academia: April 2009 Archives

Well, no. Not really. But it is the last day of classes of the final semester of my tenure as the Director of Graduate Studies for the CCR Program at Syracuse. Technically, my time isn't up until the end of June, and double technically, I'll still be executing some duties through the following year.

The main one is our annual Placement Committee, which guides our veteran students through the job search process. This was something that the previous DGS and I developed when I first got here. That year, we had our first couple of students on the market (the program was only about 4-5 years old at the time), and they had to cobble together support and advice from various sources, which didn't work as well as it could have. So we decided to set up a subcommittee and develop some procedures that, beginning in the spring, would guide those students through the process, help them vet and revise their materials, provide simulated phone/f2f interviews and job talks, etc.

Because of the rhythm of the search process, though, it's a responsibility that begins in April and runs for 9-10 months, ideally. And so I'll be sticking around this job for that purpose, as a member (but no longer chair) of our Graduate Studies Committee, for another year or so.

In honor of the fact that this is my final go-round, at least for a while, with the Placement Committee, I spent some time over the last week revising the materials we hand out at our initial meeting, which is tomorrow. The 5-page guide/overview to the market is linked below--feel free to give it a glance, and/or share the link with someone who'll be hitting the market in the fall. It's not as detailed as the various books now available, and it's pretty specific to rhet/comp, but it's worked well for us for the past few years...

That's all.


Ambient Reading

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Paul's got a great entry today, on "How to Read Everything?" Seriously great. Lots of good thoughts in there.

One of the things that's instructive about his entry is the list of various strategies that he's tried and abandoned, which is one of the things I recommend to folk on a regular basis. There are all sorts of ways to manage one's "mental intertextual map," and the trick is find the ones that will work for you at a given time.

One thing that I would add to Paul's account is that you have different needs at different times. My own strategies tend to resemble his quite a bit--I don't take a lot of notes myself, although that's changed a little as I've gotten older and more forgetful. Like him, I tend to have a very strong procedural memory--I remember colors, covers, the place on the page where an important quote is, etc. But I do do a little bit of underlining, not so I can go back through a text and cull the marks, but because I find that it reinforces my procedural memories. It keeps me on a given page and at a particular spot on the page a little longer, which seems to burn that spot into my memory a little more.

A couple of other points worth raising. There's a difference between reading a book and reading a discipline, even if we tend to use the same verb. So in "reading everything," I hear "everything" to mean the discipline, and that's a different strategy. You can "read" a journal in 10 minutes if you're reading it to know what's there, so that you can return to what's valuable to you later. And that kind of reading is ultimately quite valuable--Brian has written recently about "ambient research," and I just finished a collaborative piece with a friend on a similar topic--it's a matter of entering the flow of a discipline, getting a feel for what's going on, before you make the choices about where to drill down.

So maybe I'd describe this as a difference between ambient and directed reading. We are trained very heavily in directed reading, and rarely are advised about ambient reading. In part, this is because it comes as a result of enculturation, and so seems a "natural" outgrowth of that process. I think I could argue that what I've been working on in my graduate teaching in the past 4-5 years is pushing my students more towards a model of ambient reading, an approach that could productively complement the emphasis on directed reading that tends to dominate graduate coursework. And I think that part of my current interest in Web2 stuff is how those tools can help us accomplish that.

So there's that.

Sprint v Marathon

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If late fall and early spring were examinazing! then my late spring and early summer are shaping up to be dissertastic! which should go some distance towards explaining why I seem to be fixated on that particular process as of late.

I wanted to make note of Jim's comparison of dissertation-writing to the baseball season, because I think he's dead-on accurate. The day Jim posted that, I was explaining to someone or other why I'm such a fan of baseball. I like the gradualness of the season, and while every once in a while, you can watch magical things happen (last season's Rays, e.g.), part of the appeal for me is its omnipresence. There's always a game on somewhere, so I can watch if I want. But I can also miss a game or a week as well, without feeling like I've missed too much. It's not a game that readily lends itself to the highlight, and it fits well into the zone of continuous partial attention (CPA) that characterizes my working spaces.

I'm not interested in spinning the allegory out too far here, though, except to note that writing the dissertation is a lot more like going through a season of baseball than it is other sports (and maybe other activities). To use another well-worn sports analogy, it's much more like a marathon than a sprint, and part of the trouble that folks have in making that transition is that, for their entire educational careers, they've been practicing the sprint. And there are some folk who manage, through luck or persistence, to sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, sprint a mile, stop, until they've done a marathon's worth of sprints. In a sense, I did that with my own dissertation.

But when I got to the book, I wised up, I think. I still accomplished it in a very intense stretch of time, but the way I used that time was very different. Instead of bouncing back and forth between front and back burners, I kept my book on the CPA burner, and figured out how to manage different types of activities at different times, all of which kept me focused without burning me out.

But my advice here is not to do what I did, with either project. Rather, I'd say that it's important to be open to the possibility that the "rules" you've constructed for yourself and your writing--composed as they were during a time where your work was much shorter and burstier--might be revised. What I ended up doing was trying really hard not to love my quirks too hard. Use outlines, freewrites, bubblemaps, timed writing, journaling, notetaking systems, everything--in particular, try out those things that you don't think you need. Accept that the dissertation process is different from anything you've done before, and develop new habits and strategies to manage it. Try a different word processor, a new chair, a new workspace, a new workflow, everything. In the process, you'll learn more about what you need to get it done and what you thought you needed but don't.

The major projects that I've done (and there was a long stretch where this blog would count as onesuch) have always changed the way I write, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. And I'm much more conscious of what I need to write well, which has served me well since then. In some ways, I'm tempted to argue that that's the real affordance of the dissertation--just as exams give you an unparalleled opportunity to learn the field, the dissertation gives you a similar opportunity to really learn who you are and can be as a writer.

I'd like that idea much more if it didn't sound like I was romanticizing the process unnecessarily. I don't mean to--I've both seen and been part of less-than-ideal dissertation situations--but I think that, even when things aren't going well, we can still learn a great deal about our writerly selves, for better or worse.

That's all. I feel like I have maybe 3 or 4 more posts about dissertating in me. We'll see how much time I have over the next few...



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from April 2009.

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