I wrote a little about my grad school experience in an early post called “smart and pretty at the same time.” But an email from a reader made me want to write some more. She was telling me about being a young woman in a science department at her college.
It’s hard to exaggerate how stupid grad school made me feel. I hadn’t been feeling stupid before. In fact, when I moved to New York City, I felt particularly smart. I had just defended an honors thesis in front of an intimidating panel of professors who took honors theses very, very seriously. My whole family showed up to watch. I used the word “hegemonic” several times, which is all my brother Jake got out of the experience (later, he teased me with this impression of me, endlessly repeated: “First, allow me to say….hegemonic. And now, on to the rest of my thesis!”).
(the word still makes me think of this… source)
I knew all of the professors in my department, and I once joked around by stepping up to the board when the professor was late and pretending to lead the class. In that moment, I felt so powerful. Like, you know, if someone bothered me too much I could just shoot force lightning out of my palms. When I started college, I was this confused, haughty little person who proudly refused to stop talking so much in class, despite the other students putting her on a black list titled “most annoying people ever.” But by senior year, I had learned my lesson. I learned to make jokes rather than painfully earnest points. I learned to make friends. At the year end departmental party, I approached the boy who had impressed me the most three years earlier. This time, I made an impression too.
For grad school, I applied to the most exclusive universities I could think of. Places with names that made you reflexively throw back your shoulders and turn up your nose. And my professors said things like, “Don’t do Harvard. They’ve gotten sloppy with that program. You want to challenge yourself.”
And then, riding on a cloud of all of that stuff, I was gently deposited into an elegant seminar room in a building by the river, up on 121st street. There was a fireplace. In the classroom. There was mahogany trim. Around the table sat about ten young men, one other young woman, and me. The department chair came in. He was very famous, and moved with the ease of someone who is so used to being looked at that he hasn’t noticed in a long time. His hair told another story. It was white and flowing and thick, plowed back, dramatic. It liked to be looked at.
It could all have been fine. At that moment, I was eager and confident and nervous and full of my own potential.
But things started going wrong right away. Subtle things that I wished over and over in the months to come hadn’t gotten to me so much. Like the fact that there were only two other Master’s students. Everyone else was there for the PhD. One of the other Master’s students was a forty-five year old man who had no interest in getting to know anyone else there. The other was a slender, wincing twenty-two year old who was already married and who never spoke above a murmur. He wore sagging sweaters and kept his eyes on the floor.
Everyone had a background in philosophy. I had no idea what I had a background in. Everyone else seemed to have acquired a particular body of information that involved certain people, like Hegel, and Derrida, and I suddenly remember that I had a pretty bad memory. Everyone else seemed to remember page numbers. I couldn’t even remember big ideas.
And I was a woman.
Suddenly, every time I raised my hand in class, I was aware of the fact that I was a woman. My adviser was a woman, but the rest of the professors were men. The one other girl who had entered with me had clearly learned to hold her own in the proper way. She cited page numbers constantly. She came to class with her books bristling with color coded sticky notes. She was ruthless and expressionless and formidable and a triumph for women everywhere and absolutely out of my league.
I crumbled. I retreated inside myself, trying to make myself look physically smaller at the seminar table, where a three hour long required class was held every week. I was trembling with tension as my brain screamed, “Say something! Do something! Get in there! What’s wrong with you?” and my body refused, swearing it would defend me until it died.
I couldn’t participate in the discussions. It was as though I simply didn’t speak the same language. I made a few, broad points, and everyone looked at me, and I imagined them thinking things they quickly suppressed about how it wasn’t too surprising that departments like these were still almost all male. I tried not to mention anything about feminism, or women, or the lack of women in the text, or the way the text dealt with gender. These were some of the only subjects I felt qualified to speak on at the time, but I didn’t want to be the woman who could only talk about women. That was a sign of intellectual weakness. It was small-minded, helplessly subjective, and crudely political.
I found myself wishing, at least, that I was stunningly gorgeous. So that I would have inherent value. So that when all those men turned and looked at me, they’d at least be thinking, “Wow. She’s so beautiful.” Along with, “Why does she never say anything worthwhile?”
It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t all the department’s fault. I was paralyzed with responsibility. The responsibility of being smart for all women. And being smart in the same way that everyone else was being smart. After having been the annoying girl freshman year of undergrad, I never wanted to be her again. I wanted to fit in. And I didn’t have the tools to fit in correctly. I was stuck holding the same damn hammer I’d been holding when I started college. If I was going to talk, I was going to have to smash some stuff apart and make some noise and be indelicate and obvious.
My second semester, I proposed a thesis idea to my adviser. For my project, I’d observe the department. I’d do research on gender and higher education and how little the dynamic has changed when it’s supposed to have changed so much. How people use the excuse of “but we’re already doing it” to enable them not to do it at all. As in, if there are only two women in the department, that’s just because women aren’t doing the right kinds of research. I wanted to record conversations about students. I wanted to capture the subtlety.
My adviser liked the idea. But then she realized I’d have to sit in on faculty meetings, and it became complicated. I ended up hanging out with transgender support groups instead, which was probably more fun anyway.
I dated the guy who had impressed me back in college. He had come to Manhattan, too. His department was right next to mine, in the same building. He was very confident about how smart he was, and he couldn’t quite understand why I was so insecure. In fact, when he broke up with me, he said, “I’m going places. It just doesn’t seem like you are. You can’t ever make up your mind.” We were standing, appropriately, on the platform at a train station, and I was about to get on the train.
I did make up my mind. I decided not to go on to a PhD program. Instead of taking history classes, I took non-fiction writing. I decided to let myself stop trying so hard to be smart. Not just neglect to remember the three Aristotelian classic laws, but wander off the path completely.
I feel smarter now. It’s a gradual process. I’m thinking that by the time I’m forty or so, I’ll be convinced that I’m brilliant. Sometimes I paint something and I think, “I have an interesting mind.” I like the way it fits shapes and colors together. Sometimes I catch myself being strictly logical.
I don’t like it when people pretend that women have the same experience as men, now, in academia, or in any other traditionally male arena. Not that every woman feels out of place or intimidated or devalued. But the ones who do also feel like they aren’t allowed to. Aren’t supposed to be feeling this way at all. Because it’s already been fixed. Because we’re already there. And if we are still thinking about being a woman once we’re there, maybe we’re just not thinking hard enough.
* * * *
Un-roast: Today I love how my appearance is a little like a hammer. It’s bold, obvious, and unapologetic. I just have to learn to appreciate that about myself.
P.S. The other young woman in my grad school class is now one of my closest friends. I’m still intimidated by her brilliance, but I’ve accepted the fact that she thinks I’m pretty cool too.
P.P.S. New post on Un-schooled, about socialization and how bad I am at it.
P.P.P.S. Just as an aside, this is the funniest piece about grad school I’ve ever read. Or that’s ever been written, I’m pretty sure.