Tag Archives: academe

The dissertation coach and writing mastery

I think most of us can relate to the utter panic that sometimes seizes us when we sit down at the computer to write. It might be one of those ultimate schadenfreude experiences; when the words are flowing and the document is scrolling ever upward, it’s a crazy rush of success, and yet when the cursor blinks and nothing is moving the experience is excruciating.

coaching I may have finally found a stride with my writing. But it has taken several years of denial, avoidance, regret, and over-scheduling myself professionally to find a way to make it happen. Not to mention lessons in project-management and a dissertation coach.

That’s right. I said it. Dissertation coach. I still feel my shoulders slump a little when I type it, I may have even felt an urge to look over my shoulder. I hired a dissertation coach. Do I have a bad advisor? Nope. But he certainly is busy with his own things. Have I forgotten how to write a paper? Nope. But I still wasn’t making progress in a way that I found satisfactory.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym or having a cognitive-behavioral therapist (psychology folks, I’m winging it with that term). The trainer or therapist does not lift the weights or make the changes in your life that are necessary, but they teach you how to do it safely, responsibly, and in that act empower you.  Once upon a time, when I was a youthful masters student gallivanting around New Orleans, I hired (at a profoundly reduced rate) a personal trainer to help me become more fit. Why? I had never lifted weights before, and I was smart enough to know that I could seriously injure myself.

My experience with a dissertation coach is no different. I have found (sadly, and ironically) that my mentors are extremely bad at providing writing advice (not editorial feedback, but mentorly advice). What a dissertation coach has helped me find is the smartest way to go about writing a dissertation (which, unless you’re part of a very small amount of scholars who hold multiple doctorates, we only do once).

You have developed a very good writing habit. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.

The other day, after nearly a month of coaching she said to me, “You have developed a very good writing habit now. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.” Those of us who have looked into the self-help literature on dissertation writing know that they all preach the same thing: habit. The more frequently we do it, the better we are at it, the more measurable progress we make. The path to progress has come through a series of project-managing techniques that are so simple, it’s almost embarrassing. I’ll share them here.**

  1. Inventory your chapter and identify a portion that is either the most executable to you right away or that you’re enthusiastic about
  2. Break down each element or task into a manageable task. (i.e. not “write section on XYZ” but rather, “draft on this restricted topic for XYZ for 25 minutes,” / “read article on ABC for topic XYZ for 25 minutes”)
  3. Have a daily writing/researching plan for every day, both aspects are important. The plan should be laid out in advance of working. If you push to exhaustion, you will be less likely to work or make good progress the next day.
  4. Have dedicated time off from writing.
  5. Recognize that writing at the doctoral level cannot and should not be done like other writing you’ve done (undergraduate, graduate seminar papers etc.) You cannot sit down and write it line by line and expect good work. The stakes are higher and the approach should be different. Exploratory and draft writing is crucial to producing subsequent versions that are readable and sound.

Some of you might have gotten to this point faster, and that’s great. What has certainly helped me the most is having a feedback mechanism. Our faculty are often far too busy to manage us the way we wish they would. The coach assists me in developing daily plans for an entire week each week, and comments on my plan daily as I make progress, delivering feedback and advice about approaching tasks.

The take-away? I’m developing project-management skills that can apply to both professional and personal goals. There is no pressure from the organization I work with to continue services. When I feel I’ve grown beyond them, they’re thrilled for that development.

What does your writing habit look like? I’d love to know.

** I’m a great fan of using the Pomodoro technique.


Darth Chancellor and the academic HMO?

The Board Strikes Back — Darth Chancellor weighs in on CUNY brouhaha.

Far be it for me to be so naive that I think money grows on trees and oversight is avoidable.  The Board of Trustees is a function of universities (or maybe a symptom?) that is not going anywhere.  What troubles me, however, is that the majority of boards I am familiar with are not actually staffed with academics (though, surely there is representation).  Now, before you blow the ‘play fair’ horn, I do acknowledge that there is a reason for governance that is not completely by the faculty — there is more going on at a university than education.  Yet, when the board of trustees gets to decide curricular directions I hear alarms sounding (let’s agree this is not the first time a board has asserted itself against the wishes of the faculty— everyone remembers Mitch Daniels and Purdue University, right?)

As one Purdue protester put it:

“What we see again with this appointment is a top-down, corporate driven shaping of education.”

And every American university I have stepped foot in has demonstrated this exact trend. Lamentable and destructive to the integrity of the college degree, standards are loosened, bars are lowered, whining is appeased.  I have witnessed curricula that have been adjusted for certain schools within universities who also happen to secure a plethora of funding externally. The student-as-consumer and education-as-commodity model is, quite frankly, a destructive load of hooey. The best argument I’ve heard against this is actually marvelously simple: college students do not have the knowledge to act as a consumer; rather, they are in college to gain that knowledge.  It is generally up to the educators to determine what they need to know by virtue of their extensive education. Here’s another argument against it, however.

The Rebel Professors are on Dantooine!

All of this to report that Chancellor Matthew Goldstein of the City University of New York, a consortium of many colleges throughout the five boroughs of the city, has responded to the concerns expressed by the CUNY community in regards to the flippant remarks of a Queensborough Community College administrator. (You can find her remarks here.)  The Professional Staff Congress (a cross-campus advocacy body) has voiced its condemnation of the situation. (You can find PSC president Barbara Bowen’s comments here.)  After the PSC body broadcast its condemnation loudly to the CUNY community which was simultaneously joined with an outcry at the QCC administration and the University administration with further condemnation of the Pathways Initiative,  Chancellor Goldstein has sent out an e-mail to the entire CUNY community today:

I am writing to address several issues that have arisen recently in connection with the implementation of the Pathways resolution of the Board of Trustees.

First, earlier this month, the interim vice-president for academic affairs at Queensborough Community College wrote an unfortunate letter to the College’s English Department. The author subsequently apologized for the character and tone of her communication. We should remember that while Pathways established the structure for curricular reform and its implementation, faculty are fully engaged in developing course content. Such collaboration is very much in the tradition and spirit of a great University.

Second, Dr. Terrence Martell, chair of the University Faculty Senate, and Dr. Barbara Bowen, President of the Professional Staff Congress, have sent an email to the faculty in which they erroneously state that the faculty have the power to block the implementation of Pathways. This claim misstates the core principle, embodied in state law and the bylaws and policies of the University, that the authority for the governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has delegated a significant role to the faculty on academic matters, and the faculty have the right to exercise their professional judgment in fulfilling that role. However, the faculty are not empowered to ignore or violate a policy established by the Board of Trustees or the implementation of that policy by the Chancellor.

I hope this clarifies matters and allows us to continue to work collaboratively to implement Pathways in a manner that is in the best educational interests of our students.

The issue of curricular change joined with phrasing like “the faculty are not empowered,” are particularly piquant.  I cannot help but metaphorically reach towards the adage of the corporate bean-counter deciding what treatment physicians can give their patients, the requirement to have procedures and tests approved (you know those physicians, they just love to fire up the MRI and do spinal taps for giggles).

Now, we are told that faculty have “the right to exercise their judgement,” only not when it involves what composes the degree they’re participating in…actively.  Curricular changes forced on a community like a steam-roller (as, with an inside perspective, I can vouch that this Pathways Initiative is like some form of academic Eminent Domain), non-academics making those decisions – wow, it sounds a lot like local public education in America. Let’s have the non-educators decide who learns what and when.  After all, who needs history, literature, foreign language? (See this great post by Carceral Nation).  You can’t quantify them, therefore they must be useless.

Enjoy your degrees. Soon they’ll mean little more than “I was present for 4 years.”


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.


Riley fired, POST apologetics

Ding dong the witch is dead? Not in this fairy tale. In this one, the name of the game is hydra. Chop off one head, another racist is born.

As was hoped, Naomi Schaefer Riley was dismissed from her engagement with the Chronicle of Higher Education due to all of the reasons mentioned in my previous post and the outpouring of reader response to the editors, on the boards and their individual blogs on the CHE website. Victory for an active readership.

In her response, Liz McMillen tells us:

We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.

We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.

Whew! She goes further, responding directly to one of our chief complaints:

In addition, my Editor’s Note last week inviting you to debate the posting also seemed to elevate it to the level of informed opinion, which it was not. I also realize that, as the controversy unfolded last week, our response on Twitter did not accurately convey The Chronicle’s message.

Though, this sort of stinks of saying that we gave the CHE too much bad publicity  with our loud, insistent complaints and not an admission of bad decision making. I’ll take what I can get, though.  NSR will no longer write for the paper and I’m sure this will work out for her, too. I suspect there is a blog or commentator position for her in the very near future. One in which she will be free to express as many unsubstantiated opinions as she sees fit without the onus of proof, logic or reasoning.

Covering the Zola-esque débacle, Abby Schachter of the Post (always a supremely trusted news source around the world), writes not one, but two reductive articles on the event.   I’d quote her directly, but it is entirely too painful, much like a hastily written composition 101 paper (and that’s about how we should treat these things). So, I’ll summarize that in article one, she accuses us of silencing legitimate criticism in the holy wrapper of racism accusations. In article two, she asserts that NSR was engaged in serious debate and the result was the journal firing her. She says: “And this is supposed to be the premier journal on higher education in America? What a joke. ”   Oh,  it’s not quite Bovary level irony, but it’ll do.

So, Ms Schachter, I assign your paper a C-, both versions. Praise: You’ve done well in choosing a currently trending topic that has links to a ‘bigger picture’.  Problem: You’ve left out all of the salient details from one side of the argument in favor of an apology of racist journalism.  Solution: By structuring your argument with a basic thesis/antithesis, you will surely have a stronger case to make.


Graduate reading courses: boon or bane?

Is the language exam requirement impractical for many? You tell me.

Private University asked me  to handle a summer Graduate Language for Reading course. This is one of those mixed situations where I stop and think: A new course to add to the CV!

This is immediately followed by: Ugh, will it do them any good? A reading course during the summer. That’s not a lot of time.  This is also an interruption to my personal summer research, reading etc plans.

Answered by: But… this will fund a potential research trip in August.

In short, I’m wary of summer language institutes, though I covered one of my research languages during a summer institute.  It was like being on one of those carnival rides where you lose all sense of time and focus: hard, fast, no view of the ground (while repeating a mantra of I hate language X, I hate language X.)  But, I passed. The fall back is that 1 year later, I remember so very little of the fast-paced grammar and translation we learned in that course. To be fair, I still have the grammar and the large dictionary and think with some fiddling I could muddle through things until I built my proficiency again.

As someone who does his own work in Romance language literature, I feel that the ability to read research in other languages is extremely important. I also recognize that whereas many fields absolutely need other-language research, some may not.

In an article for the Chronicle, Edward White lays out the central thoughts on the requirement in general: students fret, hassle, fail, get grumpy over this hurdle. Faculty recognizes the problem but generally we all agree it needs to stay. (I fall into this camp: can we really be researchers without the ability, or proof of an ability, to expand past our comfortably accessed research?) White proposes that we stop allowing students to meet the requirement with “trivial” course work (glorified grammar and syntax reviews mercifully conducted by language department faculty) and start getting tough to show that we take it seriously. Demonstrate proficiency or do not move on.  He proposes that we stop admitting students who don’t have proficiency before arriving. (I can hear the screaming on this one!) He says:

The second argument seems more persuasive than it actually is. It is that if we made foreign-language proficiency an admissions requirement, our graduate enrollments would decline, perhaps sharply. That might happen if some institutions took the step while many others did not. Then students who could not meet the admissions requirement at University A would not even apply there but would instead attend University B, which allows its graduate students to meet or pretend to meet the requirement after admission. University A would have to be prepared to lose some less-qualified students, but its higher standards would surely make it more attractive to some students and faculty members.

Is a summer reading course a boon or a bane? Without prior language experience, it has the potential to own your life for that period and be extremely frustrating.  On the other hand, getting it ‘out of the way’ during the summer months will stop it from interfering with your normal teaching/coursework.

Here’s Secret Blogging Seminar’s take on making it a more productive experience. 

What was your experience? Do you have language reading horror stories? Amazing success stories? Is there a ‘perfect’ language reading course?