Wednesday, April 29, 2009

More about my academic past

I don't think about my past in graduate school very much (the Ph.D. part of it, anyhow). I try not to, actually, because it was such a difficult and even humiliating experience. It wasn't the course work. I was very good at that because I singlemindedly dedicated myself to it, threw myself into it, really, and enjoyed writing many of the papers. But the exams were horribly difficult for me. And so was the dissertation.
The written exams were 4 (or was it 5?) publishable essays, written in 24 hours, and chosen from among several questions based on my bloated list. The list was based on the issue of science and literature, and the problem was that my committee members and I had differing ideas about what this constituted. And we were never able to straighten that out. I set out to read and study all of those works, but the effort was such that I was never really able to pull anything together based on my reading.
Then there was the unclosable gap in critical assumptions between my one Russian committee member and the rest of the comparative lit people. They didn't know each other at all and I ended up sandwiched between people who were glaring at each other across the table. The hostility was palpable.
Add to this that it was really an impossible task I had taken on. I never was able to gain a respectable background in Russian literature because there were no courses at UCI to speak of that I could rely on, and it was tough to get to UCLA, where I took one or two courses. There were the two summer programs I went to, but that couldn't take the place of a real focus in Russian literature in Russian or in translation. So my effort was a lost cause to begin with.
I had thought about this before I came to school at UCI, and wanted to go to Berkeley, UCLA, or Stanford, but my husband liked his job at that time, and requested that I find a way to stay here.
I should have changed focuses from Nabokov and Russian 19th-20th century novel to something else. God knows I had a lot of offers to do so.
Murray Krieger wanted me to study Renaissance Lyric with him, and I know that would have been an enjoyable experience. He was so kind and helpful and his class in the subject, which I audited, was brilliant. I also had offers from faculty members who wanted me to study French poetry (less attractive to me) or German literature (not attractive at all, despite the fact that I like reading Kafka). Or I could have become an Americanist. But I was too pig-headed, stubborn, and one-track to do any of these things.
When Wolfgang Iser asked me to work with him, hoping I would provide the solid English writing skill he needed to communicate his ideas, I agreed, a decision I would later come to regret. For I did not have in mind the kind of relationship German professors have with their graduate students, a kind of ventriloquism. I wanted, as usual, to write my own ideas, to do my own thing, a very American pursuit. This pissed him off massively. But I had no way of understanding what he expected; indeed, he never told me, and neither did anyone else, including his former grad students, who were also professors in the Comp Lit program at UCI.
At the end, Iser told me that I had singlehandedly wrecked a potentially successful career, and that I ought to go teach nursery school because that was all I was fit for. I slunk away, devastated, and hid for a few years before emerging to teach at both UCI and at various community colleges again.
I suppose in his way of thinking, I did ruin my career. I can't deny it. But life goes on, and I still have ability. And I still teach.


Lou said...

No graduate student seems able to entirely escape the deadly maze of ego that marks these programs. It's best, I guess, to just remember that the time is past.

Robbi said...

I need to remember this and learn from it so I don't make the same mistakes in the future.