Viral Animation for a Snow Day: So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities

Nothing new but funny, nonetheless.

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Poetry acceptance: Blackbird

I’m so geeked by an acceptance by Blackbird, a journal out of VCU. I’ve followed that journal for some time, and I’m in awe of the caliber of poets there. (Their last issue has Terrance Hayes!) Blackbird accepted two poems from my second manuscript, which is disjunctive, non-linear, more experimental than I’ve previously written. 2011 is starting off to be a great year.

Last Weekend before the Fiasco Starts

I’m somewhat ready. Last week, I had to meet with the Writing Director at campus #1 to go over my syllabus for Honors Freshman Composition. This is the class that I had to redesign based on my sub-par evaluations. I spent a few days re-working it–adding a blog component to initiate more discussion, working in some designated “instructor input” sessions, even typing up some formal lesson plans with time marks.

The feedback that I received was that I was heading in the wrong direction. That is, the blog component was propagating the “decentralized” nature of this class, and we want to go the opposite direction (which I thought the “instructor input” sessions would do). It seemed that I was also attempting to cover too many concepts in one session. The Writing Director said that I should try to stick to one or two things (for a 75 min session) that the students can walk away with. (I wish I’d known this earlier.) My concern with this is not having enough content to go over, but I believe it’ll give us the opportunity to thoroughly cover the nuances of these concepts.

Another advice was that I needed to directly tie concepts with practice (their essays). Duh, right? What I had trouble with was the order in which I presented material. Previously, I’d covered a unit on “Academic Writing”–complete with integrating sources, when their next assignment was a personal narrative. (I blame the textbook on this one–academic writing is Ch. 3, while narrative writing is Ch. 4.) Although I’m aware that I can and should deconstruct the book to fit my lessons, I did not particularly think skipping a chapter was a good idea. We’d covered the first two on “Critical Reading” and “The Writing Process”–which is pretty much review–so “Academic Writing” was grouped with that. But I do see the benefit now. This semester, we’ll cover “Academic Writing” with their persuasive essay unit, which does require them to apply the concepts therein.

Lastly, the Writing Director emphasized three things that “professors from other disciplines” want students to learn from composition instructors: 1.) how to formulate a thesis, 2.) how to evaluate text, 3.) how to integrate research. Sounds very simple, and while it’s only about 10% of what I actually do have to cover, this piece of advice will help me focus my lessons.

Learning pedagogy is like learning how to write. Unlike occupations that objectively train you how to do something by following a certain number of prescribed steps, pedagogy and writing urge us to learn through our own process, by trial and error. The Writing Director simply could have given me her tried and true syllabus or sat with mine, pen in hand, to tell me how to structure it, but she didn’t. She asked questions and helped me see my own mistakes. No wonder why she consistently receives great evaluations, per the Associate Dean. I’m appreciative, and I only wish we could have met earlier–like last summer.

Because of having to completely redesign my syllabus (for the second time) for this Honors Comp course, I’m a little behind on my other three syllabi. The semester starts for two classes next week, so the only other one I had to focus on this week was the Comp II at campus #4, which–thank the universe–provided a course plan. I love specificity. And while the course plan can seem rigid to some, it completely lessens the burden of having to pull pedagogy out of my ass within a short period. (I did just get hired a couple of weeks ago.)

The second great thing about this course is that it’s themed: social status and inequality. I’d wanted to redesign the Honors Comp class based on something thematic, but I didn’t have enough time to gather materials. Sometime last semester, I’d looked at the writing programs at the six colleges at UCSD and thought how neat that would be to learn writing concepts based on interesting topics: culture, technology, arts, social justice. At times, it felt as though my composition courses lacked relevance because the content was really repetitive. These students have heard these before. The themes, then, seemed to fill the missing link between “relevance” and “content.”

I have two more syllabi to make from scratch: Comp II (different textbooks) and Technical Writing. But I have until next Monday. Today: much needed play time with my nephews, and then Lauryn Hill, live in concert.

—–

Post-script 1:
Another university called to ask if I wanted to teach some courses. This is the second semester that the coordinator called way after I’d already filled my schedule. Last summer, after I quit my job and begun my around-the-country train trip, she called while I was around the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I’m sure she appreciated the live music and screaming children in the background. She asked me to consider her again for the future. It’s somewhat validating to be in demand. It gives me hope that eventually the demand will be for full-time positions. And I’ll take non-tenure track.

Post-script 2:
Speaking of, for another post, I’m looking at New Orleans for next school year, if a job pulls through. Details later.

Post-script 3:
Two poems from my first manuscript were accepted for Lavender Review (#3).

Very happy minus a life issue or two.

Designing Syllabi and Lesson Plans Concurrently

At campus #1, the Honors College, I’m teaching 2 sections of Honors Freshman Composition, which I taught last semester. Redesigning the syllabus for this is of the utmost importance because I didn’t do as well as I’d intended. I’m refocusing the reading material, adding more aspects of “instructor input,” and actually constructing lesson plans ahead of time. This particular campus requires a very detailed syllabus complete with daily “topics” or objectives, in-class activities, and all of the homework assignments, so making the lesson plans is really just one step further.

This is day 3 in my attempt to focus on this, but I’m merely in Week 2 of my syllabus. I’ve been reading up on pedagogy through peer-reviewed sources on EBSCO/JStor, at ProfHacker (The Chronicle), and various insightful blogs, so I haven’t been completely unproductive. In the midst of that, though, I created a Tumblr account–another outlet for interconnectedness.

I have so much to do, and I can’t, for the life of me, focus. Last summer, I completed 2 of my 3 syllabi in about a week, while traveling by train. I suppose “movement” and a tight schedule makes me focus, and right now, I do have a week and half with nothing else on my schedule but pilates and jogging. Stagnancy really does a number on my productivity, but tonight, after my last volleyball playoffs of the season, I’m going to buckle down, like I did this morning around 3am. Fifteen more weeks to plan for, and three more syllabi to go (less detailed but all new texts). Shit.

My kitchen table, which is my main desk, currently and usually looks like this:


It’s a good thing that I don’t have kids. I can’t imagine juggling my workload and playload with anything more than my two cats.

Make Waves and Conquer

Like most people, I am perpetually looking for my next move–upward mobility, the sign of success in our culture. The past two years, because I was unhappy with my career at the publisher, I considered various avenues for change: a 1-year post-bacc BSN program, a 2-year Associate’s in Nursing program (since graduates incur less debt and are paid similar wages as BSNs), 1-2 year post-bacc program for medical school, officer training school for the military, film studies programs, and of course, PhD programs in humanities.

All of these choices represent my internal conflicts between needing job security/reasonable wages and my ideals. I wanted, for instance, to go into nursing because of the potential for options: I could work contractually and be a traveling nurse making $60/hr. Or I could pursue medicine on an expert level and be an MD. (Endocrinology and neuroscience interest me the most.) There is also the military who would pay for my loans if I enlist (as a non-officer), or provide job security and a way out of this city. Film school would be a dream with no job security, but an opportunity for creativity. PhD programs in humanities represents my intent to continue along the path I chose for myself during my junior year in college, when I decided that science, with its reductionist motives, were in conflict with my core values. Lately, I’ve been thinking that a PhD in media/cultural studies would be a perfect confluence of my interests and perhaps offer more job security than a PhD in English, although I’m sure the difference is minimal.

Last night, at a cafe in the city (I reside about 40 mins away), I heard young urbanites who attend MA/PhD programs in social work discuss their troubles. They were all under 30, so no doubt they’ve never tried to survive without the construct of academia. One took photos and remarked on the cafe’s ambiance–her outlet from being anxious about the results of her survey/research. They were all brilliant, filled with ideas and doubt. They talked about the system, how they wanted so much to change it, but then got lost along the way. Now they are unsure about the “next step.” They do not want to be social workers. They want to teach and research, except there are very few opportunities–like in English, hundreds of applicants for one position.

Through my experiences in graduate school for my MFA, I’ve come to realize that academia is not sustainable, and here is another case, more evidence. Academia needs brilliant minds, but it cannot offer jobs because there are none, unless more universities pop up. According to The Chronicle, roughly half of all doctoral graduates get jobs in their field. Slightly less than a Ponzi scheme, but pretty close.

Recently, I read through some emails between my AP Lit teacher (who has since passed from a brain tumor) and me. I had just switched majors from Biology to English, and I was so excited about this new path into the humanities. I knew then, in 2003, that teaching and writing would be my goals:

O the possibilities!! 🙂 I’m excited but terribly afraid…At least I know life will not be mundane, huh?

Seven years later, I’ve achieved those goals: teaching and and writing, but I have a long way to go. Doubt gets to me, especially when I see those from my high school cohort, who’ve pursue medicine or some other practical route, do very well and present themselves with much more glee and confident purpose. Most have families now and are accomplishing those “emerging adulthood” milestones, while I’ve regressed a bit. (I did have a mortgage once and a series of partners, although none of it worked out.) I have difficulty at times in feeling secure about my life decisions–not just pursuing a career in the humanities, but life in general.

My 10-year high school reunion is coming up this summer. I was co-valedictorian and had very high expectations for myself. (The other valedictorian is now in her residency as a family physician.) Perhaps, I feel some measure of failure. I did take the path less traveled, but what do I have to show for it besides an overdeveloped consciousness and three towering bookshelves filled with ideas? I’ve acquired very little in the same terms that “accomplishment” is usually measured in the world (ie, wealth, prestige, security).

Regardless, I do feel good about my life’s progress. I’m somewhat accomplished. I’m self-aware. I’ve assessed what happiness means to me: freedom, love, meaning. I have lived without the security of the box. I have enjoyed life as opposed to be burdened by it.

My AP Lit teacher also wrote on my senior book: “Make waves and conquer.” The message was to not subsume the ways of the system but to be one step ahead.

Indeed. I’m trying.