in the fall when we were lining up the keynote speaker for our grad student conference, we specified with this individual that we would like him to be present to give his keynote address on friday evening (the conference starts a week from today) and to hear the grad student panels and participate in discussion on saturday. imagine the joy i felt when he emailed me yesterday (being eight days before showtime) to ask if he could fly back to michigan (which, i might add, is a plane ticket he made us pay for in advance, even though he lives a whopping 3-4 hour drive away from us) early saturday morning instead because of a “bit of a personal emergency”. which… fine. but what kind of personal emergency do you know about a week in advance? and what kind of personal emergency can you postpone or put of, if it is not the case that “my SATURDAY participation is not totally essential and urgently desired”? i feel like this email was his way of asking me for permission to flake out, while simultaneously giving me no way to back out in a professional and socially graceful way.
i asked my department chair what i should do, and she told me to tell him he was welcome to leave early, but that i should really rub his face in the fact that he was blowing off students and their opportunity to network with him. which i did:
Of course, we understand that circumstances arise, and although many of our graduate students and visiting presenters will regret not having the opportunity to hear your feedback on their presentations, we are willing to be flexible with respect to your presence at Saturday’s conference – your Saturday participation, you might say, remains urgently desired, but is not totally essential, as I’m sure that discussion will not be lacking in any case.
i haven’t heard back from him yet, but i did hear back from my chair, whom i’d copied on the email:
Bravo! You ARE good! I could not have written a better email myself. And, if you don’t mind my saying, the profession needs more people like you in it! Please keep that in mind.
and it’s really this last bit that i’m posting about. because… i am so, so needy for professor approval! i used to get it all the time from my middlebury professors, and i’m pretty sure it’s why i applied to grad school – not to please them, but because they made me feel really good about myself, my work, and my intellectual capabilities. i still remember when professor l told me that she’d saved j’s and my essays for last when she was grading, because she knew they would be great. i remember going to my thesis advisor in a crappy mood about something, and leaving her office walking on air because she read my out the beginning of the recommendation letter that she was writing for me. it just… yeah. and i don’t get that here. and i know i shouldn’t expect it, because grad school isn’t about academic child-rearing any more, it’s about becoming useful in your field. talent is irrelevant, it’s all about hard work, connections, and beating yourself into the ground in the name of your academic discipline.
but you know, i think there’s something to be said for this kind of acknowledgement. there’s a reason that so many grad students that i know suffer from so-called impostor syndrome: the feeling that they are, despite the fact that that they were accepted to and funded by a program, not nearly as talented or hard-working as their undergraduate grades, recommendations, and self-professed dedication to and obsession with their fields of study may have indicated. because so many professors are only able to give back-handed compliments – “You write very well; you have read (or listed) quite a number of pertinent articles and worked in aspects of those articles very well. As far as form is concerned, this is a very accomplished paper. Your discussion is a bit all over the place and I wish you would apply your considerable critical skills to more sophisticated, meaningful texts (and take a bit more time in thinking through the issues).” so many professors are more than willing to denigrate your dreams and goals at the drop of a hat – “If you keep coming to seminar as underprepared as this, you’ll end up teaching at a liberal arts college!” so many professors simply regard us as scum between their toes and unnecessary distractions from their research, that it’s a BIG DAMN SURPRISE when you get an email like the one above from my department chair!
i occasionally feel frustrated because my department chair tends to… turn up the pressure a little bit when it comes to whether i will be staying on for the phd at osu next year. but you know what? she respects graduate students for the work we do and as human beings, and i sure do appreciate that. that’s certainly how i strive to treat my students (though i am occasionally gleefully yet guiltily unsuccessful at this), and maybe she’s right that academia could use someone like me who isn’t so stuck up in the ivory tower that she can’t give others the consideration that they deserve.