Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Thursday, July 21, 2016

My Revision Plan and Working My Way Through Failure

It's 21 July.
I return to my high school teaching job in two weeks.
I've on version four of my revision plan.
It's been a rough summer.
I now realize that out of my 333 page dissertation (not including bibliography/appendices and feel free to insert a joke here about being half a devil) that I can use maybe (maybe) 5 pages. There's a small bit about Owain Glyndŵr from 1 Henry IV and Macbeth that I can use. The close reading on Satan and animals in Paradise Lost is okay. The rest is crap.

Kind of.

The fact is most of the work I did on devil texts in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to the Restoration will now be relegated to a single sentence in an introduction or explanatory footnotes that show I know this other stuff exists. So the work was valuable. But valuable in the "learn how to do long division and show your work so you can later do it in your head" way.

I was advised back in June that the dissertation did not require revision, it required a complete re-visioning of the topic.
I admit that I was not sure what this meant exactly or what this would look like.
But I honestly did not want to look stupid by asking. I already felt stupid enough.

At first I thought that I could just rearrange the dissertation thematically and change some things.
But then a committee member met with me and just kept asking "what are you arguing?" And as I struggled to answer that question (ashamedly), I realized it was because the dissertation did not have one. There was no clear argument, not in the dissertation as a whole, and not in the individual chapters.

Now, I think I now understand why.
A key scholar for me is Jeffrey Burton Russell and his lifetime of work on the devil. But here's the problem. While my dissertation could be considered interdisciplinary, I am an English PhD. So using a historian's work as my model was a foundational issue. Russell lists just about every appearance of the devil in history, tracing the timeline. And my dissertation did the same thing. The problem is that's not analysis. That's not an argument. I also stated that I was applying Dundes' psychoanalytical, folkloric methodology. The problem here was that I was using his later career case studies as a model and that was untenable for an English dissertation.
So my methodological foundation was flawed and the rest just compounded these initial issues.

I do believe in interdisciplinary work. I do believe in applying folkloric studies more to English literature. I do believe in challenging periodization.
But I realized too that these are the arguments of a lifetime.
I don't have to make them all in the dissertation.
This is what academic careers are for. I literally have enough material from my diss research to last years, decades. 
I forgot a key lesson:

Dissertations are marathons not sprints.

But it's hard to realize that the dissertation you spent a year working, and almost ten years thinking about and researching is crap and needs to be completely thrown out. It's the equivalent of tossing years of possessions and letting go of all the emotional baggage that goes with that (which incidentally I've also been doing the last few years).

Now, with almost two months of hindsight, I think I have some better perspective.
The first thought is just how little higher ed or graduate education prepares you for these types of setbacks. I got a lot of supporting noises from people this summer. I received little real, practical, "here's where you go from here, you can do this" help. In some ways I get it, part of this process is PROVING you have an argument, PROVING you can do this, that you have a contribution to the field. So someone can't hand that to you. But I have no problems telling you that I was not only depressed this summer but has initially had  serious thoughts of self-harm. 
And no one noticed.
I did not ask for help because honestly, I didn't think there was any help to be had.
"You'll be fine" from friends did not cut it. And as grateful as I was for my social media support network, it was just not the same as a face to face support network, which I don't have. 
As with so much with grad school, I had to find my own way through and it took most of the last two months to do it. Last week I almost lost all the ground and confidence I thought I had regained. Once I dumped the thematic idea of revision not re-vision, I worked on a revision plan I thought showed  growth. It did not. In any way. And I spent most of that day crying in my office, thinking I had obviously proven I couldn't do this, so I should just make my peace with the fact that I was a high school teacher and that was it. When I said that because of all of this I had a hard time seeing any future I heard I'm sorry you feel that way.

I didn't mean so much that I didn't think I HAD a future, or even that I don't think I could BE a professor, I meant more that after the last year, of believing one thing and reality being something else, it just seemed better not to set goals. Or deadlines. Or expectations.

When you're drowning, it's really hard to remember that you know how to swim. 
I mean, I thought I was graduating. I applied to teaching jobs out of state under this assumption. I was planning a move out of state.  I took a full time job under that assumption. I envisioned a whole life that was "after the PhD" and what that looked like. I successfully met with book editors about #DevilDiss. On a personal note, I was bragging to everyone about graduating. People made travel plans. I was already looking so far beyond the defense...
And all of this contributed to just how hard the news that I would not be defending and graduating hit me.
Don't get me wrong, at this point, I do not disagree with a single note or piece of feedback about the dissertation. I get it. But that's a mind thing. And much of the above is not.

We write in the abstract a lot about how isolating a PhD program can be, and dissertating in particular, is- you're not on campus as much, you're working all the time, you're sitting at your desk, staring at a screen. But I don't think we talk enough about what this isolation looks like in reality. What the short and long-term effects are. 
So what does all this mean?
  • It means I return to my full time high school teaching job in two weeks.
  • It means I'm spending those two weeks trying to finish my revision plan. Which I feel good about.
    • Originally, these were all the works in the diss (highlighted). Now it only includes the unhighlighted works.
    • The dissertation has an overarching argument and each chapter does too.
      • This meant cutting a proposed chapter on pamphlets, which made me sad because the independent research I did on the devil in pamphlets is some of the most original work and I am really proud of it. But it doesn't fit the argument of the dissertation.
    • The current set of texts is lean, and hopefully, more focused.
      • This next week the goal is take this working document and expand it into the revision plan.
      • I feel good about the focus on the primary texts and the scholarship, but am nervous about having to write a paragraph for each that shows the heavy analytical lifting of that chapter without having written anything.
  • I'm also trying to focus on the fact that the things I've had to cut from the dissertation will make good future projects and ideas. I'm trying to see the dissertation as the beginning of a career and not an end point.
    • I'd like to rework the pamphlet stuff and publish it because I do think it's original and valuable work.
    • I'd like to revisit some of these texts through a folkloric lens.
    • I think in another form the material in my original dissertation in a reworked form would make a good encyclopedia of every devil appearance in English popular literature.
So I guess you could say that I have made my peace this summer with where I am. 
And I have a rough idea of how I'll work this school year juggling everything. It helps (I guess) that I can't afford any conferences except Kzoo in the spring which I'm splurging on. So there's focus. I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to get some medieval and early modern publications on a CV that is currently folklore and pop-culture heavy.

But I'm not making any plans. I'm not thinking- oh I'll finish this by...
Or this time next year...
Or I'm aiming for X... 
Or even entertaining any ideas about defense or graduation.
In short,
I can tell you that this point my eventual defense and graduation will not be a celebration. I do not plan on inviting anyone. At this point I wouldn't even tell anyone. I would only tell people once it was done. Because I honestly...I can't go through this again.
I would be grateful just to be done. Because as much as I see the notes, and have worked hard to fix them, and want the work to be done, I just need to be done.
I just need to survive. Get through. Finish.
So that's where I am.
Feel free to share any brilliant or inspirational ideas for getting through.

Prepping for the School Year Fall 2016 Edition

Each summer I spend a lot of time reflecting not only on the past year but on new steps or tactics for the new year.
This year will be a bit different, and a bit of a challenge. I am still TAing for UNM, teaching the online Early Shakespeare class I built this past spring. But I'm also teaching high school full time. And completely rewriting my dissertation. This seems daunting. Until I realize for two years I taught high school full time, was department chair, taught at the local community college, taught online, and still presented at conferences and published. So I can do this.
It's just gonna suck.

My routines, my organization will be a big help.
But admit that when I looked at my online Early Shakespeare class I did look at the work load. In the end of semester evaluations some students said they thought the practice assignments were "high-schooly" and "busy work." Pedagogically I have them because they are low-stakes practice assignments for the skills needed for the larger assignments. But I get that a lot of students take online classes because they are busy, working, parents, and juggling a lot. So I went in and made most of those assignments optional. They'll count as extra credit under participation. I didn't change the assignments but I added language about why I made them and thought they were important.
I guiding question I think is important to ask about any class we teach is- what are we fighting over? And is the fight worth it?
Do I think these practice assignments are valuable? Yes, it's why they're there.
Is it worth fighting over? No.
So students that do them will do better. And I've told them that.
But I will not spend time fighting with students over it.

The syllabus scavenger hunt seemed to work really well this summer, so I added it to the fall class.
The scavenger hunt seemed to fix a lot of the "it's in the syllabus" questions we all struggle with. But I'm always looking for improvements, so I wrote this Note About Our Syllabus.
The more I teach the more important I think it is that we not only present things to our students but that we're more transparent about WHY we do the things we do.

In addition, I've added language to the syllabus about the required tech. I don't require anything weird or unusual but there were a couple of issues that came up last spring, so honestly this is CYA language now.

I'm also reading Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein.

Now, the longer I teach, the more I back away from grades. This summer I moved a lot of grades to just Complete/Incomplete and told the students that the feedback was important. 
I much rather just give feedback on papers not grades.
I tried a couple of years ago to go gradeless. I gave students the option to not receive grades throughout the semester, just check ins and feedback, and then a well-discussed final grade. 

No one did it.

I get it, knowing where you stand may not be great but it is comforting and it is known. But I like new ideas, so I'm reading this to see if there are ideas I can work into my classes as they are now.

BUT, I also had an interesting thought on Twitter based on a tweet by JJ Cohen.

So I joking made the statement that my new amended grading policy would only be stickers, gifs, and feedback.
Was a total joke.
But IF we give grades, for various reasons, mostly our and our students' comfort, is there a way to CHANGE how we give them and more importantly, how they are received? Most of us see grades as a form of feedback. But I think often students see them, have negative reactions, and this then shades their work and progress moving forward.
I woke up the next morning and wondered what this would look like. I couldn't get the thought out of my head. So I made this.
Now, I have no idea if this would work. Some people have less of a sense of humor than me I've found. In fact last semester a student complained about my use of gifs and memes in the course. So there's no way I'd make this required. But I am thinking about making it an option.
Students would make their own grid, supply how they want their grade, and then I'd give feedback.
Maybe it works. Maybe not. We'll see.

So I know it's a few weeks, for some of you a month, before you go back to school or are thinking about prepping for the new semester.
But I wanted to share some things:

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Writer's Notebooks

When I first started teaching in Brooklyn in September 2001 one of the first teaching professional development workshops I attended was for Writer's Notebooks. I tried it with my students, but one more notebook, with state testing, and underperforming students with little support at home, and little to no money for extra notebooks, it was just one more thing and I admit when it became difficult, I dropped it in lieu of other resources.

But I was hooked. The artistic approach, the fact that it was a step away from journaling and focusing on often negative experiences, the scrapbook option, and the encouragement to copy and paste things into it and then respond to these things, find inspiration in them, all of this appealed to me.

So since 2001, I have kept writer's notebooks.
Some are very focused, every page filled, very productive. Other ones I've abandoned with pages half-empty when I just felt like I needed a new start. I prefer the black, blank artist spiral notebooks because so  much of my notebooks have a scrapbook feel, but I've used others. One key feature of the writer's notebook though is making it your own which I do mostly by decorating my covers.

In my high school classroom I use interactive notebooks which I love and I find that there's a lot of overlap in how I approach them both. The personalization, the ownership of the materials, and the arts and craft approach. In fact sometimes students complain about doing art in English class. But I think it's good to stretch them. I tell them (much like my Mom used to say with vegetables) that they don't have to like it but they have to TRY it.

I'm currently on #23 in fifteen years (seen here with the original book we were given at the PD workshop). My new favorite thing is to use self-created Avery stickers to decorate my books (these look funny because I was out of black toner so I had to sub in blue and everything printed funny for weeks).
Yesterday a few Twitter colleagues were posting about their attempts at or revisions of the new bullet journal approach. I think the analog push is a little over-the-top, but that's fine. I've looked at it and it's a little too rigid for me. For myself I know that not sticking to the rigid pages and table of contents would make me feel bad and I'd feel like I had to redo the whole thing.
Plus, between my filo-fax and writer's notebook they performed these same functions.
I use the filo-fax to track day-to-day to do, appointments, and writing deadlines, that sort of things. I used to use and LOVED James Burke's Teacher Daybook as it was a planner and lesson planner in one, so was perfect for tracking everything. Plus it was spiraled. So pretty much perfect in every way. But despite the fact that they discontinued the paper Teacher Daybook a few years ago, a lot of the resources that were in it are available online, and I still use a lot of them.

I use my writer's notebook for a lot of reasons and uses. I journal some in it, although I try to keep it more positive and not a place to just complain because I do believe that focus can become self-fulfilling. I do use tabs to mark pages I reference a lot like budget, books to read, wish list, and dissertation to do.

Here are some of my sample pages from the writer's notebook I'm in now:
This page shows brainstorming I had in reaction to Kevin Gannon's semester blogging project. These pages helped me think through how I could adapt it, and apply it in my early Shakespeare class.
These pages are color coded, as much of my work is. I found out this summer I would not be defending my dissertation this summer as I thought so these were some initial notes trying to make sense of a new timeline. It's not (probably) what I'll end up doing or what is approved, but in those first days trying to apply some order was helpful and comforting.
I wrote a chapter for an edited collection on superheroes. My chapter argues that Captain America is a proletariat hero. I wrote it last summer and when Avengers came out I had to add an addendum. When Civil War came out, I had to add a small bit at the end of the chapter as well. Here are my notes, my ticker, and the poster image. My writer's notebooks end up very scrapbookey, it's one of the things I love best about it.
Back in May there was a conversation on Twitter about medieval(ist) tattoos which became a conversation about how medieval narratives are written on the body. I wrote a blog post about it and we submitted a roundtable proposal for #Kzoo17 on Medieval(ist) Bodies and Boundaries which was accepted and I'm very excited about.

Here are my initial thoughts on what I'd present on. The St. Catherine is a revisit/later addition. And that's one of the things I love best about the writer's notebook approach-- that a main component is to constantly revisit your writing, to add and comment on it in different colors and with fresh eyes. Since the #Kzoo17 is a roundtable it will be a shorter piece than a normal conference paper. So I may gesture to the other saints, but think I want to focus on how female saints' stories are written on their bodies through torture and how to connect this to how women now use tattoos as agency.
Since Catherine is my patron saint, and confirmation name, I think I'll focus on her. I chose her because she wins through argument, which I always loved, and takes everything thrown at her. Hence the addition of her on these pages. I'm sure I'll revisit it again between now and then and have more to add as I get closer to actually writing the paper and presentation for the roundtable.

Because I have a photographic memory I can easily remember where something is in 23 notebooks because I remember what the cover looked like and what the page looked like so it's still easy for me to find things if I need to go back to old notebooks for reference.

As I shared on Twitter, I tend to view my filofax and writer's notebook as HERE AND NOW organizing. I use Google Calendar for long term, recurring reminders like bills. But I use other forms of organization as well:
  • I keep my conference papers, dissertation drafts, and all my teaching resources in Google Docs.
    • I copy and rename each semester so it's easy to track.
    • This also makes things easy to share resources with students and colleagues.
    • Once I send a dissertation chapter off for approval/editing I download it to Dropbox and share that with the date in the title.
  • I store syllabus ideas (not yet taught) and old syllabus from classes I've taken in One Note.
  • I also use One Note for more long term planning- future articles, books, etc.
    • I tend to think of One Note as more of an archive, there if I need it but not commonly used.
I wish I could integrate writer's notebooks into classes more. I've tried (and failed) several times. The one time it kind of worked was when I taught a first year composition class that was paired with an acting class. They used it for both, and I used it to encourage their creative side and to apply this to their writing. Usually this class was made up of fine arts majors, specifically theatre majors and I think this would have worked better if this class had that demographic. But due to low enrollment, this class was not restricted and was instead closer to a normal first year composition class.
I think part of the reason it worked as well as it did was because we used them in conjunction with my use of Lynda Barry's Syllabus. Which I continue to think about how to work into classes and my approach. I think using this and samples form my own writer's notebooks helped them to "see" what I was looking for.

Googling writer's notebooks will give you a lot resources but here are some of the links I like:
If you're able to integrate them into either your high school or college classes, I'd love to hear how you use them and your successes, failures, or improvements!