chaos · classrooms · collaboration · grad school · ideas for change · pedagogy · skills development · Uncategorized

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.

I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.

I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.

The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.

I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.

So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.

advice · chaos · collaboration · community · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · PhD

Surviving the Job Market

I’ve been a bad blogger recently. I’ve missed a Tuesday or two, and I’m generally the blogger posting to our Facebook page but I’ve been inconsistent with that, too. Thankfully for my inadequacies, my cobloggers are patient and forgiving, and H&E has been blessed with a rich assortment of guest posts lately, from dealing with the death of one’s mother as a professor to formulating a “critical theory of breast cancer” to communing with the spirits of one’s literary mothers. I’m grateful for the women who volunteer to share their stories in the public space of the internet, still and always a risky and scary venture. From my outpost in the land of guns and Trumps and confederate flags, I continue to value this warm, badass, brilliant academic community based in the land that has been so formative for my identity (the Canadian jokes amongst friends persist, even after over five years of American residency). We’ve been talking a lot lately about making visible the many tacit modes of emotional labour that underpin our responsibilities as professionals, and in some ways this entire blog is an exercise in emotional labour, a means of bringing to the surface the injustices, the frustrations, the inspirations, the fraught sartorial choices that constitute and define our lives as academics.

This year, I’m on the job market for the first time (not deluding myself into thinking it will be the last). In some ways I am coping better than expected, and in other ways I’m coping worse–I find myself avoiding campus and shunning society a little bit more than I’m comfortable admitting, because it’s sometimes hard to face questions from academic peers regarding how the whole process is going. I am paranoid about almost everything I put on the Internet dot com (as my friend calls it): will my or Chronicle Vitae profiles prove liabilities if I don’t ensure they’re constantly updated and consistent across all my other application materials? If I tweet something silly or overly personal, will that happen at the same moment a job committee is checking out my “professional” Twitter account? Will this post jeopardize me in some way, somehow?

In spite of these fears, I thought I’d open up a conversation about how I’m surviving this harrowing season, and I would love other seeds of advice in the comments. How are you surviving the job market, dear readers? Let’s fight against the tendency to be competitive and silent and paranoid about the process, and help each other through the process, to the limited extent that we can.

Here’s how I’ve been surviving: 

1. Seeking advice from those who have gone through the process. Perhaps an obvious point, but your department should have resources for this. My department’s Job Market Handbook has been an indispensable resource that breaks down each of the steps and materials involved in the application process. If your department doesn’t have something like this, as well as a professor charged with going through your materials, shoot someone an email asking why not! In the meantime, this roundup of advice from JM survivors which was posted on the medieval blog In the Middle a couple years ago is still immensely relevant and useful. Most of you probably know about the resources and columns provided by The Professor is In, and Vitae (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education but specifically geared toward emerging academics), publishes a number of useful advice columns every week, such as this with general advice, this on whether one should mention babies in app letters, and this on navigating the #alt-ac path. There’s a lot out there, and I don’t pay attention to all of it, and I don’t agree with all of it, and some of it I actively shun. Just as important as seeking advice from those who have weathered the process, of course, is knowing when not to expose oneself to the resources available, because they can prove overwhelming, inconsistent, and/or disheartening.

2. Fighting against the temptation not to talk about it. Something as consequential as going on the academic job market after 7+ years of graduate education is difficult, in many ways, to talk about. It’s difficult because it’s so personal, because the journey is fraught with disappointments, because conversations with other academics in similar situations can sometimes feel inherently competitive, as though you’re both constantly comparing each other’s suitability. This is not always the case, and while it’s important to identify people whose attitudes make you feel small or under constant scrutiny, it is also important to trust that most of us genuinely want others to succeed, too. I treasure the commiserative conversations I have with my comrades who are also facing the deep dark chasm of the market, and have found that opening up and chatting about frustrations along the way, even when we’re applying for the same jobs (“did you see that one guy’s faculty profile?? What was up with that poorly worded application?”) can prove therapeutic.

3. Fighting against the temptation to talk about it all the time. Yeahhhh, you also don’t want to be that person. That person who is so subsumed in the process that he/she can’t talk/tweet/status about anything else, and is constantly steamrolling conversations with the minutia of application problems (which are legion). There are going to be frustrations and sometimes the best strategy is to just laugh at them silently, or slap a good ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ onto the situation. Because the process is ridiculous, and often dehumanizing, and most of this is out of your control.

4. Learning to compartmentalize: I work out demanding but mostly realistic plans for each day, and I’ve discovered that committing myself to those goals means that I do not always have to respond to an email or message the second it arrives on my phone or in my inbox. This is a problem that we didn’t face as seriously 10 or 15 years ago: now that we can, with the touch of a few buttons on our smartphones, effectively insert ourselves into the cognitive space of anyone we want at any given moment, we as a society seem to have acquired new purchase over other people’s availability. And as women, we have the tendency to accommodate, to set aside our immediate problems and offer assistance to those who reach out to us. This is true on a personal level, but also a professional level: as Myra Green describes in a Chronicle article, female professors are approached more often than male professors for “confidential” conversations that largely deal with personal and emotional problems. Against my accommodating, social, and nurturing nature, I’ve been practicing prioritizing my own work and problems sometimes by saying “I’m dealing with a few issues at the moment, can I get back to you later?” (and then being sure to follow up later, of course). Schedule time to be with others, and cultivate relationships, but don’t feel you need to be available to other people all the time.

5. Learning not to compartmentalize my time (ok, now I might just be aiming for rhetorical effect with these list titles).  I have a handful of friends upon whom I rely quite heavily for emotional support, sometimes on a rather continual, running basis throughout the day through group iMessage threads. I like to think of these covert channels of communication as what Aimee has called “whisper networks,” characterized by sometimes gossipy, almost carnivalesque repartee combined with honestspeak regarding the difficulties we face on a quotidian basis. Having these outlets reminds me, further to #3 above, not to become wholly consumed in my own problems (even as they also offer me a safe space to express them). I recognize that this point pertains mostly to my own experience and might not be available to everyone, and this may just be a fancy academic way to characterize Having Friends and Being Able to Talk to Them. But I do think digital technology has allowed us to generate multiple, expanded networks of communication and commiseration, and perhaps if you’re feeling alone in your plight for whatever reason, you can touch base with a few friendly faces on Twitter who might be going through similar things. Twitter is great for this! 

6. Practicing the art of self-dating. Or, er, thinking about doing this more intentionally, to be more accurate. So far going on self-dates, for me, has been as simple as going for a solo walk along the river on a crisp autumn day, or “staying in tonight” and watching Difficult People on Hulu (sorry, Canada). I have aspirations to take a real self-date soon: going to a movie or the theatre by myself, or going vintage shopping. Dating oneself, rather than relying on others to fill out your schedule and your overall sense of self, can be a powerful notion.

7. Observing the whole process with compassion. I keep telling myself, “I am doing what I can in this present moment and in my present state as a scholar,” and sometimes that means, for instance, accidentally submitting the wrong version of a dissertation abstract that includes language duplicated across my application letter. As my veritable saint of a job placement professor, Vlasta Vranjes, expressed to me in a recent email, “it’s impossible not to fall into the trap of thinking that any little mistake will cost one a job–or, conversely, that one will get a job if one does everything perfectly.” On this point I will return to Amanda Walling’s comments in the In the Middle advice-post I linked to earlier: “It is not a meritocracy, or a referendum on your work as a scholar, and ‘fit’ is not code for that. It’s a bunch of flawed people making compromises with each other and with their administrators, and sometimes where you fit into that is just blind luck.”

I hope it helps to hear some of these things said out loud, and I welcome further comments, commiserative anecdotes, or advice.

animals · chaos · empowerment · enter the confessional

Facing the wind

It’s mid-semester and the accumulated unfinished business of weeks 1 through 6 have piled up as the same time that the end-crush of anticipated grading for semester’s end looms. As graduate officer, right now is possibly the worst time of year, work-wise: I’ve got more than a hundred applications to review, as well as four or five separate funding competitions to adjudicate with the committee. I just went away to Michigan to give a talk and attend an incredibly exiting one day seminar squarely lined up with exactly what I’m working on. Then I took my daughter to Florida (for three days) to see my parents. I have another talk, in Pennsylvania, in less than three weeks. There’s a dissertation on my desk from a committee I’m on, and two of my students have proposals in front of me.

The weather is cold, and dark, and damp and, along with all the piles of work, cues “hibernation.”

This is the time of year I tend to panic, freak out, and go into denial. But I’m going to try something different this year. Check out this Royal Tern, which I snapped in Everglades National Park last week:

I have an awesome hairdo.

The guide on the tour told us that Royal Terns always face into the wind. And as we looked around we could see them all on posts, pointing their beaks right into the headwind.

Look, this storm I’m in now is just kind of situation normal in this job. Panicking, hiding, and hibernating are not going to solve my piles-of-work problem. I’m going to try pointing my beak into the wind and just braving it.
For me, that looks like writing down a to-do item every time I have a panicked thought, or a deadline I forgot bubbles up to the surface. I carry my notebook with me EVERYWHERE and jotting stuff down as I think of it both concretizes and organizes the work I have to do. Everywhere:
To-do list and Margarita scale distorted for comic effect

I’m making lists of things I need to grade. Lists of assessment criteria for admissions. Lists of committee meeting dates and times. Lists of travel arrangements that need making. Facing into the headwind of a rapidly advancing semester.

How do you keep from collapsing at mid-semester? Is some kind of hibernation strategy useful to you? (I put my pyjamas on the minute I get home from work: that helps.) Or do you face the wind straight on?

busy · chaos · mental health · running

How Read For Pleasure (And Other Impossible Tasks)

Lately I have been thinking a lot about free time. I think it is due largely to the fact that I don’t really have any.
One of the first thoughts I had upon graduating university was that of the sprawling amounts of time I would have to tackle the enormous stack of unread books that I accumulated over my undergrad or the Sunday morning long runs that would no longer be hampered by papers and research.
Sadly, it didn’t take long to realize that those books would remain shut and my long runs would remain unrun as the stack of research and writing assignments on my desk grew. To be honest, when I have an important project on the go, I find it difficult to find time to take a proper breath, much less indulge myself in something I enjoy.
It appears that busyness and academia go hand in hand which would explain why I was so empowered by my female professors during my undergrad. They were organized powerhouses who somehow balanced children, academia, research and a host of other responsibilities and I loved them for it. I thrive on being busy but operating at full speed for weeks on end sets me on a fast track for burnout, usually resulting in an unjustified emotional response to a mundane daily situation or blindsided by whatever illness my compromised immune system is unable to stave off.  
Knowing this, I have tried to sneak things I enjoy while rushing from place to place.  I listen to audio books while I commute and keep a book in my purse for brief moments of quiet during the day where I am riding the bus or waiting in lines. I no longer run during normal waking hours, but find myself setting my alarm clock earlier and earlier in order to fit it in.
Overambitious? Probably. Common for a woman in academia? Yes.
So I ask you, Reader, (knowing you probably are reading this in between meetings, or on your iPhone or eating at your desk while you work on a project) how do you sort through the chaos and find time to do things that you enjoy?
Or do you?