The Academy

It’s September and I’m back to being a full-time graduate student, so posts/reviews will be intermittent (good thing I have a substantial backlog, because I’m not sure I’ll have the chance to read a book for “pleasure” until Christmas break. See you then, Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; and The Scarlet Letter.)

As for how I’m managing as a first-year (first-semester) PhD student? Barely. And yet, despite the no sleep and dense tomes on realist criticism, I still fervently want to be like the professors who are training me (someday. Fingers crossed.) In an attempt to make a little more sense of this experience—and, especially, of being a woman in academia—I recalled a piece in New York magazine published after that David Maraniss excerpt about Obama’s T.S.-Eliot-inspired youthful love letters was released in Vanity Fair. NYM‘s Daily Intel “began to wonder: What kind of grade would [Obama] have gotten for such T.S. Eliot analysis as ‘Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time’ and ‘Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance,’ a reading that was admittedly done without perusing the footnotes?” They ask two Columbia English professors, one male, one female. The results are as follows:

Male: “Considered as homework, I’d give the future President a B-minus. The reference to ‘an ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats’ (besides confusing that and which) sounds impressive, but it’s more than a little opaque. . . . The allusion is forced and the connection specious. You get this a lot when students try too hard. . . . Mr. Obama’s grade suffers still further with awful phrases such as ‘he accedes to maintaining a separation.’ Classic undergraduatese. . . . Again, [his further analysis is] Eliot 101 stuff, but he seems to have paid attention in class.”

Female: “President Obama shows himself to be a sensitive reader of Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land. . . . It is a poem of local brilliance and intensities, to which Obama responds with appropriate personal intensity. . . . I was surprised to find him admiring Eliot’s own conservatism. . . . I guess it shows the power of great poetry to have some sway in the real world. In sum, though I cannot grade such a short piece, I would praise it for its insights and sensitivity [and] would encourage the president to develop his ideas with close reading.”

So on the one hand, we’ve got: snarky, intellectual-er than thou, and doler of backhanded compliments. On the other: encouraging, unpretentious and seemingly invested in her students’ success—and in a “student” who isn’t even her student (and is also President of the United States). This, my friends, pretty much says it all.

Of course, I’m studying political science, so it’s different. But also kind of the same.

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