Things I Miss about Grad School

Grad school wasn’t merely a place for me to foster bad habits. There were parts of it I enjoyed at the time, and parts of it that I still miss. These aren’t the only ones, but they’re the ones I’m thinking about as the last few people head back to school for the year.

Lame Academic Jokes

I still make them, mind you, but mostly in my head. One of the perks (and consequences) of hanging out with people who are deeply immersed in a subject is that you share a deep and ridiculous well of obscure information. I mean, fauxbourdon. It’s a thing, an actual thing (and it’s kind of cool, and I could explain why, but—okay, okay…). There are counterpoint jokes. The critical theory jokes get even better.

All of them, though, are stuff and nonsense to those people who lack your esoteric knowledge. I’m prone to making over-referential jokes anyway (the kind that are only funny if you know Shakespeare and early 90s white-washed hip-hop). I got away with a lot more of them when I was in grad school.

University Libraries

I love libraries. I really like the public library in the town where I now live. It’s just not the same as a university library. It’s especially not the same as a subject-area library. I spent a lot of hours in the music library working, listening, stumbling across oddities in foreign languages. To be a graduate student in the humanities is to love books (and sometimes to hate them). It is to spend most of your waking hours with an open book in easy reach, and usually with a dozen more close by.

It’s also recall fights and discovering faculty overrides are keeping you from getting the one source you need to write the paper that’s due in 36 hours. (Related: the fun of asking every grad student and faculty member in your department if they recalled the book/if they have the book already.) I miss those, too, but only a little.

Friday Afternoon Happy Hour

Many of the classes at my doctoral institution were set up with two 90-minute lectures (taught by the professor) combined with a 45-minute “breakout session” of 20-25 students. TAs ran those sessions, which were invariably on Fridays. Some of us had back to back sections, others had gaps, an unlucky few had sessions that ran well into the afternoon. By and large, though, most of us were done with teaching by 3. (On the musicology side, most of us were done by noon.) We’d futz around with research or library errands we’d put off or hang out in the office watching cat videos. (Life of the mind, y’all!) By 3:30 or 4, though, we’d hit a critical mass of “done” and walk over to one of the bars just off the West Bank campus.

The particular bar changed over the years, but that didn’t matter much because there were plenty to choose from. We adopted the ones that had the best beer lists. (Those got pretty good as the years passed.) It was best in the spring, when we could sit outside. There is nothing like sitting outside with your friends on a sunny May afternoon after a long day of teaching. We’d spent the week working, and we’d spend the weekend working too—that’s how grad school goes. That hour or two on Friday afternoons became the weekend, an island of mellow amidst the riptides and chop of the grad school grind. I haven’t found anything quite like it.


Books and the Magic of the Unknown

Sometimes the real is magical. A few days before I moved away from Minneapolis, I was walking to the grocery store and stopped at the elementary school playground for a few minutes. A hawk landed on the playground equipment about 12 meters from the bench where  I sat. Then it moved to the top of the swing set, less than 5 meters away. It perched there, preened, and flew off after five minutes or so. This was inner city Minneapolis, a quarter mile from I-35. The moment was an unexpected treasure.

Sometimes it feels like magic is about to be real: the moments you think you’re about to step into Narnia, or fall down a rabbit hole. And sometimes, incredibly, it’s not just a bit of borrowed imaginary scenery. When I was 18, I went to Hay-on-Wye, a town near the Welsh border with England. Hay-on-Wye is the National Book Town of Wales, a small town of about 2,000 with a disproportionate number of used book stores. There might not be as many as there used to be, but at the time it seemed like half the shops in town sold used books. I went into several, but one sticks in my memory. The shopkeep, with all the earnest theatricality of a circus ringmaster, greeted me with “Welcome to Wonderland.” It felt like Wonderland. Looking back rationally, it was just a big, untidy used book shop. The feeling, though…I felt like I had taken that step into Narnia or Wonderland. I didn’t know what I’d find on the shelves, or how far back they went, or if I’d ever need to leave. It felt like a Neil Gaiman story before I’d ever read any of his stories.

Books have that magic, especially when many of them are collected in one place, waiting to be discovered. Going through grad school in the humanities means spending long hours in libraries. It means having an opinion on Dewey versus Library of Congress. It means stumbling into interesting sources (whether or not they’re relevant). It meant, for me, getting to do research at the New York Public Library on 42nd with the lions out front…even if that research involved sitting at a microfilm reader for hurried hours. Libraries were as close as grad school got me to my high school essay about being a wizard when I grew up.

The magic comes from the unknown. That’s a hell of a lot harder to replicate on-line, where you can search for exactly what you need and not find anything else. Access to the digital archive of the New York Times was a godsend for my dissertation. I was able to pull just what I needed and not have to spend time with microfilm. Despite the extra work involved, though, I had a lot more fun looking through the entire 1970s run of the Village Voice on microform. I learned pretty quickly that music reviews were in the mid-50s of each issue. The stuff I found on the way was interesting, though, including coverage of the May 1977 theatrical release of this little movie called Star Wars:

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music.

Print ad for the original release of Star Wars, stumbled upon while looking for material on avant-garde music. (I think this one is actually from the NYT on a day I was looking at microfilm. Microfilm scanning still leaves a lot to be desired.)

None of the magic kept my eyes from turning an exhausted red by the ends of my Saturdays in the library basement, but the potential of something cool, dissertation-related or not, helped keep me going. When we make up stories, we’re engaging in that same kind of quest. I’ve heard Steven Brust, for example, aver in varied fashion that he writes “to see what happens next.” We read books to see what happens next, too. When writers suck us in, the next page’s unknown can be as magical as a hawk on an inner city playground. Books do that individually or aggregated into a library.

There’s always the chance for magic. Theatrical booksellers aside, that’s what was magical about Hay-on-Wye. It was undiscovered country. It was full of undiscovered countries. They lurked behind every cover.