Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: April 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

Grad. School and the City

“To Atlantic Avenue” Believe it or not, the photo above is actually of a miniature sculpture by artist Alan Wolfson. You can see more of his work in The Huffington Post’s recent article.

“New York is my campus. Fordham is my school.” This is Fordham’s (relatively new, I believe) slogan. Though I’m sure it’s mostly meant to describe undergrads who are often asked to incorporate the city into their class assignments, our lives as graduate students are also influenced by the location of our school.

This blog is about graduate life in general but also about Fordham in particular, and I recently realized that I haven’t really talked much about the experience of going to school in a boroughs of NYC. Maybe that’s because I grew up right across the river and don’t remember my first visit to the city. The skyline was always just there (trust me, it’s a way better view from the NJ side of the river). In any case, it’s certainly true that city life is a big part of a Fordham grad. student’s experience.

In fact, because so many graduate students commute, either from another burrow or another state, New York City’s public transportation system is something many of us are forced to become intimate with. And, let me tell you, intellectual stimulation happens on the go as well. For example, as my friend was re-reading Frankenstein for her comps. exam on her commute home one day, she got hit on no less than three times, and every guy mentioned the book she was reading as an opening. One guy even tried to start a discussion of “transhumanism.” No, I’m not joking.

I often find myself wanting to record events I observe on my commute home, especially on the subway. I had a friend who once told me that she prefers NYC’s public transportation system to anywhere else’s because “nobody will bother you if you cry on the subway in New York.” Her observation points to why observing people on the NYC subway is so interesting—NYC’s anonymity really encourages people to act like nobody is watching, even in public. Which makes them perfect to watch!

Riding the subway when I’m just coming home from class and am already primed for analysis makes me feel kind of like an anthropologist in the field. Sometimes, I even take notes:

An Excerpt from “The Subway Diaries”
Why is it that people sit next to themselves on the subway?
The South Asian man sits next to the South Asian woman, the black woman next to another black woman, the stereotypical Hispanic man next to yet another stereotypical Hispanic man..and the short, pale brunette with the pointy nose next to me.
So many other choices of empty seats, but the woman who chose to sit next to me could play my stunt double in a movie.

Sure, you could just do your homework on the commute home. But what’s the point of going to grad. school in the city if you can’t analyze it to death? Right?

PS If anyone else has fun NYC-related stories, please share!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Arts vs. Sciences?

Is this an Arts brain or a Sciences brain? Can YOU tell?

As readers of this blog know, though this blog is sponsored by Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts AND Sciences it leans heavily towards the “Arts” part, better known as the humanities. Since I, the writer, am an English major, this is probably natural. Of course, I have always made an effort to address the math and science-y side of things, but I’m not very well-versed in these disciplines, and so I’m sure I’ve missed something here and there. The thing is, I don’t dislike the sciences. In fact, I’m not even scared of them. What I’m scared of is math. I think I developed a block around 5th grade when they switched me from the dumb math class to the smart math class and I couldn’t catch up, so then by the time I got switched back to the dumb math class I’d missed things and I was totally confused. Yep. Ever since then I’ve been afraid of math. I have a deep psychological fear that I am going to add 3 + 3 and make a stupid mistake and get 9 (see what I did there? I multiplied instead. Embarrassing fact: I’ve actually done that on tests before because I get so nervous).

But this fear of math shouldn’t keep me back from things I enjoy, science-y subjects like astronomy. And I try not to let it. But the problem seems to be that, even in schools like GSAS which are supposed to incorporate the arts and the sciences, the divide is jut too wide, especially by the time we get to grad. school. This isn’t any particular school’s fault either…it simply seems to be the nature of the American education system. An author of an interesting article in The Chronicle seems to think that this is because, as a nation, we do not value "science literacy." “I have no memories of my science and math professors telling us that reading and writing were unimportant or optional. I can’t say the same for my humanities professors,” he says. 

In my experience, though, this isn’t the problem. In fact, I never had any humanities professors say science wasn’t important. On the other hand, I have had a math teacher (not professors mind you, a teacher in high school) who insisted that everyone must love math and who questioned the value of studying something like English in college. The humanities are often viewed as “soft” by these kinds of people. Hence the term “hard sciences.”

In all honesty, I think the problem doesn’t lie with who places too little value on what. That just ends up turning into an unproductive blame game. Everyone always has a bias…it’s almost as natural to favor your own subject and others like it as it is to favor your own children. The problem is that teachers at all levels, from elementary to graduate school, and in all subjects, from English to Physics, are usually “naturals” in whatever field they teach. Because of this, they often don’t know how to teach to people who don’t grasp it as quickly and instinctively. I felt this problem first hand in middle and high school. The year I got a math teacher who knew how to (and took the time to) explain math to my English-major brain, I suddenly wasn’t afraid anymore. I could do math. I got A's. Then, the next year, I got another teacher who didn’t know what he was doing and it was back to the fear. I noticed the same kind of thing happening for the people who went on to do things like Physics and Economics in college. Though many of them generally feared writing essays, there was one English teacher who just made everyone understand how to put together a sentence, or how to present evidence or create a convincing thesis statement. In her class, with her training, everyone could write a decent paper. 

If we’re not going to bring the disciplines closer together, which I know would be very difficult now that everyone has become so specialized, the Chronicle author is right: we have to do something about all this earlier, in elementary, middle, and/or high school. But I don’t think his proposal is quite the solution. Teachers from all subjects and at all levels need to embrace the importance of all others. We need to be at least a little more interdisciplinary in our thinking, even if we’re not part of a more interdisciplinary department like American Studies. A liberal arts education isn’t actually supposed to be, as he seems to think, all about the humanities. At least that’s not my understanding of it. The liberal arts education so touted in America is supposed to create well-rounded individuals who have experience in the humanities, the social sciences, the hard sciences, and anything else you can think of. We need to remember this and start to make sure students appreciate every discipline early. We need to learn how to teach to people who don’t just “get it” right away. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to make people teach subjects they weren’t necessarily inclined to. I know the Jesuit Pedagogy Seminar here at Fordham makes students sit in on classes that are outside of their departments, and I think that’s a really good start.

One of the most rewarding experiences I ever had was subbing for an afterschool program called “Hands on Science” as a college freshman in Swarthmore, PA the year before I transferred to Barnard. Having to explain basic science concepts to elementary school students, making science exciting for them even though it wasn’t “my thing” (I guess my thing would be teaching them how exciting reading can be), helped me appreciate my peers who were still studying things like Biology on a more advanced level. Plus, there’s nothing like being the first one to teach a whole group of kids what ROY G BIV means. Even if I am an English major.

Monday, April 11, 2011

‘To sleep, perchance to dream…’

I managed to get through undergrad. without pulling a single all-nighter. Not a real one, at any rate. There were a couple of times I got only 3.5 hours sleep or so, but that wasn’t so different from my normal 4-6 hours a night. It wasn’t until I got to grad. school that I experienced the strange feeling of staying up literally all night long. I’m not sure what pulling an all-nighter in a library with a bunch of your peers is like, because I still haven’t done that, but staying up all night alone in your room while the whole world around you seems to be sleeping is very strange. Time seems to go very slowly and very quickly at the same time. Your mind both races and stagnates as you start to believe you’re the only living being awake in the entire universe. And, right after you get over that point where you feel like you can’t possibly go on, that you’re bound to collapse, you get this weird high of energy and start functioning on hyper-drive.
Well, at least that has been my all-nighter experience. And, like I said, I’m sure it’s different if you’re in a group. And I’m sure it’s also different for people who actually drink coffee (I’m one of those weird people who don’t like the taste…though I must admit it smells delicious) or energy drinks.
I’m lucky in that I get that last charge of hyperactive energy even when I lack sleep. When I get only a few hours, I tend to get that kick in the afternoon, soon after I feel that I won’t be able to resist an afternoon nap despite being in the middle of something important. I know that not everyone is like that. But I’m also not one of those so-called “sleepless elite” that actually wake up naturally after 4-6 hours of sleep. Apparently these people, called “short sleepers,” are super rare, and many people who think they are short sleepers actually aren’t (if you can function normally on 4 hours sleep but don’t wake up on your own without an alarm clock, or if you need to catch up on sleep on the weekends, you’re not really a short sleeper). I’m personally way jealous of these people.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I love sleep. I find dreams super interesting (unless they’re comps. nightmares, that is. *shiver* ), and I like having a nice restful break between the days. But if only I needed less of it…I could get so much more done! And be happier doing it, since I wouldn’t be exhausted. A friend of mine here at Fordham is a short sleeper, and I bet you anything it is very helpful for his life as a PhD student.
Which gets me to the more grad.-school-related part of this post. Since reading that article above on short sleepers, I’ve been wondering: is how well you can deal with lack of sleep directly correlated to how well you do in grad. school? The multitasking abilities needed to be a successful grad. student (which probably carry over to being a successful academic) are incredible. You have to do well in your classes (which includes reading/writing for them and attending them), typically do a grad. assistantship/fellowship or some other kind of work to support yourself, and, on top of that, do your own research so you can try to present at conferences and publish work. Oh, right…and then there’s that personal life business (Psh! But who needs that, right?). And, unfortunately, you have only 24 hours in a day…just like a normal person!
So short sleepers obviously get an advantage. But does that always mean they do better than “normal” sleepers? And do people like me have an advantage over/do better than, say, people who absolutely need 7-8 hours to function properly? Can someone who needs that much sleep thrive just as much as a short sleeper in grad. school if they’re organized enough?
I guess what I’m asking is really this: should prospective graduate students make their personal sleeping habits a major consideration when deciding whether to go into academia?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Planning Ahead…And, Sometimes, Afar

Graduation is around the corner for many of us, including myself (that is, as long as I passed my comps.*fingers crossed*). That also means that job search time has arrived. And I’m sure many of you, both Master’s and Ph.D. students, are in the same boat. Or maybe some of you have already found jobs (in which case: Congratulations!). In any case, April seems to be the month to reflect on what life will be like next year, especially for those of us leaving Fordham.

Despite the continuing cold weather this year, that seems pretty appropriate, doesn’t it? April: The time to look forward to your new life as the spring season begins and new life begins to grow around us.
At least, it seems appropriate in New York, where the weather patterns match (or, at least, should match) my lovely hackneyed metaphor.

But some of us, including me, are not looking for jobs in New York. You may be looking to move somewhere relatively closeby, such as Philadelphia, or you may be interviewing for a job in Texas. Some of you probably already have jobs in places as far as California, or maybe even somewhere in Europe or Asia.

The thing is, next year a lot of us will have more than just a location change to adapt to. Besides having to deal with the moving vans and being away from a place we’ve grown comfortable in, any of us will have to deal with culture shock. Yes, even those of us relocating within the US. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about the United States…we have so many different American identities within our one country.

Everyone who has grown up on the East Coast has heard, for example, “West Coast people are different.” Why? “They just smile ALL the time,” one friend who lived in California for 7 years explained to me recently (as opposed to people in England, who apparently never smile. If that's true, I’ll blame it on the weather). Even in a place as close as Boston I have been told I "dress very New York.” Honestly, I don’t even know what that means. I was wearing black jeans and a white t-shirt when I first got this comment. But, anyway, you know that this country is diverse (even beyond differences in race and culture) when you travel four hours on a bus and all of a sudden your clothes can define what city you’re from.

So how is this timely musing going to help you, dear readers? Well, for anyone considering a job somewhere they’ve never lived before, I suggest spending at least a weekend if not a week in the place before you decide. I know some of you may not have that option, either because you can’t take the time to do that or simply because, for any number of reasons, you have to take that job in Arizona. But what I learned from being a transfer student in undergrad. is that anywhere you live, learn, or work becomes a kind of home to you. I mean the place itself and the city or town around it. So you can’t just look at a place and think about all the practical pros and cons. You have to think of how you fit in with the culture and the people (and even the climate), and how you will feel defining yourself by it for at least a few years (e.g. If everyone smiling all the time is going to have some sort of reverse effect on you and make you want to punch people, maybe you shouldn’t move to California. Just sayin’).

So good luck to everyone reading this who’s on the job market, academic or otherwise. And remember to shop for a home, not just a school, job, or place to live.