During my first year in graduate school, I was amazed at the low grades I got on papers. After routinely receiving A’s for original thought and dynamic writing, I was now getting B’s with brief, discouraging comments. Back in college we had been encouraged to do our own thinking first and look at the criticism only later, if at all. I had always felt gratified and affirmed when some critic’s interpretation matched my own, and my professors had apparently felt so too. But all that changed when I got to grad school, and the reasons remained maddeningly obscure. On the surface, everything looked the same, but underneath, something else had to be going on, because it all felt different. I spent most of an increasingly neurotic year before stumbling upon the truth.
That spring, in a seminar on Renaissance literature, I was assigned a paper on John Skelton’s “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge.” Skelton was Henry VIII’s court poet and wrote bawdy doggerel that must have pleased his sovereign but sounded, to my twentieth century ear, like something out of Monty Python, minus the wit. “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge” describes with relish how three hags disgrace themselves after getting drunk in a tavern. I am no prude, but I had to gag it down, and after cudgeling my brain could come up with absolutely nothing worthwhile to say. That’s when criticism came to the rescue. In despair, I searched out the three extant articles, summarized their contents, did a simple comparison/contrast, and reported the results. Imagine my surprise when the paper received an A with the comment, “This is the most mature work of yours that I’ve seen.”
That’s when I realized that grad school and college had very different goals, even though they employed similar means. College aimed to educate and develop the whole person toward a life of responsible citizenship, whereas grad school aimed to train professional scholars. College served society; grad school served the profession. That’s why the professors cared more about our mastery of the secondary literature than about our appreciation of the wisdom and beauty of the poetry itself.
Every profession needs rites and symbols of initiation to perpetuate itself. Grad school takes naïve lovers of the arts and sciences and turns them into serious professionals, well-versed in the lore, the lingo, and the rules of their chosen game. It takes people and makes them into players. In the process, it provides high-status jobs for the elite and low-status, low-paid labor for the institution. As for the students, how they play once they graduate, and how they fare in the game, is up to them.
To achieve and sustain balance under such circumstances takes deliberate imagination. Stay tuned the institutional perspective, followed by more tools and lessons from the ASLE workshop.