Miscellaneous

Twitter for Academics

Woman in White Long Sleeved Shirt Holding a Pen Writing on a PaperStill alive, just crazy busy!

I am currently participating in a game of “How many pages can you write in two weeks?”, which will be followed by a Master’s exam. I already have one Master’s degree, but hey, why not get another one? Right? In my program, the MA exam is basically a preliminary qualifying exam that we all take at the end of our first year.

For the past few months, Academic Twitter has not only helped me get through the insanity, it has also demystified academia for me. Many of my favorite accounts share academic writing tips.

Here are some of my favorite Twitter accounts:

Medieval (not strictly for academics)
Medieval Manuscripts (@BLMedieval): Not strictly for academics. Shares pictures of medieval manuscripts from the British Library.

Discarding Images (@discarding_imgs): Wacky, outrageous, and sometimes inappropriate medieval manuscript art. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of medieval marginalia!

Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf): The wackiest, most inappropriate marginalia art of the Middle Ages can be found here 😛

For PhDs and Early Career Academics
Write that PhD (@WriteThatPhD): Do you have questions about academic writing and/or publishing? Look no further.

Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco): I couldn’t more highly recommend Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s Twitter account. He posts and shares excellent tips for PhD students and early career academics. His blog is also fantastic.

Writing For Research (@Write4Research): All about that academic writing. Prof. Dunleavy also has a blog.

Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay): If you’ve never heard of this Twitter or Facebook account and you are in graduate school, where have you been? It’s here to give you your snarky-pessimism fix for the day.

Inside Higher Ed (@insidehighered): Lots of useful information here. Unfortunately, some articles are behind a paywall.

For Wasting Time
PHD Comics (@PHDcomics): Read moderately! The comics just never get old. In my opinion, the second film was way better than the first one they made.

Hashtags
#AcWri
#phdchat
#phdadvice
#phdlife

I could name many more, but these are my favorite Twitter accounts. If you are in graduate school or are an academic, what are yours?

Miscellaneous

I’m Binge-Reading Again! | Grad School and Writing

adult, blur, booksThe binge-reading-only part of the semester is about to end in a few weeks. I just feel it in my bones. Soon, I will have to add binge-writing to an already full workload. This semester, I have three 20-page term papers due on the same day, plus a Master’s exam with an oral and a written component!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. But because I am interested in becoming a scholar, I am also concerned about how what I am learning will help me long-term.

On the one hand, I understand why we are assigned so much reading. Professors expect students to have a basic knowledge of the course texts before class so that lecture-time can be spent analyzing themes or learning related theory. I am glad that my MA exam this April will require me to know the major works of the French canon because professors need to have a generalist knowledge of their field.

But reading is not always the best use of my time.

There are so many 16th century, 18th century, or 20th century texts that I should know, but no graduate student has the time to read everything that is considered “canon” for a given century or sub-field.

The problem, as I see it, is that reading is NOT scholarship. It is only the prerequisite of scholarship. No hiring committee cares how many books a candidate has read but how many major conference talks she has given, how many peer-reviewed articles she has published, and whether or not her dissertation is being turned into a book. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I can’t write or do good research, I am not a scholar.

In the American graduate education system, not enough time is spent writing and revising. We try to do all of the research for our term papers during the last month of the semester, all while trying to keep up with the weekly readings. I am currently binge-reading without a goal because I know that I will not be writing about most of the texts that I am assigned.

Published authors know that writing is rewriting, but graduate students only learn about the revision process in the last years of their program, when they suddenly have to learn how to write a 300-page dissertation.

Writing papers may be every graduate student’s least favorite activity (mine included), but it is also the most important activity. I wish graduate programs would encourage students to make writing a habit.

Reflections

Combating Elitism Through Education

It’s midnight. I realize that I have no blog post ideas. I could analyze something, but that would take too much brain power. This is the time of the semester when every graduate student finds him/herself in an existential crisis. Thank God for the medieval section of the research library. When I am down, I browse the third and fifth floors of the library for medieval books. I found a secondary source on medieval interpretation for my medieval course. Medieval rhetoric is fascinating. I hope to make more posts about it in the future – when I’m more awake.

It doesn’t help that my 20th century course is all about existential novels. The French sure love their absurdist fiction. While browsing the shelves for a good monograph, I was reminded of why I decided to do this program. A couple of students recently defended their dissertations, which has also given me encouragement. I love attending Works in Progress sessions because I learn indirectly about the dissertation writing process. I am also consulting self-help books and articles more than ever before. I need reminding that it’s possible to climb the mountain of academia.

I’m glad that the month is almost over. I’m sure many of you are tired of reading me complain about various aspects of graduate school. But some days, I can only think about the most obscure topics. My mom asked me last weekend what I study. She has asked me before, but I usually change the subject. How can I explain what I do? I only realize that I have obscure, highly-abstract interests when I try to explain my studies to non-specialists. This time, I taught my mom about the Algerian War and the resulting Algerian independence from France.

I am reminded that most people don’t share my interests. It’s not their fault. I know and don’t know why I am interested in late medieval rhetoric. It clearly excites and motivates me. But if I can’t explain to others why it matters, then I have failed as an educator. Professors can be excellent scholars and poor educators. I have, unfortunately, had my share of bad professors.

Academia tends to be elitist. I don’t like admitting that because legislators often cite academic elitism as a reason to stop funding the Humanities. Scholarship isn’t the problem, though. Scholars do some interesting work, but they only publish for a very small group of people. They have to publish for a small group of people, otherwise they can’t get tenure. The elitist culture of Academia looks down on popular nonfiction and humanistic outreach. It’s better to write about obscure things in obscure journals.

I don’t think the Humanities are dying. The old model might be dying, but hopefully a more public model will replace it. In the future, when my mom asks what I’m learning, I will tell her. I may not be able to tell her everything. I may even make some generalizations. But through teaching, I will remind myself that what I am studying matters.

Reflections

On Graduate School (again!)

Every Thanksgiving, I intend to catch up with my work but I never do. I read a few things, but only one book was course-related. Tomorrow, my colleagues will also complain that they didn’t get anything done during the break. But it was an American holiday. I got to spend some much-needed time with my family.

I returned an hour ago from the Philadelphia airport. Thankfully, I caught the last trolley for the night. I forgot that public transportation is limited on Sunday nights. Although I can’t say that I have jet lag, flying always makes me tired, no matter how short the flight. I am also extra-alert during security and on public transportation. You never know who you’ll encounter.

But I’m back.

And now, I have a million and one pages to write by the end of the December. I’m glad that I have been writing daily for the past few weeks because I need the self-motivation to write every day in December. Of course, I am still in the planning phase. I barely know what topic I will be writing about, let alone what sources to cite. The writing marathon occurs during the last few weeks of each semester. I’ve been doing one for years, but this year’s will be the hardest one yet. NaNoWriMo participants don’t have to edit their writing, but graduate students have to write 15-25 pages for multiple classes AND write them well.

Marathon writing just doesn’t seem very efficient or practical. Why are we assigned so many books?

The truth is that I’m kind of tired of taking courses. I just want to start my dissertation research already. Most of us can learn from reading lists. It’s impossible to balance the writing marathon with regular coursework. Texts are still assigned during the last few weeks of classes. Of course, no one can balance everything. Something has to give. What matters more? Writing final papers or reading an assigned book that will never appear on an MA or a PhD exam list?

I know. I know. I’m complaining. Courses aren’t completely useless. I’m just frustrated by the inefficiency of the American graduate system.

Undergrads need to pass courses so that they can obtain a degree. Their professional development mostly occurs in the workforce. They are thrown into the “real” world with some skills and basic knowledge of their field. Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are supposed to receive their professional development in graduate school. Isn’t that why we get a master’s or a doctorate?

Programs should emphasize writing throughout the semester. Writers improve through practice. Humanities students are supposed to be writers. Maybe English students have more training in that area than foreign language students, but I am increasingly alarmed by the number of fifth and sixth year students who have never published a paper. I worry that graduate programs are so course-centered that they are blind to the academic market. In a publish-or-die industry, graduate programs should train their students to publish their work. Students should also be encouraged to write for non-university publications.

True, graduate students are adults. They need to be self-driven. But graduate schools should also care about the professional development of their students. We are more than cheap labor.

Reflections

Graduate Students and Writing

author, blog, businesswomanSome book bloggers talk about being in reading slumps, but literature students can’t afford to be in reading slumps. We are forced to read all the time even though that doesn’t always help our productivity. We read multiple books at the same time, and we get hardly a break between reads to collect our thoughts. There, inevitably, comes a time when we have to choose between reading for class and reading and researching for final papers.

I am taking four courses this semester. I am assigned at least three books a week, and I am now beginning to do the research for a few of them. That means that I have to read secondary source material as well as the relevant critical theory.

I often envy PhD students in the UK who don’t take classes. They spend the entire 3 years of their PhD working on their thesis. However, I understand the value in knowing the French canon so that I can teach general literature courses.

Ironically, graduate students in the humanities don’t get nearly enough writing practice throughout the year. Most of the writing comes at the very end of each semester. Students are asked to produce well-written papers after months of minimal writing.

I played the classical guitar for most of my childhood. I hated practicing, so I usually practiced the night before my weekly lessons. A few times a year, I performed in student recitals. I would binge-practice a couple weeks before each recital. I would certainly have been a more accomplished musician if I had practiced daily.

Graduate students treat writing the way I treated classical music. They get very little practice during most of the semester, and then they’re asked to perform for all their classes during the few weeks at the start of December.

Small wonder then that so many ABD (all but dissertation) students suffer from writer’s block. They are not accustomed to writing on a regular basis, let alone for 6 hours a day.

Most of the last month leading up to the end of the semester is spent doing research for my final papers. I probably spent a week to a week-and-a-half writing the darn things.

I am not about to tell graduate programs how they should conduct their literature courses. I don’t even know what I would change. I have done graduate work at different institutions, so my observation about graduate writing is certainly not exclusive to the program I’m currently in. All American graduate students face this problem of trying to balance reading and writing throughout the semester.

I have a few ideas that I might try in the next few weeks to think on paper about the texts I’m studying. Anything is better than nothing. I will most likely not share my ideas on this blog for privacy reasons, but I will let you know how it all goes.

Graduate students don’t often think of themselves as writers. Indeed, they hardly write during the semester to feel the need to call themselves writers. We need to start calling ourselves writers. Someday, we will write a dissertation and (hopefully) send out book manuscripts for publication.

If you are a graduate student in the humanities, I encourage you to start thinking of yourself as a writer. If thinking of yourself as a writer makes you feel like an impostor, start writing short pieces a few times a week. You don’t have to go public with your writing, but you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write.

I certainly feel like an impostor. That’s why I started this daily writing habit. It’s hard coming up with post ideas. I don’t know what I will do in December. But, I do feel less intimidated by the idea of writing than I did in October.