July 23, 2013

Important information for anyone seeking (or considering) a graduate degree in the Humanities

Once again, William Pannapacker has nailed it.  He points to the lack of doctoral job placement data available from most humanities departments, arguing for a "Graduate School Placement Project" that "could bring market forces to bear on programs that are failing their students."  Among Pannapacker's many salient points, I particularly like that he "gets" why so many students want to do a humanities degree:
In many ways, the choice to go to graduate school is not simply an attraction to a field but a drive toward something that almost everyone wants—a feeling of belonging, living up to one's full potential, and not wasting one's life in meaningless drudgery.
 This is an important point.  On the one hand, there are many graduate programs who simply fail to tell the truth about job placement and refuse to discuss opportunities beyond the academy.  On the other, there is still a perception that the academy is the only way to live the "life of the mind," and professors tend to enforce this perception whether they know it or not.  I recently talked with a former student who said that one of her other professors had "enthusiastically encouraged" her to go into college teaching.

"He thinks it's great that I want to be a teacher," she said.
"A college teacher?" I asked.
 "Yes.  He said this institution has a habit of hiring its own."

While the institution in question does tend to hire its own former graduate students, I was appalled at the naivety of the professor's response to the student.  Where has he been the last 15-20 years?  Does he just not know the statistics?  Does he care?

I'm not against going to graduate school.  But, like Pannapacker, I believe that it's important for students to understand the odds of finding an academic position.  Students need to know why they're going and what they are getting into if they go.  As I've written elsewhere concerning the MFA in creative writing, there are many myths surrounding graduate education.  It's important for students to do the research and for that research to be available to them.  Unfortunately, as this article by Pannapacker points out, it's not.

July 11, 2013

The hidden price of isolation (and 5 ways to avoid paying that price)

If you’re like most people, you will find that lack of connection with other academics combined with the lack of structure in the summer months will actually reduce your writing productivity.  Without the input, accountability, and power of connection with others, it’s too easy to get sidetracked and not to reach your summer writing goals.

Since writing is ultimately the final common path for completing your dissertation or for publishing and getting tenure, it’s catastrophic to your career not to write productively when you have the chance.

In this post, we offer some additional ways to find those connections and how to use them to energize your writing.

1. Join a writing group on campus.  

Many campuses have ongoing groups of professors or graduate students who are looking for new members.  Some groups meet and write alongside each other, while others are more focused on sharing and critiquing the work.  There are groups that emphasize regular writing and writing productivity, and those that focus on the content of what you are writing.  Decide which will work better for you and try to find (or start) a group that fits.

2. Find a group online.  

If it’s geographically unfeasible to join a face-to-face group, try going online.  You'll likely be more anonymous online and won't bump into competitors (this is a concern that many have, although I wish academia were NOT so competitive).  The asynchronous nature of online groups makes it possible for you to log in whenever you want and from wherever you are, a plus for busy academics.  The majority of people who try them find them incredibly useful.  Of course, I would be remiss not to mention that the AWC (Academic Writing Club) provides everything you need in an online community.

3. Renew connections with long-distance colleagues.  

Remember that awesome friend you had during your master’s or PhD program?  What about that professor who liked your work? Keep track of where these people are and what they’re doing.  You never know when you’ll need a recommendation from one of them, when you’ll want someone to read your last chapter, or when you'll need a collaborator.  Reconnect and rejuvenate.

4. Take advantage of conferences.  

Conferences can be good ways of finding like-minded scholars.  When you see a good presentation or hear a particularly helpful comment, follow up afterwards.  Meet for coffee before the end of the conference or get the person’s email address and reach out later.  These types of connections can be very exciting.  Don’t be afraid to initiate them.

5. What is the 5th way to connect with other academics?  

See our Recommended Reading section below!**

What if you’re a lone ranger?  
What if you work better individually? There’s nothing wrong with this, of course.  In fact, academics often excel when they can stay heads-down and focused.  But after awhile, even the most introverted writers need company.  We all need people to talk to, someone to reinforce the importance of our writing time and to listen to our ideas.  That’s when it’s good to have at least one other person to team up with, ideally someone who is not a competitor. This other pair of eyes and ears can help encourage you and help you keep perspective.  It’s hard enough being an academic.  Don’t do it alone!

Don’t wait to share

A final note:  A common problem among academics is that they put off sharing their work until it is almost perfect.  This is a mistake.  Share early, even if it’s to get someone’s input on an idea.  Learn from the more informal help you get from interacting early and often about your work.  You’ll reap the rewards of increased productivity and satisfying collegiality.

Recommended Reading:**

“Instead of seeing an academic colleague as a potential professional competitor, threat or even enemy, the power of we in academia means seeing them as potential collaborator and even friend.”

This very short but enlightening piece in the Higher Education Network explores how blogging actually helps academics engage with others. http://tinyurl.com/blogcolleagues.

July 9, 2013

Is it really "slow" writing?

Over the years, I've noticed academic writers have several common frustrations. By far the most common is their frustration about how slow they write and how everything takes longer than they think it will.  Almost every writer I know is haunted by that niggling feeling that the work could be going faster.  We all complain that we're making "slow progress."  But are we?  One of my friends was reporting earlier that he'd written "only" 2500 words that day--but he still felt that it was a slow day!  That would be a phenomenal day for me. In fact, if I could write even 2000 words every day, I'd be more than happy.  And yet this person wasn't happy, because he still felt like he could be doing more.  Pushing more, moving more.

The reality is that there's always more we can do, and there will most likely always be at least one person who is faster.  But that doesn't invalidate our progress.  If we're in there, writing away most days a week, we're doing what we should be doing, regardless of how much our word counts are increasing.  Let's face it--sometimes during revision, we actually lose word count, so we can't always rely on word count as an accurate method of measuring our achievements.  And sometimes we need those "slow" days to think through a particularly knotty problem.  Even slow days can lay the groundwork for more prolific sessions later on in the week and often contribute to a writer's momentum.

We all move at different speeds.  We write in different styles.  We each have our own unique ways of processing and synthesizing information.  It's important to find out what writing rhythms work the best for you and then stick to them.  Don't try to move at anyone else's speed.  Find your speed.  And remember, even if you "only" produce a page a day, that is one page more at the end of the day than you had going into it.  Over time that one page a day will add up.