Being a graduate student isn't easy. You'll need a lot of time and energy to understand your lessons. You'll have to endure longer classes and more complicated requirements just to get over it. Most of the time, you'll feel overwhelmed and frustrated.

Some Very Candid Reflections on My First Quarter of Graduate School

Kellen Aguilar Academia, Graduate School, Humor, Personal Leave a Comment

Being a graduate student isn't easy. You'll need a lot of time and energy to understand your lessons. You'll have to endure longer classes and more complicated requirements just to get over it. Most of the time, you'll feel overwhelmed and frustrated.

They said graduate school would be no walk in the park. They said I would freeze my backside off in Chicago. They said it would be impossible to read everything word for word, so be selective. They said this and they said that, and while some of it made sense, in the words of Dale from King of the Hill, a lot of it made a whole lot of nonsense.

The sensical and the nonsensical aside, I’ve put my first quarter of graduate school behind me. The good news: so far, grad school hasn’t been all that bad. The not so good news: there’s still a long, long way to go. I offer some reflections on this past quarter to those who might be on the cusp of making extremely bad life decisions like mine, to those who derive glee from others’ pain, and/or to those who, by some (un?)happy accident, have landed on this page.

Reflection #1 — You Really Don’t Need to Read Everything (Unless You Want To)

Much like the many frisky and freaky paths to spiritual salvation enumerated in the Kama Sutra, I’ve found that there are many different ways to read to save one’s life in graduate school. What’s important is to find a method or methods that are effective for your purposes. If, like me, you’ve subjected yourself to reading massive novels and mind-boggling literary theory, it’s best to use a combination of reading strategies. For example, if I need to ply through a 500-page novel in one week, I might read the first three or so chapters word for word, and then switch to reading every other page. But if that becomes too schizophrenic of an experience (e.g. reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in that manner), another option is to read the first, middle, and last sentence of every paragraph. Sometimes, the novelist will be so generous as to preface each chapter with a short description. Thus, for Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, one might simply read the chapters that one suspects will be most significant for seminar discussion (e.g. do read the chapter where the protagonist debates the Islamic versus Christian faiths with his captor; skim or skip the chapter where the protagonist recites the entirety of the history of the Middle East… ain’t nobody got time for that in grad school).

Personally, I am partial to reading word for word and skipping entire sections that I: A.) think are redundant B.) can guess what happens C.) don’t think are integral to my comprehension of the novel or theoretical piece as a whole. My disclaimer is that it may take some practice to be able to read in this way, mainly because you’ll need to hone your ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, to discern themes and motifs on the fly. And by practice, I mean reading widely and often. Per William Faulkner’s advice: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.” In graduate school, you shouldn’t have any problem with the “read” (x3) part.

The main point is read smarter, not harder (or as much). You may be tempted to challenge yourself to read everything your professors throw at you, and that’s fine as long as doing so doesn’t burn you out or compromise your performance in all of your courses. That said, I would run out of fingers if I counted on my hand the number of times that a professor assigned a litany of reading and proceeded to spend the entire three of hours of seminar discussing only one of the assigned texts. Between Benjamin Franklin’s 400-page autobiography and a 10-page PDF of various Native American colonial era speeches, which would you guess got more air time in seminar? If you went with the 10-pager, then you are both correct and very good at picking up my hints.

I have lost track of the number of times that my professors assign a ton of reading for seminar discussion, and then proceed to discuss only a small section of one of the readings for the entire duration of class.

A final, scandalous note about survival reading in grad school: it’s okay to read online summaries of the stuff your assigned in your coursework. I am aware that for the purists out there, resorting to online summaries is akin to a cardinal sin and worth twenty public lashes in front of the English building. But, frankly, if you’re sitting there in your Snuggie, sipping you’re third expresso at two in the morning on a Wednesday, reading and rereading the same paragraph from Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” with less comprehension of it than Donald Trump reading the morning presidential briefing, then you should probably try a different tack. [Insert quote about insanity, repetition, and expected outcomes]. The golden rule is this: summaries are supplements, not substitutions.

Reflection #2 — Kill ‘Em with Kindness

I recently lamented to one of my mentors from my undergraduate years that some of the folks in my graduate department have “strong personalities” that can be frustrating to deal with. My mentor replied that he had a similar experience when he was in graduate school, and that there is something about the nature of “our work” that attracts rather unusual people. “Unusual how?” you may ask. Let me count the ways.

  • Unusual when, driving home one night from the bar, Sammy Sloth broaches the topic of Stranger Things season two. Priscilla Panda enthusiastically chimes in that she thought season two was interesting. But Sammy says that he couldn’t really get into it — the plot was lackluster, the pacing was off, and the new character the writers introduced just wasn’t that compelling. Priscilla retorts that, “well, actually, I thought season two was a realistic and fascinating exploratory contemplation of the long-term effects of childhood trauma.” A dreadfully uncomfortable silence ensues, followed by Priscilla again: “Oh, but I guess you just didn’t appreciate it because it wasn’t entertaining enough for you.”
  • Unusual when, while eating dinner one night, Sammy Sloth asks Cat Man Jones point blank if he would ever consider having sex with another man. Both Sammy and Cat Man are aware that the other is in a heterosexual relationship.
  • Unusual when during seminar, Priscilla Panda cuts Carly Catfish off mid-sentence to correct her pronunciation of Muñoz: “I just want to issue a correction — it’s Mu-ñoz, not Mu-ñoz. The accent is on the second syllable. Thank you.”
  • Unusual when typical conversation is exemplified by a forty-five minute debate at Panera’s restaurant about the merits of heating water on the stove versus using an electric water heater, followed by an impassioned discussion about why astrology is a form of women’s knowledge and anyone who dismisses it is a misogynist.
  • Unusual when Priscilla Panda asks Martha Monkey how she thinks she did on her language diagnostic exam in French. Martha says that it was hard, that there were some points about grammar that she was unsure about, but she’s hopeful. “That sucks,” responds Priscilla, “I didn’t have to take a language exam, since I’m a heritage Spanish speaker.” A few odd seconds pass, then Priscilla says, “Oh, but I don’t mean to be a dick.”
  • Unusual when, on another night at a bar (do you see a trend here?), Cat Man Jones casually shoots the breeze with Martha Monkey but is interrupted by Priscilla Panda: “hey, I just came from a table where there’s a little boy who said he wants to talk you [Cat Man] about comic book heroes! He’s one of the MFA students’ kid. I said you would talk to him since you know all about that stuff.” Cat Man, being somewhere on the border between buzzed and tipsy, sets off, while Priscilla takes his place. Later on, around closing time, Priscilla “thanks” Cat Man “for replacing me at the kiddy table. That kid didn’t really need to talk to you. I just threw your name out because I wanted a break.”

I could also include the numerous instances in which I’ve witnessed someone’s privilege get righteously checked or “casual” racism and sexism being called out (in person and on Facebook), but this blog post really should be readable in one sitting and not have the long-lasting soporific effect of six Ambien tablets choked down with hard liquor.

In any case, my mentor seems to be onto something. So how does one navigate these spaces that are so jam-packed with characters and egos that they make dating apps like Tinder seem full of modest, unassuming salt of the earth?

As the proverb instructs: kill with kindness. Try to be on good terms with everyone in the department. When colleagues ask for favors, agree to help them. When they brag (and oh boy, do they brag), humor them. Stay clear of the rampant gossip and secretive conversations that occur in the copy room (in fact, I’ve gone completely digital so my days of doing hand-to-paper-tray combat with the copy machine are a thing of the past). Essentially, treat graduate school like what it really is — a professional work environment.

Yes, be honest and forthright, but pick your battles. Let the petty BS roll off your back, and call out the more egregious things you simply can’t let slide. In most instances, assume sincerity and kill with kindness.

With all of the colossal egos floating around graduate school, it's better to assume sincerity and kill with kindness (in most situations).

With all of the colossal egos floating around graduate school, it’s better to assume sincerity and kill with kindness (in most situations).

So once more, “Unusual how?” you might ask:

Unusual when, after final papers have been submitted and the blood, sweat, and tears have barely dried, something like the following exchange of texts transpires between Sammy Sloth and Cat Man Jones:

SAMMY SLOTH: Yo, did you get your feedback from Professor Adams?

CAT MAN JONES: hey man, i did, i got it i think on saturday when i flew in!

SAMMY SLOTH: Dude …

SAMMY SLOTH: I am just flabbergasted right now, like I need to contextual [sic] her comments through someone who knows her or something

SAMMY SLOTH: But it is kinda odd to talk to people within your class about each other’s work, especially after it’s been graded, but I just read them and was like wtf

CAT MAN JONES: Oh no man, that doesn’t sound good… do you think you should meet with her after break, or shoot her an email to clarify her feedback? Do her comments not make sense, or do you disagree with them?

SAMMY SLOTH: No, like in a good way

SAMMY SLOTH: Like I thought I turned in a C paper that would probably get a B because Adams is nice, I wrote the thing sleep deprived in 10 hours and hardly had time to even revise it, I haven’t even read it straight through

CAT MAN JONES: oh that’s great man! I see what you’re saying now lol

CAT MAN JONES: that’s the humanities for you lmao

SAMMY SLOTH: Like I don’t even know how to describe this to you haha, I’m not trying to give myself some back handed compliment or to impress you or anything, but I don’t know who else to go to make sense of this, I’m telling you this is just some average paper and her comments are borderline ridiculous

SAMMY SLOTH: And I feel like it’s just because it’s Adams, or maybe because I really played to her interests in the paper, I’m just baffled right now, and either whatever I wrote was some miracle act of desperation or this is all a sham haha

CAT MAN JONES: hahaha i totally see what your saying man, but honestly maybe you aren’t giving yourself enough credit! You probably did deserve the high marks on your paper (even if it was written in a moment of desperation, as you say lol!)

CAT MAN JONES: but either way man, congratulations! i think you mentioned that you do your best work close to the deadline

CAT MAN JONES: I think there’s something to that, actually. I find that to be true about myself as well hahaha

SAMMY SLOTH: Anyway, I’ll try to articulate this more when we get back or something, I just had to ask someone if their remarks seemed rational based on their own analysis of their work

It's hard not be suspicious that someone is fishing for compliments when they begin their sentence by expressly denying that they are looking for 'backhanded compliments, but...'

Yeah, I’m sure Sammy wasn’t trying to give himself a “back-handed compliment” either!

Reflection #3 — Silence is Golden

There is an anonymously attributed quote that appears at the beginning of this year’s fair and unbiased, totally-not-slanted-by-a-liberal-agenda Dick Cheney biopic Vice that goes as follows: “Beware the quiet man. For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest… he strikes.” Contextually, this is a rather sinister observation about quiet people (and sure-I’ll-sign-your-waterboard Cheney). Surely, not all quiet people are two-timing schemers silently orchestrating the downfall of their more vocally inclined peers. What I do like about this quote is the notion that sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it is better to listen than to speak. Dare I say that it is often best not to say anything at all. Let me give you an example, based on a true story:

Cat Man Jones and Priscilla Panda made their way back through the quiet city and the nippy night air to the metro station, discussing the film they had just seen at the local film festival as they walked. Priscilla, being the more vocal and assertive of the two friends, roared peevishly at Cat Man for saying that he, “enjoyed the movie” (he pronounced it “meowvie,” being not as learnéd as his peer) since, for Priscilla, “movie” was a term that should be applied solely to popular faire like those stupid superhero movies and those trashy Adam Sandler comedies. What they had just seen (Priscilla preferred “experienced”) was a “film,” not a movie, and she rebuked Cat Man for not being more discerning.

Presently, they arrived at the station. As they descended the steps, they could hear a train about to pull up to the platform. Cat Man and Priscilla sprinted to the turnstile, and just as Cat Man was about to swipe his metro card to pass through, he remembered that a gentlemeow always lets a ladymeow go first. But Priscilla, having achieved social consciousness through hours of meditation and pouring over feminist and queer theory, was hesitant to play into the gender stereotypes that Cat Man was attempting to perpetuate.

“Go, Cat Man,” said Priscilla.

“Please, I insist,” replied Cat Man. He was a hair’s width away from addressing Priscilla as “Mew’lady,” but his kitty sense and the vein throbbing in Priscilla’s furry temple like an aggravated viper discouraged him.

“Cat Man, just go!”

“Please, ladies first, I insist.”

Grand and State, Red Line, a calm voice intoned over the station’s PA system.

“We’re going to miss our train!”

“I- I- don’t know what to do! It’s just polite!”

“What’s polite? Just because I’m a woman means I should go first? You think I’m a woman, is that it?”

“But you are a woman, aren’t you?”

“So now you’re assuming my gender, is that it?”

“Wha-? No, I- I just-”

At this point, Priscilla had had enough. She grabbed Cat Man by the nape of his neck and launched him like a fuzzy football over the turnstile. She grabbed his metro card off the ground and retroactively swiped him through, then swiped herself through with her own card. Priscilla dashed forward, scooped up Cat Man under her arm, B-lined it straight for the train and just as the train’s doors began to close, leaped with Cat Man in tow — and made it through!

As the train bounded for their woodland home, the pair of highly intellectual forest creatures passed the time with some pleasant conversation. Topics were vast, varied, and very, very “woke.” Priscilla explained why she believed in the right of every female animal to choose what she can and can’t do with her body, and why opening the forest’s borders was not only economically sound, but ethically and morally responsible. Cat Man, being naturally agreeable, expressed his assent with enthusiastic nods, “mhm’s,” and finger-snaps to punctuate every point Priscilla made. To be sure, Cat Man wasn’t entirely certain where he himself stood on such issues and, call him callous, he couldn’t truthfully say that he was much willing to die on either hill. But Priscilla was his friend, and he knew how important animal abortion rights and open forest borders were to her. So he humored her.

That’s when Cat Man made his fatal faux “paw.”

“And you know what, Cat Man,” said Priscilla after lambasting the current park administration’s extreme prejudice against same species couples, “we need to talk about Sammy Sloth’s use of ‘homosexual.’”

Cat Man had not the slightest idea what Priscilla was talking about. Sammy was their mutual friend, and yes, he did occasionally fumble over the word homosexual when referring to gay folks. But why did Priscilla seem to think this was such a hot button issue? Did gay and homosexual not mean the same thing? Cat Man racked his brain for an answer, but to no avail. If he didn’t do something quick, it would be his third strike that evening — Priscilla might break off their friendship if he showed himself to be one of the unenlightened plebs that she frequently railed about on her Tumblr page. Unfortunately, Cat Man’s mind had a propensity for drowning out all of his thoughts with themes from his favorite television shows when he was under pressure. This time, it was the theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, Priscilla droned on and on about the different times Sammy had dropped the H-word in public. When she came to a pause to catch her breath, Cat Man impulsively took his chance.

“Totally agree, every time Sammy says ‘it,’” and Cat Man signed a capital H in the air with his tail, “I cringe.”

“Well, you should say something to him then,” said Priscilla.

“Oh, no ha ha,” the ever-non-confrontational Cat Man laughed nervously, “I don’t have the balls.”

“Gee Cat Man, that’s really bad then, because I do.”

Cat Man’s fate was sealed. He tried to reel his previous comment back by sputtering, “Oh… I, uh, just, you know, I’m a sensitive guy and I don’t want to hurt Sammy’s feelings.” In truth, he only dug his grave deeper because the damage was done. A series of actions and consequences beyond Cat Man’s control had been set in motion, and in the words of Samuel Beckett, “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

So the following week, while the gang nom nommed in one of their favorite feeding spots in the forest, it was no surprise when Sammy dropped the H-word again. It was also no surprise when Priscilla cut Sammy off mid-sentence to exclaim, “Sammy, we really need to talk about your use of the word homosexual.” And it was truly the least bit surprising when, after Priscilla explained that “homosexual” is a politically incorrect term for gay men and women because it originates within a medical history of pathologizing same sex attraction as deviant, and after which a flustered Sammy repentantly asked for Priscilla’s forgiveness and thanked her effusively for correcting his erroneous, insensitive ways, yes it was the least bit surprising when after these ceremonies were completed, Priscilla, with a wink and a smirk at Cat Man, turned back to Sammy and said, “Of course, that’s what true friends do. A true friend isn’t afraid to correct another friend so that they don’t continue making the same mistakes. It does take balls, but that’s what true friends are for.” Priscilla Panda and Sammy Sloth continued on this way for the rest of the night, the one touting her newfound set of man marbles and the other flagellating himself with his own.

All the while, Cat said not a word.

An accurate depiction of Cat Man Jones's utter devastation

An accurate depiction of Cat Man Jones’s utter devastation

On the Bright Side

Perhaps it is human nature to dwell on the bad and to overlook the good. While there are aspects of my graduate program that I find frustrating, there are many facets that I enjoy, and I think it’s important to give the latter their due. Therefore, on the positive side:

  • It is a great privilege to be able to have intellectually stimulating conversations with intelligent and talented people in an environment that, for the most part, protects opinions of every stripe and color. Minor social awkwardness aside, I do feel that everyone in my department is mutually supportive and passionate about “our work.” The professors rarely, if ever, pull rank; they treat their graduate students like colleagues in their own right. Apologies in advance for the cliché, but despite, or perhaps because of our differences, my department often feels like a family.
  • I am extremely grateful to be fully-funded by my institution, and generously so. I live comfortably in a quaint studio apartment that offers a wonderful view of the west side of Chicago. I always have enough money for food, and even entertainment. In short, my finances have not been an issue. Moreover, everyone in my cohort receives the same financial package, which greatly reduces the fallout from inflated egos rubbing up against each other (imagine that!). I am all the more grateful for this because, unfortunately, I do know many graduate students who are not well-funded by their institutions and struggle to make ends meet. I can’t imagine the stress of working on a Ph.D while juggling a part-time job or forgoing meals to pay rent. It is a testament to those students’ grit and passion that they continue to make progress towards their degree in the face of such challenges.
  • I am very happy to have this unique experience — of living out on my own for the first time, of studying and contributing to our store of literary knowledge, of learning to work with and befriend people from all walks of life, of going to talks given by world-class scholars and brilliant minds, of being forced out of my comfort zone. I am aware that getting into graduate school takes a little bit of everything — hard work, an impressive rap sheet, professional connections, and mainly, luck. I am aware that statistically speaking, being accepted to grad school is a crapshoot and my spot could and should have gone to someone far more qualified than me. It is incredibly humbling, therefore, to be here.

I’m going to keep these last three points in mind as I head into a new quarter and a new year. Who knows, maybe by the end of winter, I’ll be a read-it-all, be-a-dick, speak-your-mind kind of guy.

Sure enough, grad school might have just that effect on a person.

Graduate school is hard, but you have to try to see the funny, sunny side of things.

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