Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Trick or treat

Trick: I'd been planning on spending all day today catching up on the grading for my Milton class. Yesterday I realized that this is majors' advisement week, so I have a full day of meetings with my advisees.

Treat: One of my advisees, whom I first taught as a first-semester freshman--when I convinced her to add an English minor to the ludicrous-sounding field she was determined to major in (you haven't heard of it; let's just say it's pre-professional and totally non-academic)--announced that she wanted to upgrade to a double major. I've been gently encouraging her to do this for years, as she's a strong writer and raises the level of discussion several notches in every class she's taken with me, but I was determined not to push. I'm so happy it's something she decided she wants to do.

So I guess it evens out. And at least I'll have leftover candy to fuel a long night's grading.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Finding mentors

In the comments to my last post, a grad student, Canuck Down South, asked how I managed to make friends and find mentors among senior scholars. It's a good question, and something I think is important for grad students and junior faculty to start working on as early as possible.

This is partly because it takes time and it's nothing you can force. I'm not a model of success, but it's definitely something I've been thinking about from the moment I got this job: I either already knew or vaguely intuited that, with the exception of my advisor, my recommenders going forward should absolutely not be faculty from my graduate institution. At the same time, there was no one at RU who would be appropriate, since I didn't have in-field senior colleagues. So, if you can't or shouldn't lean on your grad school profs or your colleagues at your first job, where do you turn?

Unless you're already publishing work that gets you unsolicited fan mail, I think the only answer for a junior scholar is conferences, professional societies, or anywhere else you meet people in person (for example, if there's a regional colloquium or working group that draws scholars from institutions other than your own). And your best bets at an early stage are the smaller venues: special one-off conferences, where you might actually get to talk at some length with people who are vastly your seniors; small societies dedicated to a specialized aspect of your research; or conferences that involve workshops or seminars rather than formal paper presentations.

And then. . . you present good work and you seize any opportunity that presents itself. If you see people whose work you admire, introduce yourself and tell them so. Sometimes--not always, not even most the time--they'll ask you about yours. And for goodness sakes, if someone comes up to you after a paper and wants to talk to you about it, keep talking. If you chat with someone for more than a few minutes, and especially if they offer you something in the way of real advice (even if it's not actually immediately useful or relevant), drop them an email after the conference saying how nice it was to meet them and how much you appreciate their suggestions. Most of these people, too, will not turn out to be actual mentors, but as I wrote a number of years back, the point of networking is that you never know.

Gradually, you'll start to know people. And sooner or later, someone will explicitly tell you that they'd love to read your work, or keep in touch about the results of your research. You'll be flattered, but you may not believe them. Believe them. Take them up on it.

Because here's the secret: most established scholars really want to know what younger people are working on, and where their corner of the discipline is headed. Many fear, at least a tiny bit, losing their finger on the pulse of what's happening. This is especially true for scholars who aren't teaching at doctoral institutions, or who teach at second- or third-tier ones. We all need mentors. But many people also want mentees: they're an additional way to stay engaged, an opportunity to give back to the profession--and, yes, a means of extending their own scholarly influence.

When it comes right down to asking for a letter of reference--or seeing whether someone would read an article draft or whatever--there's still usually a point where you just have to ask. And for me, anyway, the cold ask has never gotten easier: even when I'm asking for a letter from someone who's written letters for me in the past, it still takes days or weeks of avoidance before I'll actually send that email. But if you've laid the right groundwork, and the other person is someone who's been sincerely supportive of and enthusiastic about your work, they won't mind. After all: it's their profession, too.


Wise and worldy readers, what additional advice would you give?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Letting the advisor go

I'm applying for approximately 87 different things this fall, most of which require lining up the ol' recommendation letters. But for the first time in more than 10 years, I didn't ask my dissertation director for one.

Advisor remains the biggest name I could rally to my cause, and a small part of me wonders whether that isn't reason enough to ask: the patronage-model-cum-magical-thinking that sustains grad students hasn't entirely left me. But a larger part of me is relieved not to have to go there, by which I mean to go back there, to that anxious, cringing, supplicatory phase of my life.

It's not about Advisor herself. I could ask, and she'd probably write for me. She's been good to me over the years. Nor do I think it's inappropriate to have one's advisor write on one's behalf many years after the fact: some people remain close to their advisors, in a relationship that evolves into friendship and even collaboration. But that's not true of our relationship: I see her from time to time and send her cards at Christmas and that sort of thing, but she doesn't know my recent work hardly at all--certainly not as well as the mentors I've acquired since graduate school.

More important, though, is my reluctance to revisit that particular phase of my scholarly life. Longtime readers will recall that my experience of grad school was Not Good. It's increasingly clear that the problem was with me, or with grad school as a phenomenological state, rather than with my program or my advisor; I've reflected before that grad school made me incapable of the friendships that I needed and wanted from my classmates, and I was probably similarly incapable of the advisor/advisee relationship that I wanted.

For the first few years after I got my degree, I worked very hard to develop a new, adult relationship with Advisor. And it worked well enough. But there are reasons both personal and professional--matters of temperament as well as specific events in our respective lives--that mean we're never going to have what Cosimo and his advisor have, or what some of my other friends have with theirs.

Once that would have made me sad or frantic: not having my advisor's love, in the way I wanted it, felt like a personal failing, a sign that I wasn't deserving of it. But some relationships are never quite the right fit, and some we outgrow, and most of us manage to find others who do love us in the way we want to be loved.

I'd been planning to ask Advisor for a letter. I'm sure she'd have written a strong one. But when it occurred to me in September that I didn't have to--that I had professional friends who were senior scholars who liked my work, that I didn't have to reenter that particular tortured headspace--I felt so relieved that I almost burst into tears.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Small kindnesses

I spent a few hours last night in the emergency room at the local hospital. It turned out to be nothing--I'd had discomfort in my chest and neck and running down my left arm that I thought might be cardiac--but once I was there I had to stay there, for a long and boring while, getting tended to maybe once every twenty minutes. I had a book and I had PBS's pre-debate coverage on the t.v., but what I found most engaging was watching and listening to the hospital staff bustling back and forth.

Ever since I started this job, I've found myself enormously interested in the worklives of others whose jobs don't occur in a typical office environment--and especially those whose jobs involve continual, short-term interactions with the public: hairdressers, for example, see a different client every 30 or 60 minutes all day long, while clergymen and -women spend a certain amount of time "on stage"--but also have an endless series of individual meetings, many of them urgent, with couples getting married, families planning funerals, individuals in crisis. A clergyperson's worklife is probably most analogous to a professor's, in the sense that it involves roughly the same component parts (there's an administrative and office component, a performative component, a caring-profession component, and also a solitary and studious component), but I think of my hairdresser every time I schedule a day of student conferences and have to gather my energy up to make friendly chit-chat with each of fifteen successive students who walk through my door with a first draft of a paper.

I also try to remember, when I visit my hairdresser or meet with my priest--or buy stuff at the grocery store or take my car in for servicing--that although the other person's job may involve serving me, it's a dynamic relationship: I have a right to good service, but I'm the one entering their workplace; what I do there can make their workday more pleasurable or more exasperating.

So in that same spirit, I was interested in the ways the hospital staff interacted with each other and with me: the in-take nurse was brusque and impatient, putting me on the defensive and making me feel very small and stupid (why hadn't I called my doctor first? why would I think these symptoms could be cardiac?), but everyone else was warm and friendly and kind. I was handled by at least eight different people, not counting the front desk staff--three nurses, one physician's assistant, an EKG tech, two X-ray techs, two transport personnel (who wheeled me to and from the X-ray room)--and every single one introduced him or herself by name and job title, explained what they were doing, and made pleasant chit-chat in interstitial moments or as time allowed.

I came away very impressed with the hospital staff, not just their professionalism and training, but also all the intangibles that amount to bedside manner and putting a patient at ease. The X-ray techs were solicitous about my bare feet (which weren't cold, but they insisted on finding me socks) and had an amusing routine involving the questions they were required to ask me (said one, deadpan, in a G-man voice "we need to know. . . what you know"), and the transport personnel were cheerful and funny, joking with me about whether a hospital, in the name of public health, should even allow patients to watch the presidential debates.

Coming as this visit did just at the middle of the semester, when I'm emailing students about exam and paper grades and setting up appointments to calm anxieties and suggest strategies for improvement, it reminded me that small interactions matter a lot. The brusque nurse wasn't intending to be mean--maybe she'd had a bad day, and I'm sure she sees lots of hypochondriacs who panic and go to the ER for every little thing. But if she'd been typical of the hospital staff, I'd have left ashamed and reluctant ever to return, lest I be scolded for crying wolf. The other personnel were efficient and obviously very busy, but they listened when I talked, they smiled, and they treated me and my symptoms seriously. I left feeling reassured--and very pleased with my local healthcare community.

I need to remember this when a student drops by my office unannounced when I'm frantically prepping for class, or goes on and on about some irrelevant thing long after I've answered their questions and I have three other students lined up outside the door. Being brisk needn't mean being unkind. And we could all stand to work on our bedside manner.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Better than I thought/worse than I thought

As my previous post suggests, I'm knee-deep in academic dishonesty paperwork. But in the course of chasing down one apparent case of plagiarism, I made a new and possibly more horrible discovery.

Without going into the specifics, let me present a roughly analogous fictitious example. Let's pretend that I'm teaching a 20th-century American novel, and I get a pretty good essay with one entirely gratuitous paragraph claiming that some event in Chapter Five is an allusion to the French and Indian War.

This strikes me as mildly odd: it's not impossible that there's an allusion to the French and Indian War--I can see what the student is talking about--but there's no reason why there should be; it doesn't add any layer of meaning to the scene or to the novel as a whole. Moreover, it's a little weird that a student should make this particular observation (I mean, the French and Indian War? The average undergrad doesn't know squat about that).

So I run a few checks, and bang! There that claim is, in SparkNotes--a whole stupid argument about this stupid supposed allusion (which I'm now even less convinced by). The student hasn't taken anything verbatim, and nothing else about the essay seems suspicious--but come on: The French and Indian War! A twentieth-century novel! It can't be a coincidence.

I haul the kid in, and he's surprised and terrified. The student stammers out that he loves this novel, and read it in high school, at the same time that he was taking a class in Early American history. He remembers this allusion, because he thought it was so neat, the first time he read the book, to know what his English teacher meant when she referenced the French and Indian War--because he'd just studied that in history class.


Got it.

His high school teacher was cribbing from SparkNotes.

Imagonna bang my head against a wall for a while now.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Same shit, different semester

Remember this post from last fall? Yeah. What I said then. Again.

Goddammit it to hell.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Real life

Over the weekend, a freshman at RU was beaten to death, in her dorm room, by her boyfriend from back home.

I didn't know her, and most of what I know about the situation comes from published news reports, which themselves don't have much to say: just names, ages, photos. (I won't link. If you must know, you can find the story on Google in one three-hundredth of a second.) If there was a motive, no one knows it. But who the fuck knows why a man kills his intimate partner? Even when there's a reason, there isn't a reason.

We mystify and romanticize and infantilize college students, even those of us who teach them--imagining their lives as uniquely free, uniquely sheltered, and even over-sheltered (for all the talk about helicopter parents, I've never actually met one). But our students live in the real world as fully as we do. Sometimes it's realer than we can imagine.

Rest in peace.