful, the mismatch between effort and outcome, but working harder when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong is never going to yield different results.
Now, this is an academic blog, not therapy, and I’m going somewhere. Where I’m going is this: graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying: can I just email a professor about being my supervisor? If this work is about my solitary writing labour, why do I have to go to all these department events? Am I supposed to be a good teacher, or is that a bad thing? Am I allowed to talk to my professors if I see them at the grocery store? Isn’t it a better idea to ditch that first year teaching gig for a better class at the local college?
This stuff can tank people. The hidden curriculum–networking, professional communication, how to spend each day, which tasks and relationships to prioritize, and how–supports the overt one. Tacit knowledge greases the wheels, and in its absence, the wheels grind and spark and fail. Good intentions aren’t the problem.
I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring–in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don’t value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally “better” teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.
For me, this is an equity seeking gesture. Those of us not to the library born are at a significant disadvantage, navigating new social worlds and trying to figure them out at the same time as the explicit curriculum bears down so hard on us.
I think I’m breaking some rules by being so forthright about some of these things. Maybe I haven’t totally outgrown my awkwardness and maybe I still don’t fit all the way in. But it is very rewarding to see a lightbulb go off for a student when I can reveal the inner workings of some mysterious process so that he understand it.
And now I ask you: can you share a piece of tacit knowledge, hard won, so someone else can win it a little more easily? Please leave a comment, or share on Twitter with the hashtag #tacitPhD
I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.
But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.
It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.
And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)
A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?
I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.