Notes from the Field

I feel small. I am not a small person. At 5’5, I am completely average height. In fact, and if anything, I’ve often felt self-consciously large – a skewed perception, of course, that no doubt derives, in part, from spending a time on a team for which being small is an asset. Indeed, many of my teammates came in under 5’3. But the smallness I feel now is not quantifiable. And it has nothing to do with my physical size. I feel the smallness that academia seems to impel; the smallness that, upon completion of my first year of PhD work, I have begun to internalize.Two personal anecdotes particularly seem to encapsulate some of my recent thoughts and reflections about this phenomenon. Anecdote 1: The day after I submitted my final paper of the year, I found myself on a plane to San Francisco. Between the flight there and back, and some long and exceptionally beautiful runs in between, I found myself in a particularly reflective mode. Everything in San Francisco seems big, almost cartoonishly outsized. It is a stunning city with expansive, panoramic views, massive, lush outdoor parks, and looming hills so steep that if you try to run them (as I maladroitly attempted) they will literally take your breath away. It is a city of big tech and even bigger ideas. Within minutes of arriving in the city, I was standing in the lobby of one of the largest buildings in the downtown area, in the midst of several other skyscrapers, and emblazoned with an appropriately spacious cloud logo – the essence of their business. And while I am still not sure what the nebulous “cloud” concept means, it seemed somehow to encapsulate the ethos of the city. Think big. Expand. Be boundless. It’s not a bad way to think; after all, it’s contributed to some of the major innovations of our day. It is, certainly, a way to – to borrow a familiar and suitably tech-y phrase – Think Different. And immersed in all of this largesse, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such an acute disjunction with my own life. I could, of course, attribute it partially to the fact that I don’t know the city well; any new city would likely feel overwhelming. But partially, I think that the pervasive mentality that seems to drive the city and those in it (an admirable one) is fundamentally so distinctive from my own daily experiences and the mindset that motivates my work. Boston, unlike New York or San Francisco, is a mostly horizontal city. With the exception of a few buildings, it’s neither particularly tall nor particularly large. It’s a homey and beautiful city. In many ways, it’s the absolute perfect place to be a graduate student. But it’s less the city itself so much as the culture of academia that seems to engender smallness and to reflect the discordance I began to consider. Unlike the tech world, academia breeds smallness. Take the logistics: my total incoming cohort this year had about 12 people; next year, 4 of us will be left. My smallest class this year was 5 people; the largest, about 15. The only ostensibly “big” thing about this year was the number of pages of required reading and writing. But that, too, was completed by me: a solitary team of 1. Even when working with a friend, as I often did, we’d be working (oxymoronically) together alone. I don’t work on a team. I spend most weekends in one or two places struggling to keep up with the syllabus. Most of my time on the sprawling BU campus revolves around one building; literally all of my classes take place in one room. They meet once a week, for three hours. Suddenly your physical world begins to feels claustrophobic. If the San Fran hills will take your breath away, sometimes academia will make you feel like you can’t breathe. Under the crushing workload of four courses, in which you’re repeatedly asked to read several 200+ page novels plus critical readings per course per week, you might begin to lose yourself. You might begin to lose perspective. It’s true that I’m particularly (even somewhat jokingly among my cohort) noted for my anxiety about schoolwork. And yet, I can’t possibly be alone in feeling this way. It seems to be a real and pervasive problem that merits more serious attention. Recent studies have discussed the prevalence of mental illness in academia, largely due to the sense of isolation that I have especially been trying to describe and which graduate life endemically encourages. Certainly, it doesn’t get easier after coursework. Academic fields are small. I study English, but I study, more particularly, modern and postmodern poetry. When I write my dissertation, I will study, even more particularly, a handful (at most) of authors. When you write, your audience is narrow and specific, and your goal is to find a new, small niche. You carve out little spaces, and nuanced, detailed readings in order to make your voice heard. You focus on minutiae – not just specific authors and texts, but even at the semantic level, single words or phrases to the point of quasi-obsession. Jobs in academia are dwindling. Funding is scarce. The academic world can often feel like a world in miniature. Your focus tends increasingly inward – and you are literally forced, unrelentingly, in your head.

Anecdote 2: Though academia is often not a particularly supportive environment for graduate students, I’ve had the great fortune of being in a cohort of bright, down to earth, kind people and of meeting some truly inspiring and incredible professors in my first year. But perhaps the most outstanding encounter I’ve had precisely encapsulates the feeling of smallness I’ve been trying to articulate. In my first semester, I faced the most demoralizing professor I’ve ever encountered. Clearly well read and intelligent, he could hold forth on his topic with impressive bravado; but his criticism, far from constructive, was routinely condescending. “It is a pity,” he said, that the “elementary errors” in my prose undermined my otherwise intelligent analysis. “You can do better.” That was his feedback on my first major assignment. I was trying hard, but I already knew I could do better; I am nothing if not a consummate perfectionist. I also know that am not a perfect writer, but I certainly proofread as much as possible. Suddenly, however, I felt as though I was no better than an elementary school student, a fourth-grader getting reprimanded or scolded by a strict schoolmaster. I was, suddenly, a “pity” – as though somehow I was meant to feel ashamed of the work I’d produced. Perhaps even more seminally was the time I braved this professor’s office hours. This was no easy task; office hours make me nervous as it is (another one-on-one, small encounter) and his unreasonably so. If you know me well, you’ve likely heard this story by now. I walked into the office. Before I had a chance to sit down to discuss my ideas, he basically sized me up. “That backpack is too heavy,” he said, “for what we used to call a ‘sliver of a girl.’” Verbatim. He’s on the older side and, if I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, he didn’t see anything wrong with saying this. Perhaps he’d even meant, lightheartedly, to put me at ease. But I felt instantly uncomfortable. If I was already intimidated, then I now felt, quite literally, slight. I was there to talk about my ideas. I wanted my ideas to seem big and bold and interesting, but standing there I could only feel physically and intellectually belittled. It was, in many ways, the perfectly embodied approximation of a semester spent in his class – and really, if I’m honest – in the first year of my program.

Academia is an exceptionally hard world to understand from the outside. Often it seems that no matter how much I tell my friends about what I do or how much they ask and are genuinely interested, they can never fully understand. I don’t fault them. To be fair, and as I’ve admitted already, I also don’t fully understand their world – and I likely never will. But when a friend gets a promotion at work, I more or less understand the sense of accomplishment and work required; by contrast, when your first academic article gets accepted for publication, it’s somewhat harder to explain the significance or sense of pride you feel. It doesn’t quite make the same impression; it doesn’t quite compute. There are different tradeoffs, too. I’m not changing the way businesses work, and I’m not creating the next great and necessary consumer/business tool that’s going to revolutionize the way people think and act. We need those things. But I may, if I’m lucky, have the unparalleled feeling (a feeling I’ve experienced fleetingly) of genuinely connecting with a student. I may not change hundreds of lives, but if I change one, even in a minor way, perhaps that’s enough.

Too often I think these latter moments seem to get lost. They are moments we need to celebrate. They are moments we need to foster. Indeed, I think emphasizing teaching in many of these programs could go a long way – building a community oriented less around individual papers and research and more around service and human connection (even if that seems, or is, idealistic). We need to create a culture where asking for help and giving it is not only acceptable but expected and routine. Which is not to say we can’t be critical, but we can at least be compassionate. It’s a competitive world, in part because of its smallness and the limited resources/jobs available, but we can’t lose sight of what’s important. We have to support each other. I need to remind myself to be a more generous colleague, classmate, and friend and hopefully inspire others to do the same. But we, or at least I, also rely on the support of friends and family. And I feel so grateful everyday to have been blessed this year with exactly that. As much as I love what I am doing most of the time (and in spite of this post, I do) and feel so fortunate to have the opportunities I have, my world so often feels self-contained that I cherish perspective from the outside – whether it’s dinner with a friend, a long phone or Skype conversation (where would we be without the tech world, after all?), or just a quick text. They matter. So, at base, if there’s anything I’ve gotten out of this by now long, discursive, and somewhat self-indulgent post about my reflections of the past year, it’s that I feel so thankful to have people who can and will help me to feel big again – eventually. Or, at least, normal sized.