On a late-spring day sometime in the mid-90s, I found myself sitting with a friend on a stone bench overlooking a prospect of conventional, but nevertheless pretty estimable, pastoral loveliness: green valley and distant hills, cinematic cloudscapes, placid lake, etc. The friend with whom I sat was just then at the collapsing end of a love affair, and because she was a few years older than I, and much much smarter, I experienced her distress with a kind of baffled shock. (She was, alternately, angry and sad, inhabiting each mode with some force.) I can remember looking at her and thinking: If that much articulacy and worldliness and fierce intelligence didn’t insulate you from such vehement heartsickness then – jesus – what would?
I was young.
We looked at the scene spread out before us, and together took in its failure to be restorative in the ways much of our reading had suggested it ought to be. We talked, I am sure, about Elvis Costello. And so, unable to countenance this much sorrow in a person I found so comprehensively winning – keen-witted, generous, beautiful, so easily possessed of the mysterious knowledge of how to brilliant without being a dick about it – I tried to say something I thought both consoling and true, something about sadness and happiness and the world. “It’s hard to get too sad,” I said. “Because whatever else happens, you’re never going to run out of books and bands and songs you love. I mean, nothing can happen to take those things out of the world, you know? They’ll always be right there for you, always.”
We’d not been friends for all that long. But she loved me enough, even then, to let it go.
I assume that if you’re considering going to graduate school with any real seriousness you need not have recited to you the litany of reasons, from the Marxist to the Karmic, not to do so. If you cannot say those reasons off to yourself like beads of a rosary then perhaps you have not, in fact, given the matter enough thought. But jeremiads like those of, say, William Pannapacker (in the Chronicle, in Salon) are prominent enough, and well-circulated enough, that they don’t need to be rehearsed at length here. (Summary: DO NOT GO.) I have no real wish to dispute with those accounts of the perils of a commitment to graduate school, and even less with their appraisals of the exploitative machinery of institutional higher education, even though I do think that such dire accounts can be a bit, you could say, monochromatic. No one, I think, has written a more thoughtful, subtle, or moving rebuttal to the Pannapackers of the contemporary scene than Jonathan Senchyne, in his exquisite piece “Working Classes,” and I’ll leave to you the pleasure of reading his account of why it was that, even in the frightening absence of any assurance of a tenure-track happy ending for his story, he found the pursuit of a Ph. D. in the humanities greatly rewarding – at once self-solidifying and self-enlarging – in ways the JUST DON’T GO narratives persistently misapprehend.
But if I don’t quite have a dog in this fight (whether or not graduate school is good for you is likely to depend upon variables too numerous and case-specific to generalize about with much non-polemical efficacy), still I do want to offer a small testament to at least one of the ways a graduate-school education might be of real human use to you. I’d put it, at its briefest, like this: one day, at some unanticipated juncture on the trajectory of your adult life, something cataclysmically bad is going to happen to you. It will be, in the ordinary way of things, shattering and unendurable. And when this comes to pass you may be startled to find that you have an extraordinary resource in, of all improbable things, the years of your graduate education: in the people you loved there, of course, but also in the ways you learned to think there, and in the worlds that, by loving and thinking and talking and fighting in that same shared space, you learned how to make together. That’s not everything you might wish for, after many costly and laborious years, I know. But neither is it nothing.
In some ways this has, perhaps, little enough to do with graduate school as such. Live a vibrant, vital sort of life and the people to whom you are drawn in your 20s will, it is fair to hope, come forcefully to your aid in moments of need. Maybe this isn’t true of law school or business school – which, god, is one sad fucking thought – but I’m ready to believe it is, just as I’m ready to believe it is surely no less true for those who pass their younger years outside the expensive confinements of institutional life. And yet I do feel inclined to make a case, however partial and biased, for the special sorts of provision made for you by years of graduate life. Keep that bias in mind, and keep in mind too that, in the cautionary words of late-night advertisements, your experience of the product may be different.
Unlike some wiser and more deliberate peers, I did not enter graduate school with overmuch in the way of a career trajectory in mind, or even an especially solidified sense of what it was, precisely, within my discipline that I wanted to study. (Modernism? Twentieth-century poetics? Nineteenth-century America? Shelley? They all beguiled.) To the degree that something as dignifying as a “rationale” could be retrospectively assembled, I’d say I was there chiefly because of a complex ardor I’d come to feel in the presence of certain kinds of objects, an ardor I could not then exhaust or explain to myself with anything that felt like adequacy, but in which I suspected, with dim wordless intuition, that something of a real, lasting, and unpredetermined kind of value lay concealed. That such an impulse is alarmingly proximate to, say, an undergraduate’s simultaneous belief in a) the generalized coolness of, like, books and b) the preciousness of his own insights – this is not lost on me now, and was probably not much lost on me then.
But listen: I went to graduate school and several very great things happened, and happened particularly to that quotidian object-love. Two of them seem to me in retrospect to have been the most sustaining, though they are so interwoven it’s difficult to think of them in sequence or isolation. For the sake of clarity, we’ll put them in order. First, that avidity for certain kinds of objects was forced to find for itself languages, analytic vocabularies that offered precision and conceptual density in the place of the inchoate enthusiasm with which I arrived. Here is the first remarkable transaction: they did not, those wrought and difficult conceptual languages, cancel that quality of delighted captivation by, in effect, professionalizing it, forcing it through the narrow channel of a trade-language, or disciplinary idiolect. (I had been assured, by more than a few probably well-meaning professionals, that the cumulative effect of graduate school, if not the actual point, was to smother all the sparks of untutored enthusiasm you might bring to the scene of your education.) But an idiolect, I came to know, is not the opposite of ardor, just as articulacy need not be the graveyard of pleasure. The languages you begin to speak with more and more assurance and agility, and to make more completely your own: these, sometimes, are ardor’s vehicle. They can give coherence to the complex delight you feel in relation to certain objects, as well as a versatile, usable form, by which that delight can, in turn, be sustained, elaborated, enlarged.
That’s one way of thinking about what you’re doing in graduate school, whatever field you’re in: you are being trained to see the world in the grain of a spectacular, inexhaustible complexity. (Be warned: academic discourse prefers complexity in explanation even when – ethically, politically, affectively – simpler accounts may be the more appropriate or effectual.) You are enjoined to develop an analytic vocabulary that equips you, first, actually to see the world unfolding around as in fact possessed of a detailed, finely-textured intricacy, and second, to describe that intricacy, and why it matters, with clarity and precision and grace. And one can see why the acquisition of such languages might be described as an arduous, solitary, joy-dampening sort of work, made no less so, now, by the often frankly exploitative conditions that mediate that labor.
All that’s true. But it’s also true that these are languages you are learning to inhabit in concert with others. And this is the second, similarly great thing that happened to me in graduate school: I found that what one might cherish with a sustained, lifewide devotion was not only objects – books, passages, arguments, etc. – but the scenes that kindled around them, scenes forged in the heat and friction of contestation and knit together by, precisely, language, the languages we were just then learning to inhabit. The almost inevitably collaborative quality of graduate life matters greatly – or it did to me – since talking about why you love what you love with other passionately interested parties, or why you find one idea generative and another hackneyed, or one book’s political intervention clearly the superior of another, does more than give you improvised training in the use of critical languages you’ll need later, in whatever kind of “professional” life you find for yourself. Making a language together is after all another way of describing what it is that happens, not only when you’re enduring the often attritional sociability of institutional life, but when you fall in love, with friends, with lovers, with entire scenes. We all know how this happens: in your besotted ardor, you invent together a baroque terminology that carries within it your styles of apprehension, your delights and your disdains, the whole fabric of the scene that, by speaking this language back and forth over years and refining and reworking and reanimate it, you and those you love elaborate into being.
In this way, if you’re lucky, the trade-languages of your discipline can get interfused with the heated, ambulatory, extravagant kinds of talk by which the intimate worlds you assemble in these years are sustained, worlds that are marked by frustration and fear, without question – it is graduate school – but also by great quantities of intellectual exhilaration, and hilarity, and care. Eventually, of course, years, and the demands of varying modes of life, will have their dispersive effects. But one of the things you may find you’re left with in the aftermath of all that upheaval and displacement, along with your questionably-valuable degree, is just that mixed and variegated language, that winning idiolect. Continuing to trade versions of it back and forth across windening distances, you may find, is one of the ways the best, most energizing aspects of those worlds can be nurtured, transformed, extended into unforeseen futures.
And then, one day, you encounter something that is outsized and terrible, that devours ardor at the root, and will not be dislodged by even the most venerated of the objects that have for so long nourished you. Language itself, no matter how conceptually rich or steeped in the history of your dearest affections, will seem like the thinnest and most friable of scrims between you and horror. And I promise you, though you may not recognize it at the time, the voices of the people calling you back to a scene of language-making you once inhabited, and back to a self trained in patient discriminations and in the wringing of clarities from messy indistinction – they won’t cure you, these voices, alas. But they will act as a testament and a reminder. You will need both.
This is essay is forthcoming in the book Should I Go to Grad School? edited by Platform for Pedagogy.
Pete Coviello: The best barfighter around.