THURSDAY: Grad School


Melanie Steele moved to the U.S. from Canada in 1998. Grad School is part of her memoir, 13 Years in America, which is published on Smashwords. Copyright is held by the author.

If you want to succeed in grad school, you need to work hard, and you need to make sure everyone sees you working hard. That’s what my Critical Theory professor tells us during our first class, a three-hour marathon on Thursday night.

There are nine of us in the room, including the professor. We’re all seated around a conference table in one of the private library spaces, and every once in a while Dr. Terrill gets up and goes to the white board to write something meaningful. Her long skirt swooshes as she glides across the floor in her high-heeled shoes.

“Dedication,” she writes with a squeaky blue dry-erase marker. She draws a line under it for emphasis, and then writes “ambition” underneath.

“Everything you’ve done up to now,” she says, retaking her place at the table, “is no longer enough. This is a whole new ball game.”

The grad students, all of us in our 20s, give her our undivided attention. The one identified as “Rachel” on her nametag nods her head.

“Of course you must attend every class,” Dr. Terrill says. “And it goes without saying that you’ll turn in every assignment on time. Class schedules may be convenient or inconvenient, it doesn’t matter. You’re expected to come to class prepared, contribute thoughtfully, and enjoy doing it.”
She looks at each of us in turn, staring at me just long enough to make me feel uncomfortable, and then goes to the white board again. “Talent,” she writes.

“You’re all talented enough to have gotten into the program, but now you need to prove yourselves all over again. What you did before you got here doesn’t matter. What you do here is what’ll set you apart and set you up for your career. You all want to be successful, right?” She waits for us to nod. “Then you need to go above and beyond. Arrive early and stay late. Do research beyond what’s assigned. Organize study groups. It’s those extras that’ll distinguish you.”

I’m fine with most of it: the attendance, the assignments, and the extra reading. But my free time is already spoken for. Unlike the other grad students, I have a newborn daughter at home who needs me. Study groups and spending extra time at school won’t work for me.

I make it work my own way. I do the extras from home while Morgen’s napping, after she goes to bed, and even, more often than I’d like, before she wakes up. Five or six times in the first two months, I stay up until midnight and then set my alarm for four in the morning to give myself an hour or two to work on papers before she wakes up. I’m sleep deprived, I’m stressed, but I’m doing it.

Of course, I’m not the only one who’s doing it. Grad school is full of dedicated people. Most of my peers are fulfilling what’s expected, and several are going above and beyond. Rachel, for instance, is always well-prepared and is forever ready to join a group or stay late to work on assignments. Every morning when I arrive at 7:30, she’s already sitting at her desk in our graduate student shared office space. She always smiles and says good morning, and she always seems genuinely interested in how I’m doing. She follows that with some sort of small-talk question about my interpretation of Descartes, or something of the sort. She never seems tired or annoyed. She’s the perfect example of the engaged student who has embraced her role and is dedicating herself to fulfilling it. She isn’t just any grad student. She is, through and through, a serious grad student. She is, I think, how I would be if I didn’t have Scott and Morgen at home depending on me and needing my time and attention.

But I’m holding my own, despite my sleep deprivation and my inability to find even thirty seconds for myself. In fact, I even have a good shot at the extra graduate fellowship that’s announced in November, a $5,000 cash award to the most promising grad student entering second year. We have until the beginning of February to submit an application packet that includes grades from the first semester, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample.

In some ways, it’s just another thing to do. It’s another project that keeps me up after Scott’s asleep, and it’s another distraction that occupies my mind when I’m playing with Morgen. But it’s worth it, I tell Scott. This is what I’ve been working for. This will be some recognition and compensation for my hard work, and it will help support us as I pursue this path. So, I gather my straight-A transcripts, my glowing letters of recommendation, and the article I had published. Then, on the last day of January, I submit my application.

“Of course you’re going to get it,” Scott assures me. “You’ve been published! No other graduate students have had their articles published.”

But the announcement comes via e-mail in late February. This is all it says: “Rachel wins. Thanks to everyone who entered. Please join us in congratulating Rachel.”

That’s it. No explanation, no feedback. I’m shocked. I read it again, actually expecting the words to change, really believing that I misread. Then, without stopping to think, I hit reply, and I type: “Will you please send some more details regarding the selection process?”

That evening, when I check my e-mail from home, there’s a reply from Dr. Terrill. It states, simply, “Melanie: Rachel was selected because the committee decided that she is the most academic overall.”

I hold myself back from hitting reply because I know the worst thing you can do is send an email when you’re upset, especially to the head of the graduate department. So I hold back, but the words roll over in my mind. The most academic. The most academic.

What does that mean, the most academic? I mean, I am academic, so how are they defining that, exactly? I’ve been published in an academic journal. Obviously I was academic enough for that. I attend every class, turn in every assignment, and participate in every discussion. I think deeply and critically, I get straight-A’s, and I integrate academic discourse into my writing. I’m academic.

It just doesn’t make sense to me until a few weeks later when I have to run up to school at ten o’clock to grab a book I forgot. Our house is twenty minutes from campus, a rough drive on snowy nights like this. Tonight the lot is practically empty and I’m able to pull up next to the English Department. I pull my jacket closed, bracing myself from the wind and snow, and I make my way to the door. All is quiet inside. The graduate student office is the third door in, and it’s open. I step in and (I should have known) there’s Rachel sitting at her computer.

She looks over with a big smile and greets me with her “radio voice,” which she developed while working for a radio station in southern Minnesota. It’s clear and confident, hearty and even. We all notice it when she reads her papers to the class. She stands up tall, lifts her chin, and smiles as she reads using all the right inflections and pauses. Everyone pays just as much attention to how she reads as to what she reads. One time, as we were all applauding, Dr. Terrill commented that Rachel must have been great on the radio.

After class I asked her about her experience and she told me it was wonderful. She met so many community members through that job, and the work was so real, so important, and so homegrown.

“There aren’t many places,” she told me, “where you can do honest work and build community at the same time.”

“Why’d you leave?” I asked.

“I wanted to push myself. Everyone said I could go far, so I thought I’d give grad school a try. See if I could do it.”

“Are you going to go back to work at the radio station when you’re done?”

“Of course not!” She was surprised. “I’ll get something better. At least I hope I will.”

So here she is now, sitting alone in front of a computer screen in a florescent-lit office space at 10:30 at night. Is she better off than she was at the radio station, building community? Who knows. Maybe she thinks so.

“What are you doing here so late?” I ask.

“Just finishing up a couple things. How ’bout you?”

“Forgot something.” I walk over to my desk and grab my book. “I need to read a few chapters for tomorrow. See you bright and early!”

As I walk down the hall on my way out, I run into Dr. Terrill coming out of her office. She greets me with surprise and I explain that I’m just picking something up. As I close my jacket and prepare to walk outside, I hear her exclaim behind me, “Rachel! You’re working late again! I should have known you’d still be here, working hard, far into the night!”

I stop dead in my tracks and turn around. From my vantage point I can see Dr. Terrill standing in the doorway to the student office space, beaming at Rachel. Then, it hits me. I suddenly understand what they meant when they said that Rachel was the most academic. When we were told that to succeed in grad school we had to work hard and let them see us working hard, I didn’t realize how literally they meant it. I work hard, but I do so on my own terms, in my own time, and I fulfill my other obligations in between. This, I realize now, is simply not the approved, preferred method for getting through graduate school. Rachel’s is. She is totally focused and completely committed to being a student. She doesn’t have anything distracting her. This is her whole life. I get it.

I push open the door and walk out into the night. There’s a system at work here, one that we’re expected to learn and embrace. That’s what they meant by being academic: how well we’re able to adapt to the academic system. It has less to do with intelligence or critical thinking skills, and has more to do with the ability to conform.

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