The writing group has talked for two weeks, first about failure and then about success. Upon reflection I notice that I was tracked for failure — it was a foregone conclusion that one would not get an academic job; in graduate school one could see that only white men in certain fields got fellowships, and they were the ones who got jobs; the others, and the women and minorities supported ourselves by teaching, and most minorities left after the M.A.; one could do the Ph.D but was only being brought along for the ride, and the academic career would end at graduation. Then one would see what one did; in the meantime one was having an interesting academic career and one was having it now.
For me this meant low stress — I was amazed and grateful to be passing and had no idea I was considered to be a good student and that this impression grew each year, as others dropped out (and I continue to see them as having found something else to do, that would keep them better employed and in the area, and not as having failed). It also meant that I worked easily, without fear for the future or ego involvement, and this really is the way to do it, it is very pleasant. We were also fully funded in those days, even if just from teaching, and I was not thinking about savings or real estate or retirement funds, so it seemed there was an interesting life to be had and nothing to lose.
Being tracked to fail, though, also means you are being tracked to serve, and not to take your work seriously — and not to have the wherewithal to defend it. I did not have the faintest idea how competent I had become, that is to say I assumed everyone was at least as competent as I — how could they not be if I, as I thought, was hitting the minimum one needed to pass, every time?
Being tracked to fail also means being tentative and offhand, in what concerns one’s own work. This is frustrating if one wants to use and develop all of one’s intellectual power, and enjoys taking things as far as they can go. This post is also a response to Research as a Second Language, on allowing oneself to be serious about the degree (or not).