The myth of tenacity

A flurry of grad-school-reform postings lately, on Invisible Adjunct and Critical Mass. I haven’t felt much need to charge into the fray, for once. Mostly it’s nothing I haven’t already said. The good that comes out of it is that more people say it and more people read it—and, I dearly hope, more people believe it.

I do, however, want to quarrel, respectfully, with this:

More than anything, a PhD represents a higher level of the same thing a BS stands for: not intelligence, knowledge, talent, or luck — tenacity.

First of all, any attempt to boil down grad school success into a magic elixir (preferably one a newbie student can drink; they do ask for them, these newbies) is doomed, doomed, doomed. Every unhappy department is unhappy in its own way, and all that. The most you can ever do is improve your odds relative to the other grad students around you, and even that probably not by much.

Secondly, I’m not at all sure, based on my own case and that of others I know, that what’s really going on deserves the label tenacity. “Inertia” is more like it, I fear. I’m here, says the hapless grad student, and I haven’t got a clue in Gehenna what else to do with myself or my life except this, much though it’s not helping me or anybody else. If I leave, I’m a worthless failure, a quitter. I’ll sink into the gaping maw of Starbucks and never emerge again. I’d, um, better stay.

This is tenacity? It wasn’t when I had those thoughts. Nuh-uh. Tenacity implies an active choice to cling to something, not passively being carried along out of inability to imagine anything else. Or out of fear of the outside world.

Let’s consider, just for fun, my own so-called tenacity. I’ve often said I should have quit after the MA. Why did I persist, and what did it gain me?

Well. I got a black mark against my name for complaining about the MA exams. I had a summer’s work invalidated because it took place during the wrong six weeks. To avoid losing the money I lived on, I got forced into an overload and a pedagogically worthless extra project. I got threatened with being hauled up before the dean over a joke. My adviser dumped work on me that nobody else wanted to do, and then rated me like a five-year-old when I couldn’t find time to do it.

And what did I say to all this? Thank you, sir/ma’am, may I have another. Thank you sir/ma’am, may I have another. Thank you, sir/ma’m, may I have another. Until I finally shattered like a glass teardrop.

That’s all tenacity is, in more cases than I care to think about. Willingness to suffer abuse. Over and over and over again. Without complaint. Without demur. Without, heaven help us all, so much as question.

I tell you what, I don’t believe that sort of tenacity is any good to anyone.

I tell you the kind of tenacity I admire, though: the kind that learns to live again, after going through this. The kind that with no help and no guideposts claws its way out of the pit toward new generativity, that learns to negotiate with the world instead of hunkering down to endure in silence. The kind that despite contempt and incomprehension from former colleagues stands up to denounce what needs denunciation.

I admire that style of tenacity quite a lot.