A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Musings on Graduate School and Marriage

Graduate school is a world unto itself, with terminology, protocols, expectations, and events not quite like anything else in the world. Get enough graduate students together to talk about their personal lives, and eventually someone is bound to bring up the fact that her family doesn't understand what she does.

It isn't so bad during your first years of graduate school, because anyone who has gone to college has some idea of what coursework is like. (However, it may be difficult to explain to family members that no, there are no tests: it's all about writing seminar papers.) I think it's also easier to talk about graduate life when you're teaching, because everyone experiences teaching, at least from the perspective of the student. But most people do not write dissertations, or take comprehensive exams, or have to submit a dissertation prospectus and pass a proposal meeting. The work that makes up the life of a graduate student past the coursework stage, then, is a complete mystery to most people.

This isn't just a matter of an "us and them," where "us" is everyone who has gone to graduate school, and "them" is everyone who has not. It's much more complicated than that, because it's about life in a unique subculture, one in which there are many sub- sub- cultures. Even those who have master's degrees may not really grasp what it is like to produce a dissertation: master's work often has a different focus, even if the coursework is similar. You might think that people with Ph.Ds would generally be able to understand the plight of the graduate student, but this not always the case, particularly if those Ph.Ds were earned in other fields, in other eras, or even simply from other universities. There's a generation gap in the Academy as elsewhere (though a good director can do a great deal to bridge it), and on top of that, every discipline has its own culture. (If you need convincing, compare the life of a biology researcher to that of a student in the humanities. Their experiences will be worlds apart.) For that matter, every department has its own culture: my life as an English graduate student in my department may not quite correspond to someone else's life in a larger state school or an Ivy League school.

It is, therefore, a great boon to me that my husband is also a graduate student in English, in the same department I attend. We can complain to each other about our work, and understand what we are talking about. Or we can rejoice over minor milestones, likewise understanding without exaggerating their importance. Not only do we work with many of the same people, we have to deal with the same sometimes insane beaurocracy. We have shared frustration with the absurdities of first year review, anger at unfair changes in policy, concern for the same friends or acquaintances who we fear are being dropped through the cracks in a competitive environment. We have also shared the relief of passing exams, receiving summer funding, or getting praise from an often-critical committee member.

But alas, the environment IS competitive, and at times, we are competing with each other. At perhaps no time has this been more true than now, when we are both on the job market. True, there aren't very many jobs for which we are both applying, since we fortunately work in different time periods and on different subjects. But that doesn't mean we aren't competing in other ways. I can't speak for my husband, but on my part there is, unfortunately, an tendency to compare my progress with his. What if he gets more favorable response to his job applications, more requests for materials? What if he gets an interview, and I don't? What if he gets more interviews than I do? What if he gets an on-campus visit, and I don't? Most threatening of all: what if he gets a job offer, and I don't?

This is not how I want to look at the situation. I want to look at the situation and say: "See how fortunate we are? Since we're both on the market, there are much better odds that one of us will get a decent job offer, or a good postdoc. Then the other of us will be able to adjunct until a better situation comes up. We don't have to worry as much as singles, or couples who are in different years, or who already have children to care for." This is what I do say, most of the time. But it's not how I'm thinking when I'm worrying about the job market at one a.m.

Originally, I was going to call this post "The Curse of the Academic Marriage," and it was simply going to be about how hard it is for two spouses on the job market at the same time to support one another fully. I changed the title in part because it seemed to be negative, but the truth is, it would have been an inaccurate title. In the end, my problem has little to do with the specific demands of graduate school or the Academy, and everything to do with a crucial principle of marriage: the idea that when one is married, the primary good to be concerned with becomes the good of the household. One's own good is still important, since individual well-being is fundamental to the well-being of groups one is in, but personal goods, personal desires, sometimes have to be subsumed into working for the good of the household.

There are wrong versions of this principle, of course. I heard one of them in a particulaly bad sermon I once heard on the subject of wifely submission. Submission, according to this pastor, meant that when a woman marries a man, she joins her husband's team. His goals become her goals. She works under him to achieve his goals.

I believe this metaphor to be fundamentally wrong insofar as it treats the married couple's goal as if it were the pre-existent goals of the husband. It treats the team as a pre-existent team which the wife joins, as if her life and work were just an addition or appendix to her husband's life and work. I don't think wives simply sign up to be on their husband's team. I think it is much more accurate to say that when a couple marry, they form an entirely new unit, an entirely new team, an entirely new family. And it is for the good of that family, that unit, that both husband and wife work. Their primary financial and spiritual goals become the goals of the family, not the career goals, spiritual goals, or personal development goals of either spouse as an individual. "Male headship" does not make sense as a Christian doctrine in any other context than this-- at least, not to me.

And I believe this. (See, after all, that old post on the Proverbialist Manifesto.) The problem is that this reprioritization of goals it is hard. It requires thinking in terms of "we" rather than "I." As if it weren't hard enough for us to die to ourselves so that we can live in Christ, we must also die to ourselves so that we can live in right relation to our families. And that, whether or not you'll pardon my language, is damn hard to do. I think for many of us, it is the struggle of a lifetime. It is the work of sanctification-- and believe me, it's no fun to be trying to work out one's salvation with fear and trembling while also trying to get a tenure-track job.

And that's all I have to say about that.


Anonymous Bob the Baker said...

"This is what I do say, most of the time. But it's not how I'm thinking when I'm worrying about the job market at one a.m."

See, that's why you should be SLEEPING at one a.m.
Sheesh, grad students....;)

10:21 PM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

This was really good and interesting. It is NOT easy to die to self. It sucks. I suck at it. It can be even more difficult when you have kids. Then "selfishness" is reading your e-mail or taking a shower.

9:53 PM  
Blogger Geech said...

I would like to suggest that if John gets a job offer and you do not that you would have plenty of time to write a novel. You should try again some time.

1:51 AM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

She would also have plenty of time to take care of "not quite the cutest baby" if you wanted to have one.

Your niece, of course, is the cutest baby.

10:53 PM  

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