On friendship and technology; or, FRIEND COMPUTER!

I’ve been reading Nunberg’s edited volume, The Future of the Book, for class, and so have been wading through a fair bit of anti-techno-utopian rhetoric. Normally, that’s cool, because I’m no techno-utopian. But the way in which I am not techno-utopian is that I recognize the continuities and remediations (thanks, Bolter and Grusin) in new media forms. So I don’t like the rhetoric that relies on assuming that new media fundamentally alter the ways that we connect to one another.

So, that said. I appreciate when people put effort into exploring how people will be people through a variety of media forms. And recently, Maureen O’Connor, writing for NYMag’s The Cut blog, penned a great post about friendship in the digital age and group texting and dress rehearsing nudes.

I have to admit, I think The Cut does a consistently thorough and thoughtful treatment of elements of modern culture from the perspective of style and fashion. But this post in particular came at a good time for my mental universe, just as I was grappling with a rhetoric of rupture and social revolution. It’s about how a group of childhood (maybe young adulthood is better?) friends came together through texting. It’s about how two friends share their insecurities by texting pictures to one another. And it’s nothing utopian or too idealistic, but it shows how people manage to keep a sense of social interaction because that’s the point of all this.

My personal experiences certainly bear this argument out. I keep up with my best friend from college through a daily barrage (I mean this in the best way possible) of texts and gchats. Hell, I started my tumblr because I wanted to continue the casual ritual we had of sharing our outfits before going about our respective days (we had basically a suite situation with two separate rooms and a connecting bathroom). I know other people look at it now, occasionally, and I doubt she does so regularly, but she is still my audience for those posts. (Hi!)

I’ve had a blog of some sort or another since 2003. For me, writing on blogs is always a quasi-meditative task, with a nameless, faceless audience. I take pleasure in this distance, sometimes. I know that part of my process is just writing things out, and if people happen to comment and leave their thoughts on my writings, then I can incorporate those and be an even better writer. But this is different from friendship. Friendship requires a sense of reciprocity, or at least of mutual recognition. (Feel free to substitute any kind of positive human relationship for “friendship” there.) The faceless nonexistent audience that I imagine when writing a blog post, the echo chamber of my own metaphorical shower stall, that is emphatically not the kind of engagement that O’Connor is describing. And that’s kind of a great thing. All kinds of engagement are possible, we just have to make it so. Not our technologies, ourselves.

In closing, O’Connor offers an insightful (and hilarious) meditation on the freedoms of a child-like perspective:

Some may find the constant chatter and creep toward co-dependence childish — but the art of friendship has always been one that children perform more naturally than adults. (Other things children do better than adults: imagination, texting, wonderment, recovering from the shame of shitting in your pants.)

Maybe allowing ourselves to explore—new technologies, new forms, new social networks—brings us closer to that wonderment that makes magic happen.

Also, the “Friend computer” is a reference to Paranoia, a hilariously enjoyable role-playing game.


Relationships and Grad School: Part 3 – The response

Or, wherein your wise author notices a sad trend.

In Part 1, I described some of the background stuff about grad students and relationships. In Part 2, I talked about my situation at the start of my master’s program. Now, some stuff about general stuff I noticed, and how I feel about it all.

With my ex and I, our relationship’s end was a classic case of two people realizing their lives didn’t really work together.

But it was still a bit sad when I asked him to come with me, and he said no. That’s all it really was, until I got to orientation for my master’s program, and started talking to my program buddies, and a strange trend popped up. Out of 10 (or was it 11? I always forget) people in my program, seven of us were in relationships when it started. One man was married, so he doesn’t count, I suppose…but then again, his wife was the only actual “grad student’s wife” of all of our partners. Four women were in het relationships, and only one of those women lived with her partner. He was also based in the area, so it wasn’t as though he moved to a new town with her. The other three women (myself included) had partners in other towns who refused to relocate. The final two members of my cohort with partners were men who lived in family housing with their girlfriends.

I remember a conversation early on where I realized that none of the women’s partners came with us, but all of the men had their partners with them. It was a sad conversation, tinged with jealousy. Why weren’t we given that kind of support and care? What did it say about all of us, that our partners put themselves above us in every case?

That moment was a wake-up call. I’ve always prioritized my career over my relationships, whether romantic or platonic. This means it’s tough, and it also means that I’ve failed to support my friends through their dark times because I was busy with my own. It means I’ve walked away from the possibility of relationships because I can’t justify taking the effort away from school.

I don’t regret this focus, I guess. Not yet, at least. I just wish it were more acceptable, or at least not seen as a challenge to gender roles. I don’t want to be expected to drop everything and move to where my partner is, but I do expect that my partner will at least consider it. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, or maybe I’m just lucky that my current partner was happy to move to Texas to be with me as I go through my new graduate program. (Yes, I’m lucky. I know that. It’s also a challenge because I’m supporting him in addition to myself, on a grad student stipend.)

Part 1 – The background

Part 2 – The personal shit

Relationships and Grad School: Part 2 – The personal shit

Or, the life of a grad student with +1s.

Where we last left off, I was describing my reaction to a blog post and article that brought up the topic of relationships in grad school, and especially the “grad student’s wife” as a source of cheap labor for the university and for the home. Now I’m going to talk about myself a bit, in vague terms.

I’m about to get a bit personal, so don’t mind me off in my corner here. For background, I’ve just started a doctorate program at a new school (let’s call it University A), after finishing a master’s program at University B, which was itself after my undergrad work at University C. All three of these universities are in different states, but B and C were both on the East Coast and A is in Texas. When I started my master’s program, at University B, I was three and a half years into a relationship that had started while my ex and I were at University C. That relationship ended in November of my first semester. Right now at the start of my doctorate program, I’m almost a year into a relationship that started while I was at University B.

That was probably quite confusing, but suffice it to say that at the start of both graduate programs, I was in a committed romantic relationship. Both of the boyfriends in question were not in grad school and had no immediate plans of changing that. My ex was actually in Japan working right after undergrad, even though I asked him to move in with me (he refused). We decided we’d try a long-distance relationship, because we’d already been doing that every summer. It didn’t work. He’s currently happily attached to someone else who is in Japan with him. He works full time, as a salaryman, and is considering business school for the near future.

When we were still in a relationship, our schedules were pretty much incompatible. Japan is 14 hours ahead of EST, so when I was in class from 10-5 or so, and then working until 3 or 4 am, he would be asleep and then working. We had a small window to talk when he woke up for work but before he went in, so around 5-8 pm EST. This meant that communication was difficult, and when problems appeared, we couldn’t deal with them together (and usually ended up stewing and then exploding at each other on the weekends). It wasn’t just schedules, though; our values and priorities were completely different. He wanted a stable, income-generating life and the ability to support and nurture children. I was expecting to be in grad school for the next 5-10 years, and did not want kids at all (still don’t). Like one of the couples in the Scheinkman piece (more reasons you should read it too!), he didn’t understand my work habits and procrastination. All of these little differences that were there in college just became insurmountable when I was in grad school and he was working. I had my ideal life, he had his, and neither of us wanted to compromise. I hope this doesn’t come across as judgmental, because I still consider us to be friends, and we do support each other occasionally even today, nearly two years later. I haven’t seen him in person for at least that long.

…to be continued…

Part 1 – The background

Part 3 – The response

Relationships and Grad School: Part 1 – The background

Or, the grad student’s wife and the grad student wife.

This post is massively overdue, but I had things on my mind and then there were things to do, and now I’m just like, “okay need to get in the habit of writing despite things.” So here’s a post. It’s also massive, so this is part 1 of 3.

A few weeks ago, I came across a tweet that linked this post about graduate students’ wives as a category of gendered labor. The whole post is worth reading, and the author breaks down all sorts of historic examples of how wives of graduate students are bound to the institution by their relationship with the student, and how the institution knows this and can exploit it for “low-skilled” clerical labor.

The other component of this “gendered labor” is the wife’s duties in the household, as she is often also responsible for the student’s material comfort. In it, the author, Zach, explicitly admits his interest in

the ways in which these women were often working for the university in the formal sphere of clerical and other forms of waged labor, and in the informal sphere of reproductive labor as unpaid workers often making possible both the subsistence of both the household and the reproduction of the academic labor force.

– “Graduate students’ wives as a gendered labor category,” Weapons of Class Instruction, 5 Sept. 2013

This post also links to an article from the late 1980s by Michele Scheinkman on “graduate student marriages.”  In this article, Scheinkman identifies a framework for understanding the unique difficulties of graduate student marriages, whether this is two graduate students, a working wife, or a working husband. She also identifies major threats to the stability of this marriage, but her focus is primarily on how to help these couples in therapy.

Scheinkman explicitly avoids discussing gender as a defining category for these relationships, claiming that

As will be discussed in the following section, gender indeed defines differently the meaning of the inequality and the ways in which men and women experience their respective roles of “dependent student” and “working spouse.” Nevertheless, the central contention of this article is that the major problem of graduate student marriages is not only one of gender. It is the asymmetrical organization itself that, in a sociocultural context of egalitarian values and/or dual-career expectations, is inherently problematic and preconditions graduate-student couples to being especially vulnerable and at risk.

-Scheinkman, “Graduate Student Marriages: An Organizational/Interactional View,” 1988.

As a kind of central theme in this article, she indeed focuses on the asymmetry in relationships, defined over a variety of fields (e.g. difference in schedules, difference in ability to focus on housework, etc.). For Scheinkman, the most important factor is for couples to recognize the transience of this imbalance, and not to ascribe the imbalance to intractable personality factors. I found this paper to be accurate even today, and useful not just for romantic relationships but for all kinds of interpersonal relationships; in short, read it. I very much agree with her general assessment of the problem, based on my personal experiences of balancing relationships and grad school. But I think gender is a huge part of the asymmetry, due to the expectations placed upon differently-gendered members of a (cis, het) couple.

…to be continued…

Part 2 – The personal shit

Part 3 – The response