Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: July 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ode to the Study Date, Part 2

If you read the last post on the Grad Life blog about study dates, then you know that I firmly believe in the power of the study date to soothe the solitary scholar and build community. I've decided to share my ode to the study date. It is a list poem. Or rather, simply a list.  
 No, this is not a post about artichokes. It is an ode, like Pablo Neruda's Ode to the Artichoke. Only Neruda's ode is much, much better. 

Ode to the Study Date; Or, Why Study Dates Are Awesome

I learned firsthand how having a lot of work to do for grad school can be stressful and isolating. Pages do not write themselves and not only can no one else do it for you, you must do it alone. For hours. The beauty of the study date is that you are not, in fact, alone in the work you have to do. Although you are still working independently, you are working with someone else. There is a friend across from you or beside you, peeking out from behind her own equally massive pile of books. She is chugging along, as well. You are in it together.

Every grad student needs to break up the monotony of schoolwork with some relaxation. Unfortunately, when I work alone my “study breaks” consist chiefly of checking Facebook, idly sifting through my email, eating a snack, Facebook, snack, email, and then Facebook again. I remain glued to my computer. I don’t feel refreshed at all by the end of my study break. Rather, I feel that I’ve been procrastinating, which casts a shadow over whatever strides I may have made. But on a study date, the break is conversation! Chatting with a good friend or a fellow grad student who could become a friend is refreshing. I can step outside of my work and myself, and look away from the computer screen. The human contact is regenerative, and the conversation – whether light-hearted or serious is far more fulfilling than scrolling through status updates. After a laugh or two, or some much needed venting, I can return to the work with fresh energy and eyes!

The merits of community, companionship, and support are obvious. When I feel stuck writing a paper, or overwhelmed by the amount of reading I have to do, it feels good to have someone there to assure me that the work will get done and I will be all right. (And of course, we all need to share about what’s going on in our lives beyond grad school! Even if there’s a paper due!) Moreover, it feels good to step out of my own crazed schedule to comfort and cheer on a colleague. Such is the stuff of friendship. We all need a pep talk or a hug sometimes, especially near the end of the semester or during tough times. And on a study date, there is someone nearby who can give you the company and support you need while knee-deep in Thoreau or anatomy or whatever else you might be working on.

There it is friends – my short and sweet list-ode to the study date. It’s not exactly Keats or Neruda, but it’s true and will hopefully lead to happier, more fruitful semesters for us all.

Grad school is long, and it’s essential to figure out how to balance grad school commitments with the rest of our lives. As I try to establish my own routines and rhythms as a grad student, I’ll rely on the study date as one way to keep me from living entirely inside my bedroom, my head, my work, and my self. If grad school can be yet another way that I forge connections with others than grad life is an even sweeter deal than I originally imagined.

How about you? How do you counteract the isolation that comes along with lots of independent study? Do you study with friends? Or use purely social time to create a sense of balance? Tips, questions, and ideas are welcome!

Ode to the Study Date, Part 1

Do not become this person. Study with friends to preserve your sanity.

“Many hands make light work.”

I am sure this adage was not meant to describe life as a graduate student, but it has become my mantra for Master’s. The saying applies to many kinds of “work,” including the tasks that are a part of grad life – reading, writing, and research. I have found that although no one else can do your work for you in grad school, and not all projects are collaborative, sharing study time with others can lighten the (academic) load.

Being a full-time grad student is a rare opportunity. At 25 years old, my job consists of reading, writing, and working towards an advanced degree. I attend class about three evenings a week, and I usually work from home, which affords me a good measure of flexibility and autonomy.

I can study in my pajamas or under the covers in bed. I can listen to my favorite songs at top volume. I can stop working whenever I might want to make a sandwich, call my mother, or go for a run (not that I ever do that, regrettably). If I begin to feel stir-crazy, I can leave wherever I am working to sit in a coffee shop, good ole Walsh, or anywhere with outlets and wireless.

Usually, I spend my days reading on my living room sofa and writing at a desk in my bedroom. I don't take full advantage of the flexibility in my schedule, but it’s great to have options.

Whenever I start feeling swamped by school or distressed because of a particularly long and dense article I have to read for class, I remember what a sweet deal I’ve got – learning and creating full-time under whatever conditions I deem best.

The trade-off, however, to this flexibility and freedom is isolation. Reading, writing, researching (and all the other more mundane grad student to-dos like Xeroxing, waiting for hundreds of pages to print, and scouring the internet for articles that aren’t on JSTOR) are solitary activities.

Knowing I am “living the good life” hasn’t always been enough to keep loneliness at bay this past year. At the beginning of my first semester at Fordham, I realized I could go days without seeing another person. I had enough work to keep me busy through the week, and I enjoyed my classes, so it was easy to fall into the work completely. I could work through meals, eating at my desk while I typed. Sometimes, I'd receive a phone call from a friend in the evening and become startled when I realized her voice was the first human voice I had heard all day.

Being a grad student was different from being a college student living in the dorms and participating in clubs. It was also different from working in an office with coworkers, a boss, and lunchtime conversation. My course of study was largely self-directed in grad schools. It was just my work and me.

Thankfully, I worked as a Graduate Assistant to a professor but even after the hours I spent assisting him in his office, I still had to devote the majority of my time to my studies. Having social weekends and evenings helped but wasn’t quite the solution to the isolation I was beginning to feel. 

By November, I was ecstatic about going up to Fordham on days when I had class. In class I could be around people. Talk to them! See their human faces! Brush my human shoulder against their human shoulders! Interact.

I recognize that some grad students might thrive in such solitude. I certainly enjoy time alone, and I do my best writing when I am by myself. But in the fall of last year, I became a grad-school hermit who never left her desk, broke bread with another person, or stepped out of her apartment during daylight hours. 

It was clear something needed to change. And then I remembered…

The Study Date!

I was a big fan of study dates in college, and I decided to bring them back into my life as a grad student. While it would take more coordination than it did as an undergrad, when everyone lived on the same campus, I was determined to make study dates a staple in my grad life.

I started meeting up with friends (and potential friends) in coffee and teashops around the city. We worked together at small tables, caffeinated and mostly in silence, but the company was superb. After a while, just planning study dates or revision parties made me feel like I was breaking out of my hermetic existence. 

How about you? Have you felt like grad school was making you become a hermit? Did you enjoy immersing yourself into independent work when you started grad school? Or did you miss the distractions and social interactions of pre-grad life? Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.

And if you want to read more about the study date and why it’s awesome, check out Part 2 of Ode to the Study Date. (Part 2 will include the actual ode!)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Harry Potter & the Ph.D.

What does the struggle to bring down He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named have to do with grad school?

It’s all ending.
For those of you who have already seen Part 2 of The Deathly Hallows, it’s already ended – “it” being the film phenomenon of the Harry Potter series, which began in 2001 with the Sorcerer’s Stone and has lasted a solid decade. Although I not among the record-breaking number of people who have seen the film, I am a Harry Potter fan, and I’ve been following the worldwide response closely.

Last Friday, July 15th, I watched my Facebook newsfeed erupt in statuses about the film. Some of my friends confessed to sobbing at the film's end; others questioned whether the epilogue was successful or necessary. One friend, a Fordham Ph.D. in literature, of course, posted quotes from the seventh book:

“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”


“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real?” 

As an aspiring writer and scholar of literature, I am amazed whenever a book (or, in this case, a septalogy of books) becomes such a cultural force. Rowling’s books have not only made millions for all those invested in the franchise (book publishers, film studios, and makers of HP-themed lunch boxes), but they have shaped the way a generation of young readers think about the world. Rowling has not shied from theological, political, and moral issues in her books, and the Deathly Hallows mania is a testament to the cultural impact of the series.

While some academics might frown upon the Harry Potter books as “low” art and simplistic (it's contemporary children’s fantasy literature written by a woman!), many academics are intrigued by the way effects of the books and have taken an interest in all things HP.

One such scholar Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio has taught theology classes about Harry Potter and published a book about the experience entitled God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction In An Ivy League Classroom. Her students' conversations about Harry Potter and theology sound fascinating and have become a part of their experience in higher education.

These conversations about Rowling's books have gone beyond the academy; the "big themes" of the series (Morality, Death, Friendship, Good, Evil, etc.) are happening all over the internet. Facebook, The Leaky Cauldron, and Twitter are alive with closereading, questioning, and dialogue about the series and its conclusion. The average reader has become more than just a fan but is at work on message boards and in social media as a critic and theorist in his or her own right.

I have especially enjoyed reading all the feminist criticism of Harry Potter that has emerged on the internet, like the fantastic Ms. Magazine article, “Hermione Granger and the Fight for Equal Rights,” and “An Unabashed Love Letter to Ginny Weasley” that went up on Feminsiting after the release of Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows

These non-academic pieces are illuminating and provocative... sans jargon! These pieces are available online to a broad audience. Young readers might stumble upon some feminist theory when they Google Hogwarts! How exciting for us, as grad students, to see these conversations thriving  across a range of communities and platforms. Very.

While I have yet to meet someone whose dissertation is on Harry Potter, the impact of the books on our cultural and intellectual life is clear. And as the world buzzes over the eighth and final film, we grad students get to satisfy our deep nerdy inner desire to talk about Apparation and the Dark Mark, what it all means, and why it matters.  

What is your take on scholarly interest in pop culture phenomena like Harry Potter? What about the closereading and theorizing happening on Facebook, message boards, and Twitter? And, most importantly, what can we learn from Snape about the nature of good and evil?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Turning Tides @ Fordham

This past year I was fortunate to be a part of the Turning Tides Symposium at Fordham. The fabulous Sarah Gambito, Director of Creative Writing at Fordham, envisioned the event and put together a team of grad students to help her orchestrate the day. On November 6, 2010, distinguished poets and academics from across the city gathered in the McNally Auditorium at Lincoln Center to learn and share about Diasporic literature.

Sarah envisioned an exchange between artists and academics – a conversation that was both scholarly and creative about the way literature reflects and responds to crises and change along the routes of various Diasporas.

From beginning to end, the symposium was awe-inspiring. As a first-semester grad student, I was grateful simply to be in a room with so many writers and thinkers at the forefront of their fields. For a grad student and aspiring writer, the experience was like working backstage at the Oscars; I felt so star-struck and thankful to be among writers whose works are not only formally impressive but also politically urgent and socially relevant. 

Fordham’s own Yvette ChristiansĂ« offered opening remarks, setting the tone for a day of reflection, questioning, and dialogue. Fordham professor Daniel Contreras moderated the first panel, Haiti: After the Earthquake, which featured the poetry and scholarship of J. Michael Dash, Denize Lauture, Yolaine M. St. Fort. Graduate student, Li Yun Alvarado, moderated the second panel Creative Disobedience in New Nuyorican Writing with Arnaldo Cruz-MalavĂ©Willie PerdomoEdwin Torres. The final panel was moderated by Luis Francia; Nerissa S. Balce, Bino Realuyo, Melissa Roxas shared their work and insights on The Filipino Artist as Activist.

Each panel focused on distinct political struggles and geographies but they all affirmed the same reality: that art and academia are about the world. Their writing and scholarship does not exist in isolation from the current political moment; their art and research are living efforts to understand, record, and change culture.

Symposium discussion ranged from an exploration of how Nuyorican poetry represents the complexity and multiplicity of Puerto Rican identity, to the striving of writers to rebuild a cultural infrastructure for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, to the struggle of Filipino writers and scholars against invisibility and silence.

I was especially moved by the work and testimony of Melissa Roxas, a poet and human rights activist who shared pieces about her experience as a survivor of torture. Her works were “poems of evidence” and reminded me of why I began writing and came to graduate school.

Turning Tides was a critical reminder to me – and all in attendance – that stories and scholarship can change things; they possess a power greater than just themselves.

Beyond the nerdy glamour of working so closely with writers and scholars, I was honored to be a part of an inspiring event that forged connections across the divides of art and academia. It was an opportunity to lead and to learn. It was the out-of-the-classroom experience we grad students hunger for – the chance to be a part of something bigger than just our own work or the institutions to which we belong. 

The Turning Tides Symposium will return to Fordham in Fall 2011. Be sure to check the Turning Tides website for more information: 

Friday, July 8, 2011

New Ideas of Living: Study Abroad as a Grad Student

I have two academic regrets from my time as an undergrad. 

1. I didn't study a language.
2. I didn't study abroad. 

I didn't see the value of either pursuit while I was in college. I could already speak Spanish, and I was sure I'd get a chance to visit other countries “some day.”

When I graduated and realized how difficult it was to find funding to go abroad, I regretted my decision. When I noticed how multilingual many of my friends had become in college, I wanted to speak more than two languages. I envied the jobs my multilingual friends could apply for all over the globe, in countries they had already visited.

By the time I started my Master's in English at Fordham, I thought the farthest my studies would take me was the Bronx. Fordham Road is a formidable trek for a Brooklyn girl! I was fine with drifting between the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses, studying in the city where I had grown up, where I knew how things worked (or didn’t…).

I was wrong to think my studies at Fordham would not call me any place I couldn't reach by NYC transit. My “second chance” to study abroad has come and now, dear reader, I write to you from London.

Yes, London!

It turns out study abroad isn’t just for undergraduates, which is excellent news for me! I am completing a graduate tutorial in memoir writing with the talented, brilliant novelist Christina Baker Kline.

I’ll be working intensely on memoir pieces, exploring issues of belonging, cultural difference, and identity. The goal is to learn more about myself as I learn about the city of London and to write it all down.

Another Fordham grad student is here as well, in the central London neighborhood of Clerkenwell. Alexandra Verini, a Ph.D. candidate in the English program, is working as a graduate assistant for a class on Arthurian literature.  

Both of us are delighted to be here, not only because we are abroad (and can share scones!) but also because of the way London will enrich our course of study and challenge our view of self.

Study abroad offers the sorts of opportunities that grad students dream of. Even in this digital age of online archives of text and image, nothing on a computer screen can compare to a trip to the right library, museum, or community organization. Emails, Skype, and electronic correspondence connect people across the globe but cannot replicate the experience of sitting down and listening to those whose academic training or life experience have made them experts in a particular field.

And beyond access to people and information, travel allows us to be transformed by seeing and being somewhere, if we choose to be emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically, present.

Miriam Beard once said, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” This sort of growth, the formation of “new ideas of living” is larger than developing as a scholar or writer – it is about becoming a different kind of woman.

I will be here only for the summer for about as long as I am writing for the Grad Life blog. In the next several weeks, I’ll be sure to share what it’s like to be an American grad student in the UK, studying writing and literature, getting lost on the tube, and trying – earnestly trying – to take it all in.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Accidental Pedagogy; or, What You Learn When You Go to Class

“What are you going to do with that?”

Every grad student faces this question – at family parties, high school reunions, and even the occasional OK Cupid date. The logic behind the question is that there is no practical application for any graduate degree that isn’t an M.D., J.D., or M.B.A. And if you can’t do anything with the degree, what’s the point in pursuing it?

Thankfully, there is a range of careers open to us as grad students, and many of us came to grad school because a range is precisely what we’re interested in. And beyond the catalogue of rare jobs a grad student may choose to pursue (radical librarian, anyone?), there is always teaching.

Whether you are a medievalist or biologist, grad school prepares you for work in the classroom. More importantly, choosing to teach addresses a dire national need for good educators.

At Fordham, many grad students complete a teaching practicum; others learn about teaching by working with professors and undergrads through graduate assistantships. And everyone goes to class!

I believe that as grad students we learn a great deal about teaching just by being students. I like to refer to this phenomenon as “accidental pedagogy,” wherein a professor offers pedagogical instruction just by a good (or not-so-good) example.

The professor who shows up to class looking frazzled and carrying a mass of papers bound with a rubber band teaches you about the importance of punctuality and manila folders. The professor who returns a forty-page paper to you with a seemingly arbitrary grade and no comments teaches you about the importance of critical feedback.

(Let it be noted that I’m not referring to actual professors – least of all Fordham English professors, who are great. Seriously. See?)

And yet, as much as grad students learn from interacting with less-than-awesome professors, we gain so much more from working with fantastic professors. Most of us already know what not to do as teachers, but the elements of an unforgettable, illuminating teaching style are far more elusive.

This spring I had a professor whose teaching style was compassionate and egalitarian. She encouraged everyone to speak without thrusting anyone into the awkward seminar limelight. She structured the class so that participation was a cornerstone of our time together. We shared, presented, and discussed every time we gathered.

This professor seemed to understand that although we are all grad students, we still get shy! I appreciated her deliberate nudging and facilitation of class discussion as much as I did her knowledge and expertise.

And sometimes she brought us snacks!

Although “Being Awesome” and “Teaching You All to Be Awesome” were never listed as course objectives on the syllabus, effective teaching skills were a part of what we learned.

It might not be quite accidental that I learned so much about teaching from this professor. She was experienced and deliberate in her efforts to establish a safe, inclusive, fruitful class culture.

Good teaching indisputably requires more substantive credentials than “I went to class a lot,” but all great teachers begin as observant students who notice what works in the classroom and what does not.  

I have a year left at Fordham before I enter the job market. If I am teaching next fall, I’ll be sure to use all I have learned from my professors. I will arrive to class on time with a multicolored array of manila folders. I will create space for everyone’s voice. I will be awesome and teach others how to be awesome. And since I am bound to make mistakes along the way, I will bring snacks – just in case.