Tag Archives: armchair psychology

First Round of Papers

I just finished grading my first batch of papers for the term, and ya’ll, it was a bleak scene.  I had begun the semester resolved to be a little tougher since I already allow students to revise their assignment for a better grade, to insist that students with scintillating analyses go back and polish up the rougher spots in their prose before getting an A and to give out D’s where they’re warranted.  That goal has certainly been met.  The average grade for this assignment is well below normal, but I suspect that that is not so much a product of higher standards as it is an indication of the vast range of ability levels I’m dealing with in one class, and that range makes my strategy going forward unclear.

I have freshman students who clearly are struggling with the difference between analyzing a text and using a text as a jumping off point for talking about whatever it is they want to talk about, and given that this is a course called Literature and Religion, the results are, well…  For example, I received three papers that interpret entirely different narratives as allegories for the Christian life as the student understands it based on a criteria so broad that just about anything could be read as an allegory for the Christian life (which is more or less what I said in comments).  Coming from a religious background, I understand where it’s coming from.  Kids who grow up in evangelical environments are pretty accustomed to hearing popular films, songs, and books interpreted in this fashion in sermon illustrations and books on spiritual life, and for many of them, reading a narrative in this way is an important strategy for justifying their own interest in it.  So, when I get a paper on how the film 300 is an allegory for the Gospel, I understand that at least in part, this kid is trying to rationalize the fact that he likes the movie 300 by projecting Christian themes onto it.  So getting that kid to see that what he’s doing is, in fact, projection rather than an accurate interpretation of the film is, in a way, taking something rather important away from him.

Conversely, I have at least two seniors in their final semester, both of them intellectually talented but lazy.  Unfortunately, one of these students was the one who told me he “has to get an A” in order to graduate. Nevertheless, it’s clear that while I have some students who need to be acquainted with the basics of textual analysis, who really need to be taught how to accurately summarize a text before they can even begin to analyze it, and I have a few others who are bored to tears.

So in addition to the dilemma of how to conduct class in a way that addresses the needs of the weakest students without alienating the stronger ones, I have the question of how to assign and present grades.  In previous semesters, I’ve simply refused to assign a grade to the first draft as a way of encouraging everyone to revise.  However, students were clearly expressing a desire to know where they stood.  Furthermore, a bad grade early on can act as a wake-up call for students who are simply lazy, though I run the risk of students in the first category becoming discouraged and simply shutting down.

It occurs to me now that I worry a bit too much about how students will respond to a grade, that how they choose to move forward is entirely on them, and it is simply up to me to provide thoughtful, honest feedback and allow them to take it from there.

Meditations on a Mock Interview, Part 2

You guys are awesome.  The comments on and responses to this post were fantastic, and I wanted to follow up by letting everyone know that the crisis of confidence did come to an end.  In some ways, just writing about it and coming to the realization that this is a pretty common experience helped resolve those questions about my qualifications and temperamental suitability to academic work.  There are two Very Important Lessons that I took away from the experience (aside ways to perform better in an interview), and I thought I would share them here.

1.  My constant need for reassurance and approval from others probably stems from my unwillingness to perform that service for myself.  Yeah, that’s sort of Therapy 101, stuff that I covered in the first year of counseling, but it’s a surprisingly difficult idea to apply to one’s life.  But the simple truth is that I am an intelligent person with more than an average share of common sense.  I understand what the qualifications for doing this sort of job and living this sort of life are.  I am capable of weighing my strengths and weaknesses, and I am capable of saying, “Sure, some aspects of this path I’ve chosen are really challenging for me, but I do actually belong here.”

Jiminy Cricket from Pinnochio
Kind of like this but a lot less adorable

Why don’t I do this for myself?  Some it probably comes from growing up female in an environment where being uppity or over-confident was a liability.  Some of it just comes from being a former teenager and fearing the social repercussions of thinking too well of myself.  In therapy, I was introduced to the concept of the Inner Critic, which is that voice that basically tells you you suck.  In many people with depression, the Inner Critic can be pretty abusive, but in a healthy person it actually performs an adaptive person.  Your Inner Critic is there to tell you when you’re being an asshole, when you need to work harder, when you’ve crossed a line or done something that isn’t in your best interest.  I guess it’s sort of like that concept of Conscience.  It’s there, ultimately, to protect you.  There have been certain situations in my life where I counted on my talent and the quality of my work to get me something (into my first choice college, for example), and I was blindsided when it didn’t work out.  So, my Critic is sort of trying to make sure I’m never surprised like that again and consistently reminds me of my slim chances for success in anything.  Basically, I have an abusive boyfriend living in my head.

I find it interesting that no only do I require explicit affirmation from other people but that in the absence of any other information, I tend to infer disapproval.  It’s a sucky way of entering the world and trying to interact with others, but ultimately it’s also a way of externalizing my Critic, of taking all of the shit I say to myself and putting it in mouths and minds of others.  Then I can sort of blame them for the fact that I feel terrible about myself.  It’s my sister’s fault that I hate my body.  It’s this professor’s fault if I hurt myself later on today.  It’s my parents’ fault if I’m too scared to interact with people.  Etc.  Perversely, it sort of makes me feel a little better, like my depression is totally the fault of everyone I’ve ever come into contact with, but that’s a huge burden to displace on another person.  My sweet partner tells me I do this thing where I fight with him in my head before he even enters the room.  Usually, it’s because I’m feeling insecure about something–the cleanliness of the house, my lack of productivity that day, whatever–and I decide that he’s upset with me about it, and proceed to chew him out for being a demanding jerk.

2)  Sometimes a little external validation helps.  My Inner Critic knows that I require affirmation, and he thinks that makes me a weakling and constantly polices my behavior for anything that smells of “fishing for compliments.”  That makes a pretty logical and simple task like taking my advisor aside to talk about a shitty mock interview more complicated, especially when I’m afraid that I might cry.  At some points, my Critic sounds a lot like Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, saying “there’s no crying in academia!”

I need a Rosie O’Donnell or Geena Davis type to remind my Critic that he’s an abusive has-been drunk.  Anyway, I happened to run into one of my co-directors yesterday afternoon, and he could tell that I sort of had something I wanted to talk about.  So, we went back to his office, and I explained what had happened (without tears!), and he was completely and totally sympathetic.   When he found out who had conducted the interview, he informed me that one of those people is notorious for giving blistering critiques in defense and writing groups and committee meetings department wide, that she is pretty thick-skinned herself and therefore didn’t have a great bedside manner with vulnerable grad students, though she is a brilliant scholar and a rising star in the field.  Furthermore, four other faculty members had approved of my job materials, which meant that the poor reaction of one of these interviewers was probably an anomaly.  Not everyone is going to respond to every item in a job letter the same way.   You can’t please everyone.  This makes perfect sense.

So I wound up getting my affirmation anyway, and I did not suddenly become lazy or arrogant or entitled after hearing that yes, I belong here.  Furthermore, it would be insulting to the faculty members who have supported me throughout the process to suggest that their good opinion doesn’t count, that their investment and confidence in me was misplaced, just because one other person–no matter how brilliant–had a problem with me.

I’m getting there guys, but it’s a process.  Thanks for reading.

Meditations on a Mock Interview

Three minutes into yesterday’s mock interview, I knew it wasn’t going well.  Admittedly, this was something of a surprise.  I had crafted and honed my job materials, showing them to three faculty members over the course of a month and diligently following their advice on rewrites.  I had created one-page handouts demonstrating the range of courses I had taught and could teach.  I had been talking about my dissertation with friends and family, preparing to explain my project to the interviewers.  In the car on the way to campus, I was rehearsing eloquent explanations of how my research enhanced my teaching.

So, it was shocking to sit down in the room with two faculty members I have known for years, open my mouth, and hear a stream of incoherent blather come out.  I started my explanation of my dissertation the way I had intended, but I tripped over the first few words, the witty remark I had planned for the beginning didn’t land right, and in an effort to get my audience where I wanted them, I beat a particular point to death, and after that, I was just lost.  I could feel myself flaming out spectacularly as it was happening, mortified and yet unable to get back on track.  It might have been better if I had simply asked to start over, but instead they just stopped me and asked to move on.  The rest of the interview was sort of a blur.  I know I said a few things I was proud of, but for some odd reason, I changed the subject when asked to talk about an aspect of my teaching experience that I was actually very proud of, and clung to a particular idea so tightly that I sounded one-dimensional.

We wound up stopping the interview early just to talk about what was going wrong.  Everything they said was reasonable–I need to get to the point, be more confident about my pedagogical philosophy instead of trying to please everyone, offer very general summary statements instead of inundating them with the minutiae of my research project–but I was still emotionally wrung out with a gigantic lump in my throat by the time the whole thing was over.  But before it was over, they eviscerated my finely wrought job letter and c.v., documents that two other professors had declared “very strong.”  Granted, the task of writing job materials isn’t an exact science, and there is a great deal of disagreement on what should be emphasized and what shouldn’t be addressed at all.  My advisor had insisted that I spend a full page in my job letter talking about my dissertation, and these two wanted that cut to one short paragraph.  Even in that meeting, the two faculty members conducting the interview quibbled over how I should present my participation in various outreach programs, with one insisting that those were special credentials and the other arguing that it made me look like “a grad student who just signs up for stuff instead of being a leader.”  That sorta stung, especially when she read a few sentences of my letter out loud to in a “what was she thinking?” sort of voice in order to make her point.  That stung.

I did my best to plaster a look of openness and eagerness in the face of their criticism.  I kept making eye contact and did not let my voice break.  I thanked them graciously, got 50 feet from the building, and promptly burst into tears.  And I was ashamed of my tears.  It’s horribly embarrassing, but I cry easily, not because I’m weak or because I manipulate people with tears.  It’s simply a physical response to being overwhelmed, to having nowhere else to go with emotions.  When I was a teenager, I used to get angry and yell at people.  Now I tend to turn all of that inward and vent it in private.

Still, it seems weird that flaming out during a mock interview would have such devastating emotional consequences.  I have a history of depression and a history of inflicting minor self-harm, and this sort of thing is particularly triggering.  I knew it would be that way going in.  Granted, these people were not in the position to offer or deny me a job.  They aren’t in control of my future in that way, but pleasing people in positions of authority, appearing competent and credible, have always sort of been life or death matters for me.  I have a preternatural fear of giving offense to someone I respect and an intense need to be told that I am acceptable.  And no, I wasn’t unloved as a child.  If anything, I was probably over-praised, told too often how special and talented I was, until I believed that being anything less than extraordinary was tantamount to failure.  I don’t think I’m spoiled, just intensely fearful, terrified of breaking rules I don’t know exist and convinced that at some point, someone is going to discover that I am a fraud.  This is more than the usual graduate student “imposter syndrome.”  I’m not entirely convinced that my existence is much more than a sham, that someone isn’t going to come along one day at take away my job, evict me from my house, dissolve my marriage, revoke my “adult” card, and send me back to high school.  I have nightmares about having to return to high school, actually, and they usually involve math tests.

In the competitive world of graduate school, that feeling is heightened by the ridiculously competitive atmosphere.  If you aren’t in this world, it’s sort of hard to explain, but every interaction with a faculty member or even another graduate student can be an incredibly fraught experience, an opportunity to prove that you belong or to unintentionally give away the fact that you don’t.  For five years, I think I’ve been waiting for someone to either tell me conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, “you can totally do this” or to conclusively tell me “you don’t have what it takes.”  Perhaps that’s what I was looking for during that mock interview, a definitive statement one way or another.  Even hearing that I should just quit now might have been reassuring, because FINALLY someone would confirm what I feel like everyone thinks but doesn’t say, air the horrible secret that everyone has been trying to protect me from.  Late last night, in the throes of insomnia, I fantasized about them talking about how unqualified I was after I left the room.  Of course that’s ridiculous.  There are no verdicts to be handed down one way or the other.  Academic labor is just very hard, and getting a job is very hard, and it is in my best interest to get feedback from every possible source and trial and fail in as many low stakes situations as I can.  Prior to this, the Graduate Advisor had told us that a student who finished last year gave a miserable mock interview and went on to land an excellent job, so to a certain degree, their expectations were probably much lower than mine.

Still, I’m becoming even more aware of how much my need to be validated, my paranoid suspicion that everyone–friends, family members, colleagues–thinks I suck but just won’t say it out loud, could limit me personally and professionally.  It does even now prevent me from pursuing certain relationships or being totally open in the ones I have.  And it makes me less inclined to seek feedback or ask for advice until I think a project is “perfect.”  And it makes experiences like these the sort of thing that will set me back for a few days, unable to really work until I assimilate the experience and regain a bit of confidence.  As someone who likes, needs, to be constantly productive, I really hate this particular weakness of mine, but as much as I strive to improve and heal, I’m recognizing that learning to work within those limitation may ultimately be more productive than trying to stifle them.  Because truthfully, my innate sensitivity makes me a better teacher, a more considerate colleague, and a more benevolent giver of feedback.  And my desire to please makes me a harder, more efficient worker.  But it also means that I’ve lived with chronic depression for fifteen years, and that depression has gotten life threatening at least once.

I am immensely thankful for the people on the feminist blogosphere who advocate treating depression like any other disability, something that requires accommodation.  Moving forward today, in the aftermath of that experience, I am figuring out how to do what I need to do while restoring a modicum of mental and emotional equilibrium.  I got up early and put on clothes that make me feel confident and professional (this just happens to work for me–not necessarily for everyone).  I’ve sent those faculty members a thank you note, indicating how much I appreciate their support in this process.  I’ll be sending them a revised letter of interest later, but not this morning.  This morning, I’ll sit here in Starbucks and sip tea and read Tim Gunn’s book for the pure gossipy joy of it.  This afternoon, I’ll be meeting with other grad students to discuss our writing projects and probably dish a little bit about the suckitude of our mock interviews.  And I’m going to acknowledge that, today at least, I need to limit my exposure to grumpy criticism more than usual.

Note for Commenters: In that spirit, I’m going to ask that you refrain from dispensing advice, especially of the “you just need to X” or even the “you’re too hard on yourself” variety.  You are encouraged, however, to describe your own experience with interviews or any other aspect of job seeking or school or receiving criticism of any kind.  For the next few days at least, this is a space for venting, not for pontificating.