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Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.

Graduate Study: Abroad and at Home

Many of the top graduate programs in British Romanticism can be found in the United States. Some might find this strange: that, for many of us, our academic interests, geographically-speaking, lie so far from where we live, work, and study. Why, if we’re so invested in learning about the culture of another country, regardless of how far in the past it is, do we not all flock to the UK to study our Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats? The easy answer is that we don’t have to, especially as more and more unpublished and out-of-print manuscripts find their way to online archives and databases.  At the same time, for some scholars, a British education can provide benefits that studying at an American university cannot and vice versa. In this post, I will discuss some of the basic differences between the university systems in these two countries for prospective graduate students who may be considering options beyond their own country.

Drawing on my own experiences studying at the Masters level in both the US and the UK, my observations are, of course, limited to what I know of Lehigh University and the University of Stirling. There will be many exceptions to the systems in which I have participated, just as there are many variations on English or Literature degrees within the same country.  I know the structure of education in Cambridge and Oxford are fairly different from other universities, still deeply embedded in historical tradition.  However, these two universities aside, there are a few basic aspects that seem to consistently differentiate the British from the American experience of graduate (or postgraduate) education.

The US:

Though structures vary, PhD candidates typically take at least two or three semesters of coursework before taking the comprehensive exams, which cover two or three fields of specific study and include both written and oral components. These fields consist of areas in which the student wishes to write but also to teach. During this time, most American universities also require students to fulfill a language requirement in one or two languages in addition to English. Some programs also require a portfolio of writing before the exam process. After taking exams, the student develops a dissertation proposal, after which the student is classified as ABD (all but dissertation) and spends the rest of his or her time completing that dissertation. This typically lasts 2-4 years, bringing the total time spent at the PhD level to 4-6 years (in addition to the one or two years for the Masters degree). Give or take, anyway. Students generally support themselves by teaching one or two composition or literature classes per semester, usually at the introductory level.

The UK:

For the most part, postgraduate study in British universities is condensed in terms of time-commitment, placing more emphasis on writing and professional development than coursework and teaching. The Masters degree typically takes one full year: two semesters of coursework, and a Masters thesis (called the dissertation), which is produced by the end of the following summer. The PhD candidate, or research postgrad, then jumps right into thinking about a dissertation, and part of the application for admission includes a detailed dissertation (or thesis) proposal. The nice part of this, of course, is that there is no language requirement and no comprehensive exams (well, “nice”, depending on how you look at it), though there are similar hurtles throughout the writing process.  The program, then, encourages independent study right from day one. The first semester is spent mostly reading and revising ideas formulated in the proposal, and, at the end of the second semester, the student undertakes a transfer interview, during which he or she presents a piece of written work, including where that piece fits into the larger project, and an extensive literature review (similar in some ways to the comps reading list, from what I understand) that shows where the project will fit into the much larger field. After the transfer interview, the student typically spends an additional two-three years completing the thesis in order to present it to the examiners.  Students support themselves with some teaching, though these opportunities seem to be somewhat limited, depending on the university.

Obviously, there are very strong pros and cons to both of these systems.  In a practical sense, the British experience is much shorter and gets you out into the job market much quicker than the grueling American 7 years. At the same time, however, the practical thorn in all our sides, money, is much easier to come by in American universities, where undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition fees. In British universities, fees are reversed: undergraduates pay comparatively low fees, while postgraduate students pay tuition fees that are still relatively low for British and EU students, though funding opportunities seem less readily available. While full-tuition scholarships are not uncommon, extra stipends are much rarer.  For American students (non-EU), British tuition rates line up more closely to American rates and can be a challenge to cover without the safety net of teaching assistantships and university fellowships. This having been said, both countries have their strengths and weaknesses in particular fields, making the extra time or extra money spent in grad school worth considering.

Especially if you’re working in British literature, there can be obvious benefits to studying in the UK for archival and travel purposes: the ease of public transportation makes it easy to take a day trip to the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, the Charles Dickens House, or the home of the Bronte sisters. For many of us, studying abroad as undergraduates has allowed us access to some of these places, but I think there is a lot to be said for importance of work environment. Who wouldn’t find writing a dissertation chapter about Northanger Abbey in a coffee shop in Bath a much more enjoyable experience, after all?

Personally, when I was deciding whether or not to return to the United States after completing an MLitt (Master of Letters) at a Scottish university, money ended up being the deciding factor, despite the fact that the UK is years ahead of the US in terms of Gothic Studies. Another consideration I had was a (perhaps masochistic) appreciation for the comprehensive exam process and the expertise it would help me achieve for teaching.  For scholars who plan to specialize more in research than teaching, however, the exams may not hold as much value, and sometimes it can be worth taking out loans if you think you can cover them later. It completely depends on the student and the student’s ultimate career goals.

If you’re currently looking into Masters and Doctoral programs, my advice is, don’t limit yourself to your own country! What works best for you may be found across the pond.

Helpful links:




On Starting a Reading Group

Once I’d finished my coursework requirements, I found myself really missing the chance to regularly gather with fellow grad students and talk about reading. Studying for exams and writing the dissertation can be isolating experiences.  Some large programs may have a few students studying or writing within similar fields, but smaller programs don’t always have this kind of ready-made specialized community. Even so, it can be refreshing to chat analytically and appreciatively about literature with others, even if that literature is outside your particular interests. Aside from just hanging around the office and asking, “Read any good books lately?” the best way I’ve found to foster this type of discussion is to start and join reading groups.

Planning your group:
Numbers are important. If you put out a call for interest and the entire department wants to sign up, you might want to split off into smaller reading groups with narrower topics. I’ve found that between three and ten members is best for good discussion that allows everyone to participate.  Choose a location that is comfortable and as far from a classroom as you can get: a more informal building on campus, a café or pub, or even someone’s living room.  You’ve all done your time in the classroom, and members will be more likely to show if they don’t feel like someone’s taking attendance. Choosing a day and time when people can feel more relaxed also helps, like a late afternoon after everyone’s taught for the day while still leaving time to do some writing or grading later that night.

There are a number of ways to decide what the group will read.  In some reading groups I’ve joined, a group leader knows the most about the topic and just chooses all the readings. If you don’t like a particular reading, you don’t have to show up that day. There are also more diplomatic ways. In my group, I usually ask for suggestions, make a survey of all the responses, and let the group vote on what they want to read. Sometimes, if someone has a text they’re particularly excited or knowledgeable about, he or she can lead that meeting. For the most part, though, discussion seems to run itself, with perhaps a few back-up questions in case of awkward silences.  In terms of book-length, everyone is usually pretty busy: shorter is better. Short story collections can work really well if the group chooses one or two to read together, letting members read around the rest of the book if they have the time. It also depends on cost. Department or university funding for reading groups is available at some schools, but not all.

When it comes to the meetings themselves, I really try to emphasize an informal atmosphere, as you can see. Not all groups I’ve been in have been like this, though, and there is something to be said for a structured group in the midst of unstructured diss-writing and exam-studying. Shoot for a middle ground: it’s not the neighborhood book club, but it’s not class, either (especially with so many teachers in the room). One thing that will come as no surprise is that grad students are more likely to show up to any event if there’s food and drink involved. Especially if you have a mix of M.A. and PhD. Students, this informal atmosphere can help everyone feel comfortable contributing to conversation and bring their own interests to the table.  You can also do some more creative things like readings of plays/poems or looking at film alongside other texts to make meetings social while still discussing the material. Starting a reading group can help you re-connect with the other scholars in your department, inadvertently bringing out the many different types of reading and discussion that can often be forgotten when you’re doing independent work… while, at the same time, having fun and relaxing with good books, good food, and good people.

End of the Semester Writing Woes

As the end of the semester approaches (ASU’s last day of class is April 24th!) so too does an intense dose of anxiety and stress. As graduate students we have a LOT on our plates. Not only does the end of the semester signal grading a lot of composition papers and assigning final grades, but it also signals something even more treacherous: PAPER WRITING. A non-graduate student friend of mine called the other day and asked me if I was so excited that classes were almost over, my response: Excited?!? No, I am not excited, the fact that classes are over in a week means I need to write two seminar papers AND grade. Although she definitely did not deserve my tirade, it made me recognize how unique our situation as graduate students is. We love what we do, I LOVE WHAT I DO, but around this time of year I tend to forget that I am supposed to be enjoying this time of my life. I started thinking about why I feel this intense anxiety and pressure at the end of the semester, and from talking with so many of my peers, I know I am not the only one who feels this way. I know (or pretend to know) I am a competent writer and beginning scholar, right? I mean we all are in a graduate program so we have to have done something right along the way to get accepted. But why do we forget this come the end of the semester?

While sitting with one of my professors and talking about my final semester paper, I just said, “Ahh! I am so anxious about this paper that I don’t even know where I am going to start!” And, like all great professors, he recognized my high level of stress and calmed me down. He reminded me that the point of a PhD program is to produce scholars, the future of the field. He emphasized the word “produce”, and that no one expects us to be perfect right away. All of the work we do should be aimed or have the ultimate goal of being useful in the future, but all papers, seminar papers that lead to portfolio papers, papers that hope J to lead to publications, papers that lead to chapters in a dissertation, all papers have to start somewhere. And more importantly, they are never perfect on the first try REGARDLESS of the level of the writer. Everyone, even those untouchable Gods of Romanticism we work with on a daily basis, has to review, revise, and rework papers. My professor reminded me that this is a “first draft” of a paper and to give it my best, but relax.

Relax…as much as I wish I could relax, at least I walked away from the conversation with a much better perspective about the end of the semester paper writing rollercoaster. We are all students working incredibly hard to master our trade and each semester is a stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal. But it is just that, a step towards the goal, not the goal itself. So as I prep and begin to write my two seminar papers I am remembering (or attempting my best) to breathe, relax, and enjoy the process of becoming a scholar knowing that my papers will not be perfect by the time I submit them and that is okay because ultimately, it is only a “first draft” of something that can be so much more.

(My first fun read of the summer will be Daisy Hay’s biography of the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, and friends called Young Romantics, and I am excited to tell you all about it next month ☺)

Wading Into the Conference World

As a first year doctoral student in literature at Arizona State University, there have been many occasions where I feel as if I have no idea what I should be doing (outside of my enormous course load and teaching requirements) or how I am supposed to be moving forward in what seems sometimes to be a never-ending academic journey. The last thing I want is to be bogged down with stress and forget why I signed up for this life, why I LOVE this life. I have found (at least it works for the moment) that the best way to deal with these questions, which arise on a regular basis, is to take everything step by step. As we attempt to professionalize ourselves amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the halls of the English department at our universities, submitting abstracts and presenting at conferences is an activity we need to be doing, but for those who are new to conferences like me, the whole process is a bit daunting.

Just three weeks ago, I presented at my first conference. Saying I had nervous butterflies in my stomach is an understatement. The nervousness started with the writing of the abstract, and it didn’t really subside until I got up from the presenter table and walked out the door. An abstract is a difficult thing to write but so important to our professionalization. Abstracts also are something we rarely get a lot of training on in our day-to-day course work, which makes attempting to write them a bit more stressful. Summing up what I will be arguing, or more realistically, what I hope I will be arguing in a ten page paper in 250 words is a trying activity. I’ve started to look at abstracts like movie trailers. Hit the best, most entertaining aspects and sell the readers that it is worth looking at the whole thing. And remember, every word counts, so focusing on style is important. Style is something I have been working on in my scholarly writing, and adding the pressure of the importance of style in an abstract raises the anxiety levels. But ultimately, I have been reminding myself that everyone has to write a first abstract, and it gets easier each and every time. Practice does make perfect when it comes to abstract writing. Plus, ask your colleagues or professors if they would let you look at some of their abstracts; it really helped me to see how other people prepare an abstract when I was working on my own.

Preparing the paper for the conference was probably the easiest aspect for me. I write papers all of the time—so I was confident with my ability to write a solid paper to present at the conference. The actual presentation of the paper was nerve racking, and then as luck would have it, I found out I was selected to chair my panel. I felt completely lost; I had no idea what I was supposed to do. After an email exchange with the panel coordinators and the other presenters on my panel, I was at least more confident about my roles as a panel chair: introduce everyone before their reading and moderate the question and answer section. I was hoping that my duties as the chair of the panel would keep me focused and calm my nerves before I read my own paper (but that obviously wasn’t the case ☺). Most people would suggest attending panel sessions before your own to get an idea of how the conference works. That would have been a really useful tool for me, but my panel was scheduled during the first time slot in the morning. I arrived early, found the room with plenty of time, and let the butterflies flutter. As soon as it was time to start, I introduced the first presenter and everything flowed from there. At the end of my reading it was time to start the question and answer time. I was prepared for no one in the audience (of seven people) to ask any questions, so I had thought up some of my own just in case. A colleague of mine has presented at numerous conferences and she had never been asked a question—so secretly I was hoping no one would ask me a question either. It was scary enough to read my paper, but then to have to answer more questions was a lot to think about. However, we had an enthusiastic audience that was ready to discuss the different papers. In the end, I am so glad that I was asked a specific question about my paper because it not only gave me the opportunity to discuss something I am fascinated with in more detail, but it also gave me an idea of how to adjust my paper to make it that much stronger (and my colleague had her first question too—conference success).

For all of the anxiety that I felt during the entire process from starting to write the abstract to answering the last question at the end of the presentation, it was a wonderful experience. If you haven’t experienced a conference presentation yet, you can trust me when I say, if I made it through fine—so can you. In the end, I had a lot of fun. And now I feel much more prepared for future conferences.

With a couple weeks left before many of the MLA Romanticism CFP deadlines, if you haven’t submitted an abstract yet, you still have time. If you are like me, and a novice to conference presentations doubting whether or not to send out an abstract, just jump in! And hopefully, I will see you there ☺

Comprehensive Exam Preparation

This is my exam semester. When I began my PhD in West Virginia University’s program “exams” existed in an intangible future; now, they are here. No matter the format, no matter the number of texts on your list, the comprehensive exams are one of the legendary hurdles of obtaining a literature PhD. Critical to your success, exams help prepare students to tame the beast that is the dissertation. At various conferences over the past 6 months I’ve discussed exam format with peers from Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon—all over the country in a range of programs and concentrations; each institution formats their exams differently. The exam narrative, however, is largely the same: a feeling of dread coupled with excitement about the prospect of reading the materials related to their project for those who have yet to take exams and for those who have completed exams: relief for having them behind them but a knowledge that the dissertation holds its own challenges and intellectual rewards. It is a rite of passage that seemingly few would ever choose to relive. As I’ve prepared for my exams the process has been incredibly educational—not just because I’ve immersed myself in critical discussions regarding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Romantic and Victorian England or varying theorizations of ‘error’ but also because I’ve (re)discovered a great deal about my work process and ability (and sometimes lack thereof) to deal with the anxieties and stresses of examination.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand or did know, but lost sight of in the process:

1. Keep track of how you spend your time.  One thing I found frustrating about the exams was the absence of tangible progress. Yes, I could cross a book off of the list. Yes, each book I read helped me to further understand what I wanted from my scholarship. Yes, I now have a clearer idea of what kind of book I’d like to publish in the future. All of these things are well and nice but they aren’t very helpful today. Reading and taking notes for your exams can feel like running in place sometimes. I like the tangible outcomes of my work, and I am sure I am not alone. A seminar paper, an article, a presentation, a talk, a curriculum: these are all concrete productions of the work many of us do. The comprehensive exams are disconnected from their outcome: passing the exams, writing the dissertation. To help you see how much work you are doing and how you are spending your time, keep a work log. A spreadsheet in Google Docs is ideal because you can access it anywhere through your Google account. It has been helpful for me to see how many hours I’ve devoted to exam preparation (and to other things like course preparation, grading, publication, conferences, etc.).

2. Letting yourself down is not the same as failing. When I wrote my reading schedule last February my plan was to finish reading by late May. I poorly estimated how much time it would take me to read the texts for my exams; I found the reading process to be different than what I’d experienced in the past. I wasn’t prepared for the additional hours I’d spend taking notes, trying to synthesize the texts and write cogent summaries that would serve to refresh my memory months after completing the book. I couldn’t have known about the reading rut I would hit in April. When I crafted the schedule in February I was enthusiastic about reading 12 books on the history of England from 1789-1850…and the semester had just started. My enthusiasm waned around book 7 and mid-terms distracted me with a seemingly never-ending stack of grading. I didn’t meet my schedule. I had to learn that this was okay. I had plenty of time to finish reading; I had plenty of time to study before my exams. I had not failed (even if I felt like I had). I’ve discovered through this process that while knowledge of the material is certainly important, the knowledge gained regarding my own habits as a worker, reader, writer, teacher, and scholar has equally useful and important value.

3. Help yourself avoid distraction. When I first started reading I found myself wandering down various research paths inspired by my materials. Rather than finishing a chapter I would investigate a footnote or, curious about a possible gap in research, look for scholarship on the topic. In other words, I would find seemingly productive (even tangentially related) ways to pass the time without actually working on the task at hand (finishing the book, preparing for the exams). About half way through Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines, the third book I read for my exams, I decided to keep a “Distraction Relocation” journal. It is a just a spiral bound notebook but in it are all of the questions and future projects that I’ve identified during my exam reading. Rather than finding all of the scholarship on errata sheets, a distraction I full-heartedly considered while reading Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self, I jotted down a note about how it might be interesting to investigate how errata sheets were used in Romantic print practices (and whether their use differed between literary periods). The thoughts I’ve labeled here as ‘distractions’ are important and I’m certain that at least two things that made it into my “Distraction Relocation” notebook will find a place in my dissertation project. My notebook helped me to keep track of these thoughts without allowing them to derail my progress.

4. Stay in touch with your community. During exam preparation it can be easy to excuse hermit-like behavior. Fight against the impulse to hole up in your office or house; instead, stay in touch with your community. Do not feel guilty for spending time at lunch with friends. Keep in contact with your director(s) and mentor(s). Talk to people about the process and find out what works/worked for others.

5. Find healthy ways to release the stress and pressure of exams. Exams can cut off your social life if you let them; they can also be a catalyst to putting you at the bottom of your to-do list. It can be easy to excuse poor health habits because you are so busy: skipping out on your exercise routine, foregoing fresh food choices for easier, quicker options. I learned to love running as I prepared for my exams. It gave me a place to clear my mind, to release any of my anger, frustration and anxiety, and reminded me that exams are not everything (which can be a difficult thing to remember in the middle of the process).

6. Schedule the exams. Concrete dates on your calendar and on the calendars of your committee are an effective way to keep yourself in check. The earlier you do this the better, for at least two reasons: 1) Once the dates are set you can’t go back, motivating you to stay on schedule, and 2) Your committee members have busy schedules; the earlier you schedule your exams the more availability they will have.

7. Your committee is on your side. You have selected a group of people to support you and your project, to provide feedback and offer critical suggestions to improve your scholarship. They are all rooting for you; they want to see you succeed.

I’m sure there are other things that should be added to this list. What do you wish you knew about the comprehensive exam experience before you took/take them? Do you have any bits of wisdom to share?

‘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 RateMyProfessor.com, 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.