Friday, 30 September 2011

Getting through the first Year of Grad School: For Philosopher-Partners

[Note: Before I begin, I think it’s fair to warn you that I just realized that I’ve been wearing my jacket inside-out all morning, so before you take anything I say seriously, remember that you are putting your faith in a person who can’t even dress properly].

Sometimes philosophers decide to attend graduate school in philosophy. Grad school in any subject can be difficult, but grad school in philosophy has the potential to be Hades—for you and for your philosopher. This post will be particular to those of you who are partners of new graduate students.

Granted, some former grad students have expressed to me how much fun they had in grad school or about how much current grad students complain about how hard it is when it is, in fact, easy-peasy. For most of you who claim this, I’m going to file your claim under “selective memory” [and I actually romanticize my high school marching band camp experiences], and for the few that had an easy time in grad school: kudos to you.

I’m going to say it again: grad school has the potential be Hades—for you and for your philosopher.

I think I’ve talked before about how hard grad school is for philosophers, and I’ve even given you tips on how to help them through the hard parts like the paper-writing season. For once, though, I’m going to address this post to you partners of philosophers. This is about doing something for you—not just your philosopher.

My philosopher and I have been down this grad school road a few years (two unmarried; three-ish married), so I feel like I’m finally getting the rhythm of things. I know that on certain days of the week I just won’t be able to have a conversation that moves beyond routine conversations (“Sweetie, you need to stop staring at your socks and get dressed so you don’t miss the bus”). I know that certain days will find him in despair, hunched over the computer for hours while he prepares for a presentation. I know about what time of the year to expect him to come home with bags of books and printed articles and start piling them around his desk.

The first year of grad school is the hardest, I think. Your philosopher will be excited about her/his studies, meeting new students, and taking classes with super-smart professors. Your philosopher will also be scared to death for several reasons:

(1) They might look stupid in front of their peers
(2) They might look stupid in front of their super-smart professors
(3) They might not get good grades on their papers
(4) They might fail out of grad school

The first year of grad school can also be hard on you for the following reasons:

(1) Your philosopher might be constantly worried about any of the reasons listed above, so you might find yourself doing a lot of reassuring
(2) You will probably find yourself doing a lot of things on your own
(3) You probably moved to a new area [we moved across the country] where you won’t have any friends or family members
(4) The added stress from the new grad school experiences will probably put stress on your relationship

So how can you survive this first year that your philosopher is in grad school without divorce/breaking-up/maiming/gaining 50 pounds? Here are some methods I’ve picked up and/or observed that seem to really help.

1. Make your own friends

Duh, Katie. No really; this is important. Your philosopher will be busy—seemingly all the time—and you will feel left out and lonely if you don’t make your own friends. Get out there in the community and join some groups (I joined an awesome knitting group). You will find that many grad student partners (from all sorts of disciplines) end up joining similar groups. I learned after a very lonely first semester without trying to make any friends that I was just hurting myself.

2. Consider getting a job

You may have already considered this when you first looked at the small stipend amount your philosopher would receive every nine months [“We moved to Texas for this!?!”]. If not, consider getting a job—even if it’s only part time—for your mental health. Seriously. Not only will this give you a chance to interact with “normal” people, but you need to feel like you’re also an important person making important contributions in this relationship. It is very easy to find yourself feeling marginalized because the work that your philosopher is doing is so important to the field of philosophy.

3. Take classes/Go to grad school yourself

Hey, why not? Why should your philosopher get all the fun? You’re going to be materially poor anyway, so why not take advantage of this time in your lives to both be poor together, but rich in knowledge (and great conversations!)?

4. Get involved in the community

My first thought when we moved here for grad school was, “We’re only going to be here a few years, so why should I care about the community?” Yes, you are likely only going to be in a place for a few years, but getting involved in a community is a rewarding experience. Volunteering or involvement in community organizations will help you feel a sense of place that you might be missing and/or give you a different group of friends/acquaintances that you would not have met otherwise. Being an academic or in an academic relationship can feel very transient. Academics tend to move around and travel a lot. It’s very helpful, I think, to develop connections with a community, even if you’ll only be there for a short time.

5. Be willing and prepared to have difficult conversations

Your philosopher will be stressed and busy and will tend to (not always) let her/his philosophy stuff take over her/his life and become more important than you. Grad school becomes for them rather like a new baby becomes to a new mother: time-consuming, demanding, and the most precious thing in the world. You must remember that you are also an important person in this relationship. Be prepared to address any feelings you have of being unimportant in your philosopher’s life. Tell your philosopher that you want to spend time with them apart from philosophy. Remind them that you want them to succeed and grow as super-philosophers, but that you feel ignored or pushed aside for the new philosophy-baby. Help your philosopher work out times in the week when they spend time only with you (no philosophy!!).

[Note: It’s best when having difficult conversations not to attack philosophy or attack your philosopher, even if you’re upset. You are upset because you feel a certain way, not because philosophy is stupid—though stupid things have certainly been done in the name of philosophy].

I’ve had academic-partner-friends who just sit on their feelings and things go very badly for them. Relationships can be ruined if you don’t address negative feelings.

“Ok, Dr. Laura, so what do you do if your philosopher won’t listen?”

Bake cookies. Eat them all by yourself. Hide all of you philosopher’s books and claim innocence when asked.

Seriously, some philosophers (like any other group of people) are jerks and won’t listen. I don’t really know what to do with those sorts of people other than reacting negatively, especially to the patronizing ones.

6. Eat lots of chocolate

Or other indulgences. Really, it will help you feel better. Plus side: your philosopher will be too busy to notice that you ate half of the cookies in one sitting. Negative: weight gain. Take up running.

After you learn how to cope with these harder things, you’ll find yourself really enjoying the time that you do have with your philosopher while she/he is in graduate school. It’s especially fun, I think, to watch philosophers (yours and others) come into a department so scared and unsure of themselves and leave as more confident, serious people who just love philosophy.

~The Philosiologist

You can follow me on twitter (@Philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), add me on Google+ (Philosiologist Qed), or send me an email (left sidebar). I’m going to be working at another philosophy conference for a bit this weekend, so hopefully there will be more inspirational fun for blog posts. Really, you non-philosophers should attend at least one philosophy conference.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Meet the Parents: Introducing Your Philosopher to the Non-Philosophers in Your Life

Unless you have no friendships and/or biological connections with other people (it happens), there will come a point where you will find yourself in a place where you will have to introduce friends or family members to your philosopher. As with any other non-philosopher, the meeting (s) could go pretty well or terribly.

With philosophers, you have the added “bonus” of nervousness making them do things like attack (verbally) or appear super-arrogant. It’s not like they try to screw up all of your relationships with your friends and/or family; they sometimes just get out of control when they’re nervous.

It’s important to remember through the meeting process that your philosopher is not a monster: your philosopher is nervous and needs a little bit of direction and intervention to help the meeting(s) go smoothly.  

Here are some things to look out for in friend/family meetings:

1. The Licking of Chops

It is likely that your friend and/or family member will say something that your philosopher really wants to challenge (i.e. “Politics is always stupid”). Even though your philosopher cares about you, your philosopher is likely to lose themselves in the moment. You will see that glint—you know, the one that says “You just tossed me an easy/fun/tasty morsel of an argument point to immediately challenge”—and you will see them itching to open their mouths and attack. If you do not intervene at this point, things will get either very awkward or very uncomfortable immediately.

2. Research Project Talk

Do not let your philosopher talk about their research projects. They will be tempted to do so because your friend/family member will probably ask them a question about it and it is very easy to slip into talk about one’s own projects. Because your philosopher is nervous, she/he is likely to talk way too long and in way too much depth for your unassuming friend/family member to understand. This will make your friend/family member feel stupid and will make it appear as if your philosopher was trying to make them feel this way.  Now, it is important to note that your philosopher may already have a spiel for explaining their projects to various groups of non-philosophers. [My philosopher has at least four distinct spiels].  It’s safe for your philosopher to give this [and it’s kind of fun to identify which spiel they might use in certain circumstances], but don’t let them add anything beyond the spiel.

3. Playing Philosophy Games

Some non-philosophers have no problem with playing a few philosophy games (e.g. games including shaving barbers, environmentally destructive CEOs, Chinese rooms, trolley cars, etc) . My family is actually really great about playing along. Some people, though, are really annoyed with philosophy games. Philosophy games make them feel stupid, which makes them feel like your philosopher is trying to make them feel stupid. It is best to discourage your philosopher from attempting philosophy games until  your friends/family are more comfortable with your philosopher and know that they are anything but arrogant (your philosophers are all little angels—like mine—I’m sure).

So, now that you know what to look out for, how do you carefully lead your philosopher in the peaceful and harmonious direction? Here are some methods that I have found super-effective:

1. Talk to your philosopher beforehand

Simple, right? No really, talk through the meeting(s) with your philosopher before your meeting(s). Remind your philosophers of what could happen if they are not on their guard. Warn them that you will be redirecting if necessary.

2. Make a list of safe topics

My philosopher and I will often brainstorm some safe things to talk to new people about. You can often suggest that your philosopher talk about a book that they are reading which relates to something else a friend/family member is interested in or a news story (beware of politics, though) or a non-philosophy interest.  If all else fails, offer to be the conversation-director.

3.  Interrupt and Redirect in Hazardous Waters

Really, you’re going to think I’m being rude and unkind here, but sometimes the best thing that you can do for your philosopher and/or the friend or family member is to interrupt the conversation and redirect it onto something else. You’ve seen your philosopher in philosophy-mode. Philosophers are often unaware at that moment that they way they are behaving could be interpreted as being unkind or rude to a non-philosopher. When your philosopher looks back at that conversation later, she/he will usually be very grateful that you saved them from the hazards (if they don’t see this and/or aren’t grateful, then your philosopher probably never sees when they are broaching being interpreted as rude or unkind. I’m sorry. There are philosophers like this out there).

Philosophers sometimes forget what it is like to be a non-philosopher. Hopefully, they will trust your judgment and wow your friends/family. Your friends/family will also hopefully reach the sort of level with your philosopher where she/he can play their little philosopher games and engage them in philosophical discussions without hurt feelings and alienation on all sides. And isn’t it cool that you get to be the emissary of philosophers everywhere by making the other non-philosophers in your life realize that philosophers are pretty great?

~The Philosiologist~

You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist), friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed), or add me to a circle on Google+ (Philosiologist). Feel free to email me with questions and/or comments, too. I try to answer emails in a decent amount of time, but sometimes (due to various elements, the largest one being my forgetfulness) I put off emailing for a while. Don’t’ be discouraged: I will get back to you!