Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

On Doing Nothing

How to succeed in graduate school without actually trying

Guess what I did today? Nothing.

Well, nothing might be putting too fine a point on it. I got up around nine, watched a little morning TV, brushed the cat, paid some bills and then got back into bed with a mystery. In the afternoon, I sat in the yard and watched the lawn. It didn’t appear to grow appreciably, but if it ever takes a giant leap upward, I’ll be there to take notes.

As a doctoral fellow in a middling English department at a middling university in a not-so-middling town, I have achieved absolute leisure. My days make life in a retirement village look busy.

I know what you’re thinking. What about those harried, neurasthenic grad students, grown pale and thin after hours deep in the library stacks? What about Paradise Lost? What about Spenser? What about Wordsworth’s “Prelude”? Nope, no longer relevant. Even the professors haven’t read that stuff. The truth about graduate study: you can get by on a wing and a skim of Walter Benjamin.

But it helps to know your way around. Here are a few useful tips to keep in mind along the path to nectar and ambrosia.

Talk the Talk: All professions have a specialized vocabulary that can take years to learn properly. A few choice bits of jargon, however, will get you there in a heartbeat. “Rhetoric of space,” “performativity” and “essentialist” go a long way, especially if used in concert with “gender,” “power” and “marginalized.” Feeling uncertain about the meanings of some of the aforementioned? Don’t worry about it—the imposition of a coherent reading on a literary work is simply an act of patriarchal domination. See how easy it is?

Buyer Beware: Do not, repeat, do not buy the texts. Buying texts is expensive—you don’t have the green for that! Just make a beeline for the library after the first class and check out all necessary titles for the entire semester before anyone else does. However (and this is most important), do not read them. Reading academic works is hard, time-consuming and boring. You’re better off studying chapter titles and the first few pages of the introduction. Cliffs Notes are still a handy tool, as is (it goes without saying) the Internet.

Show Up: The average course load in graduate school is three classes per semester, so plan to schedule nine or ten hours a week in the classroom. This will be grueling, so come prepared: liquids and snacks are a must—and don’t be afraid to interrupt the professor if he or she talks into your break. Breaks are crucial, as the official five minutes naturally expands into fifteen or twenty.

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: In seminar, you will have at least one, and probably two, fellow students who want to talk. Using the appropriate terminology, encourage them whenever possible, for example: “Mary, I totally agree with your point about transgender identity constructions in Moby Dick …” By participating in class, you’ve helped Mary do what Mary does best. Everyone’s happy. Mary can be trusted to verbally ejaculate about Ishmael’s transgender identity issues for at least twenty minutes while you pick the lint balls off your sweater.

Write What You Know: Worried your writing skills aren’t up to snuff? No problem. Just fill your prose with your best jargon, use footnotes and don’t forget to put a colon in your title (“Truth or Consequences: The Decentered Subject in George Eliot’s Middlemarch”). You’re guaranteed a high-flying grade. Clarity in academic writing is a mug’s game. Google “Judith Butler” and you’ll see what I mean.

If the above is still too much work, I’d advise Film Studies—all you have to do is watch the movie! You may be thinking, Why get a PhD if you’re not actually going to learn anything? Clearly, you’ve missed the point. My recommendation to all you hard-nosed realists: get a job.

Dramatis Personae: The Graduate Seminar


The Hipster: Reads only Adorno, Benjamin and Foucault, in that order. Will not read any Derrida published after ’68. Wears leather. Has pierced eyebrow. Is planning grad student conference on The Matrix Reloaded.

The Do-Gooder: Dropped out of master’s program in social work to get a PhD or used to work at battered women’s shelter. Believes literature can change people’s lives. Does not wear leather. Eats dried apricots and nuts during class.

The High School Teacher: Taught high school in the inner city for four years and is just glad to be able to sleep past seven. Prefaces most remarks with “When I used to teach high school English …” Would like to believe that literature can change lives, but knows better.


The Eli: Will mention having gone to Yale at least twice in all conversations. Does not subscribe to Harold Bloom’s theories, but frequently refers to Bloom as “Harold.” Speaks five languages including Mandarin. Is privately despondent about not having gotten into Yale, but publicly declares that graduate study at Yale is “so over.”

The Prolonger: Will, in every single class, ask the professor a question five minutes before class is over that will keep everyone in the seats for an extra half-hour. Likes to bring up obscure texts that no one else has read. Brings handouts, even and especially when not required. Emails seminar notes to everyone the night after class is over.

The Professor: Wears sneakers. Will not lecture, discourse, speak at any length or in any way teach, since teaching, as everyone knows, is another form of political domination. Is mourning the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but admits it’s all been downhill since season four. Principal goal: to acquire an on-campus parking space.