Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: November 2010

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.