Monday, January 21, 2013

Throwing like a girl, communicating like a graduate student

I have a hazy idea of what I want to say here--there's something which is irking me, but I can't quite articulate it.  And I feel like I've sort of been part of the problem myself.  So bear with me.

As the professionalization chair of the English grad student organization this year, I'm trying to organize some professionalization workshops for grad students this semester.  Publishing is one of our students' biggest concerns, and I'm going to ask a faculty member if he would do a repeat of a well-received workshop he did a few years ago, about what makes a journal article appear "grad student-y."  I'm not sure exactly what he covers in it, but I heard good things about it.

I've also asked the DGS to do a workshop on professional communication and networking.  There are two big things I'd like her to cover.  One, I'd like her to talk about things like, how to strike up a conversation at a conference/other networky place with a total stranger.  Or how to talk to a scholar you admire without sounding like a total fangirl.*  The other thing is more basic things, like that many faculty members take offense if you call them by their first name, or many of the other habits--especially in email--that I've heard faculty members complain about.

However, something's been irking me about a thread that's running through these requests, and I realize that it has something to do with the idea that we need to learn to not sound like graduate students.  It occurs to me that when most academics use the phrase "like a graduate student," they generally don't mean it as a compliment.**  And perhaps that doesn't bug most people, but there's something that smacks of other observations like, "You throw like a girl!"  When I first heard that one, my first response was, well, yeah, I am a girl.  Oh, you mean that as an insult?

And I suppose what I'm feeling right now is something like, well, yeah, I am a graduate student.  And I'm kind of getting tired of that label being used as a negative.  When I was trying to articulate this to my husband, he observed that that's kind of the problem with a hierarchical system such as academia, that those lower down on the learning curve do make mistakes and bumble things which those more experienced generally make less often.  And to be frank, I am aware enough of my own place on the learning curve/food chain, and my own ignorance of the often complicated, not-quite-visible politics going on--as well as the countless examples I've seen of other graduate students stumbling in their attempts to seem professional or assertive--that I understand why the term so often used as an adjective to mean unprofessional or ignorant of the big picture.

So, should I just suck it up and stop taking things so personally?  Or is there a conversation to be had about the derogatory and pejorative uses of the phrase "grad student"?

*Seriously, I worry sometimes about turning into Chris Farley: "You that time when you wrote Dirt and Desire?  You know, and you asked, like, what would happen if we replaced William Faulkner with Eudora Welty at the center of the southern canon?  That was awesome!"

**At a conference recently, I was stopped by a total stranger who congratulated me on giving a good conference paper presentation, and when they discovered I was a grad student, continued their compliments with, "Wow, you don't present like a grad student at all!"

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