Sunday, December 23, 2012

End of the Year Review

This semester, I vowed to blog regularly.  That clearly has not happened.  New Years resolution, perhaps?  Still, I thought I would post a year of review.  I survived the semester, guys!  And for all of you grad students or former ones, you know that is a good feeling.  I feeling of total relief.  At first I wonder, what have I done in the last semester?  Holy crap I am catching up on the extended cable that my parents are now providing me free of charge for the holiday season.  Apart from basketball games which I refuse to miss out on, I haven't watched TV in like 5 weeks.  Final papers, finals, and grading sucked most of the life out of me.

But, really, I've done a lot.

Let's take stock:
1. I taught 2 sections of a methods course for u-grads.  This is a weed-out.  No one wants to be there but I think I did okay!  I worked my ass off, cried a lot when I felt like I was failing them, but mostly learned a great deal about teaching - what I like, what I don't like, etc.

2. Based on 1 I know I don't want to go to a teaching school.  Please God don't let this happen!

3. I have an article I need to send out.  I need to do that this break, damn it.

4. I was accepted into two conferences.  This will be a hellish semester paper-wise but one I am willing to put the time into.

5. Despite all of this, I aced a semester of courses that were not in my major field, minor field, or outside.  Having taken almost everything before, my options were nill.  I took two American Politics courses and excelled despite my lack of care for the subject.  I credit some of this to a prof that I loved.

So, really. I'm okay.  I will be posting some teaching stories that may blow your mind (and not in a good way) later if I remember to update, but it's over!

Now I am suffering from PTBS - post-traumatic boredom syndrome.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The ever hopeful break

All grad students know that breaks from school are expected to be productive.  Thanksgiving is no different.  Faculty members always expect something - both because we usually teach and have grading and because we have profs that expect a draft on what I call "hell week" which is really the 3 weeks post-Thanksgiving leading up to finals.  However, the best laid plans often fall through.

This year has been the heaviest teaching load of my life.  I am teaching 2 sections of a intro methods course which requires a lot of quantitative work for undergrads.  You can't continue on as a political scientist in our department without this course.  To make matters worse, I have to teach the first two sections and am often the "guinea pig" for following sections.  I spend no less than 2 hours of prep a week on class and far more time grading papers.  I have 2 sets of exams to grade and 6 rounds of papers.  I have to grade a draft with many comments for each of my 30 students and then they return me a final draft (hopefully with revisions) in a week.  I have always been a comment writer so I tried to get everything on that paper.  However, when you spend 15-20 minutes per paper, you are in trouble.

Another rude awakening came about this semester.  Office hours are no longer for me getting things done.  Instead, I spend them in a jam-packed office with 14 other grad students and a line of students out the door. The 3 other TA's for this class are also sharing this office and they also have a similar number of students.  At the end of the semester, my students even just assumed I lived in my office and since I do hang around there before/after meetings and classes I *would* sometimes be there.  Suddenly, they started to show up unannounced or super early.  I finally put my foot down and told them "no more".  They finally are listening, I think.

Well, due to these marathon grading sessions, I am stuck grading 30 statistical analyses over break.  I have spent many hours toiling away over these papers over break.  I am surprised that I've actually been this productive.  Usually, I say I will do things but I don't.  At home, I am distracted by family, food, TV, and a multitude of other things.  I am back in suburban sprawl.  I could catch the train into the city or drive up to Michigan for a wine tour like I'm doing tomorrow.

Still, I've graded all my papers - ALL of them.  We have grade norming to do every Monday, so I will do that, but I am pleased to at least be done with this much.  And I began the work on two other papers. Maybe it is because this is my last year before comps and I am used to doing everything at once but I really do believe that my teaching load is responsible for these abilities to multitask.

The fact that I have maintained sanity, am having a normal relationship with someone, and am still doing well in classes is just testing what I am made of.  Now if I can just survive the next three weeks of hell.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When You Get Hit with A Dissertation Topic

So, I go to my advisor's office with a paper idea for both publication and for her class this semester that she has indicated is a really good idea.  It's about gun control, which is something political scientists rarely ever tackle.  It's a comparison across states.  She tells me that's good, but that she doesn't want me to do that.  She wants me to choose a policy area that I will do my dissertation on and do a comparative study.

Ummm... wow.

So, I'm a second year.  She says I should decide early and then make it work.  So, I go home and cry.  Why would she put this pressure on me now?  It's too early.  She even admitted she hasn't told anyone else this, just me.  Because she wants to push me and feels like I have potential to figure it out now and just "do" it.


I don't know what to do.  I went in circles all Friday and Saturday.  There were tears.  I screamed into a pillow.  I ingested an entire bottle of wine and then set out the next morning to go to a local coffee shop just to sit and watch a blank screen until I found something.  The problem was that there was NO seating anywhere except those damn barstools that my 5' frame cannot cope with.  I went to the second hope and it was randomly closed.  Fuckity fuck.  I drove all around town to find something, feeling the whole time that the world was against me.

I was terrified until I had an idea.  I ran to the library like my legs were on fire.  No one has written on this - no one.  It's perfect, right?  And I can get TWO papers out of this because it qualifies for another class, too.  Yes!

Now I can just hope she doesn't shoot it down.  It would help me with grant applications for Canadian studies, too.  It's just hard.  And now I'm on an upswing mood-wise.  It frustrates me to no end that anytime I can be this creative, I am on a mood upswing.  Now, I'm not sleeping and am working nose to the grindstone all day.  Seeing the shrink tomorrow in hopes that I can adjust my meds and get back to where I need to be.

Now I know why people with mood disorders are artists, great thinkers, and inventors. I am so, so creative when I am hypomanic. And it leaves me with little incentive to control it because I always feel great until the crash.  I've had enough now, though, that I am terrified of them and want to control that mood.  That means tuckering myself out exercising, forcing myself to eat right, and taking meds that knock me out in hopes I get to sleep.  It needs to stop!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How do you talk to normal people?

Normal people confuse me suddenly.  I have realized at this part in my career, where I have been fully indoctrinated into my discipline and the academic world, I am no longer part of the general population.  I don't say this to be uppity because I don't believe my knowledge of  a small part of the world entitles me to feel superior.  And yeah, I study social policy. I can't feel too uppity since that i the one thing that I loathe most!  But I mean, I don't talk like a normal person.

Whenever I talk to my parents, my sister, my friends who don't do this work, or my extended family, I often go off on a tangent about various things:
-tenure track jobs and how I desperately need one
-technical health policy documentation, bills
-the problems with defining poverty
-other countries and the way they handle health care
-R1's and how I want to work for one
-fellowships I would like abroad
-department politics
-dealing with students

None of these make much sense to the average person.  God bless my family for being supportive and trying to understand my jargon and why I would want a shirt that says "stop staring at my normal bimodal distribution".  My mother works in an engineering department and designs parts.  My dad is a banker.  Nothing makes much of a bridge to their worlds.  While my dad loves politics and we often discuss economic policy, my mother loathes our post-dinner discussions with a bottle of wine.  And even then, my father has never taken  statistics course like myself.

I found myself rattling on about coding to my mother last night and a publication I am working on with a faculty member I love.  My mother knows about the faculty members that matter to me because they are great people and I talk a lot about them, but she doesn't care about coding or a cross-sectional, time series study on Canadian welfare policy.

Reminding myself to not use jargon is something my colleagues also do every day.  We have a hard time in the "real world" not because what we do is irrelevant or is unimportant, but because of our technical language.  It's not unique to my discipline or academia, I just didn't anticipate this would ever happen.  I was warned, but I never thought it would be this dire!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Learning Curve of a TA

I have recently sat in with some first years and asked them to take stock of their first semester as a TA.  As a second year, I have seen a lot of weird stuff, but something new always comes up.  Talking about it is cathartic sometimes.  My first semester was not routine - but almost no one's is.  I envy the students who have nothing but multiple choice exams and normal students, but that was not my first semester experience.

I TA'ed for Prof A my first semester in a class I had absolutely no interest in.  It's the introductory course for the major and a required course for every student who graduates in the state.  I had almost 100 students, four exams - all essays - and as my first semester of TA'ing went, it was insane.  That said, I loved the prof and his carefree attitude.  It wasn't a smooth ride, though.  There was definitely a learning curve with my students, who were memorable to say the least.

In a class with 400 students and 5 TA's - 3 half time, 2 quarter time (half the students we had) - one TA is bound to have more problem students than the others.  That TA was me.  The first exam I ever forsaw, a student who behaved erratically stood up in the middle of the exam, launched towards the lecture stage in the front of the hall, and started saying, "I have an announcement to make!"  We asked her to calm down but she tried to push me down.  Prof A, who is a rather substantial person at 6'4'' or so, tried to restrain her and she fought so hard that she almost took him down.  He hauled her into the corridor outside that stood between a stairwell and the outside door.  The students erupted.  There is nothing like seeing 400 freshman freaking out over their first exam.  Imagine on top of that veritable chaos.

The other TA's and myself tried to calm the students, but this was difficult, as the student was now screaming obscenities at Prof X in the stairwell.  Soon after, the police arrived.  I wish I was kidding.  She was escorted out and everything calmed down.  According to one other student who was on her floor, the cops had been called on her 4 times in the past 3 days.  Drugs may have played a role.  Prof A finished up the exam with us and we all left the hall.  As we were, a reporter who had been listening to the police scanner arrived.  Welcome to a world-class journalism school, I guess.

So yes, the police were called during the exam and I was interviewed on this matter about this student.  I couldn't say anything, of course.  No sharing info about a student who has been named, etc.  But yeah, that was what set the tone for my first semester of TA-ship.  

The first years didn't have stories to top that, thankfully, although they identified student problems that were terrible - cheating, plaigarism.  It's "run of the mill" unfortunately.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How to Talk to People with Mental Illness

Okay, another soap box post.

A favorite blog of mine has a set of posts entitled "social minefield".  I think this would appropriately be put underneath such a title.  Why does it matter?  Well, at least half of the grad students I have known suffer from mental illness.  I am one of them.  I was diagnosed with unipolar depression at age 19 and OCD shortly after.  I was diagnosed my first year of grad school with bipolar II, which wasn't a surprise.  I have a history of it on my mother's side of the family and while it sucks, I doubt you would really ever notice.  I'm pretty stable.  Copious amount of therapy and the appropriate regimen of meds has led me to lead a pretty normal life.

The other reason that this matters?  Students, just like normal people, have mental illnesses.  Plenty of them do.  They probably won't tell you that they have them, but you should be sensitive to the needs of your students.  In fact, being diagnosed with a mood disorder in your late teens/early 20s is very likely.  This is the time of frontal lobe development and the time when you are most likely to see this occur.  My diagnosis at age 23 and my symptoms, which appeared up to a year earlier, was textbook.  You may see students also exhibiting strange behavior, a  lack of concentration, or saying that they are completely stressed. Tell them that it is normal and refer them to a stress relief center on campus.  Most colleges have these sorts of groups on campus.  Mine has them almost every day of the week - for free.  Others, like my undergrad, charge a nominal fee and have regular meeting times.  You don't have to say, "I think you have a mental illness" because they may just be overwhelmed and lack study skills, but especially if they have had a recent loss or are dealing with other issues and confide in you about this, know the resources.

The thing I stress most, however, is that you don't offend people.  You see, people like myself have mental illnesses.  Yes, normal, productive members of society can suffer.  You may make jokes about "being OCD" or may make fun of me for freaking out over a door not being locked properly.  It's one ritual I may always have.  It's painful for me and I don't need an audience.  I legitimately believe that things will burn down when I don't lock the door properly.  Yes, it sounds crazy - because it really is - but I have no control over these thoughts.  My brain just likes to screw with me sometimes.  Don't make jokes about self-harm, eating disorders, or how you want to kill yourself.  People who have been there or have been personally effected by suicide don't like it.  My sister saw two suicides and one attempt within her first year of college.  She really gets upset by these jokes, despite not suffering from a mental illness.

Why does this matter?  Well, there are several reasons:
1. People who have suffered and are back "on track" and in therapy, taking their meds, exercising, etc to help themselves may find themselves feeling badly about taking their meds and doing the things that help.  Stigma can be a powerful barrier to treatment.
2. People who have a mental illness should feel safe.  They shouldn't be made to feel ashamed.  Part of the problem with mental illness is that it IS stigmatized.  You can work to change that by making every space a safe space.
3. You never know who has been effected by mental illness - either by their own struggles or by those of others.  I am very effected by not only my own contemplation of suicide but also the multiple attempts of people around me which left me reeling.  I never attempted and never ever had a plan, but the thought that there was no hope was all around.  Many people have felt that way once.  Trivializing it doesn't help.  So, be careful always.  You don't know who is listening.

How do I improve the situation?
1. Don't trivialize the struggles of mental illness.  Being OCD is not like an episode of Monk.  Cutting yourself is not just something emo kids do.  Eating disorders are no something you wish you had.  You aren't clinically depressed because you had a shitty day.
2. If someone has a mental illness, be supportive, but don't assume anything.  They will tell you what they are comfortable telling you.  Don't assume that they are somehow "crazy" or "fragile" unless they tell you.  I am a pretty normal human being.  I get A's.  I study just as hard as everyone else.  I deal with some trials and tribulations, but I don't ask for sympathy.  I learned something when I case managed for Medicaid.  You need to give empathy, not sympathy.  This is true here.
3. If a student or colleague comes to you, be aware of the resources available.  Don't say, "I think you need to see someone."  Say instead, "I know stress can be overwhelming.  Have you tried these stress relief workshops?  I hear they really work."  If you are talking to a friend and really care about them, you can offer to go with them to the stress relief thing or agree to hold their hand while they wait for a therapist.  Be aware of what is there, share it in a supportive and non-judgmental manner, and then let the person do what they will with it.  Empathize.  Don't judge.
4. Be aware that mental illness can be crippling and it is time consuming to take care of - just like any other illness.  I work on it all the effing time.  That said, it's not any different than having a physical illness.  I have several other chronic conditions that are pretty bad to deal with and they are very similar to mental illness as far as coping goes.  Most people have dealt with this sort of condition at least once in their life.  Think of how you felt and how you wanted to be treated and do unto others as you wanted to have done to you.

As an academic - hell, as someone who comes into contact with people - you should be aware of mental illness.  People have the ability to change stigma.  Just as was done with diseases like breast cancer and AIDS  in the past, we can help bring this to the forefront.  It's just especially important because of the age of students you deal with and the fact that academics have a higher incidence of mental illness than the general population.

Just some food for thought.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Soapbox: Young People and Sex

Usually, I post about general school things and my life, but this time, I am going to go up on a soapbox.

Time sent this out recently.  It's a sad, fascinating look into what young people think about sex.  The respondents in this CDC survey are all young women who had unplanned pregnancies.  I think it's a very interesting sample and certainly worth discussing.

How is this related to college students and my life as a TA?  Well, believe it or not, I was once a college student and I see college students every day.  Well, not right now because I am stuck at home with a terrible case of strep throat.

What I have encountered both as a TA and a student is a total lack of sexual health knowledge.  It's appalling.  I feel as though my friends and students have been failed by a lack of education from their schools and parents.  You see, sex ed was a non-issue at my middle/high school.  It didn't exist.  It was all, "Don't have sex and this won't happen".  In middle school, two friends got pregnant.  They both had unprotected sex and didn't think it could happen to them.  In high school, two close friends got pregnant and my school had a serious problem with all of this.  We were actually the 2nd highest rated county for pregnancies.  This was ahead of Lake County, which has numerous large cities such as Gary and Hammond where low socioeconomic status by all rights statistically should lead to more pregnancies than the more affluent cities in LaPorte county.  Marion county, that which houses the state capital (Indy) was the only county with a higher rate of teen pregnancy per capita.  That's really sad.

At home, though, I was very lucky.  My parents were open and honest.  By age 10, I had safe sex education at home.  It was embarrassing no doubt, but now I am thankful.  My sister and I grew up unashamed of my sexuality.  We were educated and in control of our safety.  We both waited a long time to have sex.  We both felt secure in that choice.  That said, most of my friends didn't have that experience.

In college, I was the go-to person for sex ed my freshman and sophomore years despite my lack of actual sexual experience.  Girls in my dorm had no clue they were putting themselves at risk and were afraid to talk because they felt ashamed.  This has been the experience many of my students have had as well.  Overhearing conversations and having a student have a conversation with me about being sexually assaulted and breaking down in my office drove the point home.  She didn't know she could be pregnant and was ashamed to do anything.  Her exam grade was incredibly low and she came to me to see if she could re-take.  As an A student prior to this, I did go to the professor and explain that while I was not at liberty to discuss her circumstances, she had been through a great deal of trauma.  Without question, he allowed her to retake another version of the exam and she ended up with an A-.

I am sure she was still reeling from what she had encountered, but I was glad that she had come to me and felt comfortable explaining it.  I, myself, was sexually assaulted in middle school - AT school, by a classmate.  I didn't tell anyone the whole story for years, but my parents were there for me.  They didn't make me feel ashamed.  They didn't blame me.  They didn't push me on the issue because they were educated enough of the subject to just love me and come about a resolution in my own time.

My friend is in charge of the vagina monologues at school.  She is in charge of arranging sex education talks for the often very young college students participating.  The stories she tells me are appalling.  These girls are sex-ashamed and sex-ignorant.  I am glad she does what she does for them because she is dedicated to educating these women.

I don't talk about men here, not because I don't care.  I feel instead that women are more vulnerable and made to feel ashamed by a society that either sees them as sexually promiscuous or incapable of desiring sex. It isn't like this everywhere, but in the U.S., it is a huge problem.  When I lived in England, I was amazed by how proud women were of their sexuality and how sex ed was pushed by the public school system.  Things were even more open in Germany.  I think we can learn a lot from this.  And I don't say that just because I am a comparative politics person, but I think it certainly has informed me to these policy lessons.  Men deserve the same education - both about sex and abuse - but I think we need to be especially worried about women.

Abstinence simply doesn't work for everyone and it is a lousy choice for sex ed.  Sex ed should certainly explain that abstinence is not a bad thing and it is the only way to be sure you don't get preggers or receive an STD.  However, abstinence-only programs are labeled ineffective by agencies such as the CDC and the DHHS.  I have a department contact over in the policy school here who is personally involved in local sex ed programs in the schools.  She was responsible for putting together a sex ed program based on a "highly effective" program that had been tested elsewhere and evaluated by the CDC to be especially good at protecting young people from STD's and pregnancy.  It was awarded a grant for this reason.  The Obama administration is trying really hard to push money to these programs.  That said, the Bush legacy is hard to correct in one term.  I fully support this.

If you are college student reading this, please get involved, gather knowledge, and don't feel alone.  Don't feel ashamed.  If you have been sexually abused, please don't feel like you are to blame - regardless of what people have told you.  If you are a grad student who comes into contact with students, be aware of this.  Perhaps you can get involved.  Most colleges have resources for you to both educate yourself on sexual assault and provide resources.  I encourage you to make yourself aware of them.  I never expected a student to come to me, but I was able to refer her to services that could help and be there for her.  I advocated for her because I knew it was important.  Most profs will understand, even if you don't outline what happened.  I told her I would not tell my prof that she had experienced an assault.  I promised.  I told him instead that she had experienced a very painful life event that I think was worthy of this retake.  Most professors ARE human and will understand.  If a student comes to you with questions and you are uncomfortable with talking about it, please refer them to services and know what is available.

No one should be made to feel guilty about sex.  No one should be assaulted, but people who are should know about services and know that there are places to go.  Kids should know about safe sex.  They should know about sexual abuse and "no means no".  We are failing our kids if we don't both talk about this at home and in school.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Years Resolutions

Never been big on new years resolutions, but I have some goals for the new year.

My first is to run a mini marathon with my younger sister.  It's not only about bonding, it's about being in shape, healthy, and enjoying some time back at my beloved alma mater.  It's going to kick my ass, but I think it will be good for me and will help me relax when I work out.

I am also starting the whole online dating thing.  A good friend of mine talked about doing it to meet people outside our department.  It's just really hard and isolating as a grad student.  I am involved in things outside my department but they don't help me meet people.  My cycling buddies from my cycling group are either really sweet old me or married people or women.  Not great possibilities!  My "thing" on campus is a gender studies group which has few straight male members.  Also not great for dating.  Bars aren't working.  I'm finally okay with getting a relationship started and bars aren't panning out.  It's time to try!

And then there is getting published.  I gotta submit a piece to a journal, but it's going to be hard.  I'm scared, but it's got to be done!  I need a publication, baby!