Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hosting a Writing Group?

[Check out the UPDATE, below]

A special note out there for academic writers in the Humanities:

I'm thinking of hosting a once-a-week writing group here on the blog, based on the idea of a dissertation writing group. The idea, just as a starting place (with possible expansions) would be to check in once a week and discuss how we're progressing towards medium-term goals, which we could set per-semester -summer. These posts (maybe Fridays?) would essentially become a writing-focused open thread for people who commit to participating for any given work period.

It wouldn't be a true writing group, because we wouldn't be sharing our actual writing (though that could change, if we decided it ought to). But it might be a way for us -- especially those of us who are lone-whatevers in our departments, and especially those of us at teaching-focused institutions -- to get back to thinking of writing as something we do, and even something that's vaguely fun.

Yes, we're heading into silly season. But we also have a summer coming up so we could get a real running start at this: Plan now; start (say) June 1.

Any interest?

UPDATE: Okay, so Another Damned Medievalist and I are hatching a plan to co-host this little venture. Tentatively, the first "term" is set for the 12-week period for May 27 - August 12. We will alternate blogs for hosting the group's Friday meetings. May 27 will likely be given over to introducing yourselves and your 12-week projects, so be thinking about that.

More details forthcoming after ADM & I get a chance to hatch our plans at the 'zoo.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bloggers go to the 'zoo

Just wondering: if anyone's organizing a blogger meetup at Kalamazoo yet?

UPDATE: Another Damned Medievalist has totally got it covered, here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Nice Teaching Moment

I've been teaching our undergraduate research methods course this year. It is grueling and frustrating, for reasons that anyone who has taught a course like this in any discipline will know.

And today, they brought in their paper drafts for peer review. As I flipped through them while deciding who would get which couple of papers to review, I noted that (with one exception) they had all followed the instructions. They were all complete papers, with footnotes and bibliography. They had all submitted an electronic version as well. And when I broke them up into their peer review groups for them to introduce their papers to the people who would be reviewing them, I heard lots of excited conversation about their own topics. I heard one student telling another about a great source that she could add to her paper that she hadn't previously known about. And when I told them that, even though they still had a major revision and a presentation ahead of them, the hardest part was over, and they should be proud of themselves, there were nods and smiles.

This, from a group of students who, in our individual conferences two weeks ago, were by and large still finding their way.

There are likely to be bumps in the road once I start reading them, but that can wait until later. Tonight, I'm going to focus on the fact that my students got to leave class tonight with a real sense of accomplishment, and I'll go to bed happy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Curse you, Blargistan!

...for having no fewer than three holidays (national or regional) in the month that I can come research. And for having them all fall mid-week this year.

On the other hand: this may force me to actually take a few days off and enjoy my time in Blargistan, which really is a beautiful place when you step outside the archives.

UPDATE: okay, so I looked at the calendar wrong. There are only two holidays, and only one falls mid-week. And the good news is that this has forced me to take some time off. I'll be spending the days in question (and the weekends attached to them) hanging out with friends. And those of you who know me (or who have been reading this blog long enough) know that enforced relaxation is a very good thing for me.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Presenting in Blarg

Ain't that just the way? Finish one presentation (/book/semester), and you've just got to start the next one.

But this one's different: This one is to be delivered in early June at one of the oldest universities in the country of Blargistan. In Blarg.**

In Blargistan, they know how to build a university.
(central heating = optional; beauty = essential)

I've "presented" at one conference in Blargistan before, but the papers were precirculated, and I just had to give a 10-minute précis. This one is a guest lecture for a university class (two classes, actually: I'm playing a double-header). It's on the book, so I know the material, which is good. I've been told it should be fairly casual (as lectures are), and "only" about 40 minutes long.


I'm approaching the thing differently than I did the last one. Last time, I straight-up translated the most intriguing chapter of my book MS (still in progress at the time), then submitted it to a native speaker of Blarg for (numerous) corrections. But part of the problem was that academic writing tends to be dense and formal and use a lot of big words -- in other words, translating my own work stretches my knowledge of Blarg past its natural limits.

This time, I'm doing something different: I'm just writing off the top of my head (and with occasional glances at the book), making reference to a dictionary only in dire cases. If I know a simple way to express a complex concept, I'm going to use it. I'll submit it to the same friend for corrections, but I have a feeling that what I come up with will be less full of errors, and I'll have fewer problems reading it.***

Anyone else have foreign-language conference paper/guest lecture experience you want to share?

**My new name for my research country and its language, inaugurated with little fanfare on this post.

***And before anyone asks: No, I will not be attempting to vamp for 40 minutes in a language that I didn't start to learn until age 24 -- nay, not even for material I know well. Yes, it will be less engaging. But the risk of freezing up or being nearly incomprehensible is just too high.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Best Grad School Memory

Oh, I've been such a downer. Seriously.

So here, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite grad school memories. Technically, it didn't take place "in" grad school, but it did happen (frequently) during those years, and it involved a fellow grad student.

No, not that.

It was grocery shopping.

When I was in grad school, a major part of “fun outings” for my best friend and I would be our weekly grocery shopping trip. The joint trips started out, I think, because I didn't have a car and she did. And we both needed to eat at least now and then. And because taking classes & TA duties took up our days, these trips usually happened late at night, around 9 or 10. We started out at Big Discount Grocery, but eventually upscaled now and then to Target (which had a big grocery section in Collegeville). And since we couldn’t afford many other kinds of outings, it was a way to get out of the apartment and spend some time together, all while accomplishing a necessary errand. But the fact that we always went down every damn aisle sort of tells you that these were not just functional errand trips.

I should mention here that my friend and I were (and often continue to be) complete goofballs. So these shopping trips included:
  • running jokes that were funny only to us
  • contests at the checkout to see who could think of a historical event closest to the date represented by the four-digit number on her final checkout receipt. Rules allowed us to substitute a "1" for the first digit or drop it altogether. (My friend tended to win this one)
  • a seasonal improvisational joust where, at the holidays, we would make up songs about the products we were buying, set to Christmas carols, trying to trade off lines back and forth without a pause. The lyrics had to be product-relevant, have internal logic, as well as rhyme and scan properly. (This one was my forté.)
  • a mutual prank where we tried to sneak highly improbable products into the other's shopping cart to see if the other would get all the way to checkout before noticing.
  • and once, during the Olympics: my friend did several cartwheels in the aisle (she may have even yelled "And she sticks the landing!", but my memory on that part of it is fuzzy), which was fortunately empty at around 10 p.m.
That's my best grad school memory.

Your turn.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Grades in Grad School

[UPDATE 12/2015: This still remains my all-time most-visited post. So if you're here for the first time, whether to have your fears assuaged, confirmed, or even to hate-read, I encourage you to read the comments thread as well. My commenters are not all in agreement with me, and many of them make good counter-arguments, or at least do a lot to nuance what I said in my own opening remarks. And, as always, YMMV.] 

"I would like to know more about why anything less than an A- is disaster. I am a first-year MA student in English studies at a small, regional public university, and I made one B last semester(we do not have the +/- grading system). Does this mean I'm being gently told to give up?"
The above came from a recent comment on an old post. And this is one of those questions that I probably really shouldn't answer, because those kind of answers tend to result in lots of my readers telling me I'm wrong, either in content, or in spirit. I hate that.

But hey, it's a legitimate question. And it's one of those things that it never hurts to know. So I'll answer it, with the caveat that it's based on my experience, and so Your Mileage May Vary: If you're in a program not in the U.S., your experience will likely be different. If you are in a program not in the humanities, your experience may be different. Hells, your experience may differ just because experiences tend to do that. I'm just telling you what I saw in my own mid-tier Ph.D. institution, and what I've heard from other people from other Ph.D. programs in my field. Here goes: 

My first semester in grad school, my M.A. advisor laid it out for to me: "If you get a B in a grad school class, you should ask the professor whether you should consider dropping out of the program. If you get a C, don't bother asking."

That sounds harsh, even to my mean-professor ears. But it had the virtue of being an unambiguous and unvarnished introduction to the new reality: in grad school, anything less than demonstrable excellence was not going to cut it.

If you're aiming for a terminal M.A., a couple of B's aren't going to kill you. But a B can hurt your chances of getting into a Ph.D. program, where faculty reviewing files have enough applicants that they can say, "Okay, straight A's, fine... what else have you got?" An M.A. advisor who is sufficiently impressed by your record, talent, and initiative otherwise can help finesse one measly little B. But that B may mean that your margin for error has disappeared.

Now, that's not saying that one B in a grad program means you should get the hell out. But it might be a warning sign, or an indication that you should make an appointment with the professor or the grad advisor to determine how you can do better (and then, of course, you will implement those changes). You will not engage in complaining or grade-grubbing, because this semester is done. Practice saying it this way: "I'm concerned that this grade suggests that I'm not performing up to standard. What do I need to do to improve on this in the future?" By definition, if you got a B, you ought to be interested in improving. Because grad students are aiming for excellence.

If the above paragraph suggests a level of masochism or self-flagellation that you're not comfortable with, that's fine. And it's good you know that early on. Because believe me, this is a large part of the life of most professional academics: we're never satisfied. We're usually worried that we're not doing well enough. And the culture of grad school replicates this. If you can be satisfied with a B (which is, by most objective standards, a perfectly respectable grade), then you have a healthier ego than most academics, and you will likely lead a happier life on a day-to-day basis than those of us who are plagued by intellectual insecurities. But that happier life probably won't be in a Ph.D. program. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

There you go. Let the naysaying begin...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Three Brief Items

1. I've decided that the best way to know if a presentation went well is if people ask good questions. My small (I prefer to think of them as "select") audience Friday did just that. Ergo, my presentation appears to have gone well.

2. Likewise, the comment I delivered on a conference panel the following day.

3. I just saw the first review of the book in a major journal, and it's positive, if a bit general. And the one thing the reviewer criticized (this is an obligatory feature of the book review genre, no?) was something that is so much the opposite of how I see myself as a scholar that I could only chuckle.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Something I hadn't thought of...

1. I give my presentation today (a 40-minute talk), in about five hours.

2. I have been practicing it a lot, but busy schedule means that those practices have been compressed, at the rate of about 2-3 read-throughs a day.

3. All of my courses this semester have been discussion-based, rather than lecture courses.

Can anyone guess the problem that's arising just now?

Yep: beginning on last night's final before-bed run-through and edit-fest, I realized how tired my throat and neck muscles were. My voice has had no regular, intensive, sustained exercise since last December. I have at least one more run-through before the talk itself. And wouldn't it be hilarious if, after all this work and stress, I lost my voice halfway through the actual performance of the thing?

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Your First Presentation

Recently, I agreed to chair a panel for a small graduate student conference on medieval stuff. Props to the grad organization that put it on, and pulled it off very nicely. It wasn't lavish, but as far as I could tell, everything went more or less according to plan.

I went to several panels, and thus saw a wide range of skill in paper organization and delivery. Most were quite good, but there were some places here and there where I saw room for improvement. So, here are some ideas for novice presenters for giving a polished presentation. Contrary to some of my normal blogging voice, this is not meant as snark, but rather in a mentorly spirit:
  • If your paper is a cut-down version of a longer piece, then actually cut it down before presenting it. A couple of presenters appeared to be up there with 15-20 pages, trying to skip over large passages on the fly. If you do this, you risk getting lost, or realizing five minutes too late that you've omitted some critical bit of information. Take the extra day or two to trim it down to a clean 20 minutes (or whatever the conference stipulates) that has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You'll save yourself stress when you're up at the podium.
  • Ask a professor to read over your paper to avoid any basic inaccuracies that might undermine an otherwise good argument.
  • A 20-minute conference paper is about 9-10 double-spaced pages -- less, if you have visuals you need to talk the audience through. Don't try to cram more in by simply talking fast.
  • Be on time to your own panel.
  • Practice your paper, out loud. As has been pointed out by one of my commenters, in some disciplines they don't read papers. And even in our field(s), you've probably seen experienced presenters move from extemporaneous to scripted and back again with ease. But if it's your first presentation, and you're in a Humanities field, you're likely going to be reading from the page. If you haven't practiced, you'll likely give the whole thing in a monotone and lose the audience, which would make this a big, fat waste of your time and effort. If, on the other hand, you are well-rehearsed, you can modulate your delivery so that a scripted reading sounds natural (Yes, Comrade, it can).
  • Remember that your audience is a listening audience. Written papers tend to be more densely-worded than spoken presentations, so an unmodified seminar paper is generally going to be problematic. Make the structure strong, do lots of verbal signposting, and use compelling examples to illustrate your points. One of my grad school professors once told me that people tend to zone out after the first four minutes, so every four minutes you should provide something that wakes them up. Got a juicy story from the documents? A big shift from one argument to the next? Structure your paper so these come in every few minutes, if you can.
  • Make your point, but don't cram your paper too full. If you've got more than three major points in your paper, you may be trying to do too much in too little space. Remember, there will always be other conferences.
  • Make sure that your voice signals to your audience when something important is happening (see above re: rehearsal, importance of). Write stage directions to yourself if necessary. I did that for the first half-dozen papers I gave as a grad student, underlining passages where I needed to slow down to emphasize my words, noting a micro-pause right before my conclusion, reminding myself to look up and make some damn eye contact... whatever you need to do. No one will see your marked-up paper but you.
  • Dress appropriately, yea, even for a grad student conference. You don't need to wear a tie, but you should at least tuck in your shirt.
  • Don't signal defeat. If things seem to be going south in your paper, chances are that your audience won't know unless you make it clear to us that that's what's happening. Interjecting "Wow... okay, this is really messed up," or concluding with "Well, I guess that's it... ((sigh))" is not the way you want to go. Remember: your audience doesn't know what you thought your paper would be; we only know what it is. And chances are that it's fine.
And one last one for the proffies, a bit of advice that I like to think my fellow session chairs and I followed: remember that, at a student conference, your panelists are mostly novices. Shape your comments to be helpful. Don't be an ass.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Biddy Martin Takes Her Stand

I present to you, without comment, a part of a statement issued by UW Chancellor Biddy Martin (excerpted from the full version, available on UW Professor Bill Cronon's web post), and hereby retract any doubts I had about her commitment to academic freedom and her support of her faculty. I've never been happier to have been proven so very wrong:
Scholars and scientists pursue knowledge by way of open intellectual exchange. Without a zone of privacy within which to conduct and protect their work, scholars would not be able to produce new knowledge or make life-enhancing discoveries. Lively, even heated and acrimonious debates over policy, campus and otherwise, as well as more narrowly defined disciplinary matters are essential elements of an intellectual environment and such debates are the very definition of the Wisconsin Idea.

When faculty members use email or any other medium to develop and share their thoughts with one another, they must be able to assume a right to the privacy of those
exchanges, barring violations of state law or university policy. Having every exchange of ideas subject to public exposure puts academic freedom in peril and threatens the processes by which knowledge is created. The consequence for our state will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities where collegial exchange and the development of ideas can be undertaken without fear of premature exposure or reprisal for unpopular positions.

This does not mean that scholars can be irresponsible in the use of state and university resources or the exercise of academic freedom. We have dutifully reviewed Professor Cronon’s records for any legal or policy violations, such as improper uses of state or university resources for partisan political activity. There are none.

To our faculty, I say: Continue to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view. As always, we will take our cue from the bronze plaque on the walls of Bascom Hall. It calls for the ‘continual and fearless sifting and winnowing’ of ideas. It is our tradition, our defining value, and the way to a better society.

Chancellor Biddy Martin