Latitudes, Attitudes

Please don’t sue me, Mr. Buffett. The series we just wrapped up was a little intense, so I’m going to dial back on the emotional investment and length for a little bit. If I didn’t, I’m afraid I’d burn out on blogging again, and I like the moderate consistency I’m maintaining here.

Reading through Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals made me think about my own rituals and habits. Because I’m usually only in a stable situation for about a year at a time before things shake up dramatically–moving, changing jobs, living situations, etc–I haven’t ever maintained a specific daily schedule for any length of time. However, there have been some general flows within given periods of my life.

Graduate School was my first insight into stability; before then I had worked a lot of swing shifts and irregular schedules that threw off everything else. My master’s degree, though, allowed enough consistency and flexibility that I started falling into patterns. I woke up between 6:30 and 8:00 AM most days, usually an hour before I taught at 7:30 or tutored at 8:30. I would end up teaching, tutoring, going to class, or holding office hours until noon or 1:30, at which point I would promptly go home. Usually, I would try to do as much of my reading and writing as I could in the mornings, while my attention was at its sharpest, and maybe some grading. Then came lunch, usually leftovers of some sort, and relaxing until dinner. Usually that involved watching television or movies, but it wasn’t uncommon to work on some kind of food project at the same time–tinkering with a bread recipe, prepping for dinner, or doing some bulk-cooking of ingredients I’d need later in the week. Then came dinner, usually a relatively large one, and talking with Emily while we watched TV and I graded papers. Five days a week for just about a year. On the weekends, Saturdays were usually relaxing, often with a drink in the evening. Church on Sunday morning, lunch, watching a movie or skyping with family, maybe playing a game of some sort.

While I was working on the first draft of my thesis, the mornings included an hour or two of writing instead of classes, and a 30 minute walk to clear my mind and talk with my parents. Since I didn’t teach until noon, the entire schedule was pushed back by about 90 minutes, but otherwise unchanged.

This summer, without teaching or tutoring and minimal writing, the activities have changed while the major blocks of time remain. Work in the morning, relaxing afternoons. At the start of the summer, work mostly meant thesis research, writing, and applying for work. Now that the thesis is wrapping up and there’s a job lined up, that’s stabilized into writing on here, reading any interesting articles I found the day before, and managing my buffer queue. Most days I’m accompanied on the laptop by a cup of sweet coffee, and finished with everything by about 10:30. Then it’s looking for secondary income–anyone need an English Adjunct?–and playing games until lunch. With lunch, there’s usually a quart of black, cold brewed coffee, and after we normally watch an hour or two of TV. Then it’s coming back to anything I didn’t finish in the morning, and more games or reading–currently Antifragile, just finished Desperation and The Regulators–until PawPaw gets home in the evening and we have dinner. After dinner, the dogs take us on a walk, and we come back for more TV or a movie before an early bedtime.

In college, the idea of a schedule was completely foreign to me. When I tried to establish one, I felt caged and quit rather quickly. Now that I’ve started developing them organically, I’m realizing how much time I really need to get things done. It’s a nice feeling, especially since we’re about to move, I’ll start at least one new job, and there’s a little one on the way. I’m excited to see how my habits change to fit around all this newness!

What about you guys? What kind of habits do you maintain?

Why Grad School: How to Write a Thesis

In past posts I’ve mentioned the thesis process, but I never really spelled out what goes into a Plan A thesis. After a conversation with one of my friends at USU, I think it’s just about time to remedy that oversight. Before we get into the how, I’d like to look briefly at why. Why would someone write or not write a thesis in the first place?

The thesis is usually somewhere around seventy pages long. Like, 3-5 journal articles combined, plus an introduction and conclusion. Really, it’s like writing your own mini-issue of a journal in your field, but without the book reviews. They’re really helpful if you quite enjoy research, because they force you to start using it and contributing to your field in a large, active way. If you move on to a PhD program, you’ll have a great start on your dissertation. If not, you can still peel off a chapter and submit it to a journal, or turn the whole thing into your first book. If none of those appeal to you, see the original “Why Grad School” post and reconsider your life choices.

The prospect of writing a short book is simultaneously exciting and terrifying in differing amounts based on your temperament. As someone who had never reached a page limit in his life, I was personally 2% excited, 98% scared (I use that line enough I probably owe Owen Wilson royalties by now). But it’s a requirement for my department, I had a really good idea, and I still plan to turn mine into a book, so I went forth to write a thesis! Here’s how:

Step 0: Be in grad school, in a program that lets you write a thesis. If that is not an option, you want to write something else. The logic may apply, but the terminology may be different. Continue at your own risk.

Step 1: Have an idea. Come up with something in your discipline that you realize has never been studied, and find a way to study it. Or more likely, take something that’s been studied, and look at it in a different way. Or find a new set of methods to study a lot of things in your field. The sky’s kind of the limit here, but the goal is to find something you want to research in a way that nobody has ever researched it. For instance, my friend Heidi is looking at a lot of incomplete definitions of master, applying them to someone easily identifiable as a master craftstman, and making a brand new definition that doesn’t suck. My friend Jill is looking at laundry practices, setting up a case study of one of her friends that is a laundry artist, and finding the value in doing laundry well. I’m researching severed hands, and making a claim that they’re a symbol of humanity in folklore and pop culture. It’s all fun stuff, and each one of them has changed through time, but the core ideas stayed the same: craftsmen, laundry, severed hands.

Step 2: Find/make other people interested in your idea. You need to develop a committee of established academics who will sign off on your finished product, and help you take it from that original idea into a full thesis. Ideally, these should be people who are already familiar with some part of your project–the idea, the methods, the theories–and who you personally get along with. Sometimes that won’t work out. People you want on your committee won’t be able to serve on it, or aren’t interested, or you might find out you don’t get along with everyone as well as you thought; that’s okay. Life isn’t always easy, and neither are theses. You’ll be fine, just do the best you can, and get people excited and interested.

Step 3a: Read too much. Read other theses from your field, articles with methods you might use, books on your topic or related topics, and anything else you can get your hands on that might help in any way. Read everything that seems useful, and then read everything in their bibliographies that seem even slightly related. Read and read and read and read and read. You’re not going to use it all, but there’s no way of knowing what you will need until after you’ve read it, so KEEP READING. I don’t think I can stress that enough.

Step 3b: Take too many notes. When you’re doing all of that reading, take careful notes of everything that seems even slightly important. Quotes, paraphrase, summary, page numbers, everything you can think of. Use whatever method you want, whether that’s a text document, a series of index cards, a journal, sheets of paper used as bookmarks, or anything else that works. I switch between all of those, and that’s why I can never find the specific notes I need. If you can help it, don’t be like me; use a consolidated system. If you won’t be organized, at least write detailed annotated bibliography entries. You’ll probably need that for the next step, anyway.

Step 4: Write up a proposal. This might be the first writing you’ve done for the thesis. It’s your opportunity to describe everything that’s going to go down for the next few months (years?) of your life that relates to research. What is the topic? Why is that your topic? What else has been done? How is what you’re doing different? Why are you doing it differently? What is not your topic? What are you not doing? Which sources are you familiar with? Nothing in this project gets to be accidental. If something involves a choice, you have to make it intentionally. There are specific ways to order all of this information, and each department wants things done a little differently, but as long as you’re actively examining every aspect of your research, and setting clear boundaries, I bet you’ll be fine. Track down a good example or departmental guide if you don’t trust me. Hell, that’s probably a good idea anyway.

Step 5: Submit your proposal. Now that you’ve spent a while thinking, reading, and writing, give it to your committee. Now brace yourself. This is one of the last breaks you’ll get for a while.

Step 6: Revise your proposal. This depends on the program, the committee, and the individual, but you’ll probably need to do some editing. If not, skip down to the next step. There’s no shame in needing to revise a little at this step. There’s a lot to keep track of, and this is your committee’s opportunity to make sure you’re all on the same page. Fix what needs fixing, ask about anything that seems like it’ll take your project a direction you don’t want it to go. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down, but don’t be stubborn just because you’re confused or cranky. Return to step 5. Repeat as needed. If you get stuck in an endless loop, either find a new project or a new committee, and return to step 1 or 2 depending on which one you choose.

Step 7: The first defense. This is the first time you have a reason to feel stressed. It’s not a very good reason, but it is still a reason. You’re going to sit down in a room with your committee, and you’re all going to talk about the project together. Read over your proposal again, and look at the notes they’ve given you so far. Think about why they told you to make specific changes; those might come up. They’ll ask questions, you’ll answer them. They’ll express concerns, you’ll figure out how to address those in the final project. Take good notes, don’t be defensive, and you’ll be fine. Mine took less than an hour from start to finish, and that seems to be pretty standard at my university. If any paperwork is needed, make sure either you or your committee chair bring it along. Now that the proposal is finished, it’s time to start the real work!

Step 8: Write the thesis. Or, as my brain interpreted it, write more than you thought you ever could. Now, this doesn’t all have to be from scratch. Parts of the proposal can become some of the introduction. If you’ve written papers on the topic before, they might be the basis of a chapter or the entire paper. Whatever you already have done, you need to bring it all together and write a lot. Figure out what kind of schedule you can manage, and stick to it as much as you can. I personally found out that I can write really well between 8:00 AM and noon, but after that my focus was shot. If you’re a morning person, find a way to write in the morning. If you’re a night owl. find a way to write at night. Get down as much as you can, no matter how terrible or off-topic it might be. When you can’t write any more, lower your standards, and keep writing. I noticed that once I passed the 30 page mark, my pace slowed down dramatically. If that happens, give yourself weekly page deadlines. Some days will be better, some will be worse, just like with any other job, but you’ve got to keep going. Eventually you’ll have something that looks like the first draft of your thesis. Be happy, be proud, be aware it won’t look that way for long.

Step 9: Give it to the committee. It’s time for your committee chair to read it over. Don’t think about the project for a while. You deserve a break. Catch up on everything else in your life, because the calm won’t last forever.

Step 10: Revise the thesis. Just like with the proposal, you might be able to skip this step. I’ve never heard of such luck, but odds are someone has pulled it off. For the rest of us poor slobs, it’s time to meet with committee members and deal with a lot of red ink. The first draft was just a first draft, and now it’s time for the second one. There might be minor edits in word choice or formatting, or there may be massive sections your committee didn’t like. Try not to take it personally. Please don’t become another gun violence statistic, those guys make the rest of us look bad. First fix what your committee members suggested you fix, then read through the whole thing and fix what you think needs fixing. Then you can return to step 9, and repeat as needed. If you get caught in an endless loop, consider returning briefly to steps 1 or 2 again, but a few rounds of edits are pretty normal. I had three or four before I moved on to the next step.

Step 11: Defend the thesis. Sweet Christmas, you’re almost done. How sick of this project are you? I was having nightmares about severed hands by the time I got this far. Anyway, do you remember your proposal defense? Same thing, except now you have an even better idea of what you want to talk about, and your committee has found more issues to discuss. Hooray! Seriously though, people don’t really fail defenses. I think every Department has the horror story of the person who just never pulled it together, but it’s pretty rare. Take some deep breaths, walk in, and take more notes. Explain what needs explaining, accept that you’re the expert on your topic in the room, and act accordingly. Just like with the proposal, make sure someone’s got the requisite paperwork.

Step 12: Revise the thesis more. You thought you were done with this part, didn’t you? Realistically, that can happen. A few people in my class had really minor edits to make before they turned in the final project. I was not one of them, and I had to keep working. For me, revisions meant going all the way back to step 3 and reading a lot more. I didn’t even look at my paper for the month after my defense, I just went back to theory and immersed myself in a whole new way of thinking. Once you’ve learned everything new you need to learn, incorporate it into the paper. Address your committee’s notes again, and find some more of your own. You should have a pretty airtight piece of informative, argumentative writing by the time you’re done.

Step 13: Turn it in. This might be to department editors, or your committee, or publishers or whoever, but this might be the last set of changes you really need to make. Aren’t you excited? I’m at this step right now, waiting for some feedback from my chairperson. How long have you been working on this project? Six months? A year? Two? Imagine your thesis is a child for a few minutes; it’s probably taken up all of your free time and prevented you from sleeping, so the comparison is apt. How advanced would the thesis-baby be? Rolling over? Crawling? Walking or talking? Going to school? Yeah, there’s some perspective. Take another break and enjoy it.

Step 14: Final changes and publication. Whoever looked at it last time will probably have a few more little changes to make, so make those and move it along. Eventually you’ll be getting it published. At USU, that means getting it bound in the library and bringing the receipt to the school of Research and Graduate Studies. You did it! You’re done with your thesis! Wait for your diploma, and try to figure out what you’re going to do next. Prepare it for a journal? Turn it into a book? Burn it? All three? Whatever you decide, congratulations. You’re done.

Now you know, and you can’t say nobody ever warned you. Uncle Scott told you everything you need to know about writing a thesis.

Meetings I

I don’t mean to be a Dilbert here, but I want to talk for a few minutes about meetings. They’re on my mind, because for the first two weeks of this semester, I’ve had nine meetings. NINE. I know that in an office environment or the business world that isn’t too terrible, but this is the academy. Roughly, “Mandatory Meeting” translates –especially when it’s surrounded by brusque language, and sent out in email less than 36 hours in advance–“What I have to say is very important, and this is the only time I can say it to all of you. Please clear at least an hour to ensure you have enough time to understand what it is that I have to say.”
I think that’s a worthwhile sentiment, and wonderfully efficient. My wife says things like that on occasion, and I happily listen to what she has to say. It’s usually something about our household or relationship, both of which I want to run as smoothly as possible. Really, I’m totally on board with the idea of meetings. I would clear an entire WEEK to hear Jan Brunvand or Ken Robinson talk about their areas of expertise. But I’ve never had either of those men schedule a meeting with me.
Most of the meetings I’m told to attend are for the faculty of my entire department. The writing center has them too, but our directors there are chill. These meetings are usually in the middle of the morning, or the middle of the afternoon, because that’s when the most people are around. That’s great, but as a grad student I often have to miss them because I’m in class, or I didn’t get enough warning to free up my schedule. Then, a couple of days later come the emails letting us all know that the higher-ups are very disappointed in our poor attendance. Then I start to feel bad about missing something so important, at least until I talk with people who were there.
Usually, we’re called together to review a very specific skill or two. Now, I want you to think back to the last time you had to teach someone how to perform a very specific task. As an example from my own classroom, you could teach someone how to outline an essay. You could tell them about what you include in an introduction, what goes in a conclusion, how many main points you should make if you want to write an essay of a certain length, and how to support each of those points. How long did it take you to read that description? Ten seconds? I needed about thirty to write it. I can teach that in class to a group of two dozen in ten minutes or less. So, being generous, let’s say it takes ten minutes to teach a group of faculty members how to collect papers in a specific format. Are you still with me? See where I’m going?  We blocked off an hour. So that gives me an extra fifty minutes to catch up on reading, or write a post on here, because math. But then the meeting organizers find ways to fill the time. Things like status reports, or old business, or question and answer sessions are a GREAT way to pad out an hour.
I keep saying an hour, but we all know even that part of the meeting process is a lie. There’s travel time to my meeting. If it’s on campus, I can usually get there in five or ten minutes. But it’s mandatory, so I can’t be late. I’ll leave five minutes earlier, just to be sure. That’s fifteen minutes. Then there’s travel time back to wherever, which is usually as long as getting there, so we’re up to twenty-five minutes. But what about the stuff I was working on before? If I work right up to the second when I have to leave, it’s a good day. Usually I’ll finish a chunk of a project a little earlier than that, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before I have to leave. Now we’re at forty. Then there’s however long it takes to get back into the flow of things after the meeting, which is conservatively an extra ten minutes. That’s a total of fifty minutes, plus the original hour allotted for the meeting. Do you realize what that means? That one meeting basically ate up a quarter of my day. Technically, since I’m only a half-time employee, it’s more like half my day. For one, ten minute long idea.
Meetings, man.

Why Grad School?

The best thing about being in a Master’s program is how much I’ve learned about myself and the system. I wish I’d known a lot of that going into the process, though. So, here I am, to share with you what I’ve uncovered in the past three semesters.
Grad school is a magical place where you’re surrounded by people who are just as passionate as you are about a given subject. It’s sort of like a political protest of some kind with a nearly 0% chance of being detained for blocking fire exits, and it usually costs more. I only have my own experiences to work from, so I won’t pretend I know how professional schools, science and engineering, or even the artistic programs work. But I do know what it’s like in my little college of Humanities and Social Sciences.
In my program, we spend a lot of time researching and working with theories. The rarely spoken message is that theories are like Rudolph’s nose, guiding us through the thick fog that is the real world. By learning theories, and developing our own, then we can create a mental model that will allow the world to be neatly broken up and compartmentalized. This is where we go to work with the top 10% in a given field, and learn from their experience and knowledge. They’re here to teach us and train us to be as great at what they do as they already are. Seriously, it’s magical.
Magic like that isn’t for everyone. I came here because I want to teach at a college level, and pretty much every college or university in the country requires at least Master’s level proficiency in order to do that. That means I’m not here because I thoroughly love research, or because I want to be surrounded by generally like-minded individuals who live and die for theories. I like getting my hands dirty, and talking to people, and wandering off to spend a day learning about things and then telling people about it. I’m really passionate about teaching and communication skills, so the teaching part of my job is great, but that’s not really what I’m supposed to be doing here. I’m supposed to be researching something in more depth than anyone has ever researched it before, and then writing a long, formal paper about it that other academics can read.
What if you don’t care about other academics? That’s the question that prompted me to start this post, and in order to work out the answer, I’m going to make a list of the pros and cons of grad school. Maybe by the end we’ll all have figured out whether or not it’s the right decision (for you AND for me)

You’re guaranteed to be surrounded by people who are as smart as you are.
You actually get one-on-one attention from professionals in the field who are getting paid decent money to give a damn about you.
Most universities are more liberal than the surrounding areas, especially in smaller towns.
You have access to a damn good library that subscribes to a broad spectrum of intellectual periodicals, and will find books for you with very few questions asked.
You can easily spend a full work week learning about almost anything you want.
Single people and professionals have a lot of networking opportunities.
You have more chances to get a higher paying job than if you didn’t have an advanced degree.
Teaching intro classes is pretty easy because you should know the material already.
If you need to skip a class for personal reasons, nobody seems to care.
Having a .edu email account and student ID opens up a whole world of discount opportunities.
The longer you’re in grad school, the more people will just assume you know what you’re talking about.
You get about four months off a year.
Nobody thinks you’re weird for starting a blog, even though you probably don’t have much to say.
English departments will usually let you work in the writing center, which is a great way to hone your skills without actually writing anything.

You’ll be surrounded by people at least as smart as you are, but you can’t hear the crippling insecurities in their heads.
You have to pay for the degree, and they cost a decent amount of money.
Graduate instructors earn almost no money. I think I’m halfway to the poverty line.
The school wants proof that you’re learning things before it will grant you a degree.
You’re expected to know how to do things without much preparation beforehand. Like learning to write a thesis as you’re writing it, for what is likely the only time you’ll use that specific format.
Most universities are more liberal than the surrounding areas, especially in small towns.
There is no “quitting time.”
You’re expected to socially and professionally network.
Advisors don’t always understand priorities other than “research.” Mine didn’t realize I worked in her department and had a family for the first eight months we knew each other.
You spend a lot of time reading, and not for funsies. Reading The Deathly Hallows in a couple of days is very different from reading Craftsman of the Cumberlands in the same length of time.
You don’t earn money during those long, academic vacations.

Professors are people too

Since starting my master’s program, I’ve found that there are two kinds of college educators: people who teach because it’s part of their job description, and people who teach because they love it. As an undergrad, I was vaguely aware of the dichotomy, often because there were classes that I really loved, and some that I had to suffer through because nobody in the room gave a damn about learning. In Grad school, though, the difference is much more pronounced. Let me break down what the difference looks like from a classroom perspective:

People who teach because it’s in their job description are massively intelligent. They work in academia because they couldn’t survive very well anywhere else, since they’ve lost the ability to communicate with normal people. These are usually people who have doctorates and tenure, and they spend criminal amounts of time researching whatever may catch their interest. They’re masters of whatever field it is that they work in, and they don’t seem to connect very well to anything outside of that field. In class, they know the answer to pretty much everything, and they have very well-rehearsed lessons that seem to always stay on-track. They can respond to questions comfortably, but in retrospect the answers might not actually answer what the asker wanted to know. They write grants that can bring assloads of money into the school, and they’re usually teaching higher-level courses on bizarrely specific subjects. If you talk to them after class or during office hours, they’re usually the ones who can say “have you ever looked into article X?” They can do that because they’re prolific reviewers for whatever journal it came from.

People who love to teach are also usually pretty dang bright. Not always Rainman intelligent, but they still know what they’re talking about. Some of them have doctorates, some only have masters degrees, and there are a few at most schools that only have a bachelors. They spend a lot of class time holding discussions, and lessons get off track pretty much all the time.  They’re not usually as quick with a scholarly answer to in-class questions, but you can expect an email from them later when they’ve had a few minutes to look into things. If you’ve had a professor that was comfortable saying “I don’t know” in class, they were probably one of this sort. They know a hell of a lot about a concerning number of subjects, but they don’t come across as infallible gods of the Academy. They work with journals in the discipline, and keep up on the current scholarship, but they’re not really driven by the minutia of every single theory that’s come out.

I’m discussing the difference between the two because it makes a difference when you get to Grad School. In high school, I took Biology I from Gene Kinslow. He loved to teach. We had a game of jeopardy pretty much every class, and he encouraged us to ask questions about anything even vaguely related to the subject. Ron Enos, Susan Morton, Pat Murphy, and Nancy Derryberry were cut from the same cloth, and even though I hated having to take half of their classes, I loved the classes anyway. In college, I took lit classes from Claire Peckosh. She taught us how to read with a child’s eyes again in her children and young adult lit classes. She was scattered, and the semester syllabus changed every week, but I learned more from her classes than any of the other dozen or so lit courses I took. The same went for Mark “H-Bomb” Hatala and Adam Davis. They both could have been in the “job description” group, but they weren’t. They made damn sure we learned as much about the world as we did about their subject.

Then I got to grad school. The classes were harder, and required a special kind of teacher, but I still ended up with people who cared more about teaching than learning theories. Mostly. But that mostly is for a different post. My coworkers, the English 1010 and 2010 teachers, are a mixed bag. Some of them are teaching to subsidize their research habits. I would even say that a lot of them are that way. But there are a few of us who stay sane BECAUSE we’re teaching those required classes that very few students are actually interested in taking. Learn to tell the difference; you can usually spot it in the first week of class. If you’ve got a “job description” professor, drop the class and try to change your schedule if you can. Take classes with the professors who are there because they like being there. It makes all the difference. And don’t be a bastard.