Saturday, April 07, 2007

Spring Delayed & Graduate School


A few reminders of spring remain in Kansas. The lilacs in my yard have been killed by the late frost that we have been having. A low of about fourteen degrees is forecasted for Easter morning, and a few other frosts still await us in April. Much as I hate to work in the yard, I have already had to mow my grass this season. Linda Hasselstrom had the right idea when she recommended planting native grasses in one’s yard because they are most able to endure the temperature extremes that characterize a continental climate. Some of my neighbors have planted nonnative species like pampas grass. The city of Leavenworth has come to recognize that the purple coneflower strives in this region and has planted a large flowerbed of purple coneflowers near the entrance to the city pool. When other plants start wilting in July and August, these flowers continue to strive and are particularly attractive to bees.


My wife and I thought that the season for running the heater had ended until earlier this week when we were forced to turn it on again. It was a simple process, only requiring the flipping of a switch; it was much easier than lighting those heaters in the floor that require attaching a wooden match to a pole with tape and then extending the pole down into the heater to light the pilot light. Our rental house in Stillwater had a floor heater. After the flood of 1993, the landlord installed central heating, probably at a considerable cost, too. With the expansion of the athletic facilities at Oklahoma State, that house has been razed. In fact, the entire one-block long street that we once lived on has disappeared. Oklahoma State, unfortunately, has gotten a lot of financial support from Boone Pickens, a wealthy oil tycoon and alumnus, who has given the university millions of dollars for the expansion of its athletic department. This money comes at a price because the university is forced to adopt his plans. What the university needs to do is expand the number of scholarships available in basketball so that the university has a better chance of competing against other Division I schools. Much as I like college basketball, I still have to wonder how the players find the time to get their studying done. My son’s friend recognizes the demands of sports in college when he said recently that he plans to study archeology or to get a scholarship for football when he attends Kansas State in about six years from now.

We haven’t been back to Stillwater since we left in August, 1998. We have talked about going back to visit. The best salsa we ever tasted is only found at Mexico Joe’s. I also have fond memories of Boomer Lake, a manmade lake north of town. When I had to endure deep scaling one summer and when I had a root canal on one of molars, I visualized myself back at Boomer Lake flying my kite from one of the piers, tugging back on the line as it dips toward the water, or watching the water birds, particularly a great blue heron at the shoreline, as my son plays in the sandbox, building a castle with his green plastic mold or filling a blue bucket that he tips upside-down just a few feet away. It’s doubtful that a visit would help to recapture those memories. Boomer Lake was my escape from the tension present in the English department, which was felt immediately upon entering Morrill Hall. Whereas other graduate students regularly drank beer at a local tavern on Friday afternoons, I sought to get as far away as possible from the department, from departmental politics, and from graduate school woes.

I began to sour on the additional elements of graduate school when I was working on my MA. Graduate school wasn’t the lofty pursuit of the mind that it was once extolled to be. Some of my professors, particularly those who were second-generation college students, had the good fortune of not having to work while in graduate school. Even student loans weren’t required. It would have been possible then to devote all of one’s time to scholarship and publishing—those things that lead to tenure track positions.

Instead of devoting all of graduate school solely to scholarship, I juggled two composition classes each semester as a means of paying my way. When we were going through our orientation sessions before the start of the first semester of teaching, we heard stories about TA’s who, during the first class session, ensured every student that he/she would earn an A and who never held class again during the semester. The more experienced TA’s told us to never spend more than fifteen minutes when grading an essay. Read it through once, make comments during the initial reading, make the end comment, and assign it a grade before going on to the next essay. This practice made it possible to grade fifty essays in only twelve and a half hours. When you consider that each student turned in six essays, that amount of grading required about seventy-five hours.

When I started teaching in graduate school, I was so happy at having a steady income that I gave it more attention than I should have. My own work should have been my priority all through graduate school.

In addition to the exhaustion that accompanied late-night grading and late-night study sessions, I grew tired of the schmoozing. Like other new graduate students, I hung around the department at first, ingratiating myself to the professors. Once I met the woman I married, we started living together and mostly kept to ourselves, only showing up in the department when we had to.

A friend of mine, who entered graduate school when I did, was an expert at schmoozing, recognizing the advantages that came from befriending the other students and, most of all, from endearing himself to his professors. Halfway through that first year, his conversations usually centered on what good thing one of his professors said about him. This person had the knack at making everyone he met think highly of him. Years afterwards, I have heard people say good things about this person when the person I knew was much different; at least the persona he presented to me when we were together was different than the one he adopted among those he sought to impress.

This bragging about oneself and this selling of oneself to others turned me away from those kinds of dealings. I chose to absent myself from that form of networking and to quietly work on my classes and my poems, when not teaching, preparing for class, or grading, sometimes getting ignored and overlooked in the process. The departmental darlings, like my friend, got the accolades, the awards, and the easier teaching assignments. This success followed him through his PhD program where he befriended the people who published his poems, who helped him refine his dissertation, and who helped him have his dissertation win a major poetry prize. That’s how the process works for those who recognize how to negotiate the system and what rewards the manipulation of others will bring. My friend and I no longer have anything to say to each other. He pursues his goals elsewhere and has far more famous friends than me.