graduate school

Can I have a life, please?

This probably falls under the heading of “first world problem” but I live in the first world and deal with this problem so, whatever that phrase means, it’s still something that I’m dealing with.

I wonder: are grad students entitled to have a life outside of graduate school?

The entire time I’ve been a student, I’ve always made school a priority over everything else I was doing. That is, up until the past year or so.

As an undergrad, I went to school and I went to work and didn’t really do much else. If I could have gone to school without working, I would have worked less so I could devote more time to school. I dated a little, hung out with friends sometimes, but mostly hung out with friends at school or at work so my social life didn’t really exist independently of college or work.

Once I began grad school, I still worked, but as a Teaching Assistant. I quit my retail job (with gratitude) and focused all of my energy on teaching and school. My friends were all at school, so there was, once again, no separation of my social life from my school and work life.

Now, nearing the end of my doctoral degree, this still holds true for the most part. Most of my friends are outside of my graduate program, but I don’t see them very often. I don’t consider most of my fellow graduate students to be my friends, because I rarely, if ever, see them outside of school-related activities. My world is extremely small.

The feeling that this is the way it is supposed to be is growing overwhelmingly large.

I recently participated in a publishing workshop–I posted about this recently. It was a great experience–having my work reviewed by others and getting feedback. The workshop leaders were incredibly insightful and entertaining. I felt elated. I’m happy to have had the experience.

However, I have a lingering sense of dissatisfaction over the experience, and this stems from the fact that the participants in the workshop weren’t really told how the workshop was going to go.  We were given a couple of days to commit to participation and to select a sample of our writing that represented our most polished and original work. Then, about a week before the workshop was actually to take place, we found out that it was public and that our work would be distributed to any graduate student that asked for it. Then, at the workshop itself, we learned that we were supposed to complete a revision of our workshopped paper by the end of May (the workshop took place at the beginning of April).

As a teacher, I am required to get student permission before I use their work as samples or examples for other students and classes. As a teacher, I am required to make my expectations clear or my students have grounds to complain. As a teacher, I am required to give due dates well in advance and to make the grading process clear.

So, as a graduate student, why is it that, if my professors and advisors fail to make their expectations clear, I am expected to just deal with it? Why is it that, when I was not told my work would be public, and when I voiced my complaints to my peers, most of them thought I was being unreasonable and told me I should “pick my battles” ?   Why is it that professors can expect me to have good and polished work ready to go with only two days’ notice when I have teaching duties, comprehensive exams to study for, and other research and writing projects underway? Why is it that I wasn’t told I would be expected to produce a revised version of this text by the end of May/beginning of June until after I had already committed to the workshop?

And of course, these expectations completely disregard the fact that graduate students have a life outside of graduate school. We need to sleep, exercise, cook, clean our homes, attend therapy appointments and yoga classes, and, for fuck’s sake, have time to go to a movie or a museum or a play or a concert once in a while.

The way the workshop was conducted provided me with another example of the way the university regards graduate students: as something less than whole. Inconveniences to us are laughed off, filed away as “part of being in graduate school” instead of labeled honestly as what they are: a lack of professional courtesy, at their most harmless, and, in their worst manifestations, gross abuses that would not be tolerated if visited upon faculty members, and that graduate students would be reprimanded for dealing upon their undergraduate students.

The experience of the workshop itself was wonderful. I’ve written an e-mail to the professor who arranged it to tell him so, with some suggestions for providing more complete information to the participants should the workshop take place again next year. I feel sure that he’ll take my feedback into consideration, because he is a kind and dedicated professor who is working hard to be a good resource for the graduate students.

I believe that the majority of individual faculty members have the best interests of graduate students at heart, but there is a certain thoughtlessness in their treatment of us and their expectations on our time, that, at times, makes it hard to maintain that belief. Part of the blame is on graduate students. If we stood up for ourselves, perhaps the faculty would be more conscious in their treatment of us. But often, we remain silent because we have to “pick our battles” and because we don’t want to be seen as whiners, to be seen as making excuses. We don’t want to rock the boat.

This deferential attitude disturbs me somewhat. I realize that I was not grossly abused in this situation (though I believe sharing my work without my permission does fall under the category of mistreatment), but I have been in situations where I was abused, and where I did stand up for myself. And I felt like I was at risk of losing my job because I did so. Graduate students have virtually no protection, no job security, so we just deal. But what happens when we carry this deferential “just deal” attitude into our first jobs? What happens when we perpetuate this attitude throughout our departments, when we extend it to adjuncts? What happens when, in a position of authority, we dismiss a grad student or other contingent faculty member and tell them to “deal” because that’s just the way it is?  When do I get to pick a battle? And when did rocking the boat become a bad thing?

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