One of my more pleasant tasks as department chair is to welcome our new and continuing graduate students to the program as part of their orientation to the GW English Department.
Yesterday I spoke to our gathered cohort as they munched croissants and enjoyed the liquid caffeine delivery system that will sustain them through the years of toil ahead.
I told them to look very carefully at my black shirt, where on the right shoulder salt marks and the faint glisten of snot were visible. These were the sorrow tracks of Kid #2, who after two days of enthusiasm at her new life as a preschooler decided that she had had enough of the educational system and wanted to remain at home, permanently. While I am sympathetic to that desire (harboring it myself most of the time), I also thought: you're crying now, little one, but you have twenty six years of this ahead of you before you get your doctorate.
Obtaining an education is hard work, I told the MA and PhD students, but it isn't merely that. I'm in awe of graduate students who take it upon themselves to labor beyond the minimum requirements of preprofessional training and devote a portion of their lives to a subject, mainly out of love for that subject. Such devotion does not offer certain reward: there are no glamorous jobs promised, no reason to be sure that the next two or six years will enable a lifetime of pursuing similar or even directly related lines of thought.
Graduate school in the humanities is one of the few arenas available in the United Staes where you can be an unabashed intellectual, where you don't have to justify the research you are pursuing solely in terms of immediate use value or according to some cold economic calculus. I urged the gathered students to think of themselves as already as part of a community, to attend every lecture and symposium that they could find the time to attend, to challenge their professors and each other in their seminars, to never be ashamed of the enthusiasm that motivates them, no matter how abstract, abstruse, or even grandiose their preoccupations. Mostly, I urged them to take what they could from the experience of being in graduate school without obsessing to an extreme over what comes next (I believe too many graduate programs overemphasize professionalization, so that students become neurotic about conference papers and publication -- as if there were some magic checklist that when completed yields a first job).
I know it is easy to declare, having been fairly successful at this career, but even if I had never landed in that first tenure track job, I wouldn't have regretted my time as a graduate student. Despite the financial struggle and the stress, it was the most formative time of my life (and I don't say that simply out of love for the moment: though it was extremely frustrating in many ways, I learned as much from the impediments as I did from the catalysts).