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Monday, April 25, 2011

Graduate School Woes

I went to school at Stanford, completing a PhD in Comparative Literature. I had a miserable time in Graduate School for many reasons.

Coming from a less prestigious school as an undergraduate student, I was shocked by the low quality of the pedagogy. Professors would often have no syllabus for their course, or teach in an utterly passive way, allowing the inmates to run the asylum. In the Comparative Literature program, we were required to take a course in Literary Theory the first semester. This was taught by a Heideggerian who said nothing comprehensible during the entire quarter and exercised little leadership. The class was run, essentially, by a small vocal group of Marxist graduate students from another program, Modern Thought and Literature.

I was in a Comp Lit program, but I wanted to be a Hispanist. The Spanish department when I was there was a disaster and I was able to complete my degree only because they eventually hired someone in my field, after I was physically gone from Stanford, and he was nice enough to direct my dissertation even though he didn't really know me.

The Spanish department was run by a group of Marxists who didn't believe peninsular literature should be taught at all. One, a woman from England, did not even know how to speak Spanish, even though she was (and remains) a prominent Latin Americanist. Her ally was another vicious Marxist who is also quite well known in the field. When she became president of the MLA a few years ago, I quit the organization for a few years in disgust. Another man there was a Chlean exile writer who would often just not show up to class. These people made me into a peninsularist. Many students in the Spanish program were intellectually inferior, chosen because of their political affiliations. The department hired a very good Cervantes scholar, who eventually left because he was treated so badly by the Marxist crowd. The department depended too heavily on visiting professors, some of whom were complete disasters.

Despite all these problems, I was exposed to some brilliant minds and managed to navigate the program and receive my degree by working independently. I learned what I could from the people that had something to say, and taught myself the rest.

I remember walking around and wondering whether I was "brilliant" or not. The ethos there in Comp Lit was to try to get noticed by powerful people who might call you "brilliant." If you weren't brilliant, you were nothing. Yet in Spanish some of the graduate students were not only not brilliant, but almost cognitively disabled. For a young, immature person like myself, this was a toxic atmosphere.

7 comments:

profacero said...

Fascinating. So it is true about JF (mean)? In person I've always had another impression and assumed the rumors were motivated by certain kinds of very old style agendas (pre theory, pre women ones) but ... it's interesting to hear this from someone as young as you and also, all of this would help explain some things that went on in my own CPLT program at more or less this time (other school, same coast).

Jonathan said...

I'm not that young. This was in the early 80s. It's possible she's learned more Spanish since then, but she began to teach the first day in Spanish then gave up. She would say things like "Juan se toca" when she meant to say "Le toca a Juan ..." She not only had a horrible accent, but she didn't seem to be in command of the syntax of the language.

Clarissa said...

This is going to be one of my favorite posts on this blog. It is very good to know that people can have a bad experience in grad school but still do not allow that to deter them from their goals.

It sounds like it doesn't matter much whether a department is hijacked by vicious Marxists or vicious Conservatives. Whenever politics become more important than literature, a department in our discipline starts going down the drain.

profacero said...

Yes, I'm from around then too, although I didn't meet JF in person until around 88 or so and never saw her speak Spanish ... but I'd heard throughout the 60s and 70s from the older guys that she was Mean, thought they were just sour grapesing because they were a little freaky generally around non conservative non Spanish non men. Now, though, I'm curious.

Andrew Shields said...

I'm wondering who the Heideggerian was; I don't remember any Heideggerians from my classes during the same years (I started out in German before ending up in English, for my BA, in 87.)

Jonathan said...

His name was David Halliburton.

Andrew Shields said...

I never had a class with DH, so I was spared his Heideggerisms, I guess! The German Department folks I worked with (Berman, Wellbery, Müller-Völlmer) had all read MH, of course, but were not unduly influenced by him. (As for me, I was Nietzschified in those days.)