On What's Invisible At Harvard: A Conversation

Great article all around. I really enjoyed it, and as a current PhD student at Harvard, it was really illuminating about the sort of parallel universe that I live adjacent to.
But the snide comments about grad students, as has been noted by others, were silly and damaging to the piece's point. Graduate students at Harvard (at least in the Humanities, and with very few exceptions) have their tuition paid for and live off a salary provided by the University. There are a variety of arrangements, but typically this stipend is offered in exchange for teaching and continued progress in your program.
The class position of graduate students is definitely in a borderspace. I (like many of my fellow grad students) didn't go to a fancy college and have committed myself to making less than 25,000 (at best) a year for the foreseen future before going into a very uncertain job market, to a series of temporary jobs with little financial or geographical stability before (fingers crossed) one day finding a permanent position on some school's faculty. This is a choice I am very happy about. I love what I do, and am not capable of doing anything else, really.
Now, what I've just noted above is an exceptionally lucky and extraordinary position to be in for a graduate student. A school like Harvard can afford to pay its grad students, so that we can focus on our research and teaching. The money I make is enough to offer me stability and comfort as I work. This is not the case in the majority of colleges where the financial/professional struggles of future professors are far far greater. (insert apocalyptic comment about the systematic destruction of funding for and privatization of post-secondary education.)

Long preamble, but the comments in the piece above smacked of entitlement of a different sort. Teaching at Harvard is an exercise in dealing with privileged young people who feel that your job is to provide them with a wonderful four years of pleasant back-patting and specialness-reinforcing, and ushering them into their lives in the American elite. And not, you know, challenging them with the unfamiliar and the difficult, and evaluating their work fairly and accurately as compared to that of their peers and the course expectations. Caveat: I have encountered many many incredibly lovely and brilliant students here to whom none of the above applies. Mostly I feel for them and the shit they must have to deal with--hence my sympathy for the authors of this piece. But the dissing of discussion sections is so typical of the now-reigning corporate model of university education and the sense of entitlement that so many undergraduates feel: University should provide you with easily digestible servings of specialized knowledge, or at least credentials, to ease your assimilation into a neatly prepared place in society. And at a place like Harvard, where many pay unfathomable sums to be (and many others are paid to be, like grad students), getting a fair but low grade, or having one's preconceptions challenged, or experiencing educational situations that can't be reduced to means and ends--this feels like getting ripped off. Cue the privileged whining.
The discussion section is a place (ideally) where one is judged based on one's ideas, where ideas can be challenged and worked through for their own sake, where everyone's opinion is (in theory) valued equally, and where problems (in my case, problems specifically about history and class, as it so happens) can be worked through and ideas shared regardless of whether they are controversial, or a challenge to the dominant way of thinking. Or, at its best, dealing with ideas that are even challenging to the institutions within which they are carried out: namely, Harvard, for one.
This is an ideal picture I've just painted, and it sucks if this wasn't your experience. But this is why we have discussion sections. And almost all the grad students I know are committed to providing their students with this sort of experience--one which is increasingly rare today.
If you want someone to check a box giving you an A to facilitate your entry into the upper-class... grad students will probably disappoint you. This is not our job. If it was our job, it would mean the total collapse of what higher education means, and has ever meant. This would be sad.
Before you shit on grad students, I invite you to think about our precarious financial and class situation, the privilege that you have as an undergraduate compared to us, and the model of education that we stand for and are willing to dedicate our lives to work for.

Thanks, and sorry for the maybe sanctimonious tone. I am tired and over-worked and frustrated. But... dedicated.

Posted on July 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm 2