Graduate students

We Need Humanities Labs

"Solitude vivifies; isolation kills."
--Joseph Roux, Meditations of a Parish Priest, 1886

I wonder how an English professor would feel spending a week in a physics lab. Not about the scientific work, but about the frequent, ongoing interaction between students and peers, post-docs and faculty. Scientists see each other in the lab, if not daily, then at least weekly. They have frequent lab meetings, colloquia and interaction with scholars at other universities around joint research. During my graduate training in psychology at McGill University, especially in the research lab at the Montreal Neurological Institute, I spent hours hanging around the post-docs. I learned at least as much from them as I did from my interactions with my professors. The expectation was that I would be at the lab 9 to 5 or more, every day. I saw my adviser every day.

My curiosity about this hypothetical English professor’s reaction began after a discussion with my father, a professor emeritus in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. As we chatted about my work as a dissertation and tenure coach, he expressed shock when I recounted how graduate students in English could go a month or more with no contact with their advisor. He estimated that his students usually saw him daily, and never went for more than a week without interaction with him, except when he was traveling. As he quizzed me more and more about the grad student experience in humanities departments, it became more and more clear to me that there is a deep divide.

In the humanities, outside of the classroom, this kind of easy and even semi-formal interaction is rare. The isolation for the grad student begins in earnest when the coursework is finished and the qualifying exams are completed. The fledgling ABD is nudged out of the nest, left to fly solo for long periods. The luckiest students have advisors who are mentors and insist on frequent meetings, which increase accountability and allow the student to learn how to think in a scholarly manner. The large majority, however, are left to flounder, some of them working as adjuncts far from the institution where they are trying to finish  a Ph.D.

The students whose advisers organize monthly dissertation meetings get some help with the isolation. These meetings usually involve prior submission of one’s work, with a presentation and then feedback from peers and one’s advisor during the meeting. The opportunity to present one’s own work may come up only once every few months. For many grad students, most writing is accomplished in the days preceding submission of their work. I believe that these meetings are too infrequent and too formal to make up for the absence of ongoing interaction with other scholars.

Beyond these dissertation meetings, scholarly dialogue with peers or advisers is sporadic in most departments outside the sciences. In many cases, the adviser's expectation is that the student will request a meeting when the student is ready. Thus begins one of the vicious cycles of graduate school. The student, working in a void, measures himself against what he imagines his peers are doing. Often he finds himself lacking, and feels ashamed. So he puts off the meeting with his adviser. This increases his isolation and sense of inadequacy. He feels that he is floundering and going in circles. Without encouragement and deadlines, such students can languish for months, and even years.

As a dissertation coach, I’ve worked with many such students. The luckier ones are early in the process and not yet consumed with self-loathing and shame. Others have been at it for years and feel terrible about themselves. It is noteworthy that 80-90 percent of the calls I receive for dissertation coaching are from students in the humanities, social sciences or education -- all fields less likely to have a lab environment. The rest are writing their dissertation away from their university and find it difficult to work in that void.

Conferences and conventions offer important opportunities for scholarly dialogue, as do online blogs.  However, there are limitations to conferences (too infrequent) and blogs. What I am advocating is injecting into the humanities department some of the freewheeling dialogue found in the halls outside the conference presentation or in some of the better scholarly blogs.

Why is there such a difference between the hard sciences and the humanities? An obvious reason is that science is best done in groups, due to the availability of expensive equipment and the need for collaboration to make elaborate projects work. Second, science is funded largely by grants, which contain within them the need for accountability. The person in charge of the grant will make darn sure that neither time nor money is being wasted, by frequently checking in with those doing the research and writing.

Barton Kunstler, who wrote  "The Hothouse Effect: Time Proven Strategies of History's Most Creative Groups,” in Futures Research Quarterly, argues that organizations can grow into "creative hothouses," much as Ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence. If humanities departments were to proceed as outlined by Kunstler, they would go beyond counting their peer-reviewed publications, and move into creating lasting legacies and nurturing breakthrough thinking. Kunstler identifies the attributes of organizations likely to spawn such changes, including the following: "workers immerse themselves in others’ ideas and work, absorbing creative influences," and "mentor relationships abound." Clearly, it would benefit all the members of such a department, not just the struggling graduate students, to create an atmosphere that "spawns 'geniuses'" and "stands at the center of a wider cultural movement."

How will such changes occur in actual practice?  Certainly there is not a need for more departmental meetings.  Kunstler suggests that you "reevaluate the basic assumptions and methods of your discipline," and "challenge your most treasured paradigms." Those at the higher levels can begin by modeling the behavior they would like to see in others -- proposing informal discussions, sharing work with colleagues, discussing publishing with faculty from other departments, and seeking out a grad student or two to bounce ideas off of. If every professor advising graduate students made it a point to have a substantive conversation with one of his or her ABD’s a day, the picture for many grad students would change radically.

I suggest that graduate students begin at the grassroots level. They should suggest weekly meetings to peers, with the only agenda being the discussion of work in progress at an informal level. If they are geographically scattered, they can meet by phone -- there are free conference lines available. In my coaching groups there is a high level of closeness and support, even though none of these people have met in person. People should be encouraged to attend with partly formed thoughts, poorly written paragraphs, or just an idea they want to develop. The idea is to think of all such scholarly dialogue as a laboratory. Ideas are cooked up, thrown in the test tube, and mixed with human interaction, creativity and motivation. These experiments will produce better written and less painfully produced dissertations or publications, and might engender a "creative humanities hothouse."

Author/s: 
Gina Hiatt
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Gina Hiatt is a clinical psychologist and dissertation and tenure coach. She is the founder of Academic Ladder. Her blog is AcademiBlog.

Minding the Student Client

Too seldom do we ask graduate students in science or engineering about their experiences in completing doctoral degree requirements. We go to administrators, faculty, and sponsors, but we don't ask students -- the main educational client -- what they make of what is happening to them. In particular, we are remiss with minority graduate students.

The need to communicate is self-evident. In 2004, fewer than 500 African American citizens and permanent residents earned Ph.D.'s in science and engineering fields, not even 1 percent of the total awarded. The numbers in some disciplines are so tiny as to defy sensibility: 17 in computer and information science, 13 in physics, 10 in mathematics, zero in astronomy. Today the science and engineering workforce -- like medicine, law, and business -- barely resembles the rest of America. The pattern for African Americans, observed for over half a century, is particularly bleak.

Last summer, I asked 40 minority doctoral candidates about their experiences in a "talk back" session at the annual meeting of the Graduate Scholars Program of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Since 1992, Packard Scholars have been selected from among the premier graduates of historically black colleges and universities.

The discussion confirmed that -- for these scholars at least -- those who do enter graduate programs in the sciences often face pressures not experienced by their non-minority colleagues. "It's not fun being a trailblazer in 2005," said one scholar, "because there are certain things we should not have to deal with. When you already have the responsibility and expectation of class work, nobody wants to carry the burden of the entire race and deal with issues that should have been resolved a long time ago."

Often, minority doctoral students in the sciences become PR spokespeople: "We are called upon to do a lot on diversity for the university. To sit on panels every time a black student is invited to the school ... to attend conferences, to take pictures for publications that show the diversity of the university. While we are doing these things, our counterparts are in the lab doing research and producing publications.... When a first-year student comes in, I want them to see another black face. But how do I maintain that research direction and focus? I have an extra burden not carried by my majority colleagues."

And while many students are supportive of diversity efforts, they cannot help but feel conflicted about the competitive realities facing science grads. "Yeah, I wanted to be a trailblazer," summarized one student, "but I also want the Nobel Prize in physics. I don't want to trail blaze in race relations at the university. I want to focus on my research and come up with a new laser treatment for cancer, that's my focus. I don't want to have to deal with the other stuff. Let me be me, let me shine, get your foot off of my neck, let me do my work."

The experiences voiced by the Packard Scholars are not unique. The AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity was created to assist universities and colleges committed to improving the success of all students and faculty, especially those of color. The Packard Scholars reinforced much of what we've learned from our site visits, focus groups, and data reviews (for the center's approach, see this article). Their insights are noted here, many in the scholars' own voices.

Outreach must penetrate the academic reward system. As a faculty activity, outreach ranks a distant third behind research/entrepreneurship and teaching. Neither the faculty effort nor the outcome will change without institutional policies that restructure rewards. As one scholar put it, "Diversity will not be an issue until you start diving into their pockets, their budgets, because they'll do anything to get and keep their grants. But, if a university ... has all the money they need and new buildings, but they have never graduated an African American person, it's too easy to say, 'Oh, we don't know what to do, or we don't have the resources.' That's bull, because if you want the resources, you can get them."

And another remarked, "The program I selected had four African American graduates in the last 10 years. Two more are there now and another came in with me....  That makes a huge difference. Establish a great relationship with one student; make one happy and others will hear.... That is the easiest way to recruit because if they went to a black school, there are other students in their department who are looking for a good graduate program."

Gender and racial bias is a reality. Get over it -- with or without mentoring. The Packard Scholars report discrimination is alive and well in university programs: It ranges from negative comments in the lab about ability or preparation to the faculty's assumption that the only two black students in the department are going to work together. Some universities have developed mentoring or other support programs to mitigate the effects, while others let the problems go unattended.

Many students recommended that universities conduct diversity sensitivity training for the faculty. "That stops a lot of the comments and issues in the labs and in the classroom."

Still others found mentoring programs to be effective interventions. "I'm in medical school now [as an M.D./Ph.D. student], and there are institutionalized mechanisms designed with the philosophy that if we bring you to the school, it looks bad if we can't bring you to completion. Some of these or similar mechanisms, like 'big sib, little sib' mentoring situations can be implemented early. If you start to intervene after the first warning signs, these are still very much preventable problems. I think we would see a much improved attrition rate if we didn't wait until the problem is full blown -- a classic ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

In situations lacking a formal infrastructure for dealing with discrimination, students devise their own. "Coming from [a historically black college/university] where the learning environment was more constructive, I was overlooked here several times because I was the only black in the class. I came up with strategies to cope. My best friend and I would intentionally split up ... so that we weren't in the same group.... We were able to survive because he would bring the information back to me and vice versa."

The student must focus on completing doctoral requirements. This form of accountability is a "performance contract" between student and major professor (if not one's dissertation committee). It reveals to the student the delicate balance of his/her endeavor: "When I started graduate school, the faculty taught us to work together, yet how to be competitive.... If I asked my advisor how to do something, he would guide me, but say 'You are different people, and I'm going to approach you at your level, so I may not ask you to do something that I ask your cohort to do because you are at a different place. But the results should be the same, because you are all here to get the Ph.D." 

All kinds of institutions can be "minority serving." If we examine the baccalaureate origins of African American Ph.D.'s and of Latino Ph.D.'s, historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving Institutions, respectively, are the largest producers. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others, have distinguished records as producers of minority bachelor's graduates who go on to earn a doctorate in science or engineering. In addition, relative newcomers such as University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Louisiana State University are undergraduate models of student preparation for science-based Ph.D.'s. Some institutions, and often departments within institutions, clearly "get it." But decentralized authority at the graduate level ensures unevenness and lack of sharing of best practices.

New Ph.D.'s underestimate the skills they possess. The orientation of most graduate programs in the sciences is to a single sector or career pathway that represents immediate job opportunity, but little demand for versatility. Because the doctoral training process reproduces the past, (i.e., the traditions that fit an earlier time), it also reflects the biases and career of one's major professors. Consequently, the Ph.D. experience minimizes belief and understanding about skills beyond science fundamentals. The Capacity Center works with institutions to develop the skills required by 21st century organizations, academic and nonacademic alike:  teamwork, problem-solving, adaptation, communication, cultural competence.

This is about leadership -- the overarching need to grow leaders. For all the talk about the impact of mentors and role models, there will always be successful professional women and persons of color who will say, "It was tough for me and it's going to be tough for those who come behind me." These folks, irrespective of vintage or field, will not reach out. That's just the way they are -- making assumptions, suppressing memories of the help they received, and dealing with students their way. As one scholar noted, "Just think about how far the world has come in 10 years. Most of these cats [faculty] we're working for got their Ph.D. in the 1980s, 70s. The technology is moving way too fast and with the stuff that we know, we'll take their jobs. Some of them do everything they can to keep you from completing these programs, making it that much more difficult. The last thing they want to do is lose a job to you."

Change comes as new professionals ascend to positions that control resources and decisions. It may mean climbing the academic ladder or pursuing a nonacademic path. Both routes demonstrate that it's who you know plus what you know that matters -- not one or the other exclusively.  Who's in your network? Who talks to whom? The AAAS Capacity Center makes explicit these aspects of professional socialization and networking that can make a difference in a career.

The nation has invested in science and engineering since Sputnik -- a half century -- to advance its education, economic, workforce, and national security interests. When students are not recruited and nurtured to degree completion, we waste talent and material resources -- in defiance of student demographics and to the detriment of the nation's place in the world.  

Author/s: 
Daryl E. Chubin
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The Pretense

What possessed me to ask to study with the scholar I'll call Sebastian Klugmann? The field of literary study he was at the top of wasn't the one I was limping toward, his critical method didn't especially appeal to me, his style wasn't the one I went for in professors. I liked them older, crankier, as the early signs of collegial neglect are bringing on their first dismayed glimpses of the end. Klugmann didn't have any bitterness to stave off. He was younger, smoother, still influential and assured -- the ambivalence that distinguished his arguments was purely intellectual. He had the privilege of knowing that what he thought mattered, and the pleasure.

I couldn't have been any more his type than he was mine. It's surprising that he let me in to his graduate seminar, and his mistake would soon have been clear to him. I would arrive late, sit in a fold-up chair against a wall -- the high-backed chairs around the conference table were safely taken -- and keep my mouth shut. There's a place in a classroom for quietly engaged students, but a sense of engagement wasn't what I gave off.

It was by all measures a successful seminar: there were verbal footnotes, heated yet cordial disputes, vital principles in play and at stake, shirts with sweat marks running down the seam. Some respond to the fear of whitewater rafting trips or the loudness of certain concerts by falling asleep: My response to the wholesale expenditure in Klugmann's classroom of conflicting yet harmonized energies was to yawn, fidget, count my change for the run during break to the candy machine for a box of Skittles, chosen perhaps because they too could be counted. Only Genevieve could puncture the membrane of my inertia: dark-haired and green-eyed, she would turn to face Klugmann at the head of the table, her collarbone riding high beneath a blouse tightened against breasts swelling like a majestic wave that I might just have caught if only I had known how to surf. Then her full mouth would close and she'd turn away, her frame retreating into her clothing, and I'd slump back in my chair.

So what was I doing there? My motives were probably the common ones, curiosity and ambition. Like everyone else I must have been intrigued by Klugmann's celebrity. It must also have occurred to me as to everyone else that his letter of recommendation would look nice in my dossier. But if my motives were the same as everyone else's, why didn't I try to score points at the conference table like everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to appear to be sucking up and was trying to distinguish myself by my apathy.

Whatever he represented, however polished his manner, Klugmann turned out to be highly likable. He wore his knowledge lightly, agreed and disagreed generously, laughed readily. The lines on his face when he laughed suggested a vulnerability that allayed my distrust of his smoothness.

I tried to see him to discuss my term paper. There was always a wait. Once when I'd had the patience to get to the front of the line I discovered that the dog I took with me everywhere -- a mutt disguised as a Belgian shepherd -- had drifted away. Across campus was a pizzeria where they used so much oil that the toppings tended to slide off the pizza and, often enough, to the ground. I found the dog there as usual. By the time I got back to his office Klugmann had gone. I called to set up another appointment.

My feeling for home across the country was embodied in my devotion to its professional basketball team, the Knicks. This devotion was dire: the Knicks' fate concerned me more than my own. To watch them play was always stressful, but the effect on me of their playoff series against the Bulls belongs in the annals of hysteria. The Bulls were better. I was dead set against an inevitability.

During those game days I'd grow ever more anxious. Once a game was underway I'd pass from muttering gloom to stunned frenzy to a quasi-religious despair in which every basket the Bulls scored was another abomination. The Knicks' mistakes brought on apoplexy, foul calls against them a species of persecution mania. Their triumphs gave me no compensatory pleasure, merely relief.

The appointment Klugmann had given me fell in the middle of the decisive game. Halfway through the second quarter I saw that it was time to leave for it. I watched the rest of the quarter anyway, and was twenty minutes late when I knocked. Klugmann appeared to say he'd be with me shortly and withdrew. Staring at the letters of his name on the frosted glass office door, I played out in imagination the third quarter I was missing, a fantasy all the less convincing for being continually interrupted by resolutions to leave. The door opened. Genevieve came out and turned down the hallway without meeting my eyes.

Klugmann was composed, but I wasn't. Only when he had had me take a seat, fixed his gaze on me with an owlish deliberation and covered the back of one hand with the other -- only then did it strike me that whatever thought I might have given my paper topic was gone. I found that I hadn't come to discuss my work at all but to disavow my classroom persona, to establish a connection to Klugmann, to befriend him.

I was clumsy and inarticulate. I meant to tell him something of myself, but the game clock was ticking. To explain my hurry I launched into a manic excursus on the Knicks: the illustriousness of their history, the nobility of their cause, the precariousness of their situation. Klugmann seemed puzzled, but in a spirit of cordiality he offered an irrelevant anecdote about his boyhood infatuation with the Dodgers. I steered the subject back from baseball to basketball. He looked at his watch and invited me to come to the point. I mumbled something about being too deep in the research for my term paper to be able to discuss it. "Come back and see me when you've got your ducks in a row," Klugmann said. When I resumed my position in front of the television it was late in the game and the Knicks were in trouble.

I turned in my paper. Klugmann liked it well enough. His comments were apt and courteous but gave no hint of our further association. And we had none.

But a term or two later I ran into him in a hallway. His greeting was friendly and we struck up the kind of spontaneous desultory chat that I'd hoped to have in his office. I found myself asking him to excuse my behavior in our meeting. "I remember only that you seemed a little crazy," he said indulgently.

We walked together down the corridor. At the end he went through the swinging door of the men's room, a quartz, marble, and porcelain prewar beauty. I followed him in, and heard my words echo from tiles as he approached a urinal at the far side. I hesitated before going to one at the near side and unzipping my fly. Instead of repairing to a sink at the back of the room when he'd finished, Klugmann took a step towards me and resumed the conversation.

There were no partitions between the urinals, and the sides of the floor-length structure I faced are not so high as in a newer model. This older urinal was more like a tub than a chest and provided less shelter and privacy.

I hadn't had to go in the first place, and my nervousness at talking to Klugmann didn't help. Nothing would come out, not a drop, a fact that would have been apparent from Klugmann's vantage. He was still talking -- was he also looking? I didn't dare turn my head to find out. I was too busy deciding for how long to hold my position. At some moment of headlong abandon I broke into the magic dance men do to purge the last drop, flushed the toilet, put myself together and turned around. Klugmann was heading to the sinks. I did too, averting my eyes while I scrubbed my hands with a surgeon's diligence. We didn't look at each other again till we were back out. His eyes seemed to flash with mischief, and an incisor snagged his lower lip as if he was holding back a laugh. "It isn't that I was crazy," I said. "It was ...."

"A performance?" He clapped me on the shoulder, pivoted on a leather sole and started up the corridor.

"Yeah," I said after him.

"Bravo!" he cried without turning, "bravo," and gathered momentum for the loftier matters that awaited him.

Author/s: 
James Wallenstein
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

James Wallenstein, who has a novel in need of a publisher, teaches writing at the New School, Pratt Institute, and Wesleyan University.

Only the Fertile Need Apply

Until recently, the interests of graduate students have largely been ignored by university “family friendly” initiatives designed to meet the needs of women on the tenure track who aspire to be mothers as well as scholars. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Stanford University announced its new Childbirth Policy for women graduate students with fanfare, nor that it was positively received by the national news media. What’s puzzling  is how little attention has been paid to the huge gap between Stanford’s aspiration and its accomplishment.

The rationale for the policy is exemplary: “Stanford University is committed to achieving a diverse graduate student body, and facilitating the participation of under-represented groups in all areas of research and graduate and postdoctoral training. To increase the number of women pursuing … advanced degrees … it is important to acknowledge that a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.”

Unfortunately, the policy itself --  which provides accommodation in the form of paid leave, extension of deadlines and reduced workload to graduate students “anticipating or experiencing a birth” -- sends an entirely different message.

While the phrase “anticipating or experiencing a birth” seems expansive enough to cover “anticipating” the birth of an adoptive child, that is not Stanford’s intention. Associate Dean for Graduate Policy Gail Mahood was brutally frank on this point: “The policy does not apply to women who adopt children.… Women can always put off adopting,” she told a reporter.

Apparently Stanford prefers grad students who create families “the old fashioned way,” leaving others to sink or swim without institutional support. So much for the message of inclusiveness and diversity! In creating this restrictive policy, Stanford seems to have lost sight of its original goal, confused means and ends, and conflated biology (childbirth) with social issues (family formation).    

Ordinarily, women become pregnant as a means to start a family, not to “experience childbirth.” Other ways to accomplish this goal are adoption, surrogacy and becoming a foster parent. Absent some as-yet-undisclosed study linking female fertility to academic talent, it seems odd that Stanford would decide that only fertile women able to carry a fetus to term deserve institutional support for their decision to start a family during graduate school.    

The privileging of birth mothers over adoptive mothers is as illogical as it is offensive to families who have struggled with infertility prior to adopting. Under the literal terms of this policy, whose avowed purpose is “to make sure that we retain in the academic pipeline women graduate students who become pregnant and give birth,” a graduate student who gives her child up for adoption immediately after birth could request accommodation, while the adoptive mother who cares for that newborn could not.   

Equally, if not more disturbing, is the policy’s failure to support graduate student couples who want to share the task of balancing work and family, thereby promoting a traditional heterosexual family structure that has proved detrimental to women’s achievement. Recognizing that “[t]aking care of an infant is time-consuming and sleep-depriving so advisors need to have realistic expectations about rates of progress on research,” the policy denies the same compassionate recognition to other graduate student caregivers who might be equally in need of help -- e.g., biological fathers, gay couples,  adoptive parents or biological mothers who used a surrogate to carry the fetus to term.   

Thus, the only graduate student families who will benefit from the childbirth accommodation policy are those who choose to conform to the traditional gender role model of mom stays home to bond with baby while dad goes to work. This patterning of gender stereotyped roles is unlikely to prove advantageous to the woman’s future career.  

One would have expected Stanford’s policymakers to heed the counsel of the late Chief Justice Rehnquist (a Stanford alumnus) on the importance of gender-neutral family leave benefits, in a 2003 case:

“Stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men. Because employers continued to regard the family as the woman’s domain, they often denied them similar accommodations or discouraged them from taking leave.  These mutually reinforcing stereotypes created a self-fulfilling cycle of discrimination that forced women to continue to assume the role of primary family caregiver, and fostered employers’ stereotypical views about women’s commitment to work and their value as employees.”

Finally, by excluding everyone but the birth mom from accommodation, the policy may even override the woman’s own preference in the matter: Stanford seems not to have envisioned the possibility that the birth parents might both be graduate students, and that a new mother-scientist at a critical research juncture might choose to return to her lab right away, if only the policy were flexible enough to accommodate her partner’s desire to stay home and tend to the newborn.

Stanford deserves some credit for being the second nationally prominent graduate school to attempt any accommodation for grad students who become parents. (MIT was the first.) But the progressive impulse  that spawned this “breakthrough” has been undermined by using “childbirth accommodation” as a proxy for easing the burden on new mothers. If the goal is truly to achieve diversity by increasing the number of women pursuing advanced degrees, surely a Class I research institution can craft a policy more likely to fulfill its intended purpose -- one not limited to the “June Cleavers” in its grad student population, but generous enough to encompass 21st century parenthood in all its diversity. 

Author/s: 
Charlotte Fishman
Author's email: 
editor@insidehighered.com

Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco lawyer known for her expertise in the areas of academic discrimination and gender stereotyping. She is Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.

Why We Were Arrested

Today most of those arrested at the April demonstration at New York University have their day in court. We though it an appropriate moment to explain why we participated.

Never before in its 91-year history have the officers of the American Association of University Professors heard the call to be arrested in the line of duty. But there we were -- Cary Nelson and Jane Buck, incoming and outgoing AAUP presidents and close friends -- on a New York street on April 27 waiting to be handcuffed and taken to a police station and booked. The AAUP, adding a professional to a basic human right, long ago joined the United Nations in recognizing that all employee groups have the right to choose for themselves whether to be represented collectively. It is not the responsibility of university administrators to decide what is best for their employees. The employees have the right to decide for themselves. NYU graduate employees have twice voted to affirm their decision to engage in collective bargaining.

The National Labor Relations Board appointed by Bill Clinton confirmed the first vote, and the NYU administration negotiated a contract with the union. Then, in a blatantly political move, George Bush's NLRB reversed itself and gave the university the option of withdrawing recognition of the
union. Although nothing compelled NYU to do so, it stopped negotiating with its employees. That much is unambiguous, and that alone would have been enough to put us on a New York street blocking traffic, but the crisis at hand was still broader.

The AAUP is concerned not only with the present but also with the future of higher education. We try to articulate principles and set precedents. And we are very much concerned with the precedent this New York struggle is setting. The NYU administration has recklessly ramped up the intensity of the conflict with its graduate students, most of whom had inadequate salaries and health care when the union drive began. So long as those conditions exist across the country, the movement to organize working graduate students will not disappear. But the expectations of what each side
can and will do to win have been dramatically increased by the NYU example.

University administrations resisting collective bargaining will now consider it normal and reasonable to retaliate against employees in ways the NLRB would consider flatly illegal in cases where it accepted jurisdiction. And graduate employees will have to counter with more widespread and
comprehensive nonviolent civil disobedience. Graduate employees who want some say in their salaries and working conditions will have to bring operations at institutions like NYU to a halt. That is the new and immensely regrettable future the NYU administration has made a reality.

So we sat down in the street north of Washington Square, faculty members from Delaware State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a last ditch effort to give the NYU administration a wake-up call. We would prefer a future of rational negotiation, a future characterized by the productive working partnerships graduate employee unions have established with universities across the country. We are concerned that NYU is calling forth a different future -- one of antagonism and opposition.

NYU quite possibly represents a turning point in the history of efforts to improve working conditions in higher education. Especially after nearly 30 years of a steadily growing national trend toward the increasing use of poorly paid contingent labor to do most undergraduate teaching -- a trend
in which higher education mirrors the now radical disparity between CEO salaries and the salaries of those on the shop floor -- NYU's effort to decisively disempower its more poorly paid teachers heralds a future of bitter labor conflict in the industry. While it was inspiring to stand beside the courageous students at the forefront of this struggle, it was sobering indeed to realize matters may now get much worse on many other campuses.

Author/s: 
Cary Nelson and Jane Buck
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Cary Nelson is president-elect and Jane Buck is president of the American Association of University Professors.

Grad School: A Primer

A is for Anxiety. Who are you, Derrida?

B is for the Bore you are, to all but Ma and Pa.

C is for the Coin you drop on Copies you deface,

D for the Despair you feel, producing at this pace.

E is for the Energy you wasted all these years,

F for Fraud, for Failure, Fake, whatever, these are tears.

G is for the Game you play, imagining you'll finish,

H for Harry Potter. You fancy games of Quiddich.

I's for Isolation, you're alone in this you know?

J for all the Joy you'll feel in this Hell when it snows.

K is for the grade you'd give, to see that student sob,

L for Lucky, like you'll be, to ever Land a job.

M is for the Money you'd be rolling in by now,

N for all the Notes you lost, although you're not sure how.

O is for the wailing, which continues in your sleep,

P for all the Pressure, which you handle [BLEEP] [BLEEP] [BLEEP].

Q is for the Questions, all the dumb ones that you ask,

R for the Revisions, Resubmissions in your past.*

T is for the Time spent, reading this instead of that,

U for Unproductive, like the time spent with your cat.

V is for the Virtues you can always cultivate,

When you have a real life. At some undetermined date.

X is for the ones you love, but avoid for your cause,

Y for you, you you you you, and working without pause.

Z is for the Žižek, he's really rad, I hear,

And now you know, Grad ABCs, who here wants more beer?

* S is for the Shit you inevitably leave out, or maybe for how stupid, you feel foot firm in mouth.

Author/s: 
Scott Eric Kaufman
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

 

Old Boy Networked

There is no way around it: I am a member of the Old Boy Network. I attended an elite private liberal arts college, went on to earn my Ph.D. from a famous university and wrote my dissertation with an even famouser professor. And there is no doubt about it: Membership has its privileges. I am now part of a network of colleagues, mentors and classmates-turned-professors whom I will keep in touch with for the rest of my career.

Or at least I thought I was, until one day I woke up and found that I couldn't get on to JSTOR with my old grad student password.

And not just JSTOR. EbscoHost, Academic Search Premier, Chadwyck PAO -- all were suddenly closed to me. My alma mater had finally gotten its act together, realized that I was no longer a graduate student there, and withheld from my Web browser its Magic Fulltext Access Cookie.

Now lest my earlier mention of the old boy network seem smug, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with leaving The Big Time for some more "provincial" institution. Indeed, some of us would argue that this is an improvement. For instance, you might actually get to teach someone something instead of neurotically obsessing about whether your work is going to transform your discipline more than the guy with the NSF grant in the office down the hall. But no matter how disenchanted you are with the elitism of old boy academic politics, there is no questioning the fact that elite research universities have resources that state schools can only  dream of. And this led me to wonder what exactly happens to the "old boy network" once it becomes, well, networked?

Back in the old days (so I am told) there were a variety of methods that professors used to keep in touch: telephone calls, mailing each other offprints of their articles, and of course recreating the collective effervescence of grad school by attending conferences where they all, temporarily, come under one roof again just like they did "back in grad school."

Technology has not changed much of how this works. There are conferences where we revert to type and talk, think, and drink with old friends just like we did in graduate school. We still call each other on the phone. Sure, the phones may not be plugged into the wall anymore, but the idea is still the same. Ditto with the demise of the genteel tradition of offprints and correspondence -- these days we are more likely to send a PDF of our work to our colleagues or just send them an e-mail. We can even check our old department's Web site and see what our professors have been publishing lately.

What I find interesting is that there are many technologies that allow old boys to network that they really haven't taken up. We don't really keep blogs, for instance. I mean sure, there are academic blogs. But the inherent publicness of this form means that our blogs tend to either be relentlessly careerist demonstrations of our knowledge of breaking news in the field, or else anonymous screeds about how much we hate our students. What we don't have is the sort of informal blogs filled with the "ohmygodmycatdidsomethingSOCUTE" kind of sentiment that -- admit it -- is typical of our correspondence with our friends and colleagues.

Social networking sites haven't -- to my knowledge -- taken off. I can use CiteULIke, del.icio.us, Friendster, FaceBook, MySpace, diigo, and so forth with the best of them. And sure, occasionally I'll check to see what my friends have added to their CiteULike bookmarks. But for better or worse, these sorts of tools haven't seemed to become a place where my real-life social networks come to get mediated.

The exception to this rule seems to be the e-mail listserv. Academics love listservs. They carve out exactly the right space between public and private that we need, and they use pre-existing technology that we understand. In the case of the lists that I subscribe to at least, there is plenty of proper academic discussion mixed in with decent helpings of gossip and joking.

It is not surprising, then, that since I have left graduate school and started as a professor I have come to value the way that the Internet keeps me connected to my alma mater through mailing lists. I still receive announcements about upcoming talks at my university and boy do I ever consider this to be a privilege. It keeps me in touch with who is doing what in my field and alerts me to new professors whose work I had not heard of before. There is no better way to vet the quality of a
professor's work than to know that they have been invited to speak Someplace Important by faculty who not only share your tastes, but have actually had a hand in making them.

I also am on my old department lists for dissertation proposals and defenses, which keeps me informed of what graduate students in my (former) department are working on. Hell, I'm even on the mailing list to receive information about job openings, despite the fact that I already have a job. A major part of what it means to be an alum of my program (or any program, I reckon) is that you are now plugged into e-mail lists which lend a strange sort of cachet. Never mind the endless requests for cat sitters and sublettors that I delete -- I never want to be dropped from my department's student mailing list.

There is also the Magic Fulltext Access Cookie. This is a big deal. The publishing industry is bleeding the academy white. Public universities like mine cannot afford to keep up with the cost of getting access to electronic journals. And in their attempts to find the money to keep at least some subscriptions, they often end up cutting paper journals.

Now it is true that my current institution has access to specialist journals that my alma mater does not. This is mostly because of our strong research focus in the Asia-Pacific. But overall there is no question that having access to my alma mater's electronic subscriptions was an enormous convenience. And more than that -- being able to use their cookie to access back issues of Cultural Anthropology Methods filled me with a deep and abiding sense that I was still loved and that they would keep my room just the way I left it even though I was now on the tenure track.

It seems clear to me that there is an opportunity in here somewhere for alumni associations to help keep their library budgets afloat by offering some sort of alumni rate for full-text subscriptions. I know that many colleges have some sort of deal for offering continued e-mail services to alumni. Could this be expanded to include Web space or other access to other services like RefWorks subscriptions? It may be that I overestimate exactly how many people would be interested, but one thing is certain -- this is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I think about getting my old boy
network network.

This also raises the issue of more formal alumni relations. I know that as a graduate student I have a different relationship to my alma mater than undergrads do, but the quarterly e-mails I receive from the dean of my former college about how much he needs my money strike me as flat-footed. I already gave them my money, and as far as I am concerned they can for more when I have paid off my student loans, thank you very much.

But more importantly: I am already creating and participating in my own digital alumni network. Like the other, analog one, it is growing organically out of my grad school experience in ways that no one, I think, really expected. Whether or not we will all start our own MySpace group is something that is still very much up in the air. But one thing is certain -- if my alma mater really wanted to show it still loved me, it would give me that magic cookie back.

Author/s: 
Alex Golub
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.

From Grub Street to the Ivory Tower (and Back)

Perhaps you should sit down before reading the next sentence, for it may shock you: Not everyone who begins the Ph.D. program in English -- or finishes it for that matter -- gets a job in academe. (No, seriously, there have been studies about this and everything.) In spite of the hard realities, it can be difficult for graduate students to imagine any alternative to that desired career path. But it seems like a judicious and responsible thing for graduate programs to bring up some of the alternatives, at least.

That’s what the Carnegie Mellon University Literary and Cultural Studies Colloquium did on Monday by hosting a program on higher education journalism. I spoke at it, alongside Liz McMillen, deputy editor of The Chronicle Review. The invitation was proffered a few months ago by Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon. It was an honor just to be asked. But as the date drew near, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for the event. It felt like any lessons to be drawn from my career would tend to take the form: “Well, I tried doing X, and that didn’t work. So don’t do X.”

Williams responded to my panicky e-mail expressing trepidation by explaining -- with patience, and sensibly enough -- what students really needed from the discussions. For one thing, it would be good for them to have some direct contact with people who cover university life and academic publishing for the mass media. They could hear about the routines, including the familiar problems, that go with doing such work. Grand statements or life lessons would count less than the experience of seeing, and asking questions of, someone who is involved with publishing on a day-to-day basis. Graduate students could take away from it a sense of this being a real option, not something undefined and mysterious.

Actually I still find the whole thing kind of mysterious myself, even at this late date. But not to worry: The students were sharp, and the discussion seldom flagged for very long. They asked good questions, many of which concerned the various changes wrought by the growing importance of digital media.

I said they were good questions, not that any brilliant answers sprang to mind. The best way of responding is probably to speak from personal experience -- while also being explicit about how much uncertainty is involved. Aspects of magazine and newspaper publication that took shape over the course of three centuries suddenly began changing, in a big way, over the past five. It's hard to talk about this without indulging in either apocalyptic or wishful thinking. Given the pace of recent changes, it is difficult to think about what things will be like in 2 years, let alone 5 or 10.

Is there an upside to this? To some degree, yes, for people in their 20s, anyway. Uncertainty means plasticity. When familiar patterns aren’t in place anymore, it’s not just possible to try something new, it's an imperative to do so. And the margin for creativity is greater among people who can take the qualities and the potentials of the new media for granted, as a given.

That doesn’t mean that the printed page will disappear. On the contrary, in conversations with several young writers, editors, and academics over the past year, I have noticed that they often show a strong interest in publishing -- as that word was understood before everything started to change. They sound intrigued by the prospect of creating books or journals that will be well-designed objects. They like the idea of the text existing as an artifact in the nondigital world.

The first time I listened to this fascination with publishing expressed, I considered it was just a personal interest of the speaker. But after hearing more or less the same thought articulated by half a dozen people (none of whom known each other, by the way), I have the impression something more is involved. It is a truism that young people consume a great deal of material online -- text included. But they also recognize that the experience of encountering words on the page is quite distinct from that of seeing them on a screen. Not better, necessarily; not worse; just different.

Some of the discussion I heard at Carnegie Mellon reinforced that impression. And a few of the students there already possess more qualifications for moving into the worlds of journalism or publishing than they perhaps realize – particularly since some of them have had the chance to work on a major literary and theoretical journal, The Minnesota Review.

Now, I have been reading MR since the early 1980s --  well before Jeffrey Williams took over as editor –  and in all that time it has never actually been based in the state of Minnesota. (Go figure.) The journal is probably best known for its continuing series of thoughtful and extensive interviews with literary scholars, a selection of which appears in the volume  Critics at Work (New York University Press, 2004).

MR’s announced schedule of two issues per year has often been honored only in the breach. There have been quite a few double issues, plus at least one triple issue. But thanks largely to the skill and effort of the graduate students involved in its production, the journal is becoming regular. Two issues came out in 2006, and two more are on track for this year. The term “deadline” now has some force behind it, as would-be contributors are learning.

It sounds like they are also being initiated into the deepest mystery of all: the art of editing prose. (Evidently this secret is kept from most academics.) One of his students told me that Williams once demonstrated how the 250-word opening paragraph of a seminar paper could be reduced to 75 words without any loss of meaning. A valuable lesson. I can think of several university presses that would benefit from hiring that student immediately.

Returning from Andrew Carnegie’s university to my hovel here on Grub Street, I’m reminded of an interesting development from an earlier story about a graduate student finding his way into the world of publishing.

Back in August 2005, "Intellectual Affairs" reported on Alfredo Perez, who at the time was a doctoral candidate in political theory at the New School. He had created an invaluable site called Political Theory Daily Review – an aggregation of links to recent articles and conference papers, along with tips about chapters of new books you could download from university presses. It's an intellectual omnivore’s smorgasbord.

Perez’s gift for finding smart, strange, and/or esoteric material online was phenomenal -- no doubt about it. But what has been in question, both for PTDR’s admirers and for Perez himself, was whether he could continue to keep the site running while keeping body and soul together.

Well, last year he entered discussion with a few print-based publications whose editors were interested in working PTDR into their “brand” (or vice versa). By early fall, he passed along some news that I had to keep quiet until the details were worked out. Today the Political Theory Daily Review site bears a small logo saying “sponsored by Bookforum.

The latter publication (an offshoot of "Artforum" magazine) was mentioned yesterday by The Wall Street Journal as a happy exception to the tendency of review publications to lose ad revenue and shrink in size. Over the past few years, Bookforum has emerged as one of the most prominent critical journals in the United States, and one of the few showing a serious commitment to covering university-press titles regularly and in depth. Eric Banks, its editor, told me that acquiring PTDR is an important part of relaunching the magazine’s online presence – which he sees, in turn, as a prerequisite for the longer-term goal of increasing both the size and the circulation of the print edition.

For now, PTDR and Bookforum exist as separate entities online, but they will be merged in the near future. The rather minimalist design (to put it nicely) of PTDR will be replaced with something easier on the eyes.

That’s nice, of course, but the really good news is that Alfredo Perez will be able to continue exercising his distinctive knack. He's turned it into a job. The loss of one graduate student to the field of political theory is a gain to civilization, more broadly conceived.
 
Finally, a bulletin from the world of micro-media.... A few weeks ago, I started a blog called Quick Study, which is hosted by ArtsJournal.com. The latter is a well-established site with a sizable audience among people concerned with the fine arts. Most of the other folks blogging there are refined aesthetes who can identify which movement a passage from a Sibelius symphony occurs in, after hearing just three notes.

So my blog probably looks like a Hell’s Angels' clubhouse opening in a nice neighborhood. Quick Study is prone to some of the format's vices -- miscellany, impulsiveness, a certain amount of "well I thought this was interesting so here it is." It's a place where I can put up a notice about a bootleg translation of Alain Badiou’s writings on the philosophy of mathematics ... or discuss Maoism in Georgia during the 1970s....or provide a YouTube clip of the band X Ray Spex performing “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

In any case, the site has an RSS feed, and visitors are certainly welcome.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Don't Be Afraid of Committees

People often ask me why I serve on so many committees. I usually tell them a story about my grandfather. When I was a young child, I often saw him in a T-shirt that read, “Don’t ask me, I’m not on a committee.” Beneath this motto was a trail of enigmatic paw prints. To my young eyes, the paw prints seemed to indicate a level of playfulness and mischief, but also perhaps an element of dehumanization. Even before I knew what a committee was, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I would be on a committee.

For most of my life, this thought remained dormant. All that changed, however, when I finished my M.A. at Chicago Theological Seminary, having submitted a translation and commentary on an essay Derrida added to the French edition of The Gift of Death, and made the decision to stay for my Ph.D. as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the connotations that a “seminary” calls to mind, my motive in staying there was the intellectual freedom provided by the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, which would allow me to pursue my interest in contemporary continental philosophy and to seek out resources in the Christian tradition that would resonate with the interest in St. Paul shown by Badiou, Agamben, and others. (My interest has since shifted somewhat, but of course that is one of the benefits of intellectual freedom.)

Having made a significant commitment to the institution, I decided that I would become more involved. The easiest way to do that seemed to be to volunteer as a student representative to Academic Council. I was one of several student representatives, and though there was a place on the agenda for us to bring up matters of student concern, we most often had very little to contribute. I attended very faithfully, though, as a way of getting a feel for how faculty self-governance works in an independent seminary.

The following fall I signed up for a second term on Academic Council. Starting the previous spring and continuing into the fall, there was considerable controversy at the seminary about the decision to convert student housing into a commercial rental property, and I worked with some of my fellow students to attempt to put together an “open letter” from the student representatives to the Academic Council and the leaders of student groups to the Board of Trustees, expressing our concern about the situation. Due to my involvement, the dean named me as one of two student representatives to Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.

My service on Academic Council also made me eligible to serve on the search committee for an open faculty position in New Testament. That same year, I began a two-year term as the seminary’s student liaison to the American Academy of Religion, which required submitting various reports and -- of course -- serving on a committee at the national meeting, which that year largely served as an opportunity for us to ask a high-ranking administrator in the academy questions about the organization and its future.

As I reflect on the events of the last year, then, one thing seems pretty obvious: I’ve served on a lot of committees. Now that I am making the transition toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation, I am planning on retiring from student leadership (with the exception of serving the remainder of my term as student liaison), and this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done in the course of serving on these committees. First, I’ve become acquainted with some of the routine tasks of faculty self-governance and with the role of the board of trustees. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be involved -- the seminary was in the process of adopting a new strategic plan and going through its periodic re-accreditation. I’ve also served my primary professional organization at the national level and seen a faculty search from the inside. The search committee in particular was truly a great opportunity for me. I got to look through applicants’ files, giving me a chance to see what kinds of qualifications applicants for a competitive position generally have, to assess what seemed to be effective cover letters, and to see what kinds of things recommenders say. Beyond that, I was able to sit in on a few informal interviews with our most promising candidates at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.

All of this was very valuable experience, and although it sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Much of the actual decision-making, for both the faculty and the board, took place in the closed executive sessions. Thus the responsibilities of students, and so also the expectations of outside preparation work, were limited: Our primary role was to allow student voices to be involved in the conversation. Even at the peak of my involvement, I was averaging under two hours a week, and most of the time it was considerably less. Since I was in my coursework stage, I was normally on campus anyway on the days when the committees met.

Several of my fellow student representatives complained that Academic Council seemed to be a waste of time because we never “did” anything, but I came to view it as a kind of informal apprenticeship, somewhat similar to the two teaching assistantships that I held that same year. Unlike at some institutions, where the TA is expected basically to teach the entire class, I served as a true assistant, taking care of grading and other clerical tasks and also attending all the class sessions. At first, I viewed the class sessions as a boring ordeal, but gradually my perspective changed and I realized that it was a great opportunity to shift my focus away from the course content and observe the professor’s teaching style -- what works, what doesn’t, what I’d want to adopt, what I’d do differently.

In addition to providing a service to the professor, then, the teaching assistantship helped me to shift gradually from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher. Most grad students are aware of the need for this process, but few seem to be very conscious of the fact that teaching and research are not the entirety of what an academic does -- the nuts and bolts of administration are a major factor as well. Certainly few pursue an academic career because they want to do committee work, but it is an integral part of what it means to be part of a self-governing faculty. Taking the opportunity to participate, by necessity largely as an observer, in the various administrative processes was a very helpful way of getting a realistic view of what the professional life of an academic is really like.

A big part of that for me was simply observing how much time faculty had to devote to meetings and to preparing for them, particularly during the re-accreditation process. Perhaps more important, though, was the kind of informal “ethnography” of committees that I developed over time -- the politics of what is said and what remains unsaid, the role of the moderator in keeping the meeting moving and setting the tone, and a whole variety of other factors that an observer is able to pick up on in a way that someone suddenly thrown into the midst as a more active participant might not be able to.

Above all, I became convinced that patience and a sense of humor are the most important qualities to have in committee work. Patience allows one to see the value in the function of periodic meetings as a way of checking in and making sure that even matters that might be taken for granted are explicitly addressed -- that is, to appreciate the role of regular committees as helping to make sure that things continue to function smoothly and the way that not having to “do” anything can often be a positive sign. A sense of humor works to help maintain that level of patience by keeping what can easily become a tedious process from becoming too burdensome.

For my part, I often found humor in observing the small details of what was going on -- the way that certain seemingly simple decisions could be indefinitely deferred, the people who seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voice and the people who made it their goal to say as little as possible in each meeting, the occasional surreptitious piece of reading material smuggled into the meeting. Much of the time, these small observations served only as an occasion to chuckle to myself, but on rare occasions, I have experienced moments that approach the sublime.

The best such moment came in the course of the meeting of the student liaisons at the AAR. The administrator who had come to our meeting was discussing concerns about how certain institutions were conducting their interview processes, including meeting in inappropriate settings, asking inappropriate questions (particularly about sexual orientation), and basically engaging in a wide panoply of inappropriate behaviors. He assured us all that the AAR was doing everything possible to crack down on such behavior among the users of its job listing service, and speaking on behalf of the AAR more generally, he said, “We are committed to being appropriate.”

“We are committed to being appropriate” -- it is a line I have treasured in my heart and meditated upon ever since. Perhaps I should make a T-shirt.

Author/s: 
Adam Kotsko
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Adam Kotsko is a PhD student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. His blog is An und für sich (http://itself.wordpress.com).

On Drivel

I recently received a draft of one of my dissertation chapters back from my advisor. As always, he provided copious comments -- advice on improving the coherence of my argument, smoothing out some ungainly syntax, and choosing more appropriate words. My advisor is scrupulous, perhaps excessively so. I have learned a great deal about how to think and write from his comments.

But my advisor is also a tough reader, and I find that after all these years of being a student I am still learning how to take criticism. To wit: in my recent draft, written in bold, red ink is one word that succinctly represents what he thinks of the passage -- “drivel.” I quickly forgot all of the good things he had said about my argument as I focused on this one word, brutally penned in the margin. My incisive points, my elegantly constructed sentences, all reduced to a one-word judgment.

I knew that drivel meant nonsense, but shame prompted me to consult a dictionary. I learned that its meaning was a metaphorical extension of its more literal definition: to let saliva dribble from the mouth. Nothing more vividly represents brazen stupidity than the image of someone drooling. There is something intrinsically repulsive about the act of drooling and as I thought about how that metaphor might apply to my writing, I literally gave a small shudder. Ouch! Was my prose the equivalent of drivel? Analogous to an unconscious trickle of spit?

Yes. My advisor was right. What I had written was drivel. The passage didn’t meaningfully contribute to the argument. In fact, it didn’t seem to be saying much of anything. When I looked at the passage more closely, I saw that it was largely comprised of a loosely stitched together sequence of conventional phrases: “it is the fact that,” “of course,” “indeed, he goes on to argue,” and “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” It was the utter conventionality of the writing that made it drivel. The passage represented writing on auto-pilot, requiring little to no consciousness on my part. I might as well have been slobbering onto the page. Somewhere behind all the nonsense, I had an idea, but what it was I could not say. Responding to the simple, severe remark felt something like going through the stages of grief. I moved from denial (“surely it’s not that bad”) through anger (“what nerve!”) and toward acceptance (“yup, it’s bad”).

I thought about this experience in the context of my own work. I teach writing and literature at Salt Lake Community College, and every semester I comment on student papers. I identify flaws in their reasoning, give advice on style and punctuation, and even point out when they’ve made an original point or turned a neat phrase. I have never written the word drivel in the margin of one of my student’s papers, but I have been tempted to do so on more than one occasion. I believe almost every writing teacher has felt the impulse to heap ferocious criticism on students. Those who haven’t are far more saintly than I.

I suppose after I achieved acceptance came a feeling of admiration. By God, I wish I had the guts to write the word drivel in the margin of a student paper! Of course, I don’t include these temptations in the class of my finer instincts. The temptation is more on par, I think, with the cheap thrill I get when an action-hero utters a powerful one-liner. Sometimes I just want to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing teachers. But I am not Arnold, nor was meant to be.

The experience prompted me to entertain some more serious lessons about how my experience as a graduate student may translate into my work as a teacher. As a teacher of writing, it’s good to be put in the position of student writer, to experience all of the fear, anxiety, and hopefulness that goes into producing a piece of writing that will be judged by an authority figure. It is both humbling and instructive to be told that you are wanting, that what you’ve produced isn’t up to par. Being both a student and a teacher has made me more sympathetic to my students. I know what it feels like to be criticized and I am more likely to consider the consequences of harsh feedback. In other words, it’s a way of inoculating myself against my adolescent, writing-teacher-as-action-hero fantasies. My experience speaks to the benefit of occasionally subjecting ourselves to the rituals of performance and assessment that we ask our students to perform. We do this, of course, with conferences and papers. Becoming an active participant in disciplinary conversations not only helps me build on my knowledge in the field, it makes me feel like a student all over again.

Yet I am reminded that criticism is a form of praise. My advisor cares enough to call my writing drivel when he sees it, not because he thinks I’m stupid but rather because he believes I am capable of producing something better than drivel. I did not ultimately wilt at the word. I do not believe that I possess a special inner strength that makes me uniquely capable of withstanding severe criticism. Perhaps, then, we are not harsh enough with our students, that in our well-meaning effort to encourage them we end by being less than honest with them.

But maybe there are no life lessons to be drawn from drivel. Drivel is irredeemable. One can’t turn around and reclaim drivel. Never, we can hope, will there be an endowed chair of Drivel Studies. And I don’t believe that drivel is one of those terms that one can, with a bit of vernacular judo, turn on its head. Can I imagine my son saying in his teenage years, “That’s so drivel! It’s wicked drivel!”

There is finally no way around drivel. I find that I am refreshed by the honesty of the term. It reminds me of the uncomfortable fact that my interaction with students will always be structured around criticism, though we sometimes attempt to disguise this basic fact. I think students sometimes understand this better than we do.

Author/s: 
Jason Pickavance
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Jason Pickavance is an assistant professor of English at Salt Lake Community College and a graduate student in American studies at the University of Utah. Despite his occasional lapses into drivel, he plans on defending his dissertation this year.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Graduate students
Back to Top