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"Books & Culture Corner: The Ph.D. Octopus, 100 Years On"
Editor's note: Here's a preview from the November/December issue of Books & Culture.
The time was the mid-1980s, and the scene was a relaxed departmental social occasion, where lowly graduate students like myself had a chance to wolf down hors d'oeuvres, guzzle some decent white wine, and mingle with the faculty. After a while, I found myself drawing apart from the chattering crowd, settling into easy conversation with one of the senior members of the department. A man of considerable scholarly distinction, he also was known, despite his warmly congenial manner, as an exceptionally frustrating and arbitrary taskmaster with his own graduate students. But it was said that he occasionally let down his guard with students who were not his own.
What, I asked, was the hardest part of his job? I was just awkwardly trying to make conversation. But he took the question seriously and pondered it for a while, much longer than I had expected, his gaze sinking toward the floor. Then he gave a surprising answer, the words emerging with the emphatic certainty that one reserves for convictions tested by experience. He had been pondering not what to say, but whether he should actually say it. "You know what is really terrible?" he asked, slowly raising his eyes to face mine intently. "It's watching what happens to young people when they come to graduate school. They arrive bright-eyed, eager, charming people of wide interests, who are so happy to find themselves in a place where ideas are talked about, and where they can meet people who have written the books they read in college."
He paused for a moment, then continued, his voice tightening. "It is our job to break down that enthusiasm, to narrow them, to socialize them into an academic profession. ...1