>Every now and then when I can’t concentrate on my research work, I start fiddling again with my syllabus for my Research in English class. Btw, thanks again to all who gave article suggestions in an earlier post. I think I’m using at least one suggestion from everyone who made one, plus a few more articles of my choosing and my colleagues’ recommendations. I’ve now got a nicely eclectic mix of well-written articles that students can choose from for various practical bibliography assignments on writing annotated bibs, paraphrasing and quoting, etc., as well as for use in class discussion about what a journal article does and how it does it, and even about the history of the journal in the academy.
My major goal in this class is to teach students how to do basic research in English well, in particular, how to find and judge secondary sources, how to emulate their structure and rhetoric in their own papers, and how to quickly get up to speed in the highlights of a critical conversation. But along the way I also want to teach students not just to find and use the “authorities,” but how to build their own authority in the process. I’ve been trying to do this since I took over this class two years ago, but I’m not sure I’m entirely successful. I see students in subsequent classes who still say to me that they have a hard time understanding why anyone would care what *they* thought, for instance. Or, they say something like this graduate student at the blog Meanderings wrote in a post called “There’s a different me inside this student”:
Those ahead of us in academia–farther down the road, however you want to put it, tend to be rather intimidating….I don’t know where this complex comes from, but it must be part of the mandatory bipolarization of a graduate student–to be completely humbled by our professors and published authors, yet able to enter in and converse with them intellectually.
I’m not sure that I want my students to be humbled by me in any way, though I do want them to recognize the hard row to hoe ahead if they want to go on to the Ph.D. and hope for a tenure-track job. And so I assign Semenza’s A Guide to Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, which pulls no punches in letting you know what it takes to get through grad school successfully, and I give them the scary statistics (beginning with how competitive Ph.D. admissions are — many of my students don’t know that). So I tell them my path to the Ph.D. and job — including numbers of applications at every stage — but I also tell them others’ stories, including those who got MAs at institutions like ours, since I didn’t — I want to them to know there’s hope for them! My favorite pair of stories is about two real life people I know, one who went to Fancy Pants U but couldn’t get a TT job (partly because he’s a smug bastard, but never mind that!) and one who went to an MA program like ours and then a solid Ph.D. program and has a TT job she loves.
But mostly, I want them to understand that I wasn’t born a medievalist with a book and some articles and a good knowledge of my field. Heck, I was pretty much an idiot in my first year or two of graduate school. Everyone is. The ones who think they aren’t are smug bastards and often they’re the ones who make deadly mistakes along the way. (Learning how to recognize the smug bastards and not following their example is a life skill in and of itself, but a subject for another post.) What I try to teach them, anyway, is that building knowledge of one’s field — both of the primary texts and the critical conversations about them — takes time and work and dedication. It doesn’t happen by taking a class or two. You have to keep at it. And you do that because it’s the knowledge and the creative thinking about your subject that gives you authority — not your place in the hierarchy. I think one of the best examples of that is the kinds of conversations that happen on blogs — so I suggest students read some of them, too.
But still, I see too much shyness, too much deference, too much fear of asserting their ideas with authority. So clearly I need to do more. Tell me, oh wise readers, how it is you developed your own authority, and how you seek to teach students how to develop it.