You Just Never Know

Some colleagues and I were talking about a student this week, wondering whether or not they (I’m going to use the plural to avoid gender here; I know I have a pronoun-antecedent agreement problem, but it makes more sense to me to do it this way than any other) would be a good candidate for graduate school.  This subject is particularly problematic in the Humanities, given the job market and the ongoing discussion about whether students should ever go to graduate school in our field (see William Pannapacker’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” for the extreme version).

The student in question hasn’t shown themselves to be an outstanding student, but they are motivated and curious and willing to work hard and trying to improve and all the things we want out of students outside of academic ability.  Not that they’re bad in academic ability, just not the cream of the crop, which is normally what we look for when we’re talking about graduate school.  Thus, our discussion.  We talked about whether or not we should encourage them to apply, but we were also quick to add that we don’t really know how they’ll turn out (or any of the students we send off to graduate school, for that matter).

I shared a bit of my story, which they know by now, so I could shorthand it for them.  You see, my professors probably thought I wasn’t a good candidate for graduate school when I was in college.  During my sophomore year, I was rooming with one of the smartest students on campus.  One of our professors described him as the sharpest mind he had ever seen.  This student made a hundred on the final exam of a Humanities class that just killed students; he was that good.  In the first week of school, we had a Matriculation service, where professors marched in regalia and new students signed their names in a book, showing they had officially joined our community.  It was one of my favorite days of the semester, and it was my roommate’s, as well.  He was standing next to me as the faculty members walked in, and he said, “I’m going to wear one of those one day.”

He never graduated college, and I, the person who was planning to become a high school math teacher, have worn regalia numerous times by now.  He made a few bad decisions, and I simply stuck it out.  I was definitely not the cream of the crop, not even the strongest English major out of the thirty of so we had.  I wasn’t even in the top five and probably the top ten.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if I would even make it into the first fifteen.  I wasn’t an awful student, as I did all of the reading (for English classes, at least) and came to class, though I seldom understood all of the reading (or, sometimes, any of the reading).

I came to English late, so I was always trying to catch up with what everyone else already knew.  I made low Bs and high Cs on papers, though I would usually at least make Bs on exams.  I could usually make As on presentations, as I was pretty good at standing in front of people and talking.  I graduated with a 3.186 GPA overall, and I only made two solid As in English courses (and only one of those was a literature course).

What I did have, though, was passion and curiosity.  I had begun to find authors I really enjoyed, such as Kurt Vonnegut.  I was willing to sit down and read authors I didn’t love because I was supposed to know who they were.  In graduate school, I started making reading lists for summers and whatever free time I had.  I would take syllabi from the previous semester, then read one more book by everyone on the list.  I would write down the names of books professors mentioned in class, then add those to what I would read.  I was willing to do the work to get better.

That didn’t translate into my writing, and it took me much longer to learn how to do that well (actually, I never learned that in graduate school, but I got there eventually).  I am still not a scholar.  My focus is on teaching, as that’s what I truly love.  However, I’ve published a few articles and a scholarly book, which is much more than anyone would have guessed of me at twenty (or maybe even twenty-seven).

My conclusion here should be obvious by now.  We have no idea which students are going to do well in graduate school and which ones won’t make it through.  Perhaps, then, it’s not our decision.  Granted, we can give them suggestions and advice, but, once they make their choice, we need to get behind them, to give them as much support as we can.  Not one of my professors doubted I should go to graduate school.  They wrote me wonderful letters of recommendation and talked with me after I had begun advanced studies.  I should do the same for my students, no matter what I think about their chances.


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