Thursday, June 26, 2008

I know nothing

"The new graduate student's lack of humility is a stunning thing, perfect, seamless, and unbreakable."

Would that this were true. If taking grad classes and attempting original research hadn't taught me that I know nothing, teaching for the first time ever last fall sure did the trick. How could a grad student not be humble?

Beyond the requisite blogger-narcissistic use of my own case as an example, I'll add that I've rarely if ever witnessed PhD students behaving the way Megan McArdle says so many of us do. While a time does come when you realize you know more about your narrow topic than nearly anyone else out there, you will learn, whenever you bring up said topic, that your friends, even your friends in grad school, even those with similar interests, will only want to hear so much about it; the challenge of showing why your narrow topic has broader significance keeps you (you=me, but I'd imagine others as well) convinced that you do not, in fact, know everything. Plus, I've never known any of my classmates to "develop an amused contempt for anyone who is not in a PhD program." On occasion grad students idealize life outside academia, convinced that those with real, grown-up jobs have it made. That said, it could be that egotism in grad school and beyond correlates with gender, thus explaining why, in my humanities cocoon, I see so little of the behavior McArdle describes. I can't say with confidence that McArdle is wrong, because what do I know?

That said, in the quest to be one of those people who reads a book (or, has started a book) on a topic and holds forth on that topic with utmost confidence, I'm now reading Eric L. Goldstein's The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. The book contextualizes the question of whether Jews are white, a question I've addressed with limited confidence after reading exactly no books (directly) on the subject. Also, turns out I'm unintentionally doing background reading for my off-blog research--it's amazing how whole paragraphs about 19th century American Jewry could be about the French variety. I had no idea that American Jews prior to the American Revolution were considered a Jewish "nation," only to have to define themselves religiously once they became citizens of something else called a nation that had to come first. Surprisingly, the main difference between the experience of Jews in the 19th century US and in France at the same time has nothing to do with the rather significant differences between the French and American revolutions and their aftermaths. The difference? In the U.S., blacks were (and are) the minority group, whereas in (metropolitan) France, Jews held this role. That, more than any philosophical difference between France as a nation and America as a nation, seems to have played the biggest role. More thoughts--expressed arrogantly, I hope--when I've, well, finished it.


FLG said...

My co-blogger's thoughts on the grad student issue, in case you are interested.

My two cents is that the 19th Century French Jewry just doesn't come up in conversation all that much compared to PoliSci or Econ. Those PhDs can make huge asses of themselves in conversation, especially in DC where many people who don't have PhDs know a hell of a lot about that stuff.

Matt said...

I thought Price of Whiteness was great. I'm hesitant to recommend Jon Stratton's Coming Out Jewish. It's worthwhile for an academic, I'm sure. For me, it's far too Freudian and far too prone to psychoanalyzing Jews rather than analyzing the conditions in which Jews find themselves. But it does make some points that I (though I lack the academic background you have) found interesting, even after reading Goldstein.

David Schraub said...

I second Matt's endorsement of TPOW, though I wish it had more about the contemporary manifestation of the tensions between being Jewish and being White.

Paul Gowder said...

What is UP with the hating on grad students trend lately? (I've even seen a few obnoxious blog threads on how grad students are bad in bed, because neurotic.) Has the blogosphere really become so low-status that there's nobody else less important to pick on?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ha. Seems it should be, grad students are bad in bed because they can sleep in till noon, whereas those with real jobs can't, making grad students hated the morning after.

X.Trapnel said...

It's quite possible that *economics* PhD students are all know-it-alls; they're also disproportionately male. I get the sense that it's possible to come out of such a program being sure that you have the toolkit necessary to understand any social problem with only a survey article or two needed as background reading. Ok, enough snark for this morning.