Category Archives: PhD woe

Pot hole in CUNY’s Pathway to Nowhere

As the GC Advocate states:

On Friday, QCC  Vice President Karen Steele announced reprisals against the English faculty.

What has been a nightmare for CUNY faculty and staff over the past year or so is finally leaving the dream world and manifesting itself as reality.   Because faculty at one of the CUNY campuses have refused to change their curriculum to match the Pathways Program they are now threatened with the forced dismantling of their department, the non re-appointment of contingent, contractual workers and the possible firing of tenured or tenure track faculty members.

The email in question reads:

We will no longer be able to offer EN-101, 102, or 103 in their current configuration (i.e., four contact hours) as of Fall 2013. Since we don’t have in place courses that will meet the Pathways requirements for the Common Core, we can’t put forward a Fall 2013 schedule of classes that includes English Composition courses. Given that fact, and the resultant dramatic drop in enrollment, we will have to take the following actions:

  • All searches for full time faculty in the English Department will be cancelled immediately;
  • The existing EN 101, 102, and 103 will not be included in the common core, and therefore will not be offered in Fall 13;
  • Beginning March 2013 (our Fall 13 advisement cycle), continuing and new students will be advised to take the common core requirement for I A at another CUNY institution, since the courses will not be available at Queensborough;
  • Neither EN 101 or 103, nor EN 102 will be submitted to the University in the QCC list of ‘gateway’ courses for the English Major (we must submit the list of gateway major courses by October 1, 2012);
  • Of necessity, all adjunct faculty in the English department will be sent letters of non-reappointment for Fall 2013;
  • The reappointment of full time faculty in the English Department will be subject to ability to pay and Fall ’13 enrollment in department courses.

Check out, as well, Student Activism’s article (and this update) on the same embarrassment to higher education.   In brief, the Pathways program seeks to create a common set of credit hours across the curricula of multiple colleges that are part of the CUNY consortium.  In theory, this is to facilitate transfer of credit between campuses and equalize the degrees at all schools. However as many faculty have discovered, in practice this severely weakens the level of education available to students.  This is a prime example of the faculty, who know their student demographic better than the administrators, maintaining that the students are best served by a 4 (credit) hour course and not the new standard 3 hour course.

Apparently, the mission is no longer to educate students to the best of our ability.


The schedule strikes back

Last year, I was a lecturer (full time, non t-t position) at Private University and a graduate teaching fellow at Public University.  I was pretty scheduled and as a result made very little progress on my oral exam lists (step leading to proposal).

My committee was very understanding and they believed that the job was important for me professionally, that I should take it and do what I could.  “If you have to slow down, ” they said, “this job is a good reason to.”  And it is; I am asked to participate more fully in an academic department, advise student groups, weigh in on decisions and attend faculty meetings. It is a learning experience adding professional polish to my skill set.

This year, I am no longer a teaching fellow and am instead to work with writing across the curriculum initiatives — which I surmise is not a bad skill to possess.  I will, however, remain as a lecturer at Private University. At the start of the summer, after coming off a year where my load was 6/5, I was gleeful about the time to research.  Here’s what that turned into: I was so exhausted by June that I took the whole month as a vacation.  During July, I taught two courses.  But! I also did a lot of research during July and August, having rested so fully in June.  Thankfully, I can say that I accomplished goals.

I kept hoping that this semester would feel ‘light’ to me.  Teaching 3 courses instead of 5 and having some phone-in work on another campus as a writing initiative fellow.  Wrong.  Having written out my schedule (I usually make a table in word each semester so I can see my availability and commitments), I realize that I’m pretty well scheduled.  Suddenly, I felt my daydreams of long, uninterrupted periods of research and writing time evaporate.  That’s what they were, daydreams.  In Large, Overbearing City, campus-hopping means public transit.  Public transit = the death of time.

From this, I am determined to learn the following: short of some future sabbatical during my career, I will not find such ‘uninterrupted’ time in my academic schedule.  So, I have realized the need to follow all of the self-help academic advice that is wonderfully prolific these days.

1) Overburdened by a full schedule? Then redraw the line. Paul Silvia says schedule the time you need to do your work and guard it fiercely.

2) Keep the log book.  How many pages/chapters read? How many pages written? I have to turn this into something with Swiss-watch precision and hopefully, a competition with myself.

3) When in doubt, write about it.  As Joan Bolker explains to us, process everything through writing. Be stuck while writing. Be confused while writing. Think while writing. Reflect while writing. And the list goes on. More writing, whether hugely academic or not, is better than no writing.

4)  Broadcast goals so that if I fail to meet them, many people are aware. To Do: Dissertation recommends writing regular reports for friends who are willing to play along as well as for your advisor/director.  Detail for them goals, progress, hurdles, failures.  Do this each month.

5)  Learn to say ‘no,’ and mean it.  Faye Hicks tells a story about the importance of turning down requests that are not hugely important to your career.

At the end of the day, I can bemoan my commitments to everyone who will listen, or, I can recognize that this is very likely the way the rest of my career will look and that a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. 


Imposteur! …and the professorial Godthing

That’s right. Impostor.  Or maybe hack is the word.  They’re going to figure out soon that I don’t know anything!

I think it is more than safe to say every graduate student routinely believes that she or he is substandard, dumb, not capable. Why? Well, personally, I think there are a multitude of reasons. Chief among them, if we’ve ended up on the academic roller coaster, we read a lot, we put our professors on pedestals, we recognize how many smart people we speak with often.

Further, and here is where the Wiki god shed some light on the issue:

Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments.

Well, I think we’ve just described every graduate student, ever. Are there impostors out there? Sure. Though, usually, I think, academic departments have these needling ways of wheedling out those who don’t belong – like discussion, paper writing, comprehensive examinations, oral examinations, proposals, dissertations.

We spend hours upon hours pouring over books, writing, reflecting, teaching. It’s all going somewhere. Do our professors know more than we do? Duh.

Are there people who know more than we do? Usually!

Do these two premises mean that the conclusion is we know nothing? Hardly!  We may not be senior scholars, but we also haven’t been professional scholars for 20 years yet. We cannot possibly know everything that they know — yet.  At the end of the day, Grad School Ninja sums it up appropriately:

What to do about imposter syndrome? Know that everyone is going through it and that, as such, many of your fellow students (and even some faculty) may go around puffed up like a peacock using words like “hermeneutics” and other jargon, or pretending that they have photographic memories, or that they never procrastinate, or whatever. Recognize those signs when you see them and try to have a bit of empathy for those nervously puffed up people. And take a deep breath and just keep going.

This doesn’t mean we should have egos bigger than our accomplishments – but it also doesn’t mean we should self-deprecate or self-negate. Recognize what you know.  Understand that there will always be things you don’t know. Isn’t that the irony of the “life of the mind?”  The more we learn, the more we see what there is to be learned.

The side note is about Professor-as-Godthing syndrome that we seem to cling to. Paired with this is often a slew of unhealthy projection. Our professors are human beings with lives — the majority of said lives do not involve us in any way. We have this unfortunate habit of projecting all of our insecurities and fears onto our professors, advisors, and role models.

I know, with only a few notable exceptions on rare occasion, that I do not go home and obsess over my students’ work, writings, projects.  I go home and do my own work, watch TV, visit with friends, meow back and forth with my cat, take walks &c.   Why on earth would we assume that our professors are doing something different?

Take a cue from the pros whom we fear are suspicious of us.  Just do your work and remember to recognize the work that you’re doing.  This was tested just recently.  I spoke with someone connected to my own field of research but not fully versed in what I do specifically; an academic in my field but not my specific area. You know what the conversation revealed? I knew what I was talking about and it didn’t involve grand standing or faking.

So! Feel like an impostor? Well, if you obsess over what you don’t know to the point of not furthering what you do know, then you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erm..Dr. X, if you’re reading my blog and keeping a balance sheet of every aspect of my life as I fear, I promise that amorphous chunk of writing I mumbled about when I rushed past you in the hall is coming!


Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


Insufficient comedy, low test score.

Or, sometimes we just need to whine.

Please note: there is nothing enlightened here. Well, perhaps there are a few worthy ideas. In the main, this is what I have opted for instead of reaching for the tequila.  

That’s right, the hell-bent race track to final grade submission. And so, not even a quarter of the way through the 900 + pages of final grading that I have on my desk. My spirits are dipping lower and lower.

I have just pre-heard the collective groan, just by mentioning the dirty “G” word. We’re all in this moment right now, or soon will be, or have just finished it.

Why? Accountability. I’ve heard a lot of

__________________________

The rest of the post has been redacted. The poster took a walk, bought some junk food, got over his it’s-humid-and-I-hate-grading woes, and generally saw la vie en rose.  

 


Help! My students ate my doctorate

or.. it was my cat. Or… my printer jammed. Or.. gay mafia.

It is true. I am (yet another person) blogging to chronicle the slow churn to insanity that teaching full time and trying to finish a PhD has put into motion. I have convinced myself that holding a full time lecturer position is very good practice. (of course, the salary is convenient).

Yet, this wonderful exposure to department duties (re: I’ll do whatever you ask because I want my contract renewed!) leaves my “real work” (aren’t we all so pithy in the tower) on the table waiting to be read, waiting to be written… waiting to be attempted.

And so, almighty Gods of Research, I confess before you that I am indeed a Sinner. Absolution has been granted by my committee who finds this position to be “extremely important” to my professional development.  “You’re on schedule” one says.  Yet another joins: “You can slow down because you’ve never dallied”  Enablers!

In truth, I’m so very grateful for this job, enjoy my colleagues and I’m thrilled when my students achieve. Yet, there are four (forty?) books on my desk that are starting to accumulate their own dust – I”m not sure if they’re generating it or collecting it but I am positive life may sprout soon.

I want to engage them. I want to know their dry, methodical secrets. But the 90 chapter exams sit next to them saying: “You hate us, but we pay your rent. We win!”

And so, the good intentions of keeping the job, paying the rent and giving students (moderately paced?) feedback pave the way to Academic Sins.  Mea culpa.

Any one in the same boat with some wisdom on fighting the fatigue and meeting personal goals?