Ancrene Wiseass

A would-be medievalist holds forth on academia, teaching, gender politics, blogging, pop culture, critters, and whatever else comes her way.

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Yes, this really is yet another blog by a disillusioned grad student. I sympathize, but that's just the way it has to be. For hints as to what my bizarre alias means, click here and here and, if needed, here and here. To get a sense of what I'm up to, feel free to check out the sections called "Toward a Wiseass Creed" and "Showings: Some Introductory Wiseassery" in my main blog's left-hand sidebar. Please be aware that spamming, harassing, or otherwise obnoxious comments will be deleted and traced.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

More Stuff this Blog is Trying to Do; Or, an Acephalic Response

Scott's got an interesting discussion going over at Acephalous about academic blogging and anonymity. And yeah, I know I recently posted about this, so I'm running the risk of being "all anonymity, all the time." But there's much to consider, my thoughts on this topic are still evolving, and you should all feel free to just skip this post if it bores you.

Still with me?

Okay, so my neurons are humming. Unfortunately, they're totally off-key, because this has been a singularly exhausting day. But let's see what I can piece together.

Scott's wondering (at least, this is what he's wondering insofar as I understand it) whether medievalists aren't such prolific bloggers because (1) we tend to be rather isolated at their home universities and therefore to desire the kind of community with other medievalists that blogs provide and (2) Kalamazoo offers a sort of "bonding spark" which gets us interested in keeping up with each other in such a way.

Not having yet been to the 'Zoo, I can neither verify nor refute the second thesis, though I hope my experience in May will prove him right. In response to the first thesis, I'm actually in a department which contains several medievalist grad students who have traditionally had a good sense of community. What I've lacked, however, is a sense of a wider community that involves more senior scholars, non-literary scholars, and non-medievalists ('cause, to be perfectly frank, most of y'all act like you think we've got Plague cooties or something). And that's part of what I came to the Internets in search of.

I'll echo the several people who've said that female academics' hesitation to post openly may well be due to pre-existing structural inequalities. Given the reality of Tribble-esque anxieties about blogs, I'm guessing most women in academe aren't interested in adding that to the "what-if-she-runs-off-and-has-a-baby" anxiety still rather openly exhibited by many a search committee. I'll admit it's a real concern of mine. Academia, as an institution, does not easily tolerate crossings of the personal/professional line, and it tends to view women as the most likely trespassers.

You may already know about some of my reasons for anonymous posting, but the discussion at Acephalous has made me realize that there are others. To echo the New Left, the Women's Liberation Movement, and Belle Lettre, "the personal is the political," and I think that's a dictum which holds true for many disenfranchised groups, including (pace David Horowitz, who apparently thinks we have all kinds of influence) both academics in general and grad students in particular.

I think that, partially because academia so frequently rewards at least the appearance of Brain-on-a-Stickism, most members of the general public think we're emotionally stunted twits entirely unconnected from "the real world" at best and a bunch of arrogant, self-serving ideologues at worst. I wish to do what I can to counter those misconceptions, and I think allowing people to see the interplay of our lives and our ideas may help accomplish that goal.

One of the reasons why I so admire Michael Bérubé is that I think he's already do this in a way that's simultaneously accessible and profound. But, while Michael is both established in his field and tenured, I am not. And, so long as I am neither of those things, staying anonymous is likely to be the most effective way in which I can help spread the word that we're neither affectless mannequins nor knee-jerk radicals without seriously compromising my ability to stay in the field. Ironic, no?

Furthermore, within this context, we grad students--especially in the humanities--are the disenfranchised of the disenfranchised. We're often prevented from having an authentic voice in the academy, despite "grad student panels" at conferences, unionization efforts, and grad student governments (all of which, of course, are laudable and necessary things that I actively support). This is because, even in these arenas, we're often prudently afraid to speak in any way that isn't muffled by diplomacy and abstraction. Blogging anonymously removes some of that inhibition, and having authentic grad student voices in the blogosphere provides at least three potential benefits I can think of right now:

1) It may give the general public a better sense of what it's like to be a grad student in the humanities (i.e., that most of us aren't lying about on the turf, reading novels, and winding daisies into one another's hair while plotting the overflow of All That's Decent and living on the governmental dime).

2) It may give prospective graduate students a realistic view of what it's like to be a grad student in the humanities (i.e., that, while grad school does offer some of the satisfactions we might expect from it in our less cynical days, the scenario in item 1 above really is a misconception, the phrase "the program is designed to take five years" does not mean the program will take five years for the vast majority of us, that we're shamelessly exploited as a source of cheap instructional labor, and that grad school is simultaneously likely to result in crushing debt and unlikely to result in a stable, well paying job).

3) It serves as a check on more senior scholars' and administrators' frequent wish to believe that life is much better for most of us than it is. I've intervened in several online discussions in which profs opined about grad students' failure to matriculate quickly as the result of poor self-discipline or a lack of hutzpah by reminding discussants that we face ever-increasing teaching loads; decreasing incentives to enter a depressed job market; and increasing demands for evidence of significant publications, conference appearances, course development, service activities, and the like before entering that market. I think those interventions have had a salutory effect at least on those particular conversations, and I'll have to admit that I haven't felt free to be as forthcoming when profs have said similar things in the non-virtual world.

So: part of the purpose of this blog is to conjoin the professional and the personal in a way that might, potentially, have some actual effect on the way people both inside and outside academia think about what graduate students do--and about how much of the workload we're shouldering. Maybe, if more of us feel able to speak up about our experiences through anonymous blogs or other methods, the change we affect in people's thinking will result in changes which make the world better for bedraggled graduate students, their undergraduate charges, and the intellectual and ethical quality of higher education as a whole.

Yeah, I know. I'm a hopeless idealist.

That's why I'm still a graduate student.