Let me start with something we all know to be true: Graduate students in the humanities are not paid well.
While everyone who has ever talked to a graduate student in the humanities knows that this is true finding the data to back this up is incredibly difficult for a lot of reasons. To get a qualitative sense of how little humanities students are paid check out the comments on this unbearable piece from Chronicle Vitae.
While not paid well at the best of times, many graduate students aren’t paid at all over the summer. Summers in grad school can be hard to survive leaving PhD students with a range of options from ok to awful. I was always very lucky in that I could count on family support in a real pinch. Many people don’t have this option. Some PhD students take out student loans to cover the summer. Still other students take summer jobs to make ends meet. However, these summer jobs often cut into critical research and writing time extending one’s overall time in grad school.
In this series, I’m going to focus on the things that helped make summers as a PhD student better. I had a lot of privileges as a PhD student (I’m white, I’m cis, I was able to buy a house and I had recourse to some family financial support for starters). While I can share a few limited tips I would be grateful to readers who contribute their own tips in the comments!
Finally, I’ll posting a summer survival tip the day after I post something in our ongoing series about abusive advisors. Let’s begin!
Summer Survival Tip 1: Grow Something
Grow whatever you can. Maybe you have the money to invest in a raised bed (if you live near an Aldi they sell a great raised bed kit for $40). Maybe you can put a few containers on your apartment balcony. Maybe you can put a basil plant in a window.
Whatever you can grow, grow it.
It will make a huge difference to your quality of life over the summer. In the beginning of August, when you haven’t been paid in a month or two and you’re living on ramen adding a little fresh basil in there will make your life feel better.
Community gardens have gotten increasingly popular so if you don’t have the space or resources to grow something yourself check the internet to see what churches or community centers have gardens where you can put in a little bit of work to get some fresh produce. No one wants that grad school scurvy.
The town I did my PhD in usually planted edible plants in the decorative planters around downtown. In the middle of summer they would have these huge kale plants and you could steal a few leaves as long as you didn’t decimate one plant–you gotta hit up different planters for your salad. I mean it’s kale, but desperate times and all that.
I’ll just end with this tidbit–all parts of a dandelion are edible and those things are everywhere. Just make sure you wash it thoroughly if you get it from someone else’s property since you don’t know what chemicals they used in their lawn or if their dog peed on it yesterday.
This mini-series is an adaptation of 15 signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. Each installment will adapt 5 signs to an academic context. For more familiarity with the signs please check out the original article over at HuffPo.
Love Bombing. Love bombing is where an abuser showers their intended victim with praise and attention. The HuffPo article above states, “They will tell you you’re unlike anyone else they’ve ever met.” While a graduate advisor may not love bomb you in a romantic sense–wooing you with flowers, dinners, and comments on your physical appearance–they may love bomb you with the things academics value–promises of publications and prestigious introductions. They may tell you that you are the most brilliant grad student they’ve ever had and that you’ll go far together. Love bombing is, by its very nature, incredibly seductive. So, how do you tell if you really are the most brilliant grad student your advisor has worked with in a decade or whether or not they are love-bombing you? Look to how other graduate students in your program relate to them. The clearest instance of love-bombing I’ve ever encountered is when an abusive advisor was taking on first-year PhD students while her senior grad student was still in the program. In her case, love bombing took the form of telling her new graduate students not to listen to her veteran student because they were special and much more qualified than he was. They wouldn’t have the problems he had with her because they were special, unlike him.
Monitoring. In a romantic relationship this often takes the form of wanting to know who you are hanging out with and where you are and what you’re doing. In an academic relationship this can be an advisor who wants to know what courses you’re taking, what conferences you’re going to, and who you’re talking to at those conferences. Again, part of the problem with recognizing abusive advisors is that the behavior of an abusive advisor is not fundamentally different from the behavior of a good advisor. A good advisor will probably want to know what classes you are taking (some programs will make your advisor sign off on your classes or research hours). A good advisor will want to know what conferences you’re going to and may recommend panels to attend or people to seek out at those conferences. The difference really comes in intention and tone which can be incredibly hard both for victims and observers to pick up on. A good advisor will listen to your reasons for attending X conference. They may make recommendations such as “don’t go to any conferences in the final year of your dissertation–just focus on finishing” but they will treat you as an intelligent person making decisions about your future career. In contrast, an abusive advisor will always approach you from the perspective that (a) you are an idiot who could not survive without them and (b) your behavior reflects on them. An example would be a PhD student I know who went to his field’s major conference. As an aspiring academic professional should do he went to the book room and chatted to several publishers. He happened to talk to the publisher that had published his advisor’s book. Although he did not seek to drop her name it organically came up in conversation with the publishing representative. The publishing rep said they would be very interested in publishing the grad student’s dissertation when he was done writing it. For any rational grad student and advisor this would be a huge win and the next steps would be talking about how to stay in touch with the publisher and how to think about restructuring the dissertation for a book proposal. Instead, when the publishing rep told the advisor that he’d ran into her talented student she angrily emailed the student and told him not to talk to people she knew without her permission and that he had horribly embarrassed her. The grad student agonized for weeks about what he had done or said wrong to the publishing rep. In reality, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He had done exactly what a grad student should do but his abusive advisor saw his actions as a reflection on her professional reputation and wanted to both monitor and control who he talked to and how. This also relates to the next abuse tactic.
Isolating. Abusers always seek to isolate their victims because abuse only functions in an environment of deep shame. If you have a strong support network they’ll remind you that you don’t need your abuser’s shit and help you figure out ways to get out of the situation. This is why one of the first things any abuser does is isolate you. In romantic relationships this often takes the form of explosive jealousy when you spend time with other people, picking fights with your friends, encouraging you to quit your job or move away from your family. I think this is one of the abuse tactics that looks the most different in an academic setting. For starters, the structure of grad school is isolating in and off itself. You’ve often moved far away from your established support network and you may be financially dependent on the institution and, therefore, on maintaining your advisor’s favor. The process of academic specialization is, in and of itself, isolating. By the time you’re ABD the world of relevant experts for the academic field you’re in is astonishingly small. This can mean that, if you realize you have an abusive advisor, your options to switch are small and, in some cases, nonexistent. Apart from the isolating structure of graduate school, though, individual abusers may try and isolate you but it won’t be by picking fights with your friends. Instead, they may refuse to work with certain other faculty as part of your committee. It never ceases to amaze me how many academic professionals are willing and eager to be sycophants. I know of more than one case where an abusive advisor would refuse to allow anyone on the committee who wasn’t part of their cult of personality. This, of course, defeats the very purpose of having a committee in the first place. The role of a committee is to ensure that you are earning your PhD and not receiving, or being denied it, unfairly. When an abusive advisor fills a committee with people devoted to them it further isolates the student by ensuring that your success is dependent on keeping your advisor happy (and it usually results in some group gaslighting or backlash if the student dares to mention their concerns to someone on the committee). Abusers also seek to isolate by taking control of the narrative. For instance, they may mention, or may hint that they’ve mentioned, to other professor’s in the department that you are a difficult student. This sense that your advisor has poisoned the well can keep students from looking for alternatives. One old chestnut that carries over in all abusive situations is the abusers contention that no one else would put up with you except the abuser. Abusive adviors will contend that no other professor would put up with your procrastination/writing/email salutation/teaching load/family situation/insert random normal thing here.
Shoulding. The HuffPo article I’m pulling from for this list says, “Comments about how you should or shouldn’t cut your hair, whom you should see, what job you should take, how you should speak, etc. are an indication that your partner believes he knows more than you do about yourself and your life.” Uh, so, this dynamic is pretty much the premise of all PhD advising. So, what’s the difference between when this behavior is normal and when it’s abusive? A good advisor will see you as a young professional in your own right–someone who knows what they’re doing but may need a little guidance from time to time. They’ll give you advice to make your life easier or better. For instance, there were a lot of times that my advisor asked me questions I absolutely hated. However, as I wrestled with them I realized that they made my thinking clearer and my argument better. It wasn’t exactly pleasant but it was both well-intentioned and based on the premise that I was an adult who could deal with complicated questions. In contrast, an abusive advisor will talk to you and treat you like you are an idiot child who could not survive without their beneficent help. An abusive advisor uses “should” like a weapon saying things like, “Congratulations on your book review but you really should be working on an article” or “Instead of wasting your time on conferences you should be writing.” The point of this abusive shoulding isn’t to help you but to make you feel like everything you think and do is always-already wrong. This is an important part of instilling the shame that’s critical to an abusive relationship. A good tell of an abusive dynamic is if your advisor is shaming you for normal behavior. However, to know what “normal” is for graduate students you need to be in regular contact with your peers.
Permission. Abuse isn’t logical. For abusers there is absolutely no conflict in telling you that you should do something and then getting mad at you for not asking permission before doing that thing. Forcing you to ask for permission by explicitly telling you you have to or by getting mad when you don’t is a method of isolation. Remember the grad student I mentioned earlier whose advisor wanted him to ask permission for who he could talk to at conferences? That’s a perfect example of this type of control. There are other advisors who will tell you not to approach other faculty about being on your committee until they say you’re ready or not to send your article into a journal until they approve it. This is, of course, a trap. They will either (a) never give you permission (b) force you to do the thing without permission and then get mad at you or (c) only give you permission when they feel they can control the results or the narrative.
You, my dear readers, are all very smart people and so I’m sure you’ve already noticed that the common them of all five of these examples is control. These are all strategies to control your behavior in one way or another and, through controlling your behavior, to isolate you. The next set of abusive behaviors we’ll look at are also about power and control but focus, instead, on controlling how you think about the situation you’re in.
Talking about abusive advisors is hard for a lot of reasons. One reason why this series has dragged on for so long is because it has been personally difficult for me to compile these stories of abusive advisors. Many of them come from people I care about quite a bit and listening to them recount their stories of pain has been difficult. I’ve tried to turn them into a blog post that will honor them and help other students avoid abusive advisors.
Even in the abstract, however, talking about abusive advisors can be difficult for other reasons. In researching for this post I spent a lot of time googling variations of “signs of an abusive relationship.” The overwhelming majority of my results were signs of a romantically abusive relationship.
When we, in the US, talk about abusive relationships, we tend to default to romantic relationships. I’ve often noticed that when we talk about abusive of power in workplace settings it often has to do with leveraging differences in power to take advantage of a subordinate sexually.
I sometimes fear that our concept of abuse is so rooted in a conception of romantic/sexual abuse that it leaves graduate students who are experiencing other types of abuse from their advisors without a vocabulary to articulate what is happening.
The third reason why talking about abusive advisors is so damn difficult is because, as I’ve argued previously, the whole damn system is abusive. When trying to discern whether or not a romantic partner is abusive there is an expected set of standards of normal behavior and there is abuse. For instances, all couples fight but it’s definitely abusive if one partner hits another.
With PhD advisors it’s different. The very job definition of a PhD advisor is too critique your work. Every body’s advisor is critiquing them. If your advisor’s critique makes you feel terrible for days you are more than likely to wonder if that’s a problem with you. If you tentatively ask faculty you trust whether or not your advisor’s feedback should make you feel this way you’re likely to be told that you need to toughen up
I’ve adapted 20 early signs of an abusive relationship from a romantic context to an academic context. The list is not perfect or complete but I hope it helps someone. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading the adapted signs with their academic examples.
Easter is my favorite holiday and not just because she’s beautifully played by Kristen Chenoweth in American Gods.
It’s odd to me that more people don’t love Easter. It’s an OG feminist holiday celebrating the goddess Ishtar or Inanna.
While I love to celebrate the Queen of Heaven in all her glory what I really love about Easter is that it celebrates redemption.
In every version of the Easter story, from Inanna’s to Jesus’, the holiday is about redemption.
In my experience, most people mistake Easter as a holiday about resurrection and write it off as a fantastical notion that has no application in everyday life.
But the resurrection is one manifestation of redemption.
The redemption story of Easter, of all the Easters, is that the worst thing that ever happened to you could become the basis for the very best thing to ever happen to you.
When Easter stories include resurrection, a return from death in the case of Jesus, or from the underworld in the case of Inanna, that is an acknowledgement that our most vibrant life can come from the death of our old way of being.
What I love about Easter stories is that they aren’t some fake positivity bullshit.
Easter stories are difficult and painful. In the Inanna story there is the season of weeping and in the Jesus story there is Lent. In each story the pain is felt and faced as an unavoidable part of life.
Let me be very, very clear here. It’s not that bad things happen to good people or that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “God won’t give you more than he can handle” or “Mental illness is a story you tell yourself” or “Your scars make you who you are” or some other sickening platitude.
Bad things happen to everyone. We all have to lose parts of ourselves that we cherished and ways of being that we loved.
What the Easter stories tell us is that the way we handle those losses, those deaths, and that grief can either bring death or life.
You, dear reader, are an alchemist capable of turning life’s lead–its poison, its killing weight–into gleaming gold. You get to choose if the pain turns you into someone that hurts others or helps them. You get to chose to replace the version of yourself you lost with a version you like even better.
It’s not easy. In fact, it’s the hardest work in the world, but it is worth doing. At least, that’s the promise of Easter and that’s why it’s my favorite holiday.
I wanted to share this message with you today, dear friends, because talking about abusive advisors is difficult.
If we get down to plain facts, many PhD students are stuck with an abusive advisor in a situation where both staying and leaving feel like a death warrant for the person they were when they started grad school or for the person they wanted to be or both. This site is not yet at a place where it can save you from an abusive advisor by providing you with a passport, a thousand dollars, and two tickets to anywhere (but that is the ultimate goal).
All I can give you today is a wish for good weather and the assurances that even if you can’t control your circumstance you can control the person you become. Redemption waits for us all and no one, absolutely no one, can take that from you.
I think about that phrase a lot. It’s part of the foundation of Western medicine. It’s part of the foundation of the Western academy.
If you talk to me for any length of time you’ll find out that Feminist Standpoint Theory is my jam. I love it. I relate everything to it. I wanna talk about it all the time.
Feminist standpoint theory argues that your view of the world around you is dependent on how you’re positioned in the world. One of the contributions of feminist standpoint theory is that the view from the bottom looking up is more accurate than the view from the top looking down. In feminist standpoint theory, one of the arguments is that women know more about men’s lives than men know about women’s. This isn’t that women are necessarily smarter than men but that they need to understand men’s needs, moods, and lives to survive while men don’t need to know the same things about women. Some bitterly humorous evidence of this can be seen in the recent viral post showing that many men can’t recognize a speculum–a foundational piece of medical equipment for people with uteruses while everyone knows the traditional symptoms of a heart attack in men.
As someone who is a hardcore fan of Feminist Standpoint Theory, a scholar of women’s medical history, and someone with multiple chronic illnesses I have a conflicted relationship with, “First, do no harm.”
As the Harvard Health Blog has argued, to do no harm is not a particularly useful healing injunction. There are times when remedies carry harms of their own and one must weigh the relative costs of these harms because no harm is not a possible option.
Going deeper than that, however, I wonder who gets to determine what constitutes harm.
For instance, a lot of modern medical practice comes directly out of the suffering and death of women. For instance, J. Marion Sims, considered the “father of modern gynecology” practiced the techniques for which he became famous on black women without anesthesia under the belief that black people could not feel pain.
Take a moment and imagine, if you will, the mental barriers one has to erect to vivisect a live human being and convince yourself that they are not in pain. Imagine then, if you were the man who had successfully barricaded your mind against seeing clear evidence of harm, or even humanity, in your subjects how you would record your practice for others. You would not note, for instance, their screams of pain. You would, perhaps, write that the subjects you worked with are strangely reluctant to undergo medical procedures that directly benefit them. To be fair to Sims, we need to position him within the history of women’s health more broadly. For thousands of years what passed as official medical knowledge was the idea that women might not be fully human, with wandering organs that made them do crazy things. Medical practices known to benefit women by decreasing their death in childbirth were ignored for decades because male doctors didn’t think it was important. In other words, they didn’t see a harm there.
Defenders of Sims’ legacy have argued that, “To implicate him . . . is to implicate medicine in mid-19th century America.”
If you’ve stuck with me this far you might rightly be wondering, what does any of this have to do with getting a PhD or dissertation advisors?
To answer that question, let’s look at some of the similarities between the modern medical field and academia.
Both an MD/DO and PhD are terminal degrees. Trainees in each field are required to pay a huge opportunity cost through extended, expensive years in schooling while often paying a personal cost such as less time with family, chronic stress, or decreased health. The training for both professions (at least the Western incarnation of both professions) is rooted in an exclusive practice where male actors have, historically, gotten most of the credit and acclaim while the contributions of women and people of color have been overlooked. In both professions, you practice as a professional for years before being recognized by your community as a professional. The human cost of pursuing each degree is often written into a narrative of rigor–where the harsh conditions of the program theoretically weed out trainees who can’t “hack it.” After years of training and harsh conditions trainees finally earn the right to the title and, hopefully, a place in the profession.
Looking at both of these professions side-by-side, I would argue that what passes as “normal professionalization” in each field contains quite a bit of harm that participants at every level are trained to see as something other than what it clearly is.
All of this is not just a rambling diatribe (I mean, it is that, too), but a necessary prelude to understanding abusive advisors.
Abusive advisors are supposed to exist as a small minority in distinction to the vast majority of advisors who occupy a range between fine and great.
It’s hard to overestimate how important advisors are to whether or not a grad student successfully makes the journey from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge, from student to doctor, from temporary employment to permanent employment. In my MA program it was common practice to refer to your academic “family.” You advisor occupied the role of parent. The other students being overseen by your advisor were your academic siblings while your advisor’s advisor was your academic grandparent.
Personally, I tend to shy away from analogies that construct graduate students as children because those analogies are, of themselves, part of the toxic culture of graduate school in which the contributions of accomplished professionals are minimized until and unless they finish the degree. However, in terms of raw power, I don’t know if anything conveys the actual and perceived power that academic advisors have over their students than this analogy. Like a parent, your academic advisor has the power to make you part of a lineage or to exclude you from it. Like a family, your academic advisor and your fellow advisees shape a large part of who you become both professionally and personally.
There is one other way in which this troublesome analogy may be of use. The law recognizes that parents can abuse their children through neglect. In fact, we have laws on the books that protect children, the elderly, and the disabled from abuse via neglect. We even have a legal standard of “duty of care” that applies to corporations (a.k.a did the corporation take reasonable steps to protect a consumer from harm).
In other words, we, as a society, have enshrined in law the common-sense notion that there are cases where neglect, in and of itself, constitutes harm. In most of these cases, neglect constitutes harm because one part (the caregiver or the corporation) has significant power over the life and safety of the person they are serving.
Your academic advisor does not actually have control over your life and they rarely have control over your physical safety. However, they can have a great deal of influence over your mental health and your income–and all that is correlated with it.
Therefore, before we talk about abusive advisors we need to talk about the perpetuation of harm by well-intentioned actors.
I’ve come to believe that most advisors are harmful advisors.
This isn’t to say that most advisors are bad people. Just like the grad students they so consistently fail to serve, they are people caught in a bad system being asked to do ever more with less.
While there are, undoubtedly, bad actors who are malicious and harmful, the far larger problem comes back to who gets to define what counts as harm.
A while ago, I posted an image of an advisor’s time. I recently updated that image to make it easier to read and to better reflect reality:
This is what a normal advisor’s time would look like in the best case scenario. This isn’t a bad person. This is a bad system in which there is almost no option for your average academic advisor to give the necessary attention but given the power differential between a dissertation advisor and a PhD student this sort of necessary neglect constitutes a real harm to the graduate student.
It is not the harm of an outright abusive advisor, nor is it necessarily the harm of missed deadlines or poor feedback. One thing we know about graduate students is that over 50% of them won’t finish their PhD. Many of these students will make it through coursework but a few will drop out at the exam stage and far more will drop out as ABDs. In my conversations with grad students and faculty about why this is happening the answer I most commonly got is that graduate students languished, not knowing how to take the next step, without getting advice from their professors. Professors saw this happening but, with their own busy schedules and need for human things like sleep and families, didn’t have the time or energy to combat it.
The harm, I argue, consists in the opportunity cost these graduate students pay, the deep grief in losing a part of their identity when they unwillingly leave academia, the toll on their health from near-poverty level stipends, and the gap on their resume that they may struggle to explain to employers.
Even in the best cases, I have seen harried professors often give incomplete or contradictory advice to their equally harried grad students. These harms don’t even begin to touch on the missed opportunities for mentorship and sponsorship that we all go into graduate school hoping for.
“First, do no harm,” is an inadequate injunction for care. Our advisors, even all the good ones, are doing harm because they are trapped in a bad system that creates a monumental power difference and then necessitates neglect of the dependents all in the name of cheap labor and the life of the mind or some shit.
What we need, when we think about advisors, especially abusive advisors, is to recognize the ways in which the current incarnation of the system itself is abusive.
If you came to this series because you feel like you are being abused but you feel conflicted because your advisor is a genuinely kind, caring person who just doesn’t have enough time then don’t let anybody gaslight you.
Even if your advisor isn’t abusive the system is.
There are a lot of proposals on how to fix the system and I’ll let you google them when you can’t sleep because graduate school gave you anxiety which gave you insomnia. Someday, I’d like to be a part of those solutions.
However, if you are ABD right now and you want to get those other 3 letters one of the best things you can do for yourself is be honest about the system you’re in.
Let me be very clear: I’m not writing this piece to indict dissertation advisors. They are almost as trapped as their students, if not more so. (I mean, sure, they have a salary but they also have many more years invested in the system and a longer resume gap to explain if they want to leave.)
I’m writing this to indict the whole system.
If critiquing J. Marion Sims means critiquing the medical establishment since the 19th century then so be it and if critiquing dissertation advisors as dangerously neglectful of their PhD students means indicting the whole system then let’s burn this mother down.
First, though, let’s try and get everyone out of the building.
It’s been over two months since we last posted. Perhaps you thought that we had disappeared, but we’re still here and still passionate about helping YOU get through your PhD in a way that is physically, mentally, and emotionally beneficial for you.
One thing humanities PhD students know we’ll is that, if you don’t find time to take a break then you will have a breakdown.
In interviewing PhD students about their experience I was commonly told that folx would push themselves through the semester focusing on teaching with grand plans to write at their next break. However, break would roll around and they would spend it exhausted, sick, or both. This was frequently accompanied by feelings of guilt around the “lost” productivity.
Almost unanimously, the graduate students I interviewed believed that a certain measure of adrenaline kept them going during the semester and the minute they were on break their bodies crashed.
You learn to take breaks or you breakdown.
Recently, someone asked me about work-life balance. As we’ve talked about before, balance is an individual process, which means there is no work-life balance practice that will work for everyone. However, I will share my work-life balance philosophy with you:
There will always be people willing to give you more work. No one will ever give you more life.
This is why it is essential to prioritize your life over work.
What makes this particularly difficult for many of us who work in higher ed is that our work is an expression of what we are passionate about in life.
I wrote a dissertation on how the concept of virginity is crucial to the patriarchal nation-state because of my experiences with the sexual control of women in Christian Nationalist churches. I recently met someone who was drawn to academic advising, in part, as a way to help other students avoid the mistakes he made. One of my clients is doing an amazing black feminist analysis of digital activism because of how vital the internet was to her own identity formation as a black girl and black woman.
Without exaggeration I can tell you that everyone I personally know who has completed a PhD has done so on a subject that is vital to their identity. It may not always be obvious. I know a Revolutionary War scholar whose topic doesn’t seem particularly related to who he is as a person until you realize that a love for the history of the American Revolution was something he and his dad shared growing up.
This deep connection to our topic of study may seem obvious–after all, you can’t study something so deeply for, on average, seven years without passion for it whether that passion takes the form of love or hate.
What this means in practice, though, is that beyond #NeoLiberalCapitalismProblems, which demand we all feel like we need to work all the time to be good people, academics often want to work on their topics because it feels like a vital, creative expression of our own existence. Together, these forces can prevent us from taking breaks, even though all the good science says that we desperately need them in order to avoid a physical, mental, or emotional breakdown.
All of that is to say, taking a two month break from this site wasn’t something I planned on doing, but I needed a break after a very eventful 2018. The thing is, I didn’t know I needed a break until I found myself in it. In true grad student fashion, I was in denial that I needed a break until I had a little breakdown. After that, I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about needing a break. Finally, I just leaned into that sh*t and owned up the break.
I missed y’all terribly and I’m so glad to be back. We have some exciting stuff planned for the rest of 2019 but the most important message for today is this: We take breaks so we don’t breakdown.
The traditional assumption is that you have been a serious student for many years, over a decade, and that you have lots of experience with how to learn as a student. Therefore, since you know how to learn you must know how to teach.
This assumption is flawed.
Knowing how to critique the way something is built is not the same as knowing how to build a better version of it.
As a student, you have lots of experience critiquing syllabi and teaching methods. While knowing what not to do is important it is not the same as knowing what to do.
Syllabi are the sonnets of higher education–a strict form that can facilitate a breathtaking amount of creativity and beauty.
When making the syllabus for your class it’s important to remember that there are a lot of things you have to include. At my most recent institution syllabi were required to have the college’s “classroom civility” policy and the university’s “honor pledge” which was a rhyming couplet about not plagiarizing. It was also strongly recommended that all syllabi contain the phrase, “This syllabus is subject to change.”
These phrases, and others like them, need to be included because administrators view the syllabus as a contract between the university and the student. Students can, and have, sued universities over breach of contract due to syllabus alterations or information that ought to be obvious (e.g. plagiarism is bad) not being explicitly spelled out.
That’s why syllabi tend to follow such a strict form–legally, it’s a contract so you need contractual language in it.
The creativity flourishes in all of the places that are shaped by your pedagogy. In addition to the actual course material this can be the type of assignments you grade, how you grade them, or even your attendance policy.
Tomorrow, I’ll share with you one of my favorite syllabi clauses which you should feel free to copy and paste into your syllabus, if you like it. On Sunday, I’ll share a couple of my favorite assignments, which you should also feel free to copy, if you like.
For now, though, I want to speak to any readers who are putting together a syllabus for the first time. Even if you are at an institution that provides some form of training there is something altogether different about sitting down to write your first syllabus.
For one thing, it’s more difficult than it seems to know what you want students to be reading over 3 months from now.
The deeper difficulty with writing your syllabus, however, is that it can precipitate an acute bout of imposter syndrome. Every single time I have sat down to write a syllabus I have had a paralyzing moment where I ask the universe, “Who the fuck am I to teach anyone anything? I had cookie dough for breakfast and never make my bed and why would anyone think they could learn anything from me? I’m a mess and a fraud and these students are going to know it from this terrible syllabus!”
Every. Single. Time.
And do you know what?
The syllabus always comes together and I have yet to be called a fraud by a student.
I think there’s something about this syllabus panic that is, in its own perverse way, a good sign.
The process of getting a PhD is one of continued specialization. You know more and more about a very narrow range of things. As this happens, you simultaneously become more and more aware of how very much you don’t know and will never know.
But that isn’t a flaw. That’s just being human.
You may not be an expert on every subject your course will cover–you may be learning right along with your students. That’s fine.
What you do know is how to learn.
Your job isn’t to be the expert in the room on every single topic. Your job is to teach them how to learn. You are the expert on how to learn because you have more experience than they do in how to study, how to critique, how to hypothesize, and how to make connections.
You are not offering them perfection, but rather a model of best practices of how to learn.
Viewed in that light, the weeks that are not in your specialty can be some of the best weeks for teaching because they are the weeks when you can best model how to learn for and with your students.
Remember, you absolutely deserve to be here. You can do this thing.
If all else fails, remember the sage advice of my ultimate teaching mentor, Dr. Mardia Bishop, “You only ever need to be one day ahead of the students. If you’re a week ahead they’ll think you’re God.”
We are so excited to start our September series on teaching for all of you abd2phd-ers who are just starting, or soon to start, the academic year.
The majority of PhD students in the United States attend research universities of some sort. Research universities, as the name implies, are focused primarily on research. This creates something of a paradox. Teaching is done at research universities because it brings in a great deal of money but the higher up you go in the university hierarchy the less teaching is a priority.
This paradox can be particularly difficult to navigate for graduate students for several reasons.
First, no one will teach you how to teach. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In general, the larger the course you teach is the more likely that there will be some sort of training before they let you around the actual students. If you teach a section or two of a massive course like English composition or public speaking the need for grading standardization (and to minimize student complains) often leads programs to institute training for new teachers. If, however, you go to an institution where grad students aren’t allowed to teach until after their prelim exams then it’s more likely you’ll be asked to teach your program’s survey course, handed a couple of the past syllabi and expected to handle it.
Second, if you actually like teaching and talk about liking teaching colleagues and faculty may write you off as a less serious researcher. It doesn’t matter that this point of view is patently ridiculous. Let’s just put it this way, “You’re so good at teaching. Have you thought about applying to teach at private high schools?” is less of a compliment and more of an indictment.
Third, some institutions will throw you into teaching as the instructor of record from your first day on campus. Other institutions won’t let you lead a class until you’ve passed your prelims. There are justifications for both methods but the second one has the unfortunate result of newly minted ABD students being thrown into the new responsibility of teaching just as they are struggling to figure out how to write a fudging dissertation. It can be stressful.
In our series on teaching we are going to cover all three of these topics to the best of our ability. We will start this week with some teaching resources, including some lessons you can borrow. Second, we will cover how to be good at teaching and how to like teaching without sacrificing credibility as a researcher. Finally, we will discuss strategies to balance dissertating, lesson planning, grading, and all the things.
If there’s a particular subject related to teaching you want to see covered this month leave a comment or send us a message!
How right and how fitting it is that we should end our summer series on rest this Labor Day. Yes, Labor Day is traditionally seen as the end of summer, with many U.S. schools going back into session the days of carefree summer fun are at an end. More importantly, however, Labor Day is a holiday created by union workers who wanted to advocate for more time off.
If you belong to a campus with a graduate student union I hope you join it.
Whether or not your campus is unionized, I hope you honor the spirit of the holiday by taking some time off for yourself.
If our summer series on rest has piqued your interest on the research behind the connections between taking time off and increased productivity you can follow-up here, here, here, and here. (Fair warning: I haven’t actually read any of these books so please feel free to report back on their quality in the comments.)
Come back tomorrow for the start of our September series on teaching!