‘Graduate School’ Archive

October 24, 2008

Six years after

“A Tale of Graduate School Burnout” first hit the web in the spring of 1999. I’ve gotten a lot of email about it since then, predominantly (though not entirely) from graduate students on the point of or just after leaving. Nearly all these correspondents offer some variant on “Thank you for speaking up! I thought I was the only one!” About half ask for advice, which is a sad commentary on the state of academic and career advising in graduate schools.

And a certain number—a third, maybe—want to know what’s happened to me. Do I have a job? Do I like what I do? How did I start over, after I left? Do I regret not having the Ph.D? In short—is there life after graduate school?

So I thought I’d answer some of those questions. Don’t expect a rags-to-riches tale from me; it hasn’t been that simple. I haven’t gone back to my old department to sneer a lordly “Ha-ha!” at those who mistreated or ignored me. In fact, probably the nicest thing about the last six years is that I’ve lost any particular desire to do that. When I get angry at academia these days, I get angry on behalf of the people who write to me, people who have been abused (sometimes flagrantly), ignored, misinformed, left untaught. For myself, living well has truly been the best revenge.

During the semester that turned out to be my last, my husband and I, being typical newlyweds, decided to buy a house. In hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what my reasoning was, vis-à-vis my graduate school situation; I’m not sure whether I decided to buy because I was about to start the long haul of dissertating and didn’t need the rising rents, or because I was bloody well through with school but wanted to stay in Madison anyway. Be that as it may, we closed on a comfortable ranch house in December 1998, just as that last semester was ending. We needed to make those mortgage payments.

I did clerical temporary work while looking for permanent work, also clerical. I was considering paraprofessional training of various sorts (e.g. paralegal or medical-office training), but with a new house and a husband considering re-entry to graduate school himself, I simply couldn’t afford it.

I applied to a local publishing-services company for a newspaper-advertised position as an editor, and was politely turned down. A few weeks later, I saw the same company advertising an entry-level typesetting job, and since I’m stubborn, I applied. At about the same time, the temp agency I was working for lined up another couple of interviews for me, for permanent clerical positions. (I wrote about one with benefit of hindsight later.)

The publishing-services company decided to interview me this time. They hired me, too, but not as a typesetter—as what they called an Electronic Publishing Assistant, at the not-exactly-princely wage of $9.53 an hour (about $19,000 a year; for those of you who don’t know already, multiplying an hourly wage by 2,000 is a fair approximation of yearly salary).

I loved it. Oh, my goodness, yes. Sheer unadulterated luck, to have fallen into intellectually and personally satisfying work knowing nothing about it beforehand. I learned to do text markup. I taught myself to program computers, a little. I learned how publishing works, the crafts of editing and typesetting and printing. It was terrific. Eventually, I became a minuscule part of the ill-fated late-’90s electronic-book boomlet, my work earning respect from software engineers, publishing houses, and (yes) academics.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to matters closer to home. A coworker had become seriously jealous of me, and I didn’t have the perception to notice it or the political savvy to realize how much damage it could do. When this coworker became my boss, mine was the loudest applause. Needless to say, two months later I switched departments to get away from him—and less than six months later, I was gone. Not actually fired, but next-door-to. I was stupid enough to burn bridges, too, in a manner that still makes me cringe.

I meant to start my own business (and I did, after a fashion, and the business still exists and has actually been profitable for about three years), but when one of the first companies I announced my services to offered to hire me, I gladly accepted. Truth be told, I was cold afraid of self-employment, and not unreasonably so. As with many decisions made from fear, this one did not turn out well. A woman in management made my life astoundingly difficult; within six months, I was again looking for work.

My wants were simple, this time—something that would pay the bills while I took careful thought about what to do next. Serendipity is nice and all, but one hates to depend on it. When I saw a two-year university project announcement, I was hooked. I tried for the supervisor’s position. I didn’t get it. It went to a woman considerably younger than I and with less education, largely because she had supervisory experience and I didn’t.

I did, however, swallow my pride and accept a not-very-highly-paid position as data-entry operator on the same project. Serendipity struck again. My new boss was everything a boss should be, teaching me by example a great deal I obviously needed to know about managing projects and managing people (both up and down the job ladder). A while after starting the job, the project discovered that I had tolerable programming skills, and so I was assigned database maintenance, with a concomitant raise in pay.

In the meantime, after a fair bit of research, I decided that my best chance for finding a job I could really get behind involved getting a library-school degree. (I was blogging by this time, so you can read my reasoning. You can also, incidentally, check a fair few of the details of this story.) Fortunately, Madison has just the kind of library school that a once-burned-twice-shy dropout can get into and get along in. That became clear to me when I walked through the department and noticed immediately that the best real estate in the building had been devoted to a student commons.

I applied, was duly accepted, and went to my boss to arrange for an amicable departure from my job. “Er, hold on. Let me talk to some people,” she answered… and she came back with a golden offer to turn my full-time job into a half-time project assistantship that carried paid tuition. Of course I accepted, gleefully, and the project paid for all but my final semester of library school—and they would have kept me on, save that I pleaded the need to hunt for work.

Reasonably or un-, I was flat-out terrified about going back. In a congenial department, however, I did just fine. Better than fine. I mopped up quite a few awards (including a research-writing award), made significant social and professional contributions to the school and to the university, got excellent grades and feedback on my work, and lost most of the monkey-on-my-back that my first trip through grad school left.

And now? After a nervous and rather frantic five months of searching coinciding with my last semester of school (thus the frenzy), I have landed a dream job with an academic library. (It’s always a good sign when you email a soon-to-be colleague to introduce yourself, and the first thing she emails back is “Welcome! This is a great place to work!”) I start in six weeks, and (aside from the renewed frenzy of moving) I couldn’t be happier.

Well, so what are you to gather from this topsy-turvy tale? Up to you, of course (I’ve read my reader-response theory). I hope you realize that I survived, both graduate school and the usual bumps and bruises of an early career. I hope you realize that the major contribution I made to my own survival and (eventual) prosperity was opening up my life to let serendipity help me, rather than ceaselessly bemoaning my fate. I hope you realize that it’s a great big wildly varied world out there, a world with as much room for ex-grad-students as anyone else.

One vital lesson I may not have made clear is that failures, even bad failures, contain the seeds of future successes. I landed the electronic-publishing job because of the manuscript-transcription work I did in graduate school. The job after that was with an ebook outfit, obviously attracted by my strong record in that field. Ebooks were dying on the vine at the time, but that turned out not to hurt me at all; the experience I gained working with them meant immensely more. A freelance tech-writing job I’m working on now, in fact, also stems from old ebook circles. The poorly-paid data-entry job I took ended up paying for most of my library-school degree, and the younger woman who got the supervisor’s job I had wanted became a brilliant example, a recommender when I hit the job market again, and a real friend. And some part of the reason I landed my new dream job has to do with my old publishing experience—some of my soon-to-be colleagues want to start a new journal. Look to the future, by all means, but don’t shut the past away. It helps in the strangest ways.

Finally, I hope you realize that you need not to shoot yourself in the foot during your first job or two. That’s the one lesson I wish I’d absorbed a bit faster.

May 2005

Analysis

I haven’t much to add to what I said to the departmental review committee, in a letter I wrote in the spring of 1998. What I wrote to them is still true, and still seems to me to be a fair statement of the situation.

Something I noticed upon rereading all this is the constant refrain of fear. Fear seems to have been the dominant emotion caused by my graduate school experience. When I first started, I was terribly afraid my Spanish skills were insufficient. Later, I dropped the Modern Peninsular Literature survey class because of fear. The MA exam was an exercise in utter terror. The Quichua contretemps was just as bad. I remember feeling a little more comfortable once MA exams were passed and past, and I had a new adviser, but the fear returned with a vengeance in preparation for prelims. On the few occasions when I did not show or experience fear, as for example in the letter I wrote the departmental review committee, what I seem to have felt is a tired, cynical acceptance of past and future ill-will.

I don’t think I am a terribly timorous person. Certainly, fear never characterized any of my previous academic experience, aside from the ordinary minor jitters associated with exams and major projects. I’m not completely sure why I spent so much of four years being afraid, but I do know that I’m unwilling to blame myself wholly.

Another matter that has occurred to me since I left: the extent to which this department’s workings are directed by its insatiable need for teaching assistants. I do not exaggerate when I say that teaching assistants teach far more undergraduate course sections in this department than professors and lecturers put together, even when one includes those lecturers who are actually dissertators rather than formally hired academic staff. The work teaching assistants do in this department is highly visible, and utterly necessary—the professors available in this department simply could not, under any conceivable circumstances, teach the huge number of beginning Spanish courses the department regularly offers.

So the department must attract and admit enough graduate students to teach, and it must make teaching a reasonable endeavor, the more so because not all TAs come from inside the department. This it does, as I have explained.

Leaving that aside, however, the department has no motivation at all to help students earn degrees or to keep students qua students. This may sound odd; it took me a long time to realize. But it’s so.

To see why, think for a moment about department ranking and reputation. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison enjoys a top ranking among similar departments in the country on such well-known surveys as that published by the National Research Council. This ranking is based on such criteria as publication records of professors and professional placement and accomplishment of degree holders.

Notice what doesn’t figure in? Graduate student attrition. Doesn’t matter. In fact, a 1996 NRC publication concludes that no one is quite sure even how to measure attrition. So as long as a very few graduate students in this department survive to earn Ph.Ds—and such individuals, of hard necessity, will be amazingly talented and motivated, likely to do well professionally—the department has carte blanche to burn out everyone else without its departmental rankings suffering in the slightest. It can afford to burn out people who might, in a more supportive graduate environment, have done just fine in academia!

Ah, but where will new graduate students come from, if this is so? Haven’t I already said that the department needs teachers? Sure. But a lot of prospective graduate students will be attracted merely by the department’s strong rankings, which earn it good word-of-mouth all over the country, largely (I suspect) from people who have never been here and don’t know what it’s like—and have no idea what the attrition rate is, since the department has no reason (and for obvious reasons, no desire) to make that public. Moreover, the mere fact of having plenty of teaching positions available attracts many students—even graduate students have to eat, not to mention pay tuition. Ex-graduate-students rarely talk about their experiences, largely from shame, and if they do talk most people rush to blame them for leaving or failing.

So the department can afford to admit a horde of graduate students every fall to staff its undergraduate classrooms, knowing full well that only half (I’m guessing; I can’t know the numbers, because the department doesn’t publish them) will earn MAs and perhaps one in five to ten (if that many) will earn Ph.Ds. And it can afford to ignore these students, prepare them badly for MA exams and Ph.D prelims, treat them poorly, and believe it’s their fault when they don’t earn degrees. There will always be more new students next year to shove in front of classrooms.

I don’t think these sorts of numbers—or the reality behind them—are what students expect when they join the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I think it’s abhorrently deceptive that they are not told. I think it’s absurd that attrition rates are not considered in the NRC’s ratings of graduate departments. I suspect, however, that these problems are a fair bit larger than my department; as it is, academia cannot find jobs for the humanities Ph.Ds it produces, so it not only can afford to treat students badly, it almost has to in order to prevent an even worse glut of doctorates than currently exists. (Of course, this problem is self-perpetuating; if people with doctorates taught the courses that graduate students currently teach, there would be enough jobs and to spare for Ph.D holders!)

Any graduate department will suffer some attrition. That’s normal, and I don’t want to imply otherwise. People come to graduate school who aren’t academically prepared for it. People come who aren’t really suited to academia. (Neither of these, by the way, was in my opinion true of me.) That’s not graduate school’s fault. I strongly believe, however, that the attrition situation in my department is far worse than what would normally be expected, and that this is due at least in part to a view of graduate students as what I once called “cannon fodder for 101 classrooms” and little else.

And it’s not necessary. It honestly isn’t. Nothing insuperable prevents this department from being a better place to study than it is now. There are other graduate departments in the university (I have particularly noticed the Department of Linguistics, in which I did my Ph.D minor coursework) that strike me as quite well-run, and very attentive to possibilities of improvement. (Is it coincidence that Linguistics has very few TAships to offer?)

I find that I don’t know what to do to make a department run better. I find that I don’t know how to make one listen when it is determined not to. I wish I did.

I wish even more that I’d listened to my undergraduate mentor when he told me I wouldn’t like this place. I don’t know how he knew (and I can’t ask him, because he has died), but he told me so, and he was right. I can’t know for certain what would have happened to me if I’d gone elsewhere for graduate study—and, given my writing of this, it’s unlikely in the extreme that I will ever find out—but I can’t imagine a situation turning out much worse than this one.

I don’t believe I’m alone in what I have experienced. I do believe that these experiences aren’t necessary and could be done away with, if more people like me took the chance of speaking up about them.

Leaving

I am the first to admit that I handled my last few months in graduate school pretty badly. I can’t offer much in extenuation of that fact. The closest I can come to explaining it is to compare it to driving into a concrete wall at twice the expressway speed limit in a Yugo. Not much is left behind to cope with the police when they arrive.

When I finally went to get counseling after over a month of nonstop sleeplessness (not to mention irritability, lethargy, memory loss, inability to work—all symptoms of anxiety and depression), the first question everyone asked me was when my symptoms had first appeared.

Well, hell, I still don’t know when that was. I thought I was more or less all right when I returned from my honeymoon (I got married May 23, 1998) to do paid lexicographical work for Dr. A, although in hindsight I was a goodly distance down the road that led out of this department.

I did the lexicography work. I did it well. I finished it early, even. And while I was there, I did the usual meeting with Dr. A to determine whether I’d fulfilled all the coursework requirements before taking prelims that August. Given my record of luck in graduate school, one might expect a snag. Sure enough—I had forgotten to demonstrate my French reading competency via a test given by the university extension, and there wasn’t another test planned until after August prelims.

If I had taken two years of university French, I’d have been okay, according to the rules. But I didn’t do that; I took a French for Graduate Reading Knowledge course as an undergraduate and earned an A in it. But that didn’t count, apparently. That’s right: a French for Graduate Reading Knowledge course didn’t count toward demonstrating French reading knowledge for my graduate department.

Now, I can understand why the department wouldn’t accept the mere fact of taking the course that the UW Extension gives—that course is not graded; it’s tied directly to the reading knowledge exam. The course I had taken as an undergraduate, however, was graded. I don’t pretend to understand why they wouldn’t accept it. (Its value was vindicated when I took the French exam during the fall semester and passed with flying colors.)

No matter what, though, I wasn’t taking prelims in August. I’d have to delay them until January. I’d have to try to prepare for them while teaching two courses (which I had decided to do the previous spring, based on the belief that I’d be through with prelims!) and taking at least six credits (because of a department rule that apparently requires non-dissertators to do so if they wish to teach). Also, during the fall semester, Dr. A asked me to reinvolve myself in a project (a computer transcription of the Aragonese law text known as the Vidal Mayor) that I thought I had completed my part of. (I had, in fact, done the proofreading I had originally been asked to do. The problem was that the other contributor, a friend of mine since my first year in the department, was having his own time crunch and couldn’t quite hold up his end of the bargain. Dr. A didn’t care what the bargain had been; he wanted the project finished, and I was closer to Dr. A—and thus easier to bully—than my coworker was.)

It was then, in mid-June, that I finally broke down more or less completely, whatever earlier trouble signs there may have been that I ignored. A few weeks later, I had my first very bad attack of dyshidrosis, a sort of eczema that (I am told) is exacerbated by stress. The huge blisters and the painful swelling of several knuckles left me without the use of half my fingers for about a week. (I had another attack, almost as bad, just before the semester began, possibly in response to the pre-semester attack of anxiety I was accustomed to from previous years.) Worse, though, at that time I first found myself just about unable to sit down and study. When I did force myself to study, I found that my concentration and memory were shot to hell. I procrastinated for a while, believing the helplessness would pass. When it didn’t, and when in the fall it extended itself to my actual coursework, I got scared.

I had never in my life before been unable to keep up with basic coursework chores like reading and library work. Never. Not once! I realize that may be difficult to believe, but it’s the truth. Perhaps if it had happened to me before, I might have dealt with it better. As it was, I simply fell further into abject fear—and got further behind in my work.

There was only one linguistics course available that semester that I hadn’t taken. So at the end of the summer, Dr. A had helped me sign up for research credits to fill up the TA Six-Credit Requirement, and talked me into doing a computerized bibliography project using ProCite for Windows, which I would have to install on my home Macintosh via SoftWindows. This didn’t work. At all. I was at my wits’ end how to get the work done when I couldn’t even get the software running.

Around mid-semester, feeling trapped, I cast about for ways to gnaw a leg off that would still allow me to pass prelims. I looked for documentation of the six-credit requirement, to see if I could find a way around it. Such documentation didn’t exist. Not in the sheet detailing Ph.D requirements. Not in anything relating to TA matters. Not in any university-wide publications regarding graduate school. Not on the department’s web page. Not anywhere! I began to wonder if I’d been lied to. In hindsight, I don’t think anyone intentionally lied to me (despite what I said in my resignation letter). I believe this department’s communications are so poor that everyone believes in a rule that no one has ever codified.

So I did the logical thing. I dumped the research credits via the touchtone registration system. It helped, a little. Not enough. I was still behind, in work for my remaining seminar as well as in studying for prelims, and I was still unable to work well enough to catch up. I grew desperate enough to seek counseling. I’m glad I did; having someone reasonably objective to talk to helped soften the blow of deciding to leave, and it may well have kept me from mental disorder serious enough to warrant inpatient treatment.

A few weeks later, I received a letter from Dr. A. It hurt me. I don’t like to read it, even now. I grant that I was remiss in not discussing this with him. (I’m not sure what I could have said. How do you tell your academic adviser that you are breaking down? How do you make him believe you? And what difference would it have made, in a department where rules, written or unwritten, matter more than people? How do you make him want to help?) Still—he might have actually asked me what was wrong, why I had done what I did. He might have been empathetic, or at least polite, instead of sarcastic and accusatory.

(Please note that the final accusation in his letter, regarding a project I was supposed to be working on with a professor from another university—as if with six credits, two course sections to teach, a project to help finish, and prelims to study for, I had time to involve myself right away with something else!—was utterly unwarranted. As the professor himself said, he had never actually asked me to send the diskettes Dr. A was angrily accusing me of not sending!)

At the same time, I received notice from the Bursar that I owed them fifty dollars. They didn’t tell me why, and the highly abbreviated explanation “Deferred 4 credits; is taking 6 credits” at the top of the bill said something wholly untrue—I had started out with 6 and dropped 3.

I tried to get an explanation from them. All I got was “The computer says you owe it. Go see the Graduate School.” I’m sure you can well imagine how willing I was just then to go chase down a screwup on the part of the bureaucracy.

(The Bursar dunned me again about it in January 1999. I paid it. They did, when I asked, make an attempt at explaining what had happened. The problem is that the explanation hinges on my originally having signed up for four credits—which, to the best of my knowledge, I never did.)

I felt utterly without power to withstand this latest onslaught. Together, Dr. A’s letter and the Bursar’s bizarre bill were absolutely the straw that broke this camel’s back. I dialed up the touchtone system and used it to withdraw from the university, and I wrote letters to the department and to Dr. A explaining that I was leaving.

That’s the end of the story. I finished teaching my two sections of Spanish 203, and I left. No one on the faculty tried to change my mind. No one asked me why. No one expressed even a tinge of regret over my leaving except for the graduate secretary (and a number of my Spanish 203 students; I tried, largely successfully, to keep them out of my troubles, but I didn’t want to lie to them about my not teaching anything spring semester). No one even said goodbye. So much for four years of work. One more graduate student gone. Who cares?

Teaching

If you are tired of all my carping, you will enjoy this section a little more. I liked teaching, once I finally started doing it, and I think my department by and large does well by its teachers.

In part, it’s forced to, of course; the TA union here is strong, active, and responsive. The union earned us a tuition waiver during my first semester of teaching that finally ensured a halfway decent wage. (Previously, when the university took in-state tuition out of our checks, a student teaching one class and taking three, a normal load, ended up with a monthly take-home pay of roughly $65. The university used lots of propaganda and statistical jiggery-pokery to keep prospective students from realizing this, of course.) Previous union efforts had gained us excellent health-care benefits.

The Department of Spanish and Portuguese, however, goes beyond what the TA union mandates. The professors who serve as TA supervisors are good teachers and good mentors, and they stand behind the TAs. The system of faculty observation of TAs works well, and I found the faculty who observed me supportive and helpful. The pedagogy course taught by the department is very good, as is the week of preparatory sessions before the fall semester. The level of TA supervision is greatest during the first year of teaching, and less thereafter, as is completely appropriate.

Not all is roses. TAs are pretty badly overcrowded in their offices during the fall semester. (Spring is not so bad, because the department teaches many fewer courses, and so does not import as many TAs from other departments.) And the department is more than chintzy in the provision and organization of materials for teaching.

Teaching Spanish, one is not so badly off; the books chosen for us to teach from have plenty of transparencies and other helpful material for our use. (Teaching Portuguese is a different story; Portuguese TAs are starved for material. They often borrowed pages from Spanish textbooks to translate and use.) Still, the department showed during my stint as a TA a strong reluctance to allow us such basic resources as paper for photocopying.

This is not the fault of our supervisors; the policies I will explain came straight from the head of the department, Dr. B, and from his secretary. Our supervisors, while I was teaching, fought for us as best they could, and were met by complete indifference on the part of Dr. B. This was all the easier because the supervisors are lecturers, academic staff, not tenure-track or tenured professors. Their almost exclusive duty is handling TAs. The department, I believe, pays little attention to them, and as of April 1999 has even refused to renew one’s contract despite rave reviews from the students she supervised (including me).

When I began teaching in the fall of 1997, TAs were allowed no photocopying (except for photocopying of exams, permitted to those teaching second-year courses; in first-year, exams were created by committee and sent out for duplication). We were, however, allowed unlimited access to a mimeograph machine.

Mimeograph machines use a fluid that is a known carcinogen, absorbed by skin contact. It is on OSHA’s list of dangerous substances. Better yet, about mid-year the machine broke in such a fashion that there was no way to replenish the fluid supply without coming into contact with the fluid. A notice from the university regarding the dangers of mimeograph machines that clearly recommended their removal and replacement with photocopiers was taped on the wall near the machine; apparently the department felt this was enough to remove any reason for concern (not to mention legal liability) on their part.

We TAs finally got rid of the mimeograph machine. We did not manage this by requesting it from our department. We managed it by explaining the situation to a committee of professors from other departments who were assigned to review ours. When I talked to this committee, they asked me about the machine, and seemed surprised and appalled by what I told them (which is no more than what I’ve written here). By the end of the committee’s meetings, the machine was gone.

I am ahead of my story, however. We were permitted to send material out for stenciling through the main departmental office; this required significant advance planning, because the turnaround on stenciling was roughly 3 class days. Moreover, a TA teaching only one class did not have automatic access to stenciling, since the minimum stenciling order was 50 copies, and the maximum number of students in any class was 24. We were told to get around these limits by pooling exercises with other TAs, which we did. As for the departmental photocopier, it was not precisely off-limits, but we were strongly discouraged from using it.

(I refused to use that mimeograph machine; I will do much for my students, but I will not expose myself to carcinogens for them. I got around these limitations by printing out my own material at home. I liked to use Spanish-language music in my classroom, picking songs that demonstrated a grammar point under discussion and giving students copies of the lyrics with words left out to improve their listening comprehension. These lyrics, again, I printed at my own expense. I also purchased a number of CDs for use in my classroom; the department does not to my knowledge maintain a music collection.)

While the departmental review committee was still meeting, all TAs received a memo from Dr. B’s secretary explaining that a TA had abused the privilege of photocopying, and that henceforth no TA would be permitted to use the departmental copier. This caused consternation in the TA office, and utter panic in one Portuguese TA who had a test to give the next day that she had planned to photocopy.

Several TAs, including the Portuguese TA who needed to duplicate her test, went to talk to department chair Dr. B about the problem. According to what they told me, Dr. B refused to listen to them. While that was going on, I zipped down to the computer lab and typed up a letter to the departmental review committee, which was still meeting. After the entire office had signed it, I took it to the committee.

I don’t know what they said or whom they said it to, but the Portuguese test was photocopied, and the photocopier ban was relaxed.

This was during the spring semester of 1998. By the fall, no one had bothered to articulate a new policy regarding TA duplication of class materials, although one of our supervisors had sent a memo to Dr. B several months before with several possibilities for such a policy. All our supervisors could do was tell us to stay off the photocopier, and use stenciling instead.

History promptly repeated itself: the fourth or fifth week of classes, all TAs received a memo stating that a TA had abused stenciling privileges, and such privileges were now revoked.

Exactly why, in both cases of TA difficulties, the department couldn’t be bothered to discipline the one TA involved and leave the vast majority of responsible TAs alone, I am sure I cannot say. Exactly why the department couldn’t sit down with the TA supervisors and a copy of the departmental budget and hammer out a reasonable policy in the six months or so between the loss of the mimeograph machine and the beginning of the fall semester, I am also at a loss to explain.

We TAs squalled again at the loss of privileges, and in a week the situation was resolved; TAs would be permitted two photocopies per student per week, to be monitored by the same system that monitored professorial photocopying. TAs who created their own exams (all Portuguese TAs, as well as TAs teaching second-year Spanish) would be allowed to photocopy their own exams without that counting toward their total.

I don’t know why this system, which worked reasonably well, couldn’t have been worked out long before it was; our supervisor’s memo had suggested something quite similar. Given Dr. B’s reaction the previous spring when TAs had come to him for redress, I believe the entire ridiculous mess was largely due to his intransigence.

(I do recall one exception to the general observation that this system worked well. When midterms rolled around, a fellow TA wanted to have a four-page midterm review stenciled for her classes, and other TAs, including me, also wanted copies. She told me that she was told by the departmental secretaries that she could not send anything out to be stenciled. Once again, Dr. B refused to discuss the issue. Our supervisor had to step in, and with his influence we got the copies we wanted.)

I’m sure that by now this seems like a tempest in a teapot. More important than the issue at hand, I think, is the attitude toward TAs evinced by the department head. He simply didn’t want to know about our difficulties; he only cared that somehow his budget was being disarranged, and he wanted it stopped. (This same budget kept Dr. A and the Hispanic Seminary in state-of-the-art Hewlett-Packard laser printers. I don’t know how. I do know that one of our supervisors was still using an antique daisywheel that balked at printing accented vowels when I left.)

The TA union, when I left, was considering making access to office supplies and computer equipment a plank in its next bargaining platform. The Department of Spanish and Portuguese was specifically cited as a reason for including this particular plank. I also hear that the department is going to hire another academic staffer to supervise the TA supervisors. I am obviously not privy to the reasoning behind this decision, but my personal belief is that this was instigated by Dr. B so that he would have yet one more excuse not to listen to TA difficulties.

The Quichua incident

My Javits fellowship required me to take summer graduate courses. Like most schools, I think, UW is pretty short on summer courses that count for graduate credit. I couldn’t, for example, take most of the beginning language courses available in summer, because they are below the graduate level.

The summer after master’s exams, I found myself at a loss for something to take. I had already taken Latin. Intensive Portuguese, which I would need for my Ph.D, was not being offered that summer. History, English, Comp Lit—none of them had anything of even vague interest or application on the graduate level.

Then my fiance David pointed out a summer course in Quichua, an indigenous language of South America. Well, why not?

(“Because you could have done research!” you may say. Research credits need a sponsoring faculty member. I didn’t feel I could find one. Based on what happened to me later, I suspect I was right.)

So I went to my adviser (whom I will call Dr. B) to get my class pre-registration form approved. He was not happy with the idea of Quichua, but capitulated when I demonstrated there was nothing more relevant available.

I took Quichua. It was hard work, but I enjoyed the class and did well in it. Since the course took place during early summer session in order to leave time for a trip to Ecuador for several class members, I took advantage of the early end of class to visit my parents, whom I had not seen since I entered graduate school, almost two years earlier.

On August 2, I received a long-distance telephone call at my parents’ home from the director of the fellowships office (whom I will call Ms. C). She informed me that there had been a mixup with my registration; I had been registered as a special student rather than a graduate student. (This happened because I followed directions. The Quichua course screened its students, and the registration process that got me registered wrong was part of the screening process.)

That, however, wasn’t the major problem. The major problem was that I had unwittingly broken the university rules for maintaining my Javits fellowship. According to these rules, summer courses must be taken during the General Summer Session to count toward fellowship maintenance. My course took place too early in the summer. It didn’t count. At all.

Mind you, there was nothing wrong with the course itself or my progress in it. It counted for graduate credit, and it carried enough credits to satisfy all the other rules. It simply took place during the wrong summer session.

I thought this was ridiculous. I still do. Why on earth does it matter which summer session a course is given in? When I went to a woman in the Registrar’s Office a couple of weeks later to get my registration changed, she told me that she too hadn’t understood at first what (as she called it) “the big woo” about summer sessions was, since I had taken a course that was academically appropriate.

I had, according to Ms. C, two options. I could lose the fellowship (with no time left to find other funding). Or I could retroactively register for research credits during the correct summer session, take an Incomplete, and work off the Incomplete during the fall. I had a very busy fall—twelve graduate credits, the maximum load possible without applying to be granted an overload—planned, but I essentially had no choice but to take on the research credits, if I cared to eat during this next year.

I wrote a very stiff letter to Ms. C, to the dean who supervised her, and to the Javits Fellowship supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education. I made it quite clear in this letter that I didn’t expect my own situation to change. What I wanted was a change in the rule.

I received no response from the dean. I got an email from Ms. C acknowledging the letter, but saying nothing could be done for me (when I hadn’t asked that anything be done for me specifically!). The Department of Education official apparently called the university and was assured the situation was being handled. He sent me an email to that effect. The rule has not been changed.

I replied to Ms. C’s email with a bitter joke that in my (somewhat disordered) imaginings I hoped might defuse the situation a little. I tried to put her in my shoes; I asked her to imagine that her boss, one of the assistant deans, suddenly required her to work several hours of overtime each week due to her breaking a rule she hadn’t known existed and the breaking of which did no one any harm whatever.

I was angry. I was frustrated. I poured out my anger and frustration on an Internet bulletin board system known as Heinous BBS. I told my story (truthfully, if somewhat emotionally) in one section of the BBS, and in another, I posted the same silly joke I had sent Ms. C. I did an amazingly stupid thing; believing that no one would know whom I was talking about, I did not change the names of Ms. C or the dean as I posted the joke.

Unbeknownst to me, Ms. C’s daughter also frequented the BBS. When she saw my posts, she went straight to her mother. Certainly, my post on the BBS was under a BBS pseudonym, and I kept my real information hidden, but her mother had a paper trail tying the joke to me.

She sent me email (which I no longer have) demanding a written apology to her and to the dean and requiring that I remove all reference to the incident from the BBS. Moreover, I was required not to use their names to speak of the situation to anyone else, ever. If I broke these terms, Ms. C told me she would haul me up before the Dean of Students on charges of non-academic misconduct. Penalties for this, as at most universities, range from slaps on the wrist to dismissal from the university.

I complied with Ms. C’s requirements. She had me thoroughly checkmated; pursuing my legitimate complaint would simply have enabled her to use my silly joke against me. Moreover, I didn’t feel I would find support anywhere else in the university if I tried to fight the charge; my department, given the trouble I caused over MA exams, certainly wouldn’t defend me. So I erased the posts I had made on Heinous (which is why I can’t put them here). I wrote the apology (which, unfortunately, I can’t find). And until now, I have kept my mouth shut about the whole affair. Now that the Dean of Students holds no terrors for me, I feel free to speak.

This contretemps scared me badly and shook my belief in the university. I spent a couple of weeks not sleeping and not eating decently. I was very close to leaving. I decided that I was going to forego my final year of Javits eligibility, just to get out from under the heel of the Fellowships Office (although that is not what I told Ms. C about it, for reasons I hope will be obvious). It is difficult to measure the economic consequence of this decision, because there are several different ways to think about its monetary value, but for what it’s worth: the yearly stipend was $14,400 and the fellowship paid all my tuition.

I did decide, though, that all in all, there were worse punishments than just an extra project. I even had one in mind, suggested by a recent thread on the Medieval Iberia email list: a prose translation of the Vida de Santa María Egipcïaca, a well-known Old Spanish example of hagiography. Someone on MEDIBER-L had asked if such a translation were extant, wishing to use it in an undergraduate course. As far as anyone knew, no such translation existed.

So I went to Dr. B, who had just been named chair of the department, to see about the research credits. He flatly refused to be responsible for any project of mine, and informed me bluntly that nothing I did, regardless of its quality or relevance to my education, would ever cause these fiat-of-bureaucracy research credits to be counted toward my Ph.D. He pooh-poohed the idea of a translation, and suggested that since I obviously had an interest in Quichua, I should do some kind of Quichua project, which could be reported to a professor in another department so that all he would have to do would be to rubber-stamp the grade.

Dr. B was my adviser, I should reiterate. I had explained quite clearly just a few months before that I was not particularly interested in Quichua, but it seemed to be the best way out of a bad situation. He had forgotten as if I’d never said a word, and his out-and-out rejection of both my project suggestion and my willingness to undertake a project meaningful to my graduate career hurt me a great deal.

I was too scared and too witless to ask at the time just why he was so picky about the project, if it didn’t count for anything anyway. It is my belief, however, that Dr. B shunted me out of my intended project simply to avoid the work of overseeing and grading it.

When the project, a retread of work examining Spanish loanwords in the Huarochiri manuscript, was complete, he again refused to grade it or even look at it. I presented the project to someone in the Anthropology department, who reluctantly graded it, and Dr. B rubber-stamped the grade. (The grader’s reluctance should not reflect badly on him. To the last, I hoped Dr. B would relent toward the project. When he didn’t, after I had turned it in to him, I had to scramble to find someone else to grade it; it was more than mean of me to put the grader in that position.) At this point, I changed my intended specialty from medieval literature to linguistics in order to escape Dr. B, and Dr. A became my new adviser.

I cannot understand why a graduate department should wish to blunt my desire to do original and valuable work, but that was nevertheless the result. This episode marked the last time I ever tried to start a project on my own volition. I might add that this was a significant departure from my undergraduate experience, during which several professors encouraged me to research, write, and present papers and projects.

Master’s exams

I studied very hard for master’s exams. I was terrified of them. I never, not even after taking them, had any idea what was expected of me on them; I did not know, never having seen any examples of answers, what kind of work would Pass, what would High Pass, what would fail. Are all graduate students so underprepared for an experience that is far more important than coursework in determining who receives a degree?

Actual coursework, even in the survey courses ostensibly designed to prepare students for the MA exam, was not always a helpful guide. Professors in medieval literature, linguistics, and modern Latin American literature gave excellent exams that strongly resembled MA exams, and graded them carefully. Not coincidentally, I felt less afraid of the exams in linguistics and medieval literature (I chose to omit the section on modern LA literature).

On the other hand, the teacher of the Golden Age survey gave exams I can only assume were meant to be jokes. They were ridiculously easy, resembling actual MA exams in this area in exactly no way at all (one of the questions—I kid you not—was “Come up with a question. Answer it.”), and I am fairly convinced he barely looked at them. The Colonial Literature professor actually allowed her students to talk her out of giving a final that would resemble the MA exam! Instead, we took a take-home essay exam. (Otherwise, I should say, her class was excellent. I doubt I could have passed that portion of the MA exam without it.) The professor teaching Modern Peninsular Literature scared me so badly I decided to audit her class. What I heard of her exams is that they were terrors, much more difficult and more heavily dependent on literary theory than anything appearing on the MA exam. Moreover, about a third of her reading list wasn’t even on the MA list.

Be that as it may, April 1996 came along, and I reported to the exam rooms with all the readiness I could muster, aware that I needed to High Pass two of the five exams, and Pass the other three. Seven other people took the MA exam with me that semester. One of them admitted that she was surviving the pressure via prescription tranquilizers.

The first exam day, I took the Colonial Literature exam and felt good about it; I knew perfectly well I hadn’t done work worthy of a High Pass, but I thought a Pass seemed reasonable. The second exam day, I took the Linguistics exam in the morning. No worries. Linguistics I can handle.

Then, that afternoon, I got to the Medieval Literature portion of the exam, which I was hoping to High Pass. What I found in the opening section, which consisted of identification of terms and works, shot my confidence to hell in an instant. I can’t begin to describe how awful I felt as I saw my degree and my hopes for a further career slipping out of my grasp because of a list of words I couldn’t define.

The problem was not wholly mine. The list on this exam was surprisingly different from that on previous exams. It contained one term—“comedia humanística”—that even an important critic, María Rosa Lida de Malkiel, considered “obscure”, as I found when I tried to look it up later! This was all the more terrifying because previous exams had had a very stable list of terms, with which I was quite familiar. Going back to my notes from the survey course later, I could not find even one of the terms I had failed to define.

Well, I had to go on. So I defined the ones I knew, made two random guesses to fill out the number I was required to write about, and tried to marshal my shaken wits to write the essays. I can’t remember one word I wrote, or even the questions I chose to answer; I only remember feeling that I was writing utter nonsense, and could do better if only my terror would stop choking my thoughts. Every few minutes, I would go back to that first section, hoping that my brain would shake out something to let me prove I wasn’t a fool.

The first words out of anyone’s mouth after that exam were “What was with those identifications?” I didn’t say it; I simply agreed with it. No one, as best I could tell, felt that he or she had performed adequately on them. The best anyone dared say was, “Well, they can’t flunk us all.”

I walked home crying and shaking. I felt dazed, beaten, ruined. And I felt betrayed; I knew that I was not deficient in my knowledge of medieval literature, and I could not help thinking that the test had been designed to trip us up rather than anything else. In hindsight, I do not believe that was the intention, but I do believe, still, that the selection of terms was decidedly infelicitous.

I had a free day before I had to go back in to face the last day of testing. I spent that day writing a letter protesting the selection of terms for that exam, and doing my best to justify my protest. (I cannot find this letter, or I would include it.) I did not feel comfortable waiting until the results of the exam were back; assuming I did not pass (and I believed I hadn’t), complaining after the fact would just look like ordinary sour grapes. I could not imagine approaching a professor personally to talk about it; that could well torpedo my already-slim exam chances, and I wouldn’t have a paper trail to prove I—and they!—had been honest.

The MA exam committee, understandably, wasn’t happy with me. Both the chair of the exam review committee and the department chair expressed significant disapproval of my letter. They did, however, take me seriously. Most of the terms I couldn’t manage were found in one reference book that was indeed part of the exam reading list, although it still seems strange to me that we were apparently required to memorize the entire book (how were we to judge which of the many terms it mentioned were important, and which were not? would this not be the purview of a survey course, the one of which I took did not mention any of these terms?). One term I questioned, however, they admitted they could not find, so everyone taking the MA exam got one identification written off.

And I did manage to pass the MA exam, by the skin of my teeth. Ironically enough, what saved my academic life was precisely my knowledge of medieval thought. On the Golden Age portion of the exam, given on the last exam day, there was a text for exegesis from Don Quixote in which the Don debates the literary merit of the chivalric genre with Sanson Carrasco. The foundation of my exegesis contrasted the Don’s medieval outlook with Carrasco’s Renaissance-humanistic one. I still think it was a pretty good essay, under the circumstances; I wish I could get it back and look at it. (It’s probably been destroyed by now; I don’t think the department keeps MA exams.) In any case, it earned me the second High Pass I needed.

The department hands out a little questionnaire at the end of the MA exam. It asks which exam students decided to drop, and why. That’s about it. I didn’t feel the questionnaire was sufficient for the suggestions I had, so I wrote a friendly, perhaps over-friendly, letter with a number of ideas and put it in the exam committee chair’s mailbox. I might as well have dumped it down a black hole. I never heard a thing from anyone about it. I don’t think it was ever read; a typo from the reading list I mentioned in it still hadn’t been corrected when I left, two and a half years later.

What this whole exercise showed me was that coursework counted for very little, and exams were highly arbitrary measures of progress. After all, of the eight of us who took the exam, only six passed. The other two spent two or more years of their life taking courses, just as I had done, and in the end they had nothing to show for it. As far as I knew, their progress in courses had been satisfactory—they certainly didn’t differ appreciably in intelligence or capacity from me or from the others who passed—but that apparently didn’t matter.

I also learned that the only way to get anywhere in this department with a complaint, concern, or suggestion was to be aggressive and antagonistic. I don’t especially like being aggressive or antagonistic. I also think that in a well-run department, antagonism would not be necessary.

A Tale of Graduate School Burnout

(Spring 1999)

I wrote what is on this page in order to clear my mind, during and after the process of leaving graduate school. I wrote it because I was angry and mournful and hurting, and I hoped that writing would help me sort myself out. (It did help, quite a lot.)

More than anything else, I wanted to understand my experience better. I was frankly glad to be leaving graduate school, because it damaged my health and my abilities and possibly my character, but I still grieve over feeling the need to go. It’s very easy to blame myself, believe that if I had been stronger or smarter or stubborner I would have made it without cracking. I expect that it will be easy for many who read this to blame me. I accept that, as I accepted it without comment when my own father did it.

Why I decided to put it on a website is not as clear to me, but I will try to explain. I was told by the psychologist who helped me out of graduate-school-induced depression that he saw a crusader mentality in me; I expect more justice out of the world than the world can provide, and I get very angry when I believe the world has failed to be just. I think he’s right, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

When I first considered putting this on the Web, the motivation was about 60% anger and 40% a desire to help other people in situations similar to mine. Graduate school can be a very isolating experience, and failing graduate school is worse; failures are pariahs, often because those who aren’t failing are justly terrified of failure and need to believe that they are different from those who fail.

My anger isn’t gone, but it is fading. I do still want to help. I’m not happy with the information and suggestions available for people considering graduate school. I’m not happy with the lack of support given to many graduate students. I am especially not happy with the practically universal attitude in academia that 100% of the responsibility for a graduate student’s success belongs to the graduate student, as if the environment that student enters were totally irrelevant. And I am not happy with the complete information void and the hurtful and false assumptions that surround the ex-graduate-student. If I can add a new and different voice to the discourse, I want to.

I intend to be as honest in this record as I know how to be. When I can, I will include documentation of my actions and those of others (although I freely confess I have lost or thrown away a great deal that would be useful to anyone trying to determine whether I am on the level). I will also try to explain my own mistakes and my own misconceptions; omitting them would be dishonest, and would create a false sense that I am not at all responsible for not earning a Ph.D.

I will not use names. I originally intended to. I decided against it partly out of fear: fear of backlash, legal or otherwise, from people who are scared themselves, scared about their own status and their own jobs and their own self-image. Partly, though, I want to move away from the idea that individual people are completely responsible for what happened to me, as if the environment they exist in made no difference. Academia, in my opinion, has some serious systemic problems, one of which is a habit of pointing the finger at individuals in order to erase its own collective responsibility for the abuses it permits and even encourages.

I realize that leaving names out of this invites the suspicion that I am lying. For that reason, I am willing to provide names to anyone who cares enough about my story to
email me
and ask. I am also willing to provide copies of pieces of
documentation I have included on this site from which I have removed names.

Anyone mentioned in this account who disagrees with anything I have written in it is invited to contact me with clarifications or corrections. I promise to give them space to explain their views, and appropriate links from my own story so that their views are easy to find for readers. I will even scan (or type) and HTML-code their contributions myself; I promise to change nothing (barring insignificant matters of formatting). I will also be thrilled if others can give me some or all of the items of documentation I have lost.

Please note that my first response to threats or pleas for silence will be to reproduce them here. So that no one thinks I am paranoid, I should say that I have been threatened before (as I will recount) for speaking my mind. I caved. I caved utterly, and while I despise myself for doing it, I don’t see what else I could have
done. I don’t plan to capitulate this time; I do not believe I am doing anything wrong, and I do not believe anyone has any reason or any power to silence me.

With regard to legal threats, I wish to state that nothing I write here is
intended to be defamatory, and all of it is truth to the best of my knowledge and recollection. When I did not witness or cannot prove something I write, I have done my best to label it clearly as opinion.

Who am I, and who was I?

I am an ex-graduate student, an ex-member of the Department of Spanish and
Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. When I began writing this, I was exhausted, unable to force myself to study or work in my chosen field, insomniac, jaded, irritable, forgetful, angry, unmotivated, lethargic. (I am pleased to say that since leaving, I have found exciting work and have largely returned to my normal self.)

I was, between 1990 and 1993, an undergraduate at Indiana University-Bloomington. My undergraduate career was quite successful; I earned an honors degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa, among other awards. I was an enthusiastic student with real, if not fully developed, talent in translation, literary criticism, and linguistics. I had friends among professors in both my major departments (which were Spanish and Comparative Literature), including one very special mentor, and I was an accepted member of the Medieval Studies Graduate Reading Circle. I wanted nothing more than to earn an MA and Ph.D and take a place in the world of scholarship; I felt I had much to contribute, and those with whom I interacted seemed to agree with me.

The first year

What I remember best about my first year in graduate school is what didn’t happen, what I didn’t know, what no one on the department’s faculty bothered to tell me. I spent my last graduate school semester working in the office which held all the new graduate students; judging from their reactions to their first experiences in graduate school, that hasn’t changed.

No one on the faculty ever told me that the graduate secretary had copies of all the old MA exams. To tell the truth, no one ever told me about the existence and whereabouts of the MA reading list! No one ever told me that the office posted the next semester’s offerings far in advance of the university timetable’s appearance—this becomes important when one must get one’s next semester’s schedule signed by one’s adviser a full week before the timetable is scheduled to appear. I learned these things from other students, usually after nearly exploding in frustration.

It’s worth noting here that the main social support for graduate students in this department is teaching; what no one on the faculty ever bothers to say, students learn from each other in the big communal TA offices. I didn’t teach, my first three years in the department—my Javits fellowship basically forbade it—so I missed out on a lot.

There was plenty I didn’t know about classes, too. My second semester, I signed up for a seminar on La Celestina to be taught by a guest professor from the Hispanic Society of America. Little did I know that this man had no intention of actually teaching; he only wanted cheap labor for a project of his. Aside from reading a prepared paper and showing a few videos, he did nothing whatever to prepare for his classes. Instead, he handed us a time-consuming, pedagogically worthless project to do (minute comparisons of various stage and screen versions of the drama to the actual text) because he wanted the results. (I don’t know whether they’ve been published, and I don’t especially care. He had us sign away all rights to our work shortly before the semester ended.)

Call me naive, but although I had heard the usual horror stories about exploitation, I was too dumb then to realize that it was happening to me. The professor, on the other hand, seemed to know perfectly well what he was doing; when he handed us evaluations to fill out at the end of the semester, he said he had no desire or intention of reading them, because he wasn’t sanguine about our good opinion. I’m sorry to say that I did not give him the poor evaluation he deserved.

This was not, unfortunately, the only class I took my first year in which I did not know enough to evaluate the class and professor properly. I suspect a lot of professors, in this department and elsewhere, get away with a lot of garbage in lower-level graduate courses because they can count on student naivete. The students get burned, of course, when MA exams and Ph.D preliminary exams come around and the professors haven’t come close to adequately preparing students for them—but by then, the course evaluations are long over. (I have commented on my experiences in survey courses, with benefit of hindsight, in the section on MA exams.)

I did enjoy the pedagogy class I took. The professor used to ask me on casual meetings in the halls or the elevators how I was doing, and whether graduate school agreed with me. He also complimented me once or twice on my writing style. These commonplace courtesies loom rather large in my memory because, in all honesty, I have trouble remembering any compliments on my work or any sincere concern for my progress from any other professor in this department. The professor who called to tell me I had passed my MA exams complimented me on my High Pass on the Golden Age section, I remember that. One of the linguistics professors took the time to comment personally on one of the several seminar papers I wrote for him. I don’t remember anything else. Ever.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try for approval. Of course I did. (Excuse me if I go a little beyond my first year at this point.) Once I decided on linguistics as my specialty, I tried very hard to do the kind of work that attracts attention. In the first seminar I took from the other linguistics professor (whom I shall call Dr. A because he figures prominently in this account), I did a project which was in my opinion rather more complete and better-documented than those completed by others. (The project was a linguistic analysis of a text in Old Aragonese.) I heard nothing about it, aside from the A I received in the course, and as far as I know, everyone in the course got an A. Over time, I became the fastest paleographic transcriber in the department (typing 90+ words per minute helps!). I never heard anything about that, either. It never seemed to matter what kind of work I did or how well or how fast I did it. I almost never got any feedback beyond the bare grade.

I never expected to be ignored. Honest criticism, even when negative, is preferable; at least it shows that someone is taking an interest. Eventually, I started wondering why I myself should care about my progress or my projects, since clearly no one else did.

I am very proud of my BA and what I accomplished as I pursued it; I really did learn things, really did grow, really did begin to contribute to human knowledge. In contrast, I feel no especial pride over my master’s degree, which is surely rather sad. I don’t feel that it marks any real growth in my understanding; it signifies only that I warmed chairs in classrooms for two years and barely managed to pass a test…