To my fellow graduate students

It’s that time of year when the projects are piling up and you wonder if you’ve really matured past undergrad. I know you took that one line of criticism from your adviser to heart. I know you look around during seminars and think everyone else has it so much more together. She gets that theorist. He got laughs at his comment. And you worry that whenever you come out of your receptive silence that all you manage to do is sound foolish.

But now it’s time to “call off thoughts awhile.” Let your own heart “have more pity on,” and live to your “sad self hereafter kind.” “Leave comfort root-room; let joy size.” And yes, I’m speaking to you through the words of Hopkins because I think, more than any poet, he understands these feelings.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from working with graduate writers, it’s that we all feel this way. Some writers will come in worried about their CVs or personal statements. Others will be navigating conflicting comments from their readers and advisers. I have to remind so many that they’ve already been accepted into their programs by selective search committees. Even after a successful defense, we may wring our hands at our own worth and feel like imposters and charlatans. This is isolating, and in its very isolation, it must be false.

You belong here. I mean that. I say it unreservedly to all of you.

And you need to say it to each other.

She doesn’t know how much she understands that theorist. What she experiences is the struggle to understand and the anxious moment of saying it in front of all of us. Tell her that she was insightful.

He doesn’t know how his levity promotes the collegial environment of the seminar. What he knows is the anxiety that prompts it and the oppressive seriousness of the academy.

The only answer to this isolation we all experience is the community we create.

Once you’re a professor or an administrator, remember this. Don’t look down on your students because they are just starting and haven’t yet become you. You were once alone in the desert of imposter syndrome.

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