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Occasionally the Awkward Has Its Perks
April 10, 2012 - 9:05pm

I have now completed the last actual class of my degree. I have one Special Studies course to complete this Spring (Jane Austen and Adaptation, woo!) and then I graduate. And while I’m not yet breathing a sigh of relief and soliciting congratulations, I feel that I’m now in a position to reflect back over the course of this program a little, particularly at how I’ve experienced the dual-role I currently straddle.

I’ve worked at the University for four years, and spent half of that time enrolled in this degree.  When I first began, I had oh-so-many pre-conceived notions of how my program would look and function based on the myriad of planning discussions I had previously participated in. A bit of a laughable expectation in retrospect really, as when does the theory ever truly represent the practice?  Like most of us, a large part of my job requires sitting in on meetings, and many of them focused around the construction of graduate programs: curriculum, policies, student issues, scholarships, promotion, recruitment…

One of the topics I always found the most interesting in those committee meetings were the discussions around the construction of courses.  I find it fascinating that at this level of study, a faculty member has the opportunity to take their area of research and construct an entire syllabus around it. Not only does it allow them the chance to share their passion, but it also grants them the occasion to explore the area further, and learn new perspectives on the topic as a result of student engagement.

On the other hand, wearing my student hat grants me the opportunity to experience those same courses from the other side. However, it’s an odd experience, and I find it impossible to simply flip a switch from one identity (Graduate Studies Officer) to the other (graduate student).  For example, I try to patiently listen when my fellow students informally complain (to me or around me) about the program, faculty, administrative details, fees and so many other frustrating facets of the student experience. Often I feel genuine sympathy and understanding of where they are coming from, but occasionally it’s challenging. I know just how much work goes into the running of these programs and how many hours of debate go into every decision. However, I have to admit: being a student has actually been quite beneficial to understanding just how it feels to be a recipient of those decisions. Because I know, if something doesn’t make sense to me, then there’s certainly no way that the average student will have much more clarity.

Now the two particular courses I’ve taken this year have been masters-honours splits. This is a phenomenon I’d been hearing about since I started at the University, but had yet to experience. And of course I was totally unprepared for what that would be like. I had  (arrogantly) assumed that the undergraduate students would be so much less knowledgeable and articulate than the graduate students in those courses that I was completely taken aback when I realized the exact opposite was true. 

Cultural Studies is a multi-disciplinary program and these two courses were taught out of the Women and Gender Studies department.  Now, I have some background in feminist discourse, but it’s only one area of critical theory amongst many others I’ve been exposed to in this degree. But these honours students? It’s what they’ve been living for the past several years – their knowledge of the vocabulary and concepts around what we’re learning far surpasses that of the graduate students. I found myself so utterly humbled by those honours students for their patient guidance, particularly regarding how to handle some of the sensitive issues that the class was discussing. One student’s declaration that “this is a safe space,” reassuring us that we didn’t have to be so concerned about saying the “wrong” thing was absolutely invaluable.

This was something that never came up in committee meetings – the actual dynamic between the two levels of students. I had heard many discussions around the necessity for an increased number of pure master’s classes, countered with the practical use of resources in the split classes. Once again, the theory did not adequately describe the practice. I cannot explain just how valuable both perspectives have been to me in both roles. I think the only thing left for me to do now is to get my PhD and start teaching in these programs – the University really doesn’t have enough classes on porn!

Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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