April 30, 2012

Super-American Narratives that Creep Into My Head Without Me Even Noticing

This is going to be a rambling one, kids. Hold on to your seats.

Next year I'll be applying for graduate schools. I say this like it's an obvious thing - in fact, my Sociology professors here talk to the fourth years about graduate school constantly, and are surprised by any who aren't seeking further education and going straight into a job, so taken for granted as necessary is it - but in fact that's going to be a huge undertaking, both for life-reasons and for finance-reasons. And while I've been here, I've decided that a semester of living in Europe isn't nearly enough, so some of the schools I'm planning on applying to are here on this side of the ocean.

In the States, graduate school is a Big Deal. You're committing to years of debt and possibly soul-crushing work-study jobs and all sorts of competitive pressure. I think of it it sort of defiantly - I will sell my soul to student loan companies and shit jobs because this is something I really want, and it WILL pay off in the end, even though it's a liberal arts degree and I probably should have studied engineering or something. In Europe, I gather that it's not quite the same; the idea seems to be (in theory, though less and less often in practice) that if you want to go to graduate school, you ought to have some institutional support doing it, in the form of capped or free tuition, special terms for loans, benefits and discounts as a student, etc. (This is why, even as an international students, it will be cheaper for me to study in Europe than in the States, though possibly more complicated thanks to the mess that is acquiring a visa.)

But when I look into graduate school in Europe, I'm really not thinking in terms of benefits and rights I would be entitled to as a student or the idea that more education is a good thing for non-individualistic reasons, so I haven't looked into that at all. I'm thinking of it like this: "Well, I'll work really hard and get a bunch of jobs over the summer (never mind that the economy is shit and I'm also hoping to work an unpaid internship that would require significant time spent commuting) to save up the money. And then I'll take extra classes on my own time while writing my thesis to give me a leg up in scholarship applications, and surely they have to give me one, because I worked so hard for it, and on the steam of my own enthusiasm I will propel myself across the Atlantic."

Something like that.

So about this hard work thing, wherein I pull myself up by my bootstraps.

I don't consider myself very bright. Now, everyone who reads this and knows me will roll their eyes and possibly get annoyed; I'm in honor societies, I publish papers, I'm a good test taker so I do well on exams. But I don't think of myself as a particularly clever person. I'm a slow reader, and a slow writer, and a slow thinker - Papers that my classmates can knock out in a few hours take me a week, and if I fall behind on class reading I usually have to take a whole day catching up, because it takes me ages to get my head around the ideas. If we're talking about a new idea in class, I rarely speak up, because by the time I've worked out what's confusing me we've moved on to a new subject or the class is over.

None of this means I'm not clever, it just means I have a long processing time or a different learning style than other people I know. But in my own little narrative about myself, I have turned it into a very American bootstraps story. "I'm not particularly smart or talented, but I work hard and that's why I do well." (It's extra funny because in high school I didn't work hard at ALL - taking time to do shit is a recent development.)

Which, now that I've been noticing it, is a very privileged way to look at it. It implies that my particular learning style that I've developed in college is somehow special because I tend to spend a lot of time reading/writing/thinking, and if everyone else just put in the same kind of effort they would all do as well. But of course everyone else can't put in the same kind of effort. They have different educational backgrounds, different styles of doing things, different obligations which prevent them from spending a day highlighting anthropology papers or thinking through confusing lectures. And hell, maybe they got the lecture or the paper right away - that doesn't mean they're not working hard. And if we're going to talk about intelligence, saying "no, I'm not clever, I just work hard" denies all the advantages I've had because of good teachers, family that encouraged learning, and maybe some dumb luck in the personality traits roulette.

Saying "Well, I'll work hard and then I'll get into graduate school" is falling into that same kind of privileged little story - I ought to get jobs and scholarships and grants because even though I'm not particularly exceptional I put forth the most effort. But of course there will be other people who will be clever and hardworking and deserve the chance to go to graduate school; if I succeed, it'll be in a large part because I'm coming from a lucky starting point.

I think the way my professors talk about graduate school here - where they earnestly think that everyone who wants to have a go at graduate school ought to have support from the government and the university to do it - is quite a different story. But I feel guilty thinking about it in that way, because to American sensibilities it sounds non-competitive and therefore lazy.

Weird, huh?

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