What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. Bruce Horner

I take this forum as a rare and welcome opportunity to give advice, an opportunity I relish (ask my family) to the point that I must restrain myself.  So I will offer my advice (as advice seems to come) only in pieces, and I limit myself to only four. five. six.

Piece 1: Don’t assume the answer is no to what you would like to do, despite what you might fear or expect; policies are always works in process, subject to contest.

At one point in my graduate career (I call it a career because it lasted eight years), I won a coveted year-long fellowship intended to allow its recipients to devote themselves to writing their dissertations.  However, I contracted a serious case of pneumonia, with the consequence that instead of studying and writing, I spent much of that year in bed, coughing and running a fever.  Meanwhile, those seemingly in the know in the department had already identified the person who would likely succeed me as the next year’s winner of the fellowship, and I had resigned myself to the prospect of working part-time while attempting to complete my dissertation.

Then a faculty member suggested to me, slyly, that I reapply for the fellowship, noting that there was no good reason, just an assumption, that I couldn’t be awarded it twice.  Much to the surprise and consternation of many, I did re-apply, and I was awarded the fellowship for a second year.  Had I gone with the widely shared assumption that I was not eligible for a second year, I would not have asked for and received the second year of fellowship, and probably would not have completed my dissertation.

My dissertation itself crossed the disciplinary borders of musicology, rhetoric, and literary study (to the point that it included harmonic analyses of musical examples, and required the guidance of an eminent Bach scholar serving on the committee).  It thus did not conform at all to conventional expectations for a doctoral dissertation for a degree in English.  But no one told me I couldn’t, and so I did.

Piece 2: Don’t let the “brightness” of other people blind you to what’s important.  (This applies both to faculty and your colleagues.)  Some of the most self confident, well read, and articulate among my fellow graduate students, singled out at the time by prominent faculty as up and coming stars, never completed their degrees, never published, and ultimately left the academy.  And faculty who did not seem to shine nearly so brightly as others in the hothouse atmosphere of grad school were full of insights from which I benefited—“Embers live when flames doe die,” Thomas Campion reminds us (A Book of Ayres, 1601).

Piece 3: Teaching and learning writing is, or can be, a site of intellectual inquiry for you and your students, if you can stay humble about what you think you know about writing and its teaching and learning.

Being an academic, especially in composition, means being a teacher, first and foremost.  If you don’t like to teach composition, get out of the profession, for your own sake and for the sake of the profession. Fortunately, teaching can be an unending spring of intellectual energy and excitement for you and your students.  It was through teaching that I came to composition from music and “creative” writing when, to my astonishment, serendipitously, I was awarded a teaching assistantship to teach FYC.  Teaching composition struck me then and still strikes me as an endless source of intellectual energy and fascination.  It’s what keeps me going, keeps me up at night.  And it does so because I’ve learned to see my work with my students as just that: intellectual work, for us all, investigating fundamental questions of writing.

Piece 4: The courses you teach are a tiny piece of what affects students, and in any case, the effects of your teaching are indeterminate.

This might seem to contradict Piece 3, but the contradiction is only apparent.   Recognizing that our teaching constitutes a tiny and indeterminate force in what happens to students can free us to be more usefully engaged with our students in the work of studying writing.  No need to ensure student production of some chimerical masterpiece, or to imagine our courses ought to or might help solve all the social ills with which we are all beset.  Paradoxically, I got better at teaching when I stopped trying to be perfect, or to make my students or their writing somehow perfect.  Like the advice (you should know by now) not to comment on every aspect of every piece of student writing that comes your way, we shouldn’t imagine we can or need to or should try to do it all through our teaching.  Leave some work for your students (and others) to do, since they’re going to do it anyway.  Take comfort in the fact that students will very likely survive your mistakes and foibles.  Respect their ability to do so.  Of course, we should try to do well by our students, and we can do some good, sometimes, for some people. That’s good enough, and, in any event, the most we can do.

Piece 5: Focus on the most mundane aspects of writing and its teaching, those that seem entirely insignificant, or matters long settled (e.g. “What is correct writing?”), rather than on whatever happens to be the sexy topic du jour.  Early on, I found that the kinds of writing courses, and features of writing, that most teacher-scholars saw as unworthy of attention and beneath contempt were in fact rich sites of inquiry.  For me, at that time, these were courses in “basic writing” and, more specifically, the question of error.  Focusing on the seemingly mundane will allow you more time and space for yourself (others will be simply uninterested, and astonished that you are interested), and you can use that time and space to do slow, patient, useful work on matters that, precisely because they are “mundane,” in fact matter a great deal, if only we can understand how to understand them.

Piece 6: Embrace your inner academic.  There’s enormous and increasing pressure on academics to be something else—part of a larger cultural wave of anti-intellectualism.  One consequence is that academics themselves—perhaps especially those in comp/rhet—tend, perversely, to disparage the ordinary work of academic life, or to be apologetic about their academic lives, and to present themselves as instead really something resolutely, recognizably un-academic—musicians, community activists, chefs, TV addicts, pop culture fans.  Of course, there’s more to life than work (or so I’ve been told).  But there is also the life of work.  And while it’s true that, often enough, something seemingly un-academic can lead to, and be an important part of, our academic projects, and vice versa (for example, my non-academic, activist work on immigrant rights issues in Iowa led me to investigate language politics), we can’t, and shouldn’t, pretend not to be academics, even as we’re also much besides.  Not everyone needs to or should be an academic, and there is worth in all work.  But just because not everyone enjoys academic work doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t.  So don’t apologize for being an academic or enjoying academic work—own it.


My work explores the political economy of language difference and language theory in writing, academic institutions, professional academic disciplinarity, and academic labor—including the labor of teaching, research, and student writing—most recently in Rewriting Composition: Terms of Exchange (2016) and Translinguality, Transmodality, and Difference: Exploring Dispositions and Change in Language and Learning (2015)—less recently in Reworking English in Rhetoric and Composition: Global Interrogations, Local Interventions (2014); Cross-language Relations in Composition (2010); and Terms of Work for Composition: A Materialist Critique (2001).  Currently I am exploring the uses of a mobilities paradigm for understanding academic literacies and the production and circulation of knowledge, and the potential for a rapprochement between cultural and new materialisms.  

Dr. Bruce Horner is an Endowed Chair in Rhetoric and Composition. 



One thought on “What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School by Dr. Bruce Horner

Comments are closed.