A Modest Proposal

By Meadow Dibble-Dieng / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

Late last spring a Brown graduate student in American civilization sent out a plea for help on our heavily subscribed graduate listserv, which is essentially an e-mail list for bulletin-board announcements. Her cat had been stuck in a tall tree for more than five days, and the city’s fire department, animal control unit, and rescue league had all declined to assist her in getting it down. In the American civilization of nostalgic memory, those are precisely the folks we are supposed to call in such times of crisis. Providence is no Mayberry, however, and the student’s run-in with reality set our postmodern analytical gears into motion. What, after all, does it take to save a cat in 2004?

Within minutes of reading her message, concerned graduate students responded en masse with all manner of unconventional suggestions and extreme scenarios. These demonstrated the qualities I have come to expect of my esteemed peers. There was tactical brilliance in a suggestion that the woman secure news coverage of the stranding, which would prompt publicity-seeking companies with proper equipment to jump at the chance to help. There was ingenuity in an idea that involved scaring the cat from the tree onto a trampoline below. There was initiative in the notion of a fund-raising campaign to pay the necessary professionals. There was bravado in the move to have a volunteer climb the tree and rappel down with cat safely in hand. And there was much compassion: “Poor cat!”

A good number of students renounced their self-imposed scholarly confinement and—out of solidarity or curiosity—immediately checked out the scene, reporting faithfully back to their colleagues still glued to their computers. A few hours later a reassuring message arrived: “our” cat had been rescued by a tree service eager to appear on the evening news. The affair was resolved.

With the cat safe, the listserv discussion turned introspective. Why had so many grads been willing to debate the surest way to save a feline, someone asked, while so few took advantage of this excellent forum to weigh in on issues of greater social, intellectual, and political import? Why couldn’t a virtual community of nearly 1,000 intellectuals-in-training be mobilized to
engage in collective problem solving more often, and to the benefit of human beings rather than a pet?

The idea of a “graduate community” was then examined. Did one even exist at Brown? Why did every event aimed at fostering one necessarily revolve around alcohol? Why were so many of us resistant to the notion of “community service”—an area in which Brown’s undergrad population clearly excels? Indeed, why did the very choice to pursue graduate studies seem to preclude the possibility of volunteering one’s time, energy, and mental acumen for the advancement of any old cause? And how had “cause” come to be such a dirty word in the first place? There are exceptions, of course, particularly among some students in the sciences, whose work can have immediate practical applications. But isn’t their noteworthiness the proof that they are exceptions rather than the norm?

Heated responses to such questions filled our electronic mailboxes over the following week. The listserv discussion, which had, until then, raged ahead unmoderated, came to an abrupt halt when one subscriber demanded that “everyone just shut up and enjoy the summer!” But it was too late; a fundamental shift had occurred. The cat incident marked the first time in recent history that Brown’s graduate students had spontaneously joined in a transdisciplinary effort to solve a problem of no academic interest. True, the solution to this minor emergency was itself of minor importance: a single cat was saved. But the problem brought together a significant amount of brainpower, brainpower usually so intensely focused on narrow academic subjects that its capacity for broad problem-solving seems often to have atrophied.

Unlike our sibling Brown undergrads, who are justly lauded for excelling in public service, we graduate students are given total license to focus inwardly. Our language is often jargon-filled, a code that only colleagues in our field or subfield can decipher. How can we work for “the greater good” when so many of us are rigorously trained in postmodernism’s antiethics, distrusting, if not entirely dismissing, such simplistic notions as good and evil, right and wrong? Community, commitment, and service are similarly suspect, and seldom associated with the individualistic pursuit of knowledge that characterizes graduate study. Our universities generally expect nothing from us over the course of a typical two-year master’s or five-to-seven-year doctoral program that is not strictly academic in nature. Not encouraged to be well-rounded, we can end up feeling like squares.

Outside the university, society itself makes few demands on graduate students. One might even wonder if it doesn’t ultimately forget that we exist. More than two million grads are enrolled in programs across the United States, enough to form a country of our own. Yet we have dropped so far off the public screen that no television network has yet dared to air a reality show about us. It’s that bad.

As graduate students, we are not immune to the dangers that accompany our sheltered, if comfortable, existence as intellectuals-in-training. Feelings of isolation and doubt generally intensify as we advance toward our degrees, and sometimes these feelings become so intense that students drop out, abandoning their studies entirely. Without a foot on the ground, we often find ourselves indulging either in delusions of grandeur or in disaffected despondency regarding our place in the grand scheme of things. More often than not, we slip from one extreme to the other. The “I’m brilliant! No wait: I’m an idiot” routine can wear a person down. Just ask the telephone counselors at the faith-based nonprofit organization that runs the toll-free, twenty-four-hour National Graduate Student Crisis Line (1-877-GRAD-HLP).

Still, few people engage in graduate studies without becoming at least occasionally haunted by doubts over the practical application of knowledge accumulated over years of intensive training. Despite our proclivity for abstraction, many of us worry that what we do will have no “real world” impact. We are disturbed by the seemingly self-serving and hermetic nature of our research, and afraid that this is only the edge of a widening gap separating us from the populations for whom we claim to speak, but with whom we seem increasingly incapable of finding a common language.

The end result: a true discussion of our values, of what really matters, is hard to find. The interdisciplinary exchanges found on listservs managed by Brown’s Graduate Student Council center on such concerns as sublets, moving sales, and lost or stranded pets. On the rare occasions when we discuss such issues as our status, our workload, our pay, and our benefits, the debate tends to polarize the grad student body and quickly balloon out of proportion, making us lose all sense of relativity. The habit of demanding that the administration upgrade our already privileged status on the basis that we are overexploited and undercompensated—however fruitful and necessary such demands may be—would seem to preclude the very notion of “graduate volunteer work.”

And yet between courses, individual research, and our responsibilities as teaching or research assistants, can we honestly assert that we do enough for our universities, our communities, and our countries? Ours is a curiously contradictory position, and the signals we receive in response to this question are decidedly mixed. We are suspended between an undergraduate population strongly encouraged to engage in community service and a professorial corps sometimes fiercely rebuked for pursuing commitments outside the academy. The “public intellectual”—that scholar-citizen who regularly weighs in on a wide range of issues of the day—has become a throwback.

Perhaps, as the French theorist Ernest Renan argued in 1882, “to be right in the future one must sometimes be willing to appear out of fashion in the present.” Take reading, for example. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the reading of literature is quickly going out of style. In 2002, only 46.7 percent of Americans read a literary work, down from 54 percent in 1992. Only 56.6 percent of Americans read a book of any kind in 2002, a decline of 5 percent over the previous ten years. Interestingly, the report found “high correlations between the reading of literature … and volunteer work for charity organizations,” among other civic activities. The study suggests that the more people read, the more they will contribute to society. Yet graduate students represent the perfect contradiction to that observation. How ironic that we quite possibly read more than any other segment of the U.S. population, and yet we remain among the most disengaged. Let’s face it: unlike most people, we read texts rather than books, challenging everyone’s assumptions but our own.

How, then, can graduate students be true to their scholarly work while remaining, if not public intellectuals, at least publicly engaged? The success of the graduate cat rescue mission had two immediate results. Our listserv has now become the unofficial venue for locating lost parrots and finding homes for entire litters of kittens. And perhaps more promising, it has become clear that a growing number of grads here at Brown believe in the importance of maintaining strong links to one another and to the community, particularly during this period of intense training, during which we are solidifying the professional attitudes we will carry forward into our future careers. While few graduate students would dispute the all-consuming nature of their research, some seem prepared to spontaneously gather to think.

Is it such a leap to imagine a coalition of graduate students from across disciplines willing to harness their intelligence to form a kind of think tank to be employed in the service of the greater good? As specialists hailing from every field of thought, such a group could undoubtedly think its way through some fairly tough problems. From broken families to broken treaties, we might, for example, constitute a free graduate consulting service, open to individuals, community organizations, and heads of state alike. That no one else is doing it should only encourage us further; after all, Brown has an admirable history of setting trends. We need only imagine them to begin.

Meadow Dibble-Dieng is working on her doctorate in French studies.

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September / October 2004