Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why are some grad students such grouchy bastards?

Our university recently held a used book sale in which a deceased professor's library was sold off to raise money for his department. I was a bit worried that it would be under-attended, but happily I arrived at five minutes after the beginning of the sale to find a room packed with graduate students, all furrowing their brows and bobbing back and forth over the tables of old books like nattily-dressed pigeons. I had to chuckle to myself: there's something very amusing about the look of grad students and academics in general; they're sort of part nerd/part hobo. I've also noticed that they tend to either be much bemused by the world around them or somewhat oblivious to it. I can imagine some of them that I know personally walking into traffic while trying to figure out some arcane aspect of their dissertation. They're strange eggs.

And then there's the occasional surly graduate students. (But very occasional- maybe 5 percent of the general population. Okay?) The sort of nerd-against-the-world who causes trouble for the heroes in let's-get-drunk-at-college comedies. I worry quite often that I'm going to become the cliché nightmare grad student that we all hated when I was an undergrad- the sort of grad student who thinks that everyone else is a Philistine. I don't, for the record, think everyone else is a Philistine. But, I sure can be surly. I think part of it has to do with living in a bleak steel town where everyone in a five-block radius is either drunk or pregnant at any one time. I fit in here like a dildo in a monastery.

This weekend, Eileen Myles talked about how she read Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther at just the right age and related to it. To be honest, I've always found Young Werther to be an insufferable prat- he cries and moans and kills himself. The End. As I get older though I've started to relate more to the book. I feel the distance that he feels from the people around him. It's the problem with being overly-educated: you feel a distance from those people around you who aren't overly-educated, and are simultaneously aware of how much of a pretentious asshole you are for feeling that distance. In Hamilton, it's like an abyss. Maybe I'm becoming a prat.

Let me explain- another thing we talked about with Eileen Myles is the idea that all of us today move between numerous different islands- each island represents one of our interests and one of our identities, and only we know how those islands all connect to each other. This is the postmodern condition. We are all divided in this way, but also move freely without borders.

In this town, I can visit certain islands, but not others. If I want to go to a bar, and see a band that sounds like the Ramones play and get drunk, I can do it here. But, if I want to talk about the D.H. Lawrence book that I'm reading with my neighbors, I can't. (I've tried) If I want to engage with certain pleasures, I can. If I want to engage with others, I have no options. There's not a bookworm island, or a poetry island, or a cinephile island, or a queer island in this town. But, there's an aggressively blue collar Catholic continent that I'm smack in the middle of.

I grew up blue collar. And one of the most irritating things is that this town is so aggressively blue collar. Certain types of restaurants, movies, arts, and culture do not endure here because they're too far outside of the comfortable norm, while burgers, beer, and bowling proliferate. And yet, when I want those other things, when I feel starved for them, I feel like I'm the dick. Mediocrity rules, man.

So, I think the reason that grad students become such jerks is because we have all these things that light us up which we can't share with very many people around us. We TA for undergrads who think our interests are quaint and a bit pathetic. We're often in departments that have very little sense of community, like mine. And we're not living among people who want to talk about the sorts of things that make us giddy. Nobody wants to hang out at the 7-11 and talk about Proust. Sometimes, we feel like the only inhabitants of some of our islands, still waiting to meet our Fridays.

I think I get bristly not because I hate other people's tastes; but because I can't find anyone around here to share many of my tastes with. When I go to the local video store, I have to meet with the manager and ask her to order a copy of Jesus Camp for me to rent; yet they have 80 copies of Norbit. I don't think I would begrudge them the 80 copies of Norbit if they also had a few of the movies that I love. Similarly, I wouldn't get annoyed with the goddamn Tiger Cats football team, if I didn't hear about them so horribly often. Don't get me wrong- I love beer, junk food, and trashy bar bands; but that's not all I like, and that's about all we have here. You can't go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and get nothing but croutons.

The point: Community is critical, especially for those of us whose interests are academic. The Internet provides an illusion of community, but it's nothing compared with face-to-face conversation. Ultimately, it's a crutch, "communication" with a screen instead of a person. It prevents us from tracking each other down in the real world. It give us "virtual" connections and numbs us to our literal alienation. It's interactive television. And I think the case could be made that it has supplemented real world socializing a lot more than we'd like to admit.

I also don't believe in the fantasy of the brilliant recluse, living in the libraries, and never seeing daylight. Freud needed his circle of Freudians. Marx needed Engels. We are interactive systems. We need the to and fro of different minds engaged with one another. We need to bounce ideas off of each other. We need to bullshit. We need the sound of each other's laughter and the smell of shared food.

And I don't believe in "nesting"- staying home and having all of my conversations with my wife until we both die. I love her dearly and intensely, but we can't be everything to each other. Besides, nobody can spend every night listening to my dumb jokes. It's just not possible.

I think grad students are surly because they're lonely. It's an isolating world; hell, it's an isolating occupation in many ways. Actually, I think most people who seem mean or surly are lonely. We're weak beings in charge of our own tiny little island nations, and we need company so as not to feel shipwrecked.

Another Sky.


Holly said...

OK, I've been thinking about this.

Granted, I'm not a grad student in the traditional sense of being enrolled in a post-graduate program at a university of some kind. But, aside from *that* I wanted to address a thing you said that isn't necessarily degree-status dependent.

Specifically, that the internet is not good for building legitimate community in the sense of smelling each other's food, etc. That has not been my experience, and it has not been the experience of many people I know. I could give loads of examples, but tedious. Suffice it to say I've had more meals and interesting conversations *in person* with people I met initially on the internet, than I have had with people I met initially in the real world. (Probably just means I'm crap at initial contact in the real world, but hell, I'm not unique in that.)

I realize that for any given set of circumstances, there is almost certainly a rule, and an exception. But also, I believe that people often elect to make less of a situation than is possible. Maybe I get more out of my internet real interactions than you do, because I insist on it? Or because I practice, or what have you.

On the other hand, I concede that the odds of you finding someone in your immediate vicinity with whom to build a rewarding social structure around your particular interests... is slim. (In fact, I have no internet friends here in Austria, they're all elsewhere, and rarely seen.)

The first thing I thought about, reading your post is, what do grad students who live in big cities think about all this? Are they less crabby, because they have more interaction options? I'd bet that's the case, if I were a betting type.

Have you thought about how/when/where you're going to socialize when you're in France?

Rufus said...

I'll respond more fully tomorrow, but tonight I'm exhausted. I spent all day on campus shooting the shit and attending a long, but very interesting, meeting.

Of course, I'm being a bit provocative in the post too. I'm not about to rule out the possibility of meeting great people online, especially since I met Claire online.

But, I'll post more tomorrow.

Rufus said...

I do think that city grad students are less crabby; but given the relative shyness and laziness of almost all of us humans, I'm not sure they're that much more social.

Anway, I ended up writing a lot in response, so I did an entire post a few up. Thanks for giving me much to think about.