Thursday, July 10, 2008

How not to be a pretentious grad student

Normally Dear Prudence is spot-on. But one of her answers today misses a few key things, things I only noticed because the letter began, "My husband and I are both graduate students at different universities, and we both teach introductory-level classes in our fields as part our programs." That is, a situation not too far off from my own experience. The letter continues:

My husband, however, refers to this teaching requirement as his job—as in, when people say, "What do you do?" he responds, "I teach at College X." He will not bring up the fact that he is a graduate student and will evade questions about his role unless I mention that he's a student, not a full professor. This is causing some tension between us. I feel that he's being untruthful and trying to make himself look more accomplished and successful. (No one we know, at our age, is a full-time faculty member at any university.) But he thinks I'm undermining and disrespecting him when I tell people that he's in grad school. Am I being petty, or is he being pretentious?

Prudie responds,

You're being petty, and he's being pretentious. If you'd kept your critique private, he'd definitely be ahead of you in pretentiousness, since he's deliberately trying to inflate his role at the university. But you acknowledge that you get so bugged by this that you point out to people just how silly your husband is; that's pretty petty. Is this a new character trait of his? If so, you need to talk about what may be causing this overcompensation. Perhaps he's having trouble with his thesis. Maybe he's worried he'll never finish or that, even if he does, it won't be good enough to get him the kind of faculty position he covets. Check in with him about how he's feeling about his life—and make the discussion separate from this squabble. And when you're socializing and he shades his description of what he does, don't say anything. Respond to the questions about yourself straightforwardly, and decide it's not your job to grade his answers.

Ah, the age-old dilemma for the PhD student of what to say that you "do" when someone asks. The answer has less to do with pettiness or pretension than with getting your audience right. When you're 23 or 24 and someone asks about your work, and you respond with, "I'm a student," you are basically telling this person that you are in college, that you are largely supported by your parents, that you are, for all purposes, a child. You probably start your weekends on Thursday, hook up with a different person every weekend, and are like not totally sure what you're going to do when you grow up. There are certain situations--say, when looking to rent an apartment--when explaining what a PhD program is would not be convenient and might well be futile. That's when saying, "I teach at X University" comes in handy. It's the quickest way of saying yes, I can pay rent, and no, I will not trash this apartment. (If, at 30, while wrapping up your dissertation, you answer with, 'I'm a student,' that too offers its share of concerns.) What both Prudie and the letter-writer miss is that this answer is an entirely fair one to give, whether one is tenured, an adjunct, or a new T.A. Just try telling a T.A. with a stack of papers to grade that reaches the ceiling, with a class full of students with varying degrees of interest in the material, that this does not really count as teaching.

If pretension does enter into it, it's not the 'I teach' versus 'I'm a student' debate, but rather, whether you say, 'I'm a grad student' or 'I'm a PhD/doctoral student.' In most social situations, no one is accusing anyone of being a spoiled 18-year-old, so there's really no need to say you teach. But how much information do you need to give? 'Grad school' sounds so general, and no one faults a med or law student for specifying his field of study. But to say 'PhD' is to say 'not an MA,' which, depending on the context, can come across as snooty and overly specific. But not specifying leads to all kinds of inane discussions about what you're going to do after grad school, because, by implying that you're getting an MA, you throw yourself back into the pool of those undecided about precisely what they'll be doing after they graduate. Then again, how inaccurate is this assessment, when you consider that no one in a PhD program can confidently say, 'I'm going to be a professor,' without coming across as, well, pretentious?

The answer is, again, to know your audience. There are times when nothing short of, 'I teach,' will satisfactorily convey that you are an adult. There are other settings when specifying exactly what program you're in and what your research topic is will actually be of interest to other people, but those times are exceedingly rare. The trick is to come up with the shortest possible way of saying what it is you do, then quickly change the subject to whatever the other person does, although this advice is, I would say, not specific to grad students.

1 comment:

Withywindle said...

It's also awkward in the netherworld between getting a PhD and a tenure-track job. "I'm an adjunct" has its own set of embarrassments.