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2017, Dec 30

I want to acknowledge the difficulty of graduate school here. In probably most any humanities PhD program, there is no reliable way to grasp your own progress, because the field itself is so expansive, and the skills that you’re meant to “develop” are not easily measured. In short, there’s just not enough time to read everything in your field. There will always be hundreds of essays and books that you haven’t read, and so your knowledge will always remain incomplete. Dealing with this realization is an existential and emotional challenge. In my case, I entered my program with literally no background in my field; I’d never taken an art history class until I started grad school. I felt acutely aware of this “deficiency,” and it seemed to me that I would never be able to find my feet under me, as it were. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I often thought of leaving my program. I didn’t drop out, so what changed? Certainly not a sudden revelation from on high of newfound “mastery,” let alone an institutional validation (gold star!) that would confer upon me some unassailable position. No, instead I learned to accept that every scholar has deficiencies, not just the ones who started graduate school without any background in their field. Why even think of this negatively, anyway—perhaps this lack is constitutive in some way. In any case, after the trials and tribulations of courses, I’ve come to realize that there’s just no reason to worry about “mastering” a field. That’s a fiction. Getting to that point, though, is probably easier said than done.

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