roasting marshmellows in phd hell

Academic Culture- pt.2

with 2 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, my undergrad experience consisted of wonderful professors with the requisite tweed suits and shoulder patches, who took great care with lectures, thought provoking classroom discussion, and advice on career stuff.  When I wrestled over the grad school application process, they guided me (whether I was misguided or not is subject for another entry..)  When I successfully defended my undergrad ‘thesis’, they poured me a sherry (the drink of academic champions?) and invited me to call them by their first names and it felt like being initiated into their club of eggcellent minds.

Writing that last paragraph makes me feel ashamed.


(cue gratuitous clip from “The Wire”)


How wide eyed and gullible was I to think that professors would actually give the time of day to me, one of their enthusiastic students?   Tweed?  Sherry?  Guidance?  What kind of kindergarten touchy feely program did I attend?

I now know that my experience was not an accurate reflection of the larger culture of academia.  Très ironique too, because if I didn’t have that particular experience as an undergraduate, I never would have pursued postgraduate education.  So, insert other appropriate french sounding phrase here.  Merde?

In graduate school, the majority of the professors I encountered treated lectures and seminars as  sacred times where they could pontificate on whatever topic they felt like discussing, syllabus be damned.  Many an hour were wasted, when my fellow students and I had come prepared to hear about x topic, only to be talked at for 2 hours about something completely irrelevant to our course of study.  Like their idea for a new world currency, or Dancing With the Stars.  This was a top program at a highly revered school, which I say not to make myself feel better about all this misspent time, but to support my feeling that this experience was not an isolated event, a blip on the space time continuum.

During my time at Top University, I also have had the experience of attending many undergraduate lectures through my function as a TA.  The numerous lectures I heard can be divided into two categories; for the ease of categorization, let’s label them Shit and Fantastique, going with our French theme for the day.  The Shit lectures were 100% all given by older, tenured, male professors.  They consisted of a general summary of the text for that week, some extremely patronizing ‘information’- ie what does ‘characterization mean’ (something that these non freshman subject majors were well aware of at this point), and about 20-30 minutes of either historical context given at the sacrifice of a deeper look inside the text (and could have been an assigned reading for home via the course website) or chat about their own pet interest, ie what famous politicians like or dislike Jane Austen, etc.   I found this puzzling, not to mention, disappointing, on so many levels.  A number of these ‘lectures’ were given by internationally recognized experts in their fields, people who publish in the top journals and are very well regarded in academia.  Surely they are capable of distilling some significant analysis to their students?  Either they have collectively decided that these lectures are just a waste of their precious precious time, that they could be writing up in their garret, or else, once you remove the jargon and fancy words, the Emperor Has No Clothes.  Either way, it’s an insult to the students who take these courses.

Now, onto the Fantastique.. (which I am guessing isn’t an actual word?) 100% given by young female untenured professors and recently minted phds.  (I don’t think these demographics are a coincidence.)  These lectures reignite the excitement I felt as a pre sherry tasting undergrad.  They’re probably about 10 percent historical context and summary, with the majority of the lecture devoted to a nuanced take of several themes or ideas in the work, the way it was written, the significance or importance of the text, incorporating outside views and scholarship as well.  With no exceptions, all of these lectures were extremely professional and reflected the work and consideration that went into their preparation.  So what a slap in the face that must be to these young women, who work so hard for the ever eroding opportunity for either tenure or a professorial position of their own, to share the course with a bunch of people who clearly do not give a shit?  Again, more on this another day..

The next segment will deal with a horse of a different color–phd supervision.  I’ve got to dig out my flask for this one.

Written by universityoflies

May 1, 2012 at 12:39

2 Responses

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  1. Yes, yes, yes. Part of the lure of grad school was being so liked and respected by my tweedy profs, who were all part of ancient academic history as far as the rest of the world was concerned. It’s a REAL SHAME that grad school isn’t like the best parts of college, because I think that’s what we all wanted.


    May 7, 2012 at 22:07

  2. The sherry should have come with a warning label!


    May 7, 2012 at 22:12

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