Awkward encounters in the halls of the ivory tower are certainly not unusual. Around my campus, grad students and faculty alike are adept at the fine art of not acknowledging the presence of the other: they avoid eye contact; they are oblivious to nods, smiles, or waves; they spend office hours with doors closed.
Ever the contrarian, I sometimes over-perform friendly sociability when I pass fellow grads or faculty in the hallway. (Although at other times, I too am guilty of looking busy with my phone rather than suffer through awkward small talk about the fact that I’m still around.)
But then one day I was the perpetrator of an awkward encounter with a prospective PhD student visiting campus.
I had been working in my office most of the day, a hodgepodge of labor which included writing (my dissertation), reading (for my dissertation), being anxious (about finishing my dissertation), and some day-to-day tasks related to teaching. I was on my way to the washroom at the end of the day, and passed C in the hallway, standing with a Prospective Student. (C is reading for exams. Her studying habits are fueled by anxiety and guilt; she reads on an ereader, and if the screen begins to blacken because she’s taking too long to read the page, she feels guilty and reads faster. Such is the condition of graduate life.)
C introduces me to Prospective Student, who immediately asks what I do. (Hm, what DO I do?) A horde of contradictory answers came to mind: I am desperately writing my dissertation, I am plotting my career outside of conventional T-T academe, I do my best to mentor and support fellow grads struggling to professionalize and to write because they don’t receive formal training from their courses or advisers, I volunteer locally to build my skill-set, I read and think a lot about the state of graduate education, the academic job market, and how to market academic skills in a non-academic setting.
Instead of any of this, though, I rattle off my historical and conceptual fields, and ask where she’s from and what she’s doing. The encounter was awkward; Prospective Student had trouble maintaining eye contact. But the bigger problem was the conversation we *weren’t* having. Why is she going to grad school? What are her career/professional goals? Has she any idea about the academic job market? Doesn’t she know that she just shouldn’t go?
But those are the questions that would mark me as the cynical, advanced graduate student. Still here, still writing, and railing against the system that turns reading into a guilt-fueled consumption and amazing, well-qualified people into warm bodies filling short-term, temporary positions.
I don’t want to be the jaded grad student. So until I can figure out how to have those real conversations with prospective and new PhD students, I’ll keep having these awkward encounters.