Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: March 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Professionalization: A Vital Part of Graduate Education

At the time when I applied to graduate school, I really didn’t know anything about living in the real world. Maybe undergraduate life was too disconnected from the real world to give me any inkling. Not that my undergrad years were easy and breezy – I had 3 campus jobs throughout my years at college, and no car, and no material luxuries. But there was very little discussion about what it meant to take your college degree out into the real world. For me as an English student, I think my undergraduate work allowed me to be swept up in the romance of literature and writing. I came from a working class family, but I guess somehow I believed that getting to college was already the pot at the end of the rainbow. 
In fact, all I really knew was that I loved books and literature and wanted to keep studying in that field, and that I thought I would love to be a professor in an English department one day. So after a year of working at an office job, I left corporate America and applied to English grad programs. I didn’t really have a plan; I thought I would figure it out as I went. Well, it turns out, according to most advice pieces in The Chronicle and elsewhere in blogs on the web, that I was all wrong --  I went to graduate school for all the wrong reasons, without having the proper means, and without a clearly mapped out career plan, all to my eventual detriment, apparently.
The “right reasons” to go to graduate school are, according to these advice-givers, to get a job. (Not because you "love" literature.) Job getting is the main objective. This, of course, makes very practical sense, but if you don’t know anything about the field, or about academic life and professionalization in general before you begin graduate school, then logically you’d have to learn about it when you get there. But do we, as graduate students, learn what we need to know about getting a job when we start graduate school? Wouldn’t it be a great idea if graduate school education from day one included in its curriculum – in fact, made mandatory in its curriculum – a practical course in professionalization in the field?
Now, for a minute, let’s compare and contrast Arts and Sciences graduate degrees to other forms of post-Bachelor degree education, thought of as “professional degrees,” such as JDs and MDs. Medical students have a clear path of professionalization built into their programs; law students, on the other hand, do not.  I’ve heard lawyers and law school graduates complain that law school has absolutely nothing to do with the practical, day-to-day job of being a lawyer. It seems absurd that such elaborate education systems would get built that do not directly feed into the job market that requires the degree.
It is the same with Arts and Sciences graduates – there is almost nothing that was required of me as a graduate student that pro-actively prepared me for the job market. Assignments and projects – and more precisely the A, A-, B+, B grading systems that went with these assignments – do nothing for students to prepare them for eventually getting a job in the field.
Here’s what I’m imagining: a mandatory professionalization curriculum that requires students to demonstrate and generate knowledge of the basic arc of an academic career, starting from someone’s first semester as a PHD student to – well basically the end of his or her life! This curriculum would provide information about the conventional path through graduate school as well as encourage students to explore how that arc can be modified and altered, inviting students to identify alternative career pathways and end-goals that can be reached when starting a program. The curriculum should ask students to outline possible career paths, and to research and become experts in the market, and to understand what the academic world is all about. In addition, spotlights should be put on the mechanisms of conferences, publications, committees, dissertation writing, applications, interviews, and self-identity within the field. 
Then, aside from this curriculum addition, the assessment system in the existing courses needs to be totally changed in order to promote marketability. Getting an "A-" means nothing and will do nothing to help you get a job.  Instead, incorporate professionalization into the curriculum itself. Require us to submit papers to conferences, and to prepare articles for specific journals and CFP's.  Have those submissions (and acceptances) be the basis for grades and course fulfillment. Have mock mini-conferences within the seminar, or join forces with other seminars to have bigger mock conferences across the department. It is through these forums, rather than seminar papers alone, that students should be evaluated and critiqued and assessed, with an eye to marketability and credibility in the field. Sources and methodology should be scrutinized, and presentation skills, either oral or written, should be constructively critiqued, helping students to prepare to publish, speak at conferences, and complete the dissertation.
I believe that this vital part in the education of graduate students had been overlooked in the past because there was perhaps no real need for it, when the supply and demand for PhDs was more balanced. But I don’t see how it can continue to be overlooked.To be fair, many of my professors tried to incorporate elements of professional skills into coursework, but as a whole I think more can be done systematically to make a greater impact.

What do you guys think? What can we do to help transform what needs transforming insofar as embedding professionalization into curriculum?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Communitas '12 on March 30th

      It seems it would be slipshod of me as the GSAS blogger not to mention the special GSAS event that is coming up at the end of this month! On March 30th, the GSAS will hold its annual Communitas ’12 and Spring Gannon Lecture event!
     Here’s how the schedule breaks down:
     Starting at 12:30pm, student presenters from every department will be presenting their work, from recent and current research projects, in the Walsh Library. Click here for the schedule of presentations

      At 5:30pm, there will be a Dean’s reception in the Walsh Library Atrium, where the presenters will be exhibiting their research posters and videos. Last year’s winning entries are posted on the GSAS Research Competition webpage. I just browsed through the projects – they look amazing! It definitely is inspiring to see the work of my peers, not only in my department but throughout the entire GSAS, displayed and showcased for a larger audience. Communitas provides a nice space for graduates to take pride in their projects that their blood, sweat, and tears have gone into for probably months and maybe even years.
       Then, at 6:30 pm, everyone will move into the Flom Auditorium for the Spring Gannon Lecture. Unfortunately, I hadn’t previously known this event existed, but after learning about it, I realize that it is such a wonderful opportunity for GSAS members to gather together and enter a conversation about a timely and important cultural topic. According to the GSAS website, “The Gannon Lecture Series, which began in the fall of 1980, brings distinguished individuals to Fordham to deliver public lectures on topics of their expertise.  Fordham alumni endowed the series to honor the Rev. Robert I. Gannon, S.J., president of Fordham University from 1936 to 1949, who was an outstanding and popular speaker.” (1980! That means the lecture series is as old as this blogger!)
       This year’s lecture topic sounds like it will be a fascinating and timely topic. The lecture is entitled, “Sandstorm: Interpreting the New Middle East and North Africa” and will be given by Dr. Kamal  Azari, GSAS ’88, and Dr. John P. Entelis, Prof. of Political Science and Director of Middle East Studies program at Fordham. (By the way, I went to the Middle East Studies webpage on the University Website – it looks like an amazing program!) Both Dr. Azari and Dr. Entelis will surely bring out important perspectives on political, social, economic, and cultural issues related to the Middle East and North Africa.  

       The question I want to ask now is this: What can we do as a community to encourage more consistent and wider attendance at these kind of events, which will surely benefit all who attend, either professionally, academically, or intellectually? From my experience, I feel as if being a part of the GSAS community as a whole wasn’t and isn’t presented as a priority or even an expectation as I began my coursework years ago at Fordham. Readers, do you agree? Was this was just a personal experience unique to me – did my own actions (and non-actions) cause me to miss out on these GSAS wide opportunities? Or is it a larger issue? And, is this something we as a whole should work to correct? How important is service or participation to the GSAS as a whole in comparison to serving and participating within our departments? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 
       In the meantime, I hope to see you at the event! 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"You're Doing Great" and other fantasies of grad life...

Hello Grad Students!
Today I've been thinking a lot about graduate conferences, most likely because I am presenting at one on Friday at the CUNY Graduate Center. The conference is entitled “Cripples, Idiots, Lepers, and Freaks: Extraordinary Bodies / Extraordinary Minds" -- it's an interdisciplinary conference that aims to look at literature, media, culture, problems of representation, and social practices through the lens of disability.
 Although I've helped organize a grad conference before at Fordham, and attended several over the years, I've never actually presented at a grad conference -- I'm so excited for the experience! I'm happy that this one is in New York City, and that I'll get to meet some great graduate students from across the city and beyond.
To me, grad conferences provide safe spaces to be bold, to try out styles of speaking and writing and interfacing, to learn to believe in your own thoughts, reactions, and responses, and to challenge yourself. I'm excited because I always find conference weekends to be so invigorating, both intellectually and emotionally.  There's something about the way a conference works that stretches me, that allows me to think in new ways, and that makes me find a renewed commitment to my work and field. Depending on my mood, I find it possible to be anonymous, and sit in the audience and think and listen, or to talk, try out ideas out loud, and make connections with people.  I find myself scribbling questions that I try to formulate as I listen to the speakers and make thoughts cohere. It's a very energizing and motivating experience for me.
There's been some talk in The Chronicle blogs about different types of conferences -- oh yes, leave it to us academics to categorize, classify, and analyze our own professional formats and venues! We've got it all divided it up by specific criteria: On what scale does it take place: nationally, regionally, or locally?  Who's participating -- professionals, graduates, or both? What kind of subject matter -- general or specialty? Is it organized by a department, a society, or a school? Is it organized around a theme, text, or author? Does it focus on a critical school of thought? Is it interdisciplinary? Will there be a publication that results from it? Who will you meet? What new ideas will you get?
All fun-poking aside, I actually do find it interesting to think about the dynamics of the "conference." Individuals tend to see the benefits of a conference according to his or her personality: some like the networking, collaboration, and the opportunity to get in front of audiences; some like the opportunity to think and have one-on-one discussions over the lunch or dinner breaks.
Interdisciplinary events have been key for me to expanding my horizons and thinking about my field (American lit) in new ways. Fordham, I feel, is pretty good about offering interdisciplinary events for the graduate community. (That reminds me -- the Communitas Event is coming up March 30th -- check here for more info about the Research Competition and the Ganon Lecture.) But I think always more can be done -- for example, my project on mental disability and literature could probably benefit from talks with neuroscience, biology, and philosophy grad students, to name just a few! I am fascinated by possibilities of stretching the boundaries of what we already know, of ways we know how to be.
One last note -- I've been thinking a lot about the purposes of professionalization as a grad student, and what some goals could be for myself at this conference coming up. I had a random idea today during yoga class, actually. I was in a particularly difficult pose that made me lose my balance a bit. As I stumbled out of the pose, someone next to me whispered, "You're doing great." As he said these kind words, my mind did a strange thing: it sort of immediately and unconsciously produced an image of myself at the conference. In the mini-movie in my mind that had suddenly appeared, I saw myself fumbling an important point in my paper, and the person next to me at the panel table whispered, "You're doing great."  The thought came up through the subconscious so clearly and vividly and unintentionally that it almost made me laugh. I mean, the class leaders always say that the class will draw out the bad stuff going on in your life, and I've definitely had emotions come to the surface during class before, but never had such a concrete narrative scenario risen to my mind's eye. I guess it made transparent some insecurities I have about presenting my work in public, but it also was a pretty clear wish for the same kind of encouraging, comforting and supportive environment in my work life that I enjoy in the yoga studio.  Afterwards, though, I got to thinking -- hey, why not? Why should the grad conferences be the safe spaces that help prepare us for the real academic world -- why shouldn't it just be like that always? Maybe the vision came to me as an intention to transform the post-graduate school world into a space that can also provide a warm kind of support that graduate conferences offer us?  Maybe the vision was telling me to use the CUNY Grad Center conference this weekend as a chance to extend my congratulations, or encouragement, or praise, to someone else. Maybe we graduate students can take this opportunity now, during this relatively short time in our careers, to use the grad conferences we create and participate in to help transform the future of our professional world and the way our profession works. Why not? It's up to us, after all, to decide what kind of world we want to be in.

-- Liza

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Hi Grad Students,
My favorite (rock and roll) artist released an album this week.  On Tuesday, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, in glossy black vinyl, arrived at my fiance’s apartment, via U.S. mail, and a digital version I had pre-ordered was uploaded onto my laptop, via I-tunes.
 Springsteen always speaks to me in my time of need. I remember reading an article once in Time Magazine in which Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks said that sometimes, when she isn’t sure of what to do in life, she asks herself, “What would Bruce Springsteen do?” and it usually helps her out of a dilemma, and guides her down the wiser road, or helps her find the strength to choose the road less traveled. This method of self-monitoring has often worked for me, too. His messages are in his music, and in his living example, and in his honest creation of characters that explore what it means to be an adult, an American, a human. In Wrecking Ball, the message is timely and urgent.
I was in desperate need of a little Springsteen, this week, actually, after sifting through archives of The Chronicle and finding, and reading, in its entirety -- in an act of what in retrospect I might describe as insane masochism -- an article entitled: “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go.” (I should mention that I also continued the masochistic episode and further increased the despair by reading “Just Don’t Go, Part Two.”
The article brings to mind a scene from the movie The Wedding Singer, when Adam Sandler’s character snarls to his ex-fiance who has left him at the altar and is now giving him reasons why she as fallen out of love with him: “Once again, things that could've been brought to my attention YESTERDAY!”
Sigh…. If you are one of the GSAS students in one of the humanities departments, you may know how I am feeling after reading that article. Thank goodness this episode of self-torture coincided with the release of Wrecking Ball. In the album, Springsteen’s characters are angry and anguished about the promises of the American dream being shattered, but also defiant and resilient. Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke said one of the songs is like a “dance through the ashes” of the “scorched earth” that America has become, and that the record reminds us that we still have the power to sing and create.
Springsteen resounds, “Take you best shot, show ‘em what you got, bring on your wrecking ball,” and I imagined somehow channeling all my fear and bitterness and sadness and anger that arose after reading the article and somehow standing up to the world, without regret, doing whatever it is that I do here in grad school and in work and in life, and telling the crushing reality of life to come and get me, because in the end life is the journey, not the end product.
After reading the dismal and gloomy and soul-crushing article mentioned above, searching for a way to quell my despair, I asked myself, “What would Bruce do?” In his new album, he tells me what to do:
The lyrics of “Wrecking Ball” remind us that our “steel and stories” will one day “drift away to rust,” and our “youth and beauty” will be “given to the dust,” and that although we may win or lose, we all are “burning the down the clock,” and that “all our little victories and glories” will “turn into parking lots,” and that since this is the nature of humanity, we have nothing left to do but stand up and say, bring it on. When you’ve been flattened, you dance through the ashes. You keep going.
‘Til you’re done. Yes. Onward and onward, folks. Until next time, Liza