What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Karen Chandler

KC on porchBy Karen Chandler
Associate Professor, University of Louisville

My first year of graduate school was challenging not only because of the need to adjust to the demands of Penn’s English department but also because of troubling changes affecting my family that I witnessed from afar. These included close uncles’ and cousins’ illness and my mother’s adjustment to our St. Louis neighborhood’s decline. The various pressures came to a head the week just before my first semester ended when I, hoarse from crying, called the graduate office to explain I would have to miss final classes, reschedule an exam, and possibly delay submitting my seminar papers. One of my uncles had died from cancer in Oklahoma City, and I needed to be with my family there.

Much later, when I was teaching at Colgate, a colleague learned that my husband lived in Maine and that I had other family in the Midwest and Southwest. She said, “Your real life isn’t here then. It’s with your family.” Although I believed this to some extent, what I wish I had known back in graduate school is that my real life encompassed distant and immediate challenges and connections. It encompassed the provisional and more lasting experiences of my academic, professional, and personal life. In my first year in graduate school, I often felt as if I wasn’t quite there, as if I had left my real life with my family back home. Yet I know things were more complicated, for I did make a life for myself at Penn, a life rich in books, film, ideas, and new friends and family.

When I returned to Penn in the days after my uncle’s funeral, students that I barely knew came up to greet me. They asked how I was doing and commiserated with me about having to write papers for this or that professor. One of the program’s star students told me, “If I’d left to attend a funeral when you did, I wouldn’t have come back.” It was hard for me to believe her, but the two of us connected at that moment in a way we had not before. Before she left me, she put quarters in my copier so that I could Xerox a journal article I needed for an essay I was writing.

Graduate school can be a demanding experience in which judgmental strangers and alien procedures may seem to predominate. In navigating the experience, it is advisable to find ways to maintain important personal ties and priorities. Whether that’s family, a love of the arts, or walks in a nature preserve, finding ways to feel grounded and carve off and protect a sense of self and community is very, very important. For me, that meant keeping my hand in my family’s affairs, as well as developing a network of friends at and beyond Penn. Doing so helped keep academia in perspective and helped me properly understand academia’s roles and my place within it.

I am currently writing a book about children’s literature about nineteenth-century African American life. I am also co-editing a special issue of CLAQ on black literature and genre. My recent publications include essays in the journals Children’s Literature in Education and The Looking Glass.

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