In 1992 I entered a graduate program at Vanderbilt University. I was unhappy the whole 2 years I was there, so I left with my master’s degree, having taken no Ph.D. exams. Stupid me, I even assumed student loans with which to fund my misery. Voluntarily. (I’m less of a glutton for punishment now that I’m grown up.)
I wasn’t miserable at Vandy. I wasn’t sick or depressed or in pain. But when I look back at that time, I realize I was:
- bored (and worse!—disinterested) with the subject matter
- very intimidated by my fellow graduate students, even though I learned in time that they weren’t any smarter than I was
- too shy to get over my intimidation and just get to know them as people—it’s hard to change your personality
- shocked, culturally—I’d never before heard of the Civil War referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression” or known people to hang confederate flags in dorm rooms
My department’s attitude toward graduate students was, “prove yourselves, you nobodies.” In my first year, several very capable students—nice people, too—in the department dropped out because of the chilly environment. I decided to battle through to my M.A. because I’d taken out loans and I wanted a degree to justify my debt.
The most troubling aspect of my time at Vanderbilt was the disinterested professors. I just didn’t bond with them. I’d come from a small private college in the midwest, where teachers loved teaching and spent a lot of energy encouraging, and providing suggestions and opportunities to, students who were interested in their classes. They loaned out books, encouraged us to think critically, invited us to their homes for dinners, knew us personally, and served as mentors and role models. I was in love with higher education.
So when I arrived at Vanderbilt, I was appalled to realize that the professors in my department only taught classes to pay their bills. Their real purpose in working at the University was to represent the University by publishing articles and conducting research, so that the University would look good and get more enrollment, funding, prestige, etc. These highly intelligent creatures could write books & articles that approximately 7 other people in the world would read. If they published enough, they’d get promotions. Students, even graduate students, seemed to be a bother, a hobby at best, and usually something that just got in the way of the professors’ real purpose—to publish. “Teachers” were amazingly disconnected from their students.
Two memories from those two years aptly illustrate my experience.
1) A female professor insisted on holding a weekly graduate seminar off campus instead of on campus, because she liked people to sit back and drink wine while discussing the subject matter. (I’m not kidding.) So one evening per week, we met off campus for a few hours. The class held about a dozen students. Various students would have to volunteer their apartments to serve as a classroom for an evening. The hard part about this was, I didn’t have a car, so I always had to ask another fellow in the seminar if he would be willing to drive me to wherever the class was every week. His name was Jeff and he was really nice about it. In retrospect, I’m sure he was glad to help. But it was awkward always having to depend on someone else to get me to class, just because a professor didn’t want to meet in a regular classroom. Also frustrating was that I didn’t have any money, but we were all expected to share a bottle of wine at each class, so every week I had to buy a bottle of wine with my VISA card. Ugh, it makes me shudder.
One night at the seminar, during a class discussion, one of the other graduate students accidentally committed (right word?) an anachronism in order to make a philosophical point. Our professor, who had had 3 or 4 glasses of wine at that point, and chain smoked throughout class, stopped this student, made sure she had our full attention, and said forcefully, cruelly, unmercifully:
“I ABHORE ANACHRONISM.”
And that was that. We didn’t discuss it anymore because the professor so openly hated the way the student had made his point. The professor said, in effect, “if you can’t argue correctly, don’t argue at all.”
2) As I thought and wrote my way through my nauseating master’s thesis, I ran into a snag. It was an “idea” snag, not a logistical snag like my printer breaking down or the fact that I hated my subejct matter. None of my three committee members could help me work it out, but they suggested I meet with Dr. H. in the department. Maybe he could point me in the right direction?
I’ll admit it, I was a bit leery of Dr. H. He was loud, a southern good old boy, and he’d never given me so much an “hello” when I’d walked by him in the hallways countless times. (He knew I was a grad student in the department.) But I screwed up my courage and knocked on his door one day during office hours. I briefly explained my problem and asked him if he thought he could help me. To my surprise, he looked at his calendar, suggested that I come in the next day at noon, and said we could talk then. He gave me the names of a couple of articles to read before our meeting.
I didn’t have the articles, of course, and the internet was in its infancy, so I spent the next couple of hours tracking down the articles in the Vanderbilt library. I spent several dollars making copies of the damn articles, then I read and studied those articles all that evening and the next morning. They were difficult and I could hardly understand anything, but I studied for that meeting with Dr. H. I wanted to be ready and prove that I was worthy of meeting with him.
Frazzled but as ready as I could be, I showed up at his office at noon. He greeted me personably and invited me to sit down. He asked me to describe my (intellectual) situation. I took a deep breath and started in. I spoke for approximately 12 seconds when he looked at the clock, became alarmed, and shouted, “Oh, damn!”
I said, huh?
He exclaimed, in a panic, he’d just remembered that he had planned to have lunch with another professor and he had to go. He grabbed his coat, ushered me out, locked the door behind us, and strode away from me as quickly as he could without saying goodbye. It all happened so fast that I didn’t have the time or presence of mind to suggest we reschedule or meet later. He didn’t, either.
And I never got that meeting.
I still ran into Dr. H. very regularly. Never did he stop me and invite me back to his office. Never did he apologize or ask me to reschedule, or even acknowledge that he had blown me off after a 12-second meeting.
I was so put off—or so purely discouraged—that I worked around the problem in my thesis, and never did have that conversation with him.
I’m a big girl now. It’s 17 years later and I no longer feel intimidated by college professors or people who supposedly know it all. Life, my experience in the workplace, and meeting other “challenging” people has helped me to grow up. I am now probably a bit too outspoken when it comes to things that are important to me. When others don’t agree with me, I’m usually convinced they’re wrong. When I really need to get what I want, I’ll say the uncomfortable thing as many times as it takes. If Dr. H. blew me off today, I’d be back in his office first thing tomorrow morning, giving him a hard time of it and rescheduling the appointment. And even maybe trying to make him feel a little guilty for messing up my schedule.
But then, I was young, inexperienced, timid, uninformed, and whatever else you have to be to fail to insist that a professor give you the time of day when, if nothing else, you’ve PAID for the education that you’re trying to earn in return. Years ago, I stopped berating myself for not asking him again for help. He should have acted like the smart, white-collar professional that he was, and offered to see me again. He was the teacher. He made a mistake and wasn’t responsible for it.
By the way, did I mention he was Director of Graduate Studies?
So today, my blog is just a bitch session. Sorry about that. I sure feel great about writing this all down, though. It was fun. I guess I’m mostly over it.