Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Graduate student authority

Every now and then when I can't concentrate on my research work, I start fiddling again with my syllabus for my Research in English class. Btw, thanks again to all who gave article suggestions in an earlier post. I think I'm using at least one suggestion from everyone who made one, plus a few more articles of my choosing and my colleagues' recommendations. I've now got a nicely eclectic mix of well-written articles that students can choose from for various practical bibliography assignments on writing annotated bibs, paraphrasing and quoting, etc., as well as for use in class discussion about what a journal article does and how it does it, and even about the history of the journal in the academy.

My major goal in this class is to teach students how to do basic research in English well, in particular, how to find and judge secondary sources, how to emulate their structure and rhetoric in their own papers, and how to quickly get up to speed in the highlights of a critical conversation. But along the way I also want to teach students not just to find and use the "authorities," but how to build their own authority in the process. I've been trying to do this since I took over this class two years ago, but I'm not sure I'm entirely successful. I see students in subsequent classes who still say to me that they have a hard time understanding why anyone would care what *they* thought, for instance. Or, they say something like this graduate student at the blog Meanderings wrote in a post called "There's a different me inside this student":

Those ahead of us in academia--farther down the road, however you want to put it, tend to be rather intimidating....I don't know where this complex comes from, but it must be part of the mandatory bipolarization of a graduate student--to be completely humbled by our professors and published authors, yet able to enter in and converse with them intellectually.

I'm not sure that I want my students to be humbled by me in any way, though I do want them to recognize the hard row to hoe ahead if they want to go on to the Ph.D. and hope for a tenure-track job. And so I assign Semenza's A Guide to Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century, which pulls no punches in letting you know what it takes to get through grad school successfully, and I give them the scary statistics (beginning with how competitive Ph.D. admissions are -- many of my students don't know that). So I tell them my path to the Ph.D. and job -- including numbers of applications at every stage -- but I also tell them others' stories, including those who got MAs at institutions like ours, since I didn't -- I want to them to know there's hope for them! My favorite pair of stories is about two real life people I know, one who went to Fancy Pants U but couldn't get a TT job (partly because he's a smug bastard, but never mind that!) and one who went to an MA program like ours and then a solid Ph.D. program and has a TT job she loves.

But mostly, I want them to understand that I wasn't born a medievalist with a book and some articles and a good knowledge of my field. Heck, I was pretty much an idiot in my first year or two of graduate school. Everyone is. The ones who think they aren't are smug bastards and often they're the ones who make deadly mistakes along the way. (Learning how to recognize the smug bastards and not following their example is a life skill in and of itself, but a subject for another post.) What I try to teach them, anyway, is that building knowledge of one's field -- both of the primary texts and the critical conversations about them -- takes time and work and dedication. It doesn't happen by taking a class or two. You have to keep at it. And you do that because it's the knowledge and the creative thinking about your subject that gives you authority -- not your place in the hierarchy. I think one of the best examples of that is the kinds of conversations that happen on blogs -- so I suggest students read some of them, too.

But still, I see too much shyness, too much deference, too much fear of asserting their ideas with authority. So clearly I need to do more. Tell me, oh wise readers, how it is you developed your own authority, and how you seek to teach students how to develop it.


Dr. Crazy said...

One thing that I do with advanced students is I'm pretty free about showing them versions of my own scholarship in draft form. I think a lot of times students think that what I'm asking them to do is disconnected from actual critical conversations (a) or that somehow I've reached a point where any scholarly work I do just pops out of my head brilliantly (b). I think that this brings home to them that what they're doing is just a version of what "professionals" do in the context of publication, and it helps to model the coming to authority in a piece of writing.

So that's one thing that I do. Actually, I think I may do a post on this later that responds to yours - I've got a lot more I could say but I don't want to hog your comments.

k8 said...

Umm...still working on that, but then I have moments where I realize that I'm the only one working on what I'm working on and so I have a whole lot of authority. I just need to learn to wield it with panache. And grace. Authority asserted with grace and humility is best, I think.

neophyte said...

Times like these, O Virago, I just want to hug you.

From the student's end -- in my case, the problem is not a lack of confidence, and it certainly ain't shyness. I know that I'm smart, and I know where I am on this career path. My problem, more often, is a kind of academic-existential despair: does this work mean anything? Why am I doing this? Who gives a flying s***? I know the answers to these questions, but I generally have to sit and think them through for a while. (The big answer is: I'll be able to justify all this when I'm a teacher.) Being convinced not only that an idea or a line of research is "good" or "sound" or "interesting," but that it matters, is vital to me. Helping your students to understand why the think their work is important will perhaps help them to understand their places in that work, and why they deserve to be "authorities," as you put it.

In line with what Crazy says, talk as much as you can about your own work, your own processes, what matters to you intellectually and why. It will help if they can identify with you.

Incidentally, are you teaching any colossally atrocious articles? Might not be a bad way to go about things -- identifying why some scholarship is total crap can be useful for determining what the elements of good scholarship are, and it'll boost your students' egos along the way.

[P.S. the word verification thingum has given me "obamakthx," which I take as either a good omen or a peculiar political bid on the part of a Blogger bot that's read a political blog too many.]

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I think I must be weird, obtuse, or peculiarly arrogant, because I really don't think I ever worried about whether my work was important or why it mattered. (That's so not a criticism of anyone who does - seriously, I've always thought I was a little bit obtuse about such things.) That is, I never worried about it from my point of view - I thought it was interesting, so it mattered! (Proving that to other people was/is much more complicated.)

I think teaching was crucial to my own development of authority (to the extent I ever developed any) - I *had* to be the authority in the classroom, so I was, and it helped develop authority in other settings. Still, I always found authority to be completely contextual - I don't think I ever developed much authority in relation to my grad advisor, for instance. And yet in a seminar with another professor, a notoriously difficult one (in my field but not my special area), I remember he gave us all very specific instructions on the first day about how exactly he wanted us to write book reviews, and when we came back the next week, I was the only one who did what I thought was right, rather than trying to follow his directions, and mine was the only review he liked. I'm not sure where that authority came from, but it was about authority, about me saying, "I know the best way to do this and I'm going to trust myself." I think partly it came from one previous course, especially, when I screwed up a bunch of stuff, but the prof had a wonderful way of never treating such screw-ups as questions of intelligence, but only as lack of experience. I don't know *how* he did that, but he was great at it.

I really like Crazy's idea about seeing faculty model the process from their end - I never saw anyone in my field do that (in some other fields in my discipline, yes).

Flavia said...

Well, I guess I did a few things. One was that I chose a relatively obscure, unwritten-about area/phenomenon/group of texts, which alleviated the feeling that OMG! People have been writing on this work for almost four hundred years! I also coped by being overly contentious for quite a while--in a manner that I now recognize as very grad-studenty-y (but in a productive way): just letting Erroneous Previous Scholars have it in my dismissals of their work. Happily, I was able to edit out/mute down almost all of that as I went along and as I gained more genuine confidence in myself.

But I'll share an assignment that I was given in one of my classes my first semester in grad school, run by the woman who became my dissertation director, and that I think might be useful in some form for your students as well. The course wasn't an intro-to-grad studies class, but the assignments she gave us (one bibliographic, one a book review, etc.) served some of that function. By far my favorite was the essay in which we were charged with arguing for or against the "value" of a particular work.

Many people chose canonical works, and some did comparisons (why one of Shakespeare's sonnets was better than another, say), but I chose an anti-Catholic screed from the Exclusion Crisis (we'd been assigned a certain number of such emphemeral works, to track some of the historical events/periods we were studying), because I'd been strangely taken with it for reasons that I (initially) couldn't explain. Necessarily, my argument for its value became--as did those of most of my peers--as much about defining and critiquing different notions of value, and making a case for my chosen work within very limited parameters.

As a way of articulating one's values and priorities as a scholar--and of framing different ways of approaching texts--I can't think of a better assignment for beginning grad students. And though I don't work on that exact period or issue now, that particular assignment and the thinking behind it led more or less directly to everything that I DO do.

dance said...

Like Flavia, and it's easier when you're a historian, I think---I went the obscure route. I really could be an authority because very few people have looked at my sources. I think I also did that to respond to neophyte's issue---why bother? Breaking new ground, or finding new evidence to answer questions already acknowledged as important, plus because I enjoyed it, was enough for me (I actually disdained the idea that there ought to be a bigger meaning to it all).

I can't remember any assignment that ever dealt with or even raised this issue.

highlyeccentric said...

I guess this is the sort of problem the Bocera is having to train me out of... we had a conversation that went something like this yesterday:

Me: Um... is the thesis ok?
Bocera: Yeah, sure, looks great!
Me: Looks great as in 'is double-spaced, written in English' great? Is the content ok?
Bocera: Written in English is the best start for content.
Me: It feels like I'm stating the bleeding obvious all the time!
Bocera: That's because you know your stuff. Other people don't know this stuff. You know this stuff- you and Patrick Wormald, if he hadn't died. Jonathan Wilcox knows some of it, too.
Me: *tiny smile* I know something Wilcox doesn't...
Bocera: There you go then! You know your stuff!
Me: So I should stop freaking out and just write more?
Bocera: Yes, that would be a good idea...

again, like the historians who've responded, it does help that I know Very Obscure Stuff- there's a lot to know, but not many people who know it well.

Sisyphus said...

"how to quickly get up to speed in the highlights of a critical conversation."

Hey, I could still use this, if you're up for teaching over Teh Internets...

And my dept. does almost none of this training/shaping etc. assignments ... not even instructions in "what is a seminar paper" really, just "go off and do it and bring it back." So the short answer is I don't know how to teach authority and academic by-ways, cause no one ever did it for me.

On the other hand, perhaps there is something _to_ this "throw em in the deep end" thing? The more we make our assignments explicit and hand-hold for undergrads, the more they expect it and need even more stuff spelled out for them. Is there something similar for grad school? Or does the deep end style only work for those few who already have the class and academic pedigree privilege to pick up the unwritten rules by osmosis?

c . . . said...

as a reasonably advanced grad student with a topic / area of study that I know is important but who is still prone to painful bouts of feeling utterly inadequate to the task, I think there's also something to being honest about the fact that such feelings of inadequacy are part of the experience ... as you say, you're a smug bastard if you never feel that ...

and,i think it does help to emphasize that it really does take time ... and a number of rejections and/or revise and resubmits ... to begin to craft an approach that both works for you and for readers ...

it might even be interesting, if you have the records and the stomach, to show students some of the things you wrote in those early years of grad school ... if they can see a bit of themselves in you then, maybe they can also see a bit of their future selves in you now ...

k8 said...

Mildly off topic in terms of authority, but I just remembered a hilarious article by an editor of The Journal of Management (Vol. 31 No. 3, June 2005 325-329), Daniel C. Feldman's "Writing and Reviewing as Sadomasochistic Rituals." As the title indicates, it is funny. If you don't have access to it through your library, send me an email and I can send you a pdf of it. Obviously, it isn't from English studies, but it has its moments. I've even given it to undergrads so that they can see that professors have some of the same issues with peer review as they do.

The Pastry Pirate said...

i developed my own authority simply by always being right...

sorry, i couldn't resist. and i am in the most excellent position of having my work, no matter how obscure, quickly eaten, if not by paying customers, then by line cooks who worship the chocolate-glazed ground i walk on.


Dr. Virago said...

Thank you everyone for your comments! I've been reading them attentively and with interest, even though I haven't had time to respond yet.

A couple responses and other things I thought of, in no particular order...

I am not necessarily assigning a bad article, but I did take JM's advice and am going to assign an article *about* bad writing, Donald Pizer's "Bad Critical Writing."

And I do frequently talk about my process and progress in writing and in having negotiated the path from grad student to prof. But for the first time I'm going to assign one of my own articles -- my very first, actually, written while I was writing the diss. But now, given some of your suggestions, especially Crazy's, I think I'll dig up the conference paper it started as, lo these many years ago, and show students how very different the two things are and talk about how the process went in between. If I still have it, I may also dig up a paper I wrote in my very first semester of grad school, coincidentally on the same text as the subject of my diss and first article. I bet that looks *very* different.

A couple of other things...

Sisyphus - I think the class/culture thing plays a big part. Many of the students who are the weakest in the authority department (and not all are) are first-generation students from our own university or similar institutions.

But as everyone else is suggesting, personality plays a part, too. I have students who are the kids of profs and professionals who still have issues with authority. And there are first-generation students who are full of confidence and authority (sometimes a little misplaced, but it's a start).

And K8 -- I may ask you for that article. I have to look it up here, first.

And Pirate -- I know you were being funny (and kind of a pill -- but a funny one! :) ) but actually you hit on something: the issue of audience. We've just recently moved to a portfolio instead of an MA exam and one of the things in the portfolio has to be an analytic essay modeled on a journal article. That's why I'm focusing on the journal article in this class, for one thing. But also, one of the things that distinguished a journal article from a seminar paper is a sense audience. It may not be as immediate as line cooks eating your left-overs, Pirate, but it's still potentially there and students have to think about it. That's where some of the intimidation comes in, but it's also where the new insight and a level of authority is absolutely necessary.

Any other thoughts?

medieval woman said...

Ooo - this was a great post and I'm late in chiming in, but here goes. [PSA, this first part smacks of personal rambling - I'm sorry!] I, too, wasn't born a medievalist - I was born an early Americanist. I went to a liberal arts college for undergrad and got an MA at a big state school (near where New Kid now lives) and then finally went to the bastard stepchild of the Ivies for Ph.D. - so, I had many stepping stones along the way - and 3 job markets before getting a t-t job. I sometimes tell my grad students and undergrads about this - they really don't understand that there are many, many roads to Rome. Some meander and some are a non-stop straight shot. I did horribly my first year in my MA program and considered leaving - I didn't click well with the American professors and took a medieval summer course and it all came together. But it took me years to work my writing up and I'm still working on it (and I now consider myself to be a prety good writer). But I had to overcome a lot of my fears and start asking for help (with my writing, etc.) - and I also had to overcome a bad boyfriend at the time, who is one of the best writers I've ever read, who used to tell me: "MW, you're just not a scholar - you're a teacher." Well, he never did finish his Ph.D. and he's 42yrs old, and adjuncting a a small college that will never give him a permanent position. So, all that natural talent counted for squat!

I think the big thing I learned and try to communicate now is that if you keep pulling at the plow, you can get better! This is a profession that rewards perserverence - maybe not with a t-t job, but you CAN become a better writer and teacher; it just takes practice and the guts to ask for help (which is tough and I don't fault anyone for not being able to do this right away!). I think that the problem is that grad students see and read these huge, paradigm-shifting arguments, these amazing articles that end up in the top journals and immediately anthologized. Of course, these are major articles that have a huge impact on our field - that's why we teach them in our classes! BUT, how many really good scholars and profs, at good, solid t-t positions write articles or books like this? Comparatively few. My goal (besides solving the 2-body problem) is to be well-repsected in my field. This is what I want to convey to my grad students. Keep trying, keep revising, keep sending it out, incorporate comments conscientiously, and you will get better. Our goal should be good, solid scholarship, something that contributes to the critical conversation, not necessarily changes the entire face of the conversation (although, hey, if you do, awesome!).

Toward this goal, I think I'm going to incorporate more smaller-step assignments into my grad courses (a la the one Flavia mentioned). I did an annotated biblio and precis this semester, but I want to also include a short close-reading paper and a critical evaluation of an article. I got one of the best papers I've ever read this year - and I also got a lot of summaries and pastiches of secondary quotes strung haphazardly together...

Sorry this is so long!

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

There are a few things that were very helpful when I first began grad school, which I remember quite specifically. It helped, of course, to have the 'big picture' talk--to see what was going to happen further down the line. Books like Semenza's did a good job of forcing me to ask myself if I was really in this for the long haul (and made for great mantras, like WWSD: What would Semenza Do?").

Journal articles, whether its recognizing gigantic paradigm shifts or just trying to follow the argument, were and admittedly are oftentimes still difficult for me. The more practice the better. Simple summarization exercises of such articles, while sometimes obnoxious, are wonderful practice and a good way for students to voice their own understanding and for professors to see that the right things are being taken from the articles. I write this in fear of sounding ridiculous, but until I had to do this for a class, I would come into a lecture and be amazed that the prof was covering the same thing I had read, because I had completely missed the gist of the piece.

I was also greatly helped when large assignments were broken down into
bite-sized chunks for the newbie, such as the precis, annotated bib, (medieval woman's close reading/critical evaluation are enticing)--of course, with proper emphasis that this is not how every assigment is going to be, what with the 'hand-holding'.

I believe that the more times a student has to grapple with the same material, using different approaches, the more "confident" they become. Thus, sometimes I feel that there aren't enough opportunities in grad school, aside from big papers that determine large portions of the final grade, in which I must be an expert.

Presentations, book groups and peer reviews helped immensely, because they made me realize, hey I know this stuff, I AM an expert. When classmates ask me specific questions about material I have prepared, I am either ready for those questions or not, and in either scenario, I walk away from the Q & A session with things to think about.

I agree, to an extent, with the 'trial by fire' method. But most students are experiencing said trial in their other classes, and so they need a haven where they can figure out the ropes.

Dr. Virago said...

Crazy Beeyotch - good to hear the grad student perspective. And I'm glad to know that you find the summary-type exercises are useful. I'm building in more of those kinds of things in my Research class and I was fearful that students would feel they were too obnoxiously basic, so it's useful for me to hear that while, yes, they are kind of obnoxious, they're useful, too.

Insurditate vero said...

Gah - it seems Blogger didn't save my post.

The gist of it was that I'm in a slightly different boat myself.

Being in a fairly new field - medieval disability studies - I'm having to deal with the issue of becoming an expert in a different fashion. This is particularly apparent when it comes to applying for PhD places.

There are simply very few scholars in this field, nor are there any schools that one instantly thinks of when 'medieval disability studies' comes up in conversation.

Also, the historiography is ... well, it's there, but not really. If one does enough research on their own, one can indeed find treatments of disability in the medieval period. The problem is it's all quite disorganised and disjointed. There are no clear signposts in terms of an established historiography that one can build upon or challenge.

And, of course, supervisors are - perhaps rightly? - reluctant to get involved in this area simply because they don't know very much about it.

Am I perhaps pushing this too far? There is material out there on disabled people in medieval Europe - I've seen it, and I'm working with some of it in my MA thesis - but there's still a prevailing idea that there's nothing out there worth researching in this field.

Am I perhaps trying to get into a relatively new field too soon? How much should I be willing to compromise in terms of developing a PhD thesis that I'd be willing to work on for a few years without adapting it to suit a supervisor's interests, particularly a supervisor who may not have much expertise in dealing with disability history?
Any thoughts?