another oratorical misadventure

I spoke at Northwestern’s proseminar for first-year graduate students yesterday. You know that family dinner scene in Say Anything where Lloyd Dobbler realizes he’s started off badly and tries to talk his way out of it and comes across worse and then tries to talk his way out of that and comes across worse still? That’s me. If only I had been holding a boombox over my head and it was pouring rain in the seminar room, I would have been Lloyd Dobbler exactly. Seriously, by the end I felt like somebody who was coming across like he had just stepped off the mothership, and I’m not talking the P-Funk Mothership.

The proseminar has this peculiar format where the faculty member speaks for a half-hour, then the faculty member leaves and the graduate students stay and talk among themselves for a half hour (then a different faculty member comes in for a half hour). So, as I left, not only was I feeling like a freak but thinking, Great, now they are going to spend the next thirty minutes reveling in what a freak I am. (Or, at least, that’s what I would do if I was a graduate student and somebody came in and gave the stream-of-whoa-this-guy-is-such-a-freak-consciousness spiel I did.)

I came in (slightly) prepared to talk about my research, and to answer the questions based on Inside the Actor’s Studio we had been sent earlier. Instead, I was asked to talk first about advice for graduate students based on my own experience in graduate school, or something like that. Whatever wisdom I think I may have about how to go about graduate school, it’s based far more on watching other people than my actual personal experience, which I would not recommend as a model for anyone and which “worked” for me only through a combination of having a fabulously helpful advisor and a certain kind of headstrong naivete.*

I only spent the last six minutes talking about my research, at which point I was already flustered from feeling the freak-brand burned into my forehead, but I insisted on pressing forward anyway in trying to talk up the graduate seminar on “Genetics and Society” that I am doing this winter quarter. A couple people looked away in that uncomfortable way that jurors face a defendant when the foreman is about to read a guilty verdict. I think I can provide a reasonable statement about why the Received View of genetics in sociology is deficient and stultifying and why the search for better ways of thinking/talking about genetics is both worthwhile and not a sinister stealth-trek toward ideological malevolence. However, when I am already feeling like I’ve come off as mildly maniacal is perhaps not the occasion. It’s not like I was expecting overwhelming –or even merely whelming–interest in the seminar anyway, but I do hope it ends up getting whatever enrollment it needs not to be cancelled. Ugh.

* Anyone around me during my last year of graduate school knows full well why I put the scarequotes around “worked.”

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

14 thoughts on “another oratorical misadventure”

  1. To Northwestern grads reading this blog. As Wisconsin grad student who knows Jeremy a bit, I would definitely recommend taking his class. I would take it if I had a chance.


  2. On what planet is it a bad thing to be like Lloyd Dobler? Anyway, I’m not buying the comparison until I see you in a Fishbone t-shirt and a trenchcoat.


  3. [begin navel gazing]

    This post resonates with a question i’ve been pondering lately – i feel like

    “Whatever wisdom I think I may have about how to go about graduate school, it’s based far more on watching other people than my actual personal experience, which I would not recommend as a model for anyone and which “worked” for me…”

    is something i have said basically verbatim to a number of friends of late. Which makes me wonder, is there a normative “grad schooler” that we can point to as one to actually emulate? Or are we all pointing to some ideal type that no one actually experienced? And if not, should we encourage shooting for it?

    [end navel gazing]


  4. I was the faculty member who went to talk to the group after Jeremy (and after the half hour of their own discussion). First of all, when I walked in there, it didn’t look like they were doing much. In fact, I thought I was late (although I wasn’t), because they seemed like they’d been waiting for a while. Then, because I’d just seen Jeremy and he’d told me about the above, I asked the students what they thought of his session. They laughed, some of them perhaps nervously. But I still don’t quite get what Jeremy is referring to here in terms of having come across as a freak (and this, after talking to him twice about it yesterday in person, and now having read a blog entry about it).

    I think they probably thought I was on something as I just kept going and going and going. I’d just had a good meeting and was in a good mood, but it wasn’t something that I could weave into the conversation too well so I just kept talking.

    I did pause to ask if they had questions on occasion and they did, so I guess I got more reactions. Whether that means I was more or less freaky than Jeremy is anyone’s guess.


  5. I think they probably thought I was on something as I just kept going and going and going.

    To be fair, in grad school it seemed you subsisted mostly on water, sugar, and chocolate … ;)

    First-years should expect the research agendas of senior faculty to sound at least somewhat weird. Otherwise, what’s the point? To paraphrase Adam Gopnik, “it wasn’t quite what I expected, but I guess that’s why they call it an education.”


  6. I’m sure it went fine. You (as well as many, many of us) have a tendency to exaggerate the “I came off like a freak” aspects of a talk, and forget about the parts that went over well. I’m just saying.


  7. I concur about Jeremy’s class. Dr. Freese’s methods class was great. I even recommended your syllabus to others who teach the grad-level methods requirement at other places.

    I too just spoke at my own pro-seminar (Columbia). And what I said went okay (unlike Jeremy, I tend to over-estimate my own performance, which has it’s own set of drawbacks). But I got in trouble for what I said. Which was basically,

    “Don’t study, say, the effect of education on earnings. That’s a problem that lots of really good people work on, and you’ll have to be AWESOME to get a good job. Instead, study something people haven’t thought about, or make connections between things that aren’t connected. You don’t have to be nearly as good, because there isn’t some huge body of people out there who are also working on it – and let’s face it, a bunch of them are going to be better than you”.

    I then continued by saying, “It’s alright if you don’t want to end up at Columbia. Actually, life here isn’t for everyone. It’s really stressful and a lot of work. In fact, it sucks at times. I like it. But lots of people won’t. So yeah, figure out what kind of person you want to be in 20 years. I mean, it seems like the faculty around you are the only option, and everyone else has “failed”. But really, lots of people chose not to be like us, and for good reasons. If some of those reasons make sense to you, that’s cool. But don’t tell anyone here you’d decided you don’t want to be at a place like here, because then no one will work with you. But that decision is a reasonable decision to come to in your own mind…”

    Both of these things were seen as less than desirable things to tell first year grad students. And though I can concede some of the points made to me about this, I’m still glad I said each. Because honestly, I believe both of them…


  8. On shakha’s comment: what you told the students is exactly right and exactly what I did. I never wanted to be an academic and I never mentioned it to any of my professors. Even when I took my current job (a “real” job doing research for the feds), my advisor assumed that I would go into academia as soon as I finished my PhD. I stopped trying to convince her otherwise. After I finished, I kept my job. I’ve always felt the faculty was a bit disappointed in me (with the exception of my advisor), but that’s ok.


  9. Kieran said:
    To be fair, in grad school it seemed you subsisted mostly on water, sugar, and chocolate … ;)

    That’s awesome! For years I’ve wondered when you’d make a comment on a blog about my grad school eating habits.:) You’re too kind re the water, I didn’t drink much of that then in pure form, I seemed to be hooked on Peach Snapple. I don’t recall the sugar part, since I mostly limit sweets to chocolate. But the general idea of crappy eating habits certainly applies. The Wilson fellowship helped tremendously with all those dollars to be spent at the campus center!

    ShaKha – I said a few things somewhat similar to your first point. I emphasized the importance of talking to different disciplines when possible and maximizing one’s chances of being able to go on several markets. Given the numbers – number of positions & number of applicants – it’s impossible for every good person to get a great job so diversifying can be a good strategy. The way this relates to your point is that making connections that others haven’t made across disciplines can be one way to make original contributions.


  10. socfreak and others: Thanks for the endorsement of past classes!

    Dorotha: Sure, sure. It’s interesting that Lloyd Dobbler was largely correct about kickboxing being the sport of the future, only it morphed into ultimate fighting.

    Shakha: Both your points make sense (although, actually, I don’t think anybody in sociology should be studying the effect of education on earnings at this point, as economists are so much better at that kind of study than we are), but the second especially so.


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