I Don’t Wanna Play!

Starting grad school for the first time is a strange humbling and aggrandizing experience. On the one hand, you’re privileged enough to be lucky enough to sneak into a program. On the other, well . . . most of the other students don’t seem to share that outlook. They think they’re pretty awesome, and (I think) they know it. May I present some cases in point?

Case 1: Grading

In “training” before starting, everyone graded papers super harshly. Even papers that were clearly full A papers were being docked down to A minuses. So, a short answer on the Korean War that had a basic yet clear understanding of most if not all of the points one would expect of a description of that event still couldn’t squeeze an A out of these people. So, I piped up, and stated something silly about how in theory everybody should be able to get an A. That is, NOT that we should grade easy (on the contrary, we must have high expectations), but that we should have an achievable system of knowledge. We should know what we’re teaching and know what we’re looking for and know what is doable in a given class. Yes, the student perhaps didn’t provide a subtle enough account of the Chinese-Korean relations of the conflict, but then again they only had five sentences to answer. Of course, my fellow grad students just thought I was trying to be an easy grader, but this was because they didn’t want to admit they were artificially tied to some synthetic idea of a bell curve.

Case 2: Assuming Your Shit Don’t Stink and That You Don’t Need to Check

In exploring methodologies and different approaches to history, class discussions often veer sharply away from the exploring-lane where one would normally question one’s own assumptions and into the “This is how it is so I don’t need to consider the other lane because that’s for idiots or old folks”-lane. This second lane is often where class discussions get side-tracked. Students choose to ignore questions posed by the professor and talk about whatever it is they think they know so much about (be it 17th century Germany or the Cold War). Upon reflecting upon structuralism and post-structuralism’s effects on history, I’ve realized that many students of history believe simultanesouly that history, as a field or discipline, is neither strucutralist nor post-structuralist. They don’t like Marxists because it’s deterministic (despite the fact that’s an absurd over-simplification). They don’t like anthropology, such as Clifford Geertz, because ethnography’s “just description” (again—oversimplification). And, they don’t like the like of Foucault because that shit’s just crazy and us historians are too advanced for such silliness. We don’t make anything up.

Right. I’m not saying most grad students aren’t smart. But I’m not sure they’re too much smarter than a lot of other people. They certainly aren’t too smart to question their own assumptions and look at doing things a different way than they way they’ve been conditioned to do them. In that, they’re as stupid as everybody else.

4 thoughts on “I Don’t Wanna Play!

  1. One thing that being a TA did for me was give me a whole new perspective on “smart”: yeah pretty much everyone is smart. I don’t mean in some sort of “street smart” vs. “book smart” kind of way, but just that everyone is capable of thinking creatively and critically–given the chance and the inclination. The metrics we in academia frequently use–for instance, the fact that students didn’t write enough about the complexities of the Korean/Chinese relationship in the early postwar era–do not provide particularly persuasive evidence to the contrary.

  2. Do you mean to say that we grade too easy or too hard? I’m not sure I follow your last sentence. I think if graders of whatever level take a moment to reflect on what their purpose is–to impart knowledge–then the assumptions my fellow grads were making could have been questioned to their betterment.

  3. I just meant that there is a conflation of “smart” with “academically successful” that bothers me. I think most people are smart. I think the kind of things we measure in academia don’t really pertain to that.

    It was kind of a separate issue than you were getting at, it turns out! I definitely agree with that last point, though–the purpose of imparting knowledge gets lost too easily.

  4. Ah, I see. Your point is well-taken. I do think there is more to it than a simple smartness to academic success ratio. I succeeded during undergrad over a period of time where I, in a sense, learned to play the game (I don’t mean this cynically). There are strategies and specific skills that are involved in success in school as in anything. A good soccer player might have good reactions, but if she hasn’t practiced kicking a basic pass a bunch of times, she might never succeed in a larger sense.

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