The Struggle Is Real

On Tuesday I promised that I would share a post with you on Thursday about how to think about writing a dissertation because it is fundamentally different from almost any other writing project you can undertake.

However, if you check our archives that you’ll see there was no post on Thursday.

Started on Monday, now we here.

Yesterday, I had a bad mental health day. It was bad from the time I woke up to right before i went to bed and although there were some good moments in the day the overall day had a lot of unexpected curve balls.

As I was going to bed last night, finally feeling a bit more human, I contemplated just finishing and posting the draft I’d started for Thursday’s topic and hoping y’all wouldn’t notice that I was late.

Lord knows, as a grad student, I certainly used this tactic a time or two with my committee.

When I woke up this morning, though, I thought about all the times that my health had impacted my writing schedule when I was dissertating.

Sometimes it was physical health. Stop me if this one sounds familiar: It’s fall semester/quarter. Your students/classmates have the sniffles. You have grading to do and papers to write and a term to end. You are running on adrenaline and caffeine. You get to the end of the term. Hooray! Now, at long last, you can “catch up” on all that writing you put off while trying to finish things up over the last few weeks. But Lo! The minute you stop running off adrenaline you get sick. Your brain’s too foggy to read. You’re barely awake. You feel miserable and doing anything more active than laying on the couch with Netflix in the background is too damn much.

In interviewing grad students about barriers to their productivity I had dozens of grad students tell me that this exact pattern often ate up at least a week of their planned writing time while debilitating guilt and panic over the idea of catching up took out another week.

Mental health issues are just as debilitating but often more difficult to prevent or treat. For instance, I don’t know why I woke up already in a bad headspace yesterday. I do know that this time of year always exacerbates my anxiety and depression. It could also be residual exhaustion from the Kavanugh hearings and/or the ongoing stress of moving. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that I did all the right things: I used my UV spectrum light to help mitigate the effects of the weather. I took my escitalopram. I did restorative yoga and I called in sick to work. I took care of myself in the best way I knew how and, you know what? It was still just a bad mental health day and the writing did not get done.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, first, because if you are in a PhD program and deal with a chronic illness of any type I want you to know that you are not alone and that your dream is not impossible. During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with anxiety and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had likely had them for some time before my PhD but they became increasingly debilitating and, therefore, increasingly noticeable throughout my PhD.

My own illnesses were, in fact, part of what inspired this business. I didn’t want people to go through their PhD program thinking they were failing at all the things when they were sick.*

Second, the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so incredibly true when it comes to health and writing.

Most academics I know tend to think of their bodies as giant meat suits they use to carry books from the library to their office.

But that’s so far from the truth. The origins and perpetuation of that myth are a whole other set of topics. What’s important to know here is that feminist, queer, and disability studies have all clearly proven that our bodies are critical in working with our brain to shape what we perceive and what we think, how we process and how we make meaning.

The thing is, I can’t tell you how to take care of your health and I know there can be some structural barriers to doing that in grad school (like difficulty making an appointment with CAPS which is underfunded absolutely everywhere).

I can tell you that taking the time, daily, to do what works for optimizing your mental and physical health is a long-term investment in your writing.

For me, this often means ensuring that I get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep and doing somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes of yoga.

I can also tell you that even when you are doing your best there will be days when you just can’t write. There will be days when the thing you most need for your health is to stay far away from writing and that’s okay. Those days are, also, an investment in your long-term writing success.**

In summary, if you want to write well then do everything you can to be well–including practicing compassion towards yourself.

*PhDepression is something I foud via Twitter. They are doing some great work talking about mental health in grad school. If you know someone struggling to balance mental health and grad school I would recommend checking them out.

**Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy is a sign of depression. If you find yourself needing to take a lot of days off from writing it might be time to have a loving conversation with yourself about whether your health is in jeopardy or if grad school is still the right path for you. All the answers are ok and you are brilliant no matter what you do.

 

 

 

 

Do It For Love; or Dissertation Advice Conveyed Primarily Through GIFs of Elle Woods

Congratulations!

You were admitted to a PhD program, you completed your course work, you survived your prelim exams, you defended your prospectus and now you are, at long last A. B. D.

That moment can feel like this:

giphy4

Embrace it. Celebrate it. Take at least a week.

Then, right before you feel really ready for it, begin dissertating.

giphy

It is impossible to describe to you just how difficult writing a dissertation is. Within this difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first draft of the dissertation. Within that difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first chapter.

This is true no matter who you are. It’s true if you’ve written a lot. It’s true if you’ve been published before you start writing your disertation. It’s true if you like to write. It’s true if you’re good at writing. It’s true for everyone.

Previously, we’ve discussed how your prelims are the last big exercise you go through as a consumer of knowledge. Your dissertation is your first big exercise as a producer of knowledge. Nothing in your academic life can quite prepare you for it. You have, after all, spent well over a decade as a student and now you are being asked to create new knowledge. It’s a little bit of magic and a whole lot of difficult.

You may enter with an Elle Woodsian sense of confidence but throughout the process you will feel like this:

giphy3

And like this:

giphy2

Feedback from your committee will have you like:

giphy1

And that is all not just in the realm of normal but damn close to a best case scenario.

You will want to quit.

Statistically, many people do quit.

There are many good reasons to quit and no part of this business exists to shame people who leave graduate school. What we are here to do, however, is to help people who want to get through their programs minimize unnecessary difficulty.

To that end, there is one thing you can do before you ever start dissertating that will help you cut through all the bullshit that dissertating will throw at you:

Love.

giphy5

I know, I know! It seems cliche and unhelpful to simply say that love will get you through dissertating, but it’s true.

There were many, many moments throughout the dissertating process when I wanted to walk away. What kept me from walking away, every time, was the love of my project. Simply put, I wanted to be the person who did my project. I didn’t want to bequeath my research to someone else and go do something else.

On particularly bad days the thing that I always turned back to was my project. When I was writing the rest of the BS just seemed to fade away.

Being able to pick a project you love, or a project that has elements you love, is one of the great privileges of the humanities. I’ve spent a lot of time with STEM and social science grad students and their projects are often dictated by what lab or research group they get in which is, itself, dictated by what lab and research group get funding which, of course, is influenced by a whole nexus of factors.

While I loved the topic of my dissertation I’ve known people who have a genuine love for the practical applications of their research or the methods they’re using or where their archive was located or the population they were working with.

You don’t have to love every element of your project but I can promise you that your dissertation journey will be a helluva lot easier if you love something about it.

Loving something about your project will make you happy, even in some of the darkest moments of dissertating and

giphy6

Well, that, and they’re much more likely to finish writing their dissertations.

Now, it’s possible you reading this and thinking, “Fucking great. It’s great to know this now but I already defended my prospectus and there was nothing in there that I loved so how the heck am I supposed to love something about my dissertation?!”

It’s a fair question.

Remember, your dissertation is supposed to change between when you defend your prospectus and when you defend, well, your dissertation. Even if your committee has already approved a prospectus on a project that feels doable but doesn’t have elements you love I promise that there are still ways to add a little of that most magic of ingredients to your project.

Again, it doesn’t have to be the subject material. It can be a whole host of things. It can even be the sheer challenge of it.

giphy7

On Thursday we’ll be discussing how to think about writing–a crucial step into turning that ominous blank page into a first draft.

Until then, think about what you love about your project and remeber

giphy8

Super Roundup: Teaching Resources

General Topics–Some favorite topics that can be covered in most intro level humanities courses.

Reproductive Justice–An excellent, open source primer.

Reproductive Justice–Another excellent, open source primer, but more concise.

Hankivsky – Intersectionality 101 – 2014–A primer on the concept. After this, I usually have students do a short writing exercise in class or as a Blackboard quiz to have students illustrate their own intersectionality by coming up with a metaphor. Many students choose one from the reading and explain how it pertains to them and some students come up with very original ideas. Either way, it seems to help move the concept from theory to praxis.

Cassandra Among the Creeps–A great piece about how men reject women’s pain and women’s testimony to further patriarchal institutions. Perhaps particularly important if you are teaching about the Kavanaugh atrocity.

Capitalism–I wish this weren’t true but students are just more willing to hear criticism’s of capitalism from a white guy billionaire. Luckily, we have one offering some important critiques. I like to note that this talk was given in 2014 and since then the US government has doubled and tripled down on tax cuts for the wealthiest among us.

Income Inequality–Why, and how, it’s bad.

Wealth Gap–Last Week Tonight is a gift from the gods of teaching. It’s funny and, at the same time, is an example of what good research and critical thinking skills look like. It’s also 30 minutes at most so it fits even into a 50 minute class. I like to show this video the day after the Income Inequality video above. If the first clip illustrates the harms of income inequality this one does a pretty good job of explaining the politics of why it persists in the US and how it’s getting worse.

Last Week Tonight–Well, since I mentioned it . . .

Police Militarization

Food Waste

Gender Pay Gap–This one is short (under 8 minutes) and you can play the whole thing or the fake ad for LadyBucks starting at 5:57. However, I would really encourage showing the whole thing because there’s something about the line, “If someone takes a dump on my desk the size of the dump is not the issue.” I know it seems weird but if you are teaching feminist, gender or women’s studies in any way that one analogy in this episode can get you so much traction. Time and again students will want to bring things back to, “But women are almost equal in X,” or “But things in X are so much better for women than they were Y years ago” and something about being able to say, “Remeber, if you take a dump on my desk the size of the dump is not the issue” really forces them to focus on the ideology behind inequality. Listen, I wish there was a more eloquent, less scatological, way to get students to viscerally understand this concept but I just haven’t found one. In my 8 years of teaching about gender and sexuality this is the thing that gets the point across the most.

Miss America–This is another one where you can show the whole episode or the mini-pageant that sums up most of the main points of the episode which starts at 12:30 (but I would show the whole episode because it’s amazing).

Sex Ed–Yet again, you can show all 18 minutes or the summary clip starting at minute 17:53.

Medicaid Gap–If I’m teaching about the 2016 election, or if I were teaching now with the midterms approaching, I would 1000% show this video. “Economic anxiety” was listed as a reason that a lot of people voted for Trump in 2016 and that anxiety, when it was located, was often tied to healthcare costs. This video lays out, in detail, how Republicans exacerbated the healthcare crisis by refusing free money and voters, who did not know this, were angry at the ACA for not working.

International Women’s Day–If you happen to be teaching on March 8th then this is for you.

Student Debt–This may fuck them up a bit but they do deserve to know.

Paid Family Leave

The 2016 Election

GOP Rape Advisory Chart–Difficult, but essential, to read and to understand the misogyny of the US and the Republican party.

Welcome to Leith–Very hard to watch, but important to understand how white supremacy has been flourishing in the US since well before 2016.

“White Working Class” Narrative Is Nothing But A Racist Dog Whistle--A great piece about the myth of the white working class and the supposed economic anxiety that supported Trump.

On Men

The Lonely Legion–An incredibly important piece about why men are lonely, how women act as emotional bandaids, and why this makes men vulnerable to radicalization by white supremacists and misogynist groups.

Men Just Don’t Trust Women. And This Is A Problem.–An honest piece from one of my favorite authors.

Comedy Clips

As I mentioned earlier, I often begin class with a comedy clip vaguely related to something we’re talking about that day. Pedagogically, I do this because laughter releases serotonin which helps the brain store material in long-term memory. I also use a lot of these clips to remind students that we can bring a sense of lightness to serious subjects. It’s also a quick way to get students’ attention and can buy you an extra 3-5 minutes at the beginning of class if you need a moment to catch your breath for any reason. With that said, here are some of my favorite clips to begin class.

Let’s Generalize About Men–I love to use this clip to convey the absurdity of generalizing and also to cut through the sense of tension students can bring to class when we are talking about men or masculinity.

Very Adult Lesson on the 4 Sentence Types–Very much what it sounds like. You will know if your class can handle this type of comedy and it’s not appropriate for all institutions (I’m looking at you Christian colleges). I will say, it’s impossible to forget the sentence types after this clip.

Unlearn Toxic Masculinity–We don’t deserve Nore Davis. This routine touches on everything from what it means to be woke to student loans. ❤

Treat Nazis Like You Treat Women–‘Nough said.

On Growing Up Religious & Abstinent–If you’re teaching about sex-ed in the US this is a great one to start the day with.

Not An Alpha Male–Again, a great way to cover types of masculinity. Also, racism.

Aparna Nancherla–Is amazing and you should show all of her clips in your class at some point.

Ivan Decker–I will never not show this routine in a class.

Matthew Broussard–I love to use this clip before talking about sexuality to introduce students to using correct anatomical terms.

Shameless Self-Promotion

Inside the Duggars’ Dark World–My piece on the Duggars for the Ms. blog. It’s also about Christian Nationalism and misogyny.

Indiana’s Dangerous Anti-Abortion Laws are Mike Pence’s Legacy–Another piece for Ms. (always honored to work with them) that’s mostly about Christian Nationalism, misogyny, and state power.

Review: Dirty Computer–I got to co-author a review of my favorite artists with one of my favorite people and someone published it!

WTF: Dissertating

The dissertation.

If you want to go from ABD to PhD, or abd2phd, then you have to write a dissertation.

You can do all the other things we’ve discussed from prelims to teaching to service work and if you don’t write the damn dissertation then you don’t get the damn PhD.

As my partner and I transition out of academics into other types of jobs I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that academics often refer to umbrella categories rather than specific job duties.

Take our September topic of teaching as an example. Teaching can include but is not limited to: project management, training, presentations, content creation (Blackboard or Moodle or other), curating content (putting together a course pack), and procedure writing (creating syllabus policies). Yet, we refer to it all simply as teaching.

Similarly, what we normally refer to as “dissertating” involves research (which may itself involve grant writing, travel planning, and so on), writing, editing, revising, and, ultimately, defending.

For our October series on dissertating we will specifically be focusing on how to write a first draft of your dissertation. This assumes that you have completed enough research to start writing.

Topics we will address are what enough even means in the context of researching and writing a dissertation draft, how to deal with the anxiety inherent in the process, and what to do when the words won’t go.

We will also address how to break down the overwhelming imperative of “Write an original book” into doable steps and share all the best practices and things we wish we’d done sooner in writing our own dissertations.

If you have a particular dissertating topic you want covered and don’t see it listed here then leave a comment or use the Contact page to send us a message!

October?

Y’all, how the hell did it get to be October so quickly?

We had so much planned for our September series on teaching but, you know, life happens.

In addition to the emotional toll of the Kavanaugh hearings, which we shared a little bit about here, the majority of our team moved during the month of September throwing our lives, and our timelines, into chaos.

We want to deeply apologize to those of you who were hoping for more detailed teaching advice. We were excited to talk about teaching with you as well and deeply disappointed that we didn’t meet our original posting goals.

Like most of the topics we cover on this site, we could spend months talking about the ins and outs of teaching.

And we plan to.

If you’ve wanted a deeper dive on any of the topics we’ve covered in the past (e.g. prelims/fields, being a first-gen or working-class PhD, task management, wonder & flow, and, yes, teaching) then it is my great pleasure to announce that we will be revisiting all of these topics and going into greater detail over the next calendar year.

On Wednesday we will be announcing the new topic we’ll be covering for the month of October–a topic we are so excited to share with you!

But we aren’t quite done with teaching yet. This Friday, in lieu of a regular weekly roundup we will be sharing a super roundup of teaching links and resources we’ve found helpful over the years.

Last, but never least, we want to offer a special thanks to all of the new followers who joined us during our summer series on rest and over the month of September! We are so glad you are here and want to celebrate you. To do so, we’re putting together a giveaway for the month of November. Leave a comment and tell us what item you would most want to win in an abd2phd giveaway!

FDT and FBK

Y’all, I’m so tired in all the ways a human being can be tired. The change of seasons and this Brett Kavanaugh bullshit has got me exhausted and the only thing I’ve been doing for days–when I’m awake–is trying to find little things that don’t make me miserable. So, you know, I rewatched all of “The Good Place.”

I have, noticeably, stepped away from our Septemeber series on teaching. Every day I wake up and tell myself, “Write about how to teach intersectionality today. It’s more important than ever with all of this BS going on.” And every day I wind up eating cookies and watching Sailor Moon to not think about the interesting times we live in.

If I learned one thing in my teaching career it’s that  it can be incredibly powerful to bring your whole self to the classroom.

Of course, you shouldn’t do anything that you’re uncomfortable with but the quickest way to build trust in the classroom is to be vulnerable there–to model how to connect lived experience with classroom concepts.

If you, like me, are struggling right now–struggling to get out of bed, struggling to teach, struggling to exist–then I would encourage you to take that into the classroom. Chances are, a lot of your students are struggling as well and would appreciate a chance to talk about it.

We hear a lot these days about how our digital spaces are increasingly becoming echo chambers because of our ability to mute or block people who have differing views. Because of this, our classrooms have become even more important cultural spaces. They  are places where students are taught how to critically evaluate their opinions while also interacting with people who have different views and different life experiences. This can be incredibly important.

I know it certainly was for me when I was a young, extremely conservative student.

So, in light of all of this, I have just a few resources to share. The first category are things that help us get up and do shit. The second category are some teaching resources for your classroom.

Stuff That Makes Me Hate the World a Little Bit Less:

FDT, Part 1

FDT, Part 2

Wednesday Morning

Oh My God

Join The Fun!

Trump Is A Clown With a Knife

Stuff to Encourage Class Discussion, Hopefully:

Safe Spaces–I love this piece for explaining safe spaces to students: what they are, what they aren’t, why folks need them, and how they work. (Bonus Points if you can guide your students towards understanding that “man caves” are safe spaces for white men.)

Jokes Seth Can’t Tell–I love this regular segment on Late Night with Seth Meyers for introducing an example of people owning intersectional identities and how in-group and out-group language works.

Growing Up Poor–If you’re teaching in the US then it’s going to be incredibly hard to get your students to acknowledge, let alone talk about, class. I use comedy clips almost every class period to get things started and this one is, far and away, the perennial favorite. It can also spark some good dialogue about class differences.

Potato or Nazi–My favorite way to start a conversation about imperialism and cultural appropriation.

 

Using #MightyKacy to Teach Privilege

Earlier this week I said I would share my favorite lesson to teach students the concept of privilege. Understanding privilege is essential for understanding, well, pretty much anything else. However, a lot of students are initially resistant to the concept of privilege and the idea that they have it.

I was one of these students. When I was a junior in college and first learning about the concept of privilege through my work with the Bonner Leader’s program I was deeply uncomfortable with the concept. It felt as if someone was trying to tell me I had not earned my place at the institution. It felt like my hard work was being invalidated. I really, really, really could have used this article.

There are two fundamental truths of teaching (which no one ever tells you, for some reason). The first is that all of us teach first to who we were as students. The second is that the best teaching is a balance between earning your students’ trust enough to fuck up their day a little bit.

I’ve designed this lesson on privilege to do both of those things, reaching through the resistance students like me had to the concept of privilege and destabilizing their day the more they think about.

This lesson is adaptable to most humanities classes, is a stand alone, and can be adjusted to fit the length of your class period. The lesson as described below is designed to take up one full 50 minute class period.

First, have your students watch this video of Kacy Catanzaro, or #MightyKacy, at the 2014 Dallas Qualifiers. This is the first time that a woman completed the American Ninja Warrior qualifying course. The video is fun to watch and exciting whether you’ve seen it 50 times or it’s brand new. Have students watch it twice. The first time just to watch it and feel the excitement. The second time students watch it, when they know what to expect, ask them to listen to the commentary and watch the audience. You know your class best so if you think they need to then have them watch it a third time, possibly taking notes on the phrases that stick out to them.

After you’ve had them watch the qualifiers hit them with the 2014 Dallas Finals.

Have them repeat the same process they went through for the qualifying video with the finals.

After watching the videos guide students through discussing what they heard from the commenters and the fans.

They may notice a lot of different things from the fact that Kacy picked up some fans and a hashtag between the qualifiers and the finals to the fact that her BF and training partner calls her “one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever worked with.”

Guide them towards the observations the commenters made about her body–particularly about her “wingspan,” places her weight or height is a disadvantage, and so on.

These comments hint at the fact that the course was not built for Kacy’s body. It was built for a taller, heavier body.

This is privilege.

Privilege doesn’t mean that you hate individuals who are not like you. In fact, you can enthusiastically support them as individuals just as the commenters and fans enthusiastically support Kacy’s progress through the courses.

What privilege means is that the structure (in this example, the obstacle course) is built for certain types of bodies rather than others.

This doesn’t mean those other bodies can’t make it through the course–only that it is more difficult for them to do so.

Similarly, this doesn’t mean people who have the bodies the course is made for will automatically make it through the course, but it does mean they won’t face extra obstacles just by being who they are.

If you like, you can take this lesson even further.

The American Ninja Warrior obstacle course is made for certain types of bodies–but whose?

If you ask students who the course is made for they will tentatively answer, “Men.”

But #NotAllMen

If you have any Ninja Warrior enthusiasts in your class they will likely know that American Ninja Warrior is a popular spinoff of the original Japanese game show. That does not explain, however, why ANW became an American sensation when other Japanese game shows, like the brilliant Hole In The Wall, did not.

The answer can be found in, of all places, WWII. After WWII Japan dissolved it’s Army and the US established a strong military presence in bases all over Japan. Competing in the original Ninja Warrior became a popular pastime for American soldiers on leave in Japan.

American soldiers who liked competing in the show, and their families who wanted to watch them, created a market for an American version of the show.

Thus, the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course isn’t built for every male body. It is built explicitly for the bodies of American soldiers.

In essence, we have the glory that is American Ninja Warrior because of the United States’ military and cultural imperialism.

This is the other lesson of privilege: being a member of the American armed-forces doesn’t guarantee you will make it through the ANW obstacle course but it does increase your odds because the structure was, literally, built for you.

 

Put Time On Your Side

Later this week I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite, portable lesson plans on topics vital to humanities classes such as privilege and intersectionality.

Before that, however, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the time that teaching takes. As mentioned earlier this month, graduate student teaching appointments exist inside an odd little paradox. Most graduate students are at research institutions and most research institutions prioritize research over teaching. I had the privilege of being at two of the top 100 universities in the world for my MA and PhD (the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University, respectively). I can tell you that, even with this limited sample, teaching was considered far more of a distraction from the “real work” of the university at the higher-ranked school.

One thing both schools had in common, however, was that the teaching advice I got from tenured professors was TERRIBLE. All of it boiled down to, “find ways to give fewer hours to teaching because the real work is your research, writing, and publishing.”

The problem with that advice is that it’s not actually advice.

I’m serious.

That injunction, though often given, was rarely followed up with strategies for how to spend less time teaching which made it worse than useless. It was, instead, debilitating giving me the impression that even when I was working I was somehow working wrong.

So, today, I want to have some real talk about why teaching is such a “time suck,” in the words of one tenured mentor, and how to make it work for you. Grab your coffee, and let’s settle in!

giphy2

It’s true: teaching is time intensive. It is not, however, significantly more time intensive than any other aspect of graduate work. What does set teaching apart from other aspects of graduate labor is that it is significantly more immediate than almost anything else you do in graduate school. You can fake your way through a seminar when you haven’t read the book and there’s not really a whole lot your committee can do if you’re late with a chapter draft but you can’t show up to class unprepared. (Well, you can but if you’re reading this you probably aren’t that type of person so it’s a moot point.)

This means that, however often you teach, you have to show up to a place dressed and prepped and ready to interact with other human beings.

The other thing that sets teaching apart from other types of graduate labor is that it has a built in structure for setting goals and knowing whether or not you’ve made progress.

Let’s say you start the week with two primary goals. The first is to finish editing a chapter you’ve been working on and the second is to finish grading assignments for your class. With your class there is a very simple equation:

Number of assignments left to grade/Number of days to grade them = Number of assignments to grade every day.

There is no parallel for chapter editing. Sure, you can guarantee that you spend 2 hours a day in front of your computer staring at your document. You can print it out and read for typos. You can work on your footnotes. You can do research to solidify that nebulous part of your argument.

But how do you know if it’s really done?

How do you know how long any of these individual steps are going to take? How do you know if you’re on schedule or behind? What if you get writer’s block? What if your chapter drives you into an existential crisis and you lose a day to laying on the couch binging Jessica Jones and wondering how to find out if you have superpowers?

Even if you have firm answers to all of these questions (and I have never met anyone who has) at the end of a day of writing you often are left with what you started with: some words on a page rather than a concrete reminder of how much progress you’ve made.

Taken all together these things can make writing discouraging and difficult.

Teaching, on the other hand, allows you to see noticeable progress from when you start grading to when you stop. Whether you are grading hardcopies and can see physical papers moving from the “not-graded” to “graded” pile or are grading on Blackboard and can see the green “graded” icon pop up in your columns there is some sort of external validation that you are making progress.

In addition, when you leave comments on students’ work like, “Did you think about X?” they take it seriously! Some of them will come to your office and have long conversations about how they, in fact, did not think of X but Googled it and are now fascinated by X and would like to learn more and can you recommend any resources and might X connect to Y?

In short, students, even the shitty ones, often treat you like an authority because, in the classroom, you are.

This is a significant contrast to how we feel as graduate students. Even if you are in an exceptional program that does not make it’s graduate students feel like supplicants we often feel as if we know so little compared to the experts we are reading and writing about.

Combined, the sense of concrete progress and being an expert can make teaching feel kind of addictive. This, I think, is why so many graduate advisors give their advisees dire injunctions to teach less. I have personally known at least 3 graduate students who allowed teaching to take up all of their time because they were stumped on the dissertation and teaching was, comparatively, easy. To my knowledge, all of these graduate students are part of the 50% of humanities PhD candidates who leave their programs after becoming ABD.

I don’t say any of this to discourage you from teaching. I hope that you enjoy your teaching. The purpose of this post is to let you know how teaching can be detrimental to dissertation progress and, more importantly, how to make teaching work for you rather than against you. With that in mind, here are five tips I wish I had followed a helluva lot sooner.

1. Track Your Hours.

No, seriously, I mean it. This was advice I got from a committee member early on and didn’t follow until, I kid you not, my last semester of graduate school. God, how I wish I’d followed it sooner!

Part of why I didn’t follow this advice sooner is because I would start the semester with good intentions of logging my hours buuuut, I didn’t really do much the first week so I put it off. Then, before I knew what had happened, I was slammed with assignments to grade and logging my hours seemed like one more thing I didn’t have time for.

Please don’t make my mistake.

Please log your hours.

Don’t just log your teaching hours. Log all of your hours. Log the hours you teach and the hours you read and the hours you write. Log the hours you spend in class, as teacher or learner, and the hours you spend in your office.

There’s no need to be super-precise here just put in your best estimate.

Logging your hours combats he creeping sense of productivity paranoia that graduate school engenders. Instead of wondering if you are “doing enough” you can look at your hours over the past week or month and see where your time is going.

Logging your hours will also help you see if your teaching to writing ratio is creeping into dangerous territory.

Finally, and this a worst-case-scenario, if you have an awful teaching appointment that demands more of your time than your contract said it would then tracking your hours will give you evidence to take to your Graduate Coordinator or Ombudsperson.

Both Excel and Google Sheets have templates for activity logs you can use. I jut made my own as a table with a column for the day, what I was doing (e.g. teaching), and what I worked on (e.g. grading papers, lecture prep, responding to student emails).

2. Manage Student Expectations.

This one actually has two parts. First, decide what you won’t do. For me, I don’t answer emails outside of business hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 to 5:00. I know another person who doesn’t do teaching related things on days they don’t teach so if they are teaching MWF they are unavailable to students Tusday and Thursday. I know professors who live an hour away from where they work and won’t come into campus on days they don’t teach.

Set whatever boundaries you want to set for yourself and stick to them.

The second half of setting your boundaries is to communicate them clearly to students.

I tell students on the first day that I don’t answer emails outside of business hours. I also give them the following example: If you have a question about an assignment that is due on Monday you need to email me on Thursday because if you email close to or after 5 on Friday I may not see your message in time to do you any good.

In my last year of the PhD program, I would often devote Monday through Friday to teaching (I was teaching 2.5 classes) but the weekends were my writing time. Having the mental freedom to not worry about checking my emails meant that I could focus completely on writing. If I did happen to check my email and respond to a student over the weekend they were always appreciative because they knew my policy.

3. Grade Strategically

This is very simple but often overlooked by new instructors who are concerned with doing things the “right” way.

Structure the times that your students turn in assignments so that you don’t have overlapping deadlines that make your life a living hell.

For instance, if you are still in coursework when teaching your first class and you have a seminar paper due during finals week then for the love of all that is holy do not have your students turn in their final paper during finals week. Instead, have your students turn their paper in the penultimate week of the semester and then watch documentaries or have wrap up sessions for the last week of classes.

If you want to implement this advice but have already handed syllabi out to your students with deadlines that conflict with your own deadlines then give them a one week extension as their original due dates draw nigh. They will love you and your life will be so much better.

4. Assign What You Need to Read

If there’s a new work in your field or a classic you haven’t gotten around to reading yet or an old-favorite you need to revisit then assign it to your students.

If it’s an article, even if it’s a heavy-hitter, have them read it. If it’s book then have them read the introduction or the chapter most relevant to your work.

I guarantee you there’s a way to shove this thing into a week of your class as sort-of, kind-of related to something.

Again, if it’s not already in your syllabus and you’ve already started teaching then PDF that reading and post a Blackboard announcement that it’s replacing something not essential to your dissertation on next week’s course schedule.

The benefits of having students read something you need to read are manifold.

First, it’s often a good way to stretch the students understanding of the topic or the discipline because the level of scholarly work you are dealing with in your diss is, likely, more rigorous than general intro course level material.

Second, it forces you to be accountable to someone for reading it. (BONUS: If it’s a new book and you are using it for a class you might be able to get a free or low-cost copy from the publisher.)

Third, student comments can provide new insights on works you’re already familiar with.

Finally, because the work is likely a little more difficult compared to other course materials students will rely on you to help them interpret it through providing context or breaking down the argument. Doing this in the classroom for your students can be a great way to reassure your inner critic that you really do know your stuff. After all, if you can lead 35 undergraduates through a discussion of the thing then you are probably ready to write about.

5. Workshop, Bitches!

Let your time teaching double as a time to try out new ideas for your research. There are a million ways to do this.

Sometimes, if I got to class early I would ask the students already sitting there, “Hey, can I ask for your opinion on something?” With permission I would then summarize the new line of argument I was working on and ask what they thought. Sometimes students had great insights that helped my argument. Sometimes the value was just in forcing myself to articulate my argument out loud to an audience.

If you are in the later stages of your dissertation and have a few chapters that are done-ish then assign one of them to your class. Is it scary to open yourself up to your students like that?

Like heck.

But it’s also valuable. You can get some good feedback during the class discussion and it’s just great practice for presenting your research to a group who is not familiar with it (you know, like a job talk) in a low-stakes setting.

I had a professor during my MA who, the day our first paper was due, would bring five pages of her work in progress. She would pass them out to all of us and give us 20 minutes to read and edit them.

This practice, according to her, did two things. First, it was designed to reassure her students that absolutely everyone makes spelling and grammar mistakes and not to be embarassed by them. Second, it got her 30 free editors for those 5 pages.

Teaching is going to take up time but hopefully with these tips you can make that time work for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPECIAL EDITION

Don’t worry!

Time isn’t passing faster than you think it is. This is the second post of the day!

This is a special edition dedicated to all of our followers on the quarter system who are starting new classes this week. For first time teachers, the first day of class can feel especially fraught with questions of how to establish authority and set the tone for the semester. For established teachers, knowing that students often skip “syllabus day” can be discouraging.

For the past several years, I’ve started class using an exercise I learned from Kimber Nicoletti-Martinez at a Multicultural Efforts to end Sexual Assault workshop.

First, you hand containers of playdough to the class and instruct them to take some. When class starts, ask everyone to make something with their playdough which both represents them and which they would be comfortable sharing with the class. While they create you explain the most important parts of the syllabus. (Hint: This is normally where I explain the “respect” and “plagiarism” clauses in my syllabus.) Then you go around the classroom and ask people to share what they made and what it represents about them. If you feel so moved then ask a follow-up question or share a personal connection to what they’ve said.

I like this method for several reasons. First, it gets the students’ attention. Even if everyone following this blog right now implemented this method on the first day of class I’m willing to bet that you would still be your students’ only class with playdough. Second, but related to the first, it gets students to put away their phones and really pay attention to each other from day one. Third, but related to the second, it starts building community from the first day. Fourth, there is a certain percentage of students that blow off the first day of class because they think nothing interesting happens that day. I’m super petty and I love surprising those students when they show up on the second day of class with an in-depth syllabus discussion.

giphy

Fifth, it’s fun and it keeps things interesting, even for veteran teachers.

“But,” you may be thinking, “I am a poor graduate student! How will I pay for all that playdough?”

giphy1

Good news, my friend!

You can make playdough for super cheap. This is my favorite recipe. For under $10 you can make enough playdough for over 50 students. Making the playdough has become part of my pre-semester ritual. Making the playdough, putting it in Ziploc bags, and putting those bags in my backpack helps me feel prepared for the day.

Go forth, my friends, and have a great first day of class!