Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Grad School: Not What I Expected

When I decided to go to graduate school, I had an idea in my head. I had (have) a passion for the cultures of India, for Indian language, and I wanted (want) to learn as much as I can. I want to be able to read a variety of books, take language courses, have intense and exciting debates and discussions with my colleagues, be able to converse and learn from my mentors in a community environment. When I went to to grad school, I was not thinking about pieces of paper or degrees. I was thinking about the chance to be in a community of people who were as interested in India as me, who got excited about culture, who wanted to learn languages. That was my goal, my goal was greater knowledge, a community of learners, not a piece of paper.

I am now in my second year of grad school, and reality is a far cry from my dreams of passionate learning. I cannot recall the last time I had a good discussion with anyone in my department about anything related to India, culture, or language. Discussion revolve around passing the qualifying exams, navigating professors, and weaseling your way to that Ph.D. We learn to "trust no one", play your cards right, and never reveal too much to anyone, hence they use it against you. Professors are not mentors, but an opposing chess team. You have to make the right moves, or you are out of the game. And once you begin to lose, you cannot redeem yourself. There is no learning process, you are seen as a static piece, a plastic pawn.

The only discussions I have about culture are with drunk people at parties. The only time I can discuss anthropology or theory (safely) is in the confines of my own home. Class discussion is not for learning or synthesis, it is for proving to the professor that you already know the "right" answer. And if you don't know the "right" answer, better not speak at all, because then you will soon be in check-mate, a lost cause in the graduate world.

Some may argue life is a game. Getting a job, for example, is all about playing the right cards. But one would think that Anthropologists, those who study culture and all it contains (ahem, as in everything) would be able to identify the structure of power and prestige the institute creates and understand it for what it is. But, that too is not the case. Professors gladly feed off the power they receive, and while students not wishing to be academics are looked down upon, they themselves seem to have little passion or interest in teaching. Rather, it is about proving their importance, their chance at the top after jumping through the hoops we go through now.

It reminds me a lot of the concept of the "Mother-in-Law" in Indian joint families. She was treated badly as a new daughter-in-law, so once she is old enough to have a daughter-in-law, its now her turn to torment someone else. Regardless of whether it is necessary or improves the situate, it continues to be done. It seems that how professors view their new lot. We must jump and dance, suffer what they suffered, prove ourselves through arduous quests and conquest. Only then are we true "academics". And to be an anthropologist, of course you MUST be an "academic".

So where to go and what to do? I began school with a passion and a love for learning more. I was excited and ready to read and discuss. But early on, I suppose, I made the wrong move, I showed the wrong cards. First and foremost, I was told that I "laugh too much". I didn't know laughing was a crime. This ruined my "Professional" appearance. I didn't know I couldn't be myself. And to make things Worse, I actually TOLD a professor that I was having a hard time in their class, and needed suggestions for catching up on material I had not yet been exposed to. This was the end for me. I was soon told I would be recommended for the "Masters" Program by the same professor. This may sound like a compliment, but if one knows about the world of graduate school, they know differently. If you are recommended for such a thing, this means that you are not seen as worthy of "Ph.D." work, you are lowly, you can't think properly, write well, or possibly last to write a dissertation. This is the way out. You are in check.

Mind you, this was decided about me perhaps after a month or so of grad school. I was already in check. And so began the end. As one professor talked with another, and down the line, I suddenly heard my name and "masters program" together. My funding disappeared. My fate is sealed. All before I even knew anyone professor well enough to trust and speak with them. And once you know that you are viewed negatively, as "hopeless" then well, what more can you do but try to protect the dignity you have left? At this point I am trying to preserve what I have, to hang on, and leave. I am afraid to make any moves at all. I am in check. One move and I could be check-mate.

It's amazing how knowing that others have already made negative judgments about you (and without even knowing you in any sense) can effect your success. Compare the opinions of me as a grad student to one in any other environment. I took Hindi in India this summer. Not only did my teachers enjoy that I "laugh too much" but I was actually taken aside and complimented. These teachers got a chance to know me, and came to see me as "someone who studies and works with a passion and happiness" that they found refreshing. The head teacher told me this. He informed me that all the teachers in the program had excellent things to say about me, and found the (happy, smiling) way I go about the world refreshing.

At work I have been complimented for being an excellent worker, for being able to complete my tasks fast and well, and so forth. Granted, by job is not rocket science, but all the same, my co-workers can see that I am hard-working and respect them.

Switch back to my life as a graduate student. None of my professors, not even my advisors seem interesting in conversing with me for longer than 5 minutes, they are too busy. I doubt any one knows basic things about me. I have never had a chance to have an intellectual discussion. I am seen as "unprofessional". I "laugh too much" (I didn't know enjoying life was a crime), and I apparently present some odd appearance to them. I feel like, if only they got to know and see the real me, to get past their assumptions about "graduate students" and what they should be, that maybe they could see I have potential. Maybe I am different, maybe I present myself in a different way. But I don't see anything wrong with laughing, or being passionate about what I study. I believe that helps me, not acts as a detriment to my education.

When I came to grad school, I didn't know what to expect. Since then I have learned a great deal in terms of learning about theories, organizing and writing, and so forth. I see much progress in my work. But still I am seen as exactly the same person as when I entered grad school. I am seen as someone who doesn't exist. The person they think constructed through their assumptions and cultural expectations, but never really got to know.

I don't buy into their system, I'm not here to play chess. I am here to learn. Maybe I don't conform to their rules about what a "graduate student" should think, feel, act, and say, but I have never conformed. It's not my way. And I don't see it as a negative. It's what makes me who I am.

I will get as much as I can out of here, in the time I have left. I may have no funding. I may be "master tracked" already, prejudged and sent down the line, but I won't let it stop me. My goal was to learn about what I am passionate about. That's still my plan. In whatever time I have left, that's what I'll do. I'm just not going to play chess.