Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic II: Thinking About References

I talked in a recent post about adapting our writing for not just different audiences, but different modes and mediums of communicating our research and thinking. What this means, however, is that we as academics need to start re-evaluating how and what we use as sources. In other words, what is acceptable to use as sources and how do we integrate them into our work? 

As I was working on adapting some of my blog posts into a longer piece of a more “formal” publication. In my blog posts, I link to other blog posts (written by experts), press releases (from legitimate faculty organizations in higher education), and news stories. I started feeling nervous once I actually started to transfer links into footnotes. Are these sources good enough? Should I be hitting the databases or Google Scholar to essentially pad my essay with more legitimate sources?
Truth be told, I don’t have time. Between my “actual” research and writing, my blogging, my teaching, and my life (yes, I have one of those, too; my family insists on it), I just don’t have time to become a true “expert” in all of the fields that I write about. Again, this is the danger and argued shortcoming of being a “generalist” but I wonder if that’s really fair. I never claimed to be an expert, and through careful online research, I’m able to find what I need to inform my arguments and make my point. 
I’m not saying that this essay (if published) should necessarily count towards tenure (not that I’m on the tenure-track), but it does show that I’m engaging in larger discussion about the field and the profession. But, again, as we change how we share our research and thinking, we are going to be forced to really figure out how to integrate these new sources into our own work. And so on and so forth. I keep thinking back to a student’s essay that linked to a number of digital recordings of old blues songs that informed her argument about the book we read. It only worked if I could click on the links she provided. She conceived her paper to be read while listening to the pieces. Except I required that it be handed in as a hard copy. 
These are questions I am starting to ask myself as I conceive not only my own research and writing, but assignments for my students. We still prioritize the journal article and the research monograph, but for my students, that isn’t the case. And, really, am I any different? I read journal articles because I believe that is where the best thinking is. I don’t necessarily think that this is going to be true for much longer. If we teach our students to think critically and more broadly about what they use, then why do we necessarily always lead our students to the conclusion that peer-reviewed journal articles are best? 
I’m interested in knowing what readers thing: where are “references” going in the future?

Being a More Efficient, Productive Academic while Thinking Differently About What We Produce

There has been a lot of discussion, as we gear up for conference season and meeting our summer research/writing goals, about how to be more efficient or productive. Digiwonk asks if it is, indeed, ok to reuse and recycle your work in higher education. In response, Jo Van Every writes that recycling is, in fact, a wonderful thing, especially if you keep your audience in mind (hmmm…that sounds suspiciously like advice I’ve given my undergrads…). Digiwonk continues with her great advice by showing how much you can accomplish with just 30 minutes of (really focused) time

But much of the focus on adapting or recycling is based off of more traditional means of communicating our research: changing the conference presentation into an article, public lecture, book chapter, etc… This, unfortunately, doesn’t help me very much, as I no longer write my conference presentation. Yes, that’s right, I don’t try to cram everything I have to say into 8-10 pages for a 20 minutes presentation. I have an idea of what I want to say, some speaking notes, a few important quotes written down, and that’s it. While these presentations are intended to eventually become an article, it’s not as easy to convert a few notes and quotes as it is a more polished conference presentation. But this again has to do with audience; I’m thinking of them sitting through my presentation, not of me later trying to hack out an article.

But I also think that focusing on primarily adapting our conference presentations (or seminar papers or carving up our dissertations or Master’s thesis for articles) doesn’t encompass the rich and varied nature of what many academics produce and write today.  For example, I just adapted some of my blog posts for a call for submissions on the state of higher education today. The tone clearly called for a style that was less formal and more conversational, making it an easy (or easier) transition. Again, this may work against me and reflect my (destructive) generalist tendencies, but I’ve worked hard on these blog posts and I’m still old-school, so I get a kick out of seeing my writing in print. 

But it goes beyond that. Failed grant applications become the basis for the next grant application which becomes a book proposal. Abstracts that weren’t accepted become the basis for the next project or a place to hold ideas. Today I submitted a book proposal for that project. It was remarkably similar to the “research narrative” I submitted to earn my summer research fellowship. But again, this isn’t old news. And it still relies on old/traditional means of sharing our work and research.

Websites and blogs become incubators and collective spaces for working through problems and ideas. As I work through my Dany Laferrière project, I record my progress and process on my (other) blog. I’m not sure what it will turn into, but I know that it allows me to record my thoughts, observations, and stray ideas as they happen, but it also serves as a way to share not just my research, but the process behind the production of my final project. Maybe it stems from my dissertation research, dealing not only with archival research, but the creative process and collaborative forces participating therein that I am aware of how mysterious the process of creating a piece of work appears to be. But I am also aware of how enriched the process becomes the more people who are involved. 

Why not have a blog that reflects our process, our progress, and our questions as it relates to our academic work? Why must we keep thinking in terms of the seminary/presentation/paper/monograph? Check out Sample Reality’s post examining the same ideas: It’s about sharing.

Too-Late Advice to Students: Take Pride in Your Work

I was having a conversation on Twitter the other day with a fellow prof who was elbow-deep in grading. She posted: “Oh yes! be proud of what you turned in! Sounds so easy…” 

Indeed it does. This is something I tell my students early and often about their work. Yes, we talk about ethos, about the students taking the time they need to write well, how important it is to follow directions, and how they should focus on working smarter, not harder. But if none of these lessons stick, then I have one more way to try and try to get them to take their work seriously: appealing to their sense of pride. 
How many of your students, when it comes time to hand in their papers, do so quickly, with averted eyes, often shoving their paper in the middle of the pile as if to hide it, and then quickly retreat to their seats, never daring to engage you? Of course, this is before electronic submissions, but one could imagine the students throwing their hands up and simply pressing send/submit/upload, seconds before the deadline. How many of them hope and pray that their efforts will earn them whatever grade they “need” rather than feeling confident in the work they have submitted?
Pride. Take pride in the work that you do. Come to class to hand in your paper feeling proud of the effort and the results. Know that this was really, truly the best you could do, rather than the best under the often self-inflicted circumstances? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to look your professor in the eyes when you place your paper confidently on the top of the stack? Maybe even throw in a little, “I hope you enjoy it” for good measure? How much more pleasant would your college/educational experience be if every assignment wasn’t fraught with anxiety, doubt, and despair? 
This also works with students who have had to face legitimate obstacles during the semester. You might not have earned the A, but you passed, and there is a certain degree of pride you can take from just getting to the finish line. Looking at the stats from my institution, this is no small feat. And before I am accused of indulging in my students’ snow-flakery, I think that students who managed to pass my courses even thought their house burned down, they were arrested, their mother died in a house fire, or their father going into rehab (all documented) deserve to take some solace from the fact that they didn’t flake out. We all have times in our lives where we simply go through the motions because other things have taken over. It’s life, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
It’s something I’m also trying to remember myself this summer as I try to grind out research articles and hopefully the solid beginnings of a book. When I press send on the email submitting my work, I want to know that it was the best I can do, and that I feel good about it, regardless of if it’s accepted or not. Makes resubmitting it elsewhere that much easier, too. 

Bad Female Academic: Loving Research AND Teaching

It’s no secret that I love to teach. This blog is a testament to how much I love teaching. This is a complex statement to make as a female academic; because of my mother-hen tendencies, I could/can be seen as being too maternal, and thus a less serious “academic” in the broad sense. A good female academic keeps her professional distance and teaches because she has to.

I absolutely and positively adore my research. In fact, as my husband recently pointed out to me, I actually get more satisfaction from being a successful researcher (publications, awards, etc) than I do from being a successful teacher (excellent evaluations, etc). I am so excited to be spending my summer doing research and writing, even though I don’t have to because I am “just” an instructor and only required to teach. I put myself forward and won a summer research fellowship precisely because I have an excellent research portfolio to go along with my teaching success.

Good female academics, especially those off the tenure-track who also happen to be trailing spouses, don’t strive for research excellence; we should be grateful that we have a job with benefits. But good female academics, on or off the tenure track, need to be careful about how successful they are in their research when they teach at primarily undergraduate teaching colleges, like the one I teach at or the one that Dr. Crazy teaches at as well. She herself recently won…something (it’s not entirely clear) that celebrated her research excellence and was (initially) ignored. You can read about it here and here.

Now, I’m not saying that this is the culture in my department, but there is something disturbing about this attitude towards research excellence:

But that doesn’t change the culture of my department.  The culture of my department is one in which mediocrity is celebrated, because it’s not threatening, and excellence is downplayed, because it might make people “feel bad.”  The culture of my department is such that when you do something great, people act like you did a violence to them, like you’re a “braggart” or that you’re somehow “less than” they are.  The prevailing attitude is something along the lines of, “I’m a great teacher because I’m shitty at research.  I don’t publish because I’m committed to my students.  I don’t have a reputation in my field because I’m so committed to our university.”

There is an assumed conflict between being a good researcher and being a good teacher. Now, Dr. Crazy doesn’t mention this, but one can imagine that it becomes doubly threatening when the young female academic is outpacing her senior male colleagues. Good female academics know their place.

I am not a good female academic. I value my research as much as my teaching, and I’m pretty good at both. I’ll probably never win a national research or teaching award, but I have been recognized as providing good work in my field(s). I am unapologetic in my quest for recognition and the money that goes with it. Politically, this is probably a terrible move, but I think (hope) that it will help my career in the long run.

Because, as I will examine in my next Bad Female Academic post, I am also ambitious.

Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and The Bible

In one of my classes, the students are required to write a pursuasive essay. In our class, I decided to have the students read and write about “the future.” As I have written here previously, we read the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, read various essays on the (possible) future, and viewed multi-media pieces on the same subject. As our textbook tells us, “Everything is an Argument” which leaves plenty of room to play and analyze the rhetoric used to make arguments about the future.

The final essay was the culmination of all of our work on rhetoric, research, and imagining the future. I was quite impressed with the results I received from my students. They were mostly thoughful, well researched, if a bit on the depressing side (not very many happy pictures of our future). Certainly there were some that were unfocused, others that were poorly researched; over-all, however, I was quite happy with my students` work. But there was one essay that gave me pause.

One student chose to write about how we are currently witnessing the End of Days as desccibed in the Bible. The student went on to very logically and meticulously show all of the ways our world currently resembles what is “fortold” in the Bible. Rhetorically, it was very pursuasive. The Bible says this, our world looks like this, therefore we are at The End of Days. On the basis of the research the student had done and the rhetorical strategies the student employed, this was a strong B or even A paper (give or take some grammatical issues). But, what to do, how to evaluate, the “reliability” of the Bible as a source?

Adding to the complexity of the issue, the student in fact had done much the same thing in an assignment I had devised, asking them to compare our world to the world imagined/fortold in Fahrenheit 451. By the end of the essay, the students had come to various conclusions about how similar our world is to Bradbury`s imaginary world and what that could mean, what lessons we should be taking from that comparison. How is Bradbury`s fictional world (as a source) any different from the Bible`s vision of the future?

Please don`t think that I am so naive that I don`t know the answer to that question already. But, I teach in a place where the Bible is still an important document that many of my students (and their families and communities) revere. And I know that others react with a quick dismissal of any student who would quote the Bible or any religious text as a sign that the student has shown no critical thinking or even, perhaps, doesn’t deserves to be in university. And this is where the conflict, for me, comes to head. The difference, of course, is in how we know the students treat the two works: the Bible as fact and Fahrenheit 451 as fiction. If the student didn`t actually believe the Bible but instead treated it as a work of fiction, would the final product thus be more worthy? And how am I to know, one way or the other, what the student believes? It certainly, for me, isn`t my place to judge a student`s faith or beliefs. But I know there are people who would expect me to fail or at least grade the student more harshly based on the fact that, for them, the Bible is a reliable source.

I am particularly troubled because I know that this is generally a good student; they do the work, they make a real effort, and has shown great improvement. And the work the student did was good; knowing that the Bible is a contentious document, the student really did go out of their way to outline as many similarities as possible. Not to mention that every other source the student used was a “legitimate” source as we discussed in class. But I also know that this student`s essay is going to be read by my colleagues (anonymously) for our general education/student learning outcomes requirement. And while this student will never know the things that I know will be said about her/his paper, it stings me nonetheless. And I also know that my colleagues will wonder what grade this student received on the paper. They`ll never know, but I know they`d be troubled to learn that it is probably a much better grade than they hoped.

So I`m going to ask for this advice. What can I or should I do in these situations?

My New Writing/Summer Project

My institution awarded me a research grant for the summer. My project is to look at and write about Dany Laferrière’s practice of rewriting, revising, and adapting his work. It’s a subject that has long fascinated me, starting ten years ago when I, on little more than a whim, decided to add his debut novel, provocatively titled How to Make Love to a Negro (recently re-released with the title finally fully translated to How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired). 

I’ve started a new blog, Chasing Laferrière. It’s a mixture of academic writing, musings, and my own relationship to Laferrière’s writing. 
Bookmark it, like it, tweet it, share it, and keep your eyes open for it over the summer. This site is me, the teacher/general academic. Chasing Laferrière is me, the discipline-specific scholar and self-reflexive; it another facet of who I am and why. I’ll still be posting here over the summer (new weekly feature for the summer, coming soon, after I get back from next week’s conference in Montreal), but I hope you’ll check out Chasing Laferrière from time to time.

The Agony and Ecstasy of Teaching Basic Writing

(Forgive the melodramatic title; I writing this with what I suspect is a mild concussion from a hard driving head-butt from my daughter)

While teaching Basic/Developmental writers can be really rewarding, my Basic Writing class this semester has been particularly trying. More than half the class disappeared. The half that showed up today to hand in their final papers have been missing themselves for much of the semester. I had four students who consistently attended, took the work seriously, and will do well. 

I have students who were taking my class for the second time. They were doing so well, and then they were gone, without a trace. I have students who drank away their first semester, came back looking to save their academic lives, and still couldn’t come to class on a consistent basis. Even the threat of failure (and in the case of many of the students, getting kicked out of school) couldn’t seem to get the students motivated. One of my students, so proud of the fact that his narrative essay was published in his local paper, is now MIA.
What makes it so hard is that I know the students almost all dealing with a lot of issues outside of class. The narrative essay often reveals so much about their lives before coming to my class. One was homeless for a few years. Another is dealing with a physical ailment that kept him home for most of high school. Another lost his baby twins in childbirth. Last semester, one student lost his mother in a house fire. Another was a veteran, trying to get his life back together. I know how much these students have had to overcome in order to be in college to begin with.
But then again, the students who did show up regularly also are dealing with issues. One is pregnant with three other kids at home, all under the age of 10. Another is dealing with legal issues (which, in a wonderful switch, he didn’t feel the need to share with me). Yet another is participating in the very demanding ROTC program. So which group are the exception, and which are the rule? 
I honestly want all of my students to succeed. And while I know that some students ultimately won’t succeed in college, I don’t want it to be because poor preparation and a lack of basic skills is holding them back. I know that my students, at the very least, can be successful in my class if they do the work. Even if they eventually drop out, their writing and basic communication skills will have improved enough to write a basic cover letter. A few of them, in spite of (or maybe because of) how they behaved in my class are planning to take my regular Freshman Writing course in the fall. 
And maybe that’s a victory in and of itself: the student who wants to come back in my class to prove that he or she can do better. The way this semester went, I’ll take it. 

Dilettante, Generalist, or Unfocused? Teaching and Research Tensions

Conference season is upon us academics. I’ll be going back to Sherbrooke in a few weeks to present a piece of my dissertation, investigating how a translator and editor worked together to produce a collection of translated poems. I just presented last weekend on Dany Laferrière’s practice of rewriting his novels, specifically looking at the transformation of La chair du maitre into Vers le Sud. This summer, I’m working an essay on how Nalo Hopkinson uses the female body in her speculative fiction. 

Oh, and I teach writing. 
I’ve recently become more acutely aware of how my “research output” reflects my image of a scholar (both a teacher and researcher). Should I be moving more towards presenting and publishing on teaching writing, as that is where my professional career seems to be heading? Should I try to find more English authors to study and write about as I teach English? Can I indulge my growing interest in digital humanities, with the limited resources at my disposal (time and money)?
The question of resources is not a trivial one. I do not have a great deal of travel support, and it is expensive to fly anywhere from where I currently live. I teach a 5/4 course load, all of which are writing intensive. I had to cancel going to THATCamp, an experience I had been particularly looking forward to, because it was hard to justify the expense. My past training, publications, and current teaching don’t scream digital humanities; why do I need to change directions, yet again?
I get bored very easily, and I like to have lots of ball up in the air, mentally. When I get burnt out from writing about the middle-aged menopausal body as magical, I can move to how and why an author rewrites his life story. And then, if I can focus on either of those topics, I can comb through the new thoughts related to my dissertation in an effort to change it into a book. And then, on a break, I revise and refine my writing courses.
When I was hired for my (brief) tenure-track position, it was as a generalist, a role I felt well-suited for. Intro to lit or world lit? A PhD in comparative literature certainly prepares you for that. Postcolonial? Got it. Immigrant writing? Got it. Minority? Got it. Popular? Got it. Teaching experience, especially with non-traditional student populations? Yup, got that, too. While looking for my first tenure-track job, I was most successful with the generalist jobs I had applied for. I can imagine that my research and interests were either too diverse (or, too focused on one or two authors) for a more specialized position. 
There is a thread that connects all of my interests, however, and that’s the process and results of writing. If it be translating, rewriting, or imagining, it seems to always come back to writing.  Even my MA thesis, concerned with magical dystopias, is essentially about books that are making clear arguments about the (possible) future. How do we shape and reshape ourselves and the world around us through language? I suppose this is what we are all doing in literature, but I wonder how many of us would describe what we do in such general terms? We are often sent the message in academia that our research and teaching be hyper-specialized, or at least unique. I know that what I am doing is unique, but perhaps I haven’t stuck with any one subject long enough to become hyper-specialized, and thus well-known, in order to become a “successful” academic.
I expressed my thoughts and apprehensions on a recent post on Dr. Davis’ Teaching College English blog. Her thoughtful response:

I figure, I may never be “the” expert on a field, but I can have multiple important contributions to a number of disparate studies.

This, ultimately, is what I aspire to. I might never be an expert in any one area (although I’ll wager there are few other academics who have devoted as much time and mental energy on Dany Laferriere as I have), I want to and can have multiple contributions in a lot of different areas. It might not ultimately benefit my career, but I’m doing what I love. For that, I am grateful, even if I do look a bit like the academic equivalent of a flake.

Teacher or Preacher? On Basic Writing, Gen Ed Courses

I have a particularly bright student in my developmental writing course this semester. While I know why he is in my class (ACT scores not high enough), I’m not entirely sure how that happened. It would seem that he fell through the cracks. He is everything that you dream about in a student, especially when you are teaching developmental writing: he attends class, he takes the work seriously, does his homework, and participates in class discussions. But I know that he resents the hell out of my class, especially when I have to come down hard on the other students who don’t show up, don’t do the work, and don’t take it seriously. One day I made sure that he knew that I knew that the speech was not meant for him. He shrugged, said he understood, but it got his back up when I started to preach. I hate church, he said, and I don’t want to hear a sermon at school.

This conversation took place almost a month ago. It’s troubled me ever since. I want my classroom be an open place for an exchange of ideas, but, at the same time, there are certain lesson, sermons so to speak, that the students need to hear, often repeatedly, if they hope to be successful in college. While taking the time to do the work and taking that work seriously doesn’t guarantee success in college, it certainly increases the odds. I know there are students who can do little to nothing during college and still do well (I was one of them), but I also know that my developmental students can’t afford to allow school to be the last thing on their list of priorities if they want to graduate and not have wasted their money. 
I speak from a position of experience. I have taught developmental and other lower-level general education courses for more than ten years now (seriously, when did that happen?). I’ve seen the students who struggle and ultimately succeed versus those who don’t even bother trying. I also know that one of the ways we learn is through repetition, so I repeat the core mantra every chance I get. But what does that say about my teaching style or my attitude towards my students. On one hand, I want to treat them like adults, but on the other hand, I seem to scold them like children. Minister to them like a flock of unthinking sheep. But if we teach in an influence-based society, is it any wonder some of us adopt a strategy that mirrors some of the most successful personalities, like the preacher?
Teaching might not be a vocation, but there are some very real similarities between what I am expected, required, or choose to do in front of the classroom and what a good preacher does. But is this a good thing? Religion is often seen as a means of indoctrination, and it pains me to say that in some ways, I am trying to indoctrinate my students on how to be successful in college and beyond. I’ve written before how for many of us in academia, institutions of higher learning are the new church, and our religion is based on the tenants of hard work and critical thinking. Some sections of society think that if everyone had a little more God, this world would be a better place. Nationally, however, the common refrain is that this world would be better place if were all just had a little more higher education. 
In my classes, it boils down to getting my students to think critically about why they are in college, and then convincing them to use that as motivation to do the unpleasant tasks that are required of them. I know I am supposed to make my classes relevant and engaging, which I try very hard to do, but when faced with a classroom full of students who tell me that they hate writing and reading, well, no matter how exciting and entertaining I make the assignments, they will still have to write and read, in my class and beyond. So, yes, I guess I am a bit of a preacher, trying to convert the masses. But, it is only one of the many personas I use when I teach. 
At least he didn’t say I reminded him of a missionary. That’s a whole other can of worms. 

Calling All CRW Readers! An Invitation for Feedback

I don’t know if I’m writing on topics that people aren’t interested in, if my current state of end-of-semester doldrums are impacting my writing, or if I’m just not as dedicated as I was to tweeting my posts, but my numbers are way down. This, along with everything else, has got me down. I have at least six posts that I have been meaning to or wanting to write for the past month, but they aren’t coming together for me. 

Topics include:
– What role professors/instructors play in this information age;
– Who should go to college (although Tenured Radical seems to have covered the topic quite nicely);
– My pre-academic jobs (and what they taught me);
– Response to the consistent accusation that professors are disconnected from the “real world”;
– Why you should be nice to your administrative assistant(s);
– How to talk like a pirate and make a living (trust me on this one).
But I am stuck. It’s hard to be motivated when people don’t seem to be responding to my posts. I’m thinking that, for the summer, I’ll be cutting back on the posting, in part because, hey, it’s summer, but also because I need to focus on my research. Maybe this summer, the blog will be more about my research than my teaching (makes sense, as I won’t be teaching, no?). I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write about what my dreams are; seriously, you didn’t think I wanted to be an instructor the rest of my life, did you? 
So I’m going to throw it open to you, dear, loyal readers, tell me what you’d like to read about. Why is it you come here? What can I do better or do more of? I know it can be a little bi-polar around here, with both talking about teaching, but also talking about larger issues of higher education. Is that a strength, or a weakness?  
Either post it in the comments below, or tweet me (@readywriting, if you didn’t already know). I’m serious about this; I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t listen to my students, and thus I wouldn’t be a good blogger if I didn’t listen to my readers. Please, don’t make this like the classroom of blank stares and awkward silence. I know y’all are better than that. 🙂