community, and being in it

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what it means to belong to an academic community, and how one exists in community with others in such spaces.

My program includes a one-credit “orientation” course for all first-year grad students that is designed to introduce them to political science as a discipline and a profession. This is smart, because the intricacies and oddnesses of academia are mostly obscured to outsiders, and figuring out this entire hidden curriculum on one’s own would be wildly inefficient. At the same time, orienting new students to the entirety of the discipline in an hour a week for a semester is obviously impossible. And so the department made a choice when I took the course: it would focus on some of the major approaches in political science (behavioralism, interpretivism, and so on) but mostly on how one should ideally progress through one’s academic career, from writing one’s dissertation to publishing papers to attending conferences to getting a (university) job.

These are probably important things for most grad students. They certainly make sense within the traditional model of what a PhD program is supposed to do—prepare students for an academic career. Still, the inclusion of these specific topics is not a given. It is a choice—and it is one many programs make, whether about the content of an orientation course or about their general views on what to emphasize throughout graduate education. And so I think it is worth at least thinking about what an alternative might look like, even if only to reaffirm the validity of the original choice. What else might a first-semester—hell, a first-week—graduate student want to know?

It’s common to describe academia as isolating. This is especially true once one reaches the dissertator stage, and even more so if one is not teaching. The decision to emphasize research, and particularly research products, over other potential uses of one’s time means that “working” is often sitting at a desk with only the company of one’s own brain. One’s community can shrink rapidly: even though I feel deeply connected to a network of young social scientists across the country and the ocean whom I have met throughout my career, and even though I might send 15 emails in a morning, I can also go days without interacting in person with a human who is not a barista. (Bless the baristas of the world.) I am often extremely productive, in terms of words on the page, during these protracted isolated stretches. So is this on balance a good thing? I don’t know. I recognize its utility for my work as a scholar even as it chafes at me as a human.

But I think the answer comes back to what a first-week grad student needs, or perhaps what it might be useful to signal to them is important, as a way of preparing them for the protracted stretches dotted with espresso shots—of giving them a scaffolding for remaining connected to the world in which they need to live in order to study it. I think the answer is community. By “community” I mean not simply knowing that there are other people having similar experiences and vaguely where to find them, but also how their experiences might not be like yours. How they are trying to do what you’re trying to do with more, or with less. How the contours of the pressures they feel chafe differently. How they make sense of their concerns, and how they articulate them, when yours are bouncing around your brain.

And I wonder what would happen if we stopped thinking about limited time as mandating tradeoffs between what’s covered and what isn’t and thought about it as mandating connections between people. When the system is such that one avenue, be it an orientation course or something else, cannot provide people with all of the knowledge and advice they might need (and one avenue will never provide all of this), then it is more important than ever to foster a community in which people feel comfortable voicing that they don’t know what’s going on, that they don’t know if what they’re experiencing is normal, is any of this normal.

An example: I happen to have formed close friendships with a number of international students in my department. Through being a part of their lives, I’ve learned about the undue financial burdens that my university, and the U.S. government, places on international students. It has made me aware of a graduate school experience profoundly different from my own, because of course monetary effects ripple through all sorts of everyday decisions. I learned about it eventually on my own, of course, but I wonder if anything would have changed had I learned about international students’ concerns in my first year of graduate school. I wonder if I would have been a more compassionate colleague. I wonder if my concerns would have shifted slightly away from my own work and toward my community, its injustices, and how to make it better.

Another, this time more personal: during the fall of my third year, I had a mental health episode. It affected my work to the point that I canceled professional obligations, which those who know me know I never do. I didn’t know where to go. The first person I chose was an enormous source of support for whom I am grateful to this day. The second person I chose shattered me, their good intentions overridden by ignorance and biases. I learned later about the mental health challenges that some of my more senior peers had navigated or were still navigating in graduate school. It is no one’s responsibility to disclose their personal experiences to anyone, ever, but I wish we had created a community where people chose not to share because they weren’t ready, not because they were afraid of being ridiculed or further harmed. (It is worth noting that few, if any, academic spaces are good at this. A larger conversation for another time.) I might have felt less strange, and definitely less alone. I might have questioned what about grad school leads to such common negative mental health experiences. I might have wanted to make the system better.

And so, to the original question: what does a first-semester graduate student need? What does any graduate student at any stage need? Insight into why the hell academic publishing takes so long and what counts as a dissertation and how non-academic jobs are just as valid as academic ones, certainly. But also: compassion. But also: kindness. But also: reminders that they are human beings, and will be treated as such, and that that comes first. The first semester of graduate school is a process of socialization: we teach our new community members what we find important and what they, in turn, should prioritize. And so we should think very carefully about what we find important. Human connections, human community, matter more than publishing one more article ever will.

I wonder what academia would look like if we went beyond just believing that—because if asked, I think most academics would agree—and practiced it actively in our training. What could this look like? Many things. Maybe it would be an email from department leadership to all grad students when a racist incident occurs on campus, signaling that the department is paying attention to issues that many grads don’t get a choice whether or not to ignore. Maybe it would be sharing of information on mental health resources across fora—plastered in grad lounges, shared in classrooms and in syllabi, posted on a department’s website—as a matter of course. Maybe it would be commiseration over arcane university bureaucracies that make change challenging coupled with assertions of agency and radical imaginings of what academic spaces could be, rather than what the system implies they must be. Maybe it would encourage us to work together to reimagine the system itself. (And if we are all thinking these things, all working on these things, the burden of change shifts from where it always falls—on the most marginalized—to the entire community.)

It could be many things, all of which are ultimately choices. I wonder what would happen if we made ones that positioned each of us less as isolated cogs in the knowledge production machine and instead as members of department, university, and disciplinary communities—our connections to, and responsibilities to, each other.

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