Grad students are the worst. I know this, because I was a grad student for many, many years. I spent enough years in post-secondary institutions to be a doctor. A real doctor. Not a PhD. So long in fact that I should be able to write prescriptions, but every time I go to a pharmacy with ‘20 x Vicodin’ written on a Post-It, I get arrested. Or detained, anyway. No convictions. My lawyer is aces. And most people hate lawyers, but not me. I hate grad students. Because grad students are the worst.
Grad students aren’t bad people, per se. Some of my closest friends are grad students. I know this, because my Facebook feed is filled with status updates about late nights writing essays on Northrop Frye, the merits of coffee mixed with Monster Energy Drinks, and the endless task of grading Composition papers. Hell, I was married to a grad student for much of the early part of 2008, and besides a still missing cat, a scar above my left eye, and bit of infidelity, it ended amicably. I imagine some grad students are good people, and have gone on to write really, really great SSHRC applications. And, in all seriousness, someone has to teach/date undergrads, right?
I can’t speak for all disciplines. I have no idea what History or Economics grad students are like, but I would assume that they are the worst. But in my many years as an English grad student, I came to loathe both myself and my classmates. Not as people, because many of them have lent me money, but rather as proponents of grad student speak and their tendency to surgically remove beauty and soul from literature. My MA years were filled with classmates making declarations of variations of the following statements:
- “Well, I hate to bring Foucault into the conversation so early, but…”
- “Pardox, paradox, derivative, pedagogy, pedagogical.”
- “So-and-so said this, which I am now also saying, but with slightly different adjectives, making it my own thought.”
I hated nearly every lit class I took as a grad student, not because of the subject matter (though it seemed tired), or the profs (though they seemed tired), but rather the general attitude of the discussions. The grad students thought as one, hated undergrads, and reduced all forms of literature to such a scientific and sterile level, that it was hard to believe that they actually liked books. I tried to loosen things up in the discussions, delivering papers with titles like “Joy Kogawa: An Insult to Trees” and “The Dude Blamed the Chick, I Heard the Chick Blamed the Snake, I Heard They Were Naked When They Got Busted, I Heard Things Ain’t Been the Same Since: Genesis in the Works of Leonard Cohen” but my wit was frowned upon. And that’s the other thing. Grad students are humourless, believing any literature with elements of humour is childish, beneath them, second rate. I even had one prof who would preface my contributions by stating: “Now remember, Mike’s not an academic,” which I took as a compliment, but was apparently a slight. Not from the prof, but rather my peers. Grad students are the worst.
I remember one particular incident with a Canadian Literature prof quite fondly. This merry gent believed that Canada ended at federation, and thought very little of my own writing and that of my peers (writer peers, not grad student peers. Grad students are the worst.) I was called into his office a few weeks after I had handed in an essay entitled “I Killed Thomas D’Arcy McGee: Getting Beyond the Suck in CanLit”. He asked me what I thought of my grade, to which I replied (honestly) that I had yet to check. He considered my aloof indifference to academia as he topped up his double-double with maple syrup that he had pulled from his desk drawer. “I gave you an A,” he told me, “but you’ll never be able to present that paper at a conference.” I tried to explain to him that I was in the creative writing stream, and that I had no plans to ever speak at or attend a conference, and so my grade was of no matter to me. He nearly choked on his Timbits, and I left before he could scold me further on my failures as a grad student.
And therein lies a bigger question: If grad students are the worst, and grad students become PhD students, and PhD students become profs, are profs then, by extension, the worst as well? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is no, with a but. And then, what can we say about creative writing profs, most of whom have just an MA or MFA. Does that make them grad students in perpetuity, and as such the worst in perpetuity? Fortunately, no, as from what I can gather, something happens to grad students during their PhDs or after publishing one or two poorly received novellas which makes them human again, because I liked most of my profs, except for those who I’m currently suing for defamation of character and owe me $2500. (If you’re reading this sir, I refer you to the above statement that my lawyer is aces.)
Is this just bitterness? a self-loathing that has evolved into something sad? Probably, but I’m an unsuccessful writer, and sad bitterness has been my bread-and-butter. All joking aside, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I came to believe that grad students were the worst. I was in the early stages of my MA, and spending a spring morning as I spend most spring mornings: drinking gin and Tropicana, and checking Facebook. An acquaintance had posted as their status that they had finally finished writing a good draft of their novel and that it was not genius, or beautiful, or a highlight of their young writing career, but rather that the work was “tenure worthy”. Tenure worthy. Like that was the benchmark, the goal, the dream.
I was so offended I couldn’t finish my gin and OJ. I spent the rest of the morning considering what had upset me so, and I began to realize that this was a problem not just with grad students, but with a lot of the writing had been exposed to at the time, both in school and out. It wasn’t written for joy, but rather it had been written for other grad students. It was thick with obscure literary references, humourless, and sterile. The writing had become academic. It seemed like I was too stupid for everything I was reading, and when I would mention this to my peers they would tell me that I just hadn’t been exposed to enough writing of the same ilk to understand it. They said as I read more during grad school, then I would come to appreciate the work that to me was boring, scientific, and soulless. Man, grad students are the worst.
So where did this all come from? Why, years removed from those classes and that writing, am I making note of how grad students are the worst? Well, this afternoon I was sampling bourbon with my 3-year-old niece and looking for freelancing gigs online. Craigslist was down, and so she opened up a Word doc, and started writing. She said she was writing a poem, and after a couple of minutes, she said that she was finished, and I asked her what the title was. “The Mobile to the Rescue” she declared without hesitation. Good title, I thought, and while I read it over, questioning her use of enjambment and alliteration, all I could think was that this was exactly like one of those experimental poems of yesteryear that I didn’t understand. I could clearly picture some pompous first-year MA student, with aspirations for the PhD program at Upper Iowa State at De Moines and an affection for progressive indie math-rock, telling me fifteen different theorists I needed to read before I would understand my niece’s efforts. “The poem exists in what isn’t written,” he would tell me. “Try and see what isn’t there. The absence is the poem.” “Have you never read the Latin translation of Eunoia backwards, using Žižek’s writings on metaphysics as a filter?” Grad students are the worst.
But my niece is the best. So, here is her first published poem, beating out both me and Bukowski by thirty years. An essay on its use of irregular grammar and punctuation in order to reflect the writer’s naïveté contrasted with a unified commentary on the theory of literary criticism to follow.
The Mobile to the Rescue
by Piper Jean Spry Weissenberger
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