Grad School and the Fraud Complex

Joel McHale and Danny Pudi from the television show CommunitySo, I’ve been going through my RSS reader–which has been filling up due to my being preoccupied with my paying job–and discovered this wonderful pair of posts by Historiann on feeling like a fraud in academia. I think most graduate students are familiar with this particular complex, skulking the hallways expecting to be exposed any day and thrown out of grad school because of something suspicious on your undergraduate (or even high school) transcript, like Jeff Winger of NBC’s Community (ok, I was sort of looking for an excuse to post a picture of Joel McHale. Also, Danny Pudi as Abed. Hi Abed!)

In the first post, Historiann responds to a post by Notorious Ph.D about the gaps in her graduate training that have become painfully immediate and obvious as she writes her second book. It reminds me of that first grad seminar I took when it became clear that most of the people in that class had read Derrida, but I hadn’t read Derrida, and the other students in this class made Derrida sound as he were the most important critic who ever lived and also that I probably should have been reading him back in second grade. Also, Foucault. And I wondered why they had ever let someone with such a third rate undergraduate education into this program, because while I had been reading Gilbert and Gubar at the College for Hirsute Feminists, everyone else had been reading about post-structuralism and semiotics.

Then, you know, I remembered that these were all just books and that I was perfectly capable of checking them out and reading them without any external guidance. And I read me some Derrida and some Foucault and some Marx and other crap and moved on and then realized that most of the people who said they had read Derrida and Foucault and Marx as undergrads had, at best, simply moved their eyes uncomprehendingly from left to right across the page, and I had some satisfying moments in grad seminars in which I was a total asshole and corrected some pretentious douchebags on the definition of “commodity fetishism” and the post-structuralist critique of the Enlightenment. Ah, grad school.

But I digress, the quote I wanted to take from Historiann’s post went as follows:

But, were our graduate programs designed to make us experts in one tiny sub-subfield for the next forty years, or did they aim more broadly to teach us how to teach ourselves for the rest of our lives? I go with the latter theory of graduate education myself, since most of us find that the shelf life of our specific training is pretty short.

That’s such a beautiful way to look at it. In the process of writing my dissertation, I have had to give myself a crash course in topics that no one in my department really knows anything about, stuff like nineteenth century medical history and the sacred texts of weird religious movements. But that’s knowledge production, I guess, connecting different bits of context and unearthing primary sources that no one has ever talked about before in order to present the world with a new way of looking at something pretty familiar, like the works of Mark Twain. I love my job.


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