May 14, 2013. The end of my first year in a history Ph.D. program.

I did my undergraduate years in a gloriously “traditional” manner. Eighteen, freshman year, assigned to a dorm with a roommate–luckily we fell into the lifelong friends category. We had another girl (although I would have said “woman” back then) who often stayed with us because she and her two roommates fell into the stone-cold adversaries category. I bought a meal plan and remained on campus for my part-time job, my room-and-board, my classes, my friends, my social life, my relaxation, exercise, love life, etc. etc. The college was the town.

I did my master’s program in a “mostly-traditional” manner. Twenty-six years old. Two years in a quirky, tiny apartment in the groovin’ downtown of a small city, just big enough to have two colleges and three “parts of town.” I met people who were not attending grad school and built a social network off-campus. I took road trips and threw together dinner parties and card nights with red wine. I devoted almost every moment to either my studies or my fun–I had no other real demands. I was a funded grad student in my twenties in my nation-of-origin doing research in a department with no Ph.D. students–so I got lots of support and guidance and attention. Academia magic.

I am doing my Ph.D. in a thoroughly “nontraditional” manner. Forty-three years old and a homeowner. I’ve been teaching at a community college and alternative schools–surrounded by the tumult and pressures of 21st-century democracy and education. I failed to anticipate the extreme nature of my nontraditional-ness and the extraordinary dissonance it would trigger when I entered a niche still entrenched in tradition.

I am older than a few professors in the department, which causes some weirdness since I feel collegial with them rather than subordinate. I drive several miles to campus from my house–I have other priorities in my daily life. Family, mortgage, bird nests in the attic, dog vomit in the living room, adult obligations like my friends’ birthday and graduation parties for their kids, multiple insurance premiums, and sales at the grocery store so I can stock up on a particular pantry item. Simple comforts have become more important than grand ambitions or riotous fun. I like playing in the garden, finding lady’s slippers on a hike in the woods, throwing together a crazy cheese and olive platter with my man, clean towels after a shower, sitting under an umbrella on a sunny day.

I’ve also been teaching for almost 20 years. So the usual TA anxieties about grading, undergrads, and authority flutter past me like gnats. I’m not a peer to those TAs… I could be a mentor. But I’m not a mentor because they’re third-year grad students. I’m also 15 years older and did not follow any established path, as many of them are in the midst of doing.

I also know the vicious truth about graduate research because I left academia and worked in the rest-of-the-world. Grad research does not mean anything to 98.2% of the U.S. population. Those students who travel from high school/private school to college to grad school to post-doc fellowship to university teaching have an absolutely different perspective on prioritizing research vs. teaching (vs. other duties… since many Ph.D. students will not become professors or even teachers). I value, celebrate, and advocate liberal arts & sciences education with all the enthusiasm I’ve always had. Such education explodes the mind, shifts lenses, and transforms individuals. Research–in conference papers, academic journals, monographs, and textbooks–serves a critical role in that formal education… but it mostly stops at the border between college and the rest-of-the-world (some policy and documentaries are the exception). If humanities academics want to be relevant beyond the niche of their peers and the liberal arts & sciences, they will have to conceive of research and its dissemination, teaching, outreach, and media in new ways. But grad research continues in a traditional manner…

So the grad school system remains aligned with a 19th-century model of a top-down master-apprentice relationship–based on an economic system (with its gender, race, learning, and product traditions) that has little relevance to the more fluid realities of the current economy or to the brutal conditions of the academic job market. Most Ph.D.s (especially in the humanities) will not become tenure-track professors… then they are not actually apprenticing. Right? I find my nontraditional-ness highlights such inadequacies, embedded in the stubborn notion that a 200-year-old apprenticeship model can provide (1) the teaching skills required for the 21st century and (2) an awareness of the full range of possibilities for the job search. The democratizing of education (the variety of students, backgrounds, technologies, ages) also pushes at a model developed for the elite of 19th-century European cities.

I have found ways to make peace with my nontraditional-ness. Younger students have also discovered ways to relate to me without assumptions. (Often the assumptions were paradoxical: I was old so I must be married with kids–but I was a grad student so I must want to complain about the undergrads’ lack of interest in the course material, which I actually see as typical of contemporary American adolescence.) Nothing about grad school itself has fostered these unique dynamics for the young students or for me. Instead, they wedged through the cracks, sought the openings. A way to grow and spin.

But I do recommend more middle-aged students in grad schools. Such demographic change often pushes reform.