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Wrap-Up Week: Summer Reading for Grad Students

Beach reads for thinking about teaching and learning.

June 14, 2016

Anne Guarnera is a doctoral candidate in Spanish at the University of Virginia. She is trying to revive her former Twitter presence as @aguarnera and can also be found at her website.


Whether you ended the semester triumphantly, or had to drag yourself across the finish line by your knuckles, congratulations on completing another semester of graduate school!

If you’re like most of us, you’ve likely already put some thought into your writing and research goals for the summer, but how about some reading goals? If you are looking for some inspiring reads to add to your bookshelf, I’d like to offer these suggestions of newish and classic volumes on teaching and learning as part of our Summer Wrap-Up.

If you want to learn how to learn (and teach) better:

Try reading: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Man, do I wish that I had had this book when I was studying for comps! Published in 2014, Make it Stick provides both a fascinating synthesis of the latest research on how the human brain learns as well as strategies for incorporating this information into your teaching methods. The first seven chapters debunk misguided definitions of “learning” and explain why many of the study strategies that we commonly use — cramming, incessant highlighting, epic flashcard sessions — simply don’t work. While an accessible review of basic cognitive psychology, Make it Stick proves itself relevant to a broad audience by including many suggestions that readers can instantly put into practice. Above all, the final chapter of the book is highly useful: it summarizes the earlier materials and provides application points to teachers, learners, and corporate trainers. You might consider assigning a short excerpt from this chapter to your students as summer reading material, then conducting a discussion about it on the first day of class, as a way of encouraging them to deliberately plan their study strategies for the semester.

If you’re designing a course for the first time:

Try reading: What the Best College Teachers Do and On Course

These two volumes naturally complement each other. Ken Bain’s book, What the Best College Teachers Do, revolutionized thinking in higher ed when it was released in 2004 by presenting research on how the best college professors creatively structure their courses and class activities to push students to not only capture key concepts and skills, but internalize them in a way that has a lifelong effect on their learning. One key strategy that many of these teachers use is to structure their courses around a “big question,” such as “Why are some people poor and other people rich?" or “Can people improve their basic intelligence?" This forces students to see the greater purpose of the course material and contextualize their learning within a broader disciplinary structure. If you have time to read nothing else this summer, consider reading the fifth chapter of Bain’s book. His focus on the “big question” completely transformed my own teaching, and is relevant whether you are designing your own course from scratch or seeking to add meaning and depth to your teaching of a departmental requirement.

On Course is a more practical guide to college teaching; it is designed as a week-by-week outline of a semester-long class (though I suggest that you read the entire thing before beginning the semester). In each chapter, Lang addresses such critical topics as syllabus design, building a productive classroom community, teaching methods from lecture to discussion, supporting students in their academic and personal lives, academic integrity, and ending a course well. On Course was published in 2010 and remains a great overview of the major issues that most college teachers face in a typical semester. Even if you’re experienced in the classroom, you may appreciate reading it as a review of your current methods.

If you’re rethinking your work-life balance:

Try reading: The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Taking principles from the Slow Food movement and applying them to the university, the authors of this brand-new volume (released March 2016) suggest an alternative to the corporatized mindset and practices that characterize much of higher education today. Graduate students reading this may feel somewhat excluded by the book’s more privileged premise—after all, it’s easy to reject the “publish-or-perish” mindset when you actually have a publication record and tenure to stand on—but The Slow Professor is nevertheless worth a read. It advises its readers on how to evaluate and work according to their own priorities in the areas of teaching, research, and service, and therefore provides a centering corrective for those of us who feel pulled in too many directions at once. It also recovers an aspect of the intellectual life that too many of us forget in the drudgery of classes, quals, and dissertations—the joy of our work. I especially appreciated the authors’ chapter on how to pursue a “pedagogy of pleasure” and am looking forward to thinking more about that idea as I move forward in my own teaching career and hope to teach a literature course next year.

If you need a good laugh after a tough semester (or just need a laugh):

Try reading: Dear Committee Members

Go! Download it onto your Kindle now! This book was named a Best Book of the Year in 2014 by both NPR and the Boston Globe and anyone who has ever written a recommendation letter (especially, perhaps, one that was not wholly merited) will appreciate its wry sense of humor. An epistolary novel of academic life, the hilarious letters of recommendation that comprise the narrative of Dear Committee Members offer serious comic relief for those wearied by the politics and mundanity of academe. There’s a critique in there too, but it’s not heavy-handed. I bought this book as a Christmas present for myself last year and finished it (with a dissertation and a toddler) in less than 24 hours. It’s that good.

Have you recently read something on teaching and learning that you would like to recommend to the GradHacker community? Leave your suggestions here!

[Image from Flickr user jurek d and used under Creative Commons license]



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