Of Graduate Students and Competitive Horse Jumpers

As much as I love being a graduate student, there’s always been a part of me that sees something embarrassingly frivolous and decadent about it.  Even in my first year, I remember occasions where I was in my office on the fifth floor of Cabell Hall (from which this blog gets its name) late in the evening when the janitors would come by and empty the trash can in the office.  In those instants, I would cringe at the juxtaposition of this older woman of color working for a presumably low wage to help keep my (a white male) office clean, so that no clutter or trash would get in the way of all the important sociologizing I was doing.  After all, how could I possibly be expected to read Weber with the day’s empty lunch container still in the trash can?  I felt more than a little ashamed of my privileged position.  Moreover, I was struck by the dichotomy between my work and the janitor’s work.  Her work is physical labor with tangible results – empty trash cans and clean buildings.  The results of my work, if done well, are most likely going to amount to contributions to a body of literature read mostly by those who are already specialists in the field.  As much as we may try to convince ourselves that we’re going to theorize up the alternative to capitalism that will bring social justice to the structurally oppressed masses, I tend to believe that little the average sociologist writes or does will ultimately have much connection to the lives of, for instance, a woman working at a Wal-Mart in Missouri or an unemployed man in Ohio, unless the idea of a “connection” is stretched to the point of near-meaninglessness.  Maybe my interpretation of Foucault will have some sort of dramatic social consequence that eluded the 99,999 previous interpretations of Foucault, but somehow I doubt it.  I know this may sound pessimistic and defeatist, but even if I’m wrong – even if sociologists end up contributing to a critical mass of scholars and policy makers who can make real change in these individuals’ lives possible – the sociologists, by and large, will still be the vanguard party, directing the revolution from cossetted comfort, far from the trenches and front lines on which the disadvantaged live out these battles.

In terms of social class, graduate school is the most homogenous institution I’ve ever been a part of.  The lives of unemployed former furniture plant workers in western North Carolina where I grew up, or unemployed African Americans in Durham, North Carolina, near where I went to college, seem worlds away from the current lives of my professors, my fellow graduate students, and myself.  I don’t pretend that even when I was in closer physical proximity to the furniture workers I could truly and fully “understand where they’re coming from.”  Then, as now, my life was not like theirs.  But the grad school bubble is striking in the totality of its removal from these experiences.  I’ve been thinking about these issues in light of an article I read on Inside Higher Ed earlier this week, about the ways in which graduate school in the humanities is increasingly becoming the private playpen of spouses of high income earners.  While I think the article underplays the ways in which things other than a spouse’s income can support a grad school lifestyle – parents’ money, trust funds, inheritances, and other sources could also suffice – and, more importantly, is applicable to graduate school in the social sciences as well as the humanities, for the most part it is strikingly eye-opening and poignant.  What sort of perspectives is academia missing out on if, as a student is quoted in the article as saying, “You have to have a spouse nowadays; that’s how more and more people seem to be doing it”?  (And, I might add, not just any spouse; when it comes to supporting a graduate school lifestyle, complete with the occasional upscale dining and international travel that seem to be de rigueur among this set, a spouse (or parent) who works for minimum wage isn’t going to be able to cut it.)  The article paints a picture of graduate school as not unlike competitive horse jumping or running a boutique winery – a leisure pursuit that doesn’t pay the bills but is attractive to those whose spouses or parents pay their bills for them and have enough left over to support a comfortable lifestyle.  If we, as graduate students, are to have any chance of breaking out of the inability to really effect meaningful change that I referenced earlier in this post, this certainly doesn’t seem like the way to do it.  (Not to mention the fact that, on a more immediate and selfish note, it also doesn’t seem like a good way to ensure continuous funding from the NSF.)

Don’t get me wrong, the upper-middle class people who populate my graduate program are many of my closest friends in the world.  I wouldn’t trade the incredibly rewarding experience of getting to know them for anything.  But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a perspective out there that neither they nor I can really capture or fully appreciate, and that, I think, is grad school’s loss.


One thought on “Of Graduate Students and Competitive Horse Jumpers

  1. As a house scholar, I have to agree that it is nice to have a financially supportive spouse (though it comes with its own burdens). In (many) moments of doubt I wish that I had chosen a more “meaningful” career. I am envious of the custodian because at the end of the day it is clear that she accomplished her goals and I don’t think her work keeps her up at night…if only she earned a living wage.

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