A Day in the Life: What Do They REALLY Mean When They Say, “Grad Students (Academics) Need Flexible Minds”?

I have fallen behind in posting the “Week in Review” thanks to end-of-the-term insanity, but I do promise to retroactively get those up so you can see why I temporarily abandoned you, Dear Readers. In the meanwhile, today’s post examines a topic I think we don’t often consider, which is just how much, of what kinds, of intelligences it takes to get through a typical day in the life of a typical humanities graduate student.

You’ve probably heard professors and/or other academics talking about “the life of the mind”, or saying things like “you need a flexible mind”, “you need to be open-minded”, or “you need a supple mind” for graduate study and/or a career in academia. But, what does all of that actually boil down to, in real time?

In real time, as a graduate student with a teaching assistantship, your workdays are likely to revolve around the tripartite of academia– research, teaching, and service–to a greater or lesser degree. This, in turn, requires you to be able to change gears–sometimes, with very little or no advance notice–in order to accomplish the task(s) or solve the problem(s) at hand. It requires fluency and flexibility in multiple intelligences. My “Week in Review” posts show you what that looks like broadly over the course of a week, but in this post I’m breaking it down so you can more specifically how, as a graduate student, you might be expected to engage mentally with everyday activities and responsibilities.

The day I’m describing in this post is a REAL day in my own graduate student experience, chosen at random from my planner (Tuesday, April 15, for those who want to know which day). This is a typical Tuesday schedule for me, in that I chose a day when I did not have extra meetings and/or deadlines or last-minute items to clear off of my to-do list. As such, it should give a nice snapshot of the kinds of situations you might well be expected to navigate intellectually over the course of a graduate student workday.

So, without further ado, here we go… a field trip to the life of the mind:

9:00 a.m. Arrive on campus and dash over to the library to get a book I need for research. (Intellectual work being performed: negligible, since I already looked up and wrote down the call number for this book.)

9:15 a.m. Arrive at office, pick up materials needed for the first class I’m teaching today (English 101) and brief check through emails to see if any students have given a heads-up concerning absence from class today. (Intellectual work being performed: advance organizing for class, logistics in terms of making sure I have what I need to do the job)

9:30-10:45 a.m. Teach English 101. (Intellectual work being performed: logistics–taking attendance, getting students arranged for groupwork, making sure assignment is clear, taking attendance, passing back graded work, taking up new work to be graded; organization–dividing students into working groups, breaking down the class components so they know what to expect (“first, we’ll….then, we’ll…and we’ll finish with…”); didactic and pedagogic–instructing students to the process and product  for the task at hand, using educational philosophy and theory in practice; social–making sure tone of delivery is clear and inviting and students feel free to ask questions; emotional–scanning the room and picking up on anxieties, concerns, worries, and other possibly interfering feelings or moods of students)

11:00-12:15 p.m. Office Hours. Make cup of tea to fuel myself. Grade a set of quizzes, enter those grades into gradebook and then transfer to Blackboard. Discuss concern over a potentially plagiarized assignment with a fellow graduate student TA to get advice. Review students’ Blackboard discussions from last week in preparation for class in the afternoon. Discuss “Game of Thrones” with another graduate student TA. Fill out a form for a student asking for a recommendation. Skim through the reading for afternoon class. Answer student emails asking for assignment extension, checking on absences, clarifying a syllabus point; answer an email from my editor requesting clarification on the anthology for the textbook I’m writing; answer email from one of the writers for the anthology soliciting feedback on his chapter, send emails to writers of missing chapters prodding them to turn them in ASAP. Receive an email notifying me that a friend from another institution posted on Facebook that he passed his comps; scoot over there to leave a “Congratulations!” message on his wall, respond to two other academic-related FB posts from friends. Print out assignment sheet for final essay to hand out to afternoon class. Think I have time to consult the book I checked out earlier; pull it toward me, start reading, get interrupted to speak with two students who come to office hours–one, asking to go over her graded paper from one class that I teach, the other, asking to review the questions she plans to ask for her oral presentation in the other class. Half an eye on the clock at this point; finish talking to second student just in time to get to the other building to hold class. (Intellectual work being performed: multitasking with a vengeance. Office hours require so much code-switching that sometimes, I’m more tired after that hour of “down time” than I am after an hour of teaching! Today, for example, based on the description above concerning what happened during office hours, I have to organize which class I’m grading for and therefore, which rubric I’m grading against; I have to shift tone to discuss a serious issue with someone who is a colleague and peer, change to a social mode to engage in a conversation on popular culture, and then move back into a didactic mode to review and consider how to incorporate student online work into real-time class discussion; I then have to adjust my tone to meet the needs and expectations of students which also ensuring the information I am presenting them with adheres to the syllabus and organization of different classes, and then switch gears to answer emails from a variety of people on a variety of topics, using appropriate discourse suited to each individual to whom I am writing.)

(And you thought professors just sat around looking at Facebook and paying their bills during office hours…..)

12:30-1:45 p.m. Teach English 104. (Intellectual work being performed: logistics–taking attendance, taking attendance, passing back graded work, going over expectations for the essay; organization–breaking down the class components so they know what to expect (“first, we’ll….then, we’ll…and we’ll finish with…”); didactic and pedagogic–instructing students via discussions that I moderate and real-time literary analysis that I first lead them through and then ask them to perform on their own, using educational philosophy and theory in practice; social–making sure tone of delivery is clear and inviting and students feel free to ask questions; emotional–scanning the room and picking up on anxieties, concerns, worries, and other possibly interfering feelings or moods of students; calling on students who seem to want to speak but are too shy to do it on their own recognizance; making a mental note to email third row, fourth seat in about being online during class.)

2:00-3:00 p.m. Graduate Student Association Executive Board Meeting. We hold these a week in advance of the general assemblies, to discuss the agenda. In this meeting I am responsible for setting the Finance agenda, since I am the Vice-President of Finance. Just prior, I have dashed from the class I teach to the GSA Office to review and print out the current budget summaries. (Intellectual work being performed: a complete code-switch from academic and scholastic endeavors to financial matters, including questions and issues of funding allotments, dealing with a financial surplus, setting an agenda for the general assembly to discuss these issues, for instance–and from teaching mode to professional address and speech patterns while meeting with what are, essentially, business colleagues as well as fellow graduate students. Communication and social skills — EQ– are at the forefront of my thinking patterns at this point in the day.)

3:00-4:00 p.m. GSA Office Hours. I hold office hours twice weekly, during which I respond to emails asking about our funding practices and policies and clarifying questions about how to fill out the paperwork; review applications for funding and make sure all the paperwork is correct, keep track of how much money is awarded, to whom, for what via Excel spreadsheets, track down individuals who are late in submitting their paperwork, and send reminders to individuals who have missing paperwork; then take the completed paperwork to our business and office managers, dependent upon which funds they are from. (Intellectual work being performed: Math/calculations, organization, logistics, budgeting, social/communications.)

4:00-5:45 p.m. Research and Reading. Grab coffee and a snack. Head to library. Unexpectedly run into fellow graduate student; switch gears to make small talk about nothing of consequence for a few minutes, flee as soon as possible to quiet space because I have too much to do to really engage in a conversation right now. Review reading for tonight’s class; then read an article for my essay on feasts in Middle English mystical texts, taking copious notes; read another article and consult a chapter in the book I picked up earlier in preparation for my essay on exile in the Lai of Emare. (Intellectual work being performed: reading for a variety of purposes and projects, which means I have to think about what I’m reading and why I’m reading it, and make appropriate adjustments in terms of my attention level and what I’m paying attention to; for tonight’s class reading, I need to understand character, plot, setting, theme, symbolism, and the connection between this text and the other texts we have read in class; for the article on mystical literature, I need to focus on central argument and the resources that author used as possible resources for me to consult in my own writing; for the article and chapter on lai of Emare, I’m looking for specific material to support the argument I’m making in my own essay.) All the while, I’m considering how these texts fit into my overall research agenda, and how they connect to other scholarship I’ve read.

5:45-6:15 p.m. Go to Park and Ride to get car and bring it to campus– to save money on parking, I buy the cheapest pass, which is the park and ride. You park in a lot about a mile away from campus and are bussed in(on nice days, I just walk so I get some exercise and a break from the intellectual work!) After 3:30, you can park on campus–so on Tuesday nights when I’m on campus really late for class, I take this afternoon break to bring my car to campus so that I don’t have to rush after class to get it (the last Park and Ride bus comes around at 9:45, and classes end at 9:30.) Intellectual work being performed: nothing of consequence–just a mental review and preparation for class tonight.

6:20-6:30 5 p.m. Unexpected run-in with a student who wants to know if I can discuss his thesis for his final paper. Immediate switch-gears out of logistics mode (get to class on time! Must use bathroom first!) and into didactic mode (student needs help! Must help, but quickly!) requiring re-organizing of thinking from my work as a student in one class, to his work as a student in another class, and then a filtering of that into writing instruction and essay organization principles. We resolve the problem and he seems comfortable with the solution. Dash to class.

6:30 (okay, okay, 6:35; I was a little late because I met with the student)-9:30 p.m. English 537. This is the final course I’m taking, and it’s in my major, with my dissertation director. It’s also a mixed class with undergraduate and graduate students, among whom there is only one other medievalist. It’s difficult intellectually for me because I have to remember NOT to teach–I’m the student, I’m the student, I’m the student!–and not to get carried away in elaborate responses with lots of extra information, which will just overwhelm many of the other students who do not have my background in medieval studies. At the same time, I need to be participating actively in the discussion, but also considering how these texts fit into the bigger picture of my own work as a scholar. I’m accessing multiple levels of thinking and meaning at any given time–answer his question, support her point with a contextual aside, consider how his point underscores something I’ve been thinking about, connect this discussion to last week’s discussion, recall suddenly a similar discussion I’ve had in one of my classes, offer a summary of my students’ response as a possible aid to these students’ thinking, revise my own thinking on a different point based on someone else’s comment…….) When you are paying attention and actively engaged not only with class discussion, but also with the materials you are discussing, being a student is EXHAUSTING mental work.

9:30-10:45 p.m. or so — go to the pub next to our building for a nightcap. This is a tradition with our evening classes. We grab a beer and sit and hash out what happened in class alongside any other subject that floats our boat. A couple of us are always there, but the rest are a rotating cast of characters, so we adjust our conversations accordingly; making sure to bring the newcomers up to speed if we are revisiting something that was discussed at a different such meeting, for example, so they feel included. (Intellectual work being performed: summary, synthesis, communication, social and emotional.)

So– when “they” say you need a flexible mind to be a good graduate student, what they mean is that you need to be able to navigate multiple discourse communities, using multiple means of access, in order to communicate and problem solve effectively for a variety of situations that you may, or may not, have been expecting when you woke up this morning. While it seems as though all academics do all day is read books and talk about them, in reality you are constantly bombarded by stimuli from so many different sources–your fellow graduate students, your professors, your own students, administrators and administrative assistants, other people you work with in committee, the books and articles you are reading, emails and other communication forms–that at times, it can become overwhelming. You need to develop the ability to shift seemingly effortlessly from one communications mode into another–to talk with a student about a plagiarism case, and then turn around and discuss your research with your academic advisor, and then run into someone in the hall on your way to class and remember to ask him about HIS research, and then discuss some pop culture matters with your class as an icebreaker prior to heading into the day’s lesson. You need to be able to shift intellectual gears from communication to scholarship, and from there, to be able to organize your work in terms of logistics (what things are, when they are due, the requirements for them) and in terms of how you approach them (what am I reading this for/ what information do I need from this text?) And, you need to remember to be a human being–talk to other people about things besides your work and your workload.

For some people, this all comes fairly naturally; once they understand what is being asked of them, they can produce such flexibility easily. For others, some of these kinds of intelligence come more easily than others, and they tend to do better in those areas and may need to work on improving the other ones (introverted researchers who avoid contact with other people whenever possible, I’m looking at you!) However, what is important to realize is that most people CAN train their minds to achieve this degree of flexibility–it simply requires training, practice, assessment, adjustment, and reflection. In other words, this suppleness of intellect, the ability to move freely from one discourse mode to the next in order to solve problems and communicate effectively with others, is part of what you are in graduate school to learn.

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of graduate school, particularly for those of us who have friends and family who are not involved in academia. It is very difficult to explain to someone who has not really experienced it, how mentally and emotionally arduous this work is, and how exhausted you can become while doing it. To them, you’re living the Life of Riley–sitting around, reading books all day, occasionally standing in front of a class to give a lecture. (How can you be tired? All you do is read all day, right?) Your students don’t understand why you can’t just grade thirty essays in a weekend (ummmmmm… because I have to both consider my own rubric and assessment choices and also figure out how your mind is working in order to access your thinking, which means essentially that I’m jumping between consciousnesses every time I start reading through a new essay, and have YOU ever tried to be thirty different people in a 24-hour period?!) Your family doesn’t understand why you don’t want to just switch tracks and go to the Mall “to relax” (Overstimulated! Overstimulated! PLEASE, no more lights/sounds/sights/scents!) Your parents and siblings want to know how reading and talking about books is as exhausting as, say, working an 8-hour retail shift or construction work. You can try to explain it, but in the end unless the people in your life have themselves navigated these higher levels of academia, they’re probably not going to understand that in many ways, it really is “a life of the mind” and that that life of the mind really does constitute work as difficult in its own way as is dealing with irritated consumers or making sure the foundation you’re building is plumb, square, and level.

So, you knew grad school wasn’t going to be easy–but what you may not have realized is just how difficult it actually is–not because of the workload itself, necessarily, but because of the vast amounts and myriad kinds of intellectual work you have to learn to perform in order to succeed at that workload. So, the next time you come home after a seemingly ordinary day of teaching and reading and fall into bed exhausted, don’t beat yourself up over it. Your brain has been on hyper over-drive for the past 10-12 hours. You earned that sleep. And I promise, it does get easier with practice. You might even get to a point–as I have–where it’s kind of fun to see how much you can really accomplish in a day.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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