Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Friday, February 27, 2015

PhD Limbo
Dore's Limbo
I love the visual nature of Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. I really want to teach it, perhaps a course on hell in the medieval period as a lens for viewing literature.
But I digress. 

In Dante's Limbo, the first circle of hell, the watchword is "unaware." Here we have the great classical heroes and characters who were simply ignorant of Christianity because of WHEN they were born, not any conscious rejection of the religion.
They are victims of circumstance. Which makes it an even better metaphor for my week.

I heard many rumors this week about when I would hear the results of my comps (mostly from passive aggressive asshats). Within forty-eight hours proved not to be true, as did "news from Thursday." The first couple of days I dove for my computer every time I heard the incoming mail notification, only to discover it was junk mail. 

I know I passed two of my exams (not "know" like anyone has told me, but "know" as in I knew everything on the exam). It's the third that is giving me angina. 
That's making me cry and be upset and be angry and feel disappointed, and as though I have disappointed others. That's making me doubt myself.
So this has been my week. Terrified of what happens (which I realize is completely out of proportion because my uni has a mechanism in place to retake if you fail one, and it's usually a take home article/essay and there's no way I wouldn't pass that.)

You work so hard for all of this (five plus years in my case) and the idea that it could all go up in smoke is terrifying. 
And I've stared at my computer screen a lot this week. Doing nothing. Like what's the point.
But this is what PhD life does to you. It makes you insane. It makes you doubt. In many ways, I think just surviving these hoops is the real test of earning a PhD. Can you survive?
It's like hell week for academics.

And as I've said before, I think this is harder when you don't have  an in-house support system. I am grateful for my social network on Twitter, and my other UNM grad students, but when it's 9p and you're home with just the dog, there's no one to talk you off the crazy ledge of "my life is over." 
Nehi is simply no help. Although we've walked a lot this week, and I'm spending serious time with my heavyweight bag.

This week I've also seen my entire committee more than I have in the last year so that also has seemed like I was part of a strange psychological experiment or candid camera.

So here I sit at my computer, a victim of circumstance.
In the dark.
I'm not sure when I'll hear about my comp results, latest answer says perhaps Monday. I have no idea how long it takes to grade. And while I'm certainly adding to the list of "when I'm a professor I won't..." there's really nothing I can do.
The thing I've realized after a week in limbo though is that it really doesn't matter. And maybe that's the academic lesson (other than good practice for the job market in the fall or a lesson in patience (I have none)). 
What I hear will not change my publication history. Or the work I've done with this blog to provide a resource for grad students. Or the work I've done to support younger teachers. Or the contacts I've made. The results of my comp results will not change me as a scholar or person. And that's important to remember. There are lots of things in this life we've chosen that are completely and totally out of our control. And while the first assumption a lot of the time (particularly by women) is to think it's US, it's not.

As a great, supportive professor said to me this week, "this profession works to tear you down, and you can't let it." Hard to internalize, but surviving absolutely depends on it. We create our own reality.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On Finishing Comps: Last Hurdle Jumped but I Think I Tripped

Yesterday I finished my last of three comprehensive exams, the last hurdle before I can defend my dissertation prospectus and turn all my attention to writing #DevilDiss.
I have felt good about the three semesters leading up to this. I have completed course work, read for comps, published two articles, written two book chapters, presented at conferences.
I felt really confident about my first two comps.

And then yesterday as I sat in the office to take my final comp, and I turned over the sheet of paper with the essay prompts on it I broke down in tears.
I stared blankly at the two questions. One was on a book on my list but never discussed. The second was something I knew. I just sat there and cried. Overwhelmed by the fact that 50% of something is failing. And suddenly every bit of confidence I had was gone. I felt like I had failed. I felt as though there was no way I was passing this comp. I worked right up to the time allotted (four hours) and immediately asked as I turned it in what the back up plan was for people who failed.
That's how sure I was.
 And just like that five years of work leading up to this, a year and a half of my PhD program seemed like it was going down the drain. I was so upset that when I ran into one of my committee members in the restroom right after I almost broke into tears. When I ran into a friend a few minutes later in the hall, I DID break into tears. I quickly headed home because I'm not usually an emotional person, and I rather cry and lose my shit at home than in public.

Don't get me wrong, after crying in the empty office and having a complete breakdown, I outlined my two essay prompts, I wrote. I was under the page limits the professor had suggested. I added more information. I revised. I edited. I added MORE examples. I ended up with 18 1/2 pages on theory and methodology in four hours. And still feel like an abject failure. My notes say "fuck" a lot. If the professor looks at them that will be interesting.

 My university did away with high pass and just has a pass/fail on comprehensive exams now. I was told by a member of my committee to just focus on passing, HOW you passed was not important.
I feel confident that I passed my other two exams. And rumor has it that I should have results on all three exams some time this week. So at least there's not a prolonged waiting period, and I have a busy week ahead of me. So that's good.
I know there are mechanisms in place if I did fail.
And I appreciate that's it's not just a fail and you're out mechanism.
But I still feel like a failure.
But I have to say I'm struggling a bit. And feeling the lack of support system. While I usually have a pretty big online presence, and support system it was like yesterday everyone was on radio silence. Which meant I curled on my couch under the blanket and looked at the future and just saw a blank space. There was no one to tell me it would be okay. There was no one to tell me I probably did better than I thought.
There was nothing.
I've spoken before about not having an in-person support system. And how always looking like you have your shit together means people never think you need help.
There are lots of blogs (including mine) that talks about how some days in the PhD process are harder than others. That talk about the stress, the lack of confidence, and the process.
I know that worrying this week will not change the outcome. I know that it will only make me feel bad. But knowing that is not going to stop me from mourning the potential loss of my PhD career this week.

Dear #50ShadesofGrey Production Team: You're Shooting Yourself in the Foot

A concerned fan

Re: Your atrocious media presentation

24 February 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey was always going to cause a hullabaloo. The content, the fan-fiction roots, the prose style. Each of these topics were addressed when the books were paper published, and all of these topics were revisited in the ramp up to the movie. Hashtags on social media arguing the movie was abuse dueled against hashtags from fans that supported the movie. However one thing that has surprised me as  I read the articles and followed the social media was that there has been little effort from the movie's production team to spin or address any of these issues. No navigation to deal with the controversial topics. No statements about supporting fans. Nothing. The people who have spoken for and about the movie are the director, the cast members, and the author. And for the most part they've done more harm than good, with their presentation of the film getting worse as the opening day approached, and now, seemingly imploding a week after opening day.

Yesterday saw the Internet explode with rumors that Jamie Dornan would not be reprising his role for the 50 Shades of Grey sequels because of his wife's objections over the movie's subject matter. 
Fan response ranged from sad (how could the sequels continue if they had to recast) to nasty (taking pot-shots at Dornan's wife for not knowing what the books were about, or being surprised by the movie). Please note the "article" above contains NO facts or sources or direct quotes, only fan tweets, seemingly, as a Twitter friend pointed out, used only to make fun of fans.

Yet as I read these posts, and the speculative articles like the above, I couldn't help but think that this was yet another misstep by the production.
You've taken a franchise that is a guaranteed money maker given the legions of fans of the books, the number of people who love to hate-watch, and people who simply want to be titillated and will fork over money for it and yet you seem to be running down a checklist of how to shoot yourself in the foot.
  • Have cast members disparage the plot, production, and subject matter? In fact, imply that the character of Christian Grey is somehow more repulsive than a serial killer on The Fall? Check.
  • Have cast members on press junket say they don't want people to see the film? Check.
  • Have cast members appear awkward in interviews with each other and apparently not able to even ACT like they like each other? Check.
Watching the lead up to the release of Fifty Shades of Grey has been like watching a media train wreck. These missteps are completely avoidable. And yet you keep making them. Do you not have a media management company? A PR firm? Anyone telling you what a complete train wreck these interviews and quotes are?

Don't worry, you have two more books to get it right, and here are some tips:
  • Have your cast PRETEND to like each other in interviews. They are actors after all. If this is not possible don't book them together. Have them conduct press junket interviews separately.
  •  Try and find something other than cliche titles and taglines to market the movies. Not every single release needs to have a bondage reference.
  • Give your cast members a PR script telling them what to say and not say. Things to avoid- "I don't want anyone to see this movie" and "I had to take a shower after filming." Pretty much avoid anything that insults the material that justified or not, the fans love.
  • Muzzle the rest of your production team. If they can't say anything nice, don't put them in front of a camera. Impress upon them that trashing their own production is monumentally stupid. 
  • Also have your production team avoid insulting each other. Airing dirty laundry in public is just tacky.
  • And about the fans, it wouldn't be a horrible idea to do some wooing of fans in the run up to the next two movies. You've insulted them, and what they like, and they still turned out opening weekend. Some fan-targeted love, on social media, and in interviews would go a long way. Fans will spend obscene amounts of money for things they love. It's FREE MONEY.  Why would you jeopardize that income?
Surely by now you've realized that this is not a film that appeals to a wide range of people. What you DO have is a large fan base of readers, who drag others along. Or you have (I think a smaller number) who bought a ticket to laugh and hate watch. It's the fans, and their involvement, and endorsement that can help you.
Hire a public relations firm.
Do what they say.
For goodness sake, have SOMEONE address the Dornan leaving rumors (preferably Dornan himself, and preferably in a non-condescending way).
Start planning now for how you're going to correct these missteps in the sequels.

The fans want to like you. Stop making it so hard for them.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Electronic Grading

This semester I have a course release because of my position as Core Writing Coordinator so I thought it was a perfect time to (re)focus on how I gave feedback and reflect on what I wanted my feedback on student work to accomplish.
  • I want students to focus more on using feedback to improve and think about their writing than obsess about the grade.
  • I want the feedback to feel like a conversation.
  • I want students to find the feedback helpful.
  • I want to see improvements in writing from assignment to assignment based on feedback.
To this end I committed to electronic submission and grading as part of a larger move towards student-centered instruction.
  • On Tuesdays before an assignment is due we peer edit in class workshop style. We do this in Google Docs. They share their drafts with their pod group and me. While they edit each others' papers and provide feedback, I look at, and provide feedback on every single introduction.
  • On Thursdays before an assignment is due there is no class, just extended office hours. Attending office hours, once per assignment, is 1% of their grade, and I recognize they are busy, so this allows them a dedicated time to attend. They can choose not to, but it's a choice. They bring copies of drafts (electronic or paper) and I ask them what questions they have and how I can help. That's what we work on.
  • Papers are due uploaded to Blackboard by midnight Friday. This allows them a day after conferencing to incorporate any notes.
  • I grade all papers Saturday mornings. I then post general feedback to the whole class on improving writing in announcements.

This morning grading took longer than usual because I kept stopping to add general notes to Word's auto-correct and my feedback cheat sheet. I got the idea of using the Word auto-correct feature to give comments from here. I type in where appropriate, my short cut, say ROL: and the auto-correct fills in "This “sounds” awkward. Read it out loud, can you think of a different way to phrase this so what you’re trying to say is clear?"
One of my goals with feedback was to make sure too that I was asking guiding questions to get students to get there on their own, and think about their choices, and how to correct in the hope that this leads to a transfer of skills.
These short cuts aren't the only feedback I give, but I've noticed on lower level English classes (this is a 220 course) that there are a lot of the same, basic notes. So the short cut comments usually address these.
When students submit their work I ask them to write in the comment box what they thought they did well, what they struggled with, and what they think they need help with. I use this as a lens to give feedback as well, and not get comment happy.
At the end of each paper I write a few sentences about the essay as a whole. 

The assignment guidelines were that students needed to choose a Paradise Lost inspired artifact (album cover, painting, sculpture, etc.) and analyze it. They also had to specifically use a close reading from Paradise Lost in that analysis. The students made great choices in their artifacts, some really neat stuff. 
However, I've noticed that papers that require students to write their analysis/argument tend to be weak. They rely on plot summary or make a series of statements with little analysis. I think this is part of a larger issue of students not feeling as though their opinion is valued or important. I also think that this shows a weakness in critical thinking skills. Grades on these first assignments tend to be lower than the students would like. BUT my assignments are scaled, so the last assignments count more than the first, so if a student improves through the semester, then a poor grade at the beginning doesn't kill them.

Things this approach doesn't fix:
  • I really wish there was a way to require students to read feedback before they could see their grades. I worry students look at the grade and never read the feedback, and that's part of the reason why I don't see an improvement form assignment to assignment. 
  • Generally, my students seem to see the value of attending office hours and sending me drafts after the first assignment. I wish I could get them to see that earlier.
  • Students focusing more on grades than why they earned them.

I guess I'll have to wait and see if what I'm trying has the effects I want.
Have you had success in addressing these issues? What worked for you? Why do you think it worked?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

#50ShadesofGrey and Victimology

Social media, particularly my Twitter feed has increasingly been overtaken by #50ShadesofGrey tweets.
While there are scholarly things about the books, the reactions (WHY is it having this effect?) and the marketing/PR disasters the stars are creating on the press junket that interest me, I also have found myself having a personal reaction to these books and the criticism.

And because of that, I've participated in discussions on Twitter, and am planning some writing on this, but worry my personal soap box of "stop blaming the victim" and "broken people deserve happiness too" will overshadow the work.
So I thought I'd sketch out some of my ideas informally.
While at #ACMRS15 I planned out some ideas via color-coded Post-It:

I'm trying to convince a friend to write an article with me that discusses the book series, approaching it re: Rhetoric of Victimology using Christian Grey as a case study.
There are several things that bother me about the posts being posted, and forwarded:
  • As Catherine Scott has noted,  the examples people are using against the film are taken completely out of context.
  • Having read the other series Scott mentions (Laurel K. Hamilton's two series, as well as Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series) which feature both better BDSM influenced relationships, and frankly, "harder" scenes, I'm unsure why Fifty Shades is getting such notice. It's not new material. What is it about THIS series that has created this zeitgeist moment
  • Building on this, I am shocked (but perhaps should not be surprised) that the critics of the books/movie seem to have not read a single word of it and are simply repeating what other people have said.
  • Criticisms and articles show a shocking lack of knowledge about kink, and how the BDSM community works. Posts and articles by people in the BDSM community either sidestep the issue, distancing themselves by saying the book ISN'T BDSM or say that kink is fine, but the book is awful. Criticisms use the contract between Ana and Grey as evidence of abuse, as his controlling issues, again, both taken out of context, and IN context, acceptable in the Dom-Sub relationship.
Some of the criticism of the book is valid, but none of the valid criticism is about the relationships or the BDSM elements of the book:
  • I agree with the fact that the prose is not great. And I can see why writers of fan-fiction are upset about Fifty Shades of Grey being touted as fan-fiction because most fan-fiction I've read is incredibly well written, and the implied characterization of fan-fiction as bad writing is insulting.
  • However, I do think it's necessary to consider that these books DID start as Twilight fan-fiction as I believe it's necessary for understanding the book. Fifty Shades Freed in particular has clear parallels with the Breaking Dawn in both plot and style. If you realize that the basis for Fifty Shades is Edward/Bella relationship (which I'll acknowledge is problematic in other ways), and his concerns about her entering his "dangerous" world of vampires, there being rules to follow to survive and not being prepared are grafted onto the BDSM world, it requires situating the criticisms of Fifty Shades in a different light.
  • There is only one scene that I don't think is accurate to the BDSM world- the end of the first book where Ana asks Christian to show her how far the "play" can go so she can see what her hard limit is. Part of the issue of limits is that people who are aroused "read" and feel things differently than they would not aroused. Basically, you can take more in that situation. So the fact that Grey, an experienced Dominant would NOT know this or ignore it and would follow through on Ana's request is unlikely. However, it is the major plot point to Ana leaving, so it follows the narrative James has set up.
Here are the things that interest me about the series:
  • I don't necessarily believe there are "right" readings of texts, or rather I believe there are multiple "right" readings, but I do think there can be wrong readings and I think that we need to more closely examine the effect these wrong readings can have.
  • If we had a female character who was abused as a child, taken under the wing of an adult who took advantage of that, and then if this child grew up and chose a life that enabled them to exert control over their life and feel safe, we would be horrified if someone called them a "monster" or "sick" for those choices. It's called victim blaming, and not culturally acceptable. And yet, this is an accurate description of what the character Christian Grey goes through. So why is victim blaming him okay?
  •  The end "lesson" of the book is that "fifty shades of fucked up" people need to normalize in order to fins happiness. Ana is allowed to "play" with BDSM but Grey has to give up the harder sides of it in order to keep her.
Why are the cast distancing themselves in press junkets for the film from the content? Dornan is quoted as saying after filming one scene he had to shower before going home to his family. Given his role in The Fall, which granted does not do a press junket, it's hard to see how Christian Grey is somehow a worse character than Paul Spector. Are people reading Grey through the lens of Spector? Is that a source of the critique of abuse? It also seems strange that during press junkets for the film the stars would look down on the content, as that's alienating the incredibly large fan base.

So those are my initial thoughts. They're probably be more as always as I work on the process and encounter more. I'm gathering articles and reviews that discuss these issues, but welcome other sources and references.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


I woke up early this morning, despite being mentally and physically exhausted from my first comprehensive exam yesterday.
Logging onto Twitter at 5a, the hashtag #AdviceForYoungAcademics started scrolling across my screen. Some generic, some supportive, some a little random. In other words, pretty much what you'd expect from a large diverse group.
And by 630a it had already gotten nasty and condescending.
A little gatekeeping. A little making fun of the silly idealistic young academics.

And it hit me for a couple of different reasons.
Yesterday I had an outpouring of support from my online support system about comps (when even my Dad didn't call me). And I just returned from #ACMRS15 where I got to catch up with old friends who I taught with in New York City, and they couldn't be more supportive. But I also had a conversation at the conference about people in our program (or others we knew from other programs) who we were starting to wonder what they were doing here.

I've written some of these before, but perhaps it bears reframing in a new light.

Unless you're in a paired M.A/PhD program, I do not understand why you would go to school full time to get an MA. I worked full time getting both my M.A and M.S. Ed. And I think this goes to WHY you're in grad school. So perhaps we should start by rewinding...
Last year an older student said he was thinking of going for his Masters in English. When I asked him why he just stared at me blankly. And what I wanted to say to him:
Grad school is hard. And expensive. So if you don't know WHY you'd go,  or WHAT you plan on doing with your advanced degree, I'm very confused. Unless you're 22 and don't know how to get a job and be an adult and just use school to put off real life. There are very few jobs that require an M.A in English. Teaching is the only one I can think of, and even that varies from state to state. So I think that's an issue that more people need to talk about.
There are a lot of books and blogs and articles that offer advice about grad school, specifically about getting your PhD. After I earned my M.S. Ed. in Secondary Education (as part of my NYC Teaching Fellows contract) and my M.A in English (to better prep me as a high school teacher and because I was starting to think about PhD programs) I spent three years reading all of them I could get my hands on. I took notes. I followed the advice that made sense and ignored what didn't or what didn't seem like a good fit for me. And it's the reason that I am racing through my PhD program. The best tips I read and have followed in no particular order:
  • Know why you're going. I've taught high school. I've adjuncted at a community college. I want to be able to teach at a four year college or university. But I also know that with my experience, and enjoying teaching as much as research I would be happy in a variety of colleges. I'm hoping that range will help me in the fall on the job market.
  • Have a plan. For grad school, for the job market, for what happens when you don't get a job. I cashed out my retirement money so I'd have a safety net during this time. I had a color coded timeline before I got here. Get organized.
  • Make sure your timeline reflects your field. MLA releases the job list in September with applications usually due in October. MLA or Skype interviews usually in January and campus visits anywhere from February to March. So my timeline has drafts of my dissertation to committee members THIS semester. Second drafts to them by August with a goal of defending in January/February so that my committee members can mention this in their job market letters. And I will have a firm defense date by interviews. I know people on the job market this year who do not know when they would defend. And I understand that things come up. But I can also see that if I was a hiring committee that if it was a choice between someone with a firm defense date or was just ABD, I would go with the one I knew would have degree in hand by the time they report for the job.
  • Unless you desperately want to go through years of torture and can't imagine doing anything BUT being a college professor, THERE IS NO REASON TO GET A PhD IN ENGLISH. I don't care what the alt-ac people say.  I think it's great that alt-ac is more of the conversation for newly minted PhDs that aren't finding jobs. But I also think we can head this off a lot at the pass (see "Seek Life Elsewhere" above).
  • Once you get accepted to a school make sure you're fully funded. Yes, a more name school might nudge you up the line come job time. But that's not worth the trade off of $20,000 of debt per year every year you're in school.
  • If you can, have a topic and/or set of interests before you go and tailor every thing you do towards that. Your course work, your conference presentations, your articles for publications. It's the "always be closing" of grad school. This means your reading lists for comps will be tailored towards your dissertation, and each course you take builds on this. It also means that because you're making everything work for you you're more likely to shorten your time to degree.
  • There's a balance between work and life (Google it, a gazillion posts for academics). And you do have to take care of yourself or you're not going to get there. BUT also beware. Camping trips, taking on lots of extracurricular activities, nights out, vacations all of these will suck your time away and can make it so you're not working. Find your balance, but keep in mind you want to get finished and get DONE. I don't have a life. I turn down social invitations all the time. Because for me finishing in three years is the more important goal.
  • Get on Twitter, makes friends with people in your field, form a support network. Blog about your work. Get business cards, introduce yourself at conferences and hand them out. Walk up to people on panels afterwards and talk about their work. Follow up on social media and email. Do your best to make sure that people know you and your work. The support will get you through tough days, the constant writing will improve your other types of writing, and the networking can't hurt. However, don't blatantly call people out on social media just to force an interaction. Everyone knows what you're doing and it looks tacky. Be organic. Be yourself. Show genuine interest and people will do the same.
  • Then there's the flip side of social media. I think it's great to share work, and show your personality. As I said, it's been a support network for me when I don't have an in-person one. But remember the internet is forever. I see people (potential academics) posting dirty laundry about their department, sharing graphic personal details, constantly complaining about things. Now this may not affect their future or their job chances. But I read some of these feeds and think I wouldn't want to work with someone who complained all the time or overshared and had no concept of audience and occasion. I haven't seen data on how these new-ish social media connections affect job searches, but our fields are small (and getting smaller) so I can't imagine it won't start to have an effect if it hasn't already.
  • Be willing to work. Have a work ethic. If a call goes out for a panel or writing opportunity, respond early and be enthusiastic. Then follow through. Be the writer an editor or panel chair can count on. Follow their deadlines. Turn revisions around. Show up. A good work ethic separates professionals from the rest of the group.
  • While the publishing landscape is changing, publishing is still what distinguishes one job candidate from another, and certainly affects advancement. Do not listen to people that tell you it's fine if you're ready to graduate and go on the job market with no publications or one. It's not. That may have been true when your mentors were on the market but it's not anymore. IF you're tailoring everything towards your research project, and IF you have a plan you should not have a problem shopping out one article/book chapter per year (since that's roughly the expectation for tenure). This is what you're choosing for your career. If you can't produce now what makes you think you'll be able to once you graduate?
  • Do not fall in love with the university you're getting your PhD from or the city you're living in. Your home university will not hire you. So if you want a life there you've chosen wrong. One student I know bought a house at their home university for a Masters program. Which tells me they've chosen the city and life over an academic career. Because there's no real estate return in three years. So they must not really be serious about academic life. And that's fine. But if that's true, why spend the money and time?
  • This one is for students and mentors. IF you take a long time to complete your course work. Or if you have a hard time passing your comps. Or take a really long time to write your dissertation prospectus someone needs to sit you down and get you to reflect on what you're doing. I know people in their programs who have timed out of their program. So they're looking at finishing the dissertation on their own dime. I know people who passed comps then realized they didn't want to be there but still stayed. If you're putting things off, if you do not have the discipline to get things done then I don't know what you're going to do upon graduation. If you can't self-motivate now how will you self-motivate as a professional. But here's the thing- it's perfectly okay to get here, get into the work and realize this is not for you. If you came to get a PhD in English because you like books get a library card, it's cheaper.
A lot of people write how their self-worth becomes tied up in their PhD work and their job search. And I can see that. But it's okay if this is not for you. It's okay if you don't want the pressure of publishing. If you don't want to face the job market. I always used to say that teaching was hard and there were easier ways to make money so there's no reason to put yourself through all this crap if you can imagine doing anything else. PhDs in English are this only to the 100th power.
Sometimes it's just not a good fit.
Sometimes you rather have a life.

But if you're going to do this, have a plan.