What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Ann Elizabeth Willey

WilleyBy Ann Elizabeth Willey
Associate Professor, University of Louisville

There are a lot of things I wish I had known in graduate school: that cell phones were the future, that my first job after finishing the degree was not necessarily my last job, that no-one was ever going to pay me $10/hour to sit and read in a library ever again (thank you Northwestern University Library Core Collection!).  But perhaps the biggest surprise coming out of an active PhD program was how I was going to have to change my understanding of intellectual community.  While everyone grumbles about the hard work of actually finishing a PhD, and most remember to include a word of gratitude for their fellow students and mentors, few of us realize just what a GOOD THING we have in our graduate school cohort.

I attended a medium-sized school as part of a small interdisciplinary program.  But as part of that Interdisciplinary program, I was fortunate enough to find a robust African studies group both within my home university and throughout the city of Chicago.  African Studies were front and center and I found fertile soil in my academic home turf, regularly enriched by a parade of scholars passing through.  The (to my mind) infamous red Lion Seminars held once a month at a pub half way between Northwestern and University  of Chicago introduced me to some of the most interesting scholars in my field and allowed me to witness the process of work being introduced, shaped, and refined before publication.   The real shock of leaving graduate school for me was not primarily about the work of teaching, though this did take some adjusting, but losing that wide community of scholars who are all interested in the same texts/debates/subjects that I was.  The shared libraries that shape all our sub-disciplines are never as fully present as they are in our graduate programs (if we have chosen well).

This dispersal of fields is a necessary and good thing, but it does have ramifications for our work as scholars.  It is much harder to casually “bounce ideas” off people; you have to work much harder to find colleagues who share your inertest and your libraries.  You need to learn how to reach out to strangers to read your work; you need to make a point of going to conferences where you can meet the newness in your field.  And this era of swiftly diminishing money, you need to be able to choose the conferences that will be most helpful in developing your own work.  I walked out of a film the other night wired up and eager to talk to someone else with a deep knowledge of African film to test my own reactions to interrogate my responses.  I wrote a lot of email that night.

The moral of this story (or column) if there is truly one to be found, is to cherish your cohort now and to try to proactively develop a community of scholars.  Not likeminded—there is no challenge in that—but similarly prepared, and similarly invested in your chosen field.  And anticipate working to maintain those relationships as you leave the cocoon of graduate school for a bigger field.

Ann Elizabeth Willey received her PhD in Comparative Literature and Theory from Northwestern University in 1993. Her research interests include contemporary African literature and film, and question of gender, genre and nationalism/globalization. She has co-edited a collection of essay about the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and has published articles in journals such as Mosaic, Research in African Literatures, and The French Review.



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