Reflecting on Ph.D. Year 4, Part 2: Professionalization

Professionalization as a doctoral candidate can be somewhat anxiety-inducing, especially for those of us who navigate that liminal space between student and potential/future colleague. We have to strike the right balance between confidently knowing our stuff but also showing respect to established scholars in our field(s).

As someone just beginning the academic job search, I do not intend this to be a post about how to get an academic job. Clearly, I haven’t crossed that bridge yet, and there’s no magic formula for that anyway.  Instead, this is a post describing things that I’ve learned while preparing to make the transition from doctoral candidate to job candidate.

Going to conferences is usually how graduate students are taught to network, and generally, conferences can be very useful for meeting other people and building your networks. There are lots of tips on how to make the best use of conferences, so I’m just speaking from my experiences. 

1) Always make the conference paper useful in some other way beyond the conference (i.e. turning it into an article and/or dissertation chapter).

2) Find out what mentorship opportunities exist for your professional organizations. This year I participated in the National Women’s Studies Association’s mentoring program, and it was such an incredible experience and a great use of conference time. My assigned mentor reached out to me before the conference, and we have been in touch since then. And while we should not expect conference mentors to keep in touch with us beyond the conference, it is very encouraging when they do.

3) Don’t neglect establishing peer networks as well. Start to establish relationships with other graduate students in your field(s) because you will likely continue to see and work with each other at various points throughout your careers.

One of the main drawbacks to depending on conferences for professionalization is that conferences are ridiculously EXPENSIVE. Even when there are funds set aside for students to attend conferences, they almost always operate on a reimbursement model, which can be tricky on a grad student budget.

That’s why it’s important to realize that there are other low-cost ways to network as a grad student. These include:

Fellowships: Apply early and often for fellowships even if you have funding. Start looking early too. I started looking for dissertation fellowships during my first year just to see what is out there and to stay on top of deadlines. As one professor told me, applying for fellowships is a way for people to begin familiarizing themselves with your work. Even if you don’t get the fellowships, if your application is impressive, people will start to take note. Another reason to apply for fellowships is because it is excellent preparation for writing your dissertation proposal/prospectus. You start to articulate your project more precisely. And of course, you might actually get a fellowship!

Summer Institutes:  A lot of summer institutes cost money, but there are some, like ones offered by NEH, that cover some (if not all) expenses. Additionally, some summer institutes like the Digital Pedagogy Lab offer fellowships to help defray the costs of attending. These kinds of programs can be even more conducive to developing professional relationships than conferences because there are fewer people, and you typically spend more time with them. 

Future Faculty Programs:  This year, I was accepted to participate in a four-day workshop (two days in September and two days in March) called Faculty First-Look at the Steinhardt school at NYU, and it was amazing! Through the program, we learned ins and outs of applying for academic jobs, had opportunities to network with faculty, administrators, and other graduate students, and got the chance to receive feedback on mock job talks. And it was FREE. There are other schools that offer similar programs through their faculty affairs offices, so I recommend looking at diversity initiatives at universities you are interested in to see if they have these types of programs. 

Publishing:  One time when I was fretting about not having presented at many conferences, my advisor reminded me that even though conferences are good places to meet people and form relationships, networking in academia is ultimately done through your work. Expectations around publishing, especially as a grad student, vary from field to field. As a humanities graduate student, most of the advice I’ve been given encourages us to try to have at least one peer-reviewed article published (or at the very least accepted for publication) by the time we start the academic job search but to also avoid over-publishing from the dissertation. If you are planning to publish while in grad school, keep your timeline in mind because the turnaround time from initial article submission to final publication can take well over a year, especially you have to revise and resubmit.

Get on Social Media: At least half of the lines on my my CV are the results of CFPs and announcements that I saw on Twitter or Facebook. Additionally, there are so many academic communities on social media that share information and resources. Developing your digital presence is another topic for another blog post, but you might as well use the social media platforms you are already using to expand your networks.

When it comes to professionalization, there is nothing wrong with trying to make yourself competitive, but it’s important not to obsess over doing all the “right” things to the point where you’re just adding lines to your CV at the expense of your health and actually finishing your dissertation.

 

 

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Reflecting on Ph.D. Year 4, Part 1: Writing the Dissertation

Two things that I have sworn by since the summer before I started my Ph.D. include making a set of goals for the year and doing year-end reflections to evaluate and potentially re-calibrate my goals moving forward. It’s kind of surreal that I’m approaching the end of my fourth year in a doctoral program. And it’s also kind of odd how calm I feel as I prepare to enter my LAST YEAR as a Ph.D. candidate. This year has been one of the busiest and yet most fulfilling of my grad school career so far, and I wanted to take time to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned.

My goals for this year mostly centered writing the dissertation and professionalization, so I’ve split this reflection into three separate posts. This first post focuses on what I’ve learned about dissertating, the second focuses on professionalization, and the third talks about finding that ever elusive work/life balance.

Making Timelines

When I started my program, I knew that I had five years of guaranteed funding, and so I knew I wanted to defend my dissertation by the end of that 5th year. I made a timeline, paying specific attention to coursework requirements and milestones for achieving candidacy.

In my original timeline, I allotted myself about 3 months to work on each dissertation chapter, but I had to keep adjusting my timeline because unlike all the pre-candidacy degree requirements, the dissertation writing process is very non-linear. This realization can be disorienting at first, especially when you have an idea of how long you think it will take to finish any given part of the dissertation. One thing that I’ve learned about dissertating is that the process has taken longer that I anticipated; my first chapter took 6 months to get a point that I felt comfortable submitting!  While I have heard stories of people who have written their dissertations in a few months, I have learned enough about my writing process to know that will not work for me. Once I stopped being afraid to make adjustments I was able to reconfigure my timeline based on where I was in my research and how long it had taken to write previous sections/chapters.

Daily Writing

A writing session a day keeps the writing anxiety away! Part of the reason why it took me so long to draft my first chapter is because the thought of writing a whole dissertation when I was struggling to write a substantial chapter was overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing. Thankfully, I had my writing routine fairly solidified at the start of this academic year. I tend to be a “write first” person because I always feel so much better when it’s 9 or 10 in the morning, and I’ve already done 30 minutes to an hour of writing. I understand that writing in the mornings or writing at the same time each day doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s so important to write every week day. I don’t write on weekends most of the time unless I have a deadline that I won’t be able to meet without writing on the weekend.

Even though I mostly enjoy writing once I get settled into my writing sessions, I approach writing as a job, meaning it doesn’t matter if I feel motivated or inspired to write. This approach helps me to stick to my daily routine. Daily writing has been essential to maintaining a reasonable timeline for writing the dissertation especially since drafting those first two chapters took a little longer than I thought they would. 

Overall, writing a dissertation is as hard as everyone thinks/says it is, but it is certainly doable, especially if you have endured all of grad school’s challenges up to this point. The most important things I learned about how to approach writing the dissertation: figure out your writing personality, don’t depend solely on inspiration, and remember that the big document is made up of many small sections. Thinking about the dissertation as a compilation of small sections instead of a huge document helps me feel less overwhelmed and to actually feel the progress I’m making. There are no one size fits all writing strategies, but I hope these lessons will be helpful to my colleagues in the writing struggle!

 

 

 

 

What Should You Do When Someone Calls You a “Snowflake”?

The short answer: Laugh your ass off.

A longer answer, and some context:

Last year, one of my New Year’s Resolutions, if you will, was to avoid engaging in dialogue (in social contexts – meaning outside of a classroom or professional setting) with people who do not broadly consult experiences outside of their own. I made this resolution because I found myself getting roped into a lot of discussions on social media in which people would make and genuinely believe really problematic arguments (and I use that term loosely) about  race, gender, sexuality, and social issues in general. It got to a point where I would spend way more time than I planned on any given day trying to explain to someone that their stances on these issues were misinformed at best and just plain destructive at worst. For me, avoiding these conversations was a practice of self-care because ain’t nobody got time to be doing additional un(der)compensated labor, and rather than waste good, well-articulated thoughts on people who are not actually interested in thinking critically, I wanted to save my energy for producing stuff that will actually be received by those looking to learn.

So today, I was scrolling on Facebook calling myself taking a mental break after doing a few hours of writing and reading, and I came across a question in my newsfeed asking if people of color in the US can be racist. I immediately thought of a video I had seen a few days ago about how “reverse racism” is not a thing. And I shared it because my replacement for getting worked up about dead-end “debates” has been to cite people who have already done the work. The original question was not about reverse racism specifically, I but I thought the video contained some useful, accessible language to help people who might be confused about what it means to be a racist and practice racism.

One person commented on the video using a definition of racism that he found on Google (because, you know that’s the authoritative source on this matter) trying to parse out the difference between the “literal” and “systemic” (his words) definition of racism. Against my better judgment, I responded to his comment to explain how many people (using sociologists as ONE example) have addressed the point he attempted yet failed to make by pointing out the conflation between racism and prejudice. He then supplied another Google definition of the word prejudice, to which I responded with some citations for sources he could consult that lay out these differences better than I had the time or energy to articulate. I had planned for that to be the end of the conversation, or at least my participation in it.

But then he posted:

“And Ashleigh to take resource into acct [sic] and not the others is just silly. You have to look at all [emphasis mine] resources to make an informed decision. The definition of a word in sociology does not make the literal definition less relevant.”

This fool called me silly for “only” citing sociologists even after I had provided an Amazon link to a whole ass book on critical race theory.  So I checked him:

“First of all, don’t call me or my thought process silly. You do not know me, and silly is one thing that I absolutely am not. (You can Google my credentials) What is silly is trusting Google as your only source of information when I am telling you that there are entire fields (PLURAL) of inquiry (I listed sociology as ONE example) that deal with this question. And I’m guessing based on your reduction of my citing actual resources to a “silly” conclusion that you have read ALL the resources on racism? Please miss me with that. When I cite sources, that is my way of exiting the conversation because I don’t have time to re-do the work that many other people have already done. I could offer a more extensive bibliography, but my citations were meant to be STARTING POINTS, not a comprehensive list of what’s out there. And since you have an affinity for Google, I trust you can do your own research to fill in any gaps that would prevent you from making an “informed decision.” But alas, I have to get back to doing my own research and writing, so g’bye!”

I really did go back to doing my work, and when I got back on Facebook, I had received a notification that he posted:

“Awe [sic] we were doing so good till she went and got all snowflake on me. Oh well.”

Now, I knew he was insulting me because I vaguely remembered hearing this term used in a derogatory way. But since I’m not well-versed in MAGAspeak, I Googled it just to get clear on the definition; might as well since Google is clearly this person’s only resource, right? The first definition that popped up said something about having an inflated sense of self-worth, feeling entitled, and being easily offended. At first I was like, “Really?” But then I just started laughing because of the sheer irony of my Blackity Black Black ass being called a snowflake – even though I know he didn’t mean a literal snowflake because he has such a clear grasp on what the word literal means – during Black history month on the eve of Black Panther‘s release.

I started to respond again, but in the spirit of Auntie Maxine decided to reclaim my time. I remembered that snark is often a defense mechanism for people who feel threatened by intellect and remembered my commitment to saving my good material for things that actually count for something. And while this blog post probably won’t count for much of anything, it still falls in line with my self-care practice of reserving my energy for things that matter to me.

 

Writing My Way

When my grandmother died, I felt compelled to write a poem to include in the program for her home going service. I used to write poetry all the time, but I always struggled to write poetry that rhymes. Still, I wanted something that felt traditional, so I tried to write a rhyming poem. But the words just wouldn’t flow. As I was struggling to get words on the page, I could hear my grandmother’s voice as plain as day saying, “Write it your way, baby.” So I did, and my whole family loved it. 

Right before her passing, before I even knew that her passing was a reality I would be confronting so soon, I had started turning to writing again, as a place of refuge and catharsis. For many graduate students (and professors, too), writing becomes the dreaded task that stands between us and the goal mark (graduation, tenure, etc.). And with that kind of pressure, it becomes easy to forget why we ever enjoyed writing in the first place. It may sound odd to people who have no spiritual inclinations, but it was my grandmother, one of the people I credit with instilling my love for words, who led me back to that pleasure and purpose in writing. She knew I would need it, not just to deal with her passing, but to deal with everything that is going on in the world.

Fast forward to the present moment. The present moment when I am no longer afraid to embrace what it means to be a writer. The present moment when I can still hear and feel my grandmother encouraging me to walk in my calling. I’m still listening, and I’m still writing my way – through pain, through injustice – to freedom. 

Some Reflections on Pedagogy

The closer I get to finishing my doctoral program, the more I think about what I want my life as an academic to be like. While there are many factors that shape how I envision my future, one question that has been on my mind a lot lately is: What kind of professor do I want to be?  

When I first decided to go back to graduate school, I had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to teaching. I had spent a total of 5 years (including my first year after finishing undergrad) teaching high school. I liked having conversations with my students and getting them to make connections between course content and the world around them. I did not like having to deliver and assess course material in very specific, limited ways that I saw as useless to students’ growth and burdensome in terms of having heaps of work to grade. So when I left my high school teaching position to set out on my doctoral journey, I honestly didn’t know if I actually liked teaching even though I wanted (and still want) to become a tenure-track professor.

I figured I had some time to sort things out since my funding package didn’t require me to start teaching until my third year. But I quickly realized that my stipend was not adequate, and I started looking for a part-time job. So when a teaching opportunity in my department presented itself, I jumped at it. I was nervous, but my first semester teaching university students went so much better than I ever could have anticipated. The students were genuinely interested in the material and eager to participate in discussions. I also happened to be taking a class called “Feminist Pedagogies” at the time, and between being asked to think about my teaching on a regular basis for that course and teaching such a dynamic group of students, I came to the realization that teaching is my contribution to creating a more just society. Of course, I still have goals to write articles and books, which, given my area of research, has its own political value. But I no longer  question if I like teaching.

I don’t want to make it seem like the courses I’ve taught since have not been without challenges because that would be deeply dishonest. Most of the classes I’ve taught recently have been in summer sessions and/or online formats, which both add different elements to the teaching and learning experiences.  

Increasingly, I’m thinking about the classroom as an experiential space. And while I understand that we must operate within certain confines (syllabi, grades, assessments, evaluations, etc.), I really hope to push myself to be more imaginative about my pedagogy. For instance, instead of trying to replicate face-to-face, semester dynamics in a summer session, online class, how can I craft my summer and online courses to be the most impactful for students?

Returning to my question of what kind of professor I want to be: I’m mostly still thinking about it, and I know I will have to continue to evaluate my responses throughout my career. But I do know that I want to create transformative spaces with and for my students.

How We Attempt to Discipline Black Girls through Fear

One thing that I have found while doing my research is that many adults who work with the girls I talk to do not understand the nature of my project. Whenever I tell people that I want to talk to girls about how they use social media, adults usually say things like: “Good, someone needs to talk to them about the terrible stuff they post on social media,” or “Yes, they need to know the dangers of social media.” I want to make it abundantly clear that these reactions do not reflect the aim of my project. My project is not one of policing; rather, it is one of discovery – discovery of who Black girls are and how they define themselves on their own terms.

Two recent moments in my research have been particularly elucidating in terms of how dominant approaches to Black girls’ sociality operate through instilling fear as a disciplinary tool.

While transcribing notes, I came across a conversation from last fall that disturbed me a bit. It wasn’t the content of the conversation that I found disturbing but instead the implications of the conversation.

One of the girls, Kari,* was talking to her friend about her fear of getting a gynecological exam. And while it’s not unusual for a girl/young woman to feel a sense of anxiety around this issue, Kari’s mother had told her all these scary things about the nature of the exam. Her mother told her that the procedure was painful and that it would always hurt (even after you have children).

I’m not trying to dismiss or delegitimize the pain that Kari’s mother felt (and possibly still feels). However, the reason why this conversation disturbed me is because it’s a key example of how we pass trauma to our children (maybe even subconsciously). My guess is that Kari’s mother was not necessarily trying to pass on her own trauma of gynecology but instead trying to scare Kari out of having sex – the underlying assumption being that you don’t need to have any kind of vaginal exams if you aren’t sexually active (which is clearly untrue, and I made sure to explain this to the girls). But there comes a time when we need to realize that fear tactics are not going to keep our children from having sex. As uncomfortable as teens’ burgeoning sexualities may be to acknowledge, we need to focus on learning what they know/think about sex and help them to navigate those ideas and feelings.

The second recent moment, that may on the surface seem unrelated to the first, happened during a discussion I conducted with a group of girls. After I asked the girls the questions that I had planned, we went “off script” a little and just started talking about whatever they found interesting. One girl asked a question about organizations (like schools and businesses) looking at your social media account and how that might affect college admissions or job prospects. I explained to the girls that colleges and employers do look at people’s social media accounts, and this quickly spiraled into a preaching moment for the other adult who was in the room. She started to explain how these organizations judge your character based on your social media accounts and went through a laundry list of examples of things they shouldn’t post if they wanted to go to college, law school, get certain types of jobs, etc. I tried to move away from that conversation by reminding the girls that yes, surveillance is real, and it’s intensified for people of color. At the same time, I told them that they have to make decisions for themselves about what they post online. Yes, we should be honest with them about the potential consequences that result from online surveillance, but we don’t have to do that in a way that makes them afraid.

At the root of both of these instances is an attempt to discipline Black girls’ behaviors. By making them afraid of behaviors we deem inappropriate, we are really conditioning them to become docile, to avoid critically examining (racialized and gendered) norms around respectability and professionalism. We have to be pragmatic about our present realities, but instilling fear forecloses the ability to imagine different possibilities for the future.

 

 

*This is a pseudonym.

Here’s Why Your “That’s Why I Left the South” Stories Are Not Helpful Right Now

With the recent white supremacist acts of terrorism that have happened in Charlottesville, a lot of people in my various social media spaces express that these events make clear the racism of the United States South. Such expressions are usually followed up with some version of “that’s why I left” or “that’s why I’ll never go to/live in the South.” Well, that’s great for you, but here is why those statements are not helpful right now. 

First of all, some people CANNOT leave. I will speak from my own perspective here (even though I can comfortably speak to this issue on behalf of many of my relatives and friends, too).  I moved back to Virginia after struggling to have money to cover basic needs (mainly housing) in New Jersey.  Now, I get that some of my struggles just come with the territory of being in graduate school (which is also problematic but not the topic of this post). But being a graduate student is my reality right now, so I have to consider the resources I currently have instead of the ones I hope to have once I’m done with school. Right now, my main sources of financial support (a residential fellowship and my husband’s income) are in the South. And spousal financial support is a luxury that some people don’t have. Even when I was working full-time, for the majority of those years, I did not have enough money at my disposal to just pick up and move to a different state. I barely had the money to move to a different apartment when the time came. So when other folks use these moments of terror as opportunities to tell us why they left the South, it makes me feel something akin to shame (though shame is not quite the word) for not being able to leave. These sentiments simplify people’s choices (or lack of choices) about where they live and dismiss the agency of people who, when given a choice, choose to stay here.

We can’t all pick up and move, but even if we could these problems exist outside of the South.  Look at Ferguson and Baltimore. Now, to say that racism manifests equally in all places in the United States would be ahistorical and misleading. But pretending like the problem of racialized terror against people of color does not exist in other regions of the United States (and in other countries) is deeply dishonest. Every time eruptions of racialized violence occur, I have a fleeting thought of “I should get out of the South,” but then I realize that won’t actually solve anything. Much like the people who are telling UVA students to “simply” transfer to another school, people telling us we should just move are ignoring the fact that it’s levels to this! 

My goal in writing this is not to silence people who have migrated from the South because your stories are important. I’m mainly processing my own feelings about having to be here (and in some ways wanting to stay here). But maybe this particular moment is not the time to tell those of us who don’t have the privilege of leaving to just follow your lead.