Recently I had the pleasure of writing a brief guest post for The Wandering Academic. Since I’ve been MIA lately, thought I should share here as well:
Recently I had the pleasure of writing a brief guest post for The Wandering Academic. Since I’ve been MIA lately, thought I should share here as well:
He started to ask rather coyly…
“Would, um, would you want to maybe, um, go out som—“
“Are you done?,” I demanded.
He pauses, mouth ajar, looking down at the petite woman who is just a few years his senior standing before him. I revise for clarity.
“Have you turned in your exam?”
“Have a good summer. Great having you in class.”
He flinches, grabs his book bag, and walks through the lecture hall. I turn to look at the rest of my students, about half of which are staring at their exam like it’s the most interesting sheet of paper they’ve ever seen, ever. The other half is looking right at me.
I’d like to say this is just a story. I’d like to say things like this only happened one time. I’d like to say that now, several years later, I no longer have to deal with these sorts of situations. I’d like to say that every semester I don’t get the male student who stands too close to be appropriate when asking a question, who does it so often I ask an office mate to be around when that student has a conference, who I make excuses to about meetings after class so they don’t walk with or follow me. Unfortunately, saying any of that would be a lie.
All the thoughts….
When Kelly asked me to write a guest post on being a “tiny woman in academia,” I instantly said yes. When she said that I could pick any other topic I wanted if I didn’t have any strong thoughts on this one, I responded, “OH, I HAVE THOUGHTS!”
But when I started staring at that blank page and wondering where to start with all those thoughts, I realized something. Quite a lot of my experience as a tiny woman in academia is tied up with my thoughts on being a young woman in academia.
This week I started my 5th year teaching at the college level. In the past 5 years I’ve developed a couple of “rules” for myself to follow.
1. Always wear a blousy or loose fitting top.
This one really has nothing to do with being tiny, but we will get there.
On my very first day teaching five years ago this month, I had everything planned. I had copies of my syllabus. I had an in-class writing activity thought out. I picked out my clothes the night before (a black pencil skirt and fitted pale pink top with black pumps). I even thought about how I needed to wear something a little more formal to combat my clear youth (I was at best only 3-4 years older than my students). I packed comfy shoes for my trek across campus to my classroom. Everything was going my way…..
And then I stepped outside into Southern Illinois heat and humidity in August.
By the time I made the 15 min walk across campus my sweat stains had turned my fitted pale pink top into a half pale pink, half dark pink spotted hot mess.
Having reached my classroom building with less than 5 minutes to spare, I ran to the nearest bathroom and started attempting to pat my sweat stains dry. Clearly, a losing battle from the start. I felt myself start to panic.
Then I looked up in the mirror (cue Rocky theme song) and told myself, “it’ll be fine! Just go in there and own it, sweat stains and all.”
I learned two things that day that I’ve held on to every day since. Always wear blousy tops when it’s even moderately warm and…
2. Confidence is everything.
Over the years, I’ve learned that speaking, walking, and teaching with confidence is necessary. This seemed to be especially true for myself and for many of my other young, female colleagues. There’s a fine line between confidence and cocky, but once that line is distinguished, confidence can be a tiny woman’s best friend. Let me explain.
I learned pretty early what it meant to be a confident woman. Perhaps my fondest (and earliest) memory of a woman who exuded confidence, comes from elementary school. One day before leaving for school, my mom saw a muskrat swimming in our pond. In case you don’t know, muskrats can mean death to a pond that relies on an earthen dam. They have the tendency to burrow straight through the dam, and, well, there goes the pond.
So, my mom sees the muskrat. Meanwhile, I’m standing at our living room window, looking into our backyard, down to the pond. I watch as my mom slowly walks across the damp lawn dressed in a maroon pantsuit and heels, raises the rifle, aims, fires once, turns on her heel, and marches right back inside to take me to school. When I look back at the pond, the muskrat is floating belly up.
But that image of my mother has been etched in my mind ever since. While at times she may be a little or a lot clumsy (all those stories are for another day) and makes some of the best faces you could ever imagine, when it comes to work, she’s one of the most confident women I know. She taught me how to trust in myself and my capabilities, and above all, the importance of a firm handshake.
3. Speak up and speak out.
I was blessed with a family filled with strong, confident women. And also women who know how to show that confidence through their voice (it has a tendency to carry and demand attention quite naturally). I use that voice when I teach and interact within academia. I have to. After all, I’m pretty much shorter than almost everyone I meet and I am rather petite all around. I’m easily lost in crowds and have never used the top shelf in my kitchen.
4. Being a hard teacher does NOT equate to being a bitch.
Every semester (including the period when I served as the person disciplinary actions and disruptive behavior was reported to) it seemed like if someone was having a problem with a continually disruptive student, the instructor was more likely to be female than male. More and more of my female colleagues had to have harsher policies in class than they would have liked, and would get student evaluations that said things like, “Her expectations are ridiculous. It’s just a comp course,” or “She’s such a know-it-all and mean and so rude,” or simply, “She’s such a bitch.”
On the other hand, our male counterparts seemed to get comments like, “He’s really hard, but I think I learned a lot,” or “He clearly really loves what he’s teaching.” Some of my male colleagues to whom I’ve voiced some of these thoughts express surprise (and outrage) over the harshness of our evaluations. They can’t believe students would ever have the gall to say such things, even in an evaluation!
The first time I got one of those comments, it was rough. But when I started to notice that other women were getting similar comments I realized that the two were inextricably linked. I’m not “too tough” or a “bitch.” I expect my students to do their work and do it on time. Holding my students accountable doesn’t make me a bitch. It makes me a teacher.
5. Stop being surprised by other women.
I leave you with one final anecdote. I was chatting with a female friend a while back about courses, teaching desires, and various work related projects. Over the course of the conversation, it came up that a mutual female friend had recently said in reference to my work/teaching aspirations, “Megan constantly surprises me.” The friend who relayed the comment clearly saw it as a complement and wanted me to see it as such. I’m sure that it was likely said as a compliment. But that’s not how I saw it.
Why should my desire to teach new subjects or in new ways be unexpected? Why are my actions to create a more in depth teaching portfolio something out of the ordinary? And worst of all….
Why is being a hard working, confident, determined, goal oriented woman in academia surprising, especially to another hard working, confident, determined, goal oriented woman in academia?
Megan Vallowe is a PhD student at the University of Arkansas focusing on Indigenous Literature of North and Latin America. When she’s not researching or teaching she likes running and watching bad movies with her adorable cat, Little One. Follow her on Twitter (@) and check out her blog, The Wandering Academic, for more updates on her life and work.
Professionalism is a lot like maturity; the more you think you have it, the further away you get from it. But when I use the term “professional,” I simply mean doing your job and doing it well. The details on and definitions of “professionalism” vary from person-to-person, often with heavy consideration to position and experience.
Professional, Not Likable
So you know now that when I use the term “professional” I don’t mean likable. In this post I am in no way endorsing a workplace where everyone is likable. The demands on women to be likable are so pervasive (and annoying), there have been several blog posts and articles about the very subject. See Chimamanda Nigozi Adichie’s great speech on how women absolutely don’t have to be likable.
My post today comes from a few places, but most essentially I attempt answer why it is important to support women in the workplace, even when they aren’t likable. I believe this support is an integral part of “doing your job well”–i.e. professionalism. And I realize that it’s all easier said than done.
It’s nice to imagine that people can keep it relatively professional at work, but that doesn’t always happen. I’m guilty too. Bullying, passive aggressive/outright aggressive behavior, and conflicting opinions/personalities often make the theoretically simple task of professionalism impossible. I find this is particularly true in an academic workplace, where budgets are being slashed. Because of this, there is increasingly more and more call to not only justify the why of one’s research, but also the legitimacy of one’s discipline or field altogether.
But supporting your colleagues certainly is important. Even when they aren’t likable. Sometimes especially when they aren’t likable. Why do I keep italicizing likable?Probably because I want you to know how ridiculous the entire concept is.
Supporting Women at Work
So how is it possible to build collegiality and camaraderie amongst colleagues in this type of working environment? Why is it even important? And what does it have to do with women?
Penny Herscher answers many of these questions in “Women Need to Support Women at Work.” She notes the lack of women in executive or senior management positions, and the woman-on-woman bullying that often happens in the workplace. Indeed, a 2009 New York Times article revealed that 40% of workplace bullies are women, and that 70% of their targets are also women.
On top of everything we already know about gender, race and the pay gap, it is important to keep in mind that women are often trained to view other women as competitors rather than collaborators, and that we must actively seek woman-produced models of women’s collaboration.
For a not-so-serious (but I think fairly awesome) model, just look at Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s ability to share the spotlight rather than compete for it.
I tout the collaboration game hard, but even I sometimes find something jealous creep inside of me when someone I know receives an honor, praise, or award that I don’t. And I don’t think this makes me or anyone else who feels this way a terrible person or something, but instead it only indicates that feelings of jealousy emerge when we’re feeling down about ourselves, insecure, or threatened.
As the new academic year starts, consider the simple ways you can offer emotional and intellectual support to your colleagues, particularly if you’re in a male-dominated field in academia. This could be a nod in passing, sharing CFPs or articles that could be of interest to a colleague that you happen to come across, engaging your colleagues about their research, simply saying “congratulations” to colleagues after she has received an honor, and many others. Keep likable out of the equation as much as possible.
It is important for me to reiterate that support amongst women at work doesn’t mean you have to be friends–i.e. no one is going to make you socialize when or where you do not wish to socialize–but instead you have to be present, mindful, and collaborative to foster a sense of support amongst your colleagues.
I realize fostering camaraderie can sometimes be thankless work, particularly if you’re doing more giving than receiving. Sometimes you will find people who do not want your support at all. And it is impossible to say why some people are better collaborators than others, but still we should challenge ourselves at the start of this new academic year to build one another up, to offer support, to provide a second chance.
While I realize it’s an unpopular opinion, I really hate the summertime: humid weather, sunburned skin, stupid clothes that serve only as incomplete counterparts to winter wear, and a general lack of email-checking from just about everyone.
But What Is Summer Good For?
Summer is, admittedly, good for quite a lot. For sanity, travel, research, people who aren’t terrified of the sun, and so on. Just as I love sanity and travel, I love that the summer offers an opportunity to read and write without the interruptions of teaching, meetings, and all of those other interruptions that come with the start of a new school year. But still, no matter how much I think I need the break at the end of spring term, I am always excessively happy to have the summer come to a close.
Outside of dissertation research and the submission/revision of articles and book reviews, I use summer as an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, many of whom I know through conferences, Twitter, or other academically-sanctioned social media sites. Sure, I attend conferences regularly where I can chat with/meet fellow scholars, but in between research and teaching I always feel so terribly behind on this particular type of networking throughout the regular academic year.
Academic Networking via Social Media
And it appears I’m not the only one. Anxiety over maintaining academic networks is quite serious, particularly when considering the many articles and blogs devoted to subject of cracking into one of these elite networks (which are so often tied with an ivy education…). The humanities, however, appear to operate a bit differently in terms of the question of whether or not one should use social media as a mode of self-promotion and networking. There is, after all, almost a resounding yes to the question of social media networking for academics.
No longer are we in the days of simply passing out business cards at conferences (although I have some pretty cool ones, if I do say so myself). We’re in a new and exciting era of fast access to information and scholarship across the globe. If you don’t use social media as a networking tool, consider giving it a try. And you don’t have to be a tech genius to figure it out.
There are many resources on starting/maintaing social media sites for academics, such as Diane Rasmussen Neal’s book. It’s possible it’s simply not for you and that the potential problems of maintenance and regular posting serve as more of a detriment to your research than a merit, but that’s for you to decide. There’s no need to force yourself to keep up with something like social media if it’s not serving you.
If you do want to network outside of conferences and you hate social media, consider joining a Listserv in your interested subject areas.
My personal experiences with social media as a mode of academic networking are generally positive, but I am still relatively new to it. There appears to be a heavy culture of “follow for follow” on sites such as Twitter, and it is quite easy to search for relevant hashtags and people on most social media sites. I have the pleasure of many 140-character conversations with friends/scholars I normally only get to see once a year. Even though we email sometimes, we never seem to keep at it.
I also have received book review opportunities and submitted to conference CFPs through Twitter. This is where the networking starts to feel real.
And while there are very few reasons to avoid social media as a networking tool (even less to just give it a try), it is important to know that the professional persona you cultivate online can follow you. If you post something sexist, racist, classist, etc. chances are your followers–i.e. colleagues–are going to know and really (with good reason) hold it against you. So, quick solution: don’t be sexist, racist, classist, or just generally speaking a bad person.
It is important to know that some types of social media–such as blogs–require strategy and patience. Twitter accounts simply require regular use, although I’m sure some would argue that well-placed hashtags would also constitute strategy.
Many argue that social media networking is ultimately a waste of time. The central idea here being that time on social media is time that you could/should be working. I don’t find this true. First of all, academic work isn’t corporate (despite how much it can feel like it), you have to take regular breaks from your research–even if for just 15 minutes–for your sanity. If you’re concerned about spending too much time on social media just make a schedule; check in every other day or twice a week or whatever.
And not that it’s worth saying, but I don’t let social media run my life. I may have a troubling addiction to television and carbohydrates, but for some reason this does not spill over into social media. As long as you’re comfortable with the amount of time you spend social media-ing, you do you.
From this post I hope to hear how fellow academics create/maintain/find networks that are purely born on social media sites. How do these networks survive throughout the academic year? Do these, at any point, feel like an onus rather than a pleasure? Do you have any negative experiences with networking via social media?
While I already have a post on preparing for archival research I thought it might be useful to combine this information with the more broad topic of international research. Indeed, it appears that for international research, you need to turn to juvenile-seeming webpages about “Study Abroad 101” as well as scholarly resources regarding archival research. I hope this post offers something in the middle of these two extremes. It’s very much the post I wish I had before I started the long visa/contacting librarians/connecting with scholars and conferences process.
I would also love to hear more about your experiences with international research trips, particularly because this is my first.
There are already many online guides that discuss the general prep that is demanded when preparing for international research, although many of these tend to lean towards the sciences and offer advice that is not relevant for the humanities–such as expensive research equipment, the use of a research assistant abroad, and many others.
In the humanities, depending on your sub-discipline, your needs for research–whether it is abroad or at your home institution–tend to include the following:
While these fundamentals remain the same, it seems as though everything gets far more complicated when you’re planning for a research trip abroad. Since I embark on my first year-long archival research trip in September, I thought I would share what I’ve learned about preparing for international study and research:
Twitter, Academic.edu, other social media sites and/or networks to establish connections with scholars in your intended country of study. This way, you can stay up-to-date on readings, conferences, colloquia, publishing opportunities, and other academic events that may not be accessible to you otherwise. If you hate social media, try to jump on relevant listservs.
For me, these few points have served as the greatest differences between preparing for international and domestic research in the humanities. I wish it were all about just going to big libraries and finding everything you need as soon as you get there, but it’s not. The point is to not go in blind, connect with relevant people, create a schedule for yourself, but also don’t be too afraid to deviate from said schedule if something out of your control happens, or if you find your research is taking you somewhere different.
I’m still working on this last part; that is, I often find it difficult to let myself discover something outside of the plan. What strategies do you find relevant in preparing for international research? Which has been the most challenging, if any?
One of my favorite and most despised commercial seasons is just after winter holiday, right around the start of new year. We see advertisements for new plastic containers that hold all of the garbage we just bought and don’t need and–among others–we hear the dulcet tones of one Jennifer Hudson (insert other celebrities: Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey, Kristie Alley, and so on), singing about a renewed sense of self post-whatever-weight-loss-package she endorses. These advertisements tell us things we believe we need to hear: this is your year, you will take time for yourself, you will change, you will exercise, you will use that gym membership, and you will start eating only organic foods. Except when you travel. And that gym is so crowded. And your knees hurt from the new exercise regimen. The list can go on and on.
No, I’m not so terribly cynical to believe change isn’t possible. And I confess that I, too, am guilty of the self-improvement scams that so-often pervade the month of January. What’s more, I’m guilty of these scams twice a year: January and August.
August is for teachers like January is for everyone else in the Western World.
I am not quite a teacher and not quite not a teacher. I’m a graduate instructor at a public university and, on average, I teach two classes per semester, four-five classes in a year, depending on summer availability. I teach mostly introductory level composition and literature courses, but there is some wiggle room to teach something new or different each year.
Every year I do implement new pedagogical strategies; I am, after all, a relatively new teacher and there is always room to grow, adapt, change, even for the most experienced instructor.
But at what point do we get real with ourselves?
I mean, where is the line between rational points of self-improvement in one’s pedagogical practices and a total meltdown of I’m-going-to-change-everything-about-myself-and-the-way-I-teach? Can we not also find this line somewhere between drinking less soda and renovating your house for a new home gym?
The past several weeks have gotten me thinking about the varying degrees of change we seek at the start of a new semester or school year. Because of the delightfully collaborative nature of Twitter–just see #syllabus–it is here that I find the most helpful and (only sometimes) the most baffling of instructor calendars, lesson plans, syllabi, and more.
It’s these baffling ones that make me think, Oh, this must have really worked for you, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work at all for me. Sometimes this doubt in a lesson plan or a particular practice is just that: doubt. Or fear. Maybe even worries about doing something new and doing it badly.
But sometimes, I think, this doubt is justified. Student population, funding of the program, location and timing of the course, etc. can all influence how a class is taught, how students learn the material, and how we teach it.
There’s already so much written about incorporating technology in the classroom and re-imagining the nature of university education, but it can be quite challenging to adapt lessons, units, and even entire classes to incorporate something new or fit a new model of teaching.
Sometimes we adapt lessons because we have to–such as moving to a new institution, recognizing that the classroom you’re teaching in doesn’t have functional computers, etc. But sometimes we change things–and when I say “we” here I really, sadly mean “I”–because we think we should, or we see other lesson plans and we think, “Wow, that looks so cool and incredible. I should be doing stuff like that!”
This is probably one of my largest regrets in adapting a lesson. In my first year of teaching, I was living and working in Illinois for the first time, having just finished a pedagogy course with what felt like far more experienced instructors, and I used a “Department-Approved Assignment” without fully understanding the mechanics of said assignment. It was lazy teaching on my part and turned out to be a very teachable moment for myself.
Do It With Purpose
When I attempt to adapt a lesson or a class to a new model, I try to think about what a mentor once asked me: Why? This question was not, of course, an effort to make me feel badly about trying something new, but instead forced me to articulate why I was making particular pedagogical choices. It wasn’t just “technology for technology’s sake,” or even “multimodality” because it’s a decent buzzword. Instead, it’s a reminder that as an instructor you make all kinds of choices in the development of a course and you have to see some of those through, even if they’re huge flops; it’s OK, as long as you know why you’re doing it.
If you’re still relatively green like me remember the mantra, Good Teachers Borrow, Great Teachers Steal. This is not to say do what I did in my first year of teaching, but instead read what’s current in your field in terms of pedagogy and figure out what does or does not work for you.
Before you think I’m just a big fat contrarian about weight loss, change, and new teaching practices, let me re-emphasize my love of organization, self-improvement, learning, and so on. I’m very interested to know what healthy practices you’re utilizing this summer to prep for your classes.What always stays the same, no matter what? What changes do you make? How do you ensure that those changes aren’t like, say, New Year’s resolutions (where the retention is usually until February)?
I’ve been away for a minute, and this could strike you as a possibly obvious post: I am curious to know how you negotiate between work and family time? Where do you–if at all–sacrifice? Is it possible to strike a balance between the two? I’m interested to know how other academics or graduate/professional students find opportunities to work, but also enjoy time with their family and friends outside of academia? This topic has been discuss thoroughly by established scholars, such as Greg Semenza’s Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century and others, but I wonder how fellow graduate students and burgeoning scholars are handling it. Is there simply no room for negotiation? The short answer is probably no, but let me dream!
Lots of New Stuff Happening
As many of you may know, I have the opportunity to research in Ireland, England, and Scotland for the next academic year through the Joseph C. Gallagher Fellowship. A task that is both exhilarating and anxiety-producing, as I am in a critical moment in my PhD program. But alas, that is for another blog post. More immediately, I have just completed a cross-country drive from Tucson, Arizona (had to bring a road tripping buddy from somewhere slightly further west than Albuquerque because I’m an idiot) to Pamlico County, North Carolina, where I grew up and where my parents still live. If you’re wondering why I reference the entire county as my travel destination instead of a town or city, then you clearly haven’t been there. And you might be too citified to ever make it.
This journey has been an emotional one. Sure, I had a blast catching up with some old friends along the way, making stops where I know folks from my MA program and elsewhere. Also, listening to Harry Potter on audiobook made the trip wonderfully relaxing and quick, despite the surreal experience of listening to young British children discuss Christmas dinner and butter beer at chilly Hogwarts when in reality I was primarily driving through a Mad Max-esque desert scene:
Some other, not-so-great aspects of the trip included staying with a few old friends who were oh-so bohemian and left the front door/windows open for North Carolina swamp mosquitos, engorged with the blood of innocent travelers. Long story short: I look like I have chickenpox, so it’s basically the worst.
That being said (I REALLY needed a platform from which to complain about the mosquito bites), I know that for the next academic year things would be very different for me. I will not have the comforts of my home institution, nor can I readily pester advisors in person; instead, I leave my possessions in a 5X5 storage unit in New Mexico, my car in North Carolina with my very generous parents, and I will be gone from what I had gotten to know.
But What About ME?? (should be read in most annoying, privileged voice on the planet)
Luckily, my concerns about leaving Albuquerque were mostly about what I would arrive to when I reached my parents’ house. I, like many people at similar points in their academic careers, read and write every day. Sometimes I dread it, sometimes I don’t. I just know for my sanity I have to keep to a fairly diligent reading and writing schedule.
Often when I visit my parents for a week over the holidays I visit other family members, play games, and maybe even going to the movies. This is not, however, a holiday. I’m in between living situations before I leave for Dublin at the beginning of September and my lease ended in Albuquerque just before I left. I’m here for a month and a half. Again, I have lovely and supportive parents who generously offered for me to stay with them for a month and a half, but I am concerned about deadlines and completing projects that are due in mid-September.
I have only been here five days but so far I’ve found opportunities to work in the mornings, my favorite time to write. I’ve read a great deal about how to foster an effective workspace, but there is little written about doing this in someone else’s home, as a guest. Possibly because it’s incredibly rude, but that’s for another post.
My father is retired and my mother is a school teacher out for the summer, so both of my parents are typically around the house, watching television loudly in the other room, or just being the type of people who knock on a door a lot to see if anyone is in a room. There are about four available hours each morning that my parents are out of the house, each dealing with separate commitments. At these times I slip away into my sister’s old bedroom where I’ve snatched an old table and chair from the living room (so far no one has asked for it back…) and created a makeshift office space. These hours have worked perfectly to get started on my writing each morning, and when my parents return with loud television and constant door knocking, I’m normally so immersed in what I’m doing that I don’t notice.
Once I’ve dealt with the humiliation of being an adult woman who has moved (albeit temporarily) back in with her parents, the whole situation has actually worked quite beautifully.
What Gives, If Anything?
I seems as though something has to suffer here, right? Do I have to decide between family time and work time? Yes and no, I think. I think it’s important to spend time with my family (who I will not see in a year), but also for my mental wellness I need to continue reading and writing. I talk a big game about maintaining a life outside of academia, one with exercise and hobbies, but I find it’s easier said than done. The truth is that I really like working on my research. I really like reading and writing all of the time, but this becomes challenging when around people who you want to chat with and be a version of yourself that doesn’t read, write, write, and read some more.
Again, I want to spend some quality time with my parents. How many people who live across the country are lucky enough to spend a month and a half with family? Several of my friends will roll their eyes here, but I do like spending time with my parents. I have, of course, had to insist multiple times to the clerk at the local grocery store that I’m not “moving back home,” but instead preparing for a year abroad, but who knows what people think….
One of my biggest goals upon returning home was to continue working just as I do at my own home, but that is clearly impossible. As anyone who was raised by anxiety-ridden parents (yay, it’s genetic!) and in a particularly small home will tell you, privacy is hard to come by. Further, because I rarely see my family and I know I will not be home for the holidays, I find myself combatting guilt anytime I decide to work rather than play a game of rummy.
If you have a bit of advice on this subject, feel free to comment below. I’m interested to learn how burgeoning scholars negotiate between essential family/personal time and essential work time. Thanks!
Diana Filar is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University, with a particular interest in the contemporary immigrant novel. She received her MA at University of New Mexico this past spring semester and will be sorely missed! Follow her on Twitter @
When Kelly asked me to guest blog, I knew immediately what I would write about: this summer’s transition period and the time in between my Master’s program and PhD program. Right now, I am still in Albuquerque, where I got my MA at the University of New Mexico (and met Kelly!). I have plenty of great things to say about UNM: I met a lot of brilliant and helpful faculty, I learned what going to grad school actually means, and I filled in a lot of gaps in my literary periodization knowledge. Basically, I got a clue and confirmed that I want to pursue an academic career.
Unfortunately, my long term boyfriend and I don’t love Albuquerque (mountains, chile, and weather aside), and when applying to PhD programs last year, I put a lot of emphasis on place (as well as the other important factors, of course!). Whether or not the experts advise for or against this was less relevant to me than knowing I had to live somewhere for the next five years while getting my doctorate – a difficult feat.
So at the end of this month, I am moving to the Boston area to attend Brandeis University for my PhD in American literature. I am from the east coast and lived in Boston before, and I have to say it’s one of my favorite places. I also was lucky enough to visit Brandeis before accepting their offer and really got the sense that it was the right place for me. That being said, there are a few elements of this transition period that are giving me a lot to think (read: stress) about.
First Things First
To be honest, I haven’t spent as much time thinking about school, my program, new colleagues and advisors, and classes (well, I have spent SOME time thinking about it) as I have been trying to plan my move. Moving across the country is an endeavor, and I know, having already done it once in just a Honda Civic with my boyfriend and all of our stuff. Relocation of any kind makes the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory Scale as one of the most anxiety producing life events. We plan on being in Boston by August 1st so we can get settled and acclimated before school begins at the end of the month (on my birthday!). That is three weeks away, and we still don’t have a place to live. We are searching and applying like mad, but things keep not working out or falling through or being too much money (I could go on a rant about rental pricing, neoliberalism, and gentrification on a grad student’s budget but that’s another post). Right now, having a home is priority number one.
The other details of the move are in various states of completion. We have a rental truck and a dolly to tow our car. I know where to get free moving boxes. Our friends said they’d help. And I won’t be working the week before we leave so all the packing can be complete. On the negative side, we need to actually do that packing, get our current apartment in tip top shape so our landlord will return the security deposit to its rightful owners, and plan the road trip – where to stop, what to see, where to stay. I wish I got a reward for moving successfully cross-country twice in three years, but alas.
Aside from all the moving responsibilities, summer is usually a time when academics, including myself, overcommit to a lot of projects and self-promises about those projects’ completion. Kelly has written about the writing group we are in, and like everyone else, I had a bunch of writing goals for those lazy, hazy days of summer. I stayed somewhat realistic based on deadlines and tried not to cry about how writing emails to landlords and realtors counted as writing.
That being said, all my goals for the summer were all near completion even before “vacation” began. The transition aspect of writing comes in when I consider that the people (professors, mentors, writing group friends) who helped me get my articles and projects to their current states will no longer be as available to help me once I start at Brandeis. They will all still be at UNM or elsewhere, and while I know I could reach out, I also know I need to be making new professional relationships.
But how do I explain what I did in a paper for a class in Spring 2014 and the various stages that essay has been through and the (very helpful!) reader responses from a journal rejection to a person who doesn’t know me and my overarching research goals–i.e. supposed dissertation topic. It’s daunting to consider editing this above mentioned rejection in Boston. It’s almost as if my ideas have to move along with my physical body. They also need to find a home in this new place. If anyone has any advice on how to carry writing or ideas over from one institution to the next, I’m all ears. Otherwise, I will flail under I figure it out myself.
Differences between Programs
At UNM, I was awarded a Teaching Assistantship which offered me a stipend and full tuition remission. For this, I am very grateful as so many standalone Master’s programs do not provide this kind of funding. That being said, as much as I love teaching (especially this past year, once I got the hang of it), I am glad that I won’t have to teach in my first year at Brandeis. I can’t help but think ALL THAT TIME FOR READING. JUST FOR ME. This may sound selfish, but I really only started graduate school for me, and I think if anyone starts for anyone or anything but themselves, they may be getting into some trouble.
I can’t help thinking that I WILL HAVE SO MUCH FREE TIME (for reading!) even though I know in my heart of hearts that I will still not actually have this mystical, imagined amount of “free” time. Even so, I am still excited for my coursework at Brandeis. This fall I will be taking three classes: Introduction to Literary and Cultural Studies, Race, Desire, & the Literary Imagination, and Gender & the Genealogy of the Novel. Brandeis also has a joint program with Women’s Studies, so I plan on cross-completing courses in the departments to get a second Master’s in Women’s Studies.
On a less academic note (but not entirely since humans are social creatures who need a reprieve from their exhausting graduate work) I am – to put it vulnerably – nervous about making new friends. I realize that school is one of the easiest places to make new friends, but it’s still stressful. I feel like this every time I leave an old place for a new place, and every time it ends up working out, but I cannot help lament that I do not want to let my “old” friends go. And of course, I don’t have to and we will keep in touch – conferences are good for that, and also cell phones. But I am still really sad to say goodbye to the wonderful people I met in Albuquerque.
I have even said to them “I don’t want to make new friends! I just won’t!” which not only sounds insane, but also won’t be true. Moreover, I still have friends in Boston from when I lived there before. (Shout out to them for helping with the apartment hunt!) That in itself, though, is another point of transition. Many of them stuck around Boston for the last three years after undergrad. I, on the other hand, moved to Vermont and then New Mexico. So now, a few of them are ready to move on themselves, and I selfishly tell them they’re not allowed to go. Again, I don’t want to make new friends! (If any Brandeis people read this, I’m lying. I want to be your friend). And since I haven’t lived in Boston for a few years and will be living in a totally different part of town, in a completely different phase of my life, it really does feel like starting over, albeit with some friendly support.
I am a pretty emotional person (as you can probably already tell), but to put it simply, I understandably feel excited and nervous, but right now more nervous than not. I’m just going to keep telling myself everything will magically fall into place once I find an apartment.
Note: Diana did eventually find a place to live in the Boston area!
How do you prepare for independent research?
If you’re anything like me you dream all year long of the rare opportunities you can dive head-over-books into your research. And if you’re anything like most graduate students, adjunct instructors, lecturers, and even some junior faculty, you spend a great deal of time researching and teaching works and genres that maybe don’t directly line up with your research interests.
So, when you have time–or the illusion of time, at least–to focus on yourself and your work, it’s easy to kick yourself for not protecting that sacred-seeming time through out the academic year. Sure, I maintain consistent writing hours and writing groups, but I just finished course work, co-teaching a course on seduction fiction of the C18 for the first time, and dealing with other external pressures, so my spring semester (like most spring semesters) was fairly rough.
But despite all of the stress of the regular semester, I crave the return of Fall semester, rigid schedules, and freshly sharpened pencils. I like to think I’m not the only one who misses the smell of new binders and lesson plans.
That being said, I’ve been using some time to prep for my year-long research fellowship in Ireland, Scotland, and England. The itinerary is already developed (if your campus has a Global Education Office then you should go give them hugs and become a friend) and reference numbers were pulled months ago, but there still remains the task of contacting librarians with information about my exact arrival dates, how long I will need materials, and how these materials will need to be handled (most archives have general guidelines, but some collections refuse any type of image scan, etc.).
Tips for the Archive
I’ve been fortunate enough to use a short term research grant to gather materials at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas, but I ask nearly everyone what advice they have for long-term archival work. Here are the tips I’ve gathered and used myself, if you think of anymore, please share! There are also great tips here.
These are a few tips I’ve gathered on hitting up archives and how I’m preparing for this over the summer–it may seem like a lot of groundwork, but the payoff (at least in my experience with short-term grants) is worth it. Feel free to chime in with your own experiences, advice, or tips. Anything different for those working with long-term fellowships?
When I was a kid I loved summer camp.
It didn’t matter if it was day camp, sleep away camp, or pitching a tent in the back yard, I loved the smell of sunscreen early in the morning. Perhaps more importantly, I was a country bumpkin–I grew up down a dirt road in a town without traffic lights–and I loved the community feeling of all us waiting to start each day, new activities, new songs, new people, and of course unlimited bug juice.
Today I started one of the university sponsored writing camps offered by my institution’s Graduate Resource Center. This experience was, in some ways, similar to those delightful camp memories: the early morning wake up call (first timers were asked to arrive at 8:00 am), the obligatory sunscreen (I live in New Mexico, duh), and the distinct feeling of uncertain possibility that I find so often accompanies early morning activities.
Well, there was no bug juice.
But they did have coffee and tea! Which was totally necessary, because I *had* to stay up half the night reading reviews of Jurassic World.
When I arrived to the *early* morning orientation, which consisted of introductions and suggestions on developing realistic writing goals, I was hesitant about exactly how this would help me with my writing.
I already participate in a writing group that meets weekly to share writing goals and progress–both long and short term–but we rarely write with one another. The camp offered by the Graduate Resource Center is one that emphasizes writing at any phase. Although I think this is a fantastic resource, I usually work well at home (must be the isolated bumpkin in me) and I was concerned that this would be, not to put too fine a point on it, a gigantic waste of my time.
But it was actually really great.
I took a project with me that I’ve been dragging my feet on: a revision of a chapter of my dissertation. After receiving comments from one of my committee members, I was proud of my product and felt like the revision process wouldn’t take so long after all. And then I moved on to other tasks: book reviews, other chapters, studying for comps, reading Jurassic World reviews, and so forth. And then all of the simple revisions became part of a longer process.
After getting some helpful hints from the group (which was thankfully, for whatever reason, comprised solely of women) I felt jittery and motivated to begin writing. The “veteran” writing camp members were able to impart some great advice that extended beyond the usual “shut up and write.” Each of the members offered advice and support regarding whatever you’re working on that day. It sounds sort of like a nightmare, but for some reason I really liked getting this type of advice/feedback from strangers.
Within the first three hours I was surprised to learn that I had completed well over my writing goals for the time allotted. What I thought would take lots of tedious time–expansion, clarification, etc.–was somehow made easier through the collective clacking of my fellow peers. When I became listless or bored (prime pacing time at my house; Oh, hey does that cactus need watering?), I found motivation from both the continuous working efforts of my peers and the crunch of the clock. Setting artificial time goals doesn’t seem to do anything for me on my own, but if you tell me lunch is at noon then I’m going to be ready for lunch.
There is so much written about the benefits of participating in a writing group, and I think there’s something to be said about entering into a room full of supportive, likeminded writers who are not in your discipline, but simply share the need and desire to write.
While it wasn’t as fun as zip-lining or canoeing at summer camp, I would certainly recommend participating in such a writing group–if even only once–just to see how it works for you. See one of my previous posts on joining an accountability/writing group. So often we firmly believe we know what’s best for ourselves, but more often than not stepping outside of what we know is exactly what we need.