Tag Archives: student life

The Myth of Summer Vacation

This time of year I am regularly regarded by my friends and family outside of academia as someone who is “off for the summer.” In my imagination, someone who is off for the summer gets a tan from working or playing in the yard during the day, kicks back on her front porch to enjoy a refreshing iced tea with her favorite lazy reading, takes her dog for hikes, and has the time to organize her closets and rid her house of the things that she hasn’t used since who knows when (and promptly takes them to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army to prevent further consideration). I often find myself frustrated when others imply that my job as a graduate teaching assistant affords me this sort of luxury. On the other hand, I recognize how fortunate I am to be away from the office for three months or so (that is, if I am not teaching a summer course or finding some other office to call home for a brief stint). If doing so is financially feasible, I do not have to teach a single class or report to the office for meetings until August; unquestionably, this is a privilege—a privilege that few fields offer.

Recent discussions here at the NGSC blog regarding the potential for academics to constantly be “on the clock” have me thinking about the relationship between work and summer (thanks Brittany Pladek!). Despite the seemingly popular notion that we all spend our summers “off,” as Kelli Towers Jasper pointed out, summer often means finding a way to pay the bills. We graduate students work odd jobs, pick up a summer class, tutor at Barnes and Noble and the local library, offer our skills at summer camps and so on. In fact, summer often means forcing ourselves to stick to a schedule even more stringent and demanding than that of the fall or spring semesters. We must find time to earn a(nother) living, continue our research, write a blog/article/chapter, plan for our fall courses, and the list goes on. This doesn’t seem to be exclusive to contingent faculty and graduate students, though; for full-time faculty the summer offers the chance to work on their own research and spend time away from the seemingly constant pile of undergraduate and graduate marking.

I recently crafted my summer reading schedule and found myself looking at a list of things I “must read by September,” rather than a list of things I’ve been hoping to read since…well, I can’t even remember. Here again emerges (at least the potential for) the always-working, always-on-the-clock academic. So, NGSC readers, I wonder, can we “clock out” just a bit this summer? Do the summer months afford you time away from the office, so to speak? If so, how do you spend your time?

Reflections on the First Weeks of Teaching Art History

At the midpoint of the spring quarter, my first term as a graduate teaching fellow (the ‘classy’ University of Oregon term for a TA), I thought it’d be wise to use my third piece as a way to reflect on my first weeks teaching Art History, detail an icebreaker that I will most likely be using in the future (having found it pretty effective), and to speak a bit to how I’ve experienced teaching primarily from images. I’m happy to report that from the beginning, while teaching has certainly been as—if not more—challenging than I thought it’d be going in, the experience has proved even more gratifying than I could have imagined. Playing the role of initiating many of my students into the humanities has been incredibly fulfilling.

Generally, I’ve attempted to proceed from what I’ve realized is a similarly student-centered course organization and teaching strategy to that which I think Teresa expressed so well in her most recent piece, albeit on a bit smaller scale since my first-year teaching is limited to discussion sections in support of the main History of Western Art: Baroque to Contemporary survey lectures.  Walking into the classroom for the first time committed from the beginning to a occupying a sort of headspace where I’d be completely open to the direction my students wish to take the discussion in relation to the materials explored in lecture really helped to alleviate the nerves I felt before teaching for the very first time.

Given the broad transnational and transhistorical nature of the course, its pace is totally relentless. As a result, I recognized pretty early the necessity of setting up my discussion sections as contraries to the lectures, meaning to promote my students’ progression in ways that connect the material to their own personal interests—given that only a handful are actually Art History majors, with the majority coming from History, English, Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and Graphic Design. It was important to me, as I’m sure it is for most teachers, that I craft a classroom experience in which information could be engaged and connected to in ways students would find pragmatically applicable to their other passions and meaningfully relevant, generally.

To establish this from the start, I decided on an ice breaker exercise that would encourage students to both personally identify with the art they’d been lectured on and with one another. Knowing that I’d have to be creative in devising a good icebreaker—since in my own experience they’ve tended to be haphazardly thought out and ineffective—two days before our first discussion section (after about two weeks worth of lecture meetings) I sent my students an email asking them to select and print their favorite image encountered in lecture to date and to bring it to class. To begin the first class discussion, after being pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of my students actually completed the assignment, I asked them to take a moment to reflect on their individual selections and think about how it might exhibit one aspect of their personalities and/or interests in order to introduce themselves and share with the class. To my excitement, the students seemed generally thrilled by the prospect of connecting to the lecture’s material they had been all too rapidly moving through in a more personal way. Thereafter, my classes rarely have had extended moments of silence, and students usually arrive eager to actively engage with the art and each other in discussion. I’d like to think taking the time to craft an unusual icebreaker might have helped, in this regard.

All in all, teaching’s been an enjoyable experience and I have to say, while I hope to be in a better position to bring literary texts into dialogue with visual art in future classes I’ll design and execute on my own as I continue to progress through the trajectory of my graduate studies and—optimistically—beyond, I’ve really enjoyed the immediacy that seems to accompany teaching primarily from images. While in my own scholarship I’m still navigating what constitutes substantive differences between verbal and visual artistic media, I’ve become taken by the way I can throw an image into one of my powerpoints that the students have yet to see previously, and have them become quickly able to engage with and describe its formalistic qualities in comparison to other paintings, sculptures, or architectural examples. I’m wondering if this can occur as easily/spontaneously when working with texts. To cite one example, when we were looking at Baroque art, one of my students brought up a contemporary American artist who she’s particularly interested in, which I was able to locate on a Google image search projected in front of the class in real time, and catalyze a fabulous discussion where we used her artist as a means to draw out some of the germane characteristics of Italian art from the 1600s. Perhaps I’m essentializing my own experience as an art historian, but I’m wondering if this is one area where classroom experience in an Art History/Visual Culture program might differ from that of an English one. As a result, I’m interested in knowing whether or not you all think there is more of a sense of immediacy in play when teaching visual art as opposed to literature (since I know that some of you do use images in your classes, as well)?

At any rate, I’ve definitely enjoyed reading everyone’s posts over these last few months and am looking forward to meeting many of you in Park City in August. The NASSR conference schedule looks really fantastic.

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!

 

Legitimacy and the Graduate Student

We’ve all heard it:  “I don’t feel like I belong here”—the clarion call of English graduate students and the hyper-obsession of meta-conversations within Literature departments at the highest level.  What is this obsession, and who really does belong in graduate programs or the academy, if not those who are there already?  This problem has been my preoccupation for some time now, so much so that it has crept into my dissertation, in an attempt to unravel the problems of legitimacy, sovereignty, authorship, etc. embedded in Romanticism and Romantic studies.

Trying to tackle these problems as a total framework, or as a problem even at the level of pedagogy, has been met with lots of resistance.  My upcoming Fall course on “Banned Books and Novel Ideas” will look at illegitimate textual problems in Ossian’s Tales of Fingal, Byron’s issues with piracy, the thorny controversies in Shakespeare and Defoe, as well as the whole regime of intellectual property surrounding Scott and Coleridge.  To inaugurate this course, I began my description with the famous quote from Foucault’s famous essay which he “borrowed” from Beckett: “What matters who’s speaking?”  Quite a moment of reflexivity, where Foucault not only questions the regime of authorship, but also uses a phrase that is syntactically tangled and, apparently, illegitimate.  I say this because my proposal, after explanation and several revisions, was greeted with disapproval from the legitimizing force of the English department heads; Beckett and Foucault have non-standard English and tangled syntax, it was said—students will be confused and find the course doesn’t have authority!  Hmmm….  I have my own responses to this line of argument, but I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the subject.  That is, how does one negotiate teaching texts that are non-standard, taboo, illegitimate etc. while still telling them that plagiarism is naughty-naughty and they must write in standard, syntactically clear English?  One easy explanation is making the distinction between discursive and non-discursive texts but, in keeping with truth-telling, even that distinction breaks down with enough interrogation.

Within this same matrix of problems, I have often asked the question of how one can really integrate radical politics into a classroom space?  How can one develop a quasi-democratic, anarchic pedagogy when all available models have some basis in logics of sovereignty and authority, delegitimizing certain ways of learning and production of scholarship?  Your thoughts are very much appreciated, particularly in relation to your experiences of teaching problematic Romantic texts.

Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes

Bankrolling Education

I began my first post as a member of this blogging community as a reflection on course organization, but as the week progressed it has been impossible to ignore some of the larger issues facing higher education—Romanticists and non-Romanticists, faculty and students, graduate and undergraduate students alike. Public institutions around the nation are asking if they will have state support next year—support that (although less substantive than it was in the past) most state colleges and universities rely on.

Faculty members at various state institutions have made a stand this week, protesting the massive state budget cuts affecting education. For example, as reported by Slippery Rock University’s newspaper, The Rocket , students and faculty at Pennsylvania State School of Higher Education’s Slippery Rock University rallied together in protest of the proposed 51.4% budget cut. Meanwhile, in New York, thirty-three people were arrested during a non-violent protest. The proposed budget cuts in New York will reduce the budget of CUNY’s senior colleges by $95.1 million and community colleges by $17.5 million. Why should we all be concerned with the finances of these state institutions, you ask? Well, because these seemingly isolated incidents help to create a narrative about the importance of education in America. Educational funding is often framed as party politics or treated as an investment in some imagined future (raising/teaching the next generation, forming a future America). Perhaps those are both true but as a graduate student who learns with and teaches nearly 150 students a year, I’m most interested in how such changes dictate who is and is not able to attend college. State (and federal) funding opens or closes the doors of higher education for many Americans. If states’ education budgets are slashed in the ways proposed, universities must find a way to stay in the black. Who will bear the burden? How will our classrooms be affected by such changes, if at all?

I was recently asked a set of questions meant to provoke interesting material for a banquet introduction. One of the questions asked, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” I thought through all of the typical answers: violence, bigotry, misogyny, hunger and disease. I even considered the entirely selfish answers: deadlines and comprehensive exams. In the end I decided my answer was college debt. Not only because I’d love to relieve my credit report of this particular burden but because I believe that education should be accessible for those of us who would like to learn. Education should come at a price—the loss of ignorance, some serious intellectual exercise– but it seems unjust that the cost of education should be a lifetime of debt. Many of us excuse such debt by calling it “good debt,” but deep down we know there is no such thing. If college loan debt were good debt then it wouldn’t prevent my cousin from qualifying for a home loan, especially since he works a full-time job that he is qualified for because of his college education; but that isn’t the case, he cannot buy his first home because his educational debts make it impossible for him to do so (and he attended a relatively low-cost state institution). The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the Pell program, which provides “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education” (which means that unlike loans, they do not have to be repaid). Even though the Pell program, through Congress’s continued support, has been able to

keep up with both inflation and a surge of new college students…low-income undergraduates are actually much worse off than equivalent students were 30 years ago. A student without a Pell Grant in 1980 paid less out of pocket to attend a public four-year university than a student with a Pell Grant pays today. That’s because between then and now, the cost of higher education has grown far faster than inflation. As a result, the federal government has gone from bit player to major investor in the educational part of higher education, to the point that it’s starting to rival states in the magnitude of support.

As state budget cuts continue, the reliance on federal support—through programs like Pell, FAFSA, and so on—will increase (as will educational debt). Students will be forced to make difficult choices about the financial viability of education. Whether we are (graduate) students and/or teachers at state funded universities or not, it is important that we advocate for education’s financial accessibility. None of this is new to those of us who annually navigate(d) those annoying, tax-like FAFSA forms in order to pay tuition bills. Even more familiar and heartbreaking are the pleas from students, “I just need a B in your course or I lose my (often state or federally supported) scholarship!” Robert Reich’s recent article might best summarize the importance of education, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.” The ways that our governments approach, support, and finance education does and will continue to shape our classrooms.

Finally, hello! I am Teresa Pershing, another new NGSC blogger. I’m a proud member of the Mountaineer (West Virginia University) community and am happy to spend the next several months learning with all of you!

Romantic Living

I realize the title of my first piece sounds like a Redbook article. It isn’t. Yet. But, I thought for my first post it’d be good to introduce myself by talking a little about how I’ve come to do, and view, Romantic studies and, in so doing, gesture towards why I think our field is particularly special. I do this because as we’re making the turn toward the end of an academic term it’s good to pat one’s self on the back and to do the same for others pursuing similar interests. In order to rescue this piece, however, from being mere intellectual biography, which admittedly would be pretty drab, I hope some of you reading will chime in in the comments about what your initial experiences were that initiated you into the field and how that informs (or doesn’t) the work you do now.

I’m generally positioned in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, and moving towards specializing in Blake studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Oregon. What I’ve loved from the beginning about Romantic studies is how my intellectual, social, political, and environmental commitments can exist as an integrated whole—life as a romanticist has to some degree, for myself, as I know it has for others, always functioned as a way of living as a type of art in itself.  Continue reading Romantic Living

Comps Redux, or "True Grit"

I was inspired this morning reading Kelli’s post on what she learned this past semester. It takes meatballs to look back on a semester and register the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the payoff is hopefully a better upcoming semester! So, I dedicate this post to sharing how preparing for comps went and how I managed to pass them (with flying colors) while teaching two sections of Shakespeare for Non-Majors, nannying, exercising, eating well, and sleeping. This was just my experience, but hopefully it will help demystify the comps process for some and perhaps my mistakes will help you avoid similar blunders. Continue reading Comps Redux, or "True Grit"

Advice: How to Ace the Job Search

Advice on the Job Market from Experts at RMMLA

So, I promised in my past post that I’d deliver something practical—and here it is!  At the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque last month, I attended an incredibly useful panel on advice for students entering the job market.  It proceeded in Q&A format, but I’ve rearranged and edited the information to consolidate major themes.  No matter what level you’re at, this is really good stuff!  If after you’ve read it you’re hungry for more, check out the recommendations on the MLA website!  Lots of good, detailed advice there too.

But back to the RMMLA.  Our panel of experts included four distinguished folks:

Ingrid Ranum – Gonzaga University

Catherine Perry – Notre Dame

Anthony Cardenas-Rotunno.– University of New Mexico

David Laurence – director of research and ADE for MLA

I’m sorry I haven’t kept track of exactly who gave what advice…but their messages were fairly unified.  I just hope they won’t object to being mooshed all together!  Anyway, without further ado, on to the good stuff!   Continue reading Advice: How to Ace the Job Search

Conferencing It Up at the RMMLA

Confession: I have not always loved the Academic Conference. My first few conference experiences as a Master’s student left me confused and jaded: what was this strange ritual of the ivory tower? It seemed a desperate and pathetic attempt to fend off self-doubt through an incestuous validation of academic existence.  I believe there’s wisdom in the “fake it till you make it” approach, but at my first couple conferences, I felt we were all still faking it.

Last weekend, though, I attended the Rocky Mountain MLA conference in Albuquerque—and knowing I’d be writing this blog post, I began to reflect on how things have changed since then.  I’m happy to say that by and large, I’ve really begun not only to appreciate what conferences can do, but also to enjoy attending them—and for their own sake, not for the exotic locations. Thanks to my background at three universities, I now peruse online conference programs looking for names of friends, professors, or the occasional star. I usually find many sessions of interest and lament my inability to attend concurrent panels; when I attend, I’m more engaged as a listener, more able to follow ideas, and much more eager and willing to ask questions afterward.  Simply because I’ve read more stuff than I had as a beginning MA student, more talks make sense, and the interconnections with my own interests become much more clear.  And I’m much braver about introducing myself to strangers, and offering my hand for a handshake.

The difference in my conference experiences may rest somewhat in the conferences themselves, but clearly it has more to do with me.  When I entered my PhD program two years after finishing my MA, plagued by feelings of inadequacy as I watched the whip-smart students around me, a wise ABD friend told me to “trust the process.”  And she’s right: I’m still in the middle of it, but I can see my skills growing, and in consequence, my confidence, genuine intellectual interest, and enjoyment.  So if any of you readers out there are anything like I was, take heart.  It really does get better.

I had wondered whether the RMMLA would spread itself so wide that few panels would catch my interest.  While certainly it’s nothing like the awesome focus-group one finds at NASSR, turns out that variety can be just as stimulating as specificity. The RMMLA reminded me in the best sense of being an undergraduate, back before I had determined my specializations and could nibble from any dish that looked appealing—only now the banquet is tastier, because I’ve learned to appreciate new foods. My own interests center on early 19th-century women and gardening, but in attending panels that seemed only tangentially related (or ones I went to just for fun), I marveled often at the threads of connection!  Listening to readings from RMMLA prose authors rekindled my interest in creative writing; bumping into an old professor took me to a panel exploring women in Italian and Spanish literature, and my favorite panel (on “The Meaning of Food”) brought together a children’s lit expert, a 19th-century agricultural lit expert, and an exploration of advertisements from Trader Joe’s.   One keynote speaker offered thoughts on Chinese poetry, another on the psychology of Beauty.  I listened, took notes, and chatted…and the best part is, I wasn’t faking it.

It’s true that I didn’t see much of Albuquerque, other than the view from the shuttle window and my walk between hotels.  I did, however, spend a weekend listening to new ideas, becoming acquainted with new people and interesting ideas, and retiring brain-tired and happy each night.  Despite the genteel poverty that often accompanies graduate school, I can’t help but appreciate the luxury of spending my hours learning and pondering interesting stuff.   That, plus some good friends and really great Mexican food, made this conference a success.

Though I had intended to post notes from the Graduate Student Forum (advice on CVs, cover letters, interviews, etc.), I’ve waxed poetic and won’t tire you with further musings.  It will appear in my next post, though – and as fond as we all are of Romantic reflection and soul-searching, I promise a distillation of thoroughly practical advice!

Happy Monday,

-Kelli