Professor Jerry Watts, generous of mind and spirit, has passed away. Jerry exhibited the very best qualities of a scholar, and none of the worst. He was a friend and mentor to hundreds of graduate students at the City University of New York, and a welcoming face around the Graduate Center for countless more. He would talk to anyone, and had good words for all. Jerry made academia a place you wanted to be.
A number of years ago, Jerry penned an open letter to his students, "and anyone else," on the challenges and demands of pursuing a life of the mind. It was originally intended for the Graduate Center's Africana Listserv, where it produced what Jerry intended--vigorous debate and a deepening solidarity. We reprint it here in memoriam, and in hopes that it continues to stimulate an ongoing debate that Jerry believed lay at the heart of a healthy university.
Open Letter to My Students and Anyone Else
After numerous conversations with my advisees and other graduate student buddies, I have come to the conclusion that an open letter to all of you might be in order. If what I say does not apply to you then please ignore this or send it to someone who might want to read it. If some of it is pertinent to your situation, please think about that part of the letter and ignore the other parts. I am hoping to generate an open dialogue via the internet using the Africana listserv. Therefore, the success or failure of this open letter will be determined by the degree to which it raises significant issues and the quality of the responses generated from you.
There are several reasons why I am sending this open letter. First, a large number of you seem to be drifting. You seem to be caught in psychological / intellectual cruise control in which you are passively and routinely going through the motions of graduate study. You tend to treat your program of study as something other than an intellectual project that has to be continually engaged, re-thought and revised. Instead, your program of study has become a fixed set of hurdles corresponding to a certain number of completed courses and a requisite tally of course credits necessary to advance to the next level of hurdles (i.e., oral exams). Now, academic requirements are hurdles but to fixate on them at the expense of substantive learning is to waste your graduate education. It should go without saying that I would never tell you to ignore course credits.
However, the goal, I would think, is to take courses that not only allow you to academically advance towards your Ph.D but courses that allow you to intellectually grow in your particular arena of study. Fulfilling academic requirements need not be divorced from intellectual exploration though it often is. Certainly you have met or will meet students who excel academically but who are completely anti-intellectual. Such individuals know how to get “good grades” but do not necessarily know how to think creatively. They can thrive in courses without being the least bit curious about the substantive subject matter. It goes without saying that all of you who are reading this letter fall into the category of “the creative.” However, creative talent alone will not produce path-breaking scholarship or any other kind of major artistic/scientific breakthrough.
Simply put, the productive/creative scholar must immerse himself/herself in a body of literature and master that body of knowledge before he or she can go forth and creatively engage a discipline. Otherwise, one runs the risk of reinventing the wheel! Any rigorous program of study requires commitment and intellectual self-discipline. Yet, speaking to students about intellectual self-discipline can appear ludicrous. Everyone claims to be self-disciplined…”otherwise professor Watts I would not have gotten into graduate school!” Actually, I have come to believe that self-discipline of any kind, intellectual or otherwise, is thoroughly un-American. Our psyches are saturated with consumerist enticements coupled with our culture’s celebration of “fastness,” “quickness,” and “immediacy.” Embodied in the iPhone, Blackberry, and twittering, our cultural addiction to “fastness” steamrolls us away from extended periods of solitude and concentration, two preconditions for creative outputs.
Even if you are grinding your way through a serious program of study in a disciplined manner, there may come a time when you become “stuck.” The reasons why we become stuck are numerous and vary in complexities. Moreover, not being a shrink, I cannot pretend to diagnose why some of us are stuck. Periods of being stuck may be natural byproducts of the life of the mind. Being stuck is a problem that can be addressed. One frequent form of being stuck is a writer’s block. There are many excellent books published on writer’s blocks which contain numerous strategies for minimizing their impact. Yes, therapy may help us arrive at an understanding as to why we engage in certain behaviors. IN THE MEANTIME HOWEVER, WE NEED TO GET SOME WORK DONE!!! We need not wait until we have resolved all of our personal issues and neuroses before we can get out of a writing rut. Keep in mind - writing can be and is often quite difficult! Even the most prolific of writers go through periods of draught. If you doubt this just read the diaries of famous novelists a la Andre Gide or even Fyodor Dostoevsky. Even for lesser talents, writing creates stress and anxiety. Worse, the emotionally intense demands of writing often lead to bouts of depression, however short-lived. According to numerous studies on the psychology of creativity, there is a high correlation between creative people and depression. Again for the sake of argument, let us consider ourselves creative.
Let us also recognize that depression is often difficult to diagnose and perhaps more difficult to sense in ourselves. Individuals who have been depressed for prolonged periods may not know that they are depressed or they may develop the belief that depression is normal. Such individuals might think that everyone has as much difficulty as they do in completing mundane tasks. By the way, a typical manifestation of depression is the feeling of being overwhelmed by very simple tasks- one is overwhelmed because simple tasks cease to exist…everything is deemed complicated!! Think about the angst cycles that some of you repeatedly enter. I have been witness to these on various occasions. First- in the initial days of the new semester, you make a pledge to yourself to change your study habits…you enthusiastically create an unrealistic class-work-exercise-schedule. One would have to be a robot to sustain this level of organization. By making unrealistic demands on yourself, you set yourself up for an inevitable letdown and thus a sense of failure…this overbearing schedule could happen by teaching or TA’ing too many classes; enrolling in too many courses; or enrolling in a class that is beyond your preparation…you fall behind in your class work and a sense of failure creeps in…but you will not drop this course because you are scared of how a withdrawal would look on your transcript…so you do nothing to lighten the course load-nothing to make it more manageable. The end of the semester arrives and you have incompletes to finish...the longer it takes for you to finish the incomplete the more pressure you put on yourself to prove to the professor that you are a serious student and not a fuck-up.
The professor’s original assignment of a twelve page paper – is filtered through your guilt ridden insecure psyche and becomes imagined as a thirty-five page treatise. Yes, you will show that professor that you are not a fuck-up. How many times have I heard students profess to me that they would one day show me and other faculty members that they had become major intellectual figures? “All of you think that I am a clown now but wait…you’ll see.” When I hear versions of this I do my best to use humor to counter it but I fear that there is a deeper hidden issue.
There are few things more debilitating of your finite energy than the deep seated need to prove yourself worthy to another person even if, no, particularly if that other person is your professor. First, this need gives that professor too much authority over your psyche. Suppose the professor is an undiluted ass. You can easily end up relating to that professor much like a traumatized spouse caught in what is popularly called the battered women’s syndrome. Let’s call ours the “battered graduate student syndrome.” That is, the less supportive, more abusive the professor becomes, the more you try anything and everything to please him or her just to quiet the abuse. You cannot win this battle. But this is not the only form of professorial abuse. It is also abuse when the professor steals your research and publishes it under his or her name. More frequently, they “co-author” work that you alone researched. Then they have the audacity to list you as second author. Amazingly, they can do this and utterly believe that you should feel honored to have your name listed beneath theirs. I repeat, no professor has the right to exploit you; steal your research; or psychologically undermine your intellectual self-confidence. Should you find yourself in an abusive relationship with a faculty mentor, etc. please respect yourself enough to drop that person from your life and/or removing that person from any position of authority over you. Easier said than done! Hopefully, we have graduate school peers and friends who will not turn a blind eye to our abusive relationship and help us to see a way out of it.
Any professor, in any graduate program of study, at any time, in any place, however high and mighty his or her status, can be eliminated from your life without undermining your chances of success in graduate school and later. If Professor X undermines your sense of well being or is otherwise a vexation on your spirit, get rid of him or her. Never get caught in the belief that you have to study with Professor X if you are going to teach in Professor’s X’s area. Fortunately, the United States is a big country with many colleges and universities and doyens in academic fields come and go weekly. Always keep in mind that professors are as flawed, crazy, neurotic, petty, generous, supportive and sane as anyone else. Professors might be (and I think we are) more socially inept than most professionals for many of us spent large parts of our lives relating better to books than people. Being socially awkward if not frequently abrupt and rude is not synonymous with being abusive. Be careful not to confuse the two.
Keep in mind that many of the most arrogant professors are volcanoes of insecurity ready to erupt at any minute. Insecurity can be an occupational hazard of the life of the mind. I repeat, we are in a profession that judges everything we write against all writings on the subject that have come before. One of the best ways for professors and graduate students to reduce insecurity is to relinquish and/or reduce crass competitiveness with each other. There will always be people who are smarter than us and people who are less smart. There will always be people who have read more than we have and people who have read less. There will always be people who write and publish more than we write and those who produce less writing. If we could really get a handle on competitiveness, we would eliminate so much of the bad karma associated with academic life.
Certainly, it seems appropriate to want your professors to respect you as a student in much the same way that they probably expect you to respect them as faculty. Instead of viewing your professors as a source for validating your personhood, think of the professor as a conduit or guide through which you can navigate and understand a body of knowledge. The professor should be viewed as a resource for your learning process. As you will discover or have discovered, some professors are better at some things than others. Some are better at one on one dialogue than classroom exchanges. Do your homework when choosing advisors, mentors, etc. For instance, Jerry Watts is not the most organized person in the world (a big understatement). So, if you are working with me and you need someone to keep you on a rigid writing deadline, you should also probably get an additional professor to help you who is very organized and demanding of organization.
One of the worse things that happened to me in graduate school was to have a dissertation director who felt that I needed no supervision (or at least that is what he told me). I remember him saying, “Watts, come see me when you are done…you know what you want to do and you know more about it than anyone I know…” Initially I was elated to hear this for I thought that he was affirming me in granting me intellectual autonomy. I would later realize that because I was writing on a subject of marginal interest to him, he did not want to be too involved with my dissertation. In any case, his approach to supervising my dissertation was a terrible approach for me. I needed supervision if only to place limits upon what I wanted to write. The longer it took me to complete the dissertation, the longer the work became in order to justify the time it was taking. In many respects, I wrote my dissertation in a manner similar to the ways that many of you write your papers to satisfy course incompletes. Without supervision I wrote a dissertation that was far too lengthy (about 700 pages) and far too time consuming. It was torturous. The Graduate Center periodically offers workshops on how to get the most out of your dissertation advisor. This is perhaps worth a look!!!!
A second and somewhat scarier reason that I wrote this open letter is that from my vantage point, more than a few of you are suffering from significant intellectual self-doubt, that is, intellectual doubt beyond “normal” graduate student doubt. Self-doubt can lead to incompletes which ultimately feed back into self-doubt when the incompletes drag on…Intellectual self-doubt leads to pedestrian intellectual ambitions. Some of you doubt that you can excel intellectually and ultimately restrict your intellectual ambitions so as not to set yourselves up for failure. This is probably academically smart but it can be intellectually damaging. It is alright to have intellectual ambitions that you never realize, as long as these ambitions propel you forward as opposed to stifling you. If your intellectual/artistic ambitions are too grand, they function to silence you. In effect, you arrive at the belief that you cannot write anything worthy of publication. This is what happened to the novelist Ralph Ellison and explains in part why he was unable to complete his second novel. First of all, Ellison was cursed by the success of his first novel, Invisible Man. The success of his first effort placed a burden on Ellison insofar as he felt that he had to exceed it in his next work. But as the writing for the second novel dragged on, Ellison’s ambitions grew immensely almost as if he was reliving a version of your problems with course incompletes and my dissertation problem. At some point in the writing of his second novel, Ellison’s ambitions became uncontrollable. He wanted to write the grandest novel ever written by an American. Setting the bar this high, it is no surprise that he was unable to finish his second novel despite working on it for forty years.
Establishing a range of intellectual ambitions is a highly subjective enterprise. In many ways, ambitions are created and revised as you do your work. Ambitions certainly come into play when you begin to think about the range and quality of scholarly debates that you want to participate in. Herein lies the benefit of reading widely. In some respects, our intellectual ambitions cannot supersede our familiarity with the intellectual horizons. Exposure to ambitious scholarship is the best way to familiarize ourselves with differing levels of intellectual ambitions. All of us need scholars and scholarly works that we admire and desire to emulate. In graduate school, I discovered the work of Barrington Moore. (I wonder if Moore is read today!!!) I remember being thoroughly impressed by his work, particularly the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Reading Moore led me to Charles Tilly’s various works on revolution in Europe; Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions; and Wallerstein’s Modern World System. I was thoroughly impressed with the ways in which these historical sociologists worked through theory. Though I did not become a historical sociologist, these works established for me an understanding of ambitious social science scholarship. Yet, all of these works were flawed in various ways. What we may discover is that some of the “tightest” scholarship is not ambitious while some of the most ambitious scholarship is highly flawed.
I say this while recognizing that ambitious scholarship to one person is pedestrian scholarship to another. For instance, one arena of study in political science is in the study of the United States Congress. I for one cannot imagine a scholarly work on the United States congress (and I have read a few) that would hit my fancy as constituting ambitious scholarship. I think that the subject matter limits the range of ambitions of its scholarship but I know some very smart people who have committed their lives to the study of the United States congress. In another instance, I am aware of a political scientist who used various arcane mathematical equations, to prove that conflict of interest leads to conflicting behavior. My response was “duh.” This “scientific” minded political scientist would later win a MacArthur award, popularly known as the genius award. Evidently, he was a wiz with the use of math to delineate various limitations on choice, etc. Such examples have led me to realize that there is no single criterion for determining intellectually ambitious scholarship.
The point is that we have to set our own sense of intellectual ambition and then use that sense of ambition to inspire our work. I could not have entertained Barrington Moore as a scholarly inspiration had it not been for a group of graduate student peers who helped me to read it critically. These buddies helped me to navigate a body of literature that was in dialogue with Moore’s work and in so doing, Moore’s work became part of my working intellectual arsenal, for want of a better term. Note here that I am not equating ambitious scholarship with theoretically arcane works that are written in hyper-polysyllabic prose intent of being difficult to read. Some of these arcane works are quite ambitious. Most are not! I think that Judith Butler is quite brilliant. But for every one Butler there are ten charlatan ersatz Butlers cranking out “brilliant” studies after “brilliant” studies. With finite time on earth, we need to be thoughtful about what we choose to read.
Graduate student reading groups are quite helpful for allowing students to tackle ambitious works that they might find too imposing to tackle alone. I encourage you to create these groups and engage them diligently. As a professor at the Graduate Center, one of my major goals is to convince students that there is probably nothing intellectually going on at the Graduate Center that is innately “over their heads.” Fear of the inability to engage the best of the graduate center channels too many students (particularly too many minority students) away from taking intellectual risks. Graduate study at the CUNY Graduate Center provides you with a chance to hear lectures, etc. far outside of your established arena of study. In fact, on any given day, there are too many damn events at the Grad Center. Attend some of these and you may discover that there are scholarly worlds out there that can enrich your own work or better still, scholarly worlds that will interest you that have nothing to do with your own scholarly project. Make the Graduate Center work for you.
Finally a crucial admission! Graduate Study can be infantilizing. It should not be but it often is. I vividly remember walking to a coffee shop in New Haven and spotting one of my professors walking towards me. This guy was not thinking about me at all and yet when I saw him I freaked out. I had taken an incomplete in his class a year ago and still owed him a paper. I did not have a viable excuse for not having submitted a completed paper a year after the class. And though he was singing a song to himself, I imagined the professor coming up to me and inquiring about that paper…and I imagined myself trying to come up with a reasonable dishonest excuse all the while knowing that he knew I was lying. SOOOO what did I do? I jumped in a doorway and hid from this man. But in so doing, I came face to face with the realization that I, Jerry Watts, a twenty-four-year old man, was hiding from a professor in much the way that a six year old would hide from his first grade teacher if he thought the teacher knew what he had secretly done. Here I was, a grown person hiding from some damn professor who probably did not even remember my name. After this, I decided that I would never duck into doorways again. So rest assured that I do understand various ways that graduate students can feel infantilized. We are adults who are systematically placed in positions of deference and dependence – that is deference to and dependence on faculty who are but other adults like ourselves.
A few graduate students thrive in dependent and deferential relationships with faculty but most of you view these relationships as problematic. Moreover, these interactions are out of sync with the ways in which you otherwise live outside of graduate school. It was not that long ago that many of you were enthused by your graduation from your dependencies of undergraduate college. Graduate school was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be a space where you could assert your intellectual autonomy and creatively explore agendas of your own determination. And in some ways it is! Perhaps, it is better to view graduate study as an academic apprenticeship. In crucial respects, graduate study is a process by which you acquire certain skills and habits that allow you to function in an academic world. The academic world becomes the site where you perform various tasks such as teaching, etc. that subsidize your study of a topic of your own choosing. ORRR, it could be the other way- that graduate school gives you the skills and habits necessary to succeed in the world of research, etc…and thus ultimately subsidizes your love of teaching. In my particular case, I think my academic life helps to give me the resources, etc. necessary to sustain my intellectual life all the while knowing that the intellectual world is primary.
Any and all graduate students need support communities- a group of peers or friends that one can turn to whenever one needs emotional or intellectual support. You will continue to need support communities when you complete graduate school, etc. and for the rest of your lives. A support community can keep you moving along and what’s more, a support community can give you a sense of perspective as you confront various problems. Your emotional support community often cannot be the community you go to for unbridled criticism of your work. Readers of your work who function as critics need only be people you trust to be honest and thorough in their evaluations. You need not be close friends with them.
In addition to the normal intellectual/academic demands of graduate study, attending graduate school at CUNY can be stressful due to the financial burdens of living in New York City. Certainly, New York is a very expensive town, particularly in regards to housing. Many of you are barely making ends meet. I have no suggestions for navigating this mine field but I would always suggest to graduate students that living alone may be a luxury while you are in school. Given the typical financial precariousness of many CUNY graduate students, many of you have to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching classes at various branches of CUNY. (And for the record let me state that graduate students who teach, etc. are ripped off grandly…not only at CUNY but at most universities in the United States.) Some of you teach 2 or 3 courses a semester–each with a fairly large enrollment. Certainly teaching loads of this magnitude infringe on the time you can commit to concentrated study.
Herein lies my concern. I have encouraged many of you to think of your teaching as a chore that has to be managed. Some of you have come to me with elaborate course syllabi, etc. only to hear me respond that “you are doing too much.” From the vantage point of the university, graduate student instructors are wonderful because graduate students will tend to commit much more time to teaching than their pay justifies. I am not trying to stem your pedagogical creativity but I am trying to say that you need to always recognize that when TA’ing you are teaching for instrumental reasons (ie. to pay your tuition), that is, you are teaching in order to facilitate the completion of your graduate work. I am not trying to undermine your enthusiasm for teaching but I am trying to convince you not to let this enthusiasm in the classroom overwhelm your limited time at present. When you are finished with your dissertation and situated in a tenure track job, teaching can and perhaps should become a priority.
In graduate school, I discovered that TA’ing was far more time consuming than working at a job off campus. Eventually I found a job at the local phone company (Southern New England Bell) that began at 6:30 am and ended five hours later. I was no longer enrolled in classes so I could go to work, come home, nap and then study. I found that I had much more time on my hand because this outside job ended at a finite time. Unlike teaching, I did not have any work to take home. When I left work it was over. Moreover, I found that it was less taxing on my studying to work in an area outside of the world of scholarship. With the economy in such bad shape, I am sure that it is not easy obtaining a viable off campus job. Moreover, many of you teach in order to obtain a tuition waiver. I think that it is fair to assume that the demands of living in New York City add time to your graduate career.
Nevertheless, far too many of you (of those I know) have yet to develop strategies for maximizing study time within your limited free time. Unfortunately, graduate study at CUNY places demands on your discipline far beyond that which were placed on me during my graduate student days. Regardless, we have to deal with the reality of our situations as they now exist. Simply put, I have talked to many of you who tell me that you cannot effectively study, etc. unless you have a certain blocs of uninterrupted time. You tell me that two hours here and three hours there are not conducive to studying because they are too short in duration. I have been told “No sooner than I become focused, I have to return to my class and teach or grade papers.” Graduate Center students need to develop strategies that allow you to maximize the limited stretches of time that you now have. Again, it might be useful to attend those Graduate Center workshops that deal with time management. Let us keep in mind that serious studying and research demands the ability and willingness to engage in a very isolating and solitary activity. Writing can be lonely. It is just you and the blank screen or you and the blank note pad. A dissertation demands a substantial commitment to solitary work. There is no way around that.
Moreover, writing a dissertation or even a serious research paper demands that you stick with it even when it is not cathartic. Many of us, me included, find it easiest to write when we experience catharsis, excitement, etc. Yet, no one who writes a substantial thesis or book can do so without going through massive periods of tedium if not moments of boredom and despair. If we put down our project every time we felt bored, we would never complete any substantial writing project. Though I am no expert, I have read that concentrated study stimulates the mind even in instances when we seem like we are getting nowhere. We must fight through the boredom, etc. I have been amazed at the number of my students who find ways to schedule their lives so as not to give themselves enough time to work on substantial projects. More than a few of you take frequent breaks, family vacations, etc. and spend great deals of time with friends etc. when you should be studying.
Nevertheless, you are quick to inform me that if you did not take that vacation - you would “lose your mind.” Of course, I know that such claims are utter nonsense but… Yes, I am implying that some of you do not work as hard as you should …and certainly not sufficiently hard to maximize your chances of producing first rate scholarship. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR STUDY! READING WIDELY CAN NEVER HURT YOU! Certainly we all have private lives to navigate. But, how many of us can really claim that we center our lives AROUND our study schedule and not vice versa. Some of you have personal responsibilities that cannot be given secondary importance- such as those of you with children. I am not suggesting that anyone neglect their responsibilities. However, it is reasonable to demand of our friends, spouses, partners, lovers, etc. some realization of the costs to US AND TO THEM of the choices we have made to pursue the life of the mind. Simply put, we are not working in a 9 to 5 occupation in which we can leave everything at the office when we go home. Ironically, those of you who teach, TA, etc, the weekend is probably your best potential time for study…and yet, many of you view the weekend as a moment to escape from the world of study.
Well, I have certainly rambled far more extensively than I had planned to when I began this open letter. I hope that this letter is both encouraging and thought provoking. Do not hesitate to offer your comments. Again, I am hoping that this letter will stimulate an open discussion.
Jerry Gaffio Watts was professor of English, Sociology, and American Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.