>When dissertation directors have too much power

>Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger’s absence.

Anyway, I’m back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I’m catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi’s quiet and mellow. She’s dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we’ll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market — including the 14 we were interviewing — and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they’re meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone’s stories — successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs — as well as the stories they’d heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn’t let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend — or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing — the reason the director wouldn’t let his student file wasn’t because the diss wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn’t good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that’s messed up.

Here’s why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it’s not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn’t paying off her credit card bills; she’s accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn’t contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year’s contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let’s leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there’s the fact that if you’re a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment — or even summer school pay — it’s likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid’s college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let’s leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it’s not just about money. There’s social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can’t begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently — I got invited to the secret faculty party! — and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once — I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say “I teach at such and such a place” than you do when you say “I’m a Ph.D. student at such and such a place.”

And there’s still more that’s problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it’s different in degree from the spouse who won’t let his partner have her own life, it’s not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the “it’s for your own good” justification; she can’t bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she’s partly/mostly to blame – if only she’d just write a better book. I’ve seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling — or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale — is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants — perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more — it’s two books for tenure at some places now. It’s utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they’re only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn’t it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren’t we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn’t stop only with those of us on that end of things — the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don’t think a dissertation that’s just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school — but that’s a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn’t yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did — indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you’d think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our “academic age,” wouldn’t you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she’s a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she’s a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years — even doing field work for part of it — because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a “wordy” field – not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn’t exactly expect a finished book — and certainly didn’t keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) — but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like “this is something you’ll want to think about more when you turn this into a book.” So I didn’t have the kind of director I’m troubled by in this post. But I also didn’t have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that’s made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole — and especially those fields where we write books — needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don’t start setting some reasonable limits now.

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>A reason for tenure

>I think I found a way to describe concretely to myself and to my students one of the reasons tenure matters.

Here’s the background. This week in my graduate research class, we read an article from about 1989 by Stephen Nissenbaum, “The Month Before ‘The Night Before Christmas'” from a conference proceeding volume called Humanists at Work. We were reading it — or rather, I asked them to read it — to get a concrete sense about the life cycle of a research project, and about the experiential side of the “methods” of research, including the communal aspects of it (advice and leads gleaned from colleagues, conversations, and conferences) and the moments of seeming luck and serendipity (which I pointed to students really only seem lucky — they often come as the result of experience, knowledge, and preparation). It’s an article I highly recommend: it’s vivid in its portrayal of how a humanities researcher works and it makes concrete the research life of an academic, and also describes a fascinating research project on a poem everyone knows, “The Night Before Christmas.” Nissenbaum is a historian, I should point out, and ultimately the small project on the poem became a larger cultural history project on the history of Christmas in the US, called The Battle for Christmas (available in Vintage paperback, 1997), but the article could easily be describing a new historicist literary project.

One of the things my students took from this article is how much work and time good research takes, as well as how much of that time is, as one student put it, “sitting and thinking.” Nissenbaum talks about how, in 1989, he’d already been thinking about this poem off and on for 15 years. And I pointed out that the book it became didn’t come out (in its original edition) until 1996. By the time he was working on this project, he had tenure, so he had that luxury of time to sit and think, to let the project reveal itself to him.

We can do that to some extent as advanced graduate students and assistant professors — after all, my dissertation-to-book process did take about 10 year — but there’s also a pressure to get stuff out there, to complete it and have something to show for all that sitting and thinking. That’s not to say that such pressure is totally gone with tenure (after all, I do want to make full professor), but it’s certainly relieved to some extent. And one of the things I vowed to myself when I got tenure was to let my next project evolve more slowly, to let it reveal itself to me. I like very much the ability to say, “I’m not sure what this research will become, but here’s where I am right now” and just following the pure pleasure of the leads and even the digressions in that research.

I think that gift of time, that ability to take projects slowly, to give them what they need to develop fully — including the permission to fail or to lead to dead-ends — is part of what tenure is about. (This is one of the many reasons I hate the term “deadwood” for senior faculty who aren’t frenetically producing, but that’s a post for another day.) Take away tenure and we’re all back under the pressure to produce rapidly and we lose that ability to let ideas and analysis ferment fully. That would be a loss not only to those who produce the knowledge, but to the world at large.

Now, if only we could transfer that freedom and time to the untenured as well.

————–

I realize, by the way, that I may be contradicting or complicating my own notions of why the professionalization of graduate students is not a bad thing. Well, to that I say: I am large, I contain multitudes.

>Vexed, terribly vexed (on mergers, libraries, and mismanagement)

>As of this semester, graduate students at RBU have had their library borrowing reduced to the undergraduate length of 4 weeks, where they previously could check books out for 16 weeks with one online renewal (making a whole academic year). Yes, that’s right — someone writing a thesis or a seminar paper on a literary text for which the scholarly edition is a library-bound, out-of-print behemoth can only have it for an initial period for 4 weeks. Now, they can renew it four times online, but then they have to remember to do that, because once it’s overdue, they have to bring it in. And they have to return it after 4 renewals and re-check it out if they still need it.

And why was this idiotic change made? The librarians told the grad students that it was because that’s the way the medical library does it — the one belonging to the med school with which we merged two years ago. (Books? What are books? Doesn’t everyone use journals, and mostly electronic copies of them?) And for some strange reason, all of our units and campus have to do things in exactly the same way — even if there’s no savings of time or money, even if there’s a great loss of time in switching over.

The library issue sounds like a little thing, I know, but it’s been one thing after another for the last two years, especially in the last year, and it starts to add up. This is typical of the way things go around here. Everything has to change to the way the med school does it (because the med school’s former president is now the university’s president), even if it makes absolutely no sensefor anyone else or significant portions of the rest of the university (which, btw, is a heck of a lot bigger!). And no one bothers to find out that they way they do things isn’t some obvious, universally applicable, common sense way, but rather a practice with a history and culture tied to medicine and medical schools and at best alien to the rest of us, and at worst actually a problem for the way we need to work. Next thing you know we’ll all have to wear lab coats of different lengths signifying our status. Don’t laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised.

>Funny, you don’t *look* like a medievalist

>One of my students recently asked me if I have a favorite TV show. I told her that I liked too many, past and present, to name a single favorite.

She seemed surprised and replied, “I just don’t associate a medievalist with television.” I replied, “Well, I *live* in the *21st* century.” She laughed and then we proceeded to talk about the police procedurals genre, which we both enjoy.

A few days later she was looking at me funny so I asked her what was on her mind. She said, “I just can’t get over what you must have to know to be a medievalist.” Since she’s one of my graduate students, I reminded her that no matter what one’s field is, one’s goal should be to know a lot. Then she clarified that I have to know other languages and skills like reading manuscripts. So I reminded her that all English Ph.D. programs have a foreign language requirement and that even specialists in the most contemporary literature have a body of specialized knowledge and skills.

So then she got to what was really her point, I think, and said, “But you just don’t seem like what I think of when I think ‘medievalist.'”

Huh. “What’s that suppose to mean?” I asked.

“I just don’t see you when I think ‘medievalist,'” she responded.

“Well, I am one.” I said, getting a little bothered by where this was going.

She realized she hit a nerve and tried to back-peddle, “Well, let’s put it this way: when I first started college, the medievalists in the department didn’t look like you.” [Note: this student has children older than I am.]

“So let me get this straight,” I said. “You’re basing your idea of what a medievalist should look like on the single example of Rust Belt University in the year I was born?”

“Well, now, did you have to go there? All I’m saying is they fit the stereotype.” [Note: OK, maybe I shouldn’t have made her feel old, but I was trying to point out that in that time, I had grown up, gone to college and graduate school, and gotten tenure. Just sayin’ — that’s a long time and the world has indeed changed in that time.]

“I didn’t know there was a stereotype for ‘medievalist.'”

“You know what I mean.”

“Old? Male? Or both?”

“See, you *do* know what I mean.”

Instead of taking her to task directly for the sexism of her assumptions, I said, “Aren’t you glad times have changed, then? Because now I look a lot more like the medievalists I know than I don’t!”

“Yes, I am glad. And now when I think of ‘medievalist’ I’ll think of you.”

So we managed to end the conversation on a good point, but man, was I starting to get testy there in the middle. It was really depressing me to hear a woman so completely internalize sexist assumptions that even when I was gently trying to point them out she wasn’t seeing them. I know age has something to do with it, but still, it was bumming me out.

And her other underlying assumptions were also pushing some of my other buttons that she couldn’t have known about. I know that one thing that was probably underpinning her idea of what a medievalist looks like is the assumption that some students have that you should study what you identify with in the most obvious ways, coupled with the corollary that old stuff is only for old white men. The first point seems to defeat the broadest ideas of education, and the second point makes me want to say, “Well, even our oldest old guy in the department isn’t even as old as the heyday of Modernism! So should we *start* there?” And later something came up about her vague idea of medieval lit being all about dungeons and torture. And that idea probably wasn’t helped by my having used the 1137 entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to lead off a conversation about what is literature and what is literary study (this was in my research methods class), since that entry is all about the torture methods used by Stephen and his supporters in their war against Maud for the throne. [Note to self: next medieval text I use in this class should be a pretty one or a funny one!] But I’m a little annoyed with myself for having missed this teaching moment, for having missed an opportunity to say, “You don’t to have to be what you study!” That’s something more students in the humanities need to hear — especially the women and students of color — because I think sometimes they think the only avenues open to them are ones that include what they already know. It’s important for the vitality of any field to attract students from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences, but I think fields in earlier periods of literature, history, art, etc., will especially suffer if too many students think those are fields appropriate only for old white guys. I think it’s also a broader problem for the liberal arts at a university like mine, where too many working class students think arts and sciences majors aren’t for them — a topic eloquently addressed by Dr. Crazy recently.

I used to think that merely my presence in the room cut through many such assumptions, but clearly not! But how do you convince students that they might like something they know nothing about before they get in your classroom? I don’t mean, how do I convince all my grad students to become medievalists — because that would be kind of nutty! — but rather, how do even begin to say to all students, about whatever subject that they assume is too esoteric for them, “Try it! You’ll like it!”

>Graduate student authority

>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.

>Grad level teaching bleg: journal articles wanted

>Hey all you literature types, across the historical spectrum, I need your help.

In my ‘intro to grad school and literary research’ class in the fall, I want to do a couple of practical and analytical assignments focused on journal articles. Indeed, the central theme for the class is the journal article — what it does, what it’s for, who reads and writes one, how to model graduate level papers on one, what rhetorical moves it makes, etc.

I could choose a handful of articles from medieval and early modern studies that I know, but that might get kind of dull, especially if we revisit the same articles over the course of the semester. I’d rather have a small collection of articles from across English and American literary studies, even if it means new reading for me. At least that will keep things interesting and allow me to make different assignments with different articles, and allow students some variety in their choices.

So here’s where I’m asking for your assistance, oh wise and learned readers. Help me put together a collection of journal articles that I can use again and again in my intro to literary research class. Here are the criteria:

  • I prefer more recent articles (last 10-15 years, depending on how fast your field moves), but “classic” articles that everyone still cites and that are still part of the conventional wisdom are good, too.
  • The literary text(s) addressed should be commonly anthologized, taught, and read works — not just from a specialist point of view, but from a generalist one. That way, if the student hasn’t read it, at least they’ll recognize it and likely recognize that they should read it.
    • For example, in late medieval, I’d likely go for an article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight over Sir Orfeo, and definitely over Havelok the Dane, as much as I love them all (and might teach all in a medieval lit. class). Or in Shakespeare, I’d choose Hamlet over Titus Andronicus, even though, like Bardiac, I find the latter utterly fascinating.
  • The articles should be, on some level, “must read” works. Either they’ve been greatly influential, or you think they exemplify the best in a lucid and persuasive argument, or you think they could show graduate students how new critical and scholarly interventions can still be made in long-held critical conversations.
  • The authors need not be superstars.
  • Don’t shy from articles that are difficult in their assumptions about their audience’s knowledge of either theory or literary-historical contexts. Students have to learn how to deal with the unknown whenever they’re doing their own research, so they might as well deal with it with these articles.
  • I prefer journal articles to essays in collections, but I won’t rule out the latter. But since I’d like essays that are complete in and of themselves, I am ruling out chapters of monographs.
  • Coverage of every period and movement in English and American literature isn’t necessarily the goal. A range of choices is enough. As long as it’s not all medieval and early modern Brit Lit (as it would likely be if I were doing this alone), that’s OK.

So tell me what your favorite articles on well-known works are. And if you don’t know the whole citation, if you can give me enough to find it in the MLA bibliography, that’s OK.

>My graduate students crack me up

>Two of the grad students from my Chaucer class are very close friends, and one of them told me they jokingly refer to each other as “rivals.” So get this: for their final papers in that class, one of them wrote on the Friar’s Tale and the other wrote on the Summoner’s Tale. Ha! Even cooler — we didn’t read these tales in the class, so they discovered the Friar-Summoner rivalry all on their own.

I love it when papers amuse me in surprising and positive ways — it always makes the grading process easier.

>Teaching the critical history essay

>I’m in the midst of grading the last batch of my graduate students’ critical history papers from my research methods class. Given that it’s 4pm and I’m leaving the house in just over 12 hours to catch an early morning flight to go to the Pastry Pirate’s graduation, and I still have half a dozen things to do before I leave, including grading the last 3 papers, I really shouldn’t be blogging. But the following just occurred to me and I kind of wanted to throw it out there before I forget.

Anyway, one of the recurring problems of many of these papers — whether they’re otherwise well-researched or well-written or not — is that the writers don’t do a very good job of summarizing the critics’ arguments. They have a tendency to tell me the topic of an article, book, or chapter without really telling me the argument of said work. They’ll even say critics X and Y address the same general topic without giving me any idea if X and Y agree with each other in their assessment or interpretation of the topic. And some of the more problematic essays don’t even quite make clear what the general subject of a critical work is because they’re too busy identifying a theme in the primary text and lining up a critical work that seems to address that theme. So they’re putting their reading of the primary work — usually a somewhat hazy one — first and slotting in the criticism.

And therein lies the problem. They don’t quite realize what it means to write a critical history and that’s my fault. We talked all semester about entering the critical conversation, of “listening” to it for awhile before offering your own contributions. And we dissected the structure, form, and rhetorical moves of a number of journal articles. And I told them where to find models of a critical history and wrote detailed directions of what they needed to be doing in this paper, making it clear that it was summary and synthesis, but that they were the shaping force of it. *But*, I didn’t explain to them what a history was. I didn’t make clear that they needed to shape a narrative from the critical sources, that they were telling a story of the conversation thus far. I didn’t explain that while obviously the primary text was the driving force behind what critics wrote, nevertheless the driving force behind what the students wrote would be the criticism, that that was their subject, that that was what a reader of a critical history wanted most to know about. I assumed it was obvious, but it isn’t, so many of the students are falling back on what they’re usually asked to do in a research paper, or the methods they’ve usually fallen back on — i.e., the ‘tell me about X subject in Y work of literature with research’ paper. They’re also ignoring the connections between the arguments; no one, not even the best students, are addressing X’s influence on Y. I’m not even sure they’re noticing where critics are in each others bibliographies, even though I did teach them that following bibliographies is one of the ways to tell if a critical work is being cited over and over, or to find works that imperfect electronic searches have missed.

Part of the problem is that I didn’t use the term “critical history.” I came up with something else that I thought would be less intimidating — bibliographic essay — and I did so also because I’m not expecting them to be comprehensive (I asked them to look for major trends in the criticism). But mainly I need to be more explicit about how to go about this kind of writing. I have to tell them that they must digest and explain the main argument(s) of each work they address. I have to tell them that they need to be aware of influence and argument — that they need to look to footnotes and bibliographies for the players in the larger conversation. And that, above all, *they* are telling a history, that their major task is to interpret the interpretors and present them for their audience.

Next time I’ll do this and see if the results improve. In the meantime, I’ll go easy on the grades, but make some of these things clear in the comments.

>Help! I don’t want to be grad director any more

>Oy.

One of the reasons I haven’t posted much of late is that I’ve been running around like the proverbial acephalous farm fowl trying to deal with one graduate student related thing from another. Some of it’s routine but nevertheless time consuming and potentially stress-inducing, and some of it is all about dealing with grad student nightmare situations. Here’s a quick run-down that gives you a sense of my last two weeks without, I hope, revealing any sensitive particulars.

  • I scared one of our part-timers away from our program. I feel completely responsible for this since a) I’m the grad director, and b) the only two classes he’s taking are my classes. The real problem, I think, is that the two classes are not literature classes (one’s research methods, the other’s Old English), so he based his conclusion that “graduate study in English is not for me” on rather idiosyncratic courses. I feel really guilty about this. Of *course* in the research class I’ve been talking about the why’s and how’s of academic research 24/7, but I’ve also told them more than once that the teaching/research balance is different at different kinds of institutions. But this particular student dropped out because he wants to teach more than do research. Argh! I tried to talk him out of it, to no avail.
  • Another student stopped coming to his classes and has also decided to withdraw from the program, which is probably the right decision for him. But the problem is he thinks he can go on being a TA for the rest of the semester and collecting his stipend check. Theoretically, I think he’s right, and if we saw TAs as employees and treated them as such with all the attendant legal rights, that would be the case: he’d do his job and we’d pay him for it. But our university, like most, sees a TAship as financial aid, for which only full time students are eligible.
  • The withdrawal of the student above leaves me with an unfilled TAship for next semester, which will mean the College will suck the line back up into itself, giving us one fewer TA line for next year.
  • Another student has decided to leave the literature concentration for the other concentration we offer. That’s fine — at least he’s still “ours” in the larger sense, since all of our students get MAs in English. But the problem is that program is less flexible in its course sequence, so he has to take next semester off and restart in the fall. So I have his TAship to fill in the meantime or lose it, as well. (He’ll get a different one next year, vacated by a graduating person.)
  • It’s Ph.D. program application time and a few of our “good for us but not stellar” students have delusions of grandeur. I tried as best as I could to get them to apply to fewer extremely competitive programs and more programs with higher acceptance rates. They have no idea of their worth in this market. I think I’m being so gentle with their fragile egos that they don’t get it and they’ll just end up disappointed. And some of them are so freakin’ arrogant without reason and they have no idea how they’re coming across. I cringe to think of how their personal statements read. They have no clue and it’s making me tear my hair out.
  • And those are the ones who tell me what they’re up to. Half the time our students do this all behind the scenes and I never know where they’re applying and/or getting in. And who knows what they’re putting in their personal statements. I’m going to run a personal statement workshop ASAP just to get them to let us see the damn things. I mean, how can I help shape the reputation of our program if some of our graduate students are doing god knows what.
  • And all of our students think they’re shoo-ins for the local flagship. Um. As if. It happens to be a top tier program with about a 1 in 10 acceptance rate, and in recent memory not a single one of our applicants, even our best students, have gotten in there. The phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” comes to mind. But they think because they’re residents of the state that makes a difference, or because they took undergrad classes there (not, mind you, finished a degree there) they have an edge. I can’t get it through their heads that state universities can be as competitive and selective at the graduate level as an Ivy League and none of that stuff matters. Indeed, some of them would prefer students from elsewhere than from their own state because it adds to their prestige. I think I may just ban students from applying there. OK, I can’t do that. But I might tell them the above.
  • Which reminds me: our undergraduates don’t understand that even *our* program is somewhat selective. This is because at the undergraduate level we’re an open enrollment university, so all of the problems in the above bullets and here are the result of many students never having had to apply anywhere selective before and not knowing anything about the process other than maybe what they see in movies or on TV. (A number of our MA students were our BA students.) So sometimes tears, anger, resentment, and pleading are involved when someone is rejected. And often I have to deal with it in person!
  • And then there’s the MA exam. I hate it. I hate dealing with it; I hate its format; I hate its reading list. But mostly I hate dealing with the students who complain the loudest about it, because they are always the ones who don’t get what it’s for and don’t prepare well and don’t do well. And there’s really no excuse for not preparing well now or not getting it, because now almost all of our students have gone through my research methods class, where I also spend time on the culture of graduate school, and have them read all sorts of stuff about what typical MA/Ph.D. programs are like, and how most include some sort of comprehensive exam. I talk about how to prepare for it, including working in study groups and using the range of skills and expertise of their peers. And I talk about how to make it professionally useful beyond the instrumentalist goal of doing well on the exam. And I talk about how independent work is expected of graduate students and the exam represents part of that independent work. And still I get students who fear and doubt their ability to read something “hard” on their own (and so they skip much of the medieval and early modern part of the list and then claim they are “blindsided” by having to answer a question on those texts). Or they complain that they didn’t have a chance to write on a bunch of the texts on the list, so they couldn’t show off what they know (uh, you’re supposed to know the whole list!). Or else they ask what was the use of their having read those other texts? And they complain that the list is too long, when it’s actually shorter than the other “comprehensive” lists out there, and only longer than those exams that change the key texts every year.
  • And my colleagues aren’t any less troublesome. Last year when I started a discussion about revising the exam they successfully put me off with misdirection. (Because I am so easy to manipulate. I’m an idiot sometimes.) But not this time! This time I found the history of the last discussion, when the exam was fully revised 5 years ago, and in it the faculty agreed — they voted on this! — to revise the exam at least every five years or when new literature faculty were hired. Ha! It’s been five years *and* they’ve hired me and Milton, and both of our areas are underrepresented on the list. And I’ve got bits and pieces of 5 years worth of data for assessment — questions written and answered — to determine if this exam is doing what we think it should. So ha! We ARE going to have this discussion whether my colleagues like it or not.
  • And then there’s the horrible way we exploit our TAs which I want to do something about, if not with more money, then with reduced or better managed workload, but I need the help of our composition people, and the chair, and we need to fight it out with the dean of the grad school for the money to do what we want to do. And given the desires of the current administration we might face tremendous resistance, which the composition people and the chair know full well, so they’re not exactly eager to get cracking on it. It’s all so wearying. Meanwhile, the students look me in the eye and say things like, “I can’t afford internet at home, since I can’t live on my TA stipend, so I couldn’t complete this assignment.” I have no idea how to respond to that. We actually do have a hardship fund in the department, and I tell them about that. But then what? It’s not like I pulled a bait and switch on them — the stipend amount is advertised and I tell them what it is in their acceptance letter. Like most things in this profession, it assumes the person holding it is young and single or, if they have a family, there’s someone else taking care of them. And yeah, it sucks. Big time. I know that. But I don’t control that. I’m trying to do something about it, but it probably won’t result in more money. There just isn’t much of that to go around, especially not to the humanities and the grad programs. Our priorities are not the university’s priorities. But I think grad students, since they deal mostly with their department, assume that the department controls all of the things that affect the students’ lives. I know I assumed that.
  • Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m not yet tenured. I’m a little tentative when faced with dealing with administrators. That’s why I need the help of my senior colleagues to do what I want to try to do, and they’re all a little more weary of trying, with good reason. It’s really discouraging.
  • And if one more of the non-traditional students condescends to me and acts like they have some kind of seniority over me (most of them are my age or, at most, 2-3 years older; leaving aside the fact that I’m a decade and a half older in academic years), or tells me I just don’t know what their life is like I will freaking scream! The women are the worst. I swear next time it happens I’m going to say, “Oh, I don’t know what it’s like to be treated like I don’t matter and don’t have expertise or experience or authority? Really? Because I thought that’s exactly how you’re treating me right now!”
  • And finally, I had a small-group implosion in one of my classes this week. I blame them somewhat for not being grown ups and dealing with it, but I also blame myself. I stupidly assigned the non-traditional-student, pulling-herself-out-of poverty, single-mom-of-pre-schoool-aged-kids and one of the straight-out-of-college, 20-something-bachelor guys to a group together. Recipe for disaster. He didn’t understand the limits on her time. She wielded them like a sledge-hammer over him. They’re both bad communicators; he’s the shy, quiet, studious guy who prefers to avoid confrontation than to solve problems and she’s the fierce type who makes everything into a confrontation and bullies her way through life. Good one, Dr. V. I’m an idiot.

I’m exhausted. This really does take up the course release I get and then some. (God, imagine if we still had our Ph.D. program!) I’m staying on next year for sure, and maybe 2009-10, but then I’m applying for sabbatical for the next year, and so that might be a good time to put someone else in my place, and not just for the year.