What does it mean to be a “real grad student?”

First of all, yes, I am going to post three times in three days. Why? I am going to post three times in three days because, after that, it is quite likely that I won’t post for another 3-6 months.

Now.. I felt that the end of my last post, while fitting for the uncertainty and ambiguity of a PhD program, was a bit flippant. I don’t want to be flippant. I’ve been given a great opportunity, and I really am trying to make the most of it. Sometimes I fail. Other times I am relatively successful.

What does it mean to be a “real grad student?”

  • It means I give myself the permission to be taken seriously. This does not have anything to do with calling professors by their first names. Some will probably take my modest behavior for lack of confidence. Sometimes it is, but often it is just that I observe the title of “Dr.” as an earned distinction and a social formality. I will not call a professor by first name unless that professor asks the class to do so and I feel like I have a working professional relationship with that professor. Moreover, I believe I have to consider (as I was discussing with a friend yesterday) the ways in which the experience of women professors, and perhaps specifically black women professors, is devalued when students call them “Ms.” or by their first name. See these great articles, “Some College Students Earn a ‘F’ in Respect for Women Teachers” by Dr. Ebony Utley, and “On Being Called Out My Name.”
    • Being taken seriously means that I truly have something important to contribute to the conversation. It means that I talk when I feel that I would be adding something to the intellectual environment of the course which another student is not going to add at that particular time. I ask “stupid” questions if doing so will help another student who is even more introverted than I am. If a professor asks me about my perceived value of a course, I give them an honest, but thoughtful, answer.
    • Being taken seriously also means I wear my “She has read too many books and it has addled her brain,” “Well behaved women seldom make history,” and “Beware – ignorance protects itself” shirts as often as I want and I dye the ends of my hair a deep blue. I do make an effort at standard professional dress, though – career pants go with everything!
  • It means I have established a balance between my duties as a teaching assistant and my duties as a student. I answer student emails and mark papers in a timely manner, but I do so without diminishing my commitment to my courses and/or my writing.
  • It means that I am taking multiple routes to increase both my participation in an academic community and my preparation for AC and alt-AC careers, so that if one of those routes turns out to be a dead end, I have other options.
  • It means I have (mostly) established a work/life balance, too.
  • It means that I am more excited about my work than I am overwhelmed.

In the past two and a half months, I have made all of these changes to the way I approach my PhD program. I’m really looking forward to what I will learn next!

Why I’m (a little bit) glad I was laid off

Nobody wants to talk about getting laid off. At least, I don’t think so. It feels personal.

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But it feels personal.

I put a lot of energy into my last tutoring job. I felt a connection with many of the students there. I wanted to give back to a community that had once helped me, personally, academically, and professionally.

At one point, I had been told that a teaching position or two would be opening up in the near future. It would be a part-time position, but I was ok with that. Alternative education is important to me. When I was offered another part-time position tutoring at a local school, I turned it down, even though there was an opportunity to advance.

Then I was laid off.

At first it hurt. At first it felt like a door had been closed.

Finally I realized doors had actually OPENED. I had spent so much time thinking about how I could work on my position there, that I had been neglecting other opportunities – grad school, scholarships, PhD applications, strengthening my writing sample, presenting at conferences.

Since I no longer had to worry about that job, I got two other part-time jobs, both at the university where I am pursuing my M.A. This meant less commuting time. These jobs also taught me new skills (especially in social media!) and enhanced my application to PhD programs in English. Now I’m going exactly where I feel should be at this point in my life.

Instead of thinking so much about the past, I’m looking forward to the future.

Why is mentorship so important and so scarce?

Perhaps I am borrowing a bit from the meme that is currently circulating: the world does not need more successful people. The world needs more dreamers, lovers, etc.

I have been thinking about mentorship for a while, particularly in the context of education: elementary, secondary and higher education. We do not necessarily need more teachers. We need more people who are willing to, and who can, mentor. Students need to be able to build a rapport with their teachers. They need to know that their teachers genuinely care about and believe in them.

Teachers need to be able to do this. For this to happen, we as a society need to invest in our teachers. How can teachers invest in students if their employers are not investing in them?

Teachers also need to be interested in mentoring students, and to not feel like it is a stigma to care about what their students are doing. Support from the administration, in this regard, would also help.

In secondary education particularly, we need more teachers willing to start and maintain LGBTQ clubs and other support/outreach groups, which, unfortunately, are still so often seen as problematic.

Finally, students need the simple things in mentorship – someone to tell them which scholarships are available and how to apply for them – someone to review drafts of cover letters and essays – someone to say, “I believe in you. Keep trying.”