Book Review: Emma Sky's The Unraveling

Emma Sky's new book The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq solves a number of problems for professors trying to teach about the War on Terror to undergraduates.

1. Female voice: It is difficult to find book-length female analyses for teaching the War on Terror (Lisa Stampnitzky's Disciplining Terror excepted - see my review here). Sky does not write as an omniscient narrator. Rather, her memoir explicitly addresses how being a woman in a war zone shaped her experiences, including the often very funny jokes that others made at her expense (or she made at theirs). Students will appreciate the candor and frequent use of dialogue and all students regardless of gender will benefit from learning about the war from an extremely intelligent observer and participant.

2. Positive portrayal of the military: Too often, writing about the Iraq war conflates disdain for the policy with disdain for those soldiers who participated. Sky, though initially very critical of the US military, is nuanced and ultimately praiseworthy of the soldiers she worked alongside in Iraq. This is important for undergraduate classrooms because many veterans seek out classes on Middle East politics in order to understand their experiences, but end up alienated by the negative tone taken by their professors.

3. Brief and cogent syntheses of complicated developments: Writing on the Iraq war tends to oscillate between oversimplification and a deluge of information. Sky frequently summarizes extremely complicated situations in a matter of paragraphs, boiling down the most important information without veering into inaccurate or simplistic renderings. As a result, the book could easily be paired with more complicated readings. Students should be encouraged to read the relevant portion of the Sky text first, so that they can use it as a reference, particularly if another reading is very detailed or poorly written.

4. Breadth of Coverage/Capturing Evolution: The book is divided into four parts: Direct Rule (June 2003-June 2004), Surge (January - December 2007), Drawdown (May 2008-September 2010) and Aftermath (January 2012-July 2014). Viewed from this ten year span, Sky is able to comment on the significant changes that took place in the Iraqi context and coalition strategy, a welcome reprieve from the narrative that the War in Iraq was an unmitigated failure. Rather, Sky presents how many small successes still did not ultimately add up to a stable or democratic Iraq.

5. Primacy of Politics: Finally, political science faculty will welcome the (implicit) conclusion of the book - that military strategy cannot compensate for political processes and strong democratic institutions and processes.

Faculty considering the memoir should be forewarned that the book is very long-- 363 pages of text, though individual chapters are often brief.

Overall, though, I highly recommend the text for use in undergraduate classrooms.

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:

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.

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. 

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.