The Academic Essay: Twitter has ruined me

I finished the article I was working on, the one I had put aside because I had missed the deadline. Turns out I  was able to submit the paper late. So I’ve been trying to drag the article out of my brain, kicking and screaming for the past four days. I’ve been thinking and reading and researching and outlining the paper for a few months now, but the writing this time around has been the most difficult part. Much more difficult than I am used to. And part of the reason is Twitter.

Part of the reason I had so much trouble is because I could expand, in fact my brain actively resisted and rebelled against expanding, a fairly simply concept (history has been unkind and unfair to Black women) into 2-5 pages of theoretical whatever that I know I need to have to make it an acceptable academic essay. It was so hard. Why, my brain kept insisting, do we have to do this? Why? Is anyone really going to argue with you on this point? I didn’t realize that was my problem until I tweeted that I was having a problem. I thought it was because I was having trouble dealing with the non-linear structure of the narrative. Nope, I was able to tweet out exactly what each part should be and in what order. The problem was I was more comfortable tweeting it out in 140 characters than expanding it to 20-25 pages.

I’m pretty sure Mark Bauerlein would point to this and say “I told you so,” along with a number of other luddites (my husband included). But I have to ask the question, is this really a bad thing? I mean, sure, it’s terrible for my career because you don’t get tenure based on tweets. But looking at the larger picture, is this not an example of thinking differently about how we share our research? Why is the research paper the gold standard? Reducing years of research to a handful of tweets might be a bit extreme, but I really wish sometimes that there were other outlets for my research that were recognized by academia. Outlets that were more accessible and more reasonable in their demands.

I think, however, that Bauerlein might agree with me that the explosion of research publications has made it almost impossible to “keep up” and write a reasonable five pages as an intro or theoretical grounding for your essay. It has lead to the use of a small handful of theorists in everyone’s work, lest we appear we know what we’re talking about (I’m writing on postcolonialism, I quote Spivak). Part of my difficulty also came from the fact that I was completely unsure I had done enough “research” for the opening section, but I knew I knew enough for Twitter. I couldn’t get into the writing because I could give up on the researching and reading.

We keep putting more and research out there and keep demanding more and more research still. It’s beginning to get inhuman. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s what my brain was railing against.

On Deadlines: I’m as bad as my students

I had a deadline yesterday. It was a call for submissions that I came across a few months ago, on otherness and historical fiction. I immediately thought of The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson. It is a book that has following me around for a while now, and this would be the perfect opportunity to finally try and figure out what is going on. I was thinking about how Hopkinson was re-writing or re-inserting the histories of Black women into History. It was due yesterday.

And, I didn’t get it done. I debated asking for an extension, but at the end of the day (actually, it was half-way through the day) I realized that taking the weekend wouldn’t even help this paper be as good as it needed to be. I had almost ten pages and was barely a third of the way through what I wanted to say. The ideas and analysis were finally starting to come together, but it wouldn’t get done on time. So, I gave up, went grocery shopping, and decided that I would take the few days before leaving for Montreal to finish it up.

I’m almost always like this when it comes to submitting papers and answering CFPs: last possible minute, and usually asking for an extension. I’ve talked about deadlines before when it comes to undergraduates, and we know all about how desperately undergraduates plead with us for extensions. Why can’t our students get organized and get their work in on time, we lament. Well, why can’t most of the academics I know do the same?

One of the biggest differences between when our students ask for more time and when we as academics ask for more time is that academics tend to actually use the time to make the paper better. One of the other differences, of course, are the stakes. Most of the time, academics are submitting their work voluntarily; we choose where and what we want to submit, apply for, or participate in. Undergrads choose to come to school, but they don’t choose their deadlines and assignments. One might argue about the stakes as well: which of the two groups face the higher stakes? Undergrads fear failure, lower GPAs, and everything that comes with it. Academics face not meeting tenure requirements. I don’t, but that’s a different story.

I guess, for me, I don’t have the pressure on me. I’m not being graded, I’m not up for tenure, and I know that even though I’ve missed this deadline, I can finish the essay and submit it elsewhere. Now, if this was a book manuscript, it would be entirely different; I was late once with my book manuscript and then had to wait three extra years for its publication. In this case, the stakes are higher if only because other people are dependent on my ability to complete my work on time. That not only makes their jobs more difficult if I’m late, but also could impact my ability to get published in the future (do publishers talk amongst themselves about academics who are incapable of meeting deadlines, naming names?).

But I am also all to aware of all of the pressures academics face, all of the demands on their time, each one professing that it is THE most important deadlines. Between students who expect their work handed back to them instantaneously and administrators who keep coming up with new and bizarre reports and measures that need to be filed and reported yesterday, the pit-falls for professors on the tenure-track are perilous. Even off the tenure-track, I find myself pushing my writing down the list of priorities because other “more important” deadlines keep popping up.

But, I am also a procrastinator par excellence. This isn’t to say that I’m not working; on the contrary, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to write before finally sitting down to write it. But I wait until the last possible minute to start actually writing. Actually, I find that I am starting to write a few seconds past the last possible minute now. I am still learning how it takes me to write something now. You’d think that after an MA and a PhD, a long(ish) list of articles, a book, and a number of book reviews, I’d know how long it takes me to write. But, apparently, I don’t.

As I said in the title, I’m as bad as my students.

Who Speaks for Rural Education?

On Fridays this summer, I’m going to be reposting my writing that has appeared elsewhere on the web. This post originally appeared on So Educated.
In my upper division writing classes, we are talking about the current debates surrounding education reform, as well as dissecting the rhetoric curretly being used in the popular media to shape these debates. In class, we watched trailers for the documentaries Waiting for Superman (see below)Race to Nowhere, and Schooling the World. My students, while interested, saw little of themselves in the situations described by the first two trailers. The third, dealing with the exporting of Western schooling internationally, particularly in poor, rural areas, resonated with them in a way they didn’t really understand.

I teach English and writing at a rural state university where the majority of the students come from even smaller surrounding communities. The economy (when there was one) is largely based on argriculture and coal mining. I am in a heart of the Bible Belt as well. My students have come to university with the goal of providing a better life for themselves and their families, to hopefully break the cycle of poverty. These are not students who are over-scheduled and suffering from the pressure of raised expectations. Nor are their failing schools the product of inner-city poverty or unsafe learning environments. Many of my students are caught between two worlds: the traditional one they come from, where hard physical labor, strong family ties, and God are valued above all else, and the more contemporary one they are confronted with when they arrive at university.
This is, admittedly, an entirely new experience for me. It in no way resembles my own experience growing up (middle-class, professional), nor have I taught students with this kind of background before. My experience with non-traditional students has been of the more traditional variety: first-generation, minority students who almost all come from an urban environment. I am, however, committed to helping these students achieve their goals, get an education, and hopefully make a better life for themselves. Hearing about their experiences in high school, however, leaves me wondering if some of them even have a chance.
When politicians and pundits speak about raising standards and educating everyone, they rarely mention those significant parts of the population that do not have access to quality schools because of their isolation and relative poverty. The need is there; Teach for America is hoping to place over 500 teachers in the Mississippi Delta alone. But if you look at the TFA map, the majority of their placements are in urban areas. The best and the brightest are, apparently, not interested in moving to rural, isolated communities. Or, perhaps, the communities are not interested in having them come to teach in their schools.
My university trains and educates the majority of the teachers in our region. Our library, however, has two to three times as many books on issues and challenges in urban and minority K-12 education as they do on rural education. None of the education faculty seem to specialize in issues concerning rural education, either. How are we shaping the future teachers who will be educating the children in the rural areas? What are the challenges unique to rural areas in the United States? Should we be looking beyond our borders to see how other countries have either failed or succeeded at rural education?
I am, as I said before, not an expert. But I hope to learn and share my journey with you. I want to find those voices that I know must exist who speak for rural education. I want to help make those voices heard. I want to educate myself, my students, and the more general public. At the end of the day, I want my students, and subsequently their children, to succeed. My work and writings here on is one of the ways I am working towards that goal.

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?