The Chronicle Review

The Banality of Academic Paranoia

Polly Becker for The Chronicle Review

November 22, 2009

In my first year of graduate school, I shared an office with a woman who was completing the final chapter of her dissertation. From the looks of it, we were an odd couple. The posters on my wall were middlebrow and unframed, while her side was tastefully decorated with framed prints by local artists. My desk was an endless pile of magazines and textbooks, interoffice envelopes, and papers in various stages of evaluation. Her desk was clean. I recall a pastel canister full of pens and pencils, a framed photograph of her husband and their child, an appointment book.

In spite of all that organization, she was obviously well liked. She was conversational with her students. I would come back from teaching, and the office would be full of her friends, indulging in idle chatter about what happened on last night's American Idol or mourning how Buffy the Vampire Slayer had "jumped the shark." When the office was quieter, we would joke about the bitter coffee in the vending machine and about the department photocopier, which refused to die. But something happened in one of those quiet moments that made me avoid my office-mate for the rest of the year. I almost withdrew from the program, packed my bags, and moved back home. It was the first time I questioned what I was doing in graduate school; since then, I've found myself repeatedly asking, What does graduate school do to people?

At midsemester I asked my office-mate a question about a professor in her field. He was offering a class that allowed me to fulfill a requirement. Did she think the class would be a good one for me to take? I expected a quick answer. Instead she asked me to close the door.

As soon as the bolt clicked into the jamb, my colleague opened up a side drawer of her desk and flipped through some files. She produced a single sheet of paper and set it near her appointment book. Looking at me and pointing to the paper, she said calmly, "He's against me."

She handed me the paper. "Look for yourself," she said.

A line down the length of the paper divided it into two equal columns. The left column was entitled "Faculty For Me," and the right column entitled "Faculty Against Me." Skimming the page, I saw that every faculty member—almost 40 people—in our department was on the list. Several of the names in the "Against" column were annotated:

"Makes students wash his car."

"Thinks she's a feminist!"

"Would not accept late seminar paper."

"LOVES being CHAIR!"

The names and annotations were in various colored inks —this was a list that she had been keeping for quite some time. Some of the names had been carefully crossed off one column and moved to the other. One name moved back and forth between "For" and "Against" several times, all the way down the page. The name of the professor I had inquired about was near the top of the "Against" column: apparently an early entry. His name did not switch columns. There was no annotation to explain.

I read through the list again and stared at it, trying to figure out how best to respond. At first, I must admit, I felt a bit of pride in being trusted with such insider knowledge. But what was the knowledge I had been given? The annotations were a mix of legitimate concerns, opinions, and sometimes ill-founded anxieties; at some point, the differences among them ceased to matter. In spite of the variety of inks my colleague had used to maintain the list, the picture presented was startlingly black and white. Names detached from their owners, they ceased to have complexities and contradictions. The people on that list never made a mistake or committed a transgression they later came to regret. They were either friend or foe. The faculty had been judged.

I looked up from the paper, expecting a knowing smile. But she had not waited for me to react, to gauge my opinion of her list. She was reviewing the short story she had assigned to her afternoon class. I read what I could see of her face. There was concentration but no anger. She seemed calm, and not the eerie calm of a person about to boil over with rage. I tried to recall moments when she may have expressed cynicism or announced that a conspiracy was out to get her. I remembered a few unkind words about the ancillary member of her dissertation committee, but they were just that: unkind and nothing more.

I set the paper on her desk as she continued to prepare for class, and she placed it back in the folder as if it were any other document that properly belonged there. I walked back to my messy desk, opened a book, and stared into it for a while. I asked myself a question that I could not answer: What could have turned a model graduate student, a dedicated writer, a friendly, well-liked person, a caring mother—someone completely normal—into someone so utterly paranoid?

Even now, several years later, I can't answer that question. Perhaps it's not fair of me to call her paranoid. I know now that if I had studied the list more carefully, I could have avoided some of the pitfalls I ran into during the course of my graduate education. It could be that my officemate was a shrewd but unsubtle observer, good for remembering her foes and allies, bad for writing them down. But what remains unnerving to me is that the list of "Faculty For Me" and "Faculty Against Me" was so unremarkable to her. Aside from asking me to close the door, she displayed no sense of drama in showing me the list. Showing me her list did not make me a confidante. To her it was just a reference sheet, the sort of thing one keeps in a desk drawer along with office memos, paper clips, tape, and loose change.

We all know that graduate school is competitive. We also know that some faculty members play on the insecurities bred by that competition. But some don't, which is not to say that such faculty members are good souls, but they're also not fiendish devils. In other words, they are people. Yet in the "family romance" of graduate school, faculty members are seen by students as being so awesome that everything they do becomes meaningful—and strangely relevant to a graduate student's life, even if it's not relevant at all. What felt like paranoia to me was, by the final stage of her dissertation, second nature to my officemate. Graduate students are often so used to living with their paranoia that it is becomes banal—instinctual, invisible.

I imagine that my officemate is not alone in keeping lists, mental or written. That possibility frightened me then, and now.

At the end of my first year, my colleague successfully defended her dissertation and was immediately hired by a state university. Her department has a graduate program, and though it's a small one, I assume she has students of her own to advise.

I hope that she doesn't keep a list anymore, that she doesn't feel a need to. But I also hope that she remembers the time in her life when she considered it unremarkable to have an annotated list of friends and foes in her desk drawer. I hope she remembers, so that she refrains, as much as she can, from those errant ways she so carefully observed and meticulously documented in others. I hope she remembers, so that she doesn't drive her own students to such banal paranoia.

The author is a doctoral candidate in English at a university in the Midwest.