A Graduate Education

Graduate Students, Science Writing, Student Voices, Writing Across the Curriculum, Writing Centers / Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

This week my shift at the writing center will be bitter sweet. I’m finishing
my work on two dissertations and a master’s thesis. In my work at the
writing center, I’m a bit of a graduate student junkie. In fact I probably
spend way too much writing center time with graduate students and not nearly
enough slogging away in the trenches of business school applications and
literary analysis papers. However, when I started working at the writing
center the last thing that I wanted was to work with a graduate student. I
didn’t want to constantly deal with my intellectual insecurities and risk
highlighting all of the things that I didn’t know that I thought I should.
How was I supposed to help someone finish a dissertation when I was so far
from the thinker and writer I wanted to be? Lost and Confused Signpost

In my mind working with graduate
students, particularly ones finishing their dissertations, could only result
in them not getting the help they wanted and me getting a bruised or
battered ego in the process. I was pretty certain that I made it as far as
I did in graduate school on my fast-talking, wily distraction tactics, and
lots of nodding, so I was ill equipped to help others. By avoiding
dissertators and hiding myself in conferences with the comfortable security
of several kinds of power disparities on my side I could protect myself, and
those I was helping, from facing all the things I didn’t know. That is until
Melissa found out.

I was matched with a graduate student that was far along in his
process. He was on the job market, finishing a dissertation, writing a
grant, and several conference papers in a scientific field. All I could
think was how little I could help him with this swirl of textual production
so far outside of my expertise. As our work progressed he kept apologizing
for his weaknesses and the things he didn’t know and gaps he was afraid I
would call him out on. One day during our session I suddenly realized that
these moves weren’t just modest gestures, but that he was legitimately
afraid that someone would discover that he was a fake, too. That he too had made
it this far and didn’t know the things that he thought he should. Then I did
something that was brilliantly stupid, I told him the truth. I told him that
I sat there in awe thinking about how I was going to get to the point that
he was at in his understanding of his content area when I just keep eking by
in my own. He stared at me blinking for an awkwardly long time. Then he
smiled, shook his head and said he had the exact same fears. Our sessions
were more productive after this point because we talked to one another, not
through our disciplinary differences, but from a common understanding of our
insecurities as emerging scholars.

Since that semester I have worked with dissertators in physics, theater,
history, political science, geography, art history, engineering,
agricultural chemistry, and toxicology as well as masters projects in
sociology, geography and micro-biology. My relationships with some of these
writers have spanned many years of my own graduate work and others I have
only seen a few months. With each of these relationships I have tried to
bring the honesty and candor I found in midway through my first long term
consulting collaboration and I believe that this has allowed my graduate
students to teach me much more than they learned from me. The graduate
students I have worked with have given me quite an education. While I can
now have reasonably coherent conversations about theoretical physics or
Empiralist Russian photography, the content has not been nearly as important
as the comradery and commonality. I have realized that the first several times through any project are really journeys to explain something to yourself.

I learned that a significant milestone in a person’s professional development is when they understand their project well enough to explain it to anyone, including me. However, I also learned that this is not a sudden understanding, but a long process of honest reflective interrogation and struggle. There will be days of confidence and days that are filled with gut wrenching doubt where you think your project is stupid. This cycle doesn’t end although the anxiety that is at root might shift and change. With this in mind my primary job for many of my graduate student clients is to help them be patient with themselves and use their frustrations with their failings in productive ways and remind them that if they can’t get themselves to write a single thing we can still talk about where they are in their work. However, the role that I fill for them gives me access to a wealth of experience about how to engage with my own process with patience and perspective. They have taught me I don’t, and won’t, know everything I would like to or need to know. But even more importantly they have taught me that I am not alone in that struggle.

The conversations I have had with my graduate student clients at the writing
center show me how uniquely positioned the writing center is within the
campus as a whole. Our writing center is the only place on our large campus
where we, as graduate students, have the opportunity to have a conversation
outside of our need to prove ourselves to our disciplinary peers or advisors
and we all need that opportunity. It is a space that supports conversations
about intellectual and professional development that works in parallel, but
does not replace, discipline specific conversations. These conversations have
been invaluable to me being a little more honest with myself about where I
am as a scholar and the nature of the work that lies ahead. However, the
things that I have gained were only possible because of the honesty and
vulnerability of the people that I have had the honor to work with and learn
from. As odd as it might seem I needed to get a little lost and confused in
someone else’s work to get reoriented in relation to my own. Who would have
thought that learning about street front theater in the 1960s or monkfish
cellular responses to toxins was what I needed to get a doctorate in
English? I certainly didn’t, but it was what I needed.

As I said at the beginning of this post, at the end of this week I will be
concluding working with two very smart and kind dissortators that I have
been learning from for the last two years as well as concluding a yearlong
conversation with a deeply reflective and thoughtful masters student. These
are the last of my overlapping sequence of graduate writers I have worked
with over the last three years. While I am a little sad to see them move on,
I am mostly grateful for all the things they, and their predecessors, have
taught me about being patient and vigilant in engaging the process of
becoming a thinker and researcher. I am a better reader and writer because
of them, but, even more importantly, I know that I am not alone when I doubt
myself and that I too can, and will, finish what I started thanks to their example.

Ginger and Mustafa, one of the final three, at the writing center
Ginger and Mustafa, one of the final three, at the writing center

2 Replies to “A Graduate Education”

  1. Wily distraction tactics aside, I’m sure your experiences, which were thoughtfully set forth, resemble experiences shared by many of us. It reminded me of the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle (thought of as usually 5 but sometimes 7 stages), or maybe a cycle of acceptance, willingness to devote ourselves to our work. I think your wonderful post should be required reading for writing center instructors at the start of their tenure as instructors, and any time they need a thorough reminder of what it takes to do the work we do and what doing the work of the writing center means to those we serve. Bravo, Ginger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.