by Emily Shreve and Laura Fitzpatrick
At the beginning of March, Leonard Cassuto, author of The Graduate School Mess, graciously took some time out of his visit to sit down with us for a chat about his graduate school experiences, his thoughts on what grad students can do to fix the “graduate school” mess, and his best teaching and professionalization advice. Enjoy!
Emily Shreve & Laura Fitzpatrick: Tell us your favorite anecdote or story from your graduate school experience.
Leonard Cassuto: Favorite’s a funny word . . . I’ll tell you a story instead. Towards the end of my graduate school experience I was assisting one of my bosses in the expository writing program. She was doing a writing across the disciplines initiative, a workshop for a group of teaching fellows from different subjects. I was really glad to do this work. It was teacher training, something that was gratifying to me, and continues to be. My co-leader asked everyone to come up with the most memorable comment that a teacher had made on their writing. Before I go on, I want you to think how you’ll answer it.
ES: Split infinitives. LF: Too many adjectives.
LC: What just happened to you is what also happened to me: our memories are of negative comments. The same was true in the workshop. That isn’t just because criticism teaches; It’s also because criticism can get under your skin, so when it does, it had better be civil, because it’s going to stay there for a long time. If it’s uncivil, it’s going to wound. I don’t know that that’s my favorite story, but it’s a pretty memorable one because that ten-minute exercise taught me a lot about how to teach and comment on student papers.
ES: How do you strike the balance between giving the feedback that’s going to lead towards change and watching out for that wounding, uncivil comment?
LC: You have to criticize because criticism teaches, and it teaches in ways that praise doesn’t. So, how do you strike the balance? First, it’s important to remember that the audience who will read your comments is going to be a person. It isn’t going to be somebody who is reading you for pleasure, either—like somebody who decided to buy a magazine with your byline. It’s somebody you’re in a professional relationship with. When I’m writing comments to students, if something seems a little cute, then I try to think: what would it be like to be on the receiving end of this? I try to remember that the goal is to teach.
“Teaching is a circuit, it’s a relationship. If you’re not being heard, it doesn’t really matter what you say.”
I’ll tell you another story. When I was being trained to teach writing–this is a few years before the first story–one of the takeaway comments I got from that training is that, when you’re returning a paper to an undergraduate student, you should think of three things that you want to communicate to that student in your comment, because three is about all people can take in one sitting. If you include ten items instead of three, then one of two things will happen. One is that the student will be overwhelmed, never look at your response to her work, and get nothing from it. Or the student will absorb three things, but you won’t know which three. It could be your three least important items. So, less is more. If you’re thinking about your audience and progress is your goal, you’ll realize that you don’t want to overwhelm that audience.
A lot of this is about something that I think all good teachers know, which is that they realize that teaching is a circuit, it’s a relationship. If you’re not being heard, it doesn’t really matter what you say.
ES & LF: What is one book you picked up for graduate coursework that you thought you would have to suffer through that you ended up appreciating or maybe even loving?
LC: Hmmm . . . my graduate work was a long time ago, so I’m going to have to unspool this . . . I’m trying reconstruct the encounters I had with books when I was in grad school.
ES: At the heart of this question is the tension that grad students feel between specializing, getting really into your area, and also being open, having that sort of curiosity where you can come across new things that you never knew would interest you. There is a lot of pressure to start specializing early on, so that you can start publishing, so you can get going, but that sometimes blinds you to other interesting things.
LC: Well, the program that I went to was in the process of shaking off its reputation as old-fashioned during my years, but it wasn’t quite there yet. Old-fashioned in this case steered away from hyper-specialization. So for my oral exam, my major field was American literature–I think that that’s no surprise to you–but it wasn’t 19th or 20th century, it was all of American literature. For my minor fields, I had to prepare all of British literature. That was the philosophy of the program. If you were going to be an English professor, you had to know everything. So my preparation for my orals was a mile wide and an inch deep. I reckon I’m still that way.
So, I find the answer to your question outside my coursework. I thought I was going to have to suffer through the 18th century essayists, but I liked them. I discovered them when I was reading them for the written MA exam I had to take in the literature of the long 18th century. All of English literature was divided into four fields: medieval, early modern (then called Renaissance), the long 18th century, and 19th century/modern. Those four covered all of British literature and American, as I said, was its own fifth category. I had to take master’s exams in four out of those five fields. Then a year later was the oral and I had to prepare all five.
ES & LF: The main audience for your book seems to be faculty and administrators in charge of graduate programs, more so than grad students in particular. But it led us to thinking: what role do you think graduate students have in changing the form and culture of graduate education, if at all?
LC: You’re right about the audience. There’s a reason that I wrote The Graduate School Mess the way I did, and the most important of those reasons is–and I said this in the introduction—that there are a lot of people out there trying to talk to graduate students (including other graduate students) about what graduate school should be like, and how to get through it. There’s a whole shelf of books on how to complete your dissertation, for example. (The implication of those books being that your adviser isn’t helping you to start with.)
But if there is trouble with graduate school–and of course there is–then I started wondering why is nobody actually talking to the faculty about it. There is a huge and growing critical conversation about how to teach undergraduates, but there is a very sparse literature on how to teach graduate students. One of the reasons graduate school is in trouble is that nobody is talking to the people that actually teach it about how to do their jobs better. And so that’s the reason the first ‘we’ of the book is the people who run graduate programs from the bottom up.
“It’s been my experience traveling around the country that graduate students want very badly for their education to correspond in concrete ways to the reality that waits for them outside. And what graduate students can do is remind faculty of that fact, and also show them ways that they might move toward this goal.”
But there is also a way that students are responsible for themselves, so now I’m finally going to answer your question. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own lives. Graduate school is professional school, and people need to run their own professional lives. I’m calling on faculty to take more responsibility for the guidance they provide, but that doesn’t take students out of their own driver’s seat. One of the lines in the book that I repeat a lot is ‘you are the CEO of your own graduate education.’ By owning the CEO position, graduate students can help faculty, as well as vice versa, to do the things that need doing. It’s been my experience traveling around the country that graduate students want very badly for their education to correspond in concrete ways to the reality that waits for them outside. And what graduate students can do is remind faculty of that fact, and also show them ways that they might move toward this goal. The view from the faculty perch is different, and in some ways valuably different, from the student perch. There ought to be collaboration, and what graduate students can do is promote that collaboration. I’m telling faculty the same thing, but, you know, it takes two to make the dance.
ES: As you said before, we are the CEOs of our experience, but CEOs always need consultants, too. It’s not necessarily automatic in our department anymore that you are going to be a professor. This is really exciting: this means you could be so many other things, but this also means you could prepare to follow so many different paths. What’s really important to many students in our department is discussing how to make sustainable decisions for ourselves. How can we acknowledge the multiplicity of possibilities while also recognizing limits of time and energy?
LC: The question you just asked is one you could hear from any professional in any field in the world. So it’s a professional question, not a graduate school question. So how does it translate into the context of graduate school? Grad school is, as we were saying before, both an internship and a job, a time of being a student and also of being a young worker in a workplace? Here I’ll invoke the CEO metaphor again. You’re right that a CEO needs advisers. In real life, the CEO has a board. The CEO guides the company, but with counsel from the corporate board. What the graduate student in this case needs is a board (including a dissertation committee, graduate director, and other faculty) that is flexible, understanding, and sympathetic. The board needs to appreciate the situation of the graduate student. Now we come back to where you started [Editor’s note: this came up in the lunch discussion with graduate students], with ‘more or or.’ Because if the board is understands the lives of graduate students, then they understand that time to degree is an issue, and that therefore, in charting the course forward for the graduate student/CEO, it’s important to make a plan that’s practical and efficient as well as fruitful and substantial.
“I hate the phrase ‘real world.’ There’s nothing unreal about graduate school (or any other school). Moreover, you can live in an unreal world wherever you are. If you don’t look outside of yourself, and don’t try to place your own ideas and inspirations into reality, then you’re living in an unreal world. It is every bit as possible to do that in graduate school as outside of it.”
ES: There seems to be so much fear, that if I don’t take x position or opportunity then there’s that one job somewhere that is looking for someone with that experience for which I’ve now knocked myself out of contention.
LC: Well, of course you can’t do everything, and this is where the practical issue comes in. If you’re being practical, then you need to ask yourself as a graduate student, at periodic and reasonably frequent, regular intervals: okay, what are the goals at this moment? And then, what are the best choices on the basis of those goals in ranked priority order? All of this comes with the understanding that neither a graduate student nor any professional can do everything. It’s important to organize yourself to do the things that are most important, that will maximize your chances to get what you decide you want. Choices always need to be subordinated to goals, otherwise they take place in an information vacuum, with little bits of intuition flying about like dust motes.
I want to add as well: Let’s say you have a goal. Maybe you decided as a child to visit all 50 states. So you persuade your parents to go roadtripping all the time, and now you’re a graduate student and you’ve got 38 states under your belt. It may have nothing to do with your professional pursuits to get to those last twelve, but if it’s important to you, it can be one of your goals to devote time to it because it gives you personal pleasure and satisfaction in life. You don’t have to answer anybody about it because people have to choose their own course–and that course doesn’t always have to translate into professional values.
ES: Goals as a pursuit of pleasure and self-satisfaction.
LC: Your career is what you do. It’s not what people say you’re doing. People can look at you and not know that you care very much about eating in a diner in all 50 states, but if it matters to you and it gives you pleasure, then that’s great.
ES & LF: Finally, we have a two part question. What is your advice for someone starting out in graduate school and what’s your advice for someone who is looking to the end of the degree program?
LC: The pithy way to put this would be: always keep your eyes open. I’m going to segue from that into the real world. I’ve told many students that I hate the phrase, “real world.” There’s nothing unreal about graduate school (or any other school). Moreover, you can live in an unreal world wherever you are. If you don’t look outside of yourself, and don’t try to place your own ideas and inspirations into reality, then you’re living in an unreal world. It is every bit as possible to do that in graduate school as outside of it. So, the way that I would expand on where I began this answer—to keep eyes open–is that my advice to grad students is always live in the real world.
To hear more of Leonard Cassuto’s perspective on and advice concerning graduate education, check out his book and his website, follow him on twitter, or read “The Graduate Adviser,” his column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.