“Because it’s good for you”

I’ve always been a big fan of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  So much so that at one point in my childhood, my parents decided that my brother and I needed to read something else for a while, and they put all the Calvin and Hobbes collections on top of a high bookshelf in their room.  That didn’t last long.  Anyway, in the strip, Calvin’s dad is always telling him that he needs to take out the trash (or shovel the driveway, or go camping with the family, or basically anything Calvin doesn’t want to do) because “it builds character.”

I was reminded of Calvin’s dad this week when the grad students in my department received an email from the enthusiastic new faculty member in charge of Journal Club.  Evidently I’m not the only grad student who has been staying away: just three students were in attendance this week, and that is apparently an unacceptably low number.

In addition to singing the praises of the talks that we all chose to miss, the email finished by telling us that we should come to Journal Club because it,

will help you learn how to be successful as a postdoc.

This irritated me.  (In a roll-your-eyes kind of way; I’m not upset about it and I certainly don’t feel guilty about my lack of attendance.)

For one, it’s extremely condescending, albeit unintentionally.  With the possible exception of the first-years, the grad students aren’t avoiding Journal Club because we don’t know what it’s about, or because we haven’t realized that speaking and listening and presenting are valuable skills for us to have.  We’re not attending Journal Club because we’ve tried it, been unimpressed, and have decided that there are far more productive ways to use our time.

So it doesn’t actually solve the issue.  Productive ways to increase attendance might include making Journal Club more interactive, spending more time on topics of interest to students, and encouraging speakers to start preparing their presentations sooner than the night before.  Or perhaps trimming down all of the other seminar-like events students are also expected to attend.

Finally, it illustrates the deeply-ingrained assumption that there could not possibly be any other reason to get a PhD other than to prepare for a career in academia.  Is it really that inconceivable that you wouldn’t want to follow that track?

To be fair, if my time in grad school is any indication, learning how to sit through boring talks without falling asleep is a valuable skill for a career in academia.  Perhaps that’s what she meant.