Graduation advice: be willing to fail

In the last 24 hours, I have had three reminders that we are in graduation season. The first was an email from an old friend of mine, who has just finished a masters degree. We knew each other years ago. She found my blog through Facebook and found herself wandering around my website, reading my CV and seeing where life had taken me. She wrote to me about how she felt like she had gotten a bit disconnected from her own interests, and her passions, and how seeing what I have done with my life reminded her of them and inspired her to get back to the basics.

It was a kind gesture of her to share these thoughts with me. I struggle with knowing whether or not to publicize my rather bizarre but certainly busy life. I know I have a number of privileges. I've made some good decisions, but I've also benefited from certain structural opportunities and in some cases been just down right blessed. I sometimes worry that sharing my experiences with other people could be alienating or frustrating to some who don't have the opportunities that I have. Her email suggested the opposite, that being more open with others about my own life can assist rather than discourage. This was an encouragement to me.

The second reminder was an op-ed in the NYT this morning, the graduation speech that a former professor would give if given the chance. He had four pieces of advice: 1. "Earn Everything" 2. "Don't be a 'city doll" or in other words, don't be jealous of those who can ignore step one and land a sweet gig right after graduation, 3. Actively attempt to help the poor, and 4. "Think for yourself."

Many people feel they are situated to give advice to college graduates, but few offer something new. Although these points aren't all that radical, they struck me as unusual and well-timed graduation advice. Who is not jealous of the friend who lands a sweet job right out of school, and begins earning huge sums of money to do relatively meaningless work? It is appealing at some level to have work that stays in the office, and lots of money to play with after hours, and real weekends and evenings where you are not always working. Nevertheless, now that I have, in a sense, "arrived" at the job I have been headed towards for a decade, I can say with honesty that I'm glad I had no money in my twenties, that I traveled and consumed huge amounts of information and that I did not find myself in my first real job until the age of twenty-nine. Now I have a job that sends me to Morocco for my summers, and allows me to counsel students in a critical moment of decision making, and pursue my intellectual interests. In sum, I'm starting to be far enough from graduate school poverty to feel like it was a good decision.

This position seems confirmed by a third article from VOX "How Wall Street recruits so many insecure Ivy League grads." The article looks at a variation of the city doll, the investment banker who has come out of an Ivy League school. The article is an interview between Ezra Klein and Kevin Roose, the author of a new book about investment bankers. Roose suggests that people who take jobs as investment bankers are people who fear taking risks and want economic stability above all else. Becoming investment bankers for a few years allows them to postpone making the difficult decisions about what to do next.

(The article also talks about people for whom investment banking is a good thing: those who have a reason to be there, or those who just love the industry. I'm interested more in the people who go for reasons to avoid risk. The article argues that the industry can really destroy these people by eliminating their ability to think creatively).

Back to the idea that some people become bankers to postpone difficult decisions, though. This argument interested me a lot because I am frequently concerned that undergraduates go to graduate school (or law school) for exactly this same reason: they want to delay making a decision about what next. They want someone to hand them a checklist that says what the next step is (study for the GRE, take the LSAT). They are afraid to fail. What the NYT op-ed was saying though, was exactly that. Go and fail! Try a few different things. You will be a much better human being, and long term you may even be more likely to be successful because of what you learn through failure.

Putting these three things together, I'd say that it can really feel like you are headed in the wrong direction when you are in the midst of failure. I considered leaving graduate school on multiple occasions. Many of you know the many other life paths that I have considered. So I guess I'd say, in conclusion, if you are very concerned that you have taken a risk that didn't pay off, you may be in a better position than you thought you were. And if you have taken the easy way out, avoiding making adult decisions while seeking the privileges of adulthood, you may find that you are very unhappy. Both are difficult roads, but the light seems brighter at the end of the first tunnel. I'm glad that I took the path of risk.

 

Study Skills: Focus

Today, the Diane Rehm Show featured the work of Daniel Goleman. His latest book is titled "Focus." On the show, Goleman discussed the parts of the brain that allow for focus, and how they can be trained to function better.

Undergraduate students are faced with much higher workloads than ever before, at the same time that they have access to a myriad of distractions. Goleman's work offers strategies for using your time wisely, for getting "into the zone" faster. These strategies include a daily meditation practice (even as little as 15 minutes a day!) and the development of a "creative cocoon." By setting aside a part of your day as sacred and dedicated to your most important projects, where you will not check email nor answer the phone, one can achieve higher levels of focus and production over the course of a year. 

Can we meet?

I'm getting a lot of questions from UF students wanting to meet to make plans about the future.  I accepted a position at St. Louis University so I no longer live in Gainesville. I can, however, talk to you by phone. My office hours this year are:

M 1-2pm
MW 11-11:50am

My phone number is 314-977-3006. Please feel free to call with your questions. Leave a message if I don't answer. I also am responding to emails at the old address or the new one: wainscottam@slu.edu.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you!


 

Should I Apply to Graduate School?

I get a lot of questions about the when/how/why of applying to Graduate School.  Here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. Why do you want to go to graduate school? 

Take some time to think about this question. If the answer is "I don't know what else to do," "I have no marketable skills," or "I want someone to give me step by step instructions on what to do each step of the way" then I think you should reconsider. The first answer implies a lack of self-knowledge which is completely natural at the age most people are graduating from college. I'd recommend joining the Peace Corps or entering the job market first. Students who go directly to graduate school from their BAs (as I did) frequently flounder as they try to determine their interests. Plus, having "real world experience" to supplement the theories that graduate school focuses on improves one's own experience and makes a contribution to the classroom. 

The second answer, "I have no marketable skills" is similar to the first. In most cases, you do not need to add more content/experiences/education, you need to learn to market yourself. Spend some time crafting a resume and an online personality. Build a website. Brand thyself. If you need help learning how to talk about yourself, I suggest using the book The Perfect Interview.  It contains a number of exercises to learn how to speak about yourself, and to market your unique skills and experiences.

The third answer, "I want someone to give me step by step instructions" is a natural response to the many choices that young people face. Students have very few choices in high school on what classes to take. Their choices expand somewhat at the undergraduate level, but they are still given a rubric by the college of requirements. After the BA, students are frequently overwhelmed by the options they face. This is natural, and not at all a sign that one needs to go to graduate school. One needs to develop preferences, and this is better done by following the advice given above: get a job, join the Peace Corps or Americorps, read the newspaper. When you start getting really angry about something, that will probably illuminate your future.


2. What skills do you want to develop in graduate school? How will you market them? 

If you've decided that you need to develop a skill or knowledge base in order to pursue your career goals, then it makes sense to go to graduate school. This is particularly true when you want to perfect language skills or develop a skill such as statistical analysis, GIS, or develop analytical writing skills. The real issue, similar to the above suggestions, is that you have to be able to demonstrate these skills (or market them) upon graduation.  This requires products. You need evidence.  How will you demonstrate that you have acquired these skills? Begin thinking about this process as you apply for graduate school. It should guide your choice of institution and program. 

 

3. When should I go to graduate school?

Suppose you've chosen that you want to develop Arabic language skills. Then there are obvious institutions that would be ideal to attend. One must be honest with oneself in assessing whether or not one is going to be competitive in the admissions process for these top institutions. If not, then STOP APPLYING FOR GRADUATE SCHOOL and start seeking out opportunities that will make one's application more competitive. THERE IS NO RUSH TO GO TO GRADUATE SCHOOL. The worst choice you could make is to go into debt pursuing a degree you're not sure you even want or need simply because you didn't do your homework. SLOW DOWN, think about what you want, and think about how you are going to get there. Most students would benefit from getting a job, studying language abroad, or doing a fellowship of some sort BEFORE applying so that their application will be more competitive. 

4. How do I write a Statement of Interest?

I have never been on a graduate admissions committee, so I am not qualified to answer this question. However, after ten years of higher education, this is my sense: your statement of interest needs to communicate how the graduate program will get you what you want at the same time that you communicate to the graduate school that IT WILL GET WHAT IT WANTS. What are you bringing to the table? How will you make them look good? Did you get outside funding? Have you had past fellowships that look prestigious? Do you bring interesting work experience to the table? If you cannot write this essay, then think about the sorts of things that you wish you could write in it, and then go out and do them! Get a job! Live abroad! Become deeply involved with a charity that is doing meaningful work! 

Disclaimer: This post may make it seem that I am hostile to graduate school.  I am not. But I do think some people use graduate school to postpone decisions that they really just need to make. Being an adult means making choices, often in situations of imperfect information. Its ok to change one's mind later, but in the moment, I think the best thing that someone applying for graduate school can do is MAKE SOME DECISIONS. Who are you? What do you want? What can you offer a graduate program? What can it offer you? Until you know the answers to these questions, you haven't done your homework. Stop comparing yourself with your neighbors and start doing some honest self assessment.

Grants for PhD Candidates

A friend of mine, we'll call her "C", asked my opinion of the grants that she should apply for over the next few years. She's beginning a PhD program this fall. Since this is pretty broad information, I decided to post my advice.

First, read this guidance on writing grant applications:

Second, find out what grants are available through your: 

  • Department
  • College
  • University

In some cases, you will be competing with fewer applicants to these grants then to those open to graduate students (and in some cases faculty) from every university in America.  Be sure to find out if there is an institution at your university that does matching grants! Do not assume that you will hear about this. YOU MUST ASK!

Third, speak with a few faculty ahead of time and ask if they would be willing to look at a few drafts of your proposals. 

With that being said, here is a partial list of some of the grants out there for political scientists: 

Pre-Dissertation Grants  (Apply for these once you know the general topic for the dissertation. I recommend the research be done during the summer of your first or second year, depending on your exam/study schedule, so you would apply during the fall of your first or second year).

Dissertation Grants  (Apply for most of these during the fall of the year prior to which you would like to do research)

Writing Grants  (Apply for these the Fall that you will be in the field)

Early Career Grants  (Apply for these according to the rules of the individual grant)

Recently in the Times: the social sciences

Yesterday, Savage Minds Backup  (SMB) posted an excellent response to Nicholas Cristakis's recent op-ed in the NYT on the need to "shake up"  the social sciences. In it, he countered Cristakis's argument that we need less of the traditional social sciences and more cross-disciplinary work with the argument that in fact we need more, much more,  of the traditional social sciences. SMB marshaled some horrifying stats on the funding of the social sciences. We all knew they were low, but we didn't know they were that   low.

SMB uses the NSF as an example case. Of the organization's 5.5 billion USD to spend on research, the social sciences and behavioral sciences split  242 million USD, or four percent. Of that, the social sciences receive just 92 million USD (less than 2 percent of the NSFs budget). SMB concludes that for more innovative social science, we need much more funding. Beyond that, he barely mentioned that the discipline of Political Science has been deemed "not a science" by Congress and therefore no longer can receive NSF funds (95 percent of the discipline's federal funds).

SMB's point is well taken, and the lack of funding is certainly the greatest challenge facing the social sciences in the twenty-first century. But there are aspects not considered by Cristakis why individual social scientists may not want to risk inter-disciplinary work, as he suggests. I would ask him the following questions,

1. Are the natural sciences under attack from their own universities? A huge number of social science positions have been transitioned to adjunct, assuming that their only duty is to teach students, not do research. 

A 2007 article from the NYT reported: "Three decades ago, adjuncts — both part-timers and full-timers not on a tenure track — represented only 43 percent of professors, according to the professors association, which has studied data reported to the federal Education Department. Currently, the association says, they account for nearly 70 percent of professors at colleges and universities, both public and private. " Today, post financial crisis, the numbers are surely higher.

Scholars who are not neatly situated in their discipline risk losing their positions to adjuncts. 

2. Are there more opportunities for natural scientists who cross disciplinary boundaries? Certainly it is the opposite for social scientists. Despite the lip service to inter-disciplinary work, those scholars who do it will struggle to find venues to publish, and will therefore struggle in their tenure and promotion processes.

3. Are the teaching loads similar for social and natural scientists? I'd like to meet a biologist who does research at the same time as teaching a 4-4 course load with no TAs. Most natural science courses at universities at the undergraduate level are massive affairs, stocked with TAs and multiple choice exams. The professor need only show up and give a lecture he has given many times before and manage his TAs. He probably never grades a page in his life. I'm sure working with graduate students is more hands on, but still, it highlights the very different daily responsibilities that detract from work beyond just the course load.  

There are other questions to ask, but a blog post is not the place to do it. SMB's main conclusion, that Cristakis really doesn't know the history of social science nor understand the current conditions is certainly evident, but what does that say about social science's efforts at PR for themselves? We have to find a way to make our contributions and challenges  better understood by others both inside and outside of the academy or the situation will certainly not improve.

The 3-hour max

Young academics struggling with a heavy teaching load and the need to "get the book out" may be relieved to hear that many of the great artists of the twentieth centuries suggest that it is difficult to do more than three hours of creative work a day. 

I take this conclusion from a book by Mason Currey that I blogged about earlier this week. It profiles artists and their daily routines, which Currey refers to as "rituals."  

A few examples of these working hours:

Morton Feldman 7-11am

Mozart 7-9am, 6-9pm

Strauss 10am-1pm, 3-4pm

 While many maxed out at three hours, others were able to do two three-hour sessions each day though this did not necessarily mean that they were more productive. Many told horror stories of writing only a few good sentences on some days. Gertrude Stein wrote that she could only do about a half an hour of writing a day, but claimed "If you write a half hour a day it makes a lot of writing year by year. To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour a day" (Currey, 2013:51). Young academics take heart!

Most who worked longer hours (and even some who worked only a few hours each day) had either a wife who managed EVERYTHING or a servant. Sigmund Freud's wife "laid out Freud's clothes, chose his handkerchiefs, and even put toothpaste on his toothbrush" (p.38). Under such circumstances, couldn't we all write a masterpiece?

Anti-enthography bias in political science?

Samer Shehata was denied tenure by Georgetown this year. There are various explanations for this reproach, but one that is receiving a lot of attention is whether or not his ethnographic approach  influenced his chances. I am politely ignoring the possibility that his political views may be to blame, a horrifying prospect for any academic. May heaven's own fury punish me if I ever judge a colleague by their political views rather than the quality of their work.

I believe strongly in ethnography as a method, particularly for scholars working in contexts where they were not raised, and particularly for a first project. Although it brings a level of complexity that is not appropriate for all scholars, it protects them from making assertions that are too grand for their britches. Anyone who uses ethnography is humbled by the complexity of their subject matter and aware of their inability to truly capture every aspect of any question or research topic.  It also creates skepticism for many about other scholars parsimonious theories, which contributes to contention between those who do ethnography and those who prefer rational choice methods.

One criticism of his work is valid though: his decision not to integrate his ethnography of Egyptian factory workers into the larger study of labor politics. All political scientists owe it to their colleagues to do the work of explaining why their work is relevant to non-area specialists. There is just simply to much work to do to not offer your colleagues that kindness. As I have not read his book though, I won't make further remarks.

 

The Scientific Method and the Artistic Method, part I

I had a disagreement with someone recently. It was a couple, actually. They insisted that the scientific method was responsible for all advances of human knowledge and that ALL things can be measured. I'll admit to being a bit shell-shocked.  To put it mildly, I disagree. What a narrow vision of human knowledge! I thought to myself. And then it hit me, this is exactly the type of ideology that has seeped into most political science departments.

A little background: 

There are two kinds of knowledge. Ideographic knowledge is knowledge of the particulars. Nomothetic knowledge is  theoretical or abstract knowledge. So, for example, if a scholar collects information about a party system in one country, they are producing idiographic knowledge. If they are working at a more abstract level, assessing multiple party systems and thus still using idiographic knowledge but for the purpose of uncovering a larger theoretical relationship, then they are doing nomothetic knowledge.

The scientific method offers a highly organized way of assessing theoretical (nomothetic) knowledge.  But it is limited since it privileges the theoretical over the particular. This is not an issue as long as idiographic knowledge is also being produced. And, in our age, data is being produced in record quantities. So it makes sense that some people  argue for a hegemony of nomothetic knowledge within the discipline of political science. They think that there is so much data out there in the world that we don't need scholars out digging in the trenches. We need scholars doing meta-theorizing. I think this is a tenable position, but it is not one that I hold.

I see serious risks of a discipline solely examining the theoretical:

First, all nomothetic knowledge is grounded in idiographic knowledge. In order to build a dataset of party systems, a scholar will refer to a huge body of idiographic knowledge. In and of itself, this is not an issue. All scholars build on other scholars.

The issue is that  the economy of knowledge is beginning to look a lot like our market economy. People who do a tremendous amount of work to make the whole enterprise function are denied grants, publications, positions, tenure and a host of other goods in order to privilege those who do idiographic work. Even those who do idiographic work have to (or at least do) pretend they are doing nomothetic work. I see it all of the time. It is silly.

Secondly, I frequently see the tyranny of the method. People are wowed by fancy methodology. They are impressed when new tools are brought to bear on the study of politics. Once again, in and of itself, this is not an issue. It is exciting when a new tool is identified and it yields important advances in the study of politics. The issue arises when there is a lack of quality control on a publication because it uses a fancy methodology. Regardless of how you measure it, you must first start with conceptualization and you must defend your conceptualization to your audience. You must then convince the audience that your methodology is appropriate for your concept. This step is too frequently skipped. 

Third, there is also the opposite issue. There is sheer obsession with methodology in political science, and scholars approach one another's work with a huge degree of skepticism. Even collegial departments approach individual scholars' work with the intent of figuring out how they are being misleading. There is an assumption that the scholar presenting his or her work intends to exaggerate their conclusions. Why? Because scholars frequently do! And they frequently have to due to structural reasons that are totally beyond the scope of this enormous blog post. This has to stop.

Scholars ought to give one another the benefit of the doubt in certain matters. Some data just cannot be collected. It does not exist. Some data is not worth using, a government made it up. A nomothetic scholar is much more likely going to be faced with access to data that they know is hogwash. It is their perogative if they choose not to use it. A nomothetic scholar may also have access to information that she is  not privileged to share, or that it is unwise to share. She may also have close relationships with people in the field that encourage her to trust certain people over others. There is no way for the nomothetic scholar to communicate some of these points.

These risks are intimately rooted in the bias toward nomothetic knowledge in the discipline. If it were really acceptable for scholars to focus deeply on one case, there would not be pressure to exaggerate the extension of one's findings.

What about solutions? 

For over a year now, I've been mulling over the idea that the social sciences need to return to looking at the arts as a reference. Remember when you got your Bachelor of Arts in Political Science? There was once recognition of the relationship between the study of human beings and the artistic process, but our undergraduate classroom, graduate training, research design process and publications suggest a much stronger emphasis on understanding politics through the lens of the sciences.

I will certainly agree that much has been learned, and will be learned, from reference to the scientific method. What I'm suggesting is that this emphasis is narrow, and has risks (inadequately enumerated above) and discourages good people from the study of politics, people who would make strong contributions and have innovative approaches to the examination of nebulous and abstract concepts. I'm suggesting that people within the discipline already feel sidelined and many are taking their round selves and trying desperately to fit in a square hole. I know, because I've done this before.

An examination of the artistic process as an alternative foundation for research design, will open the discipline to more scholars, encourage creativity and innovation in research design and could change the culture of skepticism that pervades political science departments. 

I intend to harp on this issue on Fridays. So, if you're interested in learning more, y'all come back now, ya hear? 

Opportunity for PhD funding: Jewish, Christian, Muslim Relations

An email I received this morning:

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, UK, has been dedicated to the provision of graduate and postgraduate study for 15 years. In partnership with the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust / Cambridge Overseas Trust, the Woolf Institute has established the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarships. These scholarships are intended to support outstanding research students at the University of Cambridge who have the potential to become exceptional leaders of the future.
 
Scholars will be selected from amongst applicants in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Their research must be relevant to the focus of the Woolf Institute - the multi-disciplinary study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
The Woolf Institute and the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust / Cambridge Overseas Trust will co-fund the successful candidates. Each scholarship will cover the full cost of studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and will be tenable at any of the thirty-one Cambridge Colleges.
 
Applicants are required to apply to the University in the normal way, and by the published scholarship application deadline [http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/gradadmissions/prospec/]. Applicants must show evidence of excellence in their field of study and formulate a coherent research proposal. Applicants are encouraged to contact the Woolf Institute prior to submitting their application to discuss whether their research proposal is relevant to the Institute’s focus.
 
For further information, contact:
 
Woolf Institute (www.woolf.cam.ac.uk): Dr Emma Harris at eth22@cam.ac.uk or +44 1223 741038      
 
Cambridge Trusts (www.cambridgetrusts.org): Claire Lambert at cll33@cam.ac.uk or +44 1223 760607

Today in the Times... what PS can learn from Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's latest projects

I first encountered Ai Weiwei's work at the Tate Modern in London. I walked in and found his giant pile of sunflower seeds. I balked. "Modern art is so lame sometimes," I thought.

But then I read the description of the project, and the attention that had gone into the creation of it. I watched an interview with the author and those who participated in the creation of the project. And I marveled. And I fell in love with Ai Weiwei. The work captured the subtle forms of resistance of those who live under authoritarianism. The sunflower project highlights the ways that authoritarian symbols can be re-purposed and given new meanings by subjects.

Today the NYTimes has a review of some of his latest work (see link at top of page to see the pics). The pieces attempt to capture his time in detention under the Chinese authorities in 2011. The scenes depict Weiwei showering, eating, and sleeping under the watch of two guards. I think they are a brilliant illustration of life under authoritarianism.

The article touches on a few very important issues:

1. The effects of authoritarianism on individuals:

“China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams,” Mr. Ai said. “This state’s best minds have been wasted by this high ideological control, which is fake. Even the people who are trying to use it as a tool to maintain power or stability know that this is a completely fake condition.”

2. Similar to Political Science, art itself can abstract to the point that it obscures:

“Can political art still be good art?” Mr. Ai said. “Those questions have been around for too long. People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify humans’ emotions from the real world.”

3. The article also alludes to the difficulties of defining the boundaries of what is art:

"Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said in general, “Weiwei has been looking, in the years since his detention, for a way to use art to talk about social issues in a way that still codes and functions as art.” The metal rods from Sichuan, he said, are “a good example of his search for this middle road between overtly political and purely formal.”

In my own experience, political science theories about authoritarianism abstract to such a degree that it becomes possible to forget that real people live under these systems. Authoritarian subjects experience fear, paranoia and rage that must be silenced. One of my long-term goals is develop a syllabus on the politics of authoritarianism that marries recent scholarship with other art forms that capture day to day life under such a system and adds more texture to what can become a sterile study of a system of horrific abuse. I am planning on including some of Ai Weiwei's work.

The Trauma of Post-Graduate Education. Or, micro-moments of negativity resonance

If you are hoping this will be a post on graduate school and trauma, it's not. But don't despair; I'll write on that subject soon. For this entry I'd like to write on the trauma of graduate school.

This subject was brought to my attention by several events this week. My roommate had a friend from out of town staying at our apartment and going to a wedding in the area. She asked me about my work. I told her that I was finishing up a PhD and she commented, "I wanted to do a PhD but I just couldn't handle it." She has a husband doing a PhD, so I know she knows the costs of doing such a degree.

I think I know exactly what she meant. She wasn't referring to the reading load or the public presentations. She wasn't referring to doctoral exams or writing one's first syllabus or all of the rejection of the publishing process. She was talking about something else, something that is not in most graduate school curricula, but that is in most graduate programs. Something I'd like to call "micro-moments of negativity resonance."

I borrowed the term from an article that defined love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance." The concept was named by Barbara Fredrickson. In an article about Fredrickson's research, the journalist Emily Esfahani Smith explains the concept like this: " love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day."

What I'm talking about  in graduate school, the reason my roommate's friend said she couldn't handle graduate school, are the small, daily, sometimes trivial ways that graduate students are treated as if they are not adults, as if they are an inconvenience, as if they are a disappointment. In the same way that micro-moments of positivity resonance can be shared with anyone, so their negative variation need not come from someone in a significant position. They can come from your colleagues, or junior professors, or administrative personnel.

These moments might include unnecessarily harsh emails, condescending comments, the assumptions that folks make, the competition among colleagues, the refusal to give someone the benefit of the doubt. Or, as a wise friend of mine says, the systematic failure of folks in the academy to "imagine a charitable explanation."

I'm sure these things exist in a number of occupations. But when they are paired with very low compensation (we're talking beneath the poverty line), extremely high work loads, no job security (I've reapplied for funding every year and in some cases every semester) and no promise of future employment, they are the feather that is sure to break the camel's back.

After six years of these micro-moments, I see now that there are a number of structural issues which encourage these sorts of negative interactions. But I'm not talking about those right now. I want to just identify this as an issue and say that it is an unacceptable working environment, one which takes huge amounts of emotional energy to endure.

My advice to young graduate students (unfortunately) is that these events should be expected, and planned for. In coming posts I'll give you my opinion of how to do just that. But for now, let me just say, if you are a graduate student, I suggest you err on the side of being extremely kind FIRST TO YOURSELF and secondly, to others. I simply don't see any other way to make it through a program this rigorous with a shred of personal or intellectual integrity.

Women in the academy: an Introduction

I hereby declare Wednesdays to be "Women in the Academy" post days.

Those who know me are aware of my obsession with this topic. It all started in early 2011 when I was in the field in Morocco. I can even identify my first conversation on the subject. Another researcher and I were in a bar frequented by the East European mafia and their prostitutes in Rabat. Over the first decent gin and tonic I'd had in a while, I turned to my friend and asked her "Can women even be academics?" The moment I said it I regretted it. It was such a politically incorrect question. And yet there were times when I really wondered if it was possible to be a woman in the academy. To my surprise, she looked me dead in the eyes and said "good question." I will always be grateful to her for not chiding me.

Of course there are women in the academy, but how did they get there? And what did they sacrifice? Stats cited by Connelly and Ghodsee in the book Professor Mommy (to be reviewed in a future post), claim that fewer women in the academy have children than in any other high powered profession, including among doctors and lawyers. They argue this is partially due to the demands of the tenure system, which ask for your most productive time to be the first 5-7 years after completing the PhD, a time that, for many women, corresponds with their last years of fertility. Some women wait until they're tenured to have kids, and then discover they are no longer able to do so. Others have kids anyway, when they want to, but there are all sorts of consequences, professional and personal.

I don't really want to get into this issue now. I just want to mention it to underscore the importance and scope of the subject. I'm looking forward to collecting my thoughts on the matter and posting them here, on Wednesdays.

A teaching nightmare and the rights of students and professors

I’ll admit it. I had a teaching nightmare. This is odd because I have had very positive teaching experiences with my students and, as I say in the acknowledgements of my dissertation, “Writing all of their letters of recommendation is a small price to pay for all that I learn from them.”
 
Nevertheless, I had a teaching nightmare last night. I'm going to assume it was that iced Americano I had at about 3pm, but there's no way to know. It was the first day of classes in a large auditorium and I really blew it. Usually, on the first day, I have a draft syllabus that I introduce to the students but I don’t give them a copy. I edit it slightly based on our conversation during the first class to take into account students’ interests. In the nightmare, the students were disruptive, there was no meaningful conversation to help direct the syllabus, we kept changing classrooms for various reasons and I (obviously) did a poor job managing the chaos.
 
Even though the students at the University of Florida have been polite, engaging and proactive, the dream got me to start thinking about the rights of students and the professor. You may notice they are similar.
 
Students' Rights:

  1. Students deserve to be treated with respect by the professor and all other students.
  2. Students deserve a well-prepared, enthusiastic, informed professor.
  3. Students deserve assignments that challenge their abilities and meaningfully evaluate course material.
  4. Students deserve a professor who makes herself available to assist with issues within the course, career counseling and long-term assignments.
  5. Students deserve grace when unexpected circumstances influence their ability to perform at the best of their ability.
  6. Excellent students deserve on-time letters of recommendation.

Professors' Rights:

  1. Professors deserve to be treated with respect by all students.
  2. Professors deserve well-prepared and enthusiastic students. This includes arriving on time, having had enough sleep to participate, and keeping up with current events that may be relevant to course discussion.
  3. Professors deserve to grade materials that students have attempted to the best of their ability.  This includes working slowly over time on large assignments rather than in bursts of activity the night before the deadline.
  4. Professors deserve to be well informed of anything that may influence student performance.
  5. Professors deserve all assignments on time unless there is a previous arrangement.
  6. Professors deserve one month’s notice on all letters of recommendation.

Undergraduate issues: picking a major with a note on study abroad

I encourage undergraduate students to see their studies as both exploratory and vocational. A liberal arts education allows students to explore a number of subjects. I suggest they also develop a marketable skill that can be identified in a black and white sort of way on a resume or in a cover letter: I speak X language, I can use X computer program,  I can play X instrument, I am trained in X analysis.

Some suggestions for the vocation include: economics, statistics, any language, GIS, STATA or survey methodology. Ideally, a student may be able to develop two of these competencies: both a language and a skill.

Political science majors are wise to realize that while courses in PS will develop critical thinking, reading and writing skills, it will be difficult for potential employers or future graduate programs to evaluate skills of this nature. A piece of published writing, participation in a research project, experience designing and maintaining a website or any number of experiences or skills may signify both your interests and your capabilities. I suggest PS majors to supplement their studies with a minor, a second major or a substantial marketable experience.

A note on study abroad: I think study abroad experiences are invaluable. I also think it is impossible for a potential employer or graduate program to differentiate between a program where one hung out with a lot of Americans and drank a lot, or a program where a student seriously engaged in another place and language. YOU must do the work to demonstrate the value of your study abroad. Write a piece for a magazine, newspaper or undergraduate journal, keep a blog, complete a service project that has real results for real people, take a test which confirms your language ability or create a piece of art that captures the experience.

Whatever you do, DO NOT expect your experiences to speak for themselves. You must market yourself and your experiences. You must tell people what to conclude from the data you provide on a resume or cover letter. A vocation helps to capture your experience and interests and demonstrates that you are pragmatic. You understand the demands of the real world and you are taking steps to become employable and effective.

Rules for Letters of Recommendation, amended

I'm always surprised to learn that some people don't have rules for letters of recommendation. Rules are a must, both for "recommender" and "recommendee." I learned this practice from Dr. Michael Bernhard, who always promised me that if I gave him one month's notice, the letter would be done and on time. He also taught me that academics respond well when given an email reminder a  week and a day before the due date. You will see that I have incorporated his ideas into my rules.

I wonder how many hours of man power are lost communicating these rules informally when they could just be set in stone. So here they are. Set in stone. 

If you want me to write you a letter of recommendation, follow these rules perfectly:

1. Contact me with at least one month's notice and ask if I can write you a letter.  If you ask me in person, send an email later that day to remind me I have committed. I keep a spreadsheet of my letters, so if I tell you that I will do it in person, I need the email to make sure it is entered into my spreadsheet.

2. You will receive an email from me committing to write the letter. If you do not receive this email, you must repeat step one. 

3. You then send me an email with all of the following:

a. an actual NAME to whom the letter should be addressed and a PHYSICAL ADDRESS, even if the letter will be turned in electronically. A proper letter heading requires having both a NAME and an ADDRESS. I will not look for this name or address myself. You must do it. 

b. a brief description of what this award, scholarship, research, graduate program, study abroad, etc would mean to you and your long-term goals. Yes, I can read the description of the award on the website but THESE THINGS ARE NOT SELF EVIDENT. I do not know what your personal interest is in the program/fellowship/etc. 

c. Your resume. If you do not have one you must make one. Not a silly one. Go to the career center and have them help you. Ask your friends. Look at examples online. Make a proper resume. If you send me a silly one, I will think you are not taking this seriously and that you do not understand professional development. 

d. the deadline the letter is due.  

4. You will then receive an email confirming receipt of the previous email. If you do not receive it within two or three business days, resend the email. 

5. Send me an email the week before the deadline to ask me if I've sent the letter (unless I've already emailed you to tell you the letter was sent). The week before a letter is due, you have full permission to be ANNOYING. You can email me every day if you want. I will never intentionally forget a letter, so if you haven't heard from me you should nag just to be sure! It is actually a kindness. 

A few other things:

- I almost always turn in the letter myself. This is necessary for confidentiality. On very rare occasions will you ever see the letter physically. 

-Once I have written a letter for you, I will keep it on file. In some circumstances, I may be able to submit the letter for you on less than a month's notice. You have permission to follow the above rules even if you do not yet have a program in mind, but you want me to have a letter on file. In this case give me a general idea of what you anticipate needing letters for. 

-I am happy to write letters for students, but keep in mind that this may not be the best option for you. I am not a well-known or prestigious scholar (yet! ;). If you have taken one of my classes, I likely know you well, but it is ALMOST ALWAYS better to have a well-known scholar write your letters. If you need three letters, and two are written by well known scholars, it may then make sense to have a third letter from me if I know you well. Never turn in multiple letters from graduate students or young professors for graduate programs or prestigious grants. It will hurt your chances.  One is the maximum, in my opinion.

-If you are in an upper division class with me, consider the possibility that 10, 15 or maybe even 20 of your colleagues may also ask me for a letter with the same or a similar due date. Ask me EARLY if you have concerns that I will get multiple requests. 

Finally, if you are applying to graduate school in the social sciences or the humanities, you must confirm that you have read this blog post before I will write your letter. 

Picking "the" dissertation topic

I'll admit it. It took me nearly four years to pick a dissertation topic.

I started looking for a topic in preparation for my master's thesis in 2006. Due to a variety of circumstances, in the end I didn't have to write one. I settled on a dissertation topic in early 2010 and wrote a practice grant to prepare for a full round of applications in the fall, but SURPRISE! I got the first grant I applied to. So there I was in the field by November of the same year the topic was chosen.

How did I come to my dissertation topic? I was doing pre-dissertation fieldwork on political parties during the summer of 2009 and I came to the concerning conclusion that no one cared about political parties in Morocco and neither did I. At the same time, I was living with an Islamic education teacher who worked for the public schools and had a lot to say about recent reforms being made to the curriculum. In the end, I decided to write about the politics of educational reform in Morocco.

But the irony is that, in the end, the politics of educational reform are intimately tied to party politics! I came full circle, but in the end had a much stronger understanding of how party politics shaped the lives of Moroccans, whether or not they were party members.

My experience suggests several lessons:

1. Just pick something. You'll refine it along the way. I would never have gone to the present diss if I hadn't just arbitrarily picked a starting point.

2. Stay open to what other people think and especially those who know more about the subject than you do!

During my pre-dissertation fieldwork, I interacted with a lot of people who expressed their apathy about party politics. They were the ones who helped me realize that I had picked a subject that was interesting to political scientists in America, not political scientists in Morocco. Once I settled on studying educational politics, Moroccan political scientists frequently expressed their jealousy:  "I wish I was writing this paper!" one of my respondents moaned. That was my sign that I had found a subject worthy of my attention. Those who knew the subject best found it interesting.

3. Think about your passions that you don't consider related to your research.

I spent my years in high school writing after-school programming for children the American public schools were failing. I compulsively read articles about the politics of education in America. I am mentally writing the "perfect" elementary school public school curriculum at all times. It makes sense that in the end I was drawn the politics of education.

Taking myself seriously.

In the summer of 2006 I was wait-listed for a Critical Language Scholarship to Tunisia (top 20 of 1000, but not the top 15!) and declined a Fulbright to Morocco. I spent some time feeling sorry for myself until I decided I didn't need anyone to give me permission to continue my studies in Arabic.

I walked into the kitchen and said, "Mom, will you buy me a plane ticket for Morocco." "For when, Ann Marie?" she asked. "Tuesday." "Alright," she said. She was used to my antics by then. I took the money I was given from various generous relatives for graduating college and used it to pay my tuition at a fabulous little Arabic school (ALIF). And thus began my relationship with Morocco.

I like this story because it shows how sometimes we can get caught up in waiting on someone else to "knight" us as qualified to do something. I work a lot with my students to encourage them to declare their own interests and identity and to move forward, regardless of who approves. This story is one instance in my life where I exemplified this behavior and I'm proud of it.

Since that time I have had three Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships and a Boren Fellowship, which amounts to about six year of federally funded Arabic study. What's the take away? When started taking myself seriously then someone else did.