Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Grad School in the Humanities


And Think! When it comes to pursuing graduate studies in the humanities, many people are saying "just don't go!"

This past weekend at UNCG's annual Writing into the Profession graduate student conference I had the opportunity to speak to a group of prospective ph.d. students in English. These were bright and engaging students who have completed or are completing their m.a. degrees and wanted to find out more about taking the next step in their grad school careers. I opened by discussing the gloom and doom scenario of too many ph.d.s and not enough jobs, and by showing them the series of articles written by Thomas Benton for The Chronicle of Higher Education, one of which I've linked above.

But the reason I start with the bad news is not to discourage people who want to pursue the ph.d., although some might argue that's exactly what I should be doing. Instead, my goal is simply to make sure that we all know what we're getting ourselves into. I told them that if they were anything like me, then this is the only thing they could possibly see themselves doing, and that, if there is nothing else for them, the least they can do is educate themselves as to the reality of the marketplace.

Unlike many students (although I don't understand who's advising students in such a way that they are surprised all over the job wikis as to the terrible state of the market), I've known from the jump the tough state of the humanities in higher education...and there was still nothing else I could see myself doing. The truth of the matter is that as difficult as it is to get a ph.d., a doctoral degree is IN NO WAY WHATSOEVER a guaranteed ticket to a job as a tenured professor at the university of your choice, or really any university. The stakes continue to get higher, and the standards continue to rise.

I guess my take-away point is that if academia is the only path for you, be sure you have a good sense of the troubles, pitfalls, and difficulties of the profession, just as much as you familiarize yourself with the awesome benefits.

[sorry for the late post this week. I'm looking for some new topics to post about. Anyone out there have something in particular they'd like to get some other perspectives on?]

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Write?

Grading a recent round of student essays got me thinking about why we write at all. At first I was thinking specifically about why we use writing as a primary mode of learning in formal education, but I have some pretty well-established ideas (mostly taken from Janet Emig's "Writing as a Mode of Learning" pretty old, 1979, I think) on that subject. But then I started thinking about why students think they write, and about why professional writers (from journalists, to academics, to lyricists, and beyond) actually write.


One thing I've noticed about student writing is that it is often rhetorically situated as a means of demonstrating what the student knows. In other words, based on my reading of student writing (and my experiences as a student writer), I think students often write to show their audience that they've gained knowledge.

While demonstrating knowledge is a necessary by-product of writing, a better aim for most academic writing, and for most writing outside academia, is probably the communication of an idea. By this I mean that I do want to see that students have increased their knowledge bases, but even more so, I want them to communicate some idea of their own. Another way of thinking about this idea is to point out that I can go research and build the exact same knowledge base that they are building through writing their papers, so I don't simply want to hear them report on knowledge that is available to pretty much anyone. Instead, I want them enter into a conversation with the other writers who represent their new knowledge. I want them to formulate their own ideas about whatever it is they're studying, and then communicate those ideas to me. Because I am not them, they can necessarily develop a unique way of looking at their respective subjects that I might not necessarily be able to develop.

The tough part is, of course, that writing is not only a unique mode of learning but also a unique mode of communication, a mode of communication that carries with it unique difficulties that make the communication of ideas difficult sometimes. Take this blog post, the basic idea I'm trying to communicate could be presented in writing in a variety of ways, but I chose a kind of narrative of my thought process that led me to some conclusions about what I want to see out of student writing. This mode is probably not the most effective, or clear, or concise way to communicate my basic idea. In fact, I think my basic idea is more implicitly than explicitly stated in this post, and I guess I'll leave it that way.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Being a Happy Writer

This post is basically a short narrative index to a handful of blog posts that have been and continue to be formative to my writing process. Please check out the links to both blogs, and the link to Thomas's post about happy writers!

I'm indebted to Jonathan Mayhew and Thomas Basbøll for helping to revolutionize my writing, both in terms of process and product, over the last year or so. I especially appreciate Thomas's post about happy writers, which has helped me explain my own process to other writers.

Being a happy writer is a difficult thing to do because academic writing is always intellectually rigorous, and can thus often be painstaking and time consuming. But if there's one way to be as happy as possible it's by making a schedule, sticking to it, and planning what you'll do as specifically as possible.

As I recently prepped for teaching Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, I marveled at the extent to which Franklin's work plans point towards the strategies I've picked up from Jonathan and Thomas. Franklin must have been a happy writer.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Strategies: Files and Folders

This idea might seem overly obvious, but one of the best things I did during my grad school coursework was to create an entire folder under "My Documents" for "Coursework."

In the "Coursework" folder, you'll find another series of folders organized by semester (i.e. Fall 2007, Spring 2008, etc.)

In each of these semester folders you'll find a folder dedicated to each of the classes I took during that semester (i.e. ENG730-Studies in American Lit)

Within those individual course folders, I saved all of the work I did on any kind of project for that class. I saved EVERYTHING, no matter what! Response papers, group projects, book reviews, seminar papers, in-class presentations, everything!

When it came time for comprehensive exams, I had a lot of notes saved up on many of the texts that ended up on my exam lists, and so I was able to start revisiting these texts without starting from scratch.