Monday, July 15, 2013

Of grad school and imaginary French boyfriends

Behold, the following letter to Philip Galanes's advice column:

I am a graduate student in a competitive field. A fellow graduate student in my department posts constantly on Facebook about her worldwide travels, her French boyfriend, her flat in Copenhagen, her performances with the New York City Ballet and her modeling career. She has persuaded several hundreds of Facebook friends that these fictions are her real life, but we, her fellow graduate students, are increasingly annoyed by her blatant lies. We also worry for her that, as the years pass, she has yet to produce a single chapter of her dissertation. What do we do?
The obvious missing piece: how is the letter-writer so sure these are lies? Some grad students - if not as many as imagined - have family money, and all the Scandinavian real estate that might bring. Others really are models or ballet dancers. Life really is just that unfair (says this short and flexibility-challenged grad student).

And why exactly wouldn't some woman in grad school in the States (presumably) have a French boyfriend? Is that really so far outside the realm of possibility? Clearly this woman's mistake was in not making her imaginary significant-other Belgian. That, I've found, people seem to believe. Quite a ruse I've got going.

The only thing I can think of is, this letter-writer's classmate is posting from her (basement, inevitably) office, things like, 'Living it up here in Denmark with my made-up French boyfriend Pierre,' when you see her right there, eating some leftover quinoa salad or whatever out of the Tupperware she schlepped from home.

But I'm leaning towards these not being lies, and the letter-writer just being somewhat naive. Misrepresentation is probably (by which I mean definitely) the norm on Facebook, so much so that if you're viewing the myriad too-good-to-be-true postings with a certain amount of cynicism/skepticism, I'm not sure when it would even occur to you to fact-check the postings. That is, I could imagine wondering if the postings of a total stranger were made up, but those of someone you know in real life? Why would someone be living out an entirely made-up existence on social media and hanging onto their real-life circles in contacts?

The people who invent lives are indeed fascinating, but what inspired this post was something peculiar to the dynamic the letter expresses, something Galanes - a lawyer-turned-advice-columnist - seems to kind of get, but kind of not. The question here is actually quite unrelated to the lying: What's it to the letter-writer and their fellow graduate students how their classmate's dissertation's coming along? Writes Galanes:
We all feel jealous occasionally, but when we’re steamed by the fake accomplishments of others, it’s time to take a deep breath. If your colleague is not really a model/ballerina (with a killer apartment in Copenhagen) — and not writing her dissertation, to boot — she poses no threat to you. So, why does her wowing a few Facebook friends bother you so much? Won’t there simply be one competitor fewer in your self-described “competitive field” when job interviews roll around?
This is all sensible. Too sensible. It's the right answer, but it misses something about the culture of grad school, which is that the most competitive students are, paradoxically, the ones most bothered by the flakiness of their classmates. One would imagine that someone dead-set on an academic position (what I'd assume the end goal is here, given what the talk of dissertation chapters suggests about the sort of field it is) would be if anything relieved if the applicant pool shrinks. Yet that's often not the case.

Most of this, I think, is the 'treason' thing - this sense that we're all in it together, and that someone who's abandoned ship has, uh, abandoned ship.

But part of it is also the fear that someone who doesn't participate in the grad-student culture of panic - who doesn't seem all that frightened of professors or sufficiently monastic or who even knows - might secretly be doing plenty of work, and good work at that, and might swoop in at the last minute and steal what was rightfully that of those who were more grad-student-ish in their ways, who kept up with the office politics (as much as a grad student ever can), who seemed especially plugged-in, or who wore blazers, or who in one way or another projected dedication. (Meanwhile, the seemingly-blasé may just be exhibiting defense mechanisms, and may care a ton.)

Grad school in the humanities - which is so what that letter's about - involves a great deal of solitary work, so often enough, no one has any idea how strong any other student's work is. Students' only sense of how 'competitive' someone else in the program is will often come from an impression of who seems to take the whole thing most seriously. So the 'competitive' people, according to the grad students, will not always match up with the ones who have actually turned in chapters, published, that sort of thing. There will just be the people assumed to be serious, and then it will feel like a tremendous injustice when they're not the ones who get a job, or who win whichever internal competition. Not just to the serious students themselves, but to all students, whose sense of justice will have been violated.

And I say all of this as someone who's been, at various points in time, all across this spectrum. All of this is incredibly subjective - there's not necessarily a consensus about who's 'serious', but as much as there is one, it can vary across the ten trillion years of a humanities graduate program. Most grad students will probably, at one point or another, across the myriad internal competitions, usurp something from someone more 'serious', or feel kind of 'serious' yet wronged.

So back to the advice column. The letter-writer, I suspect, fears that this no doubt charming classmate will somehow manage to take all the jobs. More, I suspect, than they fear that said classmate will leave the field. I also wouldn't be shocked if the only one feeling so 'concerned' here is the letter-writer, and that the letter-writer is speaking on behalf of all the grad students, because that's just something grad students often do, the other grad students being, as a rule, too apathetic to protest.


Petey said...

"Others really are models or ballet dancers. Life really is just that unfair (says this short and flexibility-challenged grad student)."

Two words for you: gravity boots.

It's never too late to start!

Britta said...

If grad student life is anything like mine, I would lean towards them being lies. I know my classmates quite well and interact with them often enough to know if they were constantly jetting off to visit foreign boyfriends in glamorous places. Also, ballet dancing and modeling are physically grueling time consuming careers, and hard to schedule on top of grad school without people knowing or at least seeing that your time is heavily occupied by other activities. Also, if she's claiming to perform with specific groups or model for specific companies, it's easily verifiable. It's true that grad students can and do have/do these things, but I would believe it if the colleagues of this particular grad student say that she doesn't. It is also possible she is a serious exaggerator, so she takes a ballet class and says she is a ballet dancer, or she did some casual modeling once and now calls herself a model, or she has an online thing with a French man and now says she has a French boyfriend, and so forth.

Anyways, liars or exaggerators are annoying, but unless their lying targets someone personally, doesn't really affect the other people. Also, concern trolling, like the letter, is another annoying behavior.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Concern-trolling! That's totally the right expression for this, glad you remembered it.

I agree that these are - well, at least the ballet company - things that can be verified. But a) I doubt that that's actually happened, and b) this really does seem like the range of things that are sometimes true of students in doctoral programs at my university. At least two that I can think of have side careers as dancers. Another had a previous (and probably not stopped!) career as a successful novelist/memoirist and is buddies with probably the most famous living American writer. And apart from that friendship (which, could be?), I have no doubts re: any of these other details.

Back to the letter: The French boyfriend seems just too plausible (as well as too impossible-to-verify), so consider the rest. Another possibility is that the letter-writer is exaggerating or simply confused. Maybe the fellow student used to be a model and dancer and the photos are old. I've definitely thought old photos were new ones, because they've been newly posted. Maybe it's a dance company in NYC and the letter-writer rounded that up to the most famous one. Maybe this was a friend's apartment in Copenhagen, or rented for a week and referred to as "my" place. Etc.

To me, this comes down to a question of motivation. The written-about grad student here would have to be a new level of bizarre to lie about current whereabouts to the very people she's currently with. I have met people as an adult who make up interesting stories about their childhoods, but that's different because who's going to know for sure? But I don't see what's in it in for the alleged liar in this case.

Whereas the letter-writer seems really set on being horrified by this classmate. And yes, it does seem like jealousy, although what exactly sparked it, who can say.

And of all the supposed facts here, I'm curious how the letter-writer's so sure where this classmate's at in her dissertation. It's not like there's generally a bulletin board where this is posted for all to see. And sometimes grad students do crazy things like turn in several chapters at once. (As can happen if you end up writing gargantuan ones that need to be split in at least two, I say from personal experience.) It's rarely clear who's written how much, at least in my program. My sense in this case is that the letter-writer is for whatever reason fixated on this other woman neglecting her studies, but that for all any of us know, she's not.

Petey said...

"Some grad students - if not as many as imagined - have family money, and all the Scandinavian real estate that might bring ... Maybe this was a friend's apartment in Copenhagen, or rented for a week and referred to as "my" place."

Let's not forget Copenhagen's rent-control laws!


"Whereas the letter-writer seems really set on being horrified by this classmate. And yes, it does seem like jealousy"

See, this is the part of being an advice columnist that Galanes misses. Just as "Prudie" converts utterly normal queries into concerns about bestiality and incest, Galanes should have converted this letter into what it really is: an attempt to ask for advice on how to sabotage their colleague's academic progress without getting caught.