Slow Scholarship and Building Community to Thrive in Graduate School

When I first started at Tech, for my PhD and after my masters, I wasn’t thinking about friends or colleagues. I was so focused on starting my new program and succeeding at what I came for. I had some “townie” friends still around, which were wonderful in reminding me to stop what I was doing work-wise and be present in having a social life. Different groups of friends—some near, some far are important as is family in whatever way we define that. But finding and giving support to one another as graduate students and as professionals is also important. This can be a challenge as people move in and out of town—the transient nature of a college town and this stage of our lives.
The further I get into graduate school, especially following a long break in my hometown without most people around, I have been thinking more and more about community. Though, it must have been on my mind for longer than I realize, because I spoke about it a lot with Cathy Grimes as we talked when she was writing the story about the Academy of GTA Excellence. Dean DePauw has been writing about challenging us all for thriving in graduate school rather than just surviving. Part of what she discusses is the community that the Graduate School can bring for students. Between reading Dean DePauw’s blog post, some of the books for pleasure I read over break, and even the readings we have already had in my Feminist Methods course this semester, I really think we all need community to thrive in graduate school and beyond as we enter into our career in academia or industry.
We live in a neoliberal society, and our universities are no different. Everything is about making money, being the best, being competitive—between each other and between institutions. We are all about being elite. We are about pride and self-promotion. We are all about output, rewards, maximizing our utility, impressing the world, and building up our CVs (Brooks, 2015). We like to compare ourselves to others, though we are especially good at comparing ourselves through others’ highlight reels that they choose to tell us about in person or through social media. I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a bad habit of looking at people’s CVs when they are public to compare myself to them. Especially newly hired assistant professors, so I have some idea of what I need to do to get a job once I am finished at Tech.
With the world of academia constantly shifting and those who are young and still entering into long-term academic employment, we are forced to be publicists for ourselves—yes, advocate for ourselves, but also promote ourselves via websites, blogs, cultivating our online presence. We are supposed to be known—but only for positive things and our academic work. So, when we are trying to be our best selves, which for many of us include trying not to be too prideful and to be humble, being forced into this public self-promotion is a challenge. Even as I write this, I am aware that it is a form of self-promotion. Yet, the part that I like about blogging and posting when I write to multiple places, is it helps to bridge some of the gaps of different colleges and institutions, where I can then begin conversations with people from multiple locations around the country and even the world. It is a way to build a community and network in a digital space, that then can bring community in a physical space. It allows people to broach conversations with you that they may not normally do so. It allows you to process through what is running through your head, as I am doing now.
Mountz et al. (2015) wrote about slowing down our work and our scholarship. That we should challenge the status quo of the academy. This can be in part by not competing with each other. We don’t need to be all about the quantitative areas of our life and work—a counting culture. We do not need to force self-surveillance and self-auditing. I think this includes not touting how many hours we worked that week. I fully admit that I am a workaholic and yes, I know how many hours I work on average, but that has more to do with knowing how many hours I need to be busy so that I am not bored and thus, grumpy.
We live in a society that focuses on and touts busyness. We like to tell each other how busy we are and often in frantic ways. It is nice and better when we get the chance to stop and spend time together, even if it is time to stop and spend time together working. It can be more important about slowing down or stopping to take the time to listen, converse, engage with each other. In this time to slow down we build community, we allow for creativity. We allow time to process everything that is going on. You never know what sort of connections you might make—personally and in your work. Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said that people should make mistakes slowly, as it was better to proceed to a decision gradually rather than rush into anything before its time. That life organized around self-restraint rather than self-expression (Brooks, 2015).
Some people take writing retreats—especially if a group is working on a project together and are at different institutions. But I don’t know that it has to be as big as taking a weekend or week to go somewhere to work together that can help build community, slowing down scholarship, etc. It can be as simple as sitting in a coffee shop working together at a table on your own thing in silent solidarity. It can be getting together with those who are in your program at someone’s home to chat, catch up, and eat goodies, and drink for those who do so. Though I think traveling together builds community faster and in a different way than hanging out can. But I also think that community is built in a multitude of ways. It can be through different groups we are involved with–including groups outside of the university world. For some people this is through religious organizations. I like having multiple groups of friends and community to turn to to help me slow down and process things. Not every friend or group can do and be everything for us.
With slowing down and coming together, we can make our work environments better and more supportive. We can listen to and read what others/each other have to say. It allows time to stop, reflect, reject, resist, subvert, and collaborate, allowing more reflexive academic cultures (Mountz et al., 2015). We can talk about work, we can talk about life—they are not clearly delineated unfortunately. We can step forward in discussing our dreams, our failures, and our fears to help each other do the same. We can come together to have these discussions and to work through our differences with care and grace.
Community is a challenge in our individualistic society. It is difficult to cultivate, to maintain, etc. Graduate school can be an incredibly lonely time. Added to the natural stress of being constantly challenged to go outside our comfort zone, the loneliness is all the more acute. We may have people we see regularly that we like, but do we have people we can turn to in crisis or as we are processing things? Do we have people who will stop with us and slow down, talk through what we are doing with work and with life? Or are we trying to compete with those we are around too much to get to know each other and see their point of view and benefits? I think this is part of why I have enjoyed traveling with my Graduate School colleagues in the last year—it allows us to slow down, talk, step outside our academic disciplines even for the 8-12 hours we are visiting campuses or in meetings.
In the end, it is about assisting each other, supporting one another, learning about one another’s work as we navigate this bizarre, stressful, yet thrilling period of our lives that we call graduate school.

Readings
Brooks, D. (2015). The road to character. New York: Random House.
DePauw, K. P. (2015). Thriving in graduate school. Retrieved from: https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/kpdtge/index.php/2015/12/01/thriving-in-graduate-school/
Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B.,…Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME, International E-Journal for Critical Geographies.

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