Teaching to the Style Guide

One of my most vivid memories from my middle school days involve my keyboarding class (or whatever it was called). Somewhere along the way, and probably in at least some small part in that class, I did learn how to touch-type, but I clashed with the teacher on a number of points. For one, we had to type from a script, but that sheet had to be kept so that we could not look at the monitor. Even now, at a time when I sometimes type with my eyes closed or while staring off into space, I prefer to be able to see the screen. For another, this teacher demanded that we had to include two spaces after periods.

This might have made sense with the specific program we used in the class, which may have not had proportional fonts, but she justified the demand by insisting that every business manual would require double spaces after periods. This is of course nonsense. Most manuals regard the convention as a relic of the typewriter-era, which is something my father, a printing and graphic design teacher, pointed out, before offering me the sage advice of doing what she asked for the class grade and then ignore it going forward.

Admittedly, this teacher was close to retirement and I could not have been an easy student since I’ve always had a hard time bending when the instructions ask me to do something that I know is wrong — this difficulty reared its head again in another context when I was a senior and the two principals called me into their office to question me about some award essay where I had asserted that Bill Clinton had been impeached (he was; I didn’t get the award). However, I thought about this keyboarding teacher again when I saw a teacher on Twitter give his policy about spaces after periods.

Tweet that reads: "If my students don't use two spaces after a period, then they lose a letter grade on their essays for MLA formatting. It's my policy."

Setting aside that his assertion doesn’t even hold up according to MLA standards, I can’t imagine having a policy that is this punitive over something so small. I can understand why some professors want to be demanding when it comes to grammar and syntax since those are elements that can (sometimes) have a direct impact on the clarity of a student’s argument. By contrast, this is a severe penalty for a formatting error.

Since I am starting to get prepare for this fall semester, though, his (bad) policy has me thinking again about my own policies when it comes to written work. I have always followed two guiding principles:

  1. I care about students developing as thinkers. Writing, as John Warner explains, is thinking. This means helping students develop as writers.
  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about grades because I think that they often warp incentives, but it is my obligation as an educator to give students the tools and opportunities to earn the grade that they want.

Toward these ends, the details of my assessments have evolved to reflect what I want students to take away from the class. Since writing is fundamentally iterative, for instance, I added optional revisions that allowed students to earn higher grades on their written work. The most recent versions of these assignments include a small portion of the grade dedicated to “Grammar, Syntax, and Style” in order to provide a measure of accountability, but an equal portion of the grade is wrapped up in a metacognitive reflection paper about the process of completing the assignment. The single biggest component of the grade comes from the argument, and every assignment guide for prompt-driven papers comes with this advice:

You are not expected to answer every part of the prompt since these are questions that you could write an entire book about. The best papers take ownership of the prompt in order to make an argument based on information that includes, but goes beyond, the material assigned for the class. Since there is no “right” answer, I will be looking to see how you approach the question and how you use the sources to defend your argument.

Although I have gradually added guidelines and suggestions on the assignment sheet, my assignments are, if anything, still too open ended. When it comes to citations, for instance, I have traditionally told students:

There is no assigned citation style guide, but you must cite all relevant information, following a citation style of your choice (I prefer Harvard or Chicago, personally, but you can follow MLA or APA). Please include a works cited page for all citations.

While I should be clearer about what information is relevant, this particular policy reflects my own ambivalence about citation styles (my personal house style is a slightly modified Harvard system) and a conviction that policing the format of a citation distracts students from content. And yet, my laissez faire attitude toward style might be equally problematic, both creating unintentional anxiety created by a lack of guidance and leading some students to not follow a style at all.

By contrast, I am reminded of a policy of one of my college professors: your citations must be in Chicago citation style and failure to do so will result in a penalty. I found this assignment frustrating at the time, but I see some wisdom in it now. The penalty sounds severe, but she laid out the expectations from the start, explaining that it wasn’t that Chicago was the best style but that Chicago was a style and part of the assignment was to turn in work that followed that style.

I am not sure that I want to go quite this far in my courses, if only because doing so would make grading papers even more like copy-editing than it already is and I’m not sure that that is in anyone’s interest. However, I am strongly considering choosing a “house” style guide (with a handout) that I can point students to as a default option. My thought here is that having a house style might provide some guardrails that remove the pressure of choosing “the right” style, thereby allowing students to focus again on the content.

At the same time, my inclination is to still allow students to follow other style guides if they so desire but ask that those who do reflect on the choice in the metacognitive portion of the assignment. The trick will be crafting a policy that provides flexibility and student agency while also putting in place limits that guide students to spend their energies on the parts of the assignment that matter most.

I did this thing, it’s rubbish, but here it is. Let’s never talk about it again, okay?

I like blogging for a lot of reasons. In part, I use this space as an outlet for all sorts of topics that I would not otherwise get to write about — book reviews, pop culture discussions, thinking out-loud about teaching or academia or random historical tidbits. It also encourages me to write a lot, which I firmly believe is how one learns to write well. I also like how, at least on a personal blog, it can be done quickly. My process involves writing a piece, a quick editing pass, and then hammering the publish button. Sometimes, if I think the issue might receive a lot of blowback I will ask a trusted reader for feedback first.

This is how I have published more than 536,000 words on this site, some of them excellent, some of them bad, most of them just okay.

I also like the ephemerality of blogging. Certain posts routinely get traffic — my review of the novel Basti is perennially popular among what I assume are Indian students who had to read it for school, for instance, and apparently people liked my review of The Fifth Season — but most posts get all of their traffic within the first week of going up unless I do something to promote them later and, even then, that tends to be much lower than the initial burst. (Even a week is generous; I’m lucky to get three days.) These are the same trends that lead to concern about the future of blogs, but I like using the space to think through issues with the reassurance that I am not writing a κτῆμα ἐς αἰεὶ, a possession for all time, as Thucydides characterizes his history, but rather something of the moment with a slightly longer residue.

I cringe when I read my earliest posts, which I actually imported from an earlier iteration of this blog. I have considered purging them altogether on more than one occasion. They are very different from what I write about now and I don’t agree with everything I wrote back then, though these tend to be issues of historical interpretation rather than moral stances. What stops me from purging the record is two things: those posts almost never receive visitors and if someone were to look at what I wrote then and what I write now there is clear evidence of maturity as a writer and thinker.

Which brings me to the title of this post. It comes from a conversation I had with a friend a couple weeks back about the importance of self-promotion. I like writing things and putting them out into the world, but I also do very little by way of promotion and struggle to do it even in applications where it is absolutely essential. The line was hyperbolic, a play on managing expectations downward.

The single biggest factor behind my reticence to self-promote is that when I put something out into the world I immediately become anxious about how it will be received — no matter how proud I am of the work.

Some fear is normal. Academic reviews are frequently sharp, cutting pieces apart with analytical skills honed through years of training. I have done pretty well passing my scholarship through the peer-review process, but deeply negative reviews still hurt and so I get a flutter every time I send something out. What’s more, I also recognize that the peer-review process is imperfect such that even a piece that passes muster there can meet with a negative reception once it goes out into the public.

Other aspects of my anxiety is more idiosyncratic. Imposter syndrome, the feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed at any moment, is rampant in higher education and I am no exception.

I have struggled with feeling inadequate since my time as an undergraduate at Brandeis, where I was at the “best” school I applied to but surrounded by people saying that they should have been at Harvard. When I went to graduate school, I ended up at a lower-ranked institution because I was turned away from the better programs. Multiple times. The Shadow-CV movement ostensibly meant to de-stigmatize “failure” a few years back had the same effect because it made me feel like I was failing wrong. Just recently, the discourse around Princeton changing its requirements for the Classics major once again reignited these insecurities. I went on to receive a Ph.D. in ancient history, but my B.A. was “only” Classical Art and Archaeology and Ancient History and thus distinctly remember being informed by an otherwise very nice individual that I wasn’t a “real” Classics major.

Then there is an aspect of self-assessment. While I have become a significantly better writer than I once was, I still don’t consider myself a good writer. I like to think that I am a good historian, but others are better — stronger linguists, more creative researchers, more clever thinkers. Comparison is not a useful exercise, but I am perpetually in awe when I read the brilliant work of my colleagues and a little voice whispers that this thing is better than anything I can hope to do. I would like to keep the appreciation for other people’s work, but ditch the little voice.

One thing I have done well is produce. The same habits that led to a half a million words published here have helped me put out a steady stream of articles and reviews despite heavy teaching loads, limited institutional support, and contracts without an incentive to publish.

Self-promotion will probably never be my forte. I’m good for a tweet and blog post promoting my work and recently recorded what will be my first podcast talking about some of my research, but much beyond that my sense of reserve starts to kick in. What I need to remember is that there is a difference between promoting what one has done and promoting one’s own brilliance. The latter is self-indulgent vanity, but the former is normal, expected, and not incompatible with wanting to craft an academic persona based being a dedicated teacher, a generous and supportive mentor, a kind colleague, and, yes, a scholar.

I am proud of the work I have done and think that the pieces currently in the pipeline are better than what has already come out. There are a few pieces in the works, but the biggest one is this. A little over a week ago, I sent a complete manuscript to my editor for a book based on my dissertation. There is a long way to go yet, including another round of reader reports, copy-editing, indexing, and all of the little things that turn a manuscript into a book, but this also marked a major milestone in the project. The butterflies of anxiety immediately began to flutter, but I am immensely excited to be one step closer to seeing this project into the world.

A World Without Email

Have you not received emails flow chart, from PhD Comics.
Original Comic

Email is a brilliant tool. It takes virtually no effort or time to send an email that conveys a bit of information to one or more recipients almost anywhere in the world. They can then respond at their own pace, creating a thread that records how the conversation unfolded.

But email is also awful, a never-ending stream of small bits of information that can cause important tasks to get lost in the deluge.

I receive a relatively small amount of email compared to a lot of people, but I realized a few months ago that one of the great hidden costs of adjunct teaching at several different schools is that it dramatically increases the amount of necessary email management. For the past year or so, I managed three or four professional accounts on top of my personal one that I use for work unrelated to my academic employment. This work only requires reviewing an email, determining if it demands a response, and then deleting it, but now repeat the process for multiple accounts several times a day.

Then there are the email conventions. Email should allow for intermittent correspondence, but it has become practically an extension of instant messenger and group-think of lengthy email threads encourages people to engage in lengthier and lengthier responses that often defer the responsibility for actually making decisions. When the chair of a committee I am serving on needed to finalize a proposal, she skipped the email threads and asked several people who had responded to a pre-circulated draft to just sit down on a Zoom meeting and iron out our submission. In an hour, the three of us finished what could have dragged on indefinitely across email.

These are exactly the problems that Cal Newport tackles in his A World Without Email. His basic argument, which is an extended version of his “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?” from 2019 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that email and other “hive-mind” technologies like Slack are sapping the productivity of knowledge workers in nearly every sector.

The argument goes as follows: these hive-mind technologies were designed with the premise that more, easier communication is always better. You can better stay in touch with clients and customers; managers can better keep tabs on what is happening; workers can quickly get answers to questions. The technologies succeeded. They revolutionized the workplace and offices became increasingly streamlined. And then something happened. Email started to interfere with the smooth functioning of an office. Workers started spending less time doing what Newport terms “deep” work and more time handling managerial tasks like responding to emails and writing lengthy memos. Email allowed more immediate responses to clients, so clients began demanding more access, transparency, and immediate responses. Workers now able to check with a manager before making any decision did so, further bogging down processes and anxiety increased.

According to Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, the problem is that these hive-mind technologies are actually too efficient. It is too easy to fire off an email, passing off responsibility for a decision or keeping everyone in the know. But that ease comes with an asynchronous cost. It usually costs little for the sender to send an email, but a lot for the recipient to wade through dozens of low-effort emails.

(In cases where there is a wide power differential and the sender is unsure of how their missive will be received are, of course, an exception.)

The Average time Spent Composing One E-Mail. Professor: 1.3 seconds; Grad students 1.3 days.
Original Comic

The flood of emails or other messages is likewise as distracting as the never-ending stream of updates from social media, taking our eminently distractible minds away from whatever it is we are working on.

Newport’s solution for these woes is not quite a world without email — that is a utopian impossibility — but to get as close to that as possible by putting in place systems that allow for asynchronous collaboration and communication without requiring an immediate response. Email will continue to exist and serves some important services, but it should be dramatically cut back in both volume and length.

A lot of Newport’s ideas come from and are tailored to the startup world, but they have a lot of crossover applicability to higher education (which is still my field).

For instance, Newport gives examples of employers who shortened the workweek contingent on the employees being able to dedicate their entire time on the clock actually working or structuring schedules where some or all employees are not responsible for email until after lunch. They key, he argues, is about setting and holding to expectations. If a project manager is the contact person for an entire project, there simply is no way to contact them by email. Better yet would be a centralized project board where anyone who needed an update on what was happening could simply look. If the system uses short daily (or weekly) in-person meetings to give updates, then the query can wait until that meeting. Any such system, Newport argues, would require empowering workers to make decisions within their purview, but will create better outcomes long-term.

I don’t do most of my work in a collaborative workspace like the ones Newport describes here, but many of these same principles apply. Take my daily writing time. I can have minimal distractions (animals, the bustle of a café, music), but nothing narrative, no discussions, and certainly not the digital updates. For those blocks of time, usually an hour but sometimes longer, I turn off my social media, close my email, and tune out the world. Anything that arrives while I’m writing can wait.

Other suggestions in A World Without Email are more directly applicable.

One example: the “scrum” status meeting . These meetings happen several times per week and are held standing up to encourage brevity. At each meeting, the team members answer three questions: (1) what did you do since the last scrum?; (2) do you have any obstacles; (3) what will you do before the next scrum. If a team member needed a longer meeting, it could be set at this time. Newport describes the scrum as an ideal way to manage an ongoing project in a company, but I could see using a modified version (maybe twice a week instead of daily) with students working on theses and independent projects. These projects are usually developed with long regular one-on-one meetings, but the result is siloing the educational process and adding significant time commitments to a weekly schedule. By contrast, a scrum might show the students that they are not working on these things in isolation, the regular contact builds low-stakes accountability, and making these standing meetings cuts down on scheduling emails.

Newport also argues for automating and outsources as many processes as possible in order to save time that could be better spent doing deep work — or no work. Sometimes this requires money, such as how he describes hiring a scheduler or administrative assistant to handle tasks that might not be in your wheelhouse. I appreciated this suggestion, even if it struck me as analogous to how many basic necessities in life are cheaper if you’re able to afford to spend a larger total amount up front by buying in bulk.

More relevant to my position was the suggestion to automate as many tasks as possible.

At the end of the most recent semester I floated an idea to use flex due-dates for major assignments in my classes, but had been thinking about how to actually administer the policy without a flood of emails. The answer, I think, is creating automated systems. My current thought is to create a Google Form for every major assignment, with link embedded on the assignment guide and on the course website. To receive an extension on that assignment, all you have to do is fill out the form before the due date, answering just a couple of questions: name, assignment, multiple choice for how long an extension you want, and maybe a brief explanation for if you selected “other.” Rather than collect however many emails to respond to, I will have all of the information for each assignment in one place. Likewise, even if I return to grading physical papers, I will request two submissions, an online back-up that counts for completion, but then physical copy that can be turned in the following day for grading. Each of these policies requires a small additional step at set-up, but could streamline the actual process, and I hope to find other processes to similarly automate in my day-to-day job and also should I find myself leading a committee.

My only major of the book is mostly a function of the intended audience. My issue was with how Newport framed productivity as an abstract but ultimate ideal. This led to consequences in the text that run crosswise to what he is actually arguing. At one point Newport talks glowingly about an obsolete office setup where secretaries handled mundane tasks like scheduling meetings, transcribing memos, and handling routine communications. His point is that removing these tasks frees the knowledge worker to do deep work (that they are being paid for), but the value to that worker is given significantly more space than are the mechanics of hiring at a fair wage to do the job. He believes the latter (or says so in the text), but mentions it only in passing. Likewise, the value of deep work, Newport argues, is that you can reject the pressure to work exceedingly long hours, but the focus is on how to produce more. I understand why he wrote the book this way, but given the long-term trends that show how productivity has vastly outpaced wages, I’m not convinced that productivity out to the be the primary objective and thus found the evidence for improved workplace satisfaction to be a much more compelling case for cutting back on email use.

A World Without Email is a manifesto, but a timely one that has given me a lot to think about going into my new position since a new beginning is a great time to implement the new processes and protocols that he suggests.

ΔΔΔ

This post flitted between one where I think about academia and where I write about books, so I might as well continue here. I just finished Andrea Stewart’s excellent debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, and am looking forward to starting Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain next, an investigation into the Sackler family and the opioid crisis.

When students write down what I say…

The semester just ended, which means it is time to review course evaluations. These feedback forms are notoriously problematic, but I encourage students to give me feedback and take what they say seriously. More than just that what students write can end up in a document I use for job applications, these are formative evaluations that can help me refine my practice. That is probably why a single negative review can cause such a sharp sting.

http://deathbulge.com/comics/155

Reader: I got one of those this semester.

But I don’t want to write about that. Instead, I want to share something that happened this semester: a student wrote down what I said. Not note-taking during a lecture, but writing down specific things that I said and then handing me a copy of this list on the final day.

Here’s a taste:

“If a monster’s just out there fishing or something, is it a monster?”

“Moose are big and scary as opposed to brown bears who are big and stupid.”

“Remember people: only barbarians wear pants.”

“Cassandra’s curse is that she’ll never be believed. I’m sure many ladies can relate.”

[speaking of Theseus] “He prays to Big Ocean Daddy.”

Sometimes discussions turn into improv and I say things specifically to prompt a response, here in a seminar on monsters, monstrosity, and classical mythology. Given that this is the sort of thing I did in classes with my favorite professors in college, this was immensely flattering — if also momentarily terrifying.

An Ending: Spring 2021

Here are two things that are true:

  1. My problems this school year were mild when compared to most people.
  2. I felt like a zombie for much of the last month because of the grind.

The spring semester felt a little easier in some ways. I mostly adhered to my resolution to KISS, which led to a more regular schedule and had noticeable benefits, particularly in my online class. I was also doing much less course building than in the fall, which allowed to focus more on best practices and maintain flexibility without the course devolving into a haphazard mess.

At the same time, a lot of these improvements were offset by the simple fact that both I and my students came into the semester already battered by an exhausting fall. Right around the time when we would have received our usual spring break I noticed a dip in everyone’s energy levels. I prescribed several “mental health days” late in the semester to try to account for this, but they were just a drop in the bucket. We kept going because that is what we had been told had to happen, but more than one student explained to me that whatever work they were giving me was perfunctory because they just needed the semester to be over.

I had a lot of sympathy for that position.

But I also had a ton of students who kicked ass this semester. Grades are in no way a reflection of personal worth — a good friend of mine aptly describes them as a professional evaluation of performance within a narrowly circumscribed realm — but I had some students earn among the highest grades I have ever seen by embracing not merely the grade rubric, but also the spirit of a class. Some really improved their writing over the course of the semester while also thriving in the open-ended discussion boards. Some threw themselves into their unEssay projects, like the student who melded the topic of my monsters course with the scientific literature review of her own major and produced a 17-page review of representations of mental illness as monstrosity in popular media, even turning the project in early. Others did really excellent work while parenting in a pandemic. I was disappointed that some students got lost along the way, but am unspeakably proud of everyone for making it to the finish line.

In light of these challenges, I have been wrestling with what, if anything, I want to carry forward from this year. The problem I have been facing is that most of what worked well were things that I had already incorporated into my courses. I am endlessly tinkering with tools and ideas to increase engagement and reduce cost. I was already using OER platforms and distributing my materials through the learning management system. I experimented with Discord without much success, but is something I would have done under other circumstances anyway (and probably will again).

Other changes, like going to entirely paperless grading, I abhor. There are no words to express how much I hate grading online. Quick quizzes where most of the work can be automated are one thing, but I struggle to give papers I grade on screen the attention they deserve. Using an Apple Pen on the iPad was, in theory, a step closer, but my clumsy hand-writing just got messier when the platform would even save what I wrote. Then there were the times when the platform refused to load documents. I understand the accessibility issues with asking students to provide hard-copies of their work, but I see enough advantages that I am going to return to grading on paper as soon as safely possible.

I have only been able to come up with two pandemic changes that I want to make permanent.

First, Zoom options office hours. Unlike my aversion to digital submissions described above, I only see advantages to having virtual options for office hours. This is not to say that I’ll eliminate the in-person sessions, but also having virtual options opens up possibilities for students who have other demands on their time and builds in flexibility that just doesn’t exist otherwise. This one will just require some thought as to the logistics (what happens when someone gets stuck in the virtual waiting room while I’m working with someone in person?) and boundaries.

Second, flex deadlines. This one is more of a work in progress based on the approach that I developed for deadlines this year. Basically, a course needs to have specific deadlines so that work is spaced out over the course of the semester and everyone roughly stays on track without falling too far behind.

In past years, I included on my syllabus a draconian late penalty not because I wanted to enforce it but because it used fear to get students to turn work in on time. In recent years I kept that policy, but added a once-per-semester freebie three-day extension. With the pandemic this year, I didn’t feel comfortable limiting that extension to a one-off and felt obliged to accept all late work. This meant significantly more book-keeping on my end, but worked in general.

What I want to do going forward is formalize a policy that was ad hoc this semester. My rough draft:

This course uses flex-deadlines for all assignments except presentations or those due on a weekly, recurring schedule (e.g. not quizzes). All major assignments (papers, take-home exams, projects) have a checkpoint in the syllabus. This date reflects where the assignments should fall in the semester based on the material we cover in class and giving adequate space between this and other assignments. By the time of this checkpoint you must either a) turn in the assignment, or b) requested an extension of e.g. 3- or 5- days. Longer extensions are possible on a case-by-case basis.

Submitting late assignments without communication with receive the following deductions: 0–24 hours late: 0%; 25–48 hours: -5%; an additional 5% reduction for each subsequent 24-hours, to a maximum of 50% off at 11+ days late.

There are some wrinkles I need to iron out here. This policy is harder to enforce with physical assignments (in the past, I have counted it complete with an emailed copy while requesting a hard copy for grading), for instance, and I’m not in love with the percent deductions (I like the 24-hour grace period and capping how much a student can lose for late work — if I give an assignment, I think there is value in the student completing it). I also ran into a problem where students were surprised when the end of the semester introduced a hard deadline. This one may be as simple as setting an earlier due-date for the final submission so that there is a cushion before I am up against the date I have to turn in grades.

However, I see four major advantages to this policy or something like it.

  1. It gives students more agency over their schedules. If college ought to be treated as a job (an unrealistic standard, in my opinion), it is better described as students managing four, five, or six (or more) part-time jobs simultaneously. Time management skills are important to cultivate, but I could say as much for myself.
  2. These are not open-ended extensions, but function something like a contract in that the students have to look at their schedule and tell me how long it will take them to get the work done.
  3. I am not putting any burden of proof on the student. I don’t need a doctor’s note/notarized letter/obituary. You need more time, I give you more time. The only requirement is communication, which, I hope, will improve outcomes overall by making other communication more likely.
  4. It better corresponds to how I grade than insisting that student must have their work in on time. I rarely sit down to grade bit assignments assignment as soon as they come in, so short extensions still mean that everything comes in before I have finished.

The best thing I can say about the 2020–2021 school year is that it is over. I am excited to start the next chapter of my career at Truman State University in August, but a part of me is going to miss these students with whom I went through so much. Now we get to celebrate:

The fall semester feels like it is right around the corner and I predictably have a lot I’m hoping to get done this summer. But, first, let’s all get some rest. We earned it.

75 Luftballons

Every couple of weeks it seems something sets academic Twitter buzzing. Yesterday it was a well-established professor with a light (2–1) teaching load who shared three secrets to having put out 75 publications since 2005 and invited her readers to respond with which of her strategies were the hardest for them. I quote:

  1. I sleep 8 hours a night.
  2. I write for 1–2 hours every weekday
  3. I don’t get in my own way.

I don’t think that the author meant anything malicious by her tweet, but the self-congratulatory framing seemed tone-deaf at a time when a lot of people are struggling. Many academics I follow on Twitter pushed back, challenging her the privilege of such a small teaching load and secure employment, debating whether we ought to measure our academic worth by simple volume of publications—to say nothing of how disciplines count different publications—and still others cast side-eye at what exactly “not getting in one’s own way” means.

When I saw the tweet I mostly just felt tired.

I’m not going to rehash my CV here — I keep a public version on this site that I update every few months if anyone cares. Suffice it to say that since graduating four years ago I have published more than some people, but less than others, while also teaching a whole bunch of courses on part-time contracts at multiple schools.

I exercise daily, make sure to read outside of work (because it is something I enjoy), and try to sleep 8-hours a night. I’ve even had more success with the sleeping since the start fo the pandemic and have started actually taking one day entirely off each weekend!

(Okay, fine. Most weekends.)

I also write for about an hour almost every weekday. The exact time changes, but I try to carve out an hour or two, usually in the morning, where I turn off email and social media in order to just wrestle with words.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started tracking the time I spend writing a few years ago I was in a very different position than I am now. Fresh off my dissertation and only teaching one course a semester, I had time to write and wanted a way to keep myself accountable. As my teaching load snowballed, I found it harder to find time to write and the amount of time I gave my writing plummeted. About the same time, I discovered that I missed that time I spent writing in much the same way that I miss physical exercise when I go more than a couple of days without doing anything. My recent writing sessions have been motivated in part by the terror of several deadlines that just passed for projects I committed to delivering, but I also find peace in the daily practice separate from those commitments.

I want to do good research and to have it taken seriously, but I also can’t define my academic existence by my publication record. My post-PhD life has been defined by teaching positions, often without support for research or publication. I have continued to do both, but approaching them as a second job demands finding other measures of academic success. I can block off time for writing, but the fact that my teaching contracts demand a lot of the time I would otherwise dedicate to focused reading means that I haven’t had the brain space recently to fan the spark of an idea into fully-realized papers. At the moment this isn’t much of a problem given that I am in the final stages of completing projects, but it does mean that my research pipeline will (temporarily) run dry.

But guess what? I’m okay with this! I have jotted down notes for a couple of articles that I would like to dig into, to say nothing of ideas for three more book. None of these things are actually in a research pipeline right now so much as sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Inevitably some of these will never amount to anything, whether because I get distracted by other shiny objects (projects) or because I will take them down to find that the idea half-formed years ago just doesn’t work, but others will eventually enter into the pipe and emerge sometime down the line.

The reason I felt tired when I saw the original post is because I momentarily felt the pressure that comes with using the raw numbers of publications as a metric of academic success. I’m tired enough as it is, I don’t need any more pressure.

As I wrote above, I don’t think the author meant anything malicious by her comment — and may have believed she was trying to help contribute to some sort of self-help productivity discourse that operates in some sort of abstract space where the real world doesn’t apply. This discourse operates in a space of extreme privilege, but it also both responds to and reinforces an academic culture of publication where the goalposts are forever just out of reach. Whatever you demonstrate to be your pace becomes an expectation and however fast you publish you could have put out one more. After all, should we not always strive for maximum efficiency and ever greater production?

Of course we shouldn’t. Fast scholarship isn’t the same as good scholarship.

Now fast scholarship is not actually what the original tweeter called for, but by setting the volume of her publications as a the metric of success she has nevertheless implied that we ought to bow to the pressure to produce more and more quickly. I might be be able to reach 75 academic publications (including reviews), but I also may not ever publish 75 academic pieces in my career. Not only would either of these outcomes be fine with me, but it is also critical to resist the simple quantification of academic production.

Working in higher education has enough challenges already. Rather than focusing on someone’s prodigious output and trying to replicate their method, every discussion of academic productivity needs to start with sustainability, support, and the academic communities we want to create.

Lucky: A Reflection on the Academic Job Market

I signed a contract this week. In August 2021 I will be taking up the position of Assistant Professor of History (non-tenure line) at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO.

In many ways this has been an improbable turn.

I entered graduate school without a real sense of the academic job market, despite oblique but well-intentioned comments from my professors. All of that had changed by the time I finished my PhD, but I decided that I wanted to give it a go anyway. With the blessing of my partner, I resolved that I would give it my all for three full cycles past graduation before pivoting to other employment. That space of time, I reasoned, would give me time to put out some publications, expand my teaching portfolio, and polish my job documents and, if it didn’t happen by then, then I would be okay throwing myself into another field.

The three cycles worked out about how I anticipated. I published some. I taught a lot. Things were harder than I anticipated, but I started getting interviews. I was a finalist. But I could say the same of dozens or or sometimes hundreds of other people who applied for most or all of the same jobs that I did. The structural factors that have gradually squeezed the humanities even above and beyond higher education generally simply create too few jobs, leading to a battle royale for the few that remain. The scars created by this cycle are not quite as bloody as those in the Kingji Fukasaku movie of the same name, but they are every bit as real.

Then everything exploded last spring. The remaining jobs I had applied for cancelled their searches, which was a microcosm of what happened across the employment market.

I watched as the third anniversary of my graduation came and went and since my partner was still employed there was no reason not to apply for academic jobs again even as I started revising a resume that I hadn’t touched in a decade. Eventually I scrapped that document and wrote a resume from scratch. While I never got to the point of actually applying for non-academic jobs, that was at the front of my mind for most of the past year. Simply put, there weren’t many academic jobs on offer this year. I applied to two, with just a handful more that passed on or where the dates hadn’t come due yet. This after applying to more than a dozen in each of the past four years, which is low when compared to many of the job seekers I know.

Job hunting is draining under any circumstances. For an academic job, the application usually requires anywhere from four to seven discrete documents, several of them bespoke, as well as often reaching out to professional references for letters, all for a first-round interview. There does seem to be bit of movement to reduce requirements for initial applications, but these are still the norm. A drain in normal times, these applications were exhausting while teaching five classes at three different institutions during a pandemic, on top of keeping up a research profile and trying to weigh other career options. I was continuing to apply for as many of these as I could, but I was also ready to walk away. I want this job, but it is important to remember that it is a job.

This is not to say that thinking about that transition was easy. It often led to existential dread. I can keep writing history, I told myself, since I already treat as a second job given my contract(s), but how would I make enough money to eat? I feared that any employer would see my interest in their position as feigned, even if I was fully resolved to branch away from academia.

Of course, I didn’t get that far. I was just starting the process of doing informational interviews to build my network when I landed this opportunity, but I plan on following through with them anyway, should they prove useful sometime down the line.

Rejection is a normal part of academic life, but when you have trained for so long and written so much of your academic person into an application, it is hard not to take the news personally. To then also celebrate someone else landing a position you applied to can be bittersweet.

I used to reframe the question away from why them? to why not me, too?, but even this fed into the sense of isolation and exclusion, particularly when the answer comes back to seemingly inexorable austerity. Sitting in the corner (or at my computer) watching other people announce successes—whether a job, a PhD at your dream program, a fellowship, or be part of a great panel that you weren’t invited to be part of—can feel like being an outcast watching the “cool kids” do things. Trust me, I’ve been there. I am there. I will be there again. But it is important to engage and redirect these thoughts, not because of some influencer mantra about vibes, but because they are dangerous to your mental health.

I have actively resisted thinking about the people I am up against when I apply for these jobs. In part this is a matter of imposter syndrome and I would absolutely freak myself out, but it is also a matter of personal philosophy. I only have control over my performance, for one, but, even more, they’re only my competition in the most technical sense where we are up for the same scarce resources. I want to be part of a community of scholars online and more broadly that starts from a position of generosity and reciprocity (within reason: there’s no room for sexual predators here, for instance). For me, this means celebrating other people’s successes even when I am also envious.

People on Twitter have summed up the academic job market better and more colorfully than I have here: there is almost no profanity that it doesn’t warrant. I am still in disbelief that I have accepted a job after going through this cycle year over year. Sure, the position is not the gold-standard that is a tenure-track position, but a full-time and renewable position is pretty good in a world where academic employment is becoming increasingly adjunctified—to say nothing of the group of people I will get to work with or the students I’ll get to teach. Higher education is changing and there is a long way to go to ensure a more stable future, but, for now, I am just excited for the chance to be part of it.

Generous Thinking

A few years ago I had a student who asked me to write a letter of recommendation for graduate school. She was a shoe-in. Two of the people writing letters for her were the professors she intended to work with, so I was just there to fulfill the requirement. She had taken several classes with me and done well, so I was flattered to be asked and happy to help. When orientation rolled around the next summer, my former student sent me an email to again thank me for the letter I wrote and expressed how nervous she was about the coming semester. I thanked her and gave her my best pieces of advice about graduate school.

It will seem, I said, like your peers know everything. They strut around like peacocks, name dropping scholars and theories and schools of scholarship. But this doesn’t mean that they are smarter or more prepared for graduate school than you are. Maybe they have a deep background in that topic. Maybe they restrict their comments to their particular field of research. Maybe they know just enough to name drop Foucault trusting that you won’t know enough to challenge them.

When I came to graduate school, I was the second-youngest person in my cohort. Where many of my peers had already earned MA degrees or spent years teaching, I had spent my year after graduation managing a Quiznos restaurant and desperately trying to keep my Greek fresh. I was also the only person in my cohort who studied ancient history in a program that was overwhelmingly made up of American historians. This meant that in most conversations I was on their turf.

The best thing you can do, I told my former student, is to resist the temptation to treat graduate school as a competition. Instead, approach the books you read, the classes you take, and the conversations you have with an open mind. Grad school seminars train students to strip books down to their foundations in order to critique the scholarship on everything from the framing to the evidence. These are important skills for a scholar to have, of course, but a more important skill is to understand what the author is doing. Anyone who goes to graduate school can recall an example where a person holding forth on the myriad flaws of a particular book was doing so based on a relatively minor point at best or without having read the whole book at worst.

I have seen both. At least twice I tried to discredit a book based on minor errors—the small issues might be indicative of larger problems, but it was a mistake to not first start with the bigger picture. Another time I watched as someone went on at length about how a book was invalid because it didn’t cover a particular topic…that the author covered in the section of the book that she had not read. Either way, not a good look.

Advice like what I gave to my former student lies at the heart of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking. Her core thesis is that the culture of critique and obsession with prestige hierarchies has created an environment where knowledge production is treated like a competition and where tearing down others is as valuable as producing anything. The very structures of the American university system (as distinct from, for instance, community colleges) encourages this behavior:

The entire academic enterprise serves to cultivate individualism, in fact. Beginning with college applications, extending through graduate school admissions, fellowship applications, the job market, publication submissions, and, seemingly, finally tenure and promotion review, those of us on campus are subject to selection. These processes present themselves as meritocratic…in actual practice, however, those metrics are never neutral, and what we are measured against is far more often than not one another—sometimes literally.

The pressures that Fitzpatrick identifies are all exacerbated in the Age of Austerity currently because austerity means even more competition for fewer resources. However, as Fitzpatrick rightly points out, falling back on prestige hierarchies and competition is a self-defeating proposal that undermines the very project we are ostensibly setting out to pursue.

Her solution is to double down on “generosity as an enduring habit of mind, a conversational practice” (56). This means a host of things for Fitzpatrick, from developing a vocabulary of shared values to working in public to realigning the university toward community and public service, to simply learning how to listen.

In principle, I agree with everything Fitzpatrick wrote in Generous Thinking and seek to embody most of the practices.

In practice, I found Generous Thinking frustrating. The subtitle of this book promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University.” Certainly there is a radicalism in the form of the books optimism and some of the proposals to change university policies away from those that put scholars in competition with one another, but there were times where I also found it to be missing the forest for the trees—by her own admission. Fitzpatrick admits in the preface that this is a book informed by her position at a large land-grant institution. This means a secondary focus on institutions like community colleges, but I found the blindspots to be greater than she admits.

In particular, I found framing a book as a way to save the university but then giving almost no thought to how this would affect contingent faculty shocking. That is, I endorse everything she wrote as a matter of praxis, but I wanted more acknowledgement that many people are not in a position to carry out these proposals. There is absolutely something here that contingent faculty can learn from, but I couldn’t help but feel that in her effort to work toward an academic community built on generosity Fitzpatrick had managed to largely disregard the second-class academic citizen. It isn’t that she us unaware of these problems—indeed, she mentions the jobs crisis on at least one occasion (18) — but other than (rightly, in my opinion) showing how public engagement can help catalyze stakeholders into investing in institutions, I found little meaningful consideration of either how generous thinking would change the underlying structural realities or how this would play out with overworked and underpaid contingent faculty who often already teach more classes than their full-time colleagues while also hunting for their next gig. I hope Fitzpatrick’s suggestions would make a difference and the core ideas absolutely ought to be embraced, but I nevertheless came away with the impression that this was not so much generous, as wishful thinking.

ΔΔΔ

I have a rather lot going on right now. Not only have I hit the point in the semester where I have a never-ending stream of assignments to grade, but I am also working on finishing the manuscript for my first book and keeping up with a few other research and editing projects. This means I am back to often choosing whether to spend my spare time reading or writing about the books I read. For the most part, reading wins out, though I do intend still to write about what I’ve read if at a delay (I finished Generous Thinking almost a month ago). I still intend to write about Yoon Ha Lee’s The Machineries of Empire series and have since finished Maaza Mengiste’s brilliant The Shadow King and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, both of which made it onto my soon-to-be-published 2021 list of favorite novels, as well as making my way through Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman, which I will likely write about once I have finished the series. I am now reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an incisive look at the issue of race in America by threading together the US, India, and Nazi Germany.

Fall 2020: A Lost Semester

I came into this semester with the best of intentions. I knew this semester would be tough, so my courses were going to be characterized by flexibility, compassion, and doubling down on practices I adopted in the past such as allowing revisions.

My best-laid plans blew up in my face.

  • Flexible deadlines and giving students options of which papers to write led to students shooting through checkpoints and an end-of-semester rush to turn in work, including revisions that tended to address superficial rather than substantive issues.
  • Technology problems and a flexible attendance policy for coming in virtually led to lengthy awkward silences as I tried to bring people into the class discussion.
  • A COVID-safe classroom blew up my tried and true teaching strategies and masks blocked the visual feedback I rely on to guide classes.
  • A schedule without breaks caused burn out despite building in planned days off because a lack of coordination meant those weren’t actually days off.

I tried.

My students tried.

There were even individual bright spots that I’m clinging to, such as the most active participants in my online class who really threw themselves into their assignments.

But this was also the hardest semester I have ever experienced in a college setting. Many of my difficulties were predictable: needing to take a certification course in the middle of a semester during which I taught five classes (three of them new) at three different institutions, for instance, was always going to be a tough row to hoe. What I could only grasp in the abstract though was how teaching in a pandemic would exponentially increase the ancillary stressors of teaching, from the rituals of getting a classroom set up before beginning class to the moment-to-moment decisions during a class period to keep the class engaging. Teaching a fully asynchronous class, a week-by-week asynchronous class, a synchronous online class, and two theoretically-in-person-but-effectively-hybrid classes also didn’t help because I never had the luxury of settling into and attempting to perfect a single modality.

I hope my students learned something. For as much as I despair, some seemed to have, but what we just went through is not a sustainable model of education for anyone.

Now, I am someone who finds teaching to be quite draining even when things are going well, but I usually find that fatigue to be akin to the sort I feel after a good workout or writing session. This semester was different. Taken each on their own, I can’t complain about any of the individual components. Wiping down the teaching station before and after every class, for instance, became a ritual offering to the little voice in my head wailing in disbelief that we were teaching in person during a pandemic. The problem is that these little pieces accumulated by a magnitude. By about the midpoint of the semester I was a wreck. When the adrenaline faded from class, I would be left hollow and despairing of needing to teach again in roughly an hour. On days when I had to rush home to teach virtually I usually had just enough time to close my eyes for ten minutes before class started. Unless I was working with a student, I would spend office hours sitting on Zoom with a thousand-yard stare, knowing that the drive home and whatever time I spent making dinner were a brief respite before I had to go back to prepping for class for the next day.

Reading back over that last paragraph, I am exaggerating, but just a little bit. I didn’t teach on Fridays, went for long walks almost every morning, and was mostly successful at preserving my Saturdays off. I also stuck to a writing routine, unlike last fall, which meant that some of my busyness was self-imposed (writing is not in any of my contracts). And yet, I spent a good part of this semester not at my best. I could feel my patience rapidly fading and felt guilty for not being able to give as much to each class as I thought they deserved—for reasons of time, if nothing else. Even more telling, though, is that the semester passed as a blur that spit me out into an exhausted puddle on the other end. Three of my classes finished before Thanksgiving and only now, several weeks later as my final class for the term wraps up, am I feeling up to processing what I learned.

In my haste to build flexible courses for this semester, I inadvertently made my courses more complex. Perhaps the most extreme example of this came in the form of my papers where my giving the students choice in which assignments to complete gave the simultaneous appearance of too many assignments and a lack of structure—no matter how many times I reminded students.

My mantra for next semester is going to be KISS: keep it simple stupid. I intend to go back to basics, paring back the number of assignments such that the students will all write papers at the same time even as they will get the same amount of choice about what to write about. This will also let me better schedule the assignments to prevent quite the same end-of-semester rush. Similarly, I think small tweaks to online discussion formats, grading expectations for participation, and to what counts as “present” if attending a hybrid class could pay large dividends in terms of engagement, which, hopefully, will reduce some of the students’ confusion and my frustration. I can offer flexibility and generosity to students in how I treat them without making a hash out of my syllabus.

The best laid plans may only survive first contact, but that’s all the more reason to keep it simple. Thinking about how I can improve my courses for next semester while still recovering from the previous one and being not at all sure that it won’t be my last semester of teaching is a funny place to be in, but here we are. I have a few more weeks to rest, recover, and write that I fully intend to take advantage of, but I also started prepping for next semester last night because whatever I prepare now is something I don’t have to pull together at the last minute later. If I learned anything from this semester, those small tasks add up in a hurry when working under these conditions.

AcWriMo 2020

I had a rough go of things last fall, taking on so much work that I was forced to give up my regular writing practice. And yet, reading about my struggles to stay on top of my teaching and job applications all while thinking that it might be my last year in higher education strikes me now as blissfully unaware of what was lurking just around the corner in 2020.

These past nine months have been an emotional rollercoaster that has tested my mental and physical endurance like never before. #AcWriMo also bridges the end of a fifteen week sprint of a semester that has stretched both me and my students to the breaking point.

And yet, I’m still writing. Not as much as I’d like, but more than I have any right to complain about under these conditions.

The reasons I’m writing more are varied, but rather simple. I’ve had some movement on a few projects such that I now have concrete deadlines. I objectively have less teaching this semester (and a smaller paycheck to prove it). The teaching I have is concentrated in the afternoons four days a week, which often leaves me time to write in the morning even when prep bleeds into that time. I’ve been better about jealously guarding my time such that I consciously schedule more breaks and thus have more energy to write. I also find writing meditative such that turning off anything with updates (email, news, social media) for the time I’m writing gives a nice reprieve from the fever pitch of, well, everything.

In this vein, I am setting for myself some AcWriMo goals that both reaffirm and expand on my annual writing goals, if not following the formula of setting specific and measurable projects to produce.

  1. One hour per work-day dedicated to academic writing projects, with workday defined as Monday through Friday. I hope to use this time to write, particularly once the semester ends, but this time can also be used for reading or researching, as Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega suggested today on Twitter. My writing and research processes are already deeply intertwined, particularly at later stages where I’ll pause the writing to build up a note or clarify a paragraph.
  2. Four posts of substance (TM) for this site, one per week in November. In part this stems from a larger goal of writing here with more regularity, but also just to stretch my writing. I don’t exactly know yet what this goal will result in, but the first two topics I have in mind both develop a point or comment I made on Twitter and are related in some form or another to my various academic interests.

That’s it. Writing is a habit that begets more writing, so I’m keeping my goals modest in the hope that I can blow past the targets.