I think we all know that it’s not enough to be “smart” and “hardworking” and a “good student” to succeed as an academic. There’s a skill set that is almost invisible and accrues over time, perhaps over generations. I see this when I talk to second-generation academics, folks who grew up around professors or parents who have advanced degrees. They know the ins and outs of how things in academia work without fully realizing that there actually are ins and outs. A word like “polished” comes to mind, but it’s more than that; it is understanding the invisible rituals that makes the classroom a second home and advanced research seem natural. Even if they are socially awkward, they have an ease about them when it comes to moving around ideas that can be foreign to those who are first-generation college students.
Well-intentioned faculty can spot talent in students who have the skills to succeed in graduate school, but they can’t always offer the view of graduate school that students need to make informed choices about when, or even if, they should go. Raw talent isn’t enough, and there is less and less time in graduate school to learn how the whole thing works.
That’s where programs like the ones organized by the Group for Underrepresented Students in Humanities Education and Research (GUSHER) come in. They offer underrepresented students an opportunity to have a hands-on experience with graduate faculty and advanced graduate students doing the work of graduate school. These programs provide housing and meals and offer a stipend so that students can afford to take time away from work to participate in them. In as much as graduate school wrecks almost everyone’s self-esteem in some way, it can be more terrifying if the processes of it are completely mystifying.
Several students of color I know have participated in some of the programs below, and they have all returned transformed. I’m not being hyperbolic. I see it not only in the quality of their writing but also in how they approach their research and how they understand the challenges of graduate school. This does not mean that they’ve all run off to get their doctorates. In fact, I was most encouraged to hear that the programs help students make informed choices about whether or not a career in the academy is the best thing for them.
For now at least, SILC at Wheaton has been discontinued, and this is truly unfortunate, but there are several other programs that are still running:
• Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program at the University of North Carolina (MURAP)
• Rutgers English Diversity Institute at Rutgers the State University of New Jersey (REDI)
• African American Literatures and Cultures Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio (AALCI)
One of the benefits of encouraging promising students to apply is that it allows for a dialogue about graduate school that happens outside of the pressure cooker of the graduate application process. I’ve taken to sending links to these programs to students who express an interest in graduate school, and even reading about the programs helps them think carefully about what it is that they actually want. Since the deadlines for these programs are in February and March, I send the links out to promising students just before they head off for winter break.
If you are a dean or a department chair, if you are on a diversity committee or work in a development office, I urge you to do the work of developing a program like this at your institution. They can be a powerful contribution to the work of developing and sustaining meaningful diversity in the academy. Good intentions and progressive ideas are great, but programs like this are even better.
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