Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

Walking...Scratch That...Texting in a Winter Wonderland

Happy Winter Break, everyone!

We actually made it. I think I was in shock for the first couple of days, but Winter Break is actually here to stay…at least for a couple of weeks. Time to catch up on sleep, see family, and…oh yea, start studying for comps./write those papers you wanted to submit to a conference or journal/start your research for that big project you're planning on presenting/etc. etc.
Ah, the life of a grad. student. The work just never ends, does it?
Usually, though, what I find most exhausting over Winter Break is also what I find most enjoyable: catching up with all my friends. You know, those friends that you left behind at home (or, in my case, hid from in my hobbit/hermit hole) for 3 months or so? Trying to see everyone in 3 weeks and still be productive is pretty difficult, and actually succeeding means going back to work and school just as exhausted as you left it.
And, just as exhausting in some ways, is getting in touch with all those friends you’ve missed in the first place.
Do you call them? Do you Facebook them? Do you text them? So many ways to communicate before you can see them in person makes it hard to choose! What’s best? What’s most efficient? After all, we only have a few weeks!
By now, I have a general way of communicating with most people in my life. I know my former teachers who I want to do lunch with mostly prefer phone calls or emails. I know my old college friends usually do texts or Facebook. But, despite this knowledge, it always seems to be harder for me to call my old teachers than the people my age. Why? I feel like I’m more likely to interrupt something important with the teachers (since, unlike you and me, they’re in the real world and all that jazz).
Apparently, this is a more common feeling than I realized. During a recent lecture at Fordham (which no doubt happened while I was buried under a pile or two of books), Professor Deborah Tannen, a linguistics scholar, spoke about the generation gaps that emerge in uses of social media. Of course, everyone knows that, in general, young people text more than older people do. And, when my mother asks me why I’m taking the trouble to type out a question on my tiny phone instead of just calling my friend I have explained that it's “because I don’t want to bug my friend.” But I guess I just never looked at it any deeper than that.
But, when I read the article summarizing her lecture, Professor Tannen’s explanation made complete sense to me. “Young people take a different attitude toward the use of text messages than older generations do,” she explained.‘“My [Prof. Tannen’s] peers tend to view texting with alarm, disapproval and contempt. If we’re talking to a kid and they start texting somebody, it’s uniformly clear to us that that’s rude. [But] Young people consider telephone calls rude. It’s rude and intrusive to call people on the phone. The polite thing to do is to text them.’”
Unfortunately, this explanation does not help me with my internal dilemma. Knowing that millions of others my age feel the way I feel does not help me conquer those feelings; it does not help me feel more comfortable about making that phone call even when calling may be more efficient, and even when I only have a couple of weeks to see everyone I want to see (and, don’t forget, accomplish all the reading I want/need to do).
Luckily, I’m not so set in my ways about this kind of thing that it spills over from my personal life into my professional life. I know my own social media preferences probably don’t work in an office setting. But I’d like to hear more about what Prof. Tannen has to say about this. Is my generation generally able to conquer these preferences when they involve people with other preferences from other generations? Does this answer depend on each person’s level of anxiety or shyness? Have these social media preferences affected the general extrovert/introvert ratio for my generation (and I mean this as a different question than the typical “is social media bringing people closer or flinging them apart?” conundrum)?
I’m sure more research will be done on this kind of thing in the future. For now, for this Winter Break, I guess we’ll all have to figure out how to catch up with our old friends on our own.
Hope everyone is having a wonderful holiday season and, if you’re in NYC, that you’re enjoying the snow!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Inevitable End

The end of the semester…it’s really here. And yet the light of the end of the tunnel still seems so dim. Even when most people can say, whether they have been taking tests or writing papers, “two down and one to go,” the end seems both too close and too far…impossible to finish in the short time, impossible to last through the hours and hours that yet remain until break.
Facebook has gotten out of control. SNL videos are being posted right and left, and their humor (or lack thereof) subsequently debated. Threads discussing the similarities between comic book heroes and novel protagonists reach 20 comments or more. In between paper-writing spurts, when I hit a wall on Friday night, I debated the merits of Battlestar Galactica’s Laura Roslin’s (*fictional*) presidential decisions with a classmate…before I realized that said classmate was a lawyer and I was just going to think my ability to form an argument had disappeared if I kept trying. For those of you swamped in numbers, I’m guessing that going to CVS and trying to calculate how much money you would have saved if you had remembered to bring your rewards card seems more appealing than studying right now. Basically, at this point, any sort of work seems more appealing than that dreaded last thing you have to get through before break. But when you realize how eerily similar your chosen avoidance tactic is to the work you’re supposed to be doing…you panic a bit before you go back to work.
But break is almost here. I just keep trying to tell myself that. I am currently projecting myself into a relaxed and un-nauseated future. And, as I try to get through this last paper, I just think to myself: “This is the last time you will have to write three crazy papers at the end of a semester. Next semester at this time, you will have only one paper to write. You can do this! *PUUUUUUSH*!” Then, of course, I ask my subconscious why it sounds like a midwife and remember that until March I’ll be studying my butt off for comps but, hey, don’t question your internal motivation tactics, right?
Something that has helped me a little in my panicked state is thinking how much worse the professors have it than we do. Yes, you can say that they assigned all the work in the first place, but that’s the nature of the system that we were all deluded enough to sign up for. After we hand in those final papers and take those final tests, they still have to grade all of them. And then they have to wait for and face their own test results, the course evaluations. Then they have to prepare for next semester’s classes over break. And that’s on top of all the other stuff (which I discussed somewhat in one of my previous posts) that keeps them constantly working.
I don’t think this is a “misery loves company” strategy. That’s what Facebook is. That’s what you do with your peers. I think this is a case of “if they can do it, I can do it.”  It’s inspirational! Or at least I’d like to think so.
Next time I “see” you all, it will be Winter Break! And we will all be much happier. Good luck finishing up the semester, everyone! See you on the other side.

Monday, December 13, 2010

“We’re all in the same (sinking) boat.” Or, in other words, “Get on the Panic Train! Toot toot!”


The above title is taken directly from recent Facebook posts in threads I have participated in, and refer to GSAS finals season. For every minute I spend writing my papers (and I suspect the same could be said for those of you studying for exams), I spend an equal or greater amount of time on Facebook. “How can you function that way? How can you concentrate?” my dad asked me last night when I went home for a change of scenery (I was going stir crazy sitting in one room writing for 3 days straight).
“Well...It lets me know I’m not alone.”
And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Usually, around 1 or 2am, about 27 of my friends are on Facebook chat. This means about 30 other people I know are definitely awake and either Facebook stalking or working like I am. As the hours go on, the numbers dwindle. I often go to bed late. I seem to work better when everyone else in my house is asleep. For some reason, I am a nocturnal being. I see the numbers dwindle to about 6 people by 4am.
Not so during finals time. Last night, at about 2am, 70 of my friends were on Facebook chat. 70! I’m not sure I even know that many people at Fordham. This group of 70 obviously included some of my friends who are still at college, and currently going through the same terror of finals. So it’s still obvious that the number peaked because of the time of year. And, what makes this even more obvious, and something I think is much more prominent for grad. students than undergrads., is the constant back and forth and commiserating on statuses and wall posts that flourishes at this time in the semester. Maybe it’s more common for grad. students because we have more work. Or maybe it’s simply that, within each program, there’s so much overlap between people taking the same classes that little virtual support groups form more easily. I’m not sure. But I’m sure I never see this much Facebook activity except during finals time, and I’m sure I see much more of it in grad. school than I did in undergrad.
And, honestly, I don’t know how I’d get through all this work without Facebook. Without being distracted from my own miserable paper-writing existence by reaching out and supporting others who are in the same position. Without trying (and failing) to say something wittier and funnier than my impossibly brilliant friends. The humor is so necessary, I think, and the way I get that release is through Facebook. I know, that’s kind of sad. How dependent can you get? But, living off campus as most grad. students do, I can’t commiserate by just walking down the hallway and complaining to someone that my eyes feel like they’re going to explode. We have to connect on Facebook. And the more stressful the semester, the more I need the (again, virtual) company. You get solidarity in psychosis.
As we all slowly reach our breaking points, I’m sure we’ll all also reach the peak of entertaining Facebook statuses. So I say: Thank God for Facebook. It’s the medium by which we all save each other.
PS Feel free to save each other via this Blog post too!

Monday, December 6, 2010

“How Shall I Put This?”: The Dangers of Acadamese

ac•a•de•mese: æk ə dəˈmiz,-ˈmis,əˌkæd ə [ak-uh-duh-meez, -mees, uh-kad-uh-] –noun. pedantic, pretentious, and often confusing academic jargon: a presumably scholarly article written in incomprehensible academese.

December has arrived (internal screaming may begin here). So, now that we must confront this monstrosity, let’s talk about how we can get through this successfully…shall we?

I’m not sure about all of you, but as an English major I don’t have any final exams. I have what, to many (including those suffering under the specific burden), seems worse: papers. Upon papers. Upon papers. And papers are exactly where the Acadamese Monster (see above...and yes, that is a chocobo) is most likely to attack.

I’d guess that almost everyone who goes to grad. school, and even most undergrads, have heard the term “acadamese.” In case you don’t know though, and in case the above definition doesn’t help: remember when you were assigned your first critical work in college (mine was in an Anthropology class) and you had no idea what the author was saying? You probably thought you were stupid. You probably thought to yourself “Oh my God, maybe I’m really stupid and don’t deserve to be at this school.” But you were wrong. This is definitely a clear case of “it’s not me, it’s you.” That scholar was writing in acadamese. It’s not your fault it was unintelligible! In fact, he may have only been published because nobody could understand him but they were all too embarrassed to admit it. Or maybe they thought a lack of clarity  meant he must be brilliant. Who knows? In any case, totally not your fault.

What would be your fault would be slipping into this form of writing yourself. And, sadly, many people do. If you don’t stay on your guard, you’ll turn into that guy you didn’t understand your freshman year in college. And it’s not because you got smarter…it’s because you got bitten by the Acadamese Monster. I used to see this when I worked in the Writing Center with undergrads all the time. I’d read a completely convoluted sentence from the paper we were working on out loud, ask the tutee what she meant, and she would then proceed to explain the same concept to me in completely clear and normal language. “Why didn’t you just say that?” I’d ask.

“Because I didn’t think it sounded smart enough,” was the inevitable reply.

Now, this writer in the Chronicle who was complaining about acadamese recently is a little extreme, in my opinion. She thinks signing emails using “Cheers” counts as acadamese, as does using “shall.” I don’t quite agree with her there. But she does, at one point, give the best and most concise advice I’ve ever heard on how to avoid this trap. Instead of simply saying “write it down like you would say it,” or something to that effect, she says: “Make it correct and precise for your field, but think a little about sounding like yourself—the best version of yourself.”

Of course, nobody sounds exactly like themselves when they write. Writing is automatically more formal—you have to think more about it, so it tends to be a bit more eloquent than your everyday speech would be. But you should sound like a “version” of yourself. If you’ve erased yourself entirely, then you’re probably sounding like that crazy scholar that nobody understands (remember him?). The best writing, even academic writing, maintains something of the writer’s personality. That’s what makes it interesting to read!

By thinking about this I’ve realized something: writing this blog is probably a great exercise for me. I can write my papers this month (OMGONLYTWOMOREWEEKSTOWRITEEVERYTHING *breathe*) worrying about one less thing. I have a defense against the Acadamese Monster. I’ve been practicing writing with a voice all semester long!

So, new advice for December: If you need to procrastinate, do it productively. Start a blog! :)


Monday, November 29, 2010

Dreading December: From Mash-Up to Crash-Down

The Inside of my Brain on Graduate School December

December is looming.

Only for graduate students is December such an ominous month. Or, at least that’s how I feel as a graduate student. While everyone else gets to go gift shopping for the holidays, I have to lock myself inside and write all those final papers. I find can’t listen to Christmas music until my papers are done or I’ll become bitter and make everyone around me miserable, including myself. This year, I’ve decided to try something new: I bought a candle at Bath & Body Works that smells like Balsam. The “Christmas Tree smell” is, so far, making me happy and not sad. We’ll see how long it lasts.
The other problem with this time of year for grad. students, whether you celebrate Chrismahanukwanzika or not, is that whole overwhelming amount of work thing. (Remember when I said that I have to lock myself inside to write papers? Not joking. Literally survive on mac and cheese and Facebook stalking for about two weeks.) This semester, December is intruding on November too. The nutter-factor is getting worse already, and Thanksgiving just passed! So, for your entertainment, I will explain to you the symptoms of my particular brand of information overload.
Before we get into it though, I have a small prelude: As a recent Chronicle article I read explains very thoroughly, information overload is not simply a symptom of our own time. You cannot convince me that if I would just get off the computer I would not have a problem (as if that were possible anyway). By my examples further on, you’ll see why. But I really do agree with the author of this article when she says that “It's important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying.” You can get overloaded with stimuli in general…even if it’s just words on paper  (as in my first example, below).
So, without further ado, I give you…
1.       I have starting creating mash-ups of books I’m reading from different classes. The doctors from Middlemarch and The Hidden Hand are getting confused in my brain. Who was it who saved an old man in France from dying of a fever again? Did both of them do it? *gulp*
2.       It’s not just books I’m mashing up anymore. I’ve starting mashing up people. My roommates and I have started doing Battlestar Galactica nights on Wednesday, where we watch the show (don’t tell me what happens!!! I’m only on season 4.0!) and eat foods that begin with the letter B. It’s been really great…a good way for me to set aside both time to wind-down from my anxiety-ridden schedule and to bond with my roommates. But things have started creeping into my dreams. Most nerds dream about school at least sometimes, right? Well…I recently had a dream that one of my professors was best friends with Laura Roslin from BSG. I was super jealous. Then I woke up. And I was super embarrassed.
3.       I’m crashing earlier. Generally I can stay up until 4am, sometimes even 5am, and remain completely lucid. I’m a night owl. But either I’m getting old (which is a strange thing for a 23-year-old to suggest) or the end-of-semester-burn-out has come sooner than expected, because I’m starting to crash earlier and earlier. The early nightfall doesn’t help either. And neither do my mild panic-attacks when I think of all the work I have left to do (ok…those kind of help in the sense that they wake me up. But they can’t be healthy. Even if they’re not really panic-attacks).
December is looming. And so is insanity.

WARNING: If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, seek psychological support from your peers immediately. Commiserating is the best medicine in these times of terror.

Monday, November 22, 2010

An Impossible (?) Balancing Act

A woman’s curse…no, it’s not what you’re thinking. I’m talking about the infamous “second shift” and how it plays out in academia.
This past summer, I saw some seemingly contradictory findings regarding working women. In The Atlantic’s much-talked-about article “The End of Men,” I discovered that, in the year 2010, “women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same.” About a month later, I read another interesting article, this time in The Washington Post.  This author reviewed a recent study about the perils of being a working mother in academia, a topic that isn’t studied all that often.
Apparently all this progress attributed to working women does not fully apply when it comes to female professors. As the Washington Post article mentions, “The number of women in academia has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and women are fast approaching parity with men on college faculties. But in the top ranks, men still far outnumber women. Sixty-one percent of male professors have tenure, compared with 43 percent of female faculty, according to a 2009-10 AAUP survey.”
So...what's going on here?

What’s going on is that the tenure system seems to be totally incompatible with a woman’s biological clock. As Mona Lisa Vito might say, it’s “TICKIN’ LIKE THIS!” and academia is marching to a completely different rhythm. Essentially, women who want both a productive academic career and a family have a tough decision to make. Either they can give up on one of their dreams, or attempt balancing a career and a life in a feat which, to some, seems impossible. As one interviewed mother-professor said:  “I think this whole myth that you can have a job, have a deep relationship with your children, and have a great relationship with your partner, which they’ve been telling women since the 70s, it’s just bull. It’s just completely not true.” And another: “One of the costs of working full time and parenting is that I don't feel that I do either job as well as I could, or should.”
But why is this any different for professors than other women? And, if it has to do with being a professor, why aren’t male professors complaining?
Sadly, it seems the flexible schedule that makes the job of a professor so attractive is also what makes it so perilous to women. All that free time you think you’ll have when you’re not teaching classes (I mean, come on, how much time can teaching and grading for three classes take!? Or so you might say…) is not actually free time. The teaching may not seem like much (though I’d bet it takes up a lot more time than most people would guess, especially if the professor is good and cares about her classes), but “scholarly demands of the job--writing papers, applying for grants, pursuing research--are unending.”  A professor may be able to alter her schedule to accommodate a doctor’s appointment or her child’s school play pretty easily, but she’ll pay for that “wasted time” later. She’ll have to catch up on all those extras if she actually wants to stay afloat in an academic environment.
And, though male professors have to contend with this craziness too, the parenting/balance issues don’t seem to affect men the same way. In fact, as one of the few other scholars to research this topic, John Curtis has taken note of this discrepancy. “Fathers bear fewer parenting burdens than mothers, and faculty fathers who do sacrifice work for parenting tend to be admired and rewarded, while the mother who makes the same choice is ‘seen as neglecting her job,’ Curtis said.”
Basically, the problem seems to be that being a professor and a mom (and probably also a wife) are careers that entail a lot more than what you might initially think is in the job description. They’re literally full-time jobs. They take up more than 40 hours a week. If you let them, they can take up your entire life. So combining them successfully seems pretty nearly impossible. Unless you’re Hermione Granger and have a time turner, how can you really be expected to do both well?
As if there weren’t enough problems with the tenure system already (e.g. What happens if you have to go to Alaska to teach at Juno Community College!?). As if there isn’t already enough to discourage talented women from pursuing careers in academia. Now we have to add this to list! I think the researchers mentioned in the Washington Post article said it best when they wrote: “If we believe that women who are mothers are a valuable part of the academic system, then we need to rethink the structure of the tenure system in profound ways.” But is a restructuring just another full-time job that won’t fit into a 24-hour day?
Worst of all for us grad. students: These women say that being a professor who’s also a mother feels like being a “perpetual graduate student.” What does that say about our lives!?

PS Check out this comic for more evidence:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Back to School Night

And…the Chronicle has done it again! The magazine’s writers have made me think. Strange to think I didn't even know about it a year ago.
Though I’m not sure if it’s exactly the direction they intended my brain to go in.
Earlier this month, they published an article on “The Invisible Curriculum.” As the author, an English professor, describes it, the invisible curriculum is comprised of those moments when professors step out of their subject area to give life lessons in the classroom, or times that they forge personal connections with students  in office hours. You know, the parts of school you’ll remember for the rest of your life, even when stuff like the year Rome fell flies out of your head (although some of those crazy things stick too: 476 A.D. *boomboom*!).
Not being a professor myself, my brain took me past the advice on how to connect to students in a more meaningful way, and towards an examination of the other side of the experience. I started thinking about my own student-teacher relationships throughout my 21 years of schooling (I was only not in school for two years of my life. Creepy to think about, isn’t it? Don’t know how/if I’ll ever be able to think of “next year” as meaning January instead of September).
I went to a really small middle/high school. And I mean really small. My graduating high school class: 21. Before I entered college, the biggest class I’d been in was in 8th grade: 40 people (and we had two different homerooms). I went to the kind of tiny school that was overflowing with passionate individuals…but lacking in funds. If there was no classroom space available, we would walk over to the teacher’s house and have class there. Or, if we were in a small enough class and the teacher didn’t live nearby (2-3 person classes aren’t that uncommon at my middle/high school), we might even have class in the teacher’s car. In this kind of environment, everyone knows everyone else’s business. And that, to some extent at least, includes the teachers. And I don’t just mean that the teachers hear student gossip. It works the other way around too. When you go to a school that’s basically like a big extended family, you hear about your teacher’s private lives much more often than you would at a “normal” school.
So, obviously, college professors felt strangely distant to me. “You mean I don’t know whether my professor is married, or has kids, or where they grew up and went to college, or what they do on the weekends!?” It baffled my mind. Ok…maybe it didn’t quite do that. After all, I knew college was not going to be what I was used to. But it did feel a bit, well, unnatural to me that these people who I was learning so much from were also people I knew nothing about in any real personal way. Of course, even in college, if you get close to certain professors you do learn a little more about who they are outside of the classroom. But it was still not anything like what I was used to prior to college.
My solution? Nothing. I just kept on being myself, and thinking it was weird that I didn’t know who my professors’ “selves” were.
My early experiences obviously helped shape not only my educational expectations, but my personality. I’ve been told I’m a lot more open than most people. Fellow students are initially surprised at how much of my personal life I share right off the bat. Since, after I’ve been in class for a couple of weeks, I don’t immediately shut up when a professor walks in the room, I sometimes get odd looks from those who probably think I’m “oversharing.” I was never a “class clown,” but I sometimes crack jokes in class…because I never saw any reason to hide who I was just because I’m in a classroom setting. I don’t think professionalism and personality are mutually exclusive. Despite some initial skepticism, most people understand pretty quickly that I’m just being my quirky self and actually laugh along with me.
But what all this musing led me to eventually was this: is there, and should there be, a difference between professor-student relationships in undergrad. and grad. school? Coming from my very individual/eccentric educational background, it was difficult for me to analyze this question once it popped into my head. I know that, theoretically, we grad. students are treated very differently. Even if we enter straight from college, we’re suddenly seen as adults. Some of us have been out of school for a long time and have lived completely independent lives for many years. And, most importantly, since most of us are expected to go into the fields we’re studying once we enter the professional world, we’re seen as future colleagues. But is the difference really there in practice? Or is it just a concept? If part of the difference is based on our probable future status as colleagues, is there a different relationship between professors and Ph.D. students than between professors and M.A./M.S. students?
Finding answers to these kinds of questions for someone like me is pretty difficult. I’m still in touch with many of my high school teachers, and go out to lunch with them periodically. This probably skews my opinion of things. I think of my professors as teachers. And I have always thought of my teachers as real people. People who are smarter than me who deserve respect...but people nonetheless. So, when a professor finally does drop a personal tidbit in class, I always find it weird when I hear reactions from fellow students along the lines of “Oh my God he has a son!? It’s so weird thinking of him as a dad.”

But the most important question of all has to be this one: Is it ok to friend your graduate school professors on Facebook before you graduate? ;)

PS Speaking of professor-student relationships, this has been going around the internet for a few weeks now, and I thought I should share it. I’m not sure if it’s funny if you’re not a humanities grad. student, but I know I found it hysterical (and all too true): So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?

Monday, November 8, 2010

'Tis the be Sickly!

If you haven’t noticed from my previous entries, I’ve recently been “flipping through” The Chronicle of Higher Education. They have some really great articles, some of which I’ve shared with you all through this blog, and others for which I kept the running commentary in my own head.
While looking through some older articles this past week, while I was sick in bed, I happened upon one of the most interesting and simultaneously hilarious article openings I’ve ever read: “Caribbean spiny lobsters are social animals, but they know when to avoid other individuals of their own species that have a lethal virus, even before the sick lobsters show any symptoms, three Virginia scientists write.” 
Maybe most people won’t find this sentence funny…maybe it’s just the cartoon image of the situation that I’ve created in my brain that makes me giggle (and then cough). You know, something like this: one social spiny lobster (let's call him Fred) crawls down the beach heading towards his bff, spots a strange and sickly twinkle in his friend’s eye, and immediately turns around in fear. As Fred hurriedly scuttles away he shouts to his abandoned friend behind him: “You have a lethal virus! Stay away from me!” 
But all I could think to myself, as I lay sick in bed, was: grad. students need that power. “Why just grad. students?” you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you why.
So you know how, when you’re in elementary school, middle school, or high school, it’s usually ok to stay home sick as long as you get the homework from a friend and make sure you didn’t miss any tests or presentations? So obviously this group doesn’t really need lobster powers.
Being sick in undergrad. is a little worse, especially if you have to miss a once-a-week seminar, or miss your internship. It's harder to make up exams and reschedule presentations. You might have read a whole novel only to miss the one day you’re discussing it, read a chapter in your text book that you needed help understanding only to be left with teaching yourself via powerpoint slides, or lose that $10 internship stipend that you use to buy something that’s not gross cafeteria food.
Being sick as an adult in the “real world” can suck too. You have only a certain number of days you can take off. You may worry about losing vacation days, about what your boss thinks of your weak immune system, or about whether you’ll be pulled off a project or lose a promotion just for missing too many days.
But grad. students aren’t just students—they’re usually working at least part time as well. So, essentially, imagine the last two scenarios combined. Imagine worrying about writing a 20-page paper when you’ve missed the class discussion on the topic and stressing about letting down the people who give you your stipend. The doubled anxiety is enough to keep you sick for longer than you should be! *Deep yoga breaths*
I know stuff is going around right now. ‘Tis the season to be sickly, whether you’re in school, or in an office, or both. But I swear I know I got sick from that guy who coughed on me while I was walking to the train station last week. Yes, he turned his head and coughed directly in my face. Maybe, if I were a lobster, I would have seen this coming.

Monday, November 1, 2010

“It’s the end of the [academic] world as we know it…”

“The 21st century belongs to electronic culture and graphic novels, not musty old books.” -Douglas W. Texter 

Many people refer to my generation as “digital natives.” According to them, we have not only a natural capacity but an affinity for technology and anything related to our new digital age.

My sister and I got our first computer (a Packard Bell…I don’t even think this brand exists anymore) when I was about 7. Before that, I would use my parents’ computer (which ran on DOS) to play Math Rabbit, Reader Rabbit, and King’s Quest IV (we had Prince of Persia, too. But it was too hard for me back then.) I can only vaguely remember the few years at the beginning of my life when there was only a typewriter in the house. And the typewriter and computer(s) happily coexisted for several years before the older of the two suddenly became a useless antique (if only we had kept it a bit longer it might have switched back to a cool collector’s item by now!).

My point here is: Yes; it is probably accurate to call me a digital native. Even as a non-techie English major, I can still figure out how to do most of the basics on any computer (PC or Mac), can help older people dig around in a cell phone for an option they’re missing, maintain my balance through all the constant Facebook reformattings, etc.

But something must have happened to me in those first few years of my life when we only had a typewriter. Maybe I ingested ink or something. Maybe I inhaled printing fumes from the books I used to pull out of the shelves for fun when I was a baby (NERD ALERT: If your still-crawling baby’s favorite activity is to pull books out of the bottom shelves and pretend to read…you have just popped out a bookworm.) I don’t know. But I know that this whole e-book revolution is not as exciting to me as perhaps it should be. I’m fine with the two modes coexisting…and I love finding full texts of books online (ctrl + f is a lifesaver when you can’t find that quote you need!). But I can’t help but fear that my precious books will soon be completely replaced with Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. And, frankly, I don’t want to curl up with one of those. And they certainly don’t smell anywhere near as good.

I thought, though, that the one place we’d be safe, at least for a while, was in academia. Who wants to read an e-Textbook! Right? No color, no note-taking or highlighting capabilities, small screen,…who’s into that?

Well, apparently some colleges and universities are. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, some institutions want to force change-fearing students like me to get with it. “They're saying that e-textbooks should be required reading and that colleges should be the ones charging for them. It is the best way to control skyrocketing costs and may actually save the textbook industry from digital piracy, they claim.”

The proposed model reminds me of middle and high school: the student would pay a “course materials fee” (guesstimated at $35 per course) and the school would then take care of getting all the materials for them—digitally of course. Some books might be free to read online (in their entirety), but would cost money to download. If the student wanted paper she’d have to shell out some extra money and, if (and when) digital is solidly enthroned as king, that paper copy is going to be full price. This model might, indeed, save money. But it would kill the used book market. And we can all say goodbye book-sharing, pay-half, and other such money-saving methods if this really happens.

Higher education administrators “say they felt compelled to act after seeing students drop out because they could not afford textbooks, whose average prices rose 186 percent between 1986 and 2005, and continue to shoot up each year far faster than inflation.” But is this really the reason? After all, if every student doesn’t get an e-reader for free won’t this be a different kind of burden? Maybe it’s a “one time investment,” but it’s a harsh one to put up with just so they can bring the text to class? If the decision is truly based on concern and sympathy for students, I think these advocates of the plan should think again. Even the prices of digital books have been kept down after a lot of internal battles in the publishing industry, and if digital becomes the only game in town there’s no guarantee that this supposedly money-saving method will be that way in the future.

Most of the schools testing the new model are business schools. I’m guessing that English, my discipline, will be one of the last to get on board with an idea like this. With professors favoring particular editions of texts (mostly novels) that have certain introductions of scholarly notes and with no real sense of “editions” having yet formed for e-readers, let alone a standardization of basic things like page numbers between e-readers,  I don’t think the current state of digital books is a threat to my department. And I’m guessing many of the fields in GSAS, at least the humanities subjects, are in a similar boat.

For subjects (like the sciences) that are more textbook-based, the threat is growing fast. The iPad was the first e-reader to have color, because it is, of course, more than just an e-reader. Now Barnes and Noble’s Nook is introducing color. Once you can highlight, write, and link to things like chapter keywords on a big-screened color e-reader, the game may be up. (And the game may be up for textbook companies too…the one sector of the publishing industry that hasn’t taken a big hit from the economic crisis.)

People often compare the digitization of books to the digitization of music. For example, there is a lot of speculation about how we may, eventually, be able to buy only fragments of books, just as we are able to buy individual songs off an album. But all I can think of is how that typewriter is no longer in my house, and I didn’t even know what it really did before it was gone. I’m sure some people will disagree, but this digital native is as nervous as she is excited for the future. Additions and expansions are good; replacements are scary. I don’t just loved texts. I love books, including their physical form. And I don’t want the books I worship to become relics.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Very Graduate Student Halloween

My favorite quote about Halloween is probably very un-intellectual. Unless, of course, you are one of those people who enjoys analyzing our world through the lens of pop culture like a pseudo-anthropologist/sociologist. It’s from what I could consider a new classic: Mean Girls: "In the regular world, Halloween is when children dress up in costumes and beg for candy. In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.

I don’t think anything anyone says about Halloween can top this. It’s just too true to not be hysterical. I mean, they can make anything sexy now. (See some ridiculous attempts here and here...although, personally, I kind of like the Sexy Ninja Turtle and Sexy Optimus Prime.)
But I found a pretty interesting Halloween quote this weekend in the Associated Press that made me think in that pseudo-antro/soc way yet again: “The NRF said more people plan to dress up for the holiday than ever before — 40.1 percent compared with 33.4 percent last year and the highest percentage since the group started tracking Halloween trends in 2003. ‘We expect 2010 to be the year of the costume,’ said NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis, who cites the poor economy as a possible reason people are investing in some fun.” So, if this is the year of the costume and more people are dressing up than ever before, I thought it’d be interesting to analyze the most popular costume choices of this Halloween, and maybe how a grad. student would fit into the trend. 

Last year, the two most popular costumes seemed to be Sarah Palin and Michael Jackson—homages (or satiric imitations) of two dead icons. Okay, so maybe Palin was just dying politically at the time and has probably since revived…but still. WOAH—Sarah Palin Zombie costume, anyone?

What are the trends we’re seeing this year?

1.       Nerds and Hipsters—Well, obviously, we’re in grad. school. We can’t dress up as nerds…that wouldn’t be a costume. I guess so of us could do hipsters, but I’ve met some very lovable hipster-like people in grad. school who I would not want to impersonate.
2.       Harry Potter Characters—Maybe it’s just me, but OMGI’MSOEXCITEDFORHPINNOVEMBER! The midnight showing will be like a pre-Thanksgiving break break from work.
3.       Jersey Shore Characters (particularly Snooki, Pauly D., and Mike “The Situation”)—What does it say about our culture that these are the famous people who everyone follows? I dunno…but I think making them into a Halloween costume might be a good step towards seeing them in their true “situation”—ridiculous caricatures of human beings. Although, I must say, they are entertaining. I mean, who’d want a reality TV show about me doing my homework 24/7? Nobody. I don’t even want to watch that. Plus, they make me feel better about myself!
4.       Lady Gaga—First of all, I have a confession to make. I am a “little monster.” But, even for non-Gaga fans, Lady Gaga’s decision to live life as if she’s constantly on an avant-garde cat walk makes her a perfect person to imitate for Halloween. Plus, I will always be indebted to Gaga. Learning the “Bad Romance” dance in between writing papers is what got me through my first semester of graduate school.
5.        Vampires—Twilight. True Blood. Any kind of vampire will do. I actually really dislike Twilight, but I know grad. students who really enjoy it for the same reason I like True Blood—it’s fun fluff to get your mind off of the intense work. Now, here are some tough questions: If people will be doing True Blood vampires, will this extend to Sookie the fairy? And, if it does, how will we be able to distinguish between Snookis and Sookies!?!?!
6.       Alice in Wonderland Characters—This is my choice this Halloween. When you feel like you’re going crazy in graduate school, a Mad Hatter costume is the perfect choice, isn’t it? (If I felt angry instead of crazy, maybe I’d go with the Red Queen instead.) People speculate that the upsurge in Alice costumes this year is caused by the recent movie with Johnny Depp…but I chose this costume last November. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass is/are one/some of my favorite book/s, and any graduate school student dressing up as a character from this classic is probably secretly displaying their true nerdom.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’d say #6 is the best way to disguise your grad. student self this Halloween. Especially if you’re an English student, of course. You get to pretend you know everything about pop culture while secretly remaining true to your inner grad. student underneath. So many layers! Who wants to do a textual analysis of my costume!?

Monday, October 18, 2010


Even for those of us who don’t have grad. school senioritis, procrastination is almost definitely a recurring issue. I’ve noticed that even the people who always seem to be ahead of the game have motivation/procrastination problems at least once a month or so (you can tell so easily by Facebook status updates!). Since there is less and less imposed structure as you go higher and higher up the academic ladder, this is pretty understandable. In fact, even on grad. share, the theme that recurs most often in the advice section seems to be procrastination. There are different incarnations of the “I need to stay motivated and stop putting off work” question. Some deal specifically with paper writing, for example. Others deal with research, or how to say no to hanging out with friends without losing your whole social network.

The advice gradshare members give varies widely not only from question to question, but from person to person. Most of the advice is, I think, very good. As long as you keep in mind that not every tactic works the same way for every person. For example, I had a friend who recommended writing in 45 minute increments, then taking a scheduled 15 minute break, and then going back to writing. This is supposed to increase productivity. A gradshare member recommended a similar strategy, only working in blocks of 25 minutes with 10 minute breaks in between. I know a lot of people who have said this strategy was a wonderful revelation. It does not work for me. I know that it takes me approximately  as many hours as I have pages to write when I have a paper. But when I sit down to write it, I can’t micromanage. I need to let myself go to Facebook when I feel like going to Facebook. I need to write when I have a burst of energy or a sudden epiphany. Sometimes that means I’ll write for an hour straight, and sometimes that means I’ll “waste time” for an hour straight. But that’s what I’ve realized works for me.

Same deal with turning off all forms of communication to the outside world. Many gradshare users recommend, especially for those of us who have trouble saying no to friends, turning off cell phone, email, etc. whenever you need to get work done. I, on the other hand, start going stir crazy if I don’t feel like someone else is out there. Sometimes at 4am when I am still working and I feel that I’m the only one awake in the whole world, I open up iChat or AIM. Sometimes I don’t even IM anyone. But just seeing that there are other people signed on and (potentially) awake allows me to concentrate on my work rather than on my (real or imagined) isolation.

The thing I have found most helpful, and something many gradshare users also recommend, is getting into a routine. This is the thing that has most helped me find a balance between work and play. For example, though there are sometimes exception, I have made it a rule not to work on whatever “my Friday” happens to be (this semester my Friday is Wednesday evening). Instead, I relax. My roommates and I have set aside Wednesday nights as time we share. During most of the week, they only see me leaving my room (what we’ve deemed my “hobbit hole” or “cave” for food. But Wednesdays are Battlestar Galactica nights (and dinners that begin with the letter B, like Breakfast or Burritos). So routine is good in my book.

But something gradshare users don’t mention, but that many grad. students nevertheless use as a motivation tool, is the energy drink. Whatever their drink of choice may be (maybe they want Red Bull to give them wings so they’ll fly through their work, or maybe they’ll pick up some Five Hour energy at their supermarket’s checkout counter in the hopes of avoiding that “two o’clock feeling”), most people have tried an energy drink. (Personally, I like tea. And sleeping a crazy amount of hours on my first weekend day. And then dealing with being exhausted the rest of the time. But I’m pretty picky, and I don’t think any energy drink I’ve sipped has tasted good enough for a full can/bottle. I don’t even like the taste of coffee!) So what are the pros and cons of this back-up plan? A lot of people site the crash that happens after you lose the initial kick, though some companies claim their product has no crash factor. But what about how to deal when your back-up plan is no longer a back up plan? Coffee every day is a pretty standard addiction, but what about coffee every morning and a boost of energy every afternoon? How many kicks does a grad. student need?

Is there any way around this problem? Are graduate students, or even students in general, or even adults in general, doomed to either perpetual exhaustion or caffeine/taurine/etc, addictions? Is there an energy drink that’s good for you? For example, recently there was a study that said having some coffee every day might actually be helpful in preventing Alzheimer’s and memory loss. Though there may not be scientific evidence, is there an energy drink that might be more helpful than harmful? Are there any other motivation/anti-procrastination tactics most people haven’t tried that they should?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"It's Complicated"

When you near the end of something, it’s pretty common to look back at the beginning and see how things have changed. Or, maybe that's just true for me. But now that I'm in the 2nd year of my MA, and looking ahead to my comps exam in the spring, I often simultaneously look back to last fall semester (my first here at Fordham), and even to the application process I went through during my senior year at Barnard.

And the more I think about it, the more I feel that graduate admission is more complicated than undergraduate admission…by leaps and bounds. At least it seems that way the first time around.

First off, whether you’re applying for an MA or a PhD, the pressure seems greater somehow. Maybe it’s because you’re competing for fewer spots, and against only the most qualified students. Maybe it’s because most people who apply to graduate school tend to be pretty intense to begin with. But the thing that really makes the grad. school admissions process more complicated is the same thing that makes it hard, once you’re here, to meet anyone from outside of your department. Everything is so subject-specific. All of a sudden, from what was most likely a liberal arts education where you were encouraged to try every subject you were even mildly interested in, you’re asked to write a personal statement on why your subject trumps everyone else’s. And, what might be even more complicated, you have to explain why the school you’re applying for is better for you than any other school.

Sure, you might have done this for your college applications. But this gets pretty rough when it comes to grad. school. Because, all of a sudden, not only is each school different from every other. But each department in each school is different from every other department in the same school. And, even within a single department, different specializations can be stronger than others, or student support may be stronger than research opportunities, etc. etc. And that is why the new grad. school rankings are so confusing.  How are you supposed to rank a program, let alone a school, when there are so many variable factors? The new method  adopted this year may be trying to solve this problem in a good way—by showing the range rather than a certain number—but that ends up making it even harder to interpret the results. If a school is in a range between 13 and 43...what does that mean? In the end the rankings feel completely arbitrary. Added to the fact that your real experience really cannot be predicted by a number anyway (e.g. as an undergraduate, I hated the first school I went to which was technically ranked higher than the school I transferred to and loved), these rankings end up meaning absolutely nothing in my eyes.

So, here’s my solution everyone. And I think you're gonna love it! Remember when Yale’s undergrad. Admissions Office came out with their amazing video campaign, “That’s Why I Chose Yale”? Well, I think every single grad. department and every single school should make one of those. Because musicals are a much easier and “funner” way to decide what school you want to go to, and to understand the pros and cons of each institution and program.

And I’m only half kidding.

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Network or Not to Network...That is the (Virtual) Question


"Facebook was more than just a means to learn about friends professionally and colleagues personally: It became a way to publicize the issues each of us felt deserved advocacy". --Heather Wolpert-Gawron (teacher)



We've all heard about the dangers of social media, about the (often unnamed) “bad things” that can come from putting yourself out there too much…I even referred to this kind of indirectly on this very blog. Typical warnings include: “Google yourself,” “Be careful what you put on Facebook,” and “Social networking sites can take over your life and eat your brain!” Wait, no. That last part is zombies (a newer obsession that threatens to take over your life. Personally, I still don’t get how that one happened. Though I recommend Plants vs. Zombies as a good procrastination tool).


But social media has had such a boom in the past few years that not just students, but educators of all ranks and types (from middle school teachers to college administrators) are starting to get involved. Seminars that teach how to harness the power of social media are now a common occurrence. McGraw-Hill (most of you have probably owned several of their textbooks) even held a large-scale a conference on the future of social media, where they decided that a main draw of using these tools is to “engage” previously distant students. (Apparently it’s all so much easier when they can care right from home!) 

Organizations, including educational institutions, are also using these sites to more effectively advertise…schools and other organizations can now reach out to students much quicker and, potentially, on a much more personal level. 

The transition from using social media exclusively for, well, social activities to using these sites for educational and professional goals is still mid-process. Many schools (especially below college level) still keep the sites blocked on public computers, and those threats I mentioned earlier are still often mentioned (though many of the same institutions who used to participate in this kind of criticism of social networking are now getting involved themselves). 

But this is all really from the educator’s or professional’s point of view…what else (besides warnings of inappropriate photos) is important on our end?

Well, if companies use these sites to market their new products and educational opportunities, you use them to market yourself. 

Yes there’s LinkedIn, the most obviously professional social networking tool. Artists have YouTube videos and MySpace pages (in fact, they’re pretty much the only ones who still have MySpace pages), some people have professional Twitter pages, and many people have blogs related to the field they plan to go into (like book review blogs). These are all great ways to turn social networking to our advantage.

But even the big one, Facebook, could be used beneficially. Even if you don’t limited profile everyone in sight, as long as you’re just a little careful about what you put up, Facebook can actually be a great professional networking tool as well. 

You don’t believe me, huh? I’m going to try to convince you. I’ll start off with a question: isn’t work always better when you get along with the other personalities? When  you feel like you get along with your coworkers personally (this should be applicable to any kind of working environment)? 

As students, Facebook makes it easier to connect to organizations and events, both within and outside of Fordham, that we might be interested in and that can broaden our networks and our opportunities (like GSAS's professional development series, or something like The Americas Society). And, specifically as graduate students, I think Facebook actually plays a pretty important role in helping to create a feeling of community for each cohort in a situation where, unlike undergrad., a lot of people don’t take the same classes and don’t live in university housing. This makes it harder for us to build a community, and Facebook helps us do that, letting us get to know our classmates a bit faster than we woud if we just had 2 hours of class with them a week and then lost all contact. And this cohort is the beginning of our professional network, right? Even if you don’t end up going past an MA or if you don’t become a professor, these people will probably still remain a part of your professional network in some way or another. And won’t it be nice, 10 years down the line, to be able to call someone your “friend” instead of just your “colleague?” So I say thanks, Facebook, for making “friending” a verb, and making personal relationships an important part of professional relationships. To me, this merging of personal and professional is the best part of the new social media phenomenon.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stuff Graduate Students Like

Recently, OKCupid came out with a study (I know…since when does a dating site do cultural research?) tracking the correlation between people’s self-identified ethnic backgrounds and favorite things. Basically, they wanted to expand the categories of the popular book Stuff White People Like (Good thing the whole book is totally sarcastick #81 would be asking for trouble).

Well, this article got me thinking (this is getting weirder and weirder…OKCupid is making me think?)…why isn’t there a list of “Stuff Graduate Students Like”? After Googling the phrase (the tried-and-true research method of grad. students the world over!), I discovered that, apparently, only one other person has attempted such a list. The one item on the list is:

  1. Procrastination.
Since the author of the list never went past that, I’m guessing this proves the theory that procrastination is, indeed, the number one joy of a grad. student’s life. But I think we should expand the list. Don’t you? Here goes…

  1. Free food.
Maybe this is just MA students…a leftover from college days? I don’t know…but I know free food tastes better, and I almost cry if I ever find out I missed any.

  1. Sleep.
It just never gets old.

  1. Grants and Fellowships.
Who wouldn’t want to be paid to explore the topics you love? Sometimes they even give you money to travel to weekend…

  1. Conferences.
It’s like we get a high from discussing the stuff we like with people who consider themselves as obsessed as we are. Sometimes it’s even enough just to listen…especially if some of our scholar idols are speaking!

  1. Research.
We are the archaeologists of the library (or maybe you’re really an archaeologist…).

  1. Anything on sale.
Maybe this goes deeper than graduate students, but since our budgets are so tight I’ve noticed people think anything being on sale is practically a command to “buy it!” What if you need it later, and it’s not on sale then? Or you’re stuck waiting for a pay check so you can’t get it and then it’s sold out (oh, the joys of living paycheck to paycheck)? Or what if you wanted it 4 months ago and, yeah, maybe you don’t really want it now but you did before and now it’s 25% off!?

  1. Helpful administrators.
How much better is life when the person who’s supposed to know everything about your department, your funding, etc. A. actually knows everything and B. is willing to help? (e.g. How would any of us live without Lydia?)

  1. Old pop culture references.
You know…stuff you can refer to that was on TV before you entered grad. school and no longer had any time for it.

  1. More school. And then more school. And then some.
Why else would some of us still be here after 7+ years, just to get a degree that will keep us in school forever? Oh, right. ‘Cause school is something grad. students like!

PS Comment with anything else you think should be on the list! Maybe...studying places where people will feel bad that you have so much work (I may be guilty of this)? Or "misery poker" (e.g. Grad. Student 1: "I have 300 pages left to read for tomorrow." Grad. Student 2: "I have 300 pages left to read for the class that starts right now!")?  Or let me know if you think any of these aren’t right for the list.