Happy New Year!

Welcome back, Beloved!

We are so happy that you are here! We’ve been so in the work that we haven’t noticed a couple of big milestones have happened.

First, we had our two year anniversary back in November! Holy Cow! It seems amazing that this little site has been around for two years already. It’s been a joyful, at times chaotic, journey–much like the process of dissertating itself.

Second, we have over forty (40) followers! To all of you who have clicked the “follow” box, we cannot thank you enough for letting us into your minds, into your hearts, and into your inbox. We are here to serve you and we are so grateful to connect with you.

As we move into our third year of existence we’re making a couple of changes.

First, we’re going to add some new pages to help clarify our mission, who we can help, and how. Get excited, folks đŸ˜‰

Second, we are working on some brand new series taking on some big dissertation challenges for the the upcoming academic term. While we work on these changes we’re going to be re-posting our favorite/most popular posts from the last two years.

Today, though, we can’t wait to share a little piece of advice we came across from our friends at Panda Planner. You may have previously encountered this advice:

A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes reality.

I think we can all acknowledge that’s good advice but how do we put that into practice? It can be hard if you struggle with executive function or if you have perfectly normal executive function but have professional training in connecting disparate parts rather than breaking things down into discrete pieces.

Here’s how Panda Planner suggests we break our goals down.

First, make a goal. Easy–I know we all have a million, maybe start with one slightly more doable than world domination. For example, one of my goals for the new year is to stick to my budget.

Second, set a date by which you want to achieve that goal. The date by which I went to be living by my budget is March 1st but I know that I often underestimate how much time change takes so I’m gonna give myself until May 30th.

Third, every week, keep track of your goal. If it’s a weekly thing, like a budget, did you meet it or not? If it’s a daily thing, how many days did you succeed?

Fourth, analyze what went wrong? For instance, I’ve already broken my resolution to stick to my budget because I needed new clothes for a conference next week.

Fifth, test a solution. I’m going to take my mom’s recommendation of buying one new professional clothing item with every paycheck instead of putting it off until the last minute and see if that helps me stick to my budget next week.

Above all, be patient with yourself. It’s not about flipping a switch and changing your life–it’s about building new structures to live in.

Take a Minute

Hey you! Yeah, you!

You made it to the end of the term!

Congratulations!!!

I am so incredibly proud of you for all the hard work you’ve put in to make it to this point. No, I’m not proud of your productivity (but whatever you managed to do is awesome, too). I’m just glad that you are here!

I wanted to share with you something I’m doing this year that I wish to the high heavens I had done before.

This year I’m taking a minute (well, more like an hour) to make a note of all the things I want to change about this semester’s syllabus. I’m also scanning a couple of documents I want to use next time I teach this course.

It seems so simple, right? So obvious. So why have I never done it before?

Because the end of the semester is exhausting.giphy-1

You’re probably tired.

You might be feeling guilty about how much you’ve focused on teaching instead of writing.

If you’re like most grad students I know then your immune system is probably crashing right about now, too.

Oh, yeah, and you need to plan your syllabus for next semester.

In short, there are a lot of reasons to tell yourself that you’ll revise your syllabus after the holidays or during the next semester or over the summer.

However, these are the whispers of the devil.

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You will not do it later.

Later, you will be as overwhelmed as you are now but with different stuff.

Later, you will have forgotten the little things that you wanted to change about this semester.

Later, you will forget what exciting new sources you wanted to include in your syllabus the next time you taught it.

Do the thing now.

You don’t have to totally revise your syllabus.

Take the time you have: 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes–whatever you’ve got.

In that time, go through your syllabus and leave comments about what you want to change. Do it now so that you don’t just change the big things but get the little things that, if tweaked, would make your life much easier.

Make notes about sources you want to change. If it’s a digital source include a link in the comment.

If you have the time to scan hardcopy sources then do that. If you don’t then make a list of what sources you want to use (and, if you have time, where to find them). If you have the sources on hand but don’t have time to scan them then stick a post-it note on them saying “To scan for CLASS.”

Believe me, your future self will thank you.

There’s A Reason You Can’t Do It

Last week we talked about the role of executive function in your life/dissertation.

While executive function in adults is understudied we do know that problems with executive function are part of ADHD, ASD, and anxiety.

I’m not a neuroscientist, or a psychologist, but as someone who lives with anxiety I’ve noticed two important things. First, most of the PhD students I know are neurodivergent in some way. (I know, I know–there’s all sorts of caveats here: maybe all my friends are neurodivergent because I am, maybe it’s a self-selecting population, etcetera–but I’m not worried about the mechanism here.) Second, it TOTALLY makes sense that people with anxiety, ADHD, ASD and other brains impacted by executive dysfunction are really good at PhD programs.

Our brains are really good at finding connections other people might not see and weaving them into arguments to create knowledge.

This natural propensity is enhanced by the structure of a PhD program itself which encourages us to think not in five paragraph arguments but in five chapter monographs.

When we train brains that are already good at making connections to make more connections we really shouldn’t be surprised that we have a bunch of people who struggle with the executive function skills of breaking a task down into parts, planning, organizing, and completing it.

I would argue that humanities students struggle with this more than STEM PhDs because STEM PhDs are often based on fieldwork, an equation, and experiment, and so on. In short, STEM PhDs have a definable start and finish in ways that humanities projects often do not.

For instance, in my own project I was looking at how U.S. doctors and legislators talked about virginity in World War II and the War on Terror. Part of my committee, the part made up of historians, wanted me to do a longitudnal study instead of a comparative study. Even when I got them to agree to a comparative study there was still the problem of how to define WWII and the War on Terror. For instance, did I define WWII as when the US entered the war? When the war started in Europe? Or when the US army started preparing to enter the war? Defining the War on Terror was even more complex as a War on Terror is, by definition, and endless war.

My point here is that breaking our projects into workable pieces is HARD and it’s made harder by the fact that our job and our training are teaching us to look for connections between those pieces.

When you look at your project you see all the connections. The inside of a dissertating brain usually looks something like this:

Conspiracy

If it feels crazy-making that’s because it is.

You are not crazy or dumb for having difficulty sorting through the connections. It’s antithetical to everything you’ve been trained to do. That’s why, sometimes, you need someone else to come in take a look at your project to help you sort it into doable pieces.

In theory, your committee should be able to do this for you. That is, after all, what committees are for. In reality, there are a lot of reasons you might not seek this sort of feedback from your committee. Maybe they’re on sabbatical. Maybe they only read finished work. Maybe their feedback is contradictory or unhelpful.

Fellow graduate students can be a great resource to give you this type of feedback as well. I’ve known graduate students who have been able to get reading/writing groups together that meet regularly and give each other feedback. This has been extremely successful for them.

I tried, several times, to set up a graduate student reading group during my PhD. It never worked out.

In general, I’ve noticed that reading groups tend to work out if you have a group of people who are on fellowship. If you have a group of graduate students who are teaching or TAing it’s a little harder to get going and may never take off.

Sometimes graduate students can offer you much needed sympathy and support but not the perspective you need. Sometimes you need the help of someone with more distance from your project and your program. And that’s okay.

Getting a PhD isn’t about how smart you are. Getting a PhD is about persistence and persistence is, among other things, about knowing when to ask for help.

If you need it, or think you might need it, we’re here for you.

WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to

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In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

Fall Break

Hi All,

Here in the states we’re approaching Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is a heap of white people bullshit but it is a break built into the academic calendar so we’re going to take our own advice and take the week off to rest after finishing up our two month long series on teaching time management.

Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing this week we are wishing you the very best.

If you need to procrastinate, check out our revised Services page and let us know what you think.

Also, don’t forget to book your end-of-semester coaching session a.s.a.p. ! First time clients get a 20% discount on an individual session!

Bring Your Work to Class

Humanities PhD programs will pull you in a lot of different directions. Almost every humanities PhD student I have ever met is trying to be their best researcher-self, teacher-self, activist-self, and human-self.

It’s a lot.

We’ve talked before about learning to balance these multiple desires and multiple expectations. One part of balance is recognizing that all these aspects are unique expressions of who you are. Your researcher-self informs your teacher-self and both are probably motivated by experiences your human-self has had.

It can be helpful, for both your sanity and your students, to bring your researcher-self into your classroom.

Advantages to you include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting feedback from an educated layperson (your students)
  • Learning your own material better through teaching it
  • Getting some free editing

Benefits to your students include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing you as a scholar
  • Seeing the process of how scholarship happens
  • Helping them think of themselves as scholars
  • Practice in editing
  • Learning more about your specialty

Often graduate instructors don’t have the luxury of teaching an upper division class related to their area of research. It can be difficult to imagine bringing your highly specialized research into a survey class but there are several ways you can do it.

One former professor of mine would bring in a couple of pages of her work in progress (WIP) the first day that her students had to turn in a paper. She would have students spend the class editing the document looking for everything from unclear arguments to comma errors. Her reason for doing this was to help anxious students relax about turning in their work by seeing, in real time, that even professor’s need help to make the work excellent.

When I taught public speaking, I employed a similar strategy. I would bring a short section of my own WIP and have students work on turning it from a written argument to an oral one. First, they would convert the long-form document into an outline. Then we would work on how to appropriately cite sources and why I used the sources I did. For them, this was a conversation on different sources for different audiences. For me, it was preparation for how to orally present my work at conferences

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These are not the only ways to bring your work into your teaching. In a composition class you can have your students edit your work. In a disciplinary class you can have them analyze your methods.

However you decide to do it, bringing your scholarship to your teaching will benefit both you and your students!

It’s OK to Be Wrong

Earlier this week we addressed the topic of expertise. Specifically, that you have it.

Your expertise doesn’t require you to know everything in the class you are teaching.

Rather, your expertise is in your knowledge of how to learn.

Many new teachers feel an immense amount of stress around needing to know every detail of what they are teaching in order to seem like credible experts. A nightmare scenario for many teaching assistants is standing in front of a class and being asked a question they don’t know how to answer.

Remember, though, while a good part of your job is to teach your students content you are also teaching them the very act of how to learn and how to problem solve.

As you know, an important part of learning is being able to be wrong.

This is what we do as scholars in every discipline. We start out with a research question, we design a study to find the answer to that question (whether it be rhetorical analysis or a mathematical proof), we evaluate our data, and we revise our research question based on what we find. We cannot go through this process if we don’t allow ourselves to be wrong.

All of the elements of being wrong, from knowing how to find out if we’re wrong to revising our opinions in the face of contradictory data, are crucial to learning.

When a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to it’s a great opportunity to model how to learn for them. Below are three ways to model how to learn through not knowing.

  1. Say you’ll find out. If a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to just tell them you don’t know but that you’ll find out. Then, in the next class, follow-up by reminding them what question was asked and tell them what you found and how. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about types of sources (e.g. a recent newspaper article on the issue says X but if you look at data from [academic source] there are some nuances to consider). This establishes your credibility as someone who can be trusted to find the answer to tough questions, makes the students feel involved in their learning, and is a teachable moment regarding sources.
  2. Ask them to find out. This is a strategy I’ve used with my upperclassmen. If a student asks a complex question you don’t know the answer to you can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t considered that angle but I’d be interested to read what you can find on it.” This works best, of course, when you can offer students credit for their research. If they’re asking a question it’s because they are interested which provides you an opportunity to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation. This isn’t an opportunity to abdicate your responsibility of leading the class, but rather an opportunity to empower your students as researchers. If you ask them to find out the answer to something you don’t know follow up by supporting them in their research. Let them know a few places to start looking or help them refine their question.
  3. Tell them what you think. Though you may not know the exact answer to a question you’ve been asked you might have some educated guesses. This is a time when you can tell your students, “I’m not sure but what I think is X and I think that because of A, B, C.” This is another opportunity to model how scholarship is done for your students. In this answer you let them know that, even though you aren’t exactly sure, you have some ideas based on the things you do know. This models how researchers make hypotheses to fill the gaps in existing knowledge.

Don’t stress yourself out with trying to know everything. Nobody can know everything. Instead of setting yourself an impossible goal embrace the times you don’t know as a learning opportunity for your students.

Expertise: You Have It

My MA program, like many humanities PhD programs, came with a teaching assistantship. I taught two sections of public speaking and, in return, the university waived my tuition and paid me a (very) small stipend.

I was nervous about my first teaching assignment for several reasons. Like many students entering a graduate program I had just moved across the country to a new place where I didn’t know anyone or anything. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and while it was in Communication I had never even taken a public speaking class.

How, I wondered, was I supposed to establish expertise in a class I had never taken in a classroom of students who were about my age? Would I even be a good teacher? What if my students didn’t learn anything? What if I was too easy or too harsh in grading?

There were a thousand overwhelming “what-ifs” that were compounded by not having a support network in the area.

What all of these what-ifs ultimately came down to was “how do I get students to believe I’m an expert in this subject when I don’t feel like an expert?”

Every single time I’ve taught a brand new class I’ve had an anxiety attack about how dare I think I’m enough of an expert to teach anyone anything outside of my very narrow little field.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most graduate students, and almost every woman graduate student, I’ve talked to has felt the same way when confronting a new class.

People have also developed some intriguing coping mechanisms.

One semester, when teaching in a new department, I was required to attend their TA orientation and a *very* successful professor said that the key to establishing your expertise in the classroom was to get there as early as possible so that the students were walking into your classroom rather than you walking into their classroom.

And . . . just . . . what the actual fuck?

Later, at a bar with senior graduate students in that department, I shared how outrageous this idea of authority was expecting them all to laugh along with me and say, “That’s just Dr. So-and so.”

But they did not.

Instead, I was met with a variety of blank stares until someone meekly said, “Well, yeah.”

Readers, this man had indoctrinated dozens of graduate students with the idea that your expertise is based on when you enter a room.

Now, certainly, there is a feeling of authority that comes with being prepared and that can involve getting to the classroom early so that you’re organized and ready to go when class starts.

Even if you get to class late, though, you are still the teacher.

If an eager student gets to your office hours before you do they are not suddenly the instructor.

Your credibility in the classroom is not based on your location or the time of your arrival.

Your credibility is located in the expertise you’ve gained.

If you’re anything like me this would be the time when your impostor syndrome starts yelling, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY EXPERTISE??? HOW COULD THEY PUT ME IN FRONT OF STUDENTS???”

You do, though.

Even if you aren’t a subject expert on every single subject your survey class touches, even if you’re teaching a class you never took, you still have valuable expertise to share with your students.

What you know, what your expertise is in, the only expertise you need to teach is how to learn.

You have more experience learning in a formal educational setting than anyone else in the room.

You aren’t there to be the first in the room or to know more about absolutely every subject.

You are there to show your students how to learn and by the very virtue of being in a graduate program you’ve proven that you have that expertise.

From Students to Collaborators

Don’t be afraid to make your students work.

I know, it sounds obvious, but I often meet graduate student instructors who feel comfortable testing their students but not making them work.

Your students are one of your best resources in teaching and you should use them so that your job is easier and they learn better.

Let’s revisit the issue of coverage, which we talked about in an earlier post. No class is ever going to get perfect coverage but, you can significantly improve your coverage if you let your students do it for you.

For instance, I used to teach an Intro to LGBTQ+ Studies class. I knew going into it that my understanding of LGBTQ+ issues was very US based. I also knew that making dissertation progress and educating myself on global LGBTQ+ issues were not things I could do justice to if I did them simultaneously.

Instead, I set aside a week in the syllabus to have the students present on global LGBTQ+ issues. Students picked a country to present on and put together a five minute presentation on LGBTQ+ rights in the country of choice.

Not only did this introduce the class to the status of LGBTQ rights in 25 countries (something I, as an individual instructor, could never do in a survey course) it also helped students learn.

By allowing students to pick their own country I tapped into the power of their intrinsic motivation. Some students picked countries they had family in and some picked countries they had been on mission trips to. Others picked countries they had seen a documentary on or were just generally interested in. Whatever the reason they picked the country they had at least a non-zero level of interest in it that helped motivate their research.

In addition, as many of us know, teaching something to others helps you learn it better yourself.

Not only did incorporating my deficiency into the syllabus save me work but the class as a whole learned more than if I had tried to teach it myself AND individual students learned better through presenting on a subject they were actually interested in.

This semester (as in every semester) I’m behind on grading. I woke up with an anxiety attack at 3:00 this morning because my students have an assignment due Friday but I still haven’t gotten them grades from their last assignment.

This was the first issue I brought up in class today. I gave my students two options: push back the due date for the assignment or convert their four-part assignment into a three-part. My students had a few questions about how each option would work. After I answered those we voted.

Again, by allowing the students to shape their own experience I have confidence that we are reaching a solution that serves all of us, maximizes their intrinsic motivation through reflecting their values, and it significantly eases my stress.

Making your students your collaborators helps empower them. Many of our students come from a world of endless assessments in which they are measured by the quantity of what they learn. When you let your students be active partners through helping shape the syllabus, teaching their peers, or decide on course policies you are doing the most important work: teaching them how to problem solve.

Intrinsic Motivation

In education, as in anything else, there are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is external in the form of rewards of some sort. In teaching, rewards correlate to an increase in grade in some way.

Intrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is internal to the individual. If you’re getting a PhD in the humanities you are probably highly intrinsically motivated. In other words, you like learning for learning’s sake. While this is great for you it might make it harder to relate to students who don’t have a deep well of intrinsic motivation to pull from.

In education, intrinsic motivation is something of a paradox. We know that students learn better when they are intrinsically motivated (aka, when they want to learn) but when we create a mechanism to encourage a student’s intrinsic motivation we have, in that act, converted that motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic.

If you can tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation you can make your life, as an instructor, much easier. There are two reasons for this.

First, because people work harder when they are intrinsically motivated. There’s tons of research on it. You can look it up if you want.

Second, and far more importantly for our purposes, everything that makes up extrinsic motivation requires you to do work. This is fairly obvious, yet, somehow, people over look this point.

Do you want to motivate your students to attend an event by offering them extra credit? Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Do you want to motivate your students to revise their work and turn it back in for a better grade?

Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Any form of extrinsic motivation you offer your students will create a disproportionate amount of work for you.

In contrast, creating ways to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation will decrease your workload while actually increasing how much they learn.

The magic question then becomes: how do you tap into intrinsic motivation without converting it to extrinsic motivation?

There are several ways to do this and we will be highlighting strategies you can use from the first day of class to the final grade.

For now, there’s one thing you need to know.

If a student is in your class then they already have a base line of intrinsic motivation because they chose to be there.

There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. At the institution I work at now there is one History class that absolutely everyone has to take before graduation. The professor that teaches that can’t really draw from an untapped pool of intrinsic motivation in his students because they are all forced to be there.

For every other class on this campus, though, students have some level of intrinsic motivation to be there.

On the first day of class this semester I had students go around the room and say one thing they hoped to get from the class. One student said that they wanted to get their mandatory diversity credit. Perhaps that’s not *the* most inspiring reason to take a class but what that tells me is that student looked at the half dozen diversity credits being offered this semester and chose this class. That means they wanted to be here more than they wanted to be anywhere else.

At my previous institution, students had to take one half of the history survey as a graduation requirement. Even though they only had a choice between two classes, they had some kernel of intrinsic motivation, some preference, to take one over the other.

And that’s all you need. I promise you, we can work with that.