From Little College to Big Grad School: Reflections From a Graduate Student

February 6, 2012, 2:11 pm

By Herlin Hathaway

Today’s guest blogger is Herlin Hathaway, a pseudonymous graduate student and future tenured radical.  I asked Herlin, who is in his first year of coursework, to reflect on his trajectory from a small liberal arts college and to a Ph.D. program at a top North American research university.


Heavy on the scholar, light on the activist

Little College students have a reputation for being politically aware and active. While this is not actually the case for the majority of the student body, it is also not difficult to become politicized through coursework and by joining a student organization. This is exactly what happened to me when I began studying the history of the U.S. prison system, volunteering at Little College’s Center for Prison Education and discussing race and class discrimination with older students. By the time I was a 3rd year I was in full activist mode. I attended Take Back The Night, the Anti-Affirmative Action Bake Sale Protest, the Divestment Rally and the Workers Rights Protest. I became disillusioned with Little College. I was a vocal critic of the college and its students’ often paternalistic relationships with the town. Of course, my own research was always primary. By my fourth year, when I was writing my thesis, I put aside almost everything political, but I still used what time I had to support “the cause.”

Now that I’m at Big Grad School, I’m much like I was that senior year. Heavy on the scholar, light on the activist. I spend more time figuring out how to attend the American Studies Association conference in Puerto Rico next year than trying to visit Occupy My City. I was actually sitting in my Intro to African American Studies class while other students were outside holding a vigil as Troy Davis was being prepared for execution in Georgia.

Quite frankly, I’ve toned it down a lot.

Most of my community service or socially engaged work is considerably less radical than it was. I mentor a young musician from the town and I talk informally with undergraduates about graduate school, giving them feedback on their personal statements and resumes. This would not have been enough for me at Little College but as a first year grad student in a new institution, I’m comfortable with it.

As a graduate student, my attention is focused primarily on what I can control directly: my own intellectual growth and scholarly production. I spend my time thinking, “What is my disciplinary spine as an interdisciplinary scholar? What is African American Studies and how does my work fit in it?” The only things I’ve organized are band rehearsals, reading groups and basketball games. But what’s the shame in that? Scholarship is my passion after all. I also only have 5 years worth of funding to figure these questions out!

Must love dogs

“Must” is probably too strong a word but it certainly helps.

I confess I’ve never been a dog person. Before I went to Little College, I had never known a friendly dog and I never knew anyone who had a dog. As a child I was taught to run or at least stay far away if I saw a stray dog because it probably had rabies or would attack me. (My Jamaican parents were convinced that there was something fundamentally different in American dogs as distinct from the dogs they owned “back home.”)

My parents and I thought it was crazy and sort of funny that on my freshman move-in day, a number of dogs were roaming the dorm halls and resting on the couches because a few students had brought their pets to see them off. (My father concluded that this was evidence of Little College’s “liberal” policies.) So, imagine my surprise when I visited my first year advisor’s office during freshman orientation and realized that her dog stayed in her office!

Advisor: Are you okay with dogs?

She lets the dog out of the pen and I sort of freeze up in my seat as it walks to me, sniffing my shoes and my bag. At this point I’m only half listening while my advisor is introducing herself because I’m trying to look as comfortable as possible around a dog that has quickly grown fond of my book bag. I missed most of what she said in the meeting but that day I learned that dogs are part of academic life.

This new skill would prove invaluable that semester. Two of my three professors were also dog lovers and apparently so were most of my classmates! In fact, the two professors I visited most often at Little College had dogs in their offices and I quickly learned how to partially ignore (not enjoy) a dog licking my hands and feet while I gleaned as much knowledge as I could from a 15-minute meeting.

Before the final classes we would have at their homes, the professors would ask the class, “Is everyone okay with dogs?” Most would be quick to answer “Of course! What kind of dog is it? I own a (insert breed here).” I, clearly outnumbered, would brace myself and prepare for another session of competing attentions, 75% listening to the conversation, 25% paying attention to the dog. How does one fully ignore or learn to appreciate the dog jumping on one’s arms and chest while actively contributing to a discussion of how the notion of private life was constructed during the 19th century? I’m still not sure yet but at least I’m no longer afraid or shocked when I meet an academic dog.


Spivack, Foucault, Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Rolph-Touillot

Even though I’m actually reading many of these scholars and applying their theories to my work for the first time, we are indeed old friends from undergrad. Or, should I say, they are friends of my friends.

Here is a sample conversation between a friend and me at the Little College student center:

J: Herlin, I’m cracked out right now!
Me: What books they gotchu readin’?
J: Michel-Rolph Touillot’s Silencing the Past for Prof X. and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for my final paper.
Me: I haven’t read them.
J: Well, basically, (insert very thorough summary of both texts with strong critiques.)

I was blessed to have had hundreds of these conversations with my friends while hanging out in the student center over the course of my four years. This was how I learned a lot of theory without knowing (or appreciating) it.

It is easy to say that Little College has a penchant for admitting students who are already intellectuals but I’m not sure how accurate that is. What I do know is that Little College professors don’t coddle students intellectually. They assign the “hard” texts, the dense theorists and many students are not afraid to talk through and apply these ideas outside the classroom. My informal access to these ideas and the frequency with which these discussions took place have definitely given me the confidence to read theory and the skills to break down concepts, explain them and use them. Of course, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble still frightens me but it’s not as bad as it could be.

Me, my professor, and his Blind Side

My advisors had always told me that there is something about being a black male in academia that attracts well intentioned but often embarrassing special attention from some white faculty. I had not experienced this while at Little College because my professors seem to have been the most socially conscious, social justice oriented and culturally sensitive teachers ever. They were never patronizing or imposing and always critical but kind. Indeed, there were other professors at Little College who were known for being inappropriate or “too much” but I never studied with them. I was not prepared to not have this happen in graduate school, however.

I have quickly learned that even if Prof X is often problematic, if s/he is a star in your field you’re going to need hir seal of approval (i.e., letter of recommendation) for jobs in the field. Consequently, I have learned to put personality differences and unintentionally offensive comments aside to learn what Prof X. can teach me. Needless to say, this is also HARD.

My Prof. X is not so much inappropriate as he is overly paternalistic. Prof. X wants to “rescue” me intellectually, which is both nice because he is supporting my work, but weird because sometimes he talks down to me. In class, Prof. X points to me when he discusses any and all things “African American.” (This I can at least understand because my work is on the African American family but it has become a running joke in the class because he doesn’t realize he does it.)

Prof. X once asked me if I played basketball because I’m so much taller than him. I told him I used to play football. In front of the whole class, Prof. X then proceeded to tell me how he graciously helped (almost rescued) his previous inner city black student-athlete from his inability to read and write and guided the young man to become a multiple fellowship award winner (Fulbright, White House Internships etc.).

I once complained to a friend that I feel like Prof. X treats me like Sandra Bullock’s character treats Michael Oher in The Blind Side. She replied, “it’s much better to have a professor that is over-nurturing than one who doesn’t care what you do either way; be happy that he wants to save you and your burgeoning academic dreams.”

I guess she is right. Prof. X means well. He has been a good resource for me and has opened up a whole new field to me. Eventually, we’ll have a talk about the “pointing at me every time he talks about blacks” thing but no one is perfect, not even a professor.

Good schools, prep schools and Master’s Degrees: on preparation and competition

Every year Little College admits a strong class of students who come from the nation’s top and most expensive prep schools. I have nothing against students who went to great high schools but as a first year student from a non-selective, discipline/reform minded, low-income Catholic school, it sure was frightening being in class with these students. As a freshman, you never know what you don’t know until you don’t understand other students’ literary references (i.e. 100 Years of Solitude, Lord of the Flies); or until you realize people wrote papers longer than 10 pages before college; or that some students came into college with college credits! This is an intimidating experience for any incoming student but as one of my friends put it, “if you’re going to beat the best to be the best, you’ll have to at least understand what they’re talking about.”

To be sure, this feeling of competition was of my own making. Little College is not a competitive environment; its students generally aren’t fighting for professors’ attention, university prizes and TA positions. Rather, my “beat the best” mentality came from my feelings of being under-qualified and under-prepared. It caused me to see Little College as primarily an opportunity to prove to myself and to others that I was good enough to be there. While I accepted the challenge of not just “catching up” with other students but excelling at my elite school, my motivation for doing so changed significantly.

By my 2nd year, I focused less on measuring myself against others (how much they read per week/ their grades/the number of classes they took per semester) and focused more on asking and answering questions that supported my own intellectual curiosity and scholarly production. I realized I enjoyed research and learning beyond my coursework and irrespective of what other students were doing. Fortunately, three particular faculty members recognized my interests and through mentoring, individual research tutorials and TA opportunities, provided me with the space to explore, think and create new ideas, helping me to become a scholar.

As a graduate student, I am now being trained to do what I love: research and teach.
Alongside me, however, are students with multiple master’s degrees, conference paper presentations and star-studded committees. From time to time, old feelings of being under-qualified resurface and the added pressure of fewer and fewer academic jobs is sometimes discouraging. However, much like at Little College, my department and the faculty at Big Grad School have provided me with a great opportunity to excel at what I enjoy doing. My goals are to be a good scholar and teacher. To those ends, I’m learning to write better, read more deeply and network extensively. I know my goals and while others may share them, everyone’s path is different. As for now, I’m gladly taking advantage of my opportunities and doing my best to prepare to be good at what I love.

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