All posts by Kelli Towers Jasper

How to Keep On Keepin’ On

PhDs in the humanities take a long time.  Even optimistically we in English expect at least five years, and most statistics suggest our degrees take seven or eight–and that’s in addition to the time spent on an MA.  A lot of life happens in those years, both to us and to the people we care about and care for: marriages, divorces, births, deaths, accidents, health complications, financial troubles, moving across the country…the list goes on. Every single graduate student I know has dealt with one or more of these major life changes in the course of our PhD years, and I can tell you (and you can probably concur) that sometimes it’s really hard to keep on keepin’ on.  I’m sure we have all asked ourselves at least once whether it would be easier just to quit school and pursue a different career, especially when other folks in our lives might be asking us the same thing. Continue reading How to Keep On Keepin’ On

How To Do Archival Research (Report of the NGSC-sponsored professionalization roundtable from NASSR 2013)

If you happened to be at the NGSC-sponsored roundtable at the NASSR conference in Boston two weeks ago, you know that it was one of the best events we have organized so far!  Truly, it was probably the highlight of the whole conference for me, and that’s saying something.  Fun, Interesting, and amazingly useful, the panel brought together five incredibly accomplished (and let’s just say it: frickin’ cool) scholars in our field for a mini-course in archival research.   I’ll do my best in this post to translate my notes (along with Kirstyn’s, thanks, KL!) into an efficient reference for anyone preparing to spend quality time in some alluring repository  of old books, papers, and objects.  If you’re like me, then even if you don’t have a research trip in the works right now, you might just find yourself itching to plan one.  Anybody want to meet up at the British Library?

Special thanks again to our panelists Michelle Levy, Devoney Looser, Andrew Burkett, Dan White, and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson for sharing their insights.   I have taken the liberty of organizing this post according to topic (rather than strictly by speaker), but have noted broadly who covered what.  Now, here we go!

How to integrate archival research into your studies (Michelle Levy)

Before you embark upon archival research, take some time to approach it thoughtfully and deliberately.

  • Consider what types of research actually requires the use of archival materials—that is, stuff that has not been republished in other more readily-available formats, or that contains vital information in its original material makeup.  Book History and Material Studies projects require this, as do many kinds of academic side-projects such as critical editions, biographies, or edited collections of letters.  Though these types of publications will not qualify a person for tenure, they become very useful resources; you might ask an advisor if they have such a pet-project in the works that you could help with—or eventually, you could do one of your own. (Also, think about where/how you might publish such a project, including in digital formats—check out PMLA’s “Little-known Documents” as an example).
  • Be sure to build in TIME; archival research cannot be done at the last minute.  You need time to sift through materials before you find the gems that matter.  You need time to write applications for research fellowships, including the lead-time for letters of recommendation.  You need time to learn the research techniques that reveal the documents’ secrets (see next item).
  • Build research skills before you go. Take a course in book history or bibliography if you possibly can.  Use the Special Collections of your home institution to get a sense of how they work, how often they contain non-catalogued materials, and how vital it is that you form a good relationship with the librarians.
  • Take time to figure out WHERE you will need to go in order to look at the documents you need, and whether that institution provides any research fellowships.  Some large institutions in the US do (like the Huntington, the Pforzheimer, and the Harry Ransom Center); most institutions in the UK do not (in which case, you might apply for a fellowship from your own university or some other funding body).

How to apply for research fellowships (Devoney Looser — see full text of her very useful handout HERE).

  • Remember, the surest way to not get funding is to submit a shoddy application.  You are in competition with lots of other smart people.
  • Give your advisors plenty of lead-time to write you letters of recommendation (a month is polite).
  • Show that you have specifically researched the holdings of the institution you plan to visit.  Use their online catalogues and finding aids, talk to others who have researched there, and even consider calling and talking to the librarians and curators (as long as you’ll be asking them smart questions, and not ones you could have answered yourself if you had just looked at their website).
  • The Project Narrative is the most crucial part. Don’t let another critic’s voice take center stage.  Explain WHY your research is exciting and important.  It is not enough to “fill a gap”—you must explain WHY the gap needs to be filled. And never begin your narrative with a quote from someone else!
  • Remember that you’re writing to a committee that comes from several disciplines, not necessarily including Romanticism.  Be sure that an educated non-romanticist could understand the importance of your project.
  • Don’t give up if you don’t get the fellowship!  Seek feedback, improve your application, and keep trying.

Tips for planning your research trip, including some packing essentials (Michelle Levy et al)

  • When planning your research trip, travel off-season if you can; it will be cheaper and libraries will be less crowded, which means you will get your books faster and librarians will be more available to help you.
  • Learn the archive’s rules and procedures before you go, so you don’t waste valuable time when you’re there.  You can usually order your books in advance, and occasionally you have to do so.
  • Read as much as you can before you go, including electronic forms of your primary documents, so that you can focus your precious time on the info you can’t get otherwise.  Software like Adobe Professional is useful for taking notes on PDFs.
  • Use a number of resources to plan the trip.  Contact the archivists (with smart questions, of course); they are really helpful.
  •  ALWAYS get a letter of endorsement from your advisor, printed on university letterhead and signed in BLUE ink.  Some institutions will not allow you access to their archives without this. Also, be sure to check whether they have other requirements, such as more than one form of ID, or a passport, or proof of current address.
  • Every institution will have its own rules and restrictions on what you can bring into the archives, (be sure you understand their policies involving photography and reproduction)  but pack yourself a basic “research baggie”—it will probably include pencils, a ruler, some paper, a magnifying glass, your laptop, a camera, and a jacket or sweater—libraries are CHILLY!

How to get the most out of your time in the archive itself (Andrew Burkett and Dan White; check out the full text of Andrew Burkett’s talk HERE)

  • Have a plan, but be open to discovery!  Let the archive drive you, but have a clear sense of your research questions (start with the broadest one, which is “I want to learn everything about _____.”)
  • Expect to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information you might uncover.
  • MAKE FRIENDS with the archivists and curators. They can help give you a roadmap through those materials and focus your search.  Some archivists will be very helpful, others markedly frosty; kill them all with kindness!  They hold a lot of power, and if they decide they like you, their input can radically impact your work.
  • Allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials. Talk to other people working there. These work sites are dynamic and alive and exciting.
  • Embrace the fellowship in your fellowship!  Think of time at the archive as professionalization through sociability.  Learn how to talk about your work in a way that excites other people who are not necessarily in your field.

How to manage the notes and pictures you gather (Dan White)

  • Approach your note-taking systematically; essentially what you’re doing is amassing a body of notes from which, at a later point, you are going to produce scholarship.  The more clearly and obviously you can organize and tag what you gather, the more you’ll thank yourself later.   You’ll likely develop a system that’s unique to you, but as you do, imagine how your future self will be using your notes.  You want your notes to help you create ideas for scholarship.
  • ALWAYS record full bibliographic information for every item you look at!!
  • Have a system of naming your electronic files; long names are useful and perfectly acceptable; include key info such as author surname, keywords from title, date, other keywords.
  • Include cross-references for yourself, as you think about linkages you’re finding.  Within the file of notes on a given item you can include items like  “See ‘full name of file’ and ‘full name of file.'”
  • In your file for each item, clearly differentiate your transcriptions from your meditations (perhaps with different-colored text?), but definitely include BOTH!  Your epiphanies will be easily forgotten in the deluge of information you gather, so cherish each fleeting thought and keep a running narrative for yourself.
  • Don’t forget that there are different kinds of notes; if an electronic copy of a given text is available, you can download it and (with proper software) take notes on the PDF.  i
  • On a shorter visit (one month or so), it’s probably best just to spend your time gathering as much info as you can.  If you have a longer research period, you’ll probably want to work in some more formal writing/processing sessions for drafting the chapters or articles you’re working on.  Keep in mind, though, that the research narrative you produce in your notes is part of that drafting process.

How to go about locating and working in private, lesser-known, and otherwise unconventional archives (Jill Heydt-Stevenson)

Occasionally you might find yourself searching for texts or objects that don’t end up in academic institutions.  (Professor Heydt-Stevenson spent her summer researching collections of Paul and Virginia memorabilia, everything from handkerchiefs to cuckoo clocks, things that have mostly ended up in the hands of private enthusiasts who have all sorts of different reasons for collecting, and house their collections in their homes).  So, how do you go about finding such repositories, and how can you prepare to use them?

  • Search for clues about these kinds of collections on the internet, and definitely ask anyone you can think of who might know about anything useful.  If you have friends locally, they can give you a spring board for people who won’t be on the internet.  When trying to set up a visit don’t be afraid to use the phone!  Keep in mind that some private collectors are older, and may hail from an era before email was so prevalent, or may live in the countryside with spotty internet access.
  • Be prepared for the personalness of the research, and of your interactions with the collectors and their space.  Keep in mind that you may be in someone’s home, going through their prized possessions, and your people skills will be very important.
  • Be prepared for a huge difference between what the private collector does, versus an institution.  What matters to them may not be what matters to you, and you must respect this.  There will likely be no catalog, and little recorded information or analysis for each object.   You will also likely not have a lot of time with the collection.  These are huge challenges for a scholar.
  •  Bring notepaper as well as a computer to take notes in this house. There may be no wifi.
  • Have a really good camera on you – not an iPhone camera. Take lots of photos!
  • Be sure to ask the curator and owner if they want to be cited.  Some do, and others feel intensely protective of their collections and do NOT want publicity.
  • Be prepared to see one thing, or 300 things, depending on the situation.
  • Be prepared to do a ton of socializing and talking, like a job interview.  The curators will likely be thrilled that someone is interested in their collections, and will want to know all about what you’re planning to say about them.  All this talking will take up some of your research time, but be gracious and keep in mind that  it will likely enable you to do more research with the collection in the future.


Happy researching, everyone!  And if you want more information, be sure to check out our collection of posts on Libraries & Archives.  (You can access this from the drop-down menu for “Categories” on the right side of the page).


How to Dissertate

Well, it’s a new year and in the spirit of developing better habits, I thought I’d share my resolution: to become a more effective dissertator.  Please note that this article is not titled “How to write a dissertation,” because to me, “dissertating” involves a LOT more than the writing process. I know (basically) how to research and I know how to write… but what I don’t think I do well yet is focus—at least not on completing (or let’s be honest, starting and diligently continuing) a project of this magnitude. So, here I’m sharing a few bits of choice advice I’ll be implementing over the next several months to make my dissertating more sustainable and successful.
1.  Dedicate a few full work-days a week to dissertating. On other days, give at least a couple of hours.  This semester, my Wednesdays and Fridays are dissertation days. Mondays are for CV-building academic service, Tuesdays and Thursdays are for teaching, grading, and lesson-prep. Saturdays are for catching up, and Sundays are for recharging the spirit. I’m hoping that this schedule will help me focus on each task as I’m doing it, and give me permission not to worry about the tasks of other days. Less anxiety, less guilt, more productivity. Awesome.
2. Get out of the house.  I made the mistake of not doing this today (yes, a dissertation day. These are goals, people! I’m not perfect yet!)… and so I graded a few lingering student papers, wrote some thank-you notes, ran some errands, felt guilty, and sat down to write this blog as a record of my shame and a re-dedication to a better future. Then I’ll probably do the dishes, because I’m still at home, and the precariously-stacked dirty plates are driving me crazy. Don’t let this happen to you! Have a dedicated work-space someplace else, and go there early in the morning. Settle in, and focus on your work.
3. Check email at the end of the day, not the beginning.  Special thanks to Kirstyn Leuner and Lori Emerson for this piece of advice!  We all know how fast a quick email-check devolves into hours of correspondence, followed by (*ahem* undisclosed amount) of hours wasted watching slideshows of the Golden Globes’ best-dressed list. Once your browser is open, it’s hard to close. So stay away, at least for the first several hours of the day.
4. Just say no to side-projects. If you’re anything like me, then you don’t have trouble devoting large chunks of your time to worthy causes, both academic and non-. I think it’s healthy and important to have a few, but set a limit and don’t go over it! Especially clear out the little stuff that’s eating up your time and doing little for your CV. I have limited myself to my main teaching contract, one small, paying job for some extra cash, one major CV-building academic activity, and one church/community service. Even that is a lot! It’s painful to say no to projects that sound totally awesome (I turned down a gem just this week), but do it. Just say no. Protect your right to dissertate.
5. Set small deadlines for yourself. Currently, I’m scheduled to complete a chapter every three months. (I’m told this is about right in English, though apparently it’s pretty slow compared to some other disciplines). If chapters are 50-60 pages, then I need to write about ten pages every two weeks. Totally doable, right? Part of me resists, reasoning that it’s too modular and that my chapter will have no continuity… but I remind myself that revision can come later. For now, it’s important that research be linked to production all along the way, in small manageable chunks. Plus, as a bonus, ten pages is the perfect length to adjust into a conference paper!
6. Join (or form) a dissertation support group. Share work regularly, and keep each other accountable. My university has a general group for PhDs of all disciplines, which I think I might attend… but I also think it would be nice to form a group with folks in my own department. The idea is that you meet once a month, and everybody gives an update on their work. One person might be nominated to share 10 pages with the group, or everyone could bring 10 pages, and pair up to exchange. As long as you have deadlines, and people to keep you accountable (and probably some treats and commiseration and laughter), the effort will be worthwhile.

I’m starting with these six ideas, but if you have any tips that helped you dissertate more effectively, please do share them! The more wisdom, the better. And to all of us who are striving to stay on the wagon and produce some butt-kicking chapters these next few months, I say best of luck! Happy habit-building, folks. We can do it.

‘Tis The Season to Apply for Research Fellowships

It’s that time of year… and no, I don’t mean for busting out the Holiday music (for that please refrain until after Thanksgiving.  Thank you.).  This, my friends, is the season to consider applying for research fellowships!  With so many thrilling archives around, full of material ripe for analysis, it would really be a shame for scholars like us not to use them in our research—especially because libraries often offer us money to do so!  Both short- and long-term fellowships are available at many major libraries and archives, and although some of these are reserved for scholars who already have their doctorate degrees, others specifically aim to help PhD candidates complete their dissertations or research for a specific article they plan to publish.

Of course, to get a fellowship you have to apply, and the competition is stiff—which is exactly the reason I’m posting about it right now.  If you’ve found a specific archive with which you want to spend some quality time, it behooves you to start NOW, drafting your application and asking people to write your letters of recommendation.  For the libraries I’ve looked at, most fellowship application deadlines fall between December 1st and March 1st.

I’m still new to writing research fellowship applications myself, but I’ll pass along a few pieces of advice I’ve been counseled to keep in mind.  They’re pretty intuitive, but worth mentioning nevertheless.

First, define your target.  There’s no sense in visiting a specific archive if it doesn’t have the materials that will be useful to you, or if those materials are also available somewhere closer to home. Also, libraries will see no sense in supporting your visit if you don’t have a specific project for which to use their materials.  Thus, it’s imperative that you clearly articulate both the nature of your specific research project, and what role the library’s holdings play within that project.  The former is (I think) one of the most challenging things we do in this profession, but the latter is pretty easy to manage: comb through the library catalogues and start making lists of items you would look at if you could.  Although many library catalogues are not comprehensive, searching them and making wishlists will help you get the lay of the land, so to speak, and plan future academic projects and research trips, whether or not you get the fellowship.  In your application, mention some of these specific items from your list (and check in Worldcat to make sure they’re not also at the library of your home institution!).

Second, know your audience.  Most committees assessing applications consist of librarians  whose job it is to match their knowledge of the library’s holdings to projects that will use these holdings to develop exciting new ideas.  Even if readers do have training in your field, it is unlikely that they will be experts in your specific area.  Therefore, your project description should eschew all jargon, so as to be lucid and interesting to an intelligent general reader.  Preserve your sense of the project’s intervention and be specific about what’s at stake, but craft it for people who are not necessarily Romanticists.  (This is a useful skill to hone for the job market as well!).

Third, write with authority. While avoiding jargon, show that you have a solid understanding of what your work will accomplish, as well as the competence to accomplish it.  Avoid passive voice: instead of saying “It will be demonstrated that…,” go for “I will demonstrate that….”.

Fourth, specify expected outcomes.  What will this fellowship enable you to do?  Finish a chapter? Complete an article for publication?   You don’t need more than a sentence or two, but you should show that your research will result in production of a tangible piece of scholarship.  Your readers aren’t going to pay you just to think about stuff—they need to know your work is going somewhere.

Fifth, organize, organize, organize.  Most of these applications are quite short, meaning you must pack a serious punch in very few words.  Have a thesis statement, clearly articulate your project’s intervention and importance in your field, and be as clear and precise as possible.  Ask colleagues and professors to read your proposal, and then be willing to revise (sometimes repeatedly).  Again, whether or not you get the fellowship, this process is useful just for your yourself! It will help you comb through the tangled web of thoughts and find the golden thread that holds it all together—the ultimate quest of any project, right?

There are big, comprehensive archives, and small, specialized archives, so I thought we could start building a list of favorites!  Below I provide links to three fellowship-offering biggies: huge institutions with something for everyone.  But there are so many others!  If you know of a great archive, or have experience using it (like Michele at the Huntington, or Jacob at the Yale Center for British Art, or Kelli at the British Library), please leave a note in the comments!

Newberry Library (Chicago, IL) – Dec. 12, 2011

Huntington Library (San Marino, CA) – Dec 15, 2011

Beinecke Library (Yale) – March 2, 2012 (also, they have a Fall application in October)

Others for you to look up, or comment on: New York Public Library, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, The American Antiquarian Society, Winterthur Library, the Library Company of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Dumbarton Oaks Library, the Getty Research Institute, Kew Library (Royal Botanic Gardens), RHS Lindley Library. . . .

Again, we’d love to hear your recommendations or personal experiences with any useful archives! Thanks for sharing.

Happy Application Days to All!


This Little Graddie Went to Market…

Preparing for and Navigating the Job Market: Roundtable from NASSR Conference, August 2011

If you were at the NASSR conference last month, and happened to attend the job-market roundtable organized by the NGSC, then this post will be old news…but we figured there are at least some of you who want to know all the good advice!  For all their wisdom, pragmatic counsel, and encouragement, special thanks again goes to all our panelists: Alan Bewell, Julie Carlson, Frances Ferguson, William Galperin, Jonathan Mulrooney, and Juan Sanchez.  To protect the innocent, I’ve detached their names from the information below; please note that these are MY interpretations of what was said, edited and rearranged for your convenience.  May they prove useful to all those currently preparing to go on the job market, and to all of us hoping to get there soon!


Choosing between a postdoc and the job market

The Postdoc offers certain advantages over the job market.  It is generally much easier to get than a tenure-track position.  However, there are many kinds of postdocs, and you might find yourself with a kind of postdoc that you don’t really want; some will help you more than others to prepare for jobs.  The best kinds of postdocs are the ones that allow you to do research and get out some publications (these are generally 2-3 year postdocs).

Postdocs are also more difficult to apply for than jobs.  The job letter can describe your research and experience very broadly and can be used on several applications; postdocs tend to have very specified requirements that often result in more time and effort invested; you have to write several very different applications, rather than one that can be tailored to many.  Second, postdocs often want you to describe a NEW project: they don’t want you to go and finish your book; they want you to work on producing something new.  This means you will be pitching two book ideas.  Of course, when you go into the job market, you CAN say that you used the postdoc to develop a second book project, and you will have something to show for it…and this puts you in a really great position.

With the postdoc market, you may have more success because host institutions are interested in you developing new ideas and projects however you want to.  In a job situation, you have to fit in to the department, and you will need to fit your projects to the departmental needs.

Format of the Job Letter and the Dissertation Abstract

These are THE TWO MOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS YOU WILL EVER PRODUCE IN YOUR CAREER!  They will absorb hours and hours of your time, but you should recognize that time as a worthwhile investment.  Nothing will affect your future prospects so much as these two documents.  There is a standard tripartite form in the job letter, and you should adhere to it.  You don’t want anything quirky or grandstanding.  The entire letter should NEVER, under any circumstances, be longer than two pages.

Part 1: Announce your application to the job, and make clear your suitability for the position advertised.  Show that you can operate from the center, rather than the periphery.  Show that you are aware of their needs, and indicate your suitability to meet those needs.

Part 2: Describe your dissertation.  This will naturally be the most difficult paragraph, and you should be prepared to make 8-10 revisions!

Part 3: Indicate your teaching experience.  Every school, whether they are a research university or a teaching university, will employ you as a teacher, and they want to know that you have experience and enthusiasm for it.  (see “Teaching,” below.)

To conclude, your last few sentences should declare your availability for an interview.

Getting Help and Guidance with the Letter, Abstract, and Interviews

The placement committee at your university can help a lot by giving practice interviews, mentoring, pairing a job candidate with a faculty member who is NOT on their committee (who can thus see with fresh eyes, like the people on hiring committees).  If you can arrange such a pairing, you should meet with this person on multiple occasions.  From a student’s perspective, this can be a very irritating experience, and may seem pointless, and it might feel infantilizing.  It’s alienating labor for everyone involved, but everyone needs to be cheerful and grateful for it… and it can make a HUGE difference!

When to go on the job market

When to go on the market depends on where you are with your dissertation.  For the most part, you should NOT go on the market unless you are done with your dissertation, or very nearly done.  If you are an exception to this, let your advisor tell you that you are!  You need to be at a point when you can talk about your work with confidence, both in the broadest terms, and in the 11-second elevator conversation.  It’s up to you to figure out whether you want to do a “trial year;” but recognize that this will take lots of time that can feel slightly arbitrary, and it might be a better use of your time to move forward with your dissertation.  It is indeed a useful exercise, but it is more useful at certain times than at others.  Be discriminate.

How to interview and give a job talk (at MLA, or a campus visit)

Interviews are formal moments, and you should dress up – but you should also be comfortable!  You should not be distracted by your clothing, and neither should others.  Poise is also important; sustain it as best you can through all events, but especially make sure you have at least 15-30 minutes alone before your talk to gather yourself and your thoughts.

Clarity and conciseness are your best friends. You must learn to articulate quickly and clearly what you are “about.”  Learn who you will be speaking to, what the format is, and what will be expected of you (your advisor can help you find these things out.)  Keep in mind that you will be talking to non-specialists in your field.  You don’t need to dilute yourself and open yourself up to super-broad questions you can’t handle, but you want to give the broadest possible range of your work and its relevance.  Show that you know the specifics, but that you can participate in the larger conversation.   Your originality is most apparent in the CLARITY with which you articulate your ideas, NOT that you are the first person ever to think about them.  Avoid vague sloppy verbs like “negotiate”, “through the lens of,” or “this is a moment where…”

The quality of your research will probably be much like that of other candidates.  In the interview, the committee will probably not ask you much about your dissertation itself; they will want to know how it fits in with the larger academic conversation, the limits of your project, etc.  Also, the committee won’t know anything you haven’t told them in your application letter, and in the interview they will want to know about your wider academic interests.

Have Fun!!  We all got into this profession because we enjoy it!  That’s not to say that you don’t act rigorously professional, but in an interview you should communicate not only what you know, but HOW you know!  The people who are interviewing you want you to succeed; you don’t have to convince them that you have the intellectual goods; they already think you do because they invited you!  You are a colleague.  Keep in mind that it is a conversation!  The more it becomes a conversation, the less it becomes an interrogation…you win!  If the committee is having fun, it will make a difference.  Be human.  Respond to questions as they occur, but keep it natural.  This isn’t Trivial Pursuit.  It’s okay to acknowledge when you don’t know something; keep in mind that such times are opportunities that demonstrate how you think about new ideas.  Don’t be afraid to risk some intellectual playfulness.  You can go out on a limb and have conversations, and be willing to stretch yourself.

It’s not always all about you.  There is a good chance that at least one person on the committee will be crazy, and not necessarily liked by their colleagues… there are dynamics going on, like when you go to Thanksgiving with your in-laws. J  Not everything that goes on between the people there has to do with you.

Both research and teaching are important.  Don’t assume too much about what a school wants, based on its reputation as a research institution or liberal arts college.  Always be prepared to talk about both your teaching and your research, and how they integrate.  This will serve you well no matter what kind of institution you apply to.

Teaching – It is SO important! 

Different universities may have different degrees of emphasis on research, but they ALL will emphasize teaching!  In order to get an interview, you do have to have a strong letter and strong research; that is,  teaching will not get you the interview.  However, once you GET the interview, your teaching experience will often get you the job.  Make teaching matter to you as a graduate student, and make sure you get experience with it.  Don’t treat it simply as a part-time side job that you put second to your research. Make sure someone writes a letter of reference that can say something about your teaching.  Invite a faculty advisor to observe you, so they can write with real knowledge.

Make teaching important to you in the interview.  YOU can bring it up!  Ask questions about teaching.  Take time to find out about the kinds of courses offered at the university.  Put together some sample syllabi, and be prepared (and excited) to talk about them.  When you are talking to the director of undergraduate studies, teaching will be particularly important.

At this point in your career, a teaching portfolio is not really necessary, but you may want to leave some samples of courses you have taught or would like to teach with the committee.  However, don’t make the mistake of giving the committee too many papers before or during the interview…. You want them looking at YOU, not at the six syllabi that you have constructed.  Try to focus on perhaps one course that you might teach, and talk about it.

How to demonstrate your teaching skills at a campus visit

The job talk will likely be your most important teaching moment.  Approach it like a teacher.  Imagine the talk like a seminar, in which a lot of ideas are discussed, and everyone feels they’ve been engaged in an important exploration.  Then, think of the Q&A as a class about your paper, with you as the teacher!  Keep in mind that many search committees are new to the process too, and they sometimes fumble.  So, YOU are the teacher.  Find ways to let them know the important things about you.  Take control in a diplomatic way to make it work; find creative ways to engage with difficult people.  You’re at the beginning of your career, and no committee is under the impression that you aren’t!  They are looking for potential, for how you organize your thoughts and think on your feet, and how much you respect the ideas of others, and yourself.

It sometimes happens that interviewers set up a sort of artificial class in which to observe you.  IF this happens, discuss interesting and relevant things, listen to and interact with students, and finish on time.

How to act once you might have an offer.

Don’t get ahead of yourself.  A job offer is just a gleam in the eye of a department and a candidate until an official letter arrives from the university.  Until then, sit tight and be patient; don’t start asking questions about employment benefits and all those details.  You can do that later.

Once you have your official offer (and if you have only one), you should feel free to ask for some time to deliberate.  This is the time to inquire about various policies, money issues, and to make it known that taking the job might complicate your family situation.  Through all the discussions, stay focused on the most important goal: a good situation over the long future.  Don’t compromise your future relationship with your colleagues by being a tough negotiator.

If you have more than one offer, you should inform the chairs of both departments, so they can talk to each other.

If you don’t get a job offer, makes notes about the process while your memory is fresh.  Review your experiences and your materials.  Take a little time to remind yourself that jobs are hard to come by, and that it may not be your fault…then read something fabulous to cheer yourself up. 🙂


How is the job situation in Romanticism particularly?

Sometimes, Romanticism can get swallowed up by scholars of 18th or 19th centuries… romanticism does seem still to be regarded as its own “thing,” and as a component of an expertise, it still has a lot of traction.  The field seems to have been quite agile in adapting itself to academic categories, without losing its identity.

Should Romanticists spin themselves for 18th-century or Victorian jobs?  And if so, how?

Most importantly, you should make your own intellectual center very clear and honest.  You can speculate out loud in your letter about ways that you might pedagogically fulfill the university’s needs, but don’t fake it.  Be yourself, and be honest.  If the university wants 100 years, that’s probably a teaching mandate, not a research mandate. They just want to know if you can teach stuff from a full century.  As long as your research is interesting and worthwhile, and you can teach about a century of stuff, you’ll probably be fine.

Do interviews really sometimes happen in hotel bedrooms at MLA? 

There are some regulations trying to be put in place, but you may have to be creatively professional.  Don’t underestimate search committees’ bad behavior; awkward things may happen!  Make sure that you have enough time between interviews, even if they are in the same hotel, or in the same city.  If you are late, the committee won’t adjust their whole schedule for you.

Some departments are shifting to phone interviews, skype interviews, or interviews that happen even before MLA?

For better or worse, MLA is losing its centrality and control over the hiring process, and this does make expectations much less clear.  The “rules” set up by the MLA are voluntary, and universities can choose whether to participate.  Videoconferencing offers many advantages: not everyone can go to the MLA, you can reach internationally much more easily, and whole committees can be present.  We are moving into an era in which this will be more and more common, and more important to think about.  Check into what videoconferencing  options are available to you, and learn how to use them!

For those interviews/offers that occur before MLA, you can ask for some time to consider, at least until after MLA.

Skype interviews and phone interviews present a different set of challenges from in-person interviews, and you should definitely practice for them.   Especially practice when to know you should STOP talking.  Practice pausing 30 seconds into a response, to watch/listen for cues that others might want to redirect or jump in.  Practice putting your thoughts in order, so that if you get cut off, you have communicated the important information!   In a phone interview, it might be good to talk explicitly about the process, and invite the interviewee to break in, or to expect pauses from you.   It might be good to call your own voice mail, and practice talking to a machine for a limited amount of time!

In Skype interviews, be aware of the background you set up in your screen shot…there are lots of possibilities, and you can give people insight into the kind of person you are (both good and bad).  This is risky, though, and a neutral environment is probably best.

Should we devote our greatest energies toward publishing, or toward finishing and polishing our dissertation?

There’s no question that having a well-placed article will speak well for you.   However, the main decision is based on a very careful and scrupulous reading of the writing sample that you send in.  The published article can be very powerful window-dressing, and it puts you into a different echelon of candidates…but your submitted writing sample will be most important.

If your dissertation project is under revision, and you think of it more as a manuscript than as a dissertation, how do you talk about it – as your book, or your dissertation?

Committees want to know how close you are to finishing; they don’t want to see that your project is continually evolving into nowhere.  Be specific about what parts are truly finished.  (Did you finish the dissertation, and now you are beginning the book manuscript?)  The committee might ask “what are your plans for your dissertation”?  You have two options; you can turn it into a book, or chop it up into 3-4 essays.    Once you graduate, your dissertation is finished and done.  If you’re at that stage, talk about your book project, not your dissertation.   Talking about the book project allows you to talk about the dissertation without actually saying it. Committees aren’t expecting you to have your book already accepted by a press, and even having a book may not always work to you advantage.  It is just one of many, many factors.  Just do the best you can to present yourself as honestly as possible.  Keep in mind that when a university hires someone to tenure-track, they’re imagining hiring you for 40 years.  The big picture is the most important.  Keep your perspective.

If you’ve been NOT getting hired for a long time, and you’ve been adjuncting for ever, is there a point when you should cut your losses and consider other careers?  Is there a point when you’re just going to look stale, compared to other candidates?

Because the job market is tough, you are not going to look stale as fast as perhaps in the past…but you should be honest with yourself, and decide what your own psychological stamina is up for.  It is tough, and you will need to look inside yourself and decide what’s right for you.  BUT, don’t make a quick decision and get down on yourself too easily; be realistic about the fact that it may take 2-3 years to find a tenure-track position.  Recognize that such delays don’t necessarily mean that your work is not up to par.  Stay focused on what matters, and what makes you happy about your work – the research, the teaching, etc.

What other sorts of academic jobs are available?  And if you get an “alternate” kind of academic job, does it hurt your chances of going back on the market for a job as a professor?

In some ways, it depends on what you’re doing.  Some “alternate” jobs are perfect fits for the particular professorship.  And it IS important to think about alternate jobs too.  We are multiply talented people, despite being very focused…and sometimes developing ourselves on other disciplines can make our minds more fluid and mobile in terms of how we envision ourselves.

Life of the Mind – and Body

Ah, Summertime… that magical season when the New Year’s resolutions we made so many months ago to eat healthier and get more exercise become infinitely more feasible (and enjoyable), and when our motivation to do so is exponentially increased by the very real chance we will be wearing a swimsuit in public.  The weather in Colorado has been beautiful these last couple of weeks; the glorious morning sunshine seems perfect for a run, and the fantastic afternoon thunderstorms beckon me to throw the windows open for the fresh air and natural yoga soundtrack.  My husband, the man who loathes (and I mean loathes) exercise, is suddenly super-jazzed about P90X—such is the power of summer.

“But wait!,” you say—“Kelli, this isn’t a fitness blog!  What does exercise have to do with studying Romanticism?”  Stick with me; this isn’t just a tangent based on my (ahem) slightly greater desire to be outside on a bike than working on my prospectus.  It’s actually inspired by some advice from one of my faculty advisors.  Our university had been bringing in several potential new hires for job talks, and we happened to be chatting about the incredibly demanding schedule facing the candidates.  We joked for a minute about training for interviews like training for a marathon, and suddenly she got serious and said, “I’m not kidding.  In the time leading up to interviews is not the time to stop working out.”  At first I was surprised by this, but after pondering it for several weeks, it makes complete sense.  We might think we live the life of the mind, but the truth is, our schedules and work habits can be quite taxing on our bodies—and taking care of our bodies can indeed make us better at our jobs.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that academia and fitness don’t exactly go together like peas and carrots.   We all know that we spend long hours hunched over computers, books, and stacks of essays.  Chances are we also tend to over-caffeinate in order to make it through those long hours, and as a result might have trouble getting good sleep when we finally hit the sack.  If we commute long distances or have to eat in a hurry, our food choices will probably not be great,  and at the end of a day like that, exercising and cooking real food might be the last things we want to do.   Yet it’s exactly these propensities that make building fitness and nutrition into our habits all the more crucial.

Let me be clear: though we all like to see a chili pepper or two next to our names on, this isn’t about looking hot (though if you’re lucky, hotness may be a side effect).  It’s about taking care of ourselves so we can meet the demands of our profession, both now and long into the future, while feeling strong, happy, and more balanced.  In case you need convincing, Let’s explore some of the ways good nutrition and exercise can directly affect our careers for the best:

  1. Energy. Dynamic teaching, mindful grading, attentive research, and mind-blowing writing/revision all require energy!  So do patience, friendliness, and gregariousness, qualities bound to shine through in job interviews and administrative duties.  Both the tangibles and intangibles we get judged on in our work can only be improved by our having more energy–and real, long-term, sustainable energy comes from fueling our bodies with nutritious foods, and strengthening them with basic fitness.
  2. Brainpower. I don’t know about you, but I come across a LOT of studies exploring how children’s diets can affect their performance in school.  What we may not think about as often, is that food and brainpower are still connected when we grow up!  Check out some of the research HERE.  None of it is particularly surprising; eating a variety of whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean meats and dairy, good fats, and not too much sugar seems to be best for both brain and body.  Exercise has repeatedly been shown to help too, including breathing, stretching, and meditation (yes, I’m counting meditation as an exercise).
  3. Greater ability to prevent and combat repetitive stress injuries. Better posture, muscle tone, and overall body awareness might seem like nice but inessential little things, but they can help combat some of the most common ailments facing people in our line of work: repetitive stress injuries to the back, neck, wrists, elbows, and knees.  We get these injuries from slouching over our computers for hours at a time, and for regularly carrying around bags laden with laptops and books.  You can train yourself to recognize when you’re straining your body, and adopt some basic preventative measures. The stronger muscle tone you develop from regular exercise means you’ll have the strength to sit up straight and carry your backpack properly.  All those in favor of avoiding slipped disks please say “Aye.”
  4. Greater ability to connect with the realities of Romantic-period life. Okay, maybe this is a stretch…but I just got back from a research trip to England, and I must say that some of the greatest moments of connection I’ve felt to Romantic-period writers came while hiking in the Lake District, or tromping across miles of public-access pathway in the Midlands. Middle- and working-class folk of the Romantic period walked miles every day, a reality hard for us to connect with unless we do it once in awhile.  Our bodies will learn things our brains alone cannot.  Of course, we don’t need to live exactly like someone in the 18th-century to understand or appreciate the conditions in which they wrote (thank goodness!), but if we get the chance to feel, with our own feet, what it’s like to walk from village to village, or across a moor while avoiding sheep-dung, or up a rugged granite peak in the rain, we want to be ready for it!

Of course there are myriad other benefits to good nutrition and exercise, and you probably hear about them often enough that you can chant them in your sleep.  Chances are, you already have some sort of fitness regime that appeals to you, and some goals in mind.  However, I know I always like suggestions, and since minimal investments in equipment and gym fees are a must for graddies on tight budgets, here are a few effective things you can do on the cheap!

  1. Walk more. Park further away from your destination.  Take the stairs.  Even talking your “evening constitutional”, as one friend calls it, around the block will help clear your mind, get your blood flowing, and burn a few calories.  Enjoy the natural world around you—it’s summer, for crying out loud!
  2. Take advantage of your university’s or community’s rec center. Some U-recs offer free classes to faculty and staff (if you happen to fit in that category), and in any case, whatever fees they charge are probably cheaper than your local gym.
  3. Find a friend to work out with, or make friends while you work out. If you know you’re meeting up with someone, you’re far more likely to fight the impulse to skip.  If you can’t find a workout buddy, taking a class can be an excellent way to meet people and make friends—combatting feelings of isolation that can sometimes accompany folks in our line of work, especially when we feel it’s taking over our lives.  Jogging groups and community or club sports teams abound; check out your local Craigslist, or community rec centers.
  4. Find an activity you enjoy! Yoga might not be your thing, but you may love racquetball or swimming or hiking.  If you think it’s fun, chances are, you’ll keep doing it!  All the better if it’s free.
  5. Find things that you can work regularly into your schedule. This is where walking makes a lot of sense, but check your local library or Goodwill for workout DVDs, and look for free workout videos on YouTube or HULU.
  6. Make a goal – do something you never thought you could! Confession: after finishing my Master’s, the combined stress of school and the termination of a sad relationship saw me quite overweight.  I hated running (hated!), but decided I would sign up for a 5k.  And you know what? I did it!  And I felt so proud of myself that I signed up for another!  My next nemesis to conquer was biking; I was terrified of it!  But I made 2007 my “year of the bike,” and started small by taking a spinning class (mostly so that when jumping on a real bike, I knew I could make it to the top of my street).  I’m a terrible swimmer, but In 2008 I did my first mini-triathlon, accompanied by my 66-year-old mother (and by ‘mini’ I mean shorter than sprint-distance).  These things have built up a whole different side of my confidence, including my confidence on the job.  They were hard, but SO COOL.  Also a bit addicting.  Believe me, if I can do these things, you can too!  Races can be expensive, but they give you a concrete goal with a deadline, a built-in cheering section, and something awesome to post on Facebook when you finish, so you may find them worth the occasional investment.
  7. Find ways to eat right. This is really such a personal issue, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always very good at it.  We all have different habits, and foods that we like or dislike, or ethically oppose, or can’t digest.  Still, it is imperative that we find ways to eat healthy and nutritious foods that fit our needs even on a busy schedule. That schedule is probably never going to change, right?—at least not if we get those jobs we’re working so hard to prepare for.  Thus, we must take stock now of the ways we eat, and improve them (ideally through lifestyle changes rather than diets).  Do your research!  There are plenty of online resources to aid with this, but one little thing that helps me a lot is to make sure I pack easy, healthy snacks with me when I head to campus.  To me, “easy” means minimal preparation, and “healthy” means that the food provides nutrients, fiber, protein, and not too much sugar or saturated fat.  Nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, dried fruit, raw veggies, string cheese, yogurt, and bars with easily-recognizable ingredients and not too much sugar make good candidates.  If you balk at spending $1.50 on a Larabar, and have access to some form of blender or food processor, look up a recipe and make your own!  Good times.

Ultimately I’m no fitness guru, and my own beach body will still be staying far away from a bikini, thanks.  For sound, research-backed advice on fitness and nutrition, you’ll definitely want to look for better sources than this blog!  However, I don’t have to be a superathlete to know that when I’m exercising and eating right, I feel happier, stronger, and sharper, and I have a lot more energy (except, you know, after a workout when I drag my sweaty, red-faced, frumpy body back to my house and lay face-down on my floor because I can’t make it to my bed).  I also (minus aforementioned moments) feel a lot more attractive, even if my appearance hasn’t changed.  Whether or not I still have pounds to lose is beside the point; exercising and eating right means I have increased energy to do my very best, greater capacity to remember what I study, and more confidence to look people in the eye, flash a brilliant smile, and know I’m worth paying attention to—in my teaching, my research, my writing, and my job applications.  Win, win, win.

I hope you all have a great summer getting out into the sunshine (or into an air-conditioned gym), and working on your own resolutions! If you have a fitness/nutrition tip that has made your academic life even a little bit better lately, please share it in the comments below!  Then, pat yourself on the shoulder for doing something that’s good both for the mind and the body.  Way to go, superstar!


Using the British Library

I’m sitting in the Rare Books Room at the British Library, waiting for my book requests to be filled…and it occurs to me that this is the perfect time to record my impressions of my first time using this amazing, if somewhat intimidating, repository of the world’s knowledge.  Six years ago I came to London to research for my MA thesis, fully intending to use the BL – but I chickened out.  When I found a smaller, specialized library that met all my research needs at the time (and where I got well-enough acquainted with the librarians that they recognized my face the moment I walked back in their door last week), I ended up simply staying there; I just never mustered the gumption to face the gauntlet I knew lay between me and the books at the BL.  This time around, though, I’m happy to report that I’ve faced my demons. I thought I’d use this idle book-awaiting time to give a brief crash-course on using the Library, perhaps to save you your own book-awaiting time, and definitely to help assuage the trepidation you, like me, might have felt about this imposing institution.


Before you ever arrive in London, there are many things you can do to prepare yourself, and streamline all the registration you’ll need to complete before gaining admittance to the books.  First, visit the library’s website, and browse their catalogue. (Note that the catalogue is on a different site than the library’s homepage; it took me awhile to find it).  Try to come up with a firm idea of what you’d like to look at (it’s helpful to make a list, so you can pace yourself when you arrive).  Since your time at the library will probably be limited and valuable, you want to do your best to make sure you’ll be looking at things you can’t get closer to home.

Second, Register for a reader’s pass online. This will get you started on the process; you actually complete it after you arrive at the library.  Keep track of your assigned reader number – you’ll be asked for it often.

Third, when packing your bags, make sure you pack the necessary forms of identification with you! You need two forms of ID validating your name and current address (like a driver’s license and passport, if they have your current address), plus something that indicates your affiliation with whatever cause (like a student card from your University that shows you’re a graduate student).  If you’re using the manuscript library or some of the rarest items, a letter from your advisor on official university letterhead is also helpful.  Online you fill out everything that the application asks for, and then, again, keep a record of the number they assign you, as well as the password you select for your account.

Finally, request the books you would like to look at, for the days you want to look at them.  Do this through the catalogue page, after you’ve logged in as a registered reader. This will save you the trouble of waiting the minimum 70 minutes (or up to 48 hours) it will take if you request after you’ve arrived. You don’t need to do this far in advance; even a couple of hours will work… but especially for your first day or two, you might be happy to have a plan.  Once you’ve made your requests, the books can be held for you for three business days (this includes Saturdays). When you request, make sure that you really have completed the requests; you’ll know because completed requests are highlighted in yellow.  Anythong not completed will be lost after you log out.

When you request books, you’ll be asked which room you’ll be reading in, and which desk number.  You can know which room by the category of materials you’re examining (see the library’s website for a description of each room), and you can just make up a desk number (98 is mine, today); they’ll ask you your real desk number when they actually hand the books over to you.


Bring the necessary identification with you. Bringing it to London won’t do you any good if you leave it in your hotel room.

Find the Library.  Chances are, you’ll be coming in on the tube, from the King’s Cross/St. Pancras Station.  This can be a bewildering station, since it’s really two train stations and an underground station all connected together.  I’ve been here several times now, and this morning got turned around all over again.  Look for the exits to Euston Road, and don’t be shy about eyeing the map at the station exit in order to get your bearings when you surface.  If you’re like me, then you’ll (usually) exit right between King’s Cross and St. Pancras stations, facing Euston Road. Hang a right, and walk past St. Pancras station. Pause to admire its incredible architecture.  The next building down seems rather nondescript, but it’s the outer circle of the BL courtyard.  Turn right to enter it, and marvel at the oasis that suddenly exists in the middle of what seemed, at 10am, to be one of the noisiest streets on the planet.



Find the entrance to the library, stop to let the (very polite) security guard look in your bag, and proceed to the info desk to ask the way to Reader Registration.


Reader registration

This office will begin to give you an idea of just how many folks use this library, and how they oil the machine, so to speak, to regulate access to the collections.  You wait in the queue (love that word!), and then if you’ve begun your registration online, you’ll be directed to a computer kiosk to complete a few final steps.  Then, you get a number, and wait a few minutes for it to be called.  When you’re up, you sit down with a library officer, who will check your driver’s license (or other document indicating current address), your passport, your student card (if you have one), and any letters of reference you might have brought with you.  If everything checks out, you’ll have your picture taken for your Reader Pass.  They print the pass out then and there, and you keep very good track of it!  You will be asked to show it regularly.

The lockers

With your pass in hand, you’re now ready to proceed downstrairs to the locker room, where you can store all the things you’re not allowed to bring into the reading rooms: that is, pretty much everything but a pencil (no pens!), paper, a laptop, and your glasses.  You will need a £1 coin to work the lockers, but you get it back when you leave each day.  When you’ve secured your things, grab a clear plastic bag from the table, to hold all the stuff you’re bringing with you, and head to your reading room.

The rare books room (or whichever room you’re supposed to read in)

Show your reader pass to the security guards on your way in.  Find a seat.  Notice whether the desk allows personal computers.  Sit down and (if you haven’t already), browse the catalogue and order your books (free wi-fi!  Yay!)  Note that it will take 70 minutes for them to arrive, so sit and muse over your research notes, or maybe work on your blog post for the week.  Begin to feel awkward that you’re the only person at your table not actually looking at books.  Wait a while longer.  Begin to wonder if you actually aren’t supposed to wait for your books to come to you, but that you’re supposed to go get them.  Watch other people around you to see what they do.  See people walking back to their desks with their arms full of books.  Go up to the service desk, see a queue labeled “Book issue and return”, and wait your turn to sheepishly confess your ignorance to a staff member and ask if your books have arrived.  Accept gentle teasing with your armful of books, and return to your seat.  You did it! Now, feel those butterflies madly swarming in your tummy as you gently leaf through your aged, musty-smelling, delicate books.  EEE!  This is so cool!! Wish that you could squeal out loud and shake your neighbor by the shoulders.  Restrain yourself, and get to work.

Now that I’ve been using the library for a few days, I laugh at myself for being so intimidated by it.  I’m still learning some of the ropes, but the daily basics are really simple: order books from home, get to the library, stick my things in a locker, and go to the reading room to pick up my books and read.  “Easy peasy”, as my librarian friend might say.  And beyond the books themselves, it really is fun to be here, to take a look at all the people poring over dusty tomes, and wonder what interesting things they all are working on.  Plus, you just never know who you might run in to:  while I was standing in line to collect my books a few days ago, the girl in front of me looked very familiar.  I finally just said, “I think I know you.  What’s your name?”  Turns out we met last August at the Vancouver NASSR conference! Small world.  So here’s a shout-out to Tara from Toronto, who probably was never nervous about using the British Library.  Hope I run into you again someday soon.

And amid the myriad other things you are probably up to, I wish you all some happy summer researching! Feel free to share your own library recommendations and tips for research success.



Grad Students In the Moonlight…

Here’s a shocker: Graduate School is a significant financial investment.  Some begin graduate school with already significant school debt.  A fortunate few attend schools that can afford to fully financially support their graduate students, but it’s tough to find a Master’s program that guarantees funding; even PhD programs that give tuition waivers and stipends for teaching can still require students to pay all or some of their health insurance and their student fees.  We all know how many worthy things we can spend our precious stipends on—books, conferences, travel for research, rent, utilities, groceries—and we also know how quickly those stipends can run out.  Fellowships and grants are fantastic when granted; loans are slightly terrifying; none of this is news.  It is not my purpose today to complain or dredge up all of our financial worries; I actually feel very fortunate to spend hours of each day researching interesting things and teaching great students, and for now I find a certain bohemian charm in this life of genteel poverty.  I do, however, want to acknowledge the reality that, given our financial positions, most of the graduate students I know find creative ways to supplement their income.  In this season of scrambling for summer employment, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at the moonlighting second-lives of scholars.

In talking with my friends and fellow graddies, I’ve actually been really impressed with the range of jobs people do in addition to their teaching.  Some stick close to academia, working as research/administrative assistants, freelance writers/editors, tutors, library instructors, and department office staff.  Summer teaching positions at community colleges and year-round high schools level are at a premium.  I feel incredibly lucky to moonlight as instructor of an online community-college Humanities course, based in another state (it’s a carryover from my previous life teaching there in person). One friend has a paid position organizing/running an annual conference. Some folks pick up short-term gigs as AP graders (a one-week commitment), and the shortest-term jobs are always welcome: just this week I received emails offering 5 hours of employment helping run graduation festivities, or two hours helping to proctor a final exam; I imagine the positions filled within seconds.

I’ve been interested to find how many graduate students take second jobs outside academia. Nannying seems to be a popular one, and a natural result of department professors seeking childcare.  Bookstores and coffeeshops are favorites.  Some love waiting tables.  Hotel desk clerks can discreetly do homework during slow times.  I even have a friend who walks dogs.  Some are fortunate to have jobs directly related to their hobbies (play in a band with paying gigs, anyone?), or even to their dissertation work:  one of my good friends works as a full-time administrator for a humanitarian organization that helps women in Uganda, while dissertating on contemporary literature and transnational female identity (Tackling so many things has put her “on the slow boat,” as she says, but how cool that it’s all connected!).   I’m sure all you readers could name dozens more interesting odd jobs you and your friends have taken as graduate students, or various ways you save your hard-earned cash– anything to keep from selling our plasma, right?  (Um, not saying I haven’t thought about it….)

The fact that grad-students moonlight is not at all strange or difficult to understand; what is strange is how reluctant I have felt to talk about it. Maybe it’s just me, but that little phrase in my offer letter, “you may not accept other University employment that would result in your being employed more than 50% time by the University unless you receive approval by the Associate Dean of the graduate school,” has had me a little bit spooked—as though extra employment, even outside the University, is at least a breach of trust, if not of contract.  “A second job?!,” I imagine a shocked voice say, “How dare you squander the investment we’re making in you by not spending every spare hour in the library!”.  Judging from Brittany’s last post, I’m not alone in feeling some of this anxiety.  Now, there are some fellowships that do not allow recipients to have other employment during the time of support, since the point really is to enable him/her to spend every waking, working hour on research.  You might want to check the terms of your own contracts, but I’m willing to bet that for average grad students with part-time teaching loads, this stipulation doesn’t apply.

This isn’t to say that holding down extra employment is easy, or that our schoolwork and/or the job don’t sometimes suffer. We all have that haunting feeling that somewhere, someone is spending more time than we are researching and writing and publishing brilliant articles—because let’s face it, that person probably does exist.  Still, today I want to send a shout-out to all the folks who, like me, are cobbling together a living while also managing grad school, and might have felt a little sheepish to admit it. Way to go, I say! I think we should give ourselves a collective pat on the back for supplementing our income, minimizing our student loans, making ends meet, and acting like responsible adults.  Best of luck to all of you in your summer endeavors!


Unabashed Admiration for the BWWC

Last week I attended the 19th annual British Women Writer’s Conference in Columbus Ohio, and I’m still on a kind of academic natural high. In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that I went partly to present a paper and partly because I’m co-chairing the conference in Boulder next year, and thus needed to observe its workings.  It was quite a large conference: 250 people, as many as 6 concurrent panels, and fantastic keynote speakers.  I was impressed by the smooth operation of it all, but more than that I found myself impressed by the conference’s ethos.  It was genuinely inspiring.  I’m going to struggle not to gush in this post, but seriously—what a wonderful experience.

One of the most important things I realized over the three days I spent there was just how indebted I am to the scholars who have gone before me, a fact made all the more clear since many of them were in attendance!  I had not realized how recently the canon of 18th and 19th century British Literature has opened to include many of the women writers now considered some of its pillars—but only 19 years ago did a group of graduate students recognize the dearth and decide to do something about it by organizing the BWWA.  One speaker pointed out the importance of the tenure system, since many of those who have published books on what were obscure women writers, did not venture to do so until after they had tenure; this seemed incredible to me, but in later conversations several people I spoke to confirmed the statement.  Somehow I had imagined that the women’s movements of the 1970s had accomplished all this work; realizing that it has happened in my young-adult lifetime, and that many of the scholars who brought it about are still in the midst of their careers, really humbled and inspired me. The very people I was mingling and chatting with were some of those who had made it possible for me to work on the things I’m working on.  Even more incredible is that so many of them were graduate students when they began to make a difference!

This brings me to the second reason my respect for the BWWA has increased: they really, truly believe in the power of graduate students and this belief is built into both the structure and spirit of the organization and conference. Though many of the students who began the BWWA are now full professors who serve on the executive board, they entrust the planning and running of each year’s conference to grad students at the host university.  Responsibilities include all the logistical things (location, lodging, food), but also the academic things like choosing and inviting keynote speakers, choosing a theme and writing the call for papers, and reading submissions and organizing panels.  I was so impressed with the group who ran this year’s conference, and likewise impressed by the many expressions of trust, confidence, and appreciation the BWWA board and many of the higher-ranking conference attendees expressed to them.  (And it really was a beautifully-run event; completely well-organized, and in a gorgeous location).  The BWWA also strives to sponsor a few travel grants especially for graduate students, and this year they added a grant for “contingent faculty,” to reach out and include those in the tough space between graduating and finding a tenure-track position.  In short, the whole feeling of the conference seemed to be one of graciousness, inclusion, and enthusiasm for everyone’s work—a real collegiality that reached across rank and age and letterhead.  I chaired a panel that featured two imposing professors (one the editor of an academic journal and the other from Yale), and I was a little nervous…but then I found myself taking notes as much on their manners as on their papers, because they were so impressively gracious!  Each time she was asked a question, the Yale professor would share her thoughts and then say, “Thank you so much for bringing that up!  What do you think about it?”  Great conversations and intellectual exchanges took place in that panel.

I do wonder what some of the male attendees thought of their BWWC experience, because the conference population is overwhelmingly female. I’m not sure whether this happens because women scholars tend to be more interested in women writers, or because the conference itself mirrors its project of creating space for the women of history to speak by creating space for today’s women scholars to speak, but it’s certainly noticeable, and in a really cool way. I find myself often thinking about how I navigate my professional life as a woman—the personae I adopt when I teach, when I write, when I present.  A recent study found that when letters of recommendation portrayed a candidate (regardless of that candidate’s gender) as “nurturing” or “warm,” they were less likely to be hired than a candidate recommended as “assertive” or “independent.”  The point is, gender stereotypes still materially affect our professional lives, and I know many women scholars feel a bit more conscious of playing the professional part than men do.  There were more men at this year’s conference than in some years, I’m told; the BWWA board is not exclusively female, and men make valuable contributions to the organization and conference—but still, one of the really wonderful things about the BWWC was a sort of communal letting down of the hair.  It didn’t necessarily feel any less professional, just a little more…down to earth, maybe?  It’s difficult to describe.  Conversations might as likely turn to the challenges of breastfeeding in a suit or helping a 12-year-old with his homework, as they would to Mary Wollstonecraft or Elizabeth Gaskell (and I can just imagine Wollstonecraft and Gaskell discussing the same types of things!).  On a bus trip a big group of us got laughing about what “type” of academics we were—the scarf academic, the chunky-jewelry Chico’s academic, the Birkenstocks academic, the e-bay Anthropologie academic, or (in my case) the Target sale-rack academic (they have great cardigans!).  Nobody felt self-conscious about ordering a chocolate martini, or savoring a crème brulée, or complimenting someone on their shoes, or gushing about one of the Regency Reenactment dancers’ crocheted gloves (yes, we enjoyed a performance of Regency dancers).  It was sort of like a super-smarty-pants girls’ weekend out.  One professor who has attended the conference for years called it her “Old Girls’ Club.”  While I generally feel pretty good about the respect shown to women in academia, there is still something to be said for female friendship, and I would say I really did make friends at the BWWC.

In all, I came back from Ohio with newfound respect for what the BWWA does and how they do it, as well as perspective on how the work we do as graduate students can palpably, materially affect the profession for good. Building the Association has clearly been a labor of love for those who have participated in it, and I’m excited for the opportunity to make my own contribution throughout this next year.  Our committee here in Boulder will be pouring our hearts into planning the 2012 conference, to make it just as great of an experience for future attendees as I had last weekend—and even when our turn is over, I look forward to participating with the BWWA for many years to come.

The “Play” Within the Play: A Sample Assignment

Today’s post represents the ripening of an idea I pondered in the first post I ever made to this blog, way back in September.  (Sigh… how young I was back then…)   I had been pondering the concept of “emotive reading” as a way into understanding literature—and lucky for me, I got assigned to teach a whole semester’s worth of Shakespeare this spring, the perfect lab for testing my ideas!  (Just this morning, in fact, one of my students caught on to the game, stating grimly, “so we’re your guinea pigs, huh?”  Bless his heart!) Indeed experimentation is, in my world anyway, a big part of the process through which I learn how best to reach my students, and recently I experimented with an unconventional assignment (i.e. not an essay) that I would consider a success.  I thought I’d pass it alongContinue reading The “Play” Within the Play: A Sample Assignment