Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: The Perks of Saying Yes in Grad School

A few months ago, a mentor offered me the chance to speak with three established scholars about Bob Dylan’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature at a small gathering in New York. Instantly, my stomach began to turn. Beyond basic pop culture exposure (hello, “Soy Bomb”), I didn’t know much about Dylan. I don’t study the great American songbook, lyric poetry, or contemporary artists. There was too much room for error and there were too many gaps in my knowledge. It felt like a no in my bones.

Instead, I said yes. After stalling for a few days, I came clean about my reservations with my mentor and asked for his guidance to make the right decision. He told me that in his experience there are two types of academics, “the ones who say, ‘I don't know, I don't think I can do that...’ and the ones who say, ‘Sure, why not, let's give it a try.’ I have many friends who are the former, but the ones who are most successful are the latter.” After that email, I had no choice but to put my nerves on hold. 

My initial anxieties were just that. During the talk, it became clear that the audience members, many of whom were scholars, weren’t Dylan experts (just like me). These were members of The New York Society for General Semantics, people who get together over wine and cheese every so often to discuss and learn more about the contingency and formation of meaning, symbols, and knowledge. Dylan fans, seasoned academic professionals, and a smattering of undergraduate and graduate students filled around 25-30 seats. I invited my father, who dutifully sat in the front row. I realized that my role was to give this diverse group something to riff off of—throw out some new notes that might harmonize with their own memories and knowledge of Dylan and literature. 

Dylan’s win, and his initial silence after the announcement, had created definitive buzz, especially since he is the first American songwriter to take the prize (which includes $900,000). The New York Times said that the selection “redefin[ed] the boundaries of literature,” while others sounded off angrily on Twitter. There was plenty of debate already circulating for music lovers and literary scholars alike, so, to prepare for the evening, I reflected on the questions provided on the event flyer and decided which one’s I could speak to confidently. 

I started with “What is the literary value of Dylan’s lyrics?” and drew on my knowledge of the history of literary criticism to give an overview of different ways that artists and critics have determined what makes poetry worthwhile. After a few weeks of listening to Dylan during my commute, I picked out what I felt were his most compelling and challenging lines. To answer the question “What is the meaning and significance of the Nobel Prize?” I thought back to conversations in my survey courses regarding the politics of canonization and reviewed trends in the Nobel’s literature award, briefly scanning past selections. I came up with some reasons why I thought Dylan deserved it, but also reflected on the fact that most of my generation would be more familiar with the Beatles rather than Dylan’s songbook.

I was honest with myself about my limited knowledge, which pushed me to uncover interesting research finds and make connections between Dylan and all of the things I do know about literature and literary criticism. Being honest with my audience about my “outsider” perspective made the environment more welcoming and inclusive. No one batted an eye when I flubbed the title of Dylan’s ode to Johanna or read from a prepared cheat sheet of lyrics. They didn’t care if all the notes were right, only that there was talk about music filling the room. I kept my preparation time under control, and in the end, I had fun. That night reinvigorated my enthusiasm and appreciation for what I do every day, largely because so many people appreciated my willingness to join in a conversation with them. I also have a wider net of contacts in a supportive intellectual community that I can reach out to.

Saying yes when it seemed easier to say no reminded me that the life of the mind is not just about finding a niche, but also building communities of learning. The more I insulate myself from opportunities because they don’t align specifically with my research, the farther away I’ll be from the most rewarding part of my chosen career. These realizations extend to my approach to the job market as well. When search committees request an immense repertoire of specialties, it’s easy to assume that my lack of expertise in one or more areas will disqualify me from consideration. (Generally, men are more likely to apply for these kinds of job listings, whereas women tend to balk, not wanting to appear unprepared.) As a hiring committee chair at a small liberal arts college recently shared with me, committees know that candidates can’t always tick all the boxes: they want to see that you’re willing to extend yourself and your research interests to fit their needs. They want to know that you’re willing to say, “Sure, why not, let’s give it a try.”

Graduate students (and particularly women) have been taught a repertoire of maxims to live by so that they can navigate a long and often arduous road to degree: Practice self-care; you can’t always say yes; know your limits. From completing a dissertation, to teaching our students, to braving the job market, and caring for our friends and families, we are also taking on additional tasks that can complicate an already overburdened schedule, often without compensation or the promise of professional rewards attached. We are, for example, writing recommendation letters, volunteering for committees and organizations, attending students’ games and concerts, dropping by department functions, applying to grants and conferences, and trying (repeatedly) to get published. If dissertation writing is the healthy regimen we are supposed to be sticking to, graduate school is an all-you-can-eat buffet of distraction. Learning to say no is important, and it can save you hours, semesters, and even years of putting your research on the back burner.

In the past, I wouldn’t think twice about saying no to things that didn’t align with my current research project or specialization. It turns out that impostor syndrome is an effective way to free up our schedules, but doubting our own potential can also keep us from opportunities that stand to benefit and invigorate us more than the things we end up saying yes to with ease. 

For the sake of my sanity, my dissertation, and my students, I will, of course, continue to say no. But for the sake of my outlook on academia and my career, I have a new perspective on when and why to say yes. 

Callie Gallo is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University. She worked in broadcast television for a number of years, and is much happier now just watching TV from the comfort of her couch. Her research focuses on new technologies and gender in nineteenth-century American literature, more specifically looking at how people talk about bodies at work in modern industries and economies. She is thinking about taking up karaoke again as a means of coping with the state of the universe and loves a good DIY project.

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