Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: January 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011

"Xtra! Xtra! Hey look at the Headlines!" Vicious Venting or Comic Cartoons? Xtranormal’s Academic Worldview

(Please note that some of the linked videos in this entry contain profanity. Also note that the Chronicle decided that this was alright, so I’m following their lead.)
In a previous entry, I briefly mentioned a viral video called “So You Want to get a PhD in the Humanities?”.
Obviously, since it’s a viral video, I wasn’t the only one who was laughing hysterically and sharing it with her friends. But apparently it wasn’t just grad. students watching either. The brilliant writers at the Chronicle recently picked up on it, and have written an article examining this new breed of videos and their place in the university system.
The Chronicle links to a bunch of these kinds of videos, but they actually interviewed the maker of the same video I first linked to (and linked to again above). Perhaps surprisingly, she is not an English Ph.D. drop-out. And, no, she’s not at all like the wary professor in the video either. In fact, despite her cynical video, she is much more like the enthusiastic, idealistic, pig-tailed student the video pokes fun of. In fact, most of these new academic satires springing up via Xtranormal (the site where the videos are made) are created by people within the very field the videos parody. As the Chronicle notes, “nearly every higher-education niche has [created at least one video], it seems, though the gags often make sense only to insiders. For example, do you find regression-discontinuity designs funny? Political scientists do.”
The Chronicle also makes a point of mentioning how Xtranormal has actually also become a successful classroom tool, and that the site is reorganizing itself to allow teachers to assign this simple kind of video-making as homework or extra credit. These videos seem to be particularly useful for introductory foreign language classes, as well as for presenting theoretical debates in a funny and approachable format.
But what the Chronicle doesn’t really tackle, and what I’m kind of interested in, is why so many grad. students have decided to create these kinds of videos making fun of their own subjects. If they’re not people who “ran away” from the PhD and want to show the horrors they have escaped, what are they getting out of this? Are academics just naturally masochists (as the academic librarian video seems to imply)? Does grad. school just imbue people with a dark and self-deprecating sense of humor? It seems to me that it’s a bit like the Facebook support groups and terrified status updates that appear during the end of each semester. You know it’s crazy. You know the chances of getting where you want to be are slim. But you also know you have to do it. It’s the only option you choose to give yourself. And how can you get through it without a little laughter and support from the people just as insane as you are?
Plus, maybe if enough of these kinds of videos are made, they will become a call to action. Maybe someone will eventually do something to fix all the problems they’re pointing out. I mean, if there are this many complaints, I’m guessing the system is at least cracked, if not broken.

Now I want to see what the Chronicle has to say about this one: Honest Grad School Ad

Monday, January 24, 2011

WWW: It’s a WikiWildWorld


I think Wikipedia got big the same year I entered college. All of a sudden it was the first hit on Google whenever you asked a question, and the first source you went to to settle a dispute with your roommate.
But people…or at least professors…didn’t think of it as a legitimate source. Even though Wikipedia does have citations, it was an obvious no-no to use Wikipedia as a source because of its open contribution policy.
Slowly, it seems, this perception has begin to change.
Although I don’t think anyone would cite only Wikipedia in any serious context, professors have started recommending checking out the site for basic background research. If you want to orient yourself before getting involved in your novel or your textbook or your play or whatever it may be, professors now seem to think it may not be a bad idea to check out Wikipedia. This reaction is now far more common than the constant warnings against the site that I used to get as a freshman. In recent years, I have gotten links from the site directly from professors and have even been asked to check Wikipedia in class to confirm a teacher’s hazy memory. “Actually, Wikipedia is not too bad” has been said almost word for word by at least two of my professors in the last couple of years.
How did Wikipedia start bettering its reputation so quickly? Has it just grown on us? Are the citations on Wikipedia itself getting better? Are we getting lazy? What’s going on here?
Wikipedia is about to be 10 years old. That means it was actually around for 4 years before I got to college, although I didn’t know about it and it wasn’t nearly as universal back then. And now that it’s hitting this milestone, it is making a conscious effort to improve its reputation even further according to a recent article in the Chronicle.Wikipedia isn’t just hoping people will accept the site anymore. They are now consciously “making efforts to involve academics more closely in its process. The latest is a new plan to build an ‘open educational resource platform’ that will gather tools about teaching with Wikipedia in the classroom.” So those professors who asked me to look up stuff on Wikipedia aren’t so crazy after all. They’re just anticipating the inevitable future.
But this doesn’t mean that you can do all your paper research on Wikipedia now, or that you can avoid going to the library because teachers approve of the site (although I have heard of people who go through 4 years of college without ever setting foot inside a library…). ‘“We don’t want them to cite Wikipedia,’ [one Wikimedia member] said of students. ‘What we really want them to do is understand how to use and critically evaluate the articles on Wikipedia and then learn how to contribute to make those articles better.”’
Wikipedia doesn’t just want to give people easy access to facts anymore. They now want to help students and future scholars learn how to evaluate those supposed “facts” and, in return, help make Wikipedia even more reliable. Sounds like a pretty good deal all around, huh?
Maybe Wikipedia is new evil genius of the tech world (other commonly accused parties: Apple & Google)? Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if my generation’s kids were using Wikipedia as a truly legitimate source in the future.

Monday, January 17, 2011

And the Snowy Spring Semester Begins

Welcome back to campus everyone! And I wish you all luck as we begin this spring semester (possibly my last semester is school ever…creepy when you’ve been in school since you were 2 years old, huh?)!
Personally, I always thought the idea of the “spring semester” was a little weird. The fall semester seems to make a bit more sense…even when we start school and it’s still hot or a bit summery, the leaves start changing pretty soon afterward and the fall weather begins to define the semester. Fall semesters simply feel…fall-y. But the spring semester always feels like winter for way too long. Not only do we begin when it still feels like a different season, but that winter weather often carries over until what feels like practically the end of the semester, defining it with cold rainy days instead of growing flowers. What I usually remember from spring semesters aren’t those last few days of luke-warmth, but the cold…the writing of papers while covered in a blanket.
I think the one time I felt differently about this was my senior year of college (spring ’09), when it got so warm by April that I even got a few sunburns from reading outside. That definitely cancelled out the cold. But how often does that happen?
I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was from somewhere without such defined seasons (you guys who aren’t from around here should tell me if I sound crazy to you), but calling this semester “spring” when we can still hope for snow days until almost the last month of school never made total sense to me. Then again, what else would we call it?

In any case, like the New York Postal Service, we grad. students will not stop working no matter what the weather. "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Even on snow days, we keep at it from home. Perhaps not as swiftly as the mailmen get the idea.

So I guess it's back to school, and back to those "appointed rounds."


Monday, January 10, 2011



“I’ve never gotten my grades online before,” my friend told me in the last week of the fall semester. She sounded concerned, as if this new format meant that she would have to go on an epic quest to retrieve her grades. In fact, in the week or two that we were all eagerly (and anxiously) awaiting our grades, at least two of my friends asked me where exactly they were supposed to go to get them. Granted, the myFordham portal isn’t always the easiest to navigate, though once you customize it it’s a whole lot better. But I didn’t really realize getting grades online was such a big deal until this semester. Through high school I got grades mailed to me (snail mail, not email), but since I entered college I’ve always gotten my grades online one way or another. The constant “refreshing” that occurs over winter break and in the beginning of the summer has become familiar to me.
So has, to one extent or another, using the internet for class discussion or for getting/submitting homework assignments. Again, this definitely didn’t happen for me until college. But as soon as I hit freshman year, BlackBoard or something of the kind became a part of every day life. Participating in online discussions or posting assignments online (for public viewing or for the professor’s eyes only) became expected rather quickly. Printing costs became part of textbook costs. As my social life migrated to Facebook, my educational life entered the digital world alongside it.
As the recent Wired article about the new Tron movie makes clear, our world and the digital world are more interconnected than ever before (and, by the way, if you haven’t seen Tron: Legacy, you totally should. It was amazing). When the first Tron movie was released in the 80’s, the idea of cyberspace was completely foreign, and people thought it was weird that a company like Disney was even making a film like this. The movie flopped. But “today, people think they’ve been to cyberspace,” says Adam Rogers. This accounts for the millions of dollars put into the newly revamped Tron franchise. And the fact that there’s even a magazine like Wired (founded in 1993) shows how much our culture has changed.
Academia, however, always lags a little behind technological developments. Especially the humanities. Though science and even social science departments obviously have to catch on relatively quickly to stay relevant and competitive, the humanities are always scrambling to catch up. I don’t know how many jokes I’ve heard about how English professors (I guess English is the humanity of the humanities?) are the worst at using everything from BlackBoard to projectors. 
But this year, at the MLA conference, digital work in academia, specifically in the humanities, was finally being discussed seriously. According to an article in the Chronicle these issues finally started getting attention in December of 2009. But it wasn’t until this month’s meeting that “the rising generation made itself heard in a big way.” Of course, we’re still in the defining stages—“what is a digital humanist?” is still a major question. Even though many humanities professors have by now embraced (successfully or not so successfully) the use of technology in the classroom, the place of digital work and research in academia (e.g. "the critical-code studies" mentioned as the future of the history field) is still undefined. (Interesting personal side note: my 7th grade English teacher is totally mentioned in that Chronicle article. Small world.)
So…will the humanities finally catch up with the sciences in this technological era? The humanities and the sciences are always paired…“College of Arts and Sciences” is a common university division, and our own GSAS pairs the two. But, when it comes to technology, "humanities" as a category always seems to be the ugly rejected stepchild struggling to find its fairy godmother and break the spell of being stuck in the past (and remember people: this is coming from an English major who still wants to smell real paper books). So…is this the beginning of a real change? Are the humanities finally embracing the sciency things they once feared? The fact that things like Wired and even Tron are now simply a part of popular culture is probably a good sign. But the MLA conference topics are probably the real signals of progress.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Spirit is Catching

Happy New Year, Fordham GSAS! I hope you all had a wonderful time ringing in the New Year, wherever you were!
There’s always so much happiness going around on New Year’s Eve and Day. Or, as I like to call it, “good vibes.” Strangers on the street greet each other with a big “Happy New Year” no matter what time of day or night for at least 48 hours, and everyone seems to have an unlimited amount of hope. Yes, even the pessimists.
All this unbounded energy and spirit I saw on New Year’s (especially on New Year’s Eve itself) got me thinking about the concept of school spirit. School spirit is obviously important to many people. But what is school spirit? Is it defined by things like pep rallies, football games, and school colors? By clubs and orientations and founder’s days? Or is it something even more intangible, something that can only be measured individually and felt collectively? And is it harder for find this school spirit as a grad. student than as an undergrad.?
As you probably all know, Fordham’s undergraduate business school was recently renamed the Gabelli School of Business. When the donor and alum who the school is now named after (Mario Gabelli, GSB ’65) came to speak on campus last month, he also brought back an old Fordham tradition that many did not even know existed—a live ram. Apparently a real live version of our school’s mascot used to live on campus at one time, and Mr. Gabelli decided to bring this piece of Fordham’s history back to campus with him.
Sadly, I missed the ram on campus. But even hearing about this event made me feel more school spirit for Fordham than I think I ever had before. What is it about a little piece of history creeping back in that made me feel more connected to the school than I ever have in the last year and a half? I’m not really sure. But the ram represents Fordham as a whole, not just GBA, or GSAS, or any other division. And I think what’s really tough in grad. school compared to undergrad. is building a feeling of community among people who are so focused in on their own particular disciplines. Not only do most people not live on or even near campus, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, but many of us isolate ourselves in our own departments without even realizing it. It’s the nature of graduate study, I suppose.
In all honesty, I think the Office of Student Development and the GSA actually do a really awesome job creating a sense of unity through things like orientation, the GSAS socials, and other events of that kind. In fact, we’re probably more connected as a school than most other grad. schools I know of. But what the ram on campus got me thinking about was that intangible school spirit that I felt a bit more strongly in college (the same kind of spirit in some ways that I saw on New Year’s Eve), and what it takes to create or cultivate it. Should someone from GSAS petition to get an owl brought to campus, to represent GSAS’s own school seal? Perhaps we should get an Owlery on campus a la Harry Potter. Would something this silly strengthen the school spirit of GSAS students? I think we have a good basis already, especially compared to most schools. So what would it take to really bring it out? What is it, besides events and school colors, that makes school spirit?
I guess I don’t have many answers for you all in this post. During these first few days of 2011 (which are also the first few days of my last semester at Fordham), I’m mostly just wondering and pondering. I guess, without any answers to give you, all I can hope for is that this blog will contribute to that same spirit others at Fordham are already fostering.
Actually…comments might help with that goal, guys. ;)