Social Network Activism

Whenever I mention that I’ve been off Facebook since 2012 people remark that it sounds like I am talking about a drug. It is perhaps better for me to refer to this as the date when I deleted my Facebook account, but they mean fundamentally the same thing and part of my problem with my experience with Facebook was my own inability to tear myself away from that morass. Regardless, I have not had a Facebook account since July 2012, more than three years ago. This may sound like an addict repeating a mantra in hopes that someday it comes true, but I don’t miss Facebook and, most days, don’t even give it much thought. I have my Twitter, which keeps me up to date on the world at large, keeps me entertained, and hits all of the buttons in my brain that drew me to Facebook. I miss some people, but I would miss many of them if I had a Facebook account.

The purpose of Facebook when it started was to eliminate the barriers between people and make communication easier; I maintained in 2012 that it only did this superficially and while I stand by that statement, my problems with the site now are that it hits just the right balance of ubiquity, accessibility, and performance so as to encourage its use to organize events. For those people with Facebook accounts, I am sure this works wonderfully. For people without Facebook this frequently results in being left out of the loop, usually with a perfunctory, “oh, right, you’re not on Facebook,” by way of explanation. The prospect of a world of communication taking place on this space that I voluntarily excused myself from does not bother me, but it is socially alienating in the sense that perhaps having an account could result in invitations to physical events. But this is generally just a little frustrating.

The past few years have seen a rise in (and exponentially more complaints about “slacktivism,” or activism that requires no more energy than signing a petition or saying something online. I’m indifferent to these and tend to skip the events, but there is something to what might be termed “snactivism” or activism that takes place principally on social networks.

Recent events at the University of Missouri have seen a lot of the graduate students organizing, with one of the cornerstones of the frustration being an active social media campaign on Twitter using the hashtags “#GradsDo” “#GradRights” and “#GradInsurance.” The movement was sparked when the university pulled graduate student health insurance to comply with a 2013 IRS ruling based on HHS definitions, and told faculty and graduate students about the change with just thirteen hours notice before it expired. This was in the wake of decisions and SNAFUs that directly hinder graduate student research and place increased financial demands on graduate students who make next to nothing already. The response was loud and immediate, with there being a walkout and rally on campus today. The movement itself is important, but is not what I am interested in here. In addition to the Twitter and Youtube campaigns to express frustration, the movement has utilized Facebook to organize, plan, and disseminate information. I am not surprised that this happened since most people have an account and it is cheaper to use this resource than it is to send mass emails using the school lists, but I still maintain that the biggest piece of the scandal on the part of the University of Missouri was the utter lack of communication about any of the decisions, so there is some irony that a certain segment of people are left out of most communication regarding the activism, needing to go out of their way to find it and being prohibited from contributing the conversation.

This is not slacktivism, but snactivism has its own limitations because there are barriers to information available on Facebook to people without accounts. For their part, many of the Mizzou grad students involved in organization have been good about sharing information and events and there are usually Twitter links to developments. Nevertheless, there have been several times where I have had that same “are you going/what/right that message was on Facebook” exchange which is at the least off putting. And I cannot help but think that this setup is exactly how M. Zuckerberg designed it.

An insidious hierarchy

One of the harshest criticism that a professor can give to a graduate student is that s/he writes “like an undergrad.” PhD students bemoan that MA students do not participate in class discussion. Graduate students and professors alike rend their clothing and tear at their rapidly thinning hair to lament that undergraduates don’t go to class, don’t do the reading, they don’t edit, cannot spin out mellifluous prose, and (to hear some people talk) haven’t a solid thought in their airy little heads.

These are stereotypes and stereotypes contain a kernel of truth. In the case of the last example, it probably comes from the fact that most undergrads are not old enough to drink (legally). People need time to grow up, to learn, to mature. Writing like an undergrad–or acting like an undergrad more generally–is probably influenced in some ways by the college culture and college experience in the sense that the environment one lives in is going to affect behavior, but it is going to be even more influenced by the student’s age and educational experience. So, too, upper level undergrads are going to be different than freshmen. And there is no immediate change in newly-minted graduate students from “undergrad” to “grad.” Learning is a process, intellectual development is a process. One hopes that there will be an evolution from the first year through graduation and then continued development through a graduate school career.

Using “undergrad” as a term to imply intellectual retardation, even retardation through youth, is a problem on several levels. First, it implies a sharp division in ability, when there is really only a division in expectations. Second, such comments reinforce an elitist, ivory-tower perception of graduate schol. Third, and most problematic for me, it is not a constructive critique. It carries with it a number of implications, but doesn’t actually convey in what ways (analysis, source use, insightfulness) the graduate student needs to differentiate him or herself. One would hope that there would be further comments that would be more constructive, but the comparison to an undergrad doesn’t seem to serve any positive purpose.

The hierarchy implies an unnaturally sharp distinction between the categories. I mostly note this because one of the things I see most frequently on social media w/r/t student exams or papers is that undergrads claim radical historical change happens at unnaturally specific dates. And yet, the act of donning a robe and walking across a stage is a ritual that transforms a high schooler into a college student and a college student into a graduate student? Changed expectations are one thing, but the change in performance is not going to happen when the students walk across that stage.

A few weeks ago there was a John Hodgman quote floating around social media that highlighted how scary learning can be. Admitting ignorance is conflated with admitting inadequacy too often. Ignorance is correctable, but the admission, the struggle, is difficult. The mistake I feel that I am watching on the part of educators is sloppily,haughtily, fogetting how difficult this process actually is. None of us sprang from Zeus’ forehead fully formed. Yes, learning and school come easier to some than to others, but to forget that learning is a process only serves to discourage students. When students are discouraged from learning we have failed.

Writing this piece reminds me of an incident in high school where one of my friends was called out for hypocrisy over an essay for which she won a prize. I am not trying to excuse myself of wrongdoing, though. I am guilty of contributing to this hierarchy, too. I lament the state of undergrads and their inability to read a short assignment or participate in class, or how they can’t seem to answer all the questions on an exam. I generally make these comments while in the throes of grading. This is a form of venting and, in my experience, doing so makes it easier to continue grading. I do my best to avoid broadcasting these laments on social media or even to too many people. I need to vent, but the jokes and the complaints are not something that most people should hear–or should care about.Instead, I want to be more conscious of making these statements and caution against, in all our exhaustion, frustration, and stress, using this sort of hierarchical, exclusionary, and unconstructive language.

Here is my main issue with this hierarchy. Whether to cover up their own insecurities or out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, academics seem to go over the top with these complaints about “undergrads” (and usually seem to mean “underclassmen” for “undergrad”) and forget that they, too, were once undergrads and were once MA students. I suppose that it is possible that all of these other instructors were perfect students back in their day–always going to class, doing the readings, talking in class, editing their papers, having fully-formed and developed thoughts in their work–but I know that I was not. At one point in my college career I regularly skipped class, fallen asleep in class, did not edit papers, did not do the reading, and sometimes even turned in assignments that I am now ashamed to have attached my name to. Even when I did turn in work that I was proud of at the time, it was not always great work. That is because I was young. There were some subjects I wasn’t good at, there were some that I didn’t care that much about. I fully admit that I was not a particularly good student in college nor am I a great student even today and I wonder at the irony inherent in that I am now teaching college students and have to give advice on how to study on a regular basis. When I feel myself becoming too myopic about students, I remind myself of this past, that I was once there too.

….

The corollary to what I just wrote is that there will always be a wall of sorts between what the teacher says and what the students hear, there will always be students who give less than their full attention to the instructor, and there will always be an impatience on the part of students to find out their grade–something exacerbated, not created, by the Pavlovian nature of a grade and standardized test based educational system. On the former points, it is frustrating dedicate hours to preparing for class and to see apathy on the faces of the crowd, but even the best lecturers are going to have to deal with that. On the last point, grading papers is one of those things that it is impossible to understand how long it takes unless you have had that experience yourself. Are these things frustrating? Yes, absolutely, yes. But undue venting about these issues is also counter-productive. The type of understanding I have suggested throughout this piece the understanding David Foster Wallace was talking about in This is Water. “Understanding” and “patience” are not simple solutions to a long-trending institutional problem in education, higher education, and society, but it seems that to do otherwise is contributing to the problem.

Preconceptions, self fashioning, and the dissertation topic

I like latin american coffees and Irish breakfast tea. I like tastefully flavored black beans, wheat bread, tomatoes, hot salsa, and sharp cheddar cheese. I like pilsner beer and rye whiskey. I like Hemingway and Orwell, Kazantzakis and Pamuk. I like the banjo and the acoustic guitar, bluegrass and rock.

These are not limits to what I like or what I will consume, either, though there is another list of things I have no taste for and therefore shy away from (IPAs, cream teas, Dickens, sweet white wine, to name a few). The first list helps me make decisions when I am out to eat, when I am choosing what to read next, or when looking for new music. This is my palate, the things I have learned that I like over a number of years and while experimenting and trying new things is, generally speaking, a good thing, knowing what I like has served me well. But these are also preconceptions that I hold with me each time that I go into a restaurant.

A similar thing happens in what I choose to study in history. I know what I have worked on before and (at least to a limited extent) the type of paper that I did not enjoy writing or did not write well for whatever reason. I do believe that there are certain people who are suited for certain topics. For instance, I have no interest in poetry studies per se; my interest is purely the message and not at all the medium. As such, I am fascinated by the social and cultural messages wrapped up in Archaic Greek lyric poetry, but would not want to study the poetics of the poetry. My strengths (which generally run parallel to my interests since if I don’t have any ability when it comes to a topic I usually get frustrated and drop it) tend towards reading prose authors in the world, geography, and political and diplomatic considerations.

Some of these “strengths” stem from the papers I have written and presented upon in the past, or standing interests of mine since, well, as long as I can remember. I was teased for “reading” maps and atlases when I was in middle school. But there is also a measure of confirmation bias in this statement. I have written papers on only a small handful of topics in graduate school and basically none of those directly correspond to the dissertation topics presently on the table.

What I am struggling with is that I am in trying to choose a dissertation topic, but most of the potential topics do not correspond to any of those preconceptions about what I study, or, frequently, I have no previous experience with studying. In light of this, I am concerned that pushing myself towards something may or may not play to my strengths. To be sure, I will acquire new skills. I am well aware that any dissertation topic would force me to expand my skill set. If that were not the case, then the dissertation would merely be a formality, so even if I had been able to pursue my initial topic that would have played more into my strengths, there would have still been a learning curve. Nevertheless, most of the potential topics (and yes, I have struggled through a half-dozen potential topics in the past few months) are so far beyond anything that I have previously done that it feels as though I am starting from scratch. Starting over could be good, allowing me to come at a topic unencumbered by preconceptions and biases, but it would also be a slower road, and one that is far less certain and with more risk that it would be a topic that I would be incapable of realizing the potential of as a result of limited experience or lack of conviction.

I need to make a decision this week and so here I am on Wednesday night, unable to decide, unable to determine even how much I should weigh these different factors in making the decision. Until this week I stressed about the potential to produce a monograph from the dissertation and articles along the way. Now that worry seems overly ambitious. Now I need to decide how much I should accede to these preconceptions about myself and how I have defined my research thus far. Admittedly, though, there is only the faintest thread of continuity thus far and that same slight thread could run through any of these potential topics, too. I need to decide this week, but it is Wednesday and I am further from a decision than I was on Monday.

Some thoughts on AcWriMO

I like the idea of AcWriMo and I suspect that it works for many of the same reasons that accurately tracking caloric intake aids dieting–goals, accountability, and a reasonable terminus. At the start of November I was already trying to finish up my first article for submission, so I chose not to participate. Well, I sent that article for consideration yesterday and have been thinking about retroactively joining the writing drive. This year I will remain on the sidelines, though.

My reasons are as follows:

1. As a graduate student who is taking classes, preparing for comprehensive exams, teaching, and tutoring, my priorities need to be elsewhere right now.
2. Most of my current projects do not involve fresh writing, but rather adapting and editing text that I have already written. This is not totally incongruous with the way that the drive is set up, but my targets are still a variety of smaller projects and do not fit well into a word-count based objectives.

All that said, I do have some writing objectives for November:

1. Review the material that I have already written that serves as the basis for the next article and create an outline for that article.
2. Create an abstract for a current ongoing project on Greek Historiography that takes it in a new direction.
3. Create an abstract/research proposal for the next new project on ancient Macedonia.

Each of these projects is preliminary–my focus needs to be on passing my comprehensive exams, but neither does that mean I will stop researching and writing.

Graduate School really is not about learning – Semester in review – Spring 2010

Anyone who writes articles or blog post and expects people to read them will tell you that a catchy, witty, vulgar or otherwise outrageous title is the best way to gain instant readership. The next step is to use the first sentence or two to hook them, either explaining your title, presenting interesting information or blowing them away with your writing; for me that will all begin in the third sentence. School is about education, education is about learning, and as the highest schooling (currently) available, graduate school must also be about the highest level of learning available. Professors will impart knowledge, which will be devoured eagerly by the students with the ambition of having the opportunity to do the same someday soon. What I just painted was a caricature, based off of accurate sentiments, but not at all true.

Perhaps I am being cynical in saying all of this, since graduate school quite clearly is about learning, but I have learned next to nothing in classes. I have gotten better at Greek and Latin, but mostly through doing my homework and working on the side. I have learned some about Greek history and debates surrounding Alexander, but almost entirely on my own. I have learned a little about writing, but mostly by having someone critique my writing. Graduate school is about learning, but in the sense that graduate students are expected to learn on their own and experience their particular field and thereby learn, not necessarily go to classes and thereby learn. Sometimes I suspect that this changes the more people there are working in a particular field.

This has been one of my revelations this semester and while I am not entirely comfortable with it, I am becoming reconciled. A related issue is that even though almost all of he historical (rather than experiential) learning is independent, there is a requisite amount of coursework that must be done. I have not really enjoyed any classes in over four semesters. I have enjoyed, and do enjoy, aspects of school and thinking about history, but I am beginning to understand why people say that graduate school sucks all the joy out of history, but the signs were already there by the senior year of college. My hope is that there will be some change in all of this next year since I am looking forward to a bunch of my classes, plus there will be a new Ancient History student. I truly do love history, and like talking about history, thinking and writing about history, but it has given me some thought.

Writing issues

I have been in a writing funk for a good six months now, if not more. Periodically I can turn a good phrase, make a good point, or delude myself that I have snapped out of it. I am always wrong. An unfortunate side effect of these periods is that one of two things happens as a result:

1) Suddenly I am convinced that my writing hitherto was exceptional.
2) Suddenly I am convinced that nothing I have ever written was worth the paper it was printed on.

Now I am well aware that neither of these statements is correct, but sometimes the mind does funny things. In truth there are things I have written that I think are quite good, and some that are absolutely wretched, but the defining characteristic of both is how (in)effectually I developed the idea behind the piece of writing, and how remarkable that idea actually was. As with the pieces of writing themselves, there are some I am proud of and would like to build upon further, and some that I would really rather I forgot.

In this moment, I suspect that I am over-thinking writing, over-thinking the ideas and simply trying too hard. The defining characteristic of written comments from graduate school professors (so far as I can tell) is that the most scathing comment they can give you is that your writing resembles that of an undergraduate. In general I can sympathize with this statement, and having received it before, it does sting, but the larger issue that I see is that each professor finds different characteristics “undergrad-esque” and none of the expectations are well defined. To make matters worse, at least for me, I have taken just one course on writing since high school, and even then there was a greater emphasis on how to write a ‘proper’ bibliography (just for the record, I still don’t really know how), than there was on our writing. I have learned some from osmosis, from comments in undergrad and now graduate school, but most of my writing remains from how I speak and from imitating authors I respect–this gets more awkward when I begin to write akin to Greek authors.

And now I am trying too hard, thinking too much. I am looking at my writing as though I must come up with the perfect kernel, the perfect idea, and then develop it perfectly. But instead of actually doing this, I stare at the blinking cursor, seemingly without the capacity to translate thought to page. In the past I have circumvented this by writing everything longhand, which helps some, but not as much as it used to. I need get back to simply writing. Let the thoughts flow onto the page just to get the thoughts out. If they are not out, I cannot play with them.

I do not want to give the impression that I have learned nothing, or that this thinking is entirely bad. My writing certainly has gotten tighter, more precise and denser, but is not necessarily better.

Where there is a will, there is a way, and I need to find a way to merge the free-flowing imitation with methodical thought before it is too late.


P.S. I once told a professor that I was having real issues. I liked my topic, but I was hitting wall after wall, throwing myself into them until the walls cracked or I fell around them and stumbled into the next. That was almost five years ago, so I suppose this is not exactly a new phenomenon.

Midnight Musings: Writing Issues

When I started writing this, it was 00:13.

I am generally tired. I am generally sore. I generally have other emotional issues that weigh on my mind. But these are not new issues for me. This semester has been harder, though. Each one seems to be.

Most of this semester has been translation, which I have more or less kept on top of. I certainly have issues when it comes to translating that can only be solved through practice, and practice is what I am doing. Some days are better than others, but I do at least a little bit each one.

No, the larger issue at hand is writing. I have a two-page response paper due each week, plus a fifteen page historiographical paper, and a ten page Latin paper, and a rewrite of my term paper from last semester as a conference paper. These make up a decent, but not an exceptional writing load this term. Once I add in my person obsession towards starting my thesis and a few other things, the load becomes heavier, but still very doable. The problem is that I have not been able to write.

The only thing I have been able to write with any consistency has been my personal journal, and even then it seems that half my entries begin with ‘and now I don’t know what to say…’ Basically I have had semester-long writer’s block. It may seem ironic, but I really do not know what else to say about this. And it is kind of a problem.