What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Brenda Brueggemann


Brenda and her daughter Esther, in shared whimsy, with a winning trifecta ticket at Churchill Downs.

By Brenda Brueggemann
Professor of English and
Director of Composition
University of Louisville


Things I wish I knew in graduate school or….Whimsy is the Winning Ticket

  • First: that making lists and holding myself accountable to them every day was probably going to be the fundamental skill that would make me a successful academic. For better or worse.

Generally Speaking:

  • Everything Dànielle DeVoss smartly said back in the first post in this series is The Truth. Plain. Simple. Truth. No amount of “I’m so busy now and doing sooooo many things and I can’t even can’t can’t even keep up” …. will probably compare to your faculty self 10 years in the future. (Write back to me if I’m wrong. Please. Do.)
  • You should never covet your neighbor’s CV. Instead focus on doing things by your own yardstick and in your own best way. Set a plan and path for yourself. Make your own yardsticks.
  • Writing a grant and, even more importantly, *getting* a grant is probably a bigger feather in your academic cap than, say, writing and publishing a book. Cuz money. Ka-ching. It apparently matters.
  • And oh, speaking of money. Yeap, you’re going to be paying off your graduate school debts for a very very very long time. (I didn’t realize this. Nope, I didn’t) But it is also an investment that typically does not depreciate and this too: no one can repossess it (even if you wanted them to).
  • While attending small, and more specific field/themed, conferences might not weigh as much in glitter-pounds on your cv, they will likely net you more friends and potential collaborators than the big ones like 4Cs. And you will probably get better audience interaction and thoughtful comments at those smaller conferences as well.
  • It will be much harder to make meaningful and lasting friends and colleagues as a faculty member than it was with your grad school cohort and comrades. You will miss that a lot. You will. (Write back to me if I’m wrong. Please. Do.)
  • As a new faculty member, you will probably have to make a VERY concerted effort to get a life outside of just the University. But if you do make that effort, I can guarantee you that it will pay off for a happier and healthier you. (Write back to me if I’m wrong. Please. Do.)

On WPA-World:

  • Speaking of healthy and happy knowing: Doing administrative work (which is part and parcel of our field, Rhetoric and Composition) will be a soul and time sucking take-a-turn-whether-you-really-want-to-or-not drag … If you let it be so. You get to decide. Remember that.
  • And more WPA-knowing: The Life of a WPA is complex, messy, exhilarating work. Yet this too: while you may often feel entrenched and closeted within an English department (your likely home) you will have a significant impact across the entire university. You will. Go where the love is.
  • And while we are on a WPA Roll, here are things I wish I knew before I ever first took this role (15 years ago). Being a successful WPA is best carried out with these things (in no particular order): Some organizational skills. Paying attention. Listening. Lots of patience. A sense of humor. Extra plates and napkins in your office cupboards. Kleenex on the table where you will sometimes meet with instructors and or students. The candy bowl. Supersized email ability. Some tact. A dash of decency. Fortitude with the filling out the forms, all the forms, so very many forms. Discretion in meaningful doses. Whimsy, like whipped cream, liberally sprayed over-the-top.

(Technological) Tales of Wonder

  • Someday in my future (who knew?!) there would be Facebook (and a whole lot of other social-digital things). And I would be able to reconnect with all of the cool people in my Long Ago Graduate School Cohort. (Yes, like a journey to The Land Before Time.) Gosh, I would even be able to reconnect with my high school graduating class of 16 people from Tribune, Kansas! And too, I’d be able to connect up with the many graduate students I have advised over the past 25 years. And then again, even more,, I’d be able to also connect in with the equally fabulous super people and graduate students that I currently In other words…. I would get to see and connect with my whole academic family at a big reunion almost every day if I wanted to. Now really–how wondrous is that?
  • And wow, too: A thing called Google docs/drive/slide (skip and turn too) would come along and it would absolutely change (for better) the way I work and write.
  • And even more super-wow (especially for me): that the thing called captioning (on TV)––that was just beginning when I was in graduate school–would further develop and basically save my academic life as I learned how to “become a professor” after having long successfully mastered “being a student.”

On working with graduate students

  • Reading and carefully responding to a dissertation chapter or writing a letter of reference for a grad student on the market takes far more time and care than I could have ever imagined when I was a graduate student and asking for these things. (And some of my former graduate students who now do this themselves have written to me with this confessional surprise as well.)
  • Working with one grad student is like teaching an entire composition class of 20 some undergrads. The time and weight of the work is approximately equivalent (but yes, also magnified in “meaningful and rewarding” as well).

The pale underbelly and/or the darker side

  • If you are a woman (and many of you are) I am sorry to say that you are going to be deeply shocked and probably directly hurt (at several different points in your career going forward) by how pervasive the sexism, discrimination, and pay and respect differential still exists–and even thrives–between the sexes in the Academy. I didn’t realize how protected I was from this as a graduate student myself …. But it’s serious. And real. And you are going to see it. And feel it too.
  • Every university and every department everywhere will have its sticky politics and burning issues. You will not be protected from these and you will have to pick your battles some while also learning to let go or be dragged.
  • It is important to stand up for others at your rank or below your rank that you see being treated wrongly. (I most definitely did not know about this as a graduate student.) The academy can be an isolating and uber-individualistic place. But remember Nemo: Fish are friends not food. Dial down the competitive volume and turn the bass up on the collaboration with, and care of, others.
  • If you hear yourself talking a lot about how stressed and overworked you are…push *pause*.. Then play that track back and listen to what it really sounds like. Kinda screechy and self-involved right? (And just so you know and in full self-disclosure: I have to do this about once a month myself. I do.)

Yet Unicorns and Rainbows too!

  • Finally and forcefully: Whimsy is really really important in academic life. No one ever told me that. I figured it out myself and so I’m passing it along to y’all. Final Word.

One thought on “What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Brenda Brueggemann

Comments are closed.