When I started my graduate program two years ago, I was part of a fairly large incoming class. For at least the first semester, we were a very civil and inclusive group. There were a few other women who were in many of my classes, and so we found ourselves thrown together in many situations. I found it interesting that we didn't immediately fall into groups, told myself it was because we were in graduate school and were mature adults. On the other hand, this led me to hold pretty much everyone at arm's length since the priority in this sort of relationship was maintaining civility.
And then things started to shift a bit in second semester. That's when I began going for coffee with only one of those women. And after a few of these almost-weekly meetings, we finally got up the nerve to admit to each other that some of our classmates drove us nuts! And I started to realize that differentiating between classmate and friend was important; otherwise, I would not have anyone within my department with whom I felt comfortable venting. Sure, Trillian is a great sounding board and she still has to hear my gripes anyway, but there is a definite advantage to having friends who either are in the midst of similar experiences or have had them recently.
That is not to say I have dropped the civil tone with my other classmates, even when they are the same ones who annoy me. At this point, however, we have also given up the pretense of spending time together outside of department functions.
For just a little bit, I'm going to drop the civility here and give you a small glimpse into the sort of cattiness I can muster. I would love to say it's wholly out-of-character for me, but that would be giving myself too much credit. There's also a bit of gloating. Again, not proud of it--except obviously I am a little, since I really want to share this anecdote.
One of my classmates comes from a very privileged background. Without giving too many details, I can say that she has attended "name" schools all the way through. Her family is quite well off, and she certainly does not have to worry about money in the way most graduate students do. Now, these facts, in and of themselves, are not the reason I so frequently desire to throttle her. It's that I know these things. Everybody in the department knows. And is reminded frequently, lest one forgets.
Case in point: This classmate buys all of the required texts for our classes. Including the core classes which frequently include upwards of 20 texts. In a discipline that is not known for producing cheap texts. (I considered doing this last semester, for the sake of convenience. Going the least expensive route, it would have cost me $350 US for 80% of the required texts--the others were hard to find and would have cost even more. I stuck with photocopies and library editions.) Again, the act of buying the texts is not what annoyed me--it's that she publicized the fact widely. If she had done this with the offer of letting classmates photocopy the relevant sections, that would be one thing. Instead, it was couched along the lines of "It only makes sense to buy all of the texts. I wouldn't dream of doing it any other way." And of course, I can't fully capture her delivery, but imagine it soprano, haughty, and dismissive.
Getting a bit closer to the specific reason for my post now, so hang in just a bit more.
The classmate and I were in the same seminar just this past semester. It was a history seminar, so a little outside of my field. It was not uninteresting, but I took it primarily to check off another requirement. There was an exam at the end of the course, a source of anxiety and frustration for many of us. Most seminars in our field end with a paper which makes up a large portion of the grade; presentations and participation, maybe some smaller written item too, usually make up the rest of the grade. And although one ideally keeps up with the readings and puts a lot of effort into analyzing the information, one of the nice things about being in a seminar tends to be the ability to let things slide here and there, as long as one gets it together for the graded components. A final exam throws a wrench in this strategy--for several of us (myself, a couple friends, and this classmate included), the stress was compounded by a higher stakes exam that was set for a little more than a week later.
Day of the exam, I get down to business. The seminar exam was set up so that we had a choice of questions; we knew the numbers ahead of time, so I had already figured out how I would allot my time, leaving 20 extra minutes overall. I chose my questions carefully and worked through them in a straightforward manner. A few of the questions seemed a bit odd, and I worried that I might not be approaching them as the professor intended, but did my best. I walked out feeling satisfied that I had turned in an acceptable performance, even if a couple answers were not quite what he wanted. I also knew that it would be better to let this exam performance slide a little bit in return for paying more attention to the higher stakes exam.
My classmate's response when asked how the exam went: "It was easy. But that's not surprising since I'm a [subject] historian." Even more annoying was her explanation that she had answered one more question than required and then spent the last fifteen minutes debating which ones to turn in.
So here comes the gloating. I got an email from the professor at the end of last week to give me a summary of my performance in the seminar. Included was a line informing me that my exam grade (a 90, which according to this institution is an A+) was the best in the course. From unofficial information, it also appears that I may have received the only semester grade of A. Which, by definition, means that this particular classmate of mine did not, for all her claims that the work was easy.
While this does not diminish the above cattiness, I do feel I should mention that a friend of mine who was also in the seminar, after telling me how he'd heard about the single A for the class, indicated his assumption that this other classmate had gotten it; he was happy to discover his assumption was wrong. Similarly, when I told another friend, who is a couple years ahead in the program, that I had done so well on the exam, her immediate response was, "Then you did better than N.!"
So I'm enjoying my little moment of glory now--with the knowledge that this won't mean much to me if I find out that the bigger exam was a bust.