Tuesday, December 17, 2013

On Grades: Touchiest Subject for a Lot of Us

Recently, grades have been on the minds of a lot of us.  We are writing exams, grading, and fielding annoying emails after grades were posted about why they didn't get the grade they "wanted" or even worse "deserved".  The most interesting exchange I had was in regards to one student who was getting a straight D in the class.  The student wondered why the curve our prof instituted didn't lead to an A- on the final grade.  Truth be told, the student began bombing mid-semester (as shown by the grade book and even with a HEALTHY curve, they only ended up with a D).  But still, they "deserved" the A- at least!

Grades are rough.  When I was teaching on my own and in charge of writing up assessments on papers, it was hard to express myself in a way I felt comfortable with two main types of students - those who are trying and failing (the ones I WANT to improve and help) and those who are obstinate, flippant, and rude (the ones that don't try).  Many of us fight with ourselves about whether to just pass the first type of student knowing full well that they tried.  This was especially hard in a required but otherwise out-of-the-ordinary class like stats.  Students in this class most likely won't use methods training again - especially not those barely passing!  Never will they need this info for their daily lives working a standard desk job.  The latter type of student makes your life so much harder. You know they will protest the grade.  You know they may even harass you outside of office hours.  Last year, this meant a student stalked me in the library, waited for me outside my office door, and also, most likely, left notes on my car.  I was freaked out.  I just wanted to pass him to get him out of my hair.  In the end, the faculty member in charge of the grad-taught labs divvied up the final grades so I, in the end, just handed it over.  Most people will pass these annoying students because they don't want to have them repeat the class next year.

But is that the best solution?

A recent article in the Boston Globe points out concerns about grade inflation at Harvard.  My advisor from Indiana, my undergrad, complained about this problem from when he was doing his doctorate there.  He claimed students were basically precious snowflakes that couldn't put up with the mighty blow of being dealt anything less than an A.  After all, many of these kids had probably never seen an A- in their lives prior to college.  And, I admit, an A- seemed like a big, fat F to me in college - but not because I'd never seen one, my 3.95 college GPA was significantly higher than my high school GPA.  I hated most of high school and only graduated with like a 3.85.  I didn't try.  I was just capable of more.

But it's not just at Harvard.  Most of us can attest to the fact that we face pressures when grading - pressures leading to a test that has a 68 average being not "perfect" enough and an 85 average being "too high".  Shooting for that perfect 75 is often really hard.  And is it fair to shoot for it? You have to decide but, as you do, you also must answer to the department chair, the DUS, and, of course, a future tenure committee.  More importantly, you have to answer to your students.  They will, most frighteningly, determine your worth on teaching school job markets.  You can't piss them off too much or your reviews will look like crap.  Hiring committees matter.  Also, you will have students parading into your office and crying.  And, as I learned earlier this year, parents calling you screaming.

So, it's your choice.  You can either risk it and fight the grade inflation or you can pass the students who will cause an uproar.  What's the solution?  I really don't know.

I do know that certain appeals processes should be made more realistic and that it really should be made clear to students that we are not customer service representatives.  They are here to learn.  Should they choose not to, their grades will suffer.  Our current appeals process almost makes the students WANT to try.  Faculty members who have come here in recent times have been almost blind-sided by how willing students are to waste their time on appeals.  These students are usually here on aid that is somehow merit-based.  Financial aid will not only take away their scholarships, they will also require them to pay back loans on classes that they have stopped attending well before classes were done for the year. These students usually bring up bogus medical excuses and can threaten to sue.  A prof I worked for (in a class I TA'ed) had a student threaten legal action after a 6-month-long appeal went nowhere.  That case also went nowhere but it isn't the only example of such things in the last 4 years since I got here.  Appeals should be granted in legitimate situations.  And the burden of proof about things shouldn't rest on the shoulders of the instructor but the student.

I think the best solution is best summed up by a video that's been floating around my facebook for some time now:

Keep saying "no" and alternative "I'm sorry but...".  It usually works and then you don't completely lose your ability to stand strong.

What say you on such topics?  How do you cope with grade protests?  Grade inflation?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Travelling for the Nut Allergic: 10 reasons it sucks

So, today I come to you a little frustrated.  I'm at a conference with people I adore - my Canadian friends - and I'm in a beautiful place (Tampa) taking a break from school with a conference.  Every time I go to a place for Canadian politics and policy, I meet many new people, hang out with old friends, and learn a lot.  In the past 20 hours, I have met a ton of people, hung out at the hotel bar with a drink, and have very much relaxed and enjoyed myself.  Hell, I even got updated from a standard room to a junior suite with a balcony for no reason other than I was lucky.

However, travelling as a nut allergic grad student kind of sucks.  I am listing ten reasons why.  I can probably think of 100 more but these are my top ten.  Today, I am inspired because I feared I was weither not going to get breakfast before my panel or I was going to have to pay a lot in cab fare to go somewhere I could eat.

You see, since probably the dawn of time (now I sound like my students), I have had issues with nuts in my food.  I can remember fondly as a child eating chocolate with almonds and having my tongue swell up.  However, it tasted so good.  I had plenty of other allergies as a kid - shellfish, citrus, pomegranate, etc.  However, as an adult, my food allergies got a ton worse.  No longer could I deny my reactions after I was covered in hives and sick to my stomach.  I got allergy tested again at 22 and things didn't improve.  I tested with a reaction to almonds and walnuts - two things I had reacted poorly to.  So, I sucked it up and dealt.  I stopped eating those things.  I started asking questions.  However, despite asking about epi pens and special ways to eat safely, my allergist said my reaction "wasn't that bad" and I should avoid food.

Fast-forward to 2012.  I got off a plane from Rwanda and visited my good friend in Manchester, UK.  We visited some friends in the countryside away from Manchester and got ice cream - which I now know is a HUGE no-no.  I asked to see if the ice cream had nuts and was told "no".  I ate it.  Within 30 seconds, I knew it was mis-labeled.  My throat swelled, I coughed for days, I puked - the whole she-bang.  Well, by the time I got home, my mother forced me to go back to my childhood allergist who gave me a bunch of shots, armed me with epi-pens, and told me I was very lucky to be alive and that I should have gone straight to the ER.  I never saw my new allergist again.  I almost died.  I didn't make that mistake again.  Since then, I've completely changed my diet.  It's been very, very hard at times but I do it to stay safe.

So, here are ten reasons it sucks to be nut allergic.  I'm not the only one.  These are things other adults experience - especially when travelling.  Conferences, while fun, can also be a nightmare.

1. Servers and staff don't get it. - This one is a key one.  This morning I explained my allergy to three separate people.  The first person to get it was actually a woman who spoke little English but showed me an allergy safe-handling list that she said she knew. She was the first person I trusted.  I get a whole lot of "but I can pick the nuts off, right?" or "But it shouldn't kill you if it just touched it."

2. People in line don't get it. - They are often annoyed.  They think you are being purposefully difficult.  And, honestly, the whole "gluten free for health" bullshit has made this worse.  Everyone you know is going gluten free.  You probably know someone who is a bit of an attention whore that is doing it.  For this reason, staff get a lot of requests for gluten free from people that aren't gluten allergic and it makes the lives of people with food allergies harder.  You may even have these people at your table who say "oh, I knew a person that grew out of it". You will explain "yes, but I didn't and won't".  They won't get it.  You will just have to deal with it.

3. TSA agents don't get it. - This was awful yesterday.  The TSA tried to take the nut-safe bread that I had baked to bring with me.  It was all I would have until 2PM yesterday.  I can't eat the food on the plane - it always has a "may contain" or "shared facility" label.  It also meant that on the way back, I wouldn't have food either.  I always pack just enough food to get by.  It's hard to know what is in the terminal until you get there.  Usually, there is nothing safe for me before lunch and I don't always have time to sit down.  I had to show them my epi pen and threaten to report them before they let it go.

4. People lie to you. - Before I knew better than to trust ANY dessert unless it was safe, I ate a pastry at Second Cup in Ottawa shortly before boarding the airport bus.  It was a mistake.  I asked a kid to go check about one of the pastries.  He did but he either didn't ask the right person or the person didn't know and just lied.  Either way, my pastry had walnuts, which I didn't know until I started eating.  I came back to Chicago swollen and ill.  I had to fling open my suitcase full of dirty clothing after a week at a conference to find my meds which I had packed.  Canadians, being nice people, helped.  An old man touched my gross underwear trying to help and I was mortified.  NEVER AGAIN.

5. You have to call ahead EVERYWHERE or be prepared to walk around aimlessly for hours. - Try going to a conference in New Orleans with a nut and shellfish allergy.  It's awful.  There were all of 2-3 places in a close distance to our hotel that had anything "safe".  I lived on granola bars until I was done presenting and could get on a bus and go get Persian food.  Walking around got so tiring. It was an endless disappointment.

6. Some days, you are SOL and will NOT find food. - This morning was an example where I thought this was an issue.  I knew that I would not get food if there were no bagels.  I wasn't willing to sacrifice my going home food.  If I got delayed, I would have no more food. That's a scary thought.

7. You can never just go out and have a good time without thinking about it. - Tonight my cousin is meeting me.  I have already called places nearby to see what is safe and what isn't.  It's way harder to just meet people to go to lunch to network. I always have to be prepared to either say "but I can't eat here" or "well, you guys eat, I'm not hungry" (even if I am).

8. Say bye-bye to desserts.  Desserts aren't safe.  And sometimes you will get the stink eye from waitstaff if you are the lone hold out.  And, if it's a plated meal with multiple courses provided by the conference, you have to get that thing away from you.  People may stare as you sit there not eating.  My boyfriend is taking me to a place where I am actually able to have dessert when I get back.  I can't contain my excitement, honestly.

9. Be prepared to pay more.  Since you can't just eat anywhere, you sometimes have to spend a lot more money.  The cafe here didn't have safe food at all.  So, I ended up spending $20.00 for an appetizer at a restaurant that I could get to.  It's stupid but I was bloody hungry.

10. You sound like a broken record and it's annoying as hell to you. - Other peopel may only hear you explain things once but you do it all the time.  You say the same thing to waitstaff over and over for a period of days at a conference.  It makes you tired and sad.  You also worry that anyone else around you finds you similarly annoying but it's what you have to do to stay safe.

Do you have food allergies?  If so, how do you cope on business trips?  Or trips for pleasure?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Parental phone calls: The new normal?

So, teaching assistants, instructors, professors, parents of blogger and twitter, what say you on this topic?

My colleagues and I have noticed that especially recently, parental phone calls are more numerous than ever.  What's more, parents often call without the knowledge of their students.  Why?  I just can't fathom this.  It doesn't do any good, of course. What is the point?

The first phone call I received from a parent was back in 2011.  It was the Spring semester and I was the only TA for a course on American civil liberties.  I had to grade a TON of papers and tests for 75 students.  It was a harrowing semester to say the least but it was the first time I actually dug into dealing with students one-on-one to improve their writing which was actually really satisfying.

My office phone rings and I look over at it.  Who the hell is calling?  During this time, I worked in a dark, dank office in the attic of what USED to be the psych ward of the university hospital.  I have no windows and asbestos tile on all things.  The phone ringing for the first time in EVER was creepy as all get out.  It seemed like the start of a bad horror movie, but I picked it up.  On the other end was an irate parent who kept calling me "professor" when I kept correcting her.  She was calling in regards to a student who had a good grade in the class but she insisted the grade for the student should have been higher.  I told her that I couldn't discuss any specifics but then she said "SHE KNOWS THINGS! HER FATHER IS A DIPLOMAT!"  Uh, okay?  She clearly didn't understand political science subfields at all but more than that, lady was calling without the knowledge of her kid.  I found this out a day later when I talked to her student in class.  I asked the student if she wanted to discuss things.  She was confused.  I explained the conversation and then the student got red in the face.  I found out that she was mortified.  Her mother had called because of her own personal insecurities about the child's grades.  The student was happy with her grade.

The student told me, "I didn't work hard enough to earn an A.  That's it.  I'm not complaining" or something to that regard.  She took her "lumps" as minor as they were and moved on.  Mom couldn't cut the cord.

This year has been something else.  Parents have been emailing myself, the professor, and then calling everyone in the teaching staff for this large section.  We can't discuss grade specifics, of course, but today, crazy went to a whole 'nother level.

The situation was similar to that of the above one with one difference: I am now in an office in a building with carpet, no lead paint, and a WINDOW!  I'm not in a basement either (that was last year).  Small victories, eh?  However, due to it being an old building and our powerstrips being limited, someone must have unplugged our office phone because, I mean, who calls it?  Well, a parent wanted to.  Said parent was spamming the phone downstairs and the administrative assistant emailed me.  I called on my cell because the cordless phone had a now-dead battery.  Stupid mistake.  I will now fear FOR DAYS her calling my cell interminably.

So, I call her back to stop her from harassing our office staff.  She gets all huffy, won't tell me her name, her student's name, etc.  She kept saying "I know my rights" and talking over me.  She finally gave me her information and the student's and I again told her I couldn't speak about grades and that we would be happy to assist her student.  I then asked her the one question I always ask now: "Does your student know you are calling?"

The answer was, of course, no.  It more often than not is.  Kids are usually MORTIFIED when they find out that their parents are calling.  I would be, too.

The call ended with no progress being made for her.  All she did was yell at me, insult my Chicago accent, tell me I spoke "incoherently" because of it, and then call me lazy.  Even if I COULD help, I wouldn't have.  Rule number one of getting what you want: don't insult the only person who can help you!

But why do parents call, then?  If it doesn't work?  If they know that we can't give them this information?

I know it's not a completely new phenomenon because when I was in school, there were definitely parents that felt the need to intervene - usually by requesting access to grades on OneStart, the grade, registration, and financial system my undergrad used.  They never had access to online course materials, raw grades, etc.  Just final grades.  And my parents felt that THIS was an imposition into my life.  They didn't ask me to sign the waiver to let them have access and I was always getting good grades.  Even if I hadn't, they figured I would tell them.  It's worked out similarly with my sister who is just now finishing up her undergrad at the same school.

However, today, this parent confessed to me that they have the password for Blackboard, Facebook, and university email accounts for this student.  The university actually forbids parents and others from accessing Blackboard and university email for fear of academic dishonesty and privacy.  When I informed her she was violating FERPA and university policy, she basically just wondered how she could monitor the every move of her kid without it!

The parents my prof and I have dealt with this semester have all been similarly minded - go behind a student's back and demand a grade change at all costs.  When that doesn't work, just insult the living daylights out of whatever human being you are speaking to.

Why?  Is this a new trend?  Is it going to stay this way or do we just have a fluke of a section of this class?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why the Shutdown Matters to Grad Students

My roommate and I were talking about what the shutdown hadn't done last night:

1. It hasn't completely destroyed our country.
2. It hasn't led to a run on banks.
3. It hasn't done anything to destroy our national security.
4. People aren't likely dying in the street.

So, why should we care?

Well, I actually kind of hate that nothing all that visibly bad has happened.  I mean, I certainly don't wish for chaos or people suffering.  That's the worst.  However, limiting the amount of people which are hurt is one way that the Republicans in Congress can take a stand without causing chaos that will lead to a call for action.  If people were running to banks, protesting en masse, and not getting life-saving services in a widespread way, it would be easy for people to hold legislators accountable. You see, voters are myopic.  They only care about their little world views not because they are apathetic necessarily but because they simply don't have the time to devote to looking outside of the immediate problems burdening them.  This is why we don't see protests en masse.

Another reason is that those most affected are generally too silent and disorganized to put up a fight.  They aren't consistent voters.  They are the young, the poor, and the less-able-to-protest. If you think for a second that this is accidental, it's not.  The Republicans know who they can piss off.  They are smart and shrewd politicians.  The Democrats know who they can afford to lose and who they can't, too.  That's just good politics.  The problem is that what is "good politics" is not necessarily "good for America".

Who specifically could suffer in this shutdown if it continues on for much longer?  Well, all of us if we default.  We would put the global economy into a tailspin.  And, after a large amount of "good days" on Wall Street, that seems a terrible solution to the problem.  Kids on SNAP, WIC, TANF, and other federal programs stand to lose a great deal, too.  They can't fight this.  They are children in need of food and a roof over their heads.  Regardless of your opinions about welfare policy, you probably don't agree with the idea of starving children.  Federal and state employees and people who work for non-profit contractors are also most at-risk of not getting paychecks.  Some are working sans-pay right now with no idea as to how they will pay for Christmas let alone life after the next few weeks.

More specifically, though, grad students should be concerned for two main reasons.  One, the GI Bill and other military tuition assistance programs are very at risk and either are not or will not be able to sustain themselves as programs much longer.  My cousin, who studies international relations and security as an undergrad on a GI Bill, is a veteran who is at-risk currently.  He has saved, so he will be okay without his assistance but many of his fellow veteran students will not.  He risked life and limb and is now being told he may be on the hook for the rest of that tuition this year.  I have a friend in my program currently who has taken the semester off of teaching to use his GI Bill and work on studying for the foreign service exam.  He needs a good job and the GI Bill has been a lifesaver.  Should he suffer?  He tirelessly worked as a medic.  Should he suffer?

Even if you are anti-war and don't see what the hubub is about with the military, you have to see the logic in my argument here.  To begin with, a large number of my students are ROTC and use tuition assistance programs.  We have many Military Studies students in the political science department and have had many masters students in the past (one which was in my cohort).  Many of my fellow students and current students I teach would be SOL barring this support.  This means withdrawals.  Withdrawals mean smaller class numbers next semester and fewer teaching assistantships for graduate students across numerous departments.  Moreover, people who are in ROTC or have been in the military often join out of a need for a way to pay for their education.  These are high-risk students.  Unlike some kids who can lose a scholarship and get their parents to pay or take out a PLUS loan, most of these students do not have recourse.  That's upsetting to me.  It's inegalitarian and it will be felt by the most at-risk disproportionately.

The second reason should probably hit close to home for a lot of us.  Without a budget and without raising the debt ceiling, two things will happen.  One, the we will default on loans and creditors will have issues.  Second, there will be no loans and there won't be federal education assistance.  This means that you and I will not only lose our ability to take out loans to pay fees but our students will as well.  This is a double-whammy.  Even if we can pay all of our bills sans-loans (I mostly could with some work), we may lose our jobs.  If there are massive withdrawals from the university, we may lose our jobs.  We may be able to stay on this next semester but come fall 2014, will we have jobs?

It's frightening.  Write your Congressional Reps and Senators.  Don't let your voice go unheard.  Young people and low income people are the least likely to have their voices heard but it's a numbers game.  If we start showing up in large numbers, they have to listen to us.

Again, it's about who you can and cannot piss off.  If we start becoming more credible threats, they will have to listen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Opening the Dialogue on Mental Health in Grad School for MIAW

Inside Higher Ed's GradHacker blog posted about mental health yesterday in response to Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW).  Turley, who posted the blog, stated,
"I think that mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students."
I have to agree.  I've stated on here numerous times that by the time we get to grad school, we are pretty much intellectually equal.  Time management and stress-management are the areas which either sink us or let us have success.  This is particularly true in times of high-stress such as comps!

I thought the post was well-done and brought up some important suggestions worthy of review.  And, since it is, MIAW and a large portion of this blog is devoted to helping those dealing with mental illness in graduate school, I thought I would tie this all together with a post about dialogue.

The suggestions Inside Higher Ed offered were mainly about dialogue.  I think this is an important point of note.  Why?  Well, as I posted about in "How to Talk to People with Mental Illness", a large part of the "puzzle" of "dealing" with the problems associated with mental illness are associated with stigma and a lack of awareness about resources.  I have been very open with my own struggles with bipolar disorder and how it has been the biggest challenge I have faced in grad school.  I have tried to show that most people deal with mental illness or face hardships associated with stress or anxiety in grad school whether it be prior to comps or specifically during the comps process.  Likewise, because I am a survivor of sexual assault and have also tried to be open about this, I have talked about the importance of being aware of the process of dealing with survivors and what comes "next" in the process of healing.  Most importantly, I have tried to open the dialogue on here and twitter in hopes that people would realize they aren't alone.  This was my most popular post this year.

I think people are starting to become aware on the blogosphere and on twitter of the reality of how prevalent mental illness is in grad school.  As I've said before, it's rather important to put this all into perspective.  I can think of few people who haven't seen a counselor.  And, in my opinion, most people who haven't seen one here, probably could have benefitted from seeing one at one time or another.  Whether it is just a "rough patch" or a legitimate disorder that needs to be diagnosed, the "treatment" is the same.  Thus, it doesn't matter what we call it.  Everybody's got something.  That's a thing I think we should emphasize.  While I deal with sometimes unique situations due to OCD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder, most of what I have been through is pretty relatable and standard grad school "fare" that is associated with stress and anxiety that MOST will experience in their time here.

That's why the GradHacker article is a good one, I think. It recommends three things:

1. "Graduate departments need to openly acknowledge the problem."2. "Academic advisors should receive training on preventing, recognizing, and addressing mental health issues in their students (and themselves too!)."3. "Graduate programs should offer (or even require) courses or workshops that teach yoga and mindfulness techniques."
Starting with number 1, I agree.  My department is not awful about this but there have been teachable moments here that I think have gone undiscussed.  In two instances, a grad student basically was a danger to themselves and another person.  I was the target of such a situation when a student basically became obsessed with me, stalked me, and then threatened to hurt themselves when I refused to help them do their homework. The student was eventually asked to leave the program for poor performance and the DGS reached out to this person.  He was more than helpful suggesting resources but the student either did not pursue them or did not get the preferred results.  In another instance, another student stalked a fellow cohort member, was a danger to herself, and the DGS admitted to WALKING her over to a hold.  Again, good for him.  He does look out for us.  However, in both instances, no more further discussion was called for.  These were moments the administration of the department could have used to bring us together, offer up resources, and possibly bring in a person from mental health to have a more open discussion.  Still, at least the administration hasn't ignored the problem here and is more than willing to LISTEN and help.  That's huge.

Number 2 is something I feel strongly about as a future academic and as a current grad student.  I do not doubt that my advisor is one of the best ones here as far as helping with this problem.  As I posted here, she has taken a personal interest in the unique problems facing female students trying to balance it all - school, life, and society's conflicting expectations. If I went to her looking for resources, I bet she would be able to help and would actively try.  However, I know others have not received the same level of support from other advisors or in other departments.  When a guy I was dating awhile ago admitted that the lack of sleep due to terrible lab hours was making him feel completely out of touch with reality, his advisor basically told him to suck it up.  We've talked since he graduated and got a job with a much better work-life-balance and he said that the last year here was the worst year of his life thus far.  The strangeness of being in a foreign country, having no time to even sleep or eat, and having no friends took its toll.  He now sees a therapist and is feeling much better.

I have talked about the need to be aware of resources for both general stress and anxiety and for sexual assault crisis.  We are faced with problems that our students bring us even as grad students.  I make myself aware of the mental health and counseling resources on campus as well as the sexual assault crisis resources.  This particular school has EXCELLENT resources.  If I was advising grad students in the first semester of grad school or teaching an introductory seminar, I would like start that first seminar or meeting off with a general overview of what stress is like in grad school, that it is "the norm" and that how you deal with it is what matters.  I wish more people did this.  The more open we are about the problem - not just in closed-door settings - the more likely we are to solve the problem.

In regards to number 3, I agree with the idea of offering mental health seminars or cohort meetings for first year grad students.  This is proactive.  If a counselor was brought in once every other week for drop-in meetings and open discussions with a cohort in a conference room somewhere, good techniques could be gained in dealing with stress and anxiety.  Likewise, students would not feel as isolated.  Eventually, if you manage to get through semester one, you will realize that everyone is dealing with the same damn thing.  But you have to get there first!

The counseling and mental health centers on campus offer a variety of stress-mangement, sexaul assault recovery, and mindfulness resorces here that I think are very valuable.  However, few are grad-student specific.  Because I am aware of stigma and the perceptions of undergraduates as well as my age, I am reluctant to join any group that is not grad-student specific. It would be a conflict of interest to have a student or future student in there.  But hey, at least some grad-specific things exist and there are sexual assault survivor groups, which is more than I can say for my undergraduate school.  And, there, everything cost a lot of money.  Here, 90% of these resources are free and if they aren't, they take insurance.  Indiana did not take any form of insurance, which was a huge barrier to poor grad students seeking treatment, I'm sure.

All in all, I look forward to having more dialogue on this blog in the future (in the comments) and on twitter.

Big takeaways that I think we should focus on is that we need to provide resources to students before things get hairy.  Provide the resources to deal with stress and anxiety first rather than just react to the problem.  And as future academics or current academics, we should be aware of what resources are available and work actively to smash stigma.

Friday, October 4, 2013

So you think you can do my job?

Random Family Member: What is is that you do all day?  Just sit around?
Me: I actually work on projects, teach classes, do coursework
RFM: So, you're basically a college student still?
Me: No.
RFM: You just write about your opinion all day, then, right?
Me: No.
RFM: Then what do you do?
Me: Research.  Teaching.
RFM: You must have a lot of fun and free time.  Anyone could do that.  When you do something useful, let me know.
Yeah, this is a conversation a lot of academics will probably experience and HAVE experienced in the upcoming holiday season if they are like me.  One of my grandmothers has determined that I live a pretty cushy life where I don't do anything except scare away potential suitors.  My work week pre-comps was somewhere around 70 hours a week and it was like that for most of the first three years of my PhD.  Everyone thinks life in the ivory tower is easy and silly at times.  We sit around on our asses and twiddle our thumbs.

And if you are a political scientist, you have recently probably had a similar conversation to this:
Random family member's facebook post: If only there were {insert asinine political solution here such as term limits, a balanced budget amendment, no political parties} we wouldn't have this problem.  Those Democrats are the worst!  Tea Party 4EVAH!
Me: Actually, that wouldn't solve the problems that we face {present rational argument here}
RFM: No, that wouldn't do it. We have to have to get them to DO things.  This system is so screwed up and slow!  It's full of so much ARGUING!  If only they followed the Constitution!
Me: Actually, the Constitution designed the system to be inherently conservative.  That's why we see these issues here and not in a Westminster system like in the UK.
RFM: Conservative!  It's the stupid libs!  Liberalism is the death of this nation!  Socialists are running everything!!! ELEVENTY!!!
Me: None of those words mean what you think they mean.  This country was founded on liberalis and both parties come from a "liberal" political tradition.  Socialism requires common ownership of things like the means of production and the provision of service by government, generally.  That does not happen here.
RFM: I think I would know! You're a Democrat, so you don't matter!  GAHHHHHH.  I've been paying taxes for 50 years! You young idealistic liberals won't get it!
Yes, it's frustrating as hell.  Not that I don't have about 8 years of training in the subject or anything!  I guess I'm pretty useless.  It's enough to make your head explode.  It offends me a great deal because when people say things like this, it means (to me) that what I do isn't worthy of recognition or respect.  What I do is not only "silly" or "useless" but somehow begins to OFFEND people.  You wouldn't tell an accountant how to do an audit.  Why would you tell me about politics or teaching?  Why would you make assumptions about what we do?  I don't know but it makes me reel.

The worst part is, the more you dig your heels in and try to make it clear that you know more, the more you try to educate these people, the worse it actually gets.  Because then you just look like an elitist snob in their eyes.  Let's face it, we speak PhD now.  We talk about what we do in ways that people can't understand and it's very, very hard to explain what we do in "normal" terms.

I felt bad recently when my boyfriend told me his parents thought I seemed to be genuinely smart but they couldn't understand what I did at all.  I knew that they didn't get it because I hadn't explained it well.  So, the next time they ask me, I will try even HARDER to explain it in common terms.  We use very artificial, technical language like ABD, comps, R&R, etc to explain our lives.  It's not easy for our parents, family members, spouses, significant others, and friends outside of academia to "get" it.  It's something I have to work on.  And in the case of the boyfriend's parents, I never intended to do anything.  I generally don't intend to confuse anyone.  So, getting upset when people don't get it can be a natural response but not something you should immediately get offended over.

Still, how do you deal with people trying to do your job?  Do you avoid all family gatherings so you don't have to listen to Uncle Joey berate you about how your job is useless to "average people" and how you've gotten so uppity since going away to school?  Do you write Grandma out of your Christmas card list (does anyone still make those anyhow?)?  Do you unfriend everyone from facebook?

The truth is, there are no easy answers.  I try to avoid getting into it with people.  It's a situation where assuming everyone is simply ignorant and means well is the only way to go.  If I just assume that people are ignorant, I look at my responses as needing to be diplomatic.  I see myself as sort of an ambassador to my career and discipline with these people.  They may say things that annoy me but they don't mean it.

Well, except sometimes they do, right?

Yeah.  Yeah, sometimes they do.  You will encounter Uncle Jed the Shitstirring Teapartiest at various gatherings but just smile and treat him the same.  If it gets down to the point of name calling on his point, take the high road.  I had this happen at my sister's graduate party 4 years ago. A cousin would NOT leave me alone and called me a little girl.  He got downright rude, called me a useless person who could "only" think, and then made fun of the way I dressed.  It was clearly coming from a place of insecurity and inebriation, so I wrote it off.

I won't lie and say these things don't annoy me or bother me.  They do.  After all, what I do every day is part of my life's work.  How could I not feel offended when people resort to personal attacks and name calling about it?  Academics is a lot about "love" of what you do.  If someone attacks the thing you love, you tend to get offended.  That's what makes it a little different from a 9 to 5 at a bank (as if those exist!) or a job for a government contractor.  It's all culminating, you can't turn it off, and you have to preach it on a regular basis to students!

The reality is that there are a lot of insecurities. If you approach the situation assuming that, you will be infinitely better off.  When it gets to hitting below the belt, shove off.  Ignore the person.

Hopefully, the people you value the most will either "get it" or at least be supportive and not deny that you do happen to know more on a subject than they do.  Also, they probably won't be ignorant of all the important things you have to do, the amount of time you put in, etc.  My boyfriend gets most of it and he's very supportive of me.  My parents have no clue what I do, in reality, and don't understand a word of methods jargon that comes out of my mouth but they are glad I do what I love.  Those are the people that matter, anyway.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Scholar vs. Academic? Should We Take More Time to Smell the Roses?

David J. Leonard, a Professor at WSU in comparative ethnic studies made a really good point in a recent blog post he wrote entitled "Scholars versus Academics".  I thought his short, succinct post was well-argued as someone currently in-process of getting a PhD.

He argues that the normal constraints put on graduate students and junior faculty are often too much on their own and take away from the bigger picture.  We should be training scholars, after all, not academics.  Scholars, according to Leonard and others, are multidisciplinary and focused on development outside of publishing.  Academics push paper and publish.  That's a problem for some.

Certain responsibilities are bound to take over, of course, and publication will matter even for those on the teaching school market at this point.  You are out there in a sea of newly-minted PhD's and those who have accepted visiting positions that now have even LONGER CV's and more experience than they did the year before.  You have to focus on what sets you apart.  But even before that, graduate students are taxed with a ton of responsibilities that can really hinder their development as scholars.

Think about your first year in grad school.  Here, you are required to hold down a .25 or .50 teaching load or research assistantship (these are rarely given to first year students in my department).  You are focused on working 10 or 20 hours a week on teaching, supposedly.  In most of my assignments, I have worked well over that 20 hours maximum.  So, you have to focus not only on your first year of coursework and possibly proposing some conference papers, but also that teaching load.  And it's only the first time you have likely ever been asked to teach or guide students in this way in your life!

This, I believe is a main problem for a lot of departments - and it's worse in many departments than my own.  I think putting the burden of teaching on fledgling graduate students is unfair to graduate students and it's unfair to undergraduates, as well.  I think back to my time as a green-as-grass first year and shiver about all of the things I did not know.  I learned so much about the discipline, teaching, and subject matter in that first year that I can't even explain it easily.  I worked with both a seasoned and a new professor and took a lot away from that important contrast there.  I think observing teaching and the ways others did it (even if I didn't agree with things or would have done something differently) was a key part of my development.  I have since gone on to teach my own "labs" for an intro methods course which is, arguably, the most time-consuming assignment our department offers to graduate students.  But that was in my 3rd year of school not my first.

Some departments are throwing grad students out to teach their own introductory sections their first semester or second semester - well before they are capable of handling these responsibilities.  A lot of my colleagues complain that we don't get enough teachers training.  I see their point but I also have heard the horror stories of others about being "thrown to the wolves" in other departments.  I think we actually have it pretty good compared to other departments in that regard.  Our department rarely gives students their own labs or sections until year 3 or year 4 of their graduate career.  Most independent sections of classes will wait until a student is ABD.  This is the best thing for ALL involved, in my opinion.

What happens when you are a first year graduate student teaching your own course all on your own?

Bad things.  Your perceptions of what is the reality of teaching, what works, and what you need to do emphasize will probably be off.  You will also likely burn out with little mentoring support.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, your students will suffer.  Maybe some people with a Masters already or some prior teaching experience will handle it well enough but I know I could never have managed it.

Professional development really, really matters.  Having a mentor matters. Watching others teach is an integral part of "growing" as a scholar.  Getting more time to smell the roses is good.

This also concerns field research.  I believe an over-reliance on teaching assistantships makes it difficult for students to pursue qualitative research or case studies.  Here, you want to find your data ASAP, write your dissertation in an "okay" and publishable format (3 journal articles, generally) and get the hell out.  The problem is that lots of problems go unaddressed and you never learn to do field research.  I have been lucky enough to have gotten some opportunities in this area which have helped me smell the roses, meet people from other nations and disciplines, and grow as a scholar AND academic.  Many are not this lucky and my fellowship on top of my teaching assistantship affords me more flexibility.  Most of the students in my program don't have this luxury.

I think there are definite priority problems for PhD students, as I've said above.  Teaching is something you should LEARN to do and should be something you are mentored on.  It's not some sort of sink-or-swim experiment in which you take the lives of unassuming undergraduates in your hands and pray you can survive your semester alive and teach as best you can.  That's not the point of training scholars at any level.  Being a scholar is also about broadening the approach and answering important questions- some which can't be answered by canned data which already exists on ICPSR.  Being too focused on the teaching assistantships offered by the department leads graduate students to either forgo funding and finish their dissertation or forgo answering important questions to save funding.

There is still a great deal which needs to be improved upon.  Nothing is perfect but I count myself as one of the lucky graduate students that HAS received good support in teaching and research from department.  Not everyone is so lucky.

We shouldn't lose track of what makes a scholar a scholar.  If we want to educate a new generation of scholars, we need to create graduate students that broaden their minds and go on to teach a new generation of undergraduates that can also go on to be scholars.  If we lose this goal, we do a disservice to the next generation of thinkers and make ourselves irrelevant.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Socialization of Professional Behavior: A gender dichotomy?

So, as I am very ill and post-comps, I am blogging about my reading.  I plan to finish Lean In in the next couple of days, Sheryl Sandberg's well-written manifesto about taking charge of the workforce as a woman.  Why did I buy it this summer?  My advisor told me to buy it and so did my mother.  As these two women are the most influential female role models in my life, I tend to pay attention to anything both of them tell me to do.  Rarely do I ever buy new hardcovers out of my own impoverished need to eat before read but I did this once.

Lean In talks about being a professional success which is something my advisor is always on us about - especially her female students.  I had a bit of a fit over comps around the start of July, a time when I was about 3/4 through studying, in all reality.  I had the WORST case of imposter syndrome I've probably ever had in graduate school.  Seriously, I thought "I'm going to fail comps, I can't possibly do this".  She knows me better than this.  She acknowledged seeing me every day, asked me all what I was doing, and said, "This is not your Waterloo.  Well, it won't be unless you let it."  She also told me to read Lean In as I moved forward to help me understand what was really going on.

Where did this feeling come from?  Well, part of it is normal.  All academics have imposter syndrome, a condition that makes you feel inferior.  I say it's kind of like feeling that you are just WAITING for them to find out you don't belong in your program or aren't deserving of your PhD.  It feels like you aren't worthy and it's all a facade.  My advisor agrees we all have it.  I've yet to find someone who denies that it is a HUGE problem for academics like me.  My advisor says it is twice as bad for her sometimes because she feels like because she is female she often feels the need to check if it is "okay" for her to do something.  She now realizes a lot of these things are normal things that men will do.  She stated, specifically, that she had a huge case of anxiety concerning a very important speech (probably one of the most important you can give in our subfield) she had to make this Spring. She read Lean In and actually learned a lot about what she could do to quell her anxiety, take charge, and thought the book would help professional women like myself.

While some may dispute that graduate students such as myself are "professionals", I do not agree with this.  First of all, professionalism comes from discipline, a set of rules and norms, and a guide to what is ethical and acceptable behavior.  I can think of a million reasons why expectations for me academia, teaching, and research qualify me as "professional".  Second, at this stage in my career, I need to gear myself towards being seen as professional.  This helped me recently with my Fulbright application and will serve me on the job market.  This is why Lean In fits in.  I believe this is a key thing to point out.  Ladies, as grad students, you are professionals whether you like it or not.

Another reason I feel like Lean In, thus far, has been so pertinent is it's highlighting of socializing behaviors.  As my advisor stated, women feel that they often don't belong at the table and that they can't do certain things.  Think of your grad school classroom.  What is the gender parity like?  In my discipline, it is sorely lacking.  While we have actually hired mostly female researchers and professors in the past 4 years, women are far less represented in the grad student population and a large chunk of those women are PhD students.  This year's cohort has two women out of 13 people and has only 1 female PhD student.  I also look around and see a difference in the way that women feel about speaking up and demanding things and the way that men so easily taking on those roles.

I have been known to be a rather ambitious and demanding student.  I rarely roll over.  One of the male members of my cohort characterized me as a "bulldog" once.  I didn't take kindly to that.  I got rather offended.  Why?  Well, it seemed like he was calling me a whiny bitch rather than a respectable woman.  I felt like I was overreaching or something.

And that is why, when during a seminar about a year ago, I put up with another student - a male student - making all sorts of rude gestures while I talked.  This student has, in the past, has called me spoiled, rich, and demanded that I was "out of my league".  A large basis for his problems with me came from my choice of baseball team.  Yes, it's a very petty thing.  But it went WELL above that when one time he said, "you'd be attractive if you never opened my mouth".  That was said at a professionalization event held by the department.  I never talked about it again.  I slunk back and ignored him.  No one else who heard it ever spoke of it again.  There was an awkward pause and then a topic switch.

But here we were in another seminar talking about the importance of feminist movements in interest group formation and he was eye rolling, making talking mouths with his hands as I spoke, and I lost it.  I didn't have time to think.  I was at the end of my rope.  So, he did it one time too many and I turned to stare directly at him and said something to the tune of, "I would really love to talk about the representation of working class women which is often-neglected from this dialogue but someone is making it really difficult for me to contribute.  This isn't the first time, either. So, I will continue but it needs to stop.  The person knows who they are."

The class was silent and I continued but while I view this as a triumphant moment in my development as a women in my professional world, I didn't immediately see it this way.  I stopped talking a few seconds later only to have everyone staring at me nondescriptly.  The professor soon wrapped up our class and the person responsible for my outburst ran out QUICKLY.  The professor invited me to talk directly to him.  I now know that he was merely concerned about academic freedom and the importance of other points of view but at the time I felt as though I must have overstepped my role as being a meek female student.

So, I got in my car, called my mother crying, and relayed all of the details to her.  She told me that I did the right thing and that the person in question needed a wake up call if our professor wasn't going to step in.  She told me not to feel ashamed and that while I felt judged, the other women in that room would thank me later if not sooner.  My mother, who works in engineering and is the only woman in her department, has pretty much seen it all at this point.  I had to trust her a bit.  I talked to older female colleagues that were very supportive, as well.  My roommate said she hoped I would go talk to the professor and give him the backstory because he was trying to help and how would he know to help if someone didn't say anything.

The truth is, I don't think this guy is a menace just for the sake of being one.  He only seemed to have a problem with me when I tried to argue with him over points in seminar respectfully.  I believe, at times, he feels female authority isn't okay.  Let's face it, that's not just on him, that's on socialization at large.  So, for this, he acts out and gets all huffy.  I told the professor about our past history but didn't tell him about what had been said over drinks the year before.  I now wish I would have but it felt like gossip.  The truth is, it was sexual harassment whether he knew it or not.  I shouldn't be ashamed of that.

I told the prof everything and he actually admitted he was GLAD I had felt comfortable to say something and was happy I was participating.  He noted a big lack of female participation in that class.  Part of this is because of the way that male participants in that room tended to cut you off in a way they didn't cut off fellow men.  I noted this to him.  He did a better job of controlling the seminar after this.  And, while, for a bit I felt nervous, I got over it and came back even stronger in another seminar with one of the guys who cuts girls off on the regular.  I talked to another female student at the time, a first year, and encouraged her never to step down as older female graduate students had told me as a first and second year.  She admitted to feeling nervous about talking over him when he cut her off.  She was worried for the same reasons I had been.  I didn't want to be seen as a "bitch" or to make too many waves and she was similarly concerned about such characterizations.

I took charge of my professional abilities to speak freely, learn, and participate in an environment I felt was rather hostile at the time.  In doing so, I did make it easier for women to participate.  But I could have done the opposite. I am glad I got a bit hot under the collar that night and did something "risky" because it led to things being better for the women around me.  I am sure now that no one else was thinking the same but after my outburst, the offender in question never did what he was doing that night ever again in my presence.  There were jokes made by members of his cohort about me "busting balls" but I simply ignored them.  It was all an attempt by patriarchy to shame me into be subordinated and I wasn't falling for it.

So, when approaching comps, I believe being the only chick taking them and having a bigger chip on my shoulders did play into this.  Having my advisor tell me to deal with it was important and I'm glad I started reading.  Sandberg says:
Would I do it if I weren't afraid?  And then go do it. (26)
This is a piece of advice I think women should take into consideration. It's a simplified version of the things my mother, advisor, and older and wiser colleagues have told me for years but it makes sense.  If I was mentoring a female PhD student, I would probably express this to her specifically.

Women aren't socialized to be go-getters by most of the people they encounter.  Think about the toys girls are supposed to like (dolls, princess outfits, quiet things) and the toys boys are socialized to desire (cars, trucks, active things).  I was a tomboy who rolled in the dirt and hated pink.  My parents never impressed upon me the need to play with dolls.  It was my choice and whatever choice I made was fine.  I didn't have to censor myself because I was simply female.  I was allowed a seat at the table.

I feel like sometimes men in my discipline find me threatening because I don't often subscribe to this mentality.  I have had members of my own cohort be nasty about it when I was in the right.  Other women taught me to ignore the eye rolls.  But I see a lot of young women falling for the trap.  Hell, even I did at times.  I admit it isn't always perfect but socialization is a hard chip to grapple with.  Not everyone was raised by a very liberal feminist mother in a male-dominated field, either.  My sister and I weren't treated any "differently" by our parents at home.  It's why maybe I don't see myself as limited by gender all that often.  I like sports, swearing, beer, and my career.  I'm unapologetic about it.  But sometimes people get offended and act like assholes and I end up feeling guilty as if I was in the wrong for doing the same thing.  It's not always easy, Sandberg says that, but if you can, you should.  Don't feel guilty.  Be a professional but don't be limited.

If there is one thing I could say to a female PhD student at the start of her career, it would be what Sandberg says.  Don't let people scare you off.  By ignoring the obvious misogyny in place in certain academic circles, you not only do yourself a disservice but also hurt the women who come behind you.  It's a collective action problem of epic proportions and I think something should be done.

One thing we always worry about that still worries me is the ramifications that come with being a female go-getter who is ambitious, outspoken, and demanding.  I worry that people will treat me poorly or be offended.  After all, this IS an old boys club.  I did encounter some of this sentiment from an old-guard faculty member who believed that it wasn't "becoming" to speak as strongly as I did.  However, he is in the minority.  I have had professors say that I am an exemplary student, a competent researcher, and have managed to secure awards within the department above a mostly-male-dominated field of competition.  So, there aren't many ramifications.  The benefits outweigh the detriments.

I will also check my privilege, however.  I'm white and a heterosexual.  Things are simply easier for me than a woman of color. I'm not facing all of the challenges of intersectionality that trans-women, lesbian or bisexual,  or women of color are.  I can't be labeled the "angry black lady" of the department or a "dyke" - two things others  have said have happened in their workplaces.  I won't say every department is the same or every woman faces the same obstacles or has the same opportunities.  However, I believe it is critical that we get to know our fellow women, find mentors, and stand up to patriarchy.  It can't hurt to have an open dialogue with older and wiser people.  Dialogue and demanding better representation is the only way we will make this better.

Friday, September 27, 2013

General Tips For Passing Comps and Saving Your Sanity

So, I passed my comps.  I did so with surprisingly little fanfare on behalf of my bipolar disorder or OCD - two things that have, typically, made me feel shitty for every finals week in history minus the last two.  Comps is the juncture when most of my friends have ended up seeing a therapist and shrink and/or getting put on meds.  I fared ok, though, thanks to their advice.  Had I not had an immense amount of support from my family, friends, and therapist, I would have been fucked.

I think our department, historically, is pretty open with advice and support of those of us suffering through this exercise.  It's not seen as a competition between members of cohort or a cutthroat situation.  We all help one another.

But, not every department is similar.  And not every situation works out this way.  The cohorts before mine were rather large and studied together.  My cohort has 4 people - only 2 of which were taking comps this time around.  So, we were really too small to do anything together.  It felt lonely but I made my own support network and worked it.

Here are some general tips that may be helpful...

1. It's a marathon and not a sprint.  There is a good reason for this.  I had all summer to study.  In reality, you can probably take a month off of everything and study your ass off and pass but you will lose your life and mind in the process.  Make it easy on yourself, give yourself time to adjust, give yourself time to get confident and feel comfortable rather than cram.

2. You can't read everything or prepare everything.  You just can't.  You will feel like, even on the last day of studying, that you still have SO much to do but you can't do anymore.  It is time-dependent and, yes, you could study for all eternity.  While it is tempting to study for another semester, you are better off just to take your exam.  It's key that you do as much as you can and then let it go.  This was excellent advice I was given by friends.

3. Making comps a "job" is much better than freaking out and trying to cram it into every hour of every day.  I'm a sucker for a schedule and when I go into "work" to get things done, I generally do them.  If I stay at home, nothing gets done.  I took a summer class mainly to ensure I was in the office every day.  It was the best decision I made.  I went into class in the AM, did a bit of work for that, and then studied from 1-5 PM for comps daily while doing that scheduled.  Then, it was a 9-5.  It worked.

4. You need days off - plenty of them.  This a million times over.  Again, if you make it into a marathon pace, you can afford to take the time.  Take your time and finish strong.  I told friends and family that their job was to distract me when I was off the clock.  Yes, you will still wake up and have a full on conversation about Street Level Bureaucrats at 3 AM with your SO but, for the most part, you can get them to help you ignore comps and start fresh the next time you pick up a book.  Weekends were KEY for me.

5. Talk to your advisor - he or she will most likely be helpful.  My advisor was awesome during the entire process and so were other committee members.  Everyone gave me good advice and I was talked off the ledge a couple of times by faculty members.  It was good.  Don't be afraid to reach out.  They have all been through this and talked a number of students through it before.

6. Talk to friends that did it before you and take their advice seriously.  My friends were really helpful.  I found an officemate and friend who was much like myself in terms of stress behavior, OCD, and past experiences with school to be particularly helpful.  Even if they have no clue what you are preparing, how much they are preparing, etc. even a strong word of encouragement will help you keep pushing.  Hang out with these people, listen to their stories, it will help.

7. Ask for past comps notes.  Either study with your cohort and trade notes or ask for them from the people that have come before you.  I just handed my stash of notes off to the people in my cohort taking comps next semester. I am sure some of what I did will be useless to them but a lot of what I was given was helpful so use it!  People aren't generally shy about sharing.  After all, you just took a shit ton of notes that you won't use again until you need to make a syllabus, right?

8. Read over past questions before you get too involved in studying to help you figure out what matters and what doesn't.  Before you freak out, it may be helpful to look at past questions just so you can say "yes I can answer this".  When my roommate was taking comps the semester before I did, I read over past questions with her and found that I felt a lot better about my own chances of passing after reading them.  She said they helped her as well.  We have very different approaches to studying but that was one thing that worked for us both.

9. Stop studying well ahead of when you need to take your comps or defend them.  I stopped almost a week before I took my writtens to go swim in a pool.  I couldn't feasibly do anymore.  I didn't do any prepping after that point.  I focused on getting sleep, hung out with my boyfriend, and didn't do a whole lot more.  It was good.  I went away the weekend before my defense and brewed beer.  Believe it or not, there isn't much you can do but take them.  About 2-3 weeks before you take your comps, you will feel like there isn't much more you can REALLY do. You are probably ready at that point to take them even though you would like to prep indefinitely.

10. Get mental health support and get it often if you need it.  Almost every department has a stress or panic attack nightmare to do with comps in recent history.  My advisor told me REPEATEDLY over the course of comps that the only real fear she had about me was my stress derailing me about 4 weeks before my written exams.  I took 4 days off, started fresh, and calmed the fuck down.  I also upped my dosage of valium, something I take for sleep.  My shrink and therapist were there every step of the way.  I impressed them in the end with my ability to stay on target but it really was just doing all of the things I'd been doing before.  If you are feeling completely out of control, go see someone!  Honestly, I slept 8 hours before my writtens AND orals because of life-saving meds that kept me from being manic.  I felt like I was cheating in one way but the reality was, I would have failed without regular behavioral modification and medication.

I didn't experience true hypomania at ANY point on my comps journey past the initial stress of trying to study while taking care of a very sick roommate.  This is the longest I've been stable.  I didn't let that first experience color my ability to pass, either.  I listened to my gut, went home for a couple days, studied there, and then got back on track.  Take care of yourself and be kind to yourself (as my therapist tells me).

Feel free to include your rec's in the comments....

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some opinions on Comps...

I've been a really bad author and haven't updated this blog as much as I would have liked but I'm trying.  As much as I didn't want them to, comps kind of took over my life for about a month and a half.  Well, they took over my entire summer, but I mean, I couldn't really even THINK about anything else without feeling guilty about neglecting comps for the last 6 weeks.  People told me this but none of it really resonated THAT much until I actually buckled down and studied a lot.  I passed, though!  And now, I'm back with thoughts on the process.

I will be coming back with a helpful "tips for comps" post later on but I am hoping that this makes sense to those of you who have taken them or who will take them.  I feel like a lot of us lose out on the process after we do it.  It's so unholy, so vile, so stressful that we ignore the process and what it actually means to us, basically.  We may forget why we do it if we don't dialogue about it.

So, my questions are as follows (maybe we can have a dialogue?):
1. Why do we do comps?
2. Should we continue on with the process of comprehensive exams or are they obsolete?

So, to begin with, I will tell you about our process here.  Students typically take comps at the start of their 4th year of the PhD program.  That's late for the discipline but this program puts a high priority on both substantive courses AND methods training.  We get a lot of classroom time which has good and bad associated with it.  The exams are given in BOTH fields of study (mine were in public policy and comparative politics).  Your fields weight equally.  You have a written exam for each field.  Mine were each over an open-book period of 8 hours.  Then, a few weeks later, you defend your answers.  Some fields give you feedback and others don't.  You can't just pass on either stage alone - your orals and written both have to be "passes" and you have to pass both before you continue.  If you pass neither or only one, you have to retake the next semester.  If you fail that, you fail out, essentially.

In some departments, this is a foregone conclusion and simply a hazing exercise.  Everyone passes but they hurt you in the process.  In our department, few people actually fail but they have failed people and pushed them out of the program twice in the past year and a half.  It's not a foregone conclusion that you will pass and you do have to demonstrate pretty exceptional knowledge of a given subdiscipline in your written and oral exam to pass.  They don't do it to fail you but they don't make it easy, either.

So, with that said, why do we do comps?

Well, I asked this question at the beginning of my studying and then throughout the past 4 months of studying.  There is NO one answer but the answers I have collected seem to fit into three general camps.

Camp 1 (the cynic): Hazing
This is the camp that definitely hates comps the most.  A lot of grad students in-process and  post-process probably fit this mold as well as some faculty members that feel a publication is probably a better gauge of material.  These people see comps as an artificial ritual that just forces grad students to stress out for no reason.  A part of me DOES agree with them.  And while I do agree that much of the Ivory Tower is kind of obsessed with being an old boys club that would be totally okay with an arbitrary hazing process, I think this is a little too cynical to be reality.

Camp 2 (the scholar) : Breadth of Material
This camp thinks comps are fucking awesome.  Or, at least they seem to feel this way outwardly.  They believe that comps are a somewhat enriching process in which you learn what you need to be a scholar.  To some degree, I see their points.  I didn't agree with this idea prior to the process starting. I thought, "Why the hell do I need to know about Latin American party systems, anyway?  I will never use this teaching in policy school!"  Well, it is true that I probably won't but I will have to talk to people of differing backgrounds at conferences, in job talks, etc.  This view does have some merit.  However, I don't know if it alone merits such a horrendous process as comps.  Scholars are often quick to point out "I don't do that" when you ask them a question outside their bag of tricks.  However, I do think the process helped me get my head around how I would make a syllabus and the main arguments in each subfield.

Camp 3 (the pragmatist): Stress Management
My advisor is a cross between a scholar and a pragmatist but she errs heavily on the "pragmatist" side.  Academics are often seen by outsiders as pretty lucky.  We set our own schedules, we don't do manual labor, we get compensated fairly well, comparatively.  However, we also have really high stress jobs in a "publish or perish" environment.  Comps, in this view, prepare you for a life that is high-stress, critical, and demanding.  Your dissertation, publications, and tenure are stressful processes.  If you can't handle comps, according to my advisor, you will be up shit creek.  I believe there is probably more than a grain of wisdom with this view.  As someone who has a tendency to have panic attacks, has a mood disorder, and has always been wound up a bit tight when it comes to exams, this process was eye-opening.  It taught me I *could* handle the stress, over all.

I believe the BEST way to characterize why we do comps combines all of the above approaches.  Comps is a bit of a hazing ritual and a bit artificial in nature but it DOES teach you the main arguments in your subfield and, possibly even more importantly, prepares you for the reality of academic work.

Should we carry on with comps or are they obsolete?
I don't think they are.  Are they awful?  Yeah.  Is "well, I did them so you should to" a justification I think is appropriate for path dependence?


I do, however, for the reasons above, think they have merit.  Some have talked about changing the format of our comps here - making them closed-book.  I must say that I am not necessarily impressed by this idea.  My advisor is an advocate, saying it would help us not be held to an impossible standard of knowing EVERYTHING under the sun but I don't think the expectations among some of the faculty in every school and department to change over night. Some of us would be burned.  I'm not sure I feel this would be best.

I think comps suck.  They are miserable, awful, and stressful.  They suck.  But while they suck they also have merit if not just on the merit of those things listed above but also because knowing what would be expected for me in comps on DAY ONE of my program required me to take excellent notes, engage better with the material, and critique every piece I read.

For these reasons, studying was far more simple and relaxed (if it ever could be!) and I learned more during my courses.  So, there are merits to comps.  I just think we need to be careful how we look at them.  We also should reflect more on them as people who have survived our comps.  We need to help those suffering through them in subsequent years and stick to furthering the goals of scholarship and professionalization rather than using them as some sort of hazing ritual.

What say you?  Should we keep comps? Get rid of them?  Change them?  What were yours like?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sexual Assault: as a research topic and as a practical discussion

I usually stick to a few key topics around here: academia, mental health, and bikes.

But today, things are going to be a bit different because I can't avoid talking about the inherent need to discuss rape and sexual assault a it's implications in our society.

Why?  Well, most importantly, I study the way that bureaucracies deal with sexual assault.  Secondly, I've actually had to help a student make a referral about a sexual assault my first year here.  Third, it's a huge problem in society and one that has affected me personally.

A recent discussion started on a blog I frequent.Jezebel ran a story about Whoopi Goldberg and Serena Williams's misguided comments about the Stubbenville case.  It just shows how crazy rape culture because women are parroting this dialogue.  Rape effects women unfortunately all too often.  Vassar College has some important statistics about the prevalence of rape among college-aged women.  By college, 1 in 4 women has been sexually assaulted.  I was one of them so, yes, I have a horse in this fight.

Let me define what this means. Rape and sexual assault are basically ALL situations where consent was not had and sexual advances were made.  Assault is a wider definition than rape and covers more bases but, essentially, it's advances without consent either way.  There is no "rape rape", there is no "legitimate rape".  There is just rape.  No consent = rape.  Why does this seem to be so hard for people to understand?

There are two main problems that I have with Goldberg and Williams's reasoning.

1. The normative "should have". The "women should protect themselves by no dressing provocatively and drinking too much" idea of covering your drink and altering your behavior to stay safe!  These women alleged that the victim in question should have better protected herself.  It's something that is said generally, but especially of college-aged women who are "date raped".  This means drinking, roofies, and being assaulted by a person you know, generally.  There are two big problems with this line of reasoning.  The first is that when you trust people, you tend to let them in and you don't expect them to, I don't know, rape you?  And if that person wants to hurt you, they will likely do it - regardless of "precautions".

There is another problem with the "protection" aspect.  Victims tend to blame themselves.  They don't need victim blaming.  Do you NOT think that this victims has played the decisions in her mind over and over and over again regarding that night?  She likely has.  And, despite taking any other precautions, these guys would have either found a way to hurt her in a different manner or would have hurt someone else.  The thing is, if someone wants to hurt you they will.  The self-blaming feelings after rape are awful to deal with.  The student in question that came to me was feeling all of the same.  A friend took advantage of her at a party and she wasn't sure where to go.  Two weeks after the fact, she broke down and told me this was why her last paper was awful.  I directed her to the very well-equipped sexual violence response center on campus but I knew how she felt.  The evidence was gone by then.  People would ask her why she had waited, why she had drank so much, and criticized even what she was wearing.  All I could do was hand her resources and be as supportive as I could without crossing that instructor-student line.  I tried to be compassionate above all.

What happened to me was far less-intense but similar.  A friend hurt me.  I was younger than my student and younger than the person in question.  It was reported to school officials but they did nothing.  I never told my parents the whole story out of shame.  I blamed myself for not "doing more" but it happened at school in a situation where I was sure I would get detention if I left.  I didn't want to talk to anyone about it for a long time and didn't even have the words to describe it because I was too young to really have that vocabulary.  The Stubbenville victim is a child.  She faces similar problems.  Blaming her for "not doing enough" only makes the situation worse.

2. Putting the onus on women excuses men from their own guilt.  Going back to those Vassar numbers, 84% of men that actually committed rape (most of it was actually date rape, remember) claimed it wasn't.  What does this tell us?  Well a couple of things.  The first is that people, in general, don't understand what constitutes rape or sexual assault.  We tell women how to avoid rape but we never tell men how to avoid RAPING women.

I will never forget talking to a man from RWAMREC, the Rwandan Men's Resource Center, a non-profit that educates men AND women in Rwanda about the roles involved in sexual violence and encourages men to step up and be masculine in positive ways.  Basically, they have a campaign that says men need to recognize what rape is and to stop when consent isn't there.  I oversaw a number of meetings and talked to a number of Rwandan bureaucrats at the center charged with policing sexual and domestic violence reports.  The number one misconception found among average people and bureaucrats was simply their lack of knowledge about what WAS rape.  These people were well-meaning but facing the exact same problems we do here in the U.S.   Was it "rape-rape" or what?  My conclusion was that these issues were leading to bureaucratic discretion being unintentionally used to thwart the intended way of implementation and enforcement of the Gender-Based Violence Law passed by the Parliament years before.  Rwanda is making great strides in this aspect but it faces the global problems of stigma.

A similar organization in the United States also deals with this problem.  Men Can Stop Rape also gives tools to educate people on what constitutes rape and teaches men about consent.  Rape culture hurts men AND women.  The problem won't be solved until we educate everyone.

So, how does this affect what I do on a daily basis?

Well, it affects my students - male and female - as I said before.  It doesn't help women because they end up getting assaulted on a regular basis on college campuses.  It doesn't help men because it doesn't inform them of what constitutes rape.  Don't take this to mean that I think all men are prone to raping or hurting women.  Absolutely not.  But when you live in a culture where it's considered okay to have sex with a totally incapacitated person despite that meaning that consent no longer exists, it means we aren't doing enough to educate people about what rape is.  And college, based on culture, parties, etc, seems like a place ripe for this sort of misconception to cause problems.  Sexual assault has serious consequences far beyond the immediate.  PTSD, depression, and panic attacks are common with survivors.  Reliving that experience is common.  That can lead to students dropping out, doing poorly, or suffering unnecessarily.  We need to improve mental health resources on all campuses.  My undergrad did a pretty poor job of coping with sexual assaults.  I can gladly say that my current place of study has made HUGE strides to deal with the problem.  It's nowhere near perfect but the administration has been very adamant about dedicating resources and personnel to address the problem.

So, think about how this matters and what you can do to help?
1. Be educated about what constitutes rape.
2. Don't perpetrate myths and when you see them - speak out.  Especially you guys out there.  When men get involved, it makes the message of what rape is clearer to men in your social circle and sets a good example for future generations of guys.  Be a trend setter and get your hands dirty, ladies and gents.  Don't let people think this is okay.
3. If a student or friend comes to you, know about the resources available.  Be supportive but don't make demands about what they should do.  I.E. if they don't want to go to the authorities, the best thing you can do is give them their options and support whatever choice.  Legal recourse is a really scary matter and isn't the right choice for everyone at that moment.  Remember, you aren't the one who was assaulted so you can't know how you would feel in that instance.  Things are not simple.
4. Press for more resources and education on campus. 
5. Get involved with feminist organizations that pursue similar goals.  Volunteer at the rape crisis center, a women's shelter, or participate in the Vagina Monologues to raise awareness.
6. Be mindful of how your words affect others in both positive and negative ways.  Don't make rape jokes.  Don't assume things about victims or blame them.  Realize that if you are surrounded by 4 women, one of them has probably been the victim of an assault.  Your words carry weight.
7.  Small things make a big difference.  One defense of a Stubbenville victim or someone similar may make my day and make me feel like I can go on to share my story with others.  It has only been through the kindness and acceptance of others that I have been able to find some peace and confidence in relating my experience to others.  Sharing experiences helps others.  Not everyone can do it and it's not something everyone will necessarily want to do but small statements of support, even indirectly, give me a lot of hope for the future.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Junior Faculty

Ah, junior faculty members.  They are the awkwards of departments in some ways.  It's got to be tough.  You have a "real" job now.  You have grad students to manage.  Some of the grad students are older than you.  You're just trying to become a swan but it's really hard to do because you are on an insane number of random committees that no one cares about.

I have heard some great stories and some horror stories from friends now employed (yay!  hope!) at various institutions.  The first year is the worst I've been told.  It's especially awful if you have a TA and now have to figure out what to do with them.  I have two friends that are at teaching schools who have been teaching a wide variety of courses but at least they are on their own.  They don't have to delegate to us lackeys.

And I know, cry me a river, you have a TA, right?

I'm not so sure.  I guess I will some day know (hopefully if someone gives me a job at the end of this) but for now, I actually feel sympathy for junior faculty.  Especially when it comes to dealing with TA's.  Why?  Well, let me explain.

Today I received my teaching assignment for the fall semester.  I have comprehensives so I asked for the least time-consuming option - an intro to American politics course.  I've TA'ed this before but it was an all essay section.  I had an excellent prof who I asked to work for again, mind you, but a hell of a lot more work than everyone else had to do my first semester - 4 sets of exams with 110 students under my charge.  I asked for a multiple choice section since never since starting here have I had that luxury.  Well, now I do, kinda.  I've been assigned to a visiting prof who got his BA at our school with our department.  He seems like an excellent candidate, has taught this class before, etc.  I'm excited to learn something from him but NOT so excited to have to work in tandem to make up exams as I have just been informed.  I get why the DGS is asking me.  He wants to hand me my own class possibly the following semester.  That's excellent news for me.  It's just annoying because I have a lot on my plate and not all junior faculty "get it".  It makes me nervous.  The first semester is the worst and I am not sure I want to be in the fray again.  I have been told by people who know this prof that he is an excellent guy, very personable, and will fit right in.  Still, it's so old hat to work with faculty that I already know.  I've worked for and with most of them by now.  This is a whole 'nother world and I'm an old person at heart that hates change.  I will no doubt learn a lot, though.  So, I have to just realize this is another learning experience in teaching that I will most certainly appreciate in the end.

I have TA'ed for a first year faculty member once before.  They guy was a great lecturer and he had an excellent rapport with the class.  I learned a lot about what to expect my first year because he did take me under his wing and was a great mentor.  However, he didn't understand workloads well.  I had about 2x's the amount of grading of ANY TA in my second semester of grad school.  The next semester, he knew better and asked to have his class designated writing intensive and got two TA's to do the work that I did myself.  It was hellish in that respect.  He didn't know how much to delegate to me and wasn't sure how to manage me.  I think he gave me too much freedom and let me deal with plagiarism cases in a way that I was uncomfortable having so much power over.  It was hard.  He's definitely changed a lot since then based on what he's told me and other TA's have told me.  He's learned and improved. I think he would be an excellent addition come tenure time and would gladly write a letter on his behalf.  And I am glad I got to see this whole situation over time because it gave me insight into dealing with these situations firsthand.

It HAS to be an awkward situation dealing with graduate students.  I mean, this new guy (from what I have been told by people that know him) is 3 years older than me but judging by his CV, we have a similar amount of teaching experience with similar subject matter.  I believe firmly in a strong chain of command.  I may not always agree with what a prof has a TA do or may not feel that everything is handled perfectly but I do know my place, I know how to speak in turn, and I realize there are 100 ways to skin a cat.  I can imagine that there are TA's that are not like this, though.  Some people seem to want to pull rank.  This really makes no sense to me.  You are a graduate student.  You have no PhD.  Unless you are asked to do something essentially wrong, you should listen to your superior.  This seems  particularly problematic ones that are older and feel wiser.  Even personally I can say I know of one situation that a faculty member told me about which mirrors this.  This was a senior faculty member with a first year grad student, though.  She felt very confident in pulling rank there, obviously.  It's got to be similar to the feeling you felt when you came into grad school and suddenly were teaching students that were pretty much your age.  You have to learn to deal with things as they come and assert that you are in charge.  Never admit that you feel intimidated.

Teaching grad students seems to be a similar quandary.  I am finally at the point where I can confidently think about teaching grad students - but only in stats.  I feel most confident in teaching methods.  The idea of teaching a substantive course still seems far off.  I hope after comps I will feel differently.  Regardless, it's intimidating.  That has to be the worst part.  We had one junior faculty member recently.  This was a wild card class out of my usual subdisciplines but it was relevant to some policy research I'd been doing and I had an open spot.  He is clearly still adjusting to graduate seminars.  The prof was a nice guy, he brought about interesting and new questions about gender and race which I so appreciated, but he sometimes tried to make seminar too much of a democracy.  Another faculty member in his first year of graduate teaching assigned far too much too soon for the first years and ended up frazzled and admitting it WAS too much.

It seems daunting to have all of these challenges on top of tenure woes and various bureaucratic "service" responsibilities.  I worry about this.  I've been told that it "gets better" but only after tenure.  That seems like an impossible dream to dream right now.

To all the junior faculty out there, what say you?  To senior faculty, what was it like?  Does it really just get so much better after tenure?

To all the grad students dealing with it, what have been your experiences with junior faculty?  Similar experiences to mine?  Different?  Better?  Worse?

I'm curious!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Hills from Hell

So as I said, I've been in training.

The elusive century gets closer and closer and even though I've got a lot of time, I will need to take time off for vacations.  I might need to pack some running shoes to make the best of it.  But oye, the bike is SO MUCH MORE FUN.  I'm not a runner.  I have been but I'm not anymore.  I want to be on the bike.

Well, today I finally had the ability to get out.  It had been a week since we had been Tornado Watch and Warning free.  I'm not kidding.  The weather here is that dire.

I knew there would be washout spots in the trail but I was prepared for that.  After all, I want to ride, cross, right?  I am okay with carrying a bike on my shoulders or picking it up.  The problem is that the trail was so much worse than I imagined.  Huge washouts, terrible footing, and trees were EVERYWHERE.  It was the worst I've seen it in the segment behind my apartment, which is really saying something.  I wanted to ride the trail because I wanted to check it out for a group ride that usually occurs on Sunday.  Weather should be clear on Sunday but I am not sure we will get out.  We certainly won't be on the trail.  This is stuff you'd need a 29-er with shocks to deal with, I think.  If I had the MTB already, I would have tried but my delicate road bike isn't meant for such things.

So, I had to suck it up and deal, basically.  This required a lot of walking, picking the dirt out of my shoes, etc.  I seriously wish I had an old hoof pick somewhere because that's what I felt like doing.

I decided, welp, I'm gonna do this as much as I don't want to.  I'm going to do the hill ride from hell. It's only about 15 miles RT from my house to the southern hill that I go to climb.  It was south of my house when I lived down there and it's much farther south than where we live now.  So, I put on my big girl panties and opted to ride these hills.  There is this incredible windy hill with a high grade and lots of traffic at the start of the ride which is what keeps me from doing.  It goes on for about 3/4 of a mile.  We're talking straight climbing.  And I am not a climber that gets out of my seat (thankfully in this case) so it's just a lot of grinding and spinning.  The knack is really knowing when to do it.

I got up the first hill not even believing that was a climb.  I guess the weight loss and interval training are paying off.  Then came the other hills.  They were small in comparison but a challenge again because traffic happens here and no one seems to care that they are parked in a bike lane.  You have to be very good to get in and out of traffic without a scrape.  This is why a lot of people take the trail (myself included).

But it was fine.  The wind picked up on my way back but I spun back up like a pro (there is a big hill coming back, too, just not AS big).  I flew through a green like feeling like a champ at the top of a hill.  No WAY could I have done this a year ago.

So, I conquered the hills from hell.  I sucked it up and dealt because if I wanted to ride, I didn't have a choice.  Let's hope I managed to do the same with comps.  Under pressure, no choices, I just have to deal.