Disillusions: The Dunk Tank
There is a kind of humiliation particular to graduate school in the humanities. Graduate humiliation is unique because it is experienced solipsistically. In light of the fact that humanistic work requires the juncture of creativity—blending or concocting new concepts—and the need for analytical rigor, unfavorable feedback from advisors and committee members feels deeply personal. My analogies for the experience are completely clichéd: a blow to the guts; the rug gracefully, but unexpectedly, pulled out from underneath you; or, in the most acute moments, an experience of vertigo in which my relationship to points of reference in the world is just beyond grasp. Even before I entered graduate school doubts about my self-worth tinged my everyday experiences. So there must have been something particularly masochistic in my applying to East Coast and Midwest doctoral programs and turning my back on a climate I considered ideal for human bodies and an intellectually engrossing, if sometimes misguided, activism on the West Coast. In this previous context I felt I had finally come into my own, and I assumed a confidence lacking in preceding years. This self-assurance came across in the bombast of my first years in the PhD program during which I freely, and joyfully, denounced ideas I found suspect and other graduate students whose work seemed soft and without stakes. But as my dissertation writing group noted early in my drafting of my first chapter: this confidence is now “shot.” For a time, I took my diminishing share in this perhaps hubristic enthusiasm to be a sign of maturity. I no longer needed to demean others’ work and ideas to scaffold myself above feelings of insecurity. I could now find quieter ways of enjoining others and taking issue with particular scholarship. Early signs of potential alcoholism were on the wane, and I had finally started pulling myself out of the misery of a messy break-up. But something had been lost during frequent submersion in the muck of negative faculty comments. Comments on my writing and ideas sometimes hurt and returned me to an earlier state as a friendless immigrant in the public school system. In place of dogged persistence and love of my work, I found creeping dread. And I asked for it. I sought out the advisor who parceled out the most critical feedback to all the graduate students in the program. I knew what I was getting into. My advisor gives two particularly hilarious and devastating forms of feedback. On the one hand he writes comments posed like rhetorical questions, which, although intended to be helpful, feel like barbs. These questions tend to assert doubts about how “anyone” could believe “x” thing about your object, implying somehow that you were too stupid to recognize how wrong your interpretation of said object was. Though I suspect these questions often indicate the need to clarify or to add material to substantiate a point, they are epistemological and emotional car bombs. They send one reeling with the experience that one never really knew what one was talking about in the first place. As if the question isn’t posed to the argument, but to the graduate herself. Is your late-graduate scholarship of sufficient merit that we might admit you to the program a second time? In other words, do you really belong here? A second devastating and (after the initial sting wears off) hilarious proclivity comes from my advisor’s eloquence. He subjects ideas that may have taken months to find form to an efficient demolition. In fact, his prose communicates just how tiresome and yet effortless such exercises are for him. Of course, hyperbolic and real exhaustion at student incompetence is something we all laugh at second hand. Sometimes it’s the only thing that makes wading into piles of grading fun or worth doing. However, in my advisor’s comments, it takes only the occasionally graceful stringing together of a few words to strip one of the desire to live. These comments live with you as you revise, they take up energy and mental space—floating at the edge of your consciousness like a long-held regret or a dying pet. They read over your shoulder. How to balance the advisor’s disapproval with the semiannual, “this could be a significant contribution”? The praise seems innocuous or perhaps completely neutral, but it provides the few bits of nourishment one needs to persevere through a project. My title compares this feedback to the dunk tank in which a clown or unlucky victim waits as participants throw balls at a target. If they hit it, it triggers the expected but temporally unanticipated fall of clown or victim; a humiliation, to draw the analogy back to advisor feedback, of which the dunk tank’s “player” is completely unaware. You instead are alone and the only spectator to the drowning of your ambitions. As I write this, I find myself torn about my description. It seems to demand a “friendlier,” Hallmark™ phrasing centered approach to advisor feedback, whereas I would advocate that sometimes a healthy antagonism with advisors is useful. Instead, I share the dunk tank analogy to demand an end to the congenital isolation of humanities dissertation work. We must find the other submerged bodies in the dunk tank and resist the urge to behave like drowning victims that push others beneath them out of a desire for self-preservation. We must form lateral collectivities, dissertation writing groups, and graduate student mutual-support networks that help dissipate the shame, interpret the sometimes irate-sounding faculty commentary, and express solidarity through generosity of spirit and honest appraisal of other students’ drafts. My graduate-student cohort is one of the few ways I’ve found to hoist up my ambitions once again and to find motivation in a shared sense of purpose. I write this with an awareness of the degree to which humiliation fortifies the broader precariousness of teaching in higher education contexts. Mortified PhD students have their loins girded for years of lonely struggle on the job market, for thankless teaching in adjunct positions, for awkward politicking in department meetings, or for relinquishing the dream of ever finding a job doing what they’re trained for. Thus, just because one can manage humiliation does not necessarily result in an end to humiliation once one achieves her doctorate. Without solidarity, wrestling with indignity then, can always become, in the words of anthropologist Sarah Kenzior, nothing but “a rite of passage to nowhere.”
Special Affects warmly thanks special contributor S. Marquez, who wishes to remain anonymous. This post is part of Disillusions: an ongoing series on Special Affects on the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity, etc. Inspired by Ann Cvetkovich’s recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, feed-clogging reblogs on economic and affective precarity, and a spate of events examining why adjuncting sucks, Disillusions explores how these feelings and sensations are central and intrinsic rather than marginal to the experience of becoming (and being) a scholar, writer, and/or teacher.
- In a book of academic credos published recently by Columbia University Press, one author describes the sensibility undergirding such efforts as “pack consciousness.” [↩]
- Featured photo by Andreas Gursky, Plenarsaal I, Brazilia, 1994. [↩]