The Zone of Proximal Discomfort
Someone is less than amused by the lack of content around here lately.
Last week, unfortunately, my workload basically took my good intentions with respect to MOOCMOOC and turned me into a lurker, and the past couple of days’ worth of orientation activities wiped out whatever rest and energy I’d managed to save up. Hooray, end of summer.
On Monday, we had our annual grad program orientation day. Considering that last year at this time I was having my gall bladder removed, I can say without a trace of irony that there are worse places to be.
Anyhow, one of the conversations we had was about program values–what does our program do well, and where might it be stronger–and the discussion followed fairly predictable lines. One point that I raised then is something I want to mention here. While I was directing our graduate program, I considered it my duty to advocate on behalf of the graduate students in every way I could. The basic ethos behind that hasn’t changed for me–I doubt there are too many graduate programs out there we could accuse of caring too much for their students, and it shouldn’t just be the job of the graduate director.
At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge the limits of what a graduate director, program, or faculty member can do with respect to graduate students. It’s hard to talk about this without feeling like you’re “shaming” specific people or like you’re advocating neglect. On Monday, the word that I ended up with was “discomfort,” in the sense that there is a certain amount of inevitable discomfort involved in graduate education which the program simply can’t address, and perhaps shouldn’t. I say this because, institutionally, the position of a graduate student isn’t an ideal one. Graduate school is an investment whose return won’t happen until later, and given the current climate, that return is less than guaranteed. Even if it were, though, the conditions under which our students learn and work are nowhere close to optimal, much less comfortable.
And I mean comfort in a variety of ways. Very few students enter their programs fully conversant with the issues, vocabulary, and texts they’ll need to succeed–discomfort should be a spur to catch up, as best as they can. After a couple of years, when perhaps they have caught up, they lose a lot of the structure provided by coursework–discomfort should be answered with a conscious ownership of work habits, organization, self-discipline. As they dissertate, there should be a certain amount of discomfort with the limitations of a process that asks 3-5 people to stand in for the whole discipline–there’s an inevitable awkwardness that comes from being (arguably) the most expert person in the room on one’s own topic but not having a vote on whether a dissertation is sufficient.
I know that “discomfort” may not be the best word in each of those circumstances, and I know well (as I sit here a year later still experiencing some of the aftereffects of major surgery, posting to a blog that went dead for 3 years as I struggled with grief and depression) that not all discomfort is simply a matter of “sucking it up.” There are important ways that we can design and structure our graduate programs such that they aren’t more difficult than they need to be. But there are also ways, sometimes, that we try to make them easier or more comfortable than perhaps they should be.
I’m struck by how difficult it is for me here to articulate the idea that graduate school is not easy. Maybe it’s a matter of sorting through all of the different factors, and understanding that some forms of discomfort (financial, e.g.) can and should be addressed, while others (intellectual, e.g.) should be preserved. If only it were that easy. The truth is that many of them are beyond our control (cost of living, e.g.), unfortunately invisible to us (interpersonal jackassery, e.g.), and/or institutionally mandated. It helps me a little to remember that graduate programs are greedy institutions, with a stake in naturalizing themselves, i.e., turning “the way we do things” into “the way things are.” In that light, discomfort might be something that keeps us from identifying wholeheartedly with a program, and understanding that it’s more of a stepping stone than a destination.