Friday, March 17, 2006

L'esprit d'escalier -- and also a request for advice

Hi everyone (if you're still out there). I thought maybe I'd test the waters of blogging a little bit again -- maybe a couple of times of week. The impetus at this moment comes from the fact that I'm in my office after 5pm on a Friday, no one else is around, and I just thought of something kind of funny that I should have said at our faculty meeting today, but didn't, and now there's no one to tell it to. So, I thought, "I know! I'll tell the blogosphere!" It's not really funny (so don't get your hopes up) but I did literally think of it on a stairway, and actually, there's something serious worth talking about in the context (which I'll do below). Also below are questions to all you in English literature.

So at our meeting today, we were discussing this nice big bequest our department has received from a former faculty member who passed away recently. There are restrictions, of course -- the main one being that the money has to go to students. So we're setting up scholarships and writing prizes and travel funds and the like. In discussing the travel funds, one of my colleagues said we has to put some kind of limits on it so that we wouldn't be overwhelmed by the applications of students going to "non-competitive" conferences where they accepted everybody. (I'm making him sound much snobbier than I think he actually meant to be. I think his real concern was how to keep the fund alive and not drain it by giving it away too easily. But still...) As other colleagues, usually of the older persuasion, concurred with this gentlemen that some conferences were better than others and therefore more deserving of funding, "Victoria" offered the suggestion that the applications would have to include a narrative in which students assessed the value of this particular conference to them and their education and professionalization. (I heart Victoria.) I concurred and said that, for instance, the biggest conference in my field, the "Zoo," was created precisely to be open to all scholars at every level, now including undergrads (vs. the more "competitive" conference which was, at that time, open only to full professors), and was relatively easy to get into, but that for a budding medievalist, it would be an invaluable experience.

That's when Smartass Poet said something disparaging about medievalists and their boring conferences, to which I responded. "Hey! We've got dance, mister!"

To which he responded, "Oh, what do you do dance to? Madrigals and motets? And do you dance in rounds and carols?"

I said something lame about there being plenty of the white man's overbite, which would make Smartass Poet feel right at home. (Yes, our meetings sometimes are like a dinner table full of teenagers.)

But what I should have said is this: "Hey man, we party like it's 999."


OK, maybe I shouldn't have. And I told you it wasn't that funny.

Now here's the serious part. What was up with the colleagues who thought our poor, hapless MA students should only get funding when they go to a "competitive" or "peer-reviewed" conference? Our students would benefit just from attending a conference, any conference, let alone giving a paper at one. They need to hear other models of presentation and thought and interaction, to understand that they should think of themselves as participating in a scholarly conversation. Most of them are so unaware of scholarly expectations and conventions -- despite the models we give them ourselves and in the scholarship they read -- that they're not likely to get in a really competitive conference. Starting on a smaller scale is exactly what they need. And they also need to see other graduate students in action, to see that what we expect of them actually is possible at the graduate level. (Some of our students are under the impression that we expect too much of them -- like coming to a seminar with something to say, for instance.) Many of them don't even try to go to conferences because of the expense -- because until now we didn't have funding -- so just getting them to apply and go to conferences is enough of a goal, I think. And I have a feeling some of them don't even know about the existance of conferences or what's done at them, so maybe the advertisement of money to go to one might make them more curious. the last thing we need to do is put stringent limits on such an encouragement.

As you can gather, I think some of our MA students are a little, well, clueless. It's partly our own fault, I think but also partly the nature of our program and who it attracts. We have only an MA program (once upon a time we had a Ph.D. program and I think it's very good that we don't anymore) and its population has diverse educational needs. A number of them are local high school teachers and they are some of best students, as well as the population best served by our program, I think. Amazingly, they are also the least likely to complain about the workload, despite doing this on top of fulltime jobs! Others have started off in other disciplines at the BA level and then realize they really should have been English majors and want to follow that dream after all, and they're also some of our really bright students. Then there are the ones who are still trying to figure out what they want to do, and they're the most mixed bag. Some are talented slackers. Some are just slackers. Some are just plain odd.

Anyway, I can't really change the nature of the pool of students who come into the program, but next year I'm taking over the "Methods of Literary Research" course from a senior colleague who is retiring. I have big dreams of whipping our MA students into shape, of making them realize that they are junior members of a profession, even if their two-year stay in our program is just a layover on a journey elsewhere. Of course, I'm sure that the class will rudely burst all my idealistic bubbles once Fall semester rolls around, but between now and then I can dream.

Right now the shape of the class as I imagine it is partly a course in basic research methods for literature, with visits and talks by my colleagues on their various field-specific resources and hot topics, but also a meta-discussion about what it means to be a part of a scholarly conversation and how to enter into it. I think I will also address some issues of professionalization (how to write a CV and that sort of thing). My retiring colleague currently has them do an annotated bibliography as their final project, but I think I'll modify or add to that somewhat and ask them to assess and describe the state of the scholarship of a work of their choice -- that is, where have the liveliest threads of discussion been, where are they now, where are they going?

But here's my questions to you all:

1) If you've taught or taken such a course, is there a good, recent, introductory book about the broad trends and directions in literary studies today? Or one written to graduate students about making themselves part of the scholarly conversation? Book orders are due soon! Help!

2) If you were a first-year graduate student again (or are now) and feeling overwhelmed and clueless, what would you like such a course to teach you, either in terms of how to do research or what's expected of you as a junior member of the profession?

Thanks everyone!


Lisa Spangenberg said...

I'd want to have guest lecturers, faculty and librarians, present (via the things themselves or photocopies/scans) the standard resources in various area, and how to use them and what to use them for.

I'd want some discussion of the vocabulary (edition, diplomatic edition, variorum, reprint, second edition, etc.)

What are finding aids?

Things like, yes, the OED is good for how English words were used in context, but do check the etymology against the AHD, and why you might want to know what an I.E. root is (see the A.H.D.) appendix.

How to tell a viable online resource from a not really up to snuff one. (I used to have to teach faculty this. We need to cultivate selectivity!)

Things like Project Muse, Art Source, etc.

I'm thinking of guides to things people should know sort of like James Marchand's What Every Medievalist ought to Know (See my side bar on my blog) though not quite so specialized, the Really Big Things, like the Dictionary of National Biography. The idea being to provide pointers sort of like this nifty resource from Latin Medieval Scholar Carol Dana Lanham:

Using Medieval Latain: A Toolbox of Resources.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I hate frames. The link that goes to an odd place should be to this page on Medieval Latin Toolbox.

Heo said...

Welcome back. We missed you, we missed you!

You may officially count me as a clueless and overwhelmed first-year grad student. I even went to a professor last semester to ask if there were any conferences I would be allowed to go to just as a spectator, because I thought students had to write a paper worthy of inclusion in a conference before they could watch others present. (I didn't get to go to undergrad conferences unless a professor put my work in one, why would I be allowed to go to grad conferences?)

The explanation I got of "professional-level work" my first semester was the professor saying "Don't write 20 pages of bullshit." That's great, but I hadn't planned on writing what I considered bullshit. Besides, "no bullshit" isn't quite the same level of explanation as "do a full scan of the scholarly literature on your topic, and write your paper from an educated standpoint." I would have even appreciated a short-cut version of that. Something like, "Now that you're in grad school, assume every paper is like your undergrad honor's thesis."

I still wouldn't have known all the relevant sources in each sub-topic though. My thesis was on Anglo-Saxon poetry, and Speculum doesn't have many articles about Herman Melville.

I had a professor hand out a list of peer-reviewed journals specifically in the sub-field we were studying that we could use to start our research. That was a tremendous help. I went to the subject librarian, and got a list of sources and databases from him. That was a tremendous help.

Basically, I would say that you shouldn't assume that first-semester grad students know anything about being a grad student. I had fine instructors at my undergrad institution, but they didn't tell me the ins and outs of graduate study because I didn't need to know about that stuff yet. When I got here professors assumed I knew all of it, as if by magic, because I was in grad school.

Just Another Traveler said...

Hello from a new reader! I'm a 1st year MA student in medieval studies who is currently (with trepidation) waiting to hear from a few conferences I've applied to in the last couple weeks. I'd like to say that I knew what I was doing when going through the application process but honestly, it was hit-and-miss all the way from abstract to envelope.

I don't feel like I can offer any quality/tested advice for your upcoming class (congrats btw for being passed the baton) but I thought I'd tell you what my housing institution has done for its neophytes.

Before the semester, we were asked to read Johathan Culler's, Literary Theory, A Very Short Intoduction (Oxford). It isn't so much about theory as it is an analysis of the current state of literary studies: what are its trends, its dynamic of ideas, its celebrities. In fact, no knowledge of lit theory required. Quite short, pocket size. For someone who came from a small southern undergrad institution, it was a great crash course in the current state of affairs.

Also, we don't have an introductory class per se, but we do have monthly meetings in which panels of older students and a professor or two talk about applying for conferences, what it means to be professional, how one should approach prepping for your thesis, etc...the topics vary but have thus far been a tremendous help (sadly, the panel about applying to conferences didn't happen until AFTER I had already applied).

We've been enouraged to do such things as: spend at least one day a month in the reference and periodical sections of the library; become a member of a major society in your field; offer reviews of newly published books; buy a filing cabinet (that's a big one); think of yourself as a professional (like an intern) and not so much as a student.

I'd like to say these suggestion have helped, but it's still to early in the game to make an analysis. All I can say for sure is that it has given me a direction: at least I know where and how I should be walking. We shall see if it gets me somewhere :-)

Best of luck with your class!

Katie said...

I, too, am a first-year graduate student, in a DPhil program at Oxford in medieval history (so in addition to being clueless about most things, I am doubly clueless because I'm an American).

Last week I went to a seminar on thesis preparations and bibliographic conventions (and I only barely drug myself out of bed for that...self, I thought, this is going to be three hours of reading the OUP stylesheet aloud). But thank God I went, because it turned out to be one of the most informative three hours I've ever spent.

The professor presiding talked about how to publish, the difference between different sorts of publications (notes, documents, articles, books, etc), what would be appropriate where, how to determine if your stuff met the quality threshold of a journal, common pitfalls to avoid in the copy-editing process, etc etc etc. And even though I am at least two years away from publishing much of anything, for the first time I felt like I was a member of The Profession, learning Secret Inside Tips that no-one normally tells you.

I think that this year, I have seen two really successful courses on "Being A Grown-Up Historian":

(1) This bibliography class. It was successful because it mentioned, early on, issues that active members of the profession have to consider. And it treated us like we were active members, too, albeit ones who were not quite ready to publish.

(2) A seminar which ran through the past century or so of historical theory (more difficult in history than in lit theory, of course, because we have a fundamental complex about even admitting that we have theories, and then admitting that we stole most of them from y'all). IT was successful because while it covered a wide range of subject material (Annales, Marxism, cultural history, etc), the basic questions were: how do you let theory help you write better history, when does it get in the way, and lots of other "problem-solving" questions based in specific books or articles.

One thing I have had to struggle through by myself (and it would have been nice to know about this) is figuring out the simple mechanics of, say, the Patrologia Latina. Yes, it is online. Hooray! How the hell do you find things in it? WHAT is it? What do all the numbers mean? I just discovered the online searchable Acta Sanctorum three days ago, and that would have saved me about three weeks of poking around in the Bodleian. Perhaps a useful exercise for your class would be to run through the different sorts of online resources and have your students create handlists of "staged" resources for different topics. Where do you start? What if you need Google-level basic information but you don't know what places to trust? When do you get into specialized resource databases? How can you use those effectively if you haven't covered the preliminary stages? This sort of thing.

Good luck with the course, and please keep us posted!

Chaser said...

I'm sorry--I'm useless in terms of advice, but I'm glad to see you are writing a little on your blog (welcome back) and I thought 999 was funny! Wish our faculty meetings had any humor whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Hi Prof. Virago,

I decided to leave the L.J.-sphere to weigh in on this issue. I remember my "introductory" seminar with much distaste. We were made to read Professing Literature, which is a good book, but I feel that you need to be invested in being a professor to really get anything out of it (and it sounds like many of your students aren't looking to be professors). I thought the book to be boring, but now that I'm fully invested in this process, I need to reread it.

The one good thing that came out of my intro. class was that every week a different professor came to speak. They'd assign some bits of reading depending on their interests and talk about their field. It gave the incoming graduate students a personal take on institutional history and on the different sub-fields within English.

Bardiac said...

Hey Dr. V! Welcome back.

I've taught two intro courses in our MA program, one of which was an intro to bibliography and research. I actually took the bibliography part seriously, and had them read Gaskell. They are less than thrilled, but to me it's a great read.

But, the one thing I did that REALLY worked, to the point that students commented after finishing that it made a huge difference, was that I actually made them do a real research project. In our case, we have a tiny special collection, and the librarian there helped me find some manuscript letters and such from around the Civil War era.

Each student chose ONE letter, and produced an edition, complete with an introduction and such. So, they had to solve real research problems (who is this person? what battle is he referring to?) with materials they could actually locate locally, think about editing issues (modernize spelling? etc) and so learn something about material and printed texts, and put it all together.

They also learned to help each other. The single BEST day: during a group problem solving session, one of the students asked something like, "has anyone heard of Pompey? I can't figure out who Pompey is, but he's going on a trip with this guy." (And I'm thinking, Pompey, from Shakespeare???)

And someone else piped up something like, "Pompey! That's this horse from my letter, look, he was sold!" So they made a connection as scholars, AND they made a connection between the two letter writers.

By the end of the term, the students were the world experts on their letter, and had a great deal of expertise about local history, and specific people in our area.

If you're interested, I'll happily share my assignment materials. I'm sure some local library or historical society in your area has letters they'd LOVE to have someone read and work on.

Cats & Dogma said...

Welcome back, Dr. V! Here's hoping you can productively find more ways to rejoin us in el blogosphere!

I was going to note that Eagleton had served me well, but that was a decade ago now, and after reading the Culler suggestion above, I'm looking into that for my own use.

I would like to remind you what you already know, which is perhaps that many of your students aren't looking to join the profession, which leaves you in a real bind--you may, then, want to limit the stuff on the profession to a specific unit, and feature other units on, say, using research methods to prepare for the classroom, or textual scholarship and what it says about other professional textual practices, like professional editing.

This may be taking you too far afield, but it's a thought.

Dr. Virago said...

Wow, you guys seriously ROCK!!!!! Each and everyone of you gave me something I can use or something to think about.

Special thanks to Lisa Chase for thinking my dumb 999 joke was funny and to HeoCwaeth (who probably groaned mightily at my dumb joke) for reminding me not to assume that even the smartest, coolest first year grad students should or do know anything about the profession.

I think the Culler book might be useful for just the reasons you state, Traveller (and welcome, by the way). And Morgan, you're not the only one who didn't get much out of Graff as a first year. My colleague "Victoria" (not her really name), who is one of the smartest, savviest people I know and also the daughter of an English prof., felt that she was eavesdropping on a conversation she only half understood when she read that as a 1st year.

Lisa S - Guest lectures by everyone in our department (which includes creative writers, linguists, and rhet/comp specialists, as well as people in various sub-fields of literary study) are definitely in the plan. (And Morgan, glad to hear you found that valuable in your course.) Also, teaching them how to determine reliable on-line resources from unreliable ones is an excellent idea. I could ask presenters to be sure to include a list of good websites in their fields, have the research librarians do a talk on this, and back it up myself. I also plan to spend a class on using our library's catalog and our wider state system catalog, as well as the online MLA Bilbliography (I swear, I see students who've done this class still not know how to do a decent search, so I don't know what the current guy is doing). Oh, and ILL -- many of them don't seem to know that if our library doesn't have a book or article, they can get it easily and quickly through our state system and/or ILL.

And Bardiac -- wow! That research project is an EXCELLENT idea. We have a special collection that's especially rich in literature connected to this state and in the material culture of the 19th century. I'm going to have to e-mail you about this. Plus, this will help me make amends with the rare books librarian. (Oh yeah, I still have to tell that story.) I think that's a fabulous idea and even those who are high school teachers, or poets, or linguists, or whatever, could really get into that. Gaskell might be a bit much for them. I'll be happy if they learn how to do a decent bibliography in the research paper sense of it, and learn that "googling" does not mean doing research.

Oh, and Katie, I cracked up at your comment about historians and theory -- I've seen that anxiety in action. And I still don't know how to make use of the Patrologia Latina (despite having been made to in a methods and materials for medievalists class), nor have I ever figured out if it's really germane to what I work on! I think something like that might be getting too medieval on my students' asses, but broader online resources (the ones to which we actually have access, that is) like JSTOR and Project Muse are definitely ones I'll address.

Thanks everyone!

Dr. Virago said...

C&D -- I didn't see your comment until after I posted mine. Sorry! But thanks -- you're absolutely right that I need to remember the broad audience I'm serving. I figure if I mentally and unofficially think of the course as "research methods for surviving our MA program and impressing your professors" then I'll give my immediate audience what is useful to them. Heck, maybe I'll even tell them that's what they'll get out of the class! Only one or two each year are seriously considering going on the Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

Dr. V --

Got here via Michael Berube. Listen, I'm going to be teaching the Bib Methods to first-year English grad students course at my own institution this fall, too, and I would desperately love someone to talk to about it, so I'll email you. I've gotten some great ideas from this post, too -- in particular the notion of assigning the Eagleton Intro to Lit Theory, which I think is a great idea. Although, as someone said, it might not be all that relevant if your students won't be staying in higher ed.

Also, yes yes yes re assigning them an actual research project. Many of these classes are built on the "scavenger hunt" model, and while that can be useful, I don't think it's as good as their having a real project. I've been teaching an Honors undergrad course on "Advanced Information Literacy," which is very similar to Bib Methods, and that model works great.

Ditto yesses re guest lecturers.

Final piece of advice: run, don't walk, to your insitution's library and holler and hullabaloo up and down the corridors until you get a librarian to help you plan the course. It'll probably only take a small clearing of the throat, actually -- librarians are absolutely fretting to help faculty with this kind of course planning, and they know everything about the online and print resources. They can tell you what a finding aid is!

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, thanks Amanda for that helpful advice. (And yeah for that link from MB!!) And thanks for giving me a heads up about e-mailing me so I remember to *check* the Dr. Virago e-mail.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

Coming to the party late here, but I'll agree with JAT about the Culler. Another good short theory book is An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory: Key Critical Concepts by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle. And if you or the students wanted more in-depth coverage of particular critical concepts, Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin have edited a good book of introductory essays called Critical Terms in Literary Study (it's in its 2nd ed. now).

Selections from Robert Peters's Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. and Lesli Mitchell's The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide could be useful. (The tables of contents for both books are available at amazon.)

Maybe there are some MLA Profession articles on grad school that would be useful, too?

Man, I wish we'd had a class like this during my first year at Big City U.! Congrats on being tapped to do it.

And Bardiac, that research project sounds incredibly cool.

Dr. Virago said...

Since the course is more about "how to do research" than "how to do literary criticism/theory," I think I'll go light on the theory books. Culler sounds/looks just about right for introducing them to the discourses of literary studies. Our theory specialists (he actualy *does* theory) will be one of the guest speakers and he can point them to more beginner-to-advanced resources and, of course, to his theory class.

I was, however, thinking about Getting What You Came for, which is on my personal bookshelf, too. Thing is, I read that as a first year and then promptly forgot it because so much seemed too far in the future. (And also much was oriented to the social sciences and sciences, where making connections and working collaboratively is a bigger deal.) I'll have to look at it again (if I didn't give it away).

I'll look through my Profession issues, too. Also, I was thinking of having them read IHE or maybe a blog or two. But the books have to be ordered, so I have to think about those now.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

I'm thinking that not all of Getting What You Came For would be particularly useful, but Chapter 10, on the history and dynamics of the M.A., would probably be helpful. Some of the other, later chapters might be good, too. The Ultimate Grad School Survival Guide has chapters specifically discussing research and conferences.

Also: Robert E. Clark's Real Guide to Graduate School has a chapter on the status of English as a field and his introductory chapter on "The Rise of the Research Scholar" is a nice overview.

Could you put a coursepack together, using bits and pieces from several of these books maybe?

As far as research is concerned, I've heard The Craft of Research (Wayne C. Booth et al.) praised, but I don't know much more than that.

Please do tell us what you end up choosing for the course: it sounds like it'll be great!

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks for the leads, AW. I check those all out this weekend.