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October 16, 2018 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

What’s it like to be an Associate Professor? (Research University version)

Several years ago, I tried to sum up the perspective I had gained on being an assistant professor at a research university. I attempted to capture all of the things I either wasn’t told in graduate school or didn’t have a real grasp on until I was on the tenure track — and they were largely behind-the-curtain, what-the-job-is-actually-like details, including lots of meetings, emails, and teaching prep-work, alongside the demands of publishing and other scholarly activity. What does the job look like on the other side of tenure? Mostly the same, but there are some important differences.

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Sisyphus and his beloved rock (representing institutional demands post-tenure)

The ink was barely dry on my tenure contract when I was asked by my dean to serve in an administrative role. It was probably about two weeks between when I was notified of the administrative approval of my tenure and this request on the part of my dean, which made it kind of difficult to say no to it (but it was really compelling administrative work, so I probably would have said yes anyway). In a nutshell, if the road to tenure is largely anticipatory and structured by tenure demands, the associate professor road is characterized by managing social relationships — with other faculty, with administrators, with students, with colleagues at other institutions, with journal and press editors, with university bureaucrats — many of whom helped on the road to tenure, and are now calling in their debts.

“Debt” seems like a slight mischaracterization, but “favor” also seems too light. These activities can range from work like peer reviewing for presses or journals (especially those you’ve published with) and reviewing grant applications, which I had been doing pre-tenure, but after tenure there was a significant increase in requests. It can also include serving on committees at departmental, university, and national organization levels — and being asked to do that rather than volunteering for it. In addition, there’s serving on ever-more dissertation committees as well as doing tenure review for colleagues at other institutions. Singularly, they don’t seem like much, but taken together, they can be time consuming — and for some faculty, they seem to provide a trajectory while they figure out what their path to full professorship looks like. This isn’t to begrudge these various debts and favors and the people attached to them, but just to note how they pile up — and continue to pile up — and to recognize that strategies need to be developed to handle them maturely.

I’ve been thinking about the non-arrival of tenure for years. After all the stresses around tenure and its quasi-mythological nature, when it happens, it’s actually a slow and drawn out process, which makes it less of a rite of passage and more of a long, bureaucratic process (which is what it is). Between the department vote, the dean’s approval, the university personnel committee, the chancellor or provost, and the president (and regents), there are a lot of not-final approvals (i.e. it’s still not a sure thing). At each stage, the appropriate administrator makes sure to tell you congratulations, but it’s not over yet. And by the time the tenure contract arrives, it has both felt inevitable and had some of the wind taken out of its ceremonial sails.

At least that was my experience. Some of my feelings about the tenure process may be due to the fact that I met my institution’s tenure requirements early and was able to go up for tenure a year ahead of schedule. I’m sure that for people who are in more precarious positions, tenure might come as more of a relief. But in any case, the non-arrival of tenure is also about what happens after tenure.

The assistant professor period is characterized by the project that is getting tenure — there’s real momentum around publishing the requisite amount of stuff, and there’s a deadline. But between associate and full professor, there’s not usually a deadline even when there’s clear expectations (usually doubling whatever it took to get tenure in the first place). Sabbatical is meant to serve as a research period, but it seems like most people use it as a period to reconnect with family and catch up on what they missed during the march to tenure. And unless you’re primed to get to work on the next big research project immediately, it can be hard to use sabbatical to its full effect. For better and worse, things slow down after tenure for a lot of people.

Part of that slow down is bureaucratic and an effect of the job and its duties. Part of it is also just straight up existential. After being told that tenure is the most magical thing in the world, the reality is that the job doesn’t fundamentally change — and, in many respects, there’s less time for research and writing when all of the other institutional demands are factored in. Teaching might be at a new plateau — you might get to the point where you’re teaching the same classes with few or no revisions and can autopilot them. But in my case, I was tired of teaching the same classes and needed to change things significantly (I moved from teaching mostly medical anthropology courses to teaching more general intro and social theory classes). And that meant spending more time prepping classes than I had in several years.

I had started working on my second book before I finished my first one, but like so many people’s second projects, it didn’t work out quite the way I had planned (insufficient funding, lack of dedicated time, difficulty with the IRB, etc.), leading to some redevelopments in the project and some slow down. Because it was a significant shift in focus, it also needed some time devoted to developing new contacts, reading new stuff, and just thinking through the problems of the project — all of which started during the assistant professor phase, but couldn’t really take off until after tenure. I also had a second child, changed institutions, and moved across the country, all of which slowed things down too. For some people, any of those events or aforementioned difficulties might have led to abandoning the project and starting over from scratch with something new — so I can understand why some people take a long time between getting tenure and going up for full professor.

But here’s the other thing: if tenure is marked by its non-arrival, full professorship is marked by its deferral. The difference between associate and full is largely administrative (yes, there’s a pay increase, and maybe there’s some prestige?), meaning that most associate professors are protected from being department chairs or serving as associate deans or conveners of university committees. For some people, it seems like the pay increase isn’t worth the trouble — which is compounded by the difficulties people face in getting a second project off the ground. Maybe we need better incentives, but more likely, we probably need better support to help people have time, money, and space to develop new projects.

This isn’t to diminish tenure — it’s important job security and helpful to have the bandwidth to explore new ideas and projects — but to point out how it isn’t a panacea. In some respects, tenure is integral to the kinds of favors that need to be returned (i.e. with tenure, you can be asked to do things that you can’t be asked to do without it). But the job is the job, and that fundamentally doesn’t change with tenure.

So what do I wish I knew about the post-tenure phase?

1. If you can change when you take sabbatical, wait until you know it will be immediately useful and not for preliminary work (like seeing if a project is viable). Make sure that you have the funds and access to get the data you need, and then use sabbatical time to make it happen.

2. Change your teaching only enough to freshen it up, unless you’re committed to finding a new niche in your department’s curriculum and spending  year or two doing so.

3. Be selective about what you agree to do. Sometimes opportunities quickly become obligations, and there will be plenty of both. It’s okay to say no to an invitation, especially because there will be more coming.

4. Develop small projects that can result in an article or a book chapter. These might be collaborations with graduate or advanced undergraduate students, experiential learning classes, or cannily constructed classes. Steady projects like these help to allay the big existential dread that might present itself in the absence of a second book-length project.

Post-tenure is a strange place. Prepare yourself.

April 10, 2018 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Start Your Own Professionalization Series

When I first started running a professionalization series for graduate students in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, my plan was to create a curriculum that could be revisited annually (or biannually, in some cases), and could be arranged modularly. On the quarter system, it meant that we had 10 weeks for each term, and I hosted a professionalization seminar every other week (usually four each fall, and three each winter and spring). The idea was to develop the content and then rearrange it as student demand dictated.

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In its earliest version, it roughly followed the job market, starting with a session about looking for jobs in anthropology, then writing job letters, a day spent talking about academic CVs, and then a section devoted to practicing conference presentations (since that lined up with the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association). The winter term was generally focused on teaching, and we had seminars on writing syllabuses, developing assignments, and dealing with problem students. The spring term was devoted to academic writing, and I broke a discussion of writing academic articles into two meetings, the first on the content and form of journal articles, and the second on identifying the right journal to submit an article to. The spring term was a little more of a wild card, and over the years it had sessions on alt-ac careers, translating a dissertation into a book, and preparing for campus visits. What I didn’t cover — and this was because we had a dedicated course for it — was grant writing.

After the first couple of iterations, the students asked that we move some of the job preparation sessions to the spring, so that they could have some more time to prepare for the fall job market. The only challenge was that there weren’t many — if any — job advertisements that we could talk about, so I had to rely on ads I had saved over the years (most of which were quirky, which is why I saved them).

If you know this blog, then you know that most of the posts originated in the conversations that I had with students, and that, over time, I worked to summarize those conversations in the blog posts (or at least my side of the conversation). Once the posts had been written, I asked students to read them in preparation for our meetings, so that we could start with a shared basis for the conversation. That helped to move from meetings where I spent a lot of time seeing what I thought (following E.M. Forster’s “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” dictum) to meetings where we could have more of a free-flowing conversation about the topic.

Over the years, I started to invite faculty to attend the sessions as well, usually trying to identify either a foil to my perspective (someone from a different generation or subfield or both), or someone who I knew had a special interest in whatever the topic was. I also made sure to advertise the topics in advance and invite the faculty to attend, which often related to their specific professionalization interests. If you’re inviting faculty, it’s really helpful to identify people that have been on the job market recently as well as people who have served on hiring or promotion committees. Those two perspectives — what the job search is like from the applicant and reviewer positions — is really demystifying. Because what hiring committees are looking for has been changing, it’s helpful to have people who are also familiar with promotion requirements, since they have a trickle down effect on search committees.

The one thing I tried to do and was never successful at was getting the faculty who taught the first year foundations seminars to build the stuff we were doing in the professionalization seminar into their courses (e.g. having students turn in a CV after we talked about them in the seminar). I couldn’t even swing it when I was teaching in that sequence, so I don’t blame anyone for that failure — but it would take an extra level of coordination. I think it’s a good idea, but difficult to manage with the changing content of the professionalization seminar and a changing cast of faculty teaching the foundations sequence. My hope was that getting students into the professionalization seminar early would serve to socialize them to the need for professionalization (instead of waiting until they were going on the job market).

So, here’s a plan, boiled down:

Come up with a curriculum. You can follow my Professionalization Materials checklist or come up with one of your own.

Schedule the series. It’s helpful to plan a whole term or semester at a time and to send out the calendar as early as you can. I found that 1.5 hour meetings worked well, although there were times that we could have talked for hours. And planning meetings over lunch made it possible for most people to attend. Please don’t schedule meetings to interfere with people having to take care of their children or after the 9-5 workday (stop academic self-exploitation!).

Invite faculty guests to share their experiences. Try for two for each seminar, and at least one if the convener of the seminars is a faculty member with no more than three faculty in the room (who were specifically asked to be there). Too many faculty perspectives can be confusing. And make sure that faculty know that they don’t have to prepare anything for their visit — they can just show up and answer questions.

Collect relevant materials. It’s helpful to get faculty to contribute CVs, job letters, teaching and research statements, syllabuses, grant applications, etc., to a common folder that graduate students have access to through the university or department. Some faculty can be a little squeamish about this, and in those cases I asked for paper copies that I copied and distributed.

Find some good websites to help guide the conversation. There’s no shortage of people chiming in on these concerns, and toggling between disciplinary and generational perspectives can be really helpful. And since you’re already here, this doesn’t count as self-promotion.

Keep it going. Sometimes there’s a lot of anxiety in a department and that translates into momentum for this kind of thing. But the triage model doesn’t actually help the problem of the continued need to professionalize students for the job market. Just having a regular space and time where students can talk about this stuff is really helpful and can improve morale while demystifying the job market. If you can also provide cookies, then even better.

 

March 23, 2018 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

So You’ve Got a Ph.D. in Anthropology…

Okay, let’s assume the worst. You’ve spent the last 5-10 years focused like a laser on researching and writing your dissertation. You haven’t attended any conferences, let alone presented any of your research. You haven’t taught any courses, and maybe haven’t even served as a teaching assistant. You haven’t published any of your research. When you’ve talked to your committee members about preparing for the job market, they’ve dismissed your concerns telling you that “everything will work out” and “you don’t need to worry about it.” And now here you are, Ph.D. in hand, dissertation behind you, and the yawning chasm of adult professional life gaping before you…

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That’s a cat abyss.

So, the bad news: unlike during the fantastic world of yesteryear, there are no ready jobs waiting for you now that you’re credentialed. The slightly better news: there’s a lot you can do to make yourself appealing to potential employers, in and out of the academy. And the best news? There are many possible professional paths your Ph.D. has prepared you for, but it will take a lot of work to prepare for applying to those jobs.

Now, hopefully you already know all of this, and you’ve spent the last several years preparing yourself for the kind of job you are interested in, whether in the university system or outside of it (or maybe both). One of the best things you can do as you prepare to go on the job market — say a year or two out — is to start paying attention to job advertisements. Ads list the kinds of qualifications that they’re looking for, from specializations (teaching methods and intro, especially, as well as courses in your area) to the kinds of documents that they require (graduate transcripts, teaching statements, CVs or resumes, writing samples, syllabuses, and more).

If you’re looking at jobs outside of the university system, they’ll likely be looking for other kinds of documentation: white papers, policy documents, portfolios, etc. The best preparation for these paths is to complete coursework in relevant areas, if not actually achieve accreditation (like getting a Master’s degree in Public Administration, Public Health, or Museum Studies, for example). Beyond helping acquaint you with professional genres, they should also help to develop professional networks in the right areas. If you’re really on the ball, you can complete these degrees alongside your coursework for your Ph.D., using whatever tuition waiver you might have to cover the cost of enrolling in these complementary courses. But you might also have to go back to school to get these credentials and develop new professional networks.

In 2015 I ran a professionalization workshop with current graduate students and alumni who had moved into non-academic careers. The collected professionals painted a relatively positive picture of moving into careers outside of the university. One of them pointed out that in the university system, almost everyone has a Ph.D., making it a rather banal credential; outside of the university, a Ph.d. is treated totally differently, and coworkers respect the expertise that it represents. They also pointed out how a lot of Ph.D. students think that they’ve been deskilled, but that the kinds of skills one learns as a graduate student can be translated into desirable workplace competencies. “Teaching” is “Public Speaking,” “Writing a Dissertation” is “Copyediting” and “Research-based Writing,” and “Finishing a Dissertation” is “Research Management.” Then there are skills like grant writing and data management (all that data sorting and labeling) that you might have picked up along the way. After spending thousands of hours researching and writing a dissertation, you have more skills than you might think; but, as these professionals helped to make clear, academics don’t tend to think of all of the skills they have as marketable proficiencies.

That said, there might need to be an intermediary step to hone those proficiencies into actual skills that produce deliverables that employers can do something with. And there are opportunities like Congressional Graduate Recruitment Program that seek to do just that. There are also organizations, like RAND, that hire qualitative researchers — as do many of the think tanks and policy organizations in Washington D.C. (you just have to be cool with doing research on topics that other people determine, and, potentially, stomach their politics as well).

Over the last several years — thanks to the Great Recession and the blogosphere — there has been growing attention to the exploitative and demoralizing political economy of adjunct labor in the university system. If you’re not aware of what people have been saying, it boils down to this: there are fewer full time, tenure line jobs than there were before, and to meet enrollment demands, more part-time laborers are being hired to offer courses. These adjuncts tend to teach on limited contracts (one semester or one year), lots of courses, and for little pay — often a fraction of what faculty are paid for the same course. Sometimes, rather than adjunct labor that looks like this, it can come in the form of a Visiting Assistant Professorship or even a postdoctoral position, both of which may be better, since they likely offer benefits on top of the salary. Beyond the obvious bummer of being low paid for the same job, and having lots of work to do — which often is very intro-level focused — adjuncting can create a lot of anxiety as people struggle to secure future employment, and there’s not a lot of time to produce the stuff that would make one appealing for full-time positions (which is sometimes referred to the “adjunct trap”). If you find yourself in the adjunct trap, you’ll need to engineer a way out, which may mean refusing work in the short term in order to prepare yourself for a long term career (which may mean going back to school to get another degree).

If you’re interested in pursuing alternative to academic careers (sometimes shortened to “alt-ac”) there are growing resources to help Ph.D. recipients to navigate the divide between the university and other career possibilities. One of the challenges that job seekers face is confronting assumptions about what policy jobs or market research look like on an everyday basis. If you’ve spent the last however-many-years essentially being your own boss and working alone, many professional careers mean being managed and working with actual coworkers. Friends who have made the jump into these kinds of jobs report being surrounded by great, creative people — just as smart as any academic, but skilled differently.

So, hopefully you’re reading this as an early graduate student (or before enrolling in graduate school) and can take the time to plan appropriately. A recent conversation hosted by the Society for Cultural Anthropology on academic precarity got me thinking that it was about time for a post like this, since the initial foray on the topic made it seem as if it was a real shock that getting academic jobs is hard and that there are very few out there. I had also heard from a friend that she had witnessed a group of recent Ph.D.s openly fret about the prospects of going on a bleak academic job market since they hadn’t been prepared for the reality of it, and thought they might just jump into some alternative career — which is sure to be a rude awakening.

You might beat the odds and get one of the few academic jobs available in any given year. If so, remember that just as much as it’s about your hard work, it’s also about contingency, and that it’s important to make sure that the world of the university is more open to promoting diversity and fair hiring practices — as opposed to yesteryear (which largely favored white men from elite institutions). For everyone who works in the university system — faculty, staff, administrators, adjuncts, students — we need more attention to what makes desirable job candidates and support for creating more full time employment opportunities.

May 27, 2017 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Best Advice I Have to Give about Qualifying Exams

One of the disciplinary traditions of graduate study is the exam which allows a student to advance to candidacy. In theory, it’s not a bad idea: a little ritual to help indicate to your committee that you know the intellectual terrain well enough to get into your research and writing full time. In reality, the process tends to be obscure, and, for many students, can become an enormous source of anxiety. I benefited from a committee that provided a lot of structure for my exams, and so if you have a committee that isn’t particularly structuring (or even if you do), some of these practices might help. Qualifying exams are really just another test — and, if you’re lucky, they’ll be the last tests you ever take.

Milgram

Is it wrong to use an image from the Milgram experiments to talk about qualifying exams?

I’ve experienced two different forms of qualifying exams (or comprehensive exams, or whatever else they might be called): the timed exam and the open-ended exam (or the acute and the chronic). The first comes in a couple different varieties — sit in a room for a day or more and answer a question (or set of questions) or sit at home for several days and answer a set of questions. The second comes in a couple forms too — write a literature review of a set of texts or write a chapter or two of your dissertation (which are based on a set of predetermined readings). In each case, the exams are based on a collection of readings that have been determined by the student and the exam committee, with more or less direction.

I’m a big proponent of the ‘several questions over several days’ method of testing for a couple of reasons: short exams tend to be not very productive for the testee, and they tend to not be very good to read for the testers. The result is that they tend not to be especially indicative of what a person actually knows — just what they can cram into a one-day writing session. I’m also not a big fan of either of the open-ended options: they tend to drag out forever, leading to students taking a long time to advance to candidacy, in no small part because the implicit expectation is that they will in fact be ‘comprehensive’ (which is impossible). In both cases, students end up turning in exams that don’t do enough because they can’t — or which try to do too much without actually needing to. But that’s all neither here nor there — in any case, you have a reading list to generate…

Making the Reading List

Your reading list will be made of a certain number of readings as proscribed by your committee, and that list will be broken up into a set of smaller topical and thematic lists (usually 2-3). Usually, these lists are also keyed to a specific member of your examining committee, who is tied to the list (and your exam) by a shared speciality. So try this:

First, go through all the syllabuses from the graduate (and maybe undergraduate) classes that you’ve taken (you did keep them, didn’t you?), and come up with a list of all the topically and theoretically important stuff that you’ve already read. There might be additional stuff on these syllabuses that you haven’t read, but you should, and so this would be a time to do so.

Second, come up with a list of all the stuff you feel like you should know for your exams. This can be theoretical stuff, topical stuff, greatest hits from your discipline, historically important stuff for your specific field, etc. If you aren’t sure where to start, take a look at the Annual Reviews website and read through some review essays on topics related to your dissertation — they can be a great source of citations to mine. If you haven’t taken classes related to your dissertation topic, you can email professors who have taught relevant courses at your institution and other institutions and ask for syllabuses, which are also a good source to mine for citations.

In both cases, you don’t want your list to be too specific. I recommend to students that they should think about the classes that they’ll eventually teach and come up with syllabuses for them — they should be populated with texts that you would include on your reading lists. Most people don’t go through their careers teaching highly specialized courses, i.e. I don’t teach classes on sleep medicine in the 20th century; I teach classes on medical anthropology and the biology of everyday life. ‘Sleep medicine in the 20th century’ is too narrow for a exam list, but ‘medical anthropology’ of ‘the biology of everyday life’ would be good places to start.

Now, take the list of readings and sort them into thematic and topical clusters. Try and get each reading into two or more clusters, and try and make sure that each cluster has at least five readings in it. If a cluster doesn’t have enough in it, cut the cluster. If a reading can’t fit into at least two clusters, put it on a reserve list — don’t cut it, since it might be important, but put it into storage.

To make this a little more concrete, here’s a pretend dissertation to work with: nationalism in South Asian superhero comics, with fieldwork focusing on their creators and fans. (If you want to write this dissertation, let me know: I have a box of Indian comics waiting for the right graduate student.) So, to start with, our imaginary graduate student is going to have a few obvious clusters: South Asia as a topical region, theories of nationalism, and studies of popular culture, its creators and fans. There are going to be readings that fit into more than one of these clusters right off the list — readings about nationalism in South Asia, readings about popular culture in South Asia, and readings about nationalism and popular culture.

But each of these clusters is going to be comprised of a bunch of smaller clusters, so, for example, the popular culture cluster can probably be broken down in relation to kinds of media (film, novels, newspapers, TV, comic books, music, etc.). It might also be broken down in relation to the topical approaches of the authors, so you might have clusters focusing on race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. The student might also have clusters around fandom and creator-oriented approaches.

Again, you should be able to sort readings into multiple clusters. For the first draft of your reading lists, it’s not bad to have the same reading appear more than once (as long as your committee knows that you’re doing and not try and artificially inflate your reading list). At this point, it’s worth going back to the Annual Reviews database and looking for reviews of each of these clusters, and again mining them for citations. At the end of this process, you should have a pretty significant list of readings.

Once you have your clusters in place, it’s time to check in with your examining committee. What they should be doing is offering suggestions on other readings to fit into each of the clusters — and they might want to remove some stuff as well. Committee members can be especially helpful in identifying recently published stuff that may not have made its way into Annual Review essays yet, and they might also know scholars working in your field that are under recognized.

These suggestions from your committee should move your lists to being pretty finalized, and at this point you should work on organizing your clusters into their master lists and removing redundancies. (But you might keep a master list of your clusters so you can see where readings crossover into other clusters, which may be helpful as you write your exams.) You might also find that your list topics change in this process — that our imaginary graduate student moves from lists on South Asia, nationalism, and popular culture, to ‘nationalism in South Asia,’ ‘ethnicity, gender, and religion in popular culture,’ and ‘theories of mediation.’ (Frankly, any of the starting points of these lists was too broad to begin with — they should narrow and deepen as you work on them.)

With your finalized lists in hand, it’s helpful to write introductions to each of the lists. These introductions should be short, say 4-7 pages, and will lay out what your interests are in the overall topic of the reading list as well as the individual clusters that comprise the list. These introductions are helpful first stabs at thinking systematically about how the clusters in the list work together and what continuities exist within and across them; they are also very helpful for you committee, who may use your introduction to come up with questions for your qualifying exams. These introductions also help to serve as a guide for you as you do your reading, which, as you get into it, might start to feel overwhelming. But, if you know why you’re reading what you’re reading, your introductions can focus your attention to key questions and concerns in the texts.

Remember that your reading list is a contract with your committee: you can’t be held responsible to know anything not on the list, so when it comes time to write your exams or discuss them during an oral defense, know that the exam limits your committee too — at least in terms of what they can choose to ask you about and expect you to meaningfully engage with. If someone asks you something about a text that’s not on your list, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll look it up.’

Reading & Writing the Exams

When it comes to the actual reading, it’s helpful to break the texts into two groups: things you need to spend a lot of time with and things that you can read in a cursory fashion. The cursory stuff might be things that you can read the introduction and a chapter or two from just to get a sense of where the author is coming from, where the project fits into the literature, and what the project looks like. You probably shouldn’t spend more than a day with any of the cursory material. In terms of the more intensive stuff, you’ll want to plan on reading it in its entirety and taking careful notes, with the expectation that you might spend two or three days with it. Ultimately, what you want to be able to do is identify similarities and differences between the approaches taken by authors — to that end, you should work on grouping authors and texts so that when it comes time to write answers to the questions you’re given, you can summarize kinds of approaches and trends in the field (it’s also helpful to plot historical transformations and continuities in how topics have been thought about).

I can’t imagine what your committee will ask you by way of exam questions, but, generally speaking, what committees are looking for in an answer is that you can cite as much of the relevant reading list as possible in a meaningful way — which is often structured around how scholars have addressed a set of central concerns in the field. So, for example, I might ask our theoretical graduate student how nationalism has changed based upon transformations in forms of mass media from the late 19th to early 21st century. The student could then have a few approaches: by historical period, by media form (newspaper to radio to film to TV, etc.), by theoretical approach — or some admixture thereof. What I’m looking for when I’m reading an answer to a question like that is a thorough engagement with the ideas embedded in the texts on the reading list; a cursory citation doesn’t really count. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a full paragraph about a single book (especially the cursory stuff), but it might be a full paragraph about a shared approach or topic, built of sentences that each refer to a reading or two.

Qualifying exams aren’t usually a place to do creative writing; they’re really meant to demonstrate to your readers that you understand the fields you’re participating in and that you’re on your way to being an expert. If you can find a compelling way to approach your answer, that’s always more enjoyable than a dry recitation of a comprehensive body of literature. But a dry recitation is better than a wildly creative non-engagement (which may appear evasive to your readers). Exams aren’t fun, and they really aren’t meant to be; but handled well, they can be productive and give you a solid piece of writing that you can go back to when it comes time to write literature reviews for your dissertation or articles.

April 25, 2017 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

The Best Advice I Have to Give About Writing Dissertations

Reading other people’s dissertations as an adviser and committee member has familiarized me with some common oversights that writers make, which basically fall into two camps: being too ambitious and overlooking the obvious. Now, this might all seem a little straightforward, but, honestly, that’s what a dissertation should be, and yet they often aren’t. These are recommendations based on cultural anthropology dissertations, but they probably translate to a lot of the more humanistic social sciences and humanities — and there are always exceptions to be made. So these are recommendations to get people started on conceptualizing what they’re doing when they tackle writing up a dissertation project. As usual, what your specific committee, adviser, and institution expects may be different from what I lay out here — but this might still be a decent place to start a conversation.

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That’s R. Crumb’s Kafka struggling with something akin to a dissertation…

1) Start with a chapter that lays out the people, places, and things that you’re going to be talking about for the rest of the dissertation. This is not your introduction, which is much more conceptual (see below) — this is really just what it sounds like: who are these people, where do they live and work, and why are you writing a dissertation about them? These are all questions you should have answers for, and their obviousness might lead you to not write this chapter (I’ll admit: I didn’t) because you’ve been working on the project for so long that these things are just assumed. But they aren’t for your dissertation committee, nor will they be for any potential future reader of the dissertation and the eventual book. It doesn’t need to be high concept — in fact, it should be the opposite in the sense that all you’re doing is giving your reader a deep sense of context so that as you discuss these people, places, things, and events later in the dissertation, your reader has this background information in mind.

Now, you might have some reservations — say, you don’t have a specific place, because the project is multi-sited — but, let me assure you, there is a chapter to write that gives your reader context for the rest of the dissertation, whether it’s about individual people, a set of institutions, or a concept, thing, or event that the rest of the dissertation is tracking. If you think you covered this in your dissertation’s introduction, your introduction might be too long or you might be doing too much in your introduction. A solid contextual chapter can go a long way to making sure your dissertation is legible to your committee.

2) Pick a set of theory to work with. One of the nice things about graduate school can be that it introduces you to a wide variety of theorists and theoretical approaches — but when it comes time to write a dissertation, you really have to pick what you want to work with. One of the problems a lot of students seem to have is that their conceptual tool kit becomes overfull when it comes time to write a dissertation — there are so many possible conceptual explanations that it can be difficult to choose just one. But, choosing one explanation is at least pragmatically necessary: a chapter needs to come to some kind of conclusion. Knowing that Marxism is on the table, and psychoanalysis is not means that you can focus on one set of possibilities and ignore others.

A former adviser, Hai Ren, once recommended that you need three theorists to write a dissertation, and over time I’ve really come to see the wisdom in that approach. As I advise students, I’ve come to realize that limiting your conceptual concerns in this way provides you with a strong body of language to draw from and a delimited set of ideas to explore. This combination of theorists and ideas can be complementary or antagonistic — that is, you can draw from three staunch Marxists, or pit Lacanism versus Latourianism — but the most important thing is identifying what’s on and off the table for the purpose of theoretical explanation. And you might commit to this physically: box up all the books you won’t be using and put them out of sight for the duration of dissertation writing.

When I was writing my dissertation, one of my committee members, Bruce Braun, suggested that I come up with a list of terms I didn’t want to use as well as a corresponding list of replacement concepts derived from the theoretical interests I have. So, I drew up a list of problematic Cartesian concepts and a list of Spinozist replacements. Just doing that — coming up with the list — profoundly shaped my vocabulary and meant that I wasn’t inadvertently wading into troublesome terrain or mixing terms that didn’t fit together. Once you know who your pet theorists are and what theories you’re working with, coming up with such a list can be very helpful in identifying key ideas to explain and how to structure what you’re doing.

3) Structure chapters around an idea. It was once the case that anthropologists could legitimately write a chapter each about kinship, economy, religion, political structure, subsistence patterns, etc., but the discrete nature of these distinctions has been largely abandoned — as least as comprehensive rubrics for chapter-length description and analysis. That said, there should be a set of key ideas that you’re working with and that you can arrange your evidence to support. These might be ideas that arise from the project itself — i.e. you might structure chapters around ideas that the people in your field site find important — or they might be ideas that derive from the theoretical questions that you’re concerned with. In either case, structuring a chapter around an idea helps to delimit what goes into that chapter.

Alternatively, you might think about structuring chapters around specific cases — whether they be people, places, or events — and even when that’s the case, it’s important to identify what the case is a case of. Having some kind of identified structure can lead you to ask whether or not any particular set of evidence needs to be in the chapter (which is to say that it’s absolutely okay to leave evidence out of a chapter when it doesn’t fit — better to be short and persuasive than long and unmoored).

The other vital thing here is that when it comes time to write articles based on your dissertation, they too will need to be organized around an idea (or maybe two coming into contact with one another), and starting with this kind of framework can lead you to have a more modular dissertation that you can mix and match to produce articles, and, later, more complex book chapters (but they needn’t!).

4) Make sure all those chapter ideas and pet theories appear in the introduction. Dissertation writers are sometimes motivated to write their introduction before they write the chapters of the dissertation, but it’s usually best to start with the chapters and work back to the introduction, if for no other reason that there tends to be a lot of drift when people work the other way (which is to say that what you think your dissertation is going to be about before you start writing it is probably not what it will actually be about). Once you have the ideas in place for each of the chapters, and you’ve written most of those chapters, it’s worth sketching out the introduction to see how all the ideas fit together as some kind of conceptual package. And then you have to explain why they fit together for the sake of your committee…

Again, if you have a delimited set of theories that you’re working with, writing an introduction around a set of ideas can be pretty straightforward: you can explain the ideas, where they come from, and what your contributions will be. That way as you work through the ideas in the dissertation itself, your committee has something to fall back on as to why your interests are as they are.

Introductions also benefit from a taste of the empirical content of the dissertation — which is different than the contextual chapter mentioned above. Give your readers a sense of the kinds of situations, quandaries, or events that are of interest throughout the dissertation, and use an example or two to motivate your engagement with the set of theory and ideas you’re employing. This helps stop an introduction from being too abstract and can compel your committee to engage with your readings of a set of shared theoretical texts in a new way.

5) Go easy on yourself. Dissertation writers often get hung up on identifying the ‘big idea’ of the dissertation before they actually write it — but, it took me three years after submitting my dissertation to really have a sense of what the big idea behind it was (and that had a lot to do with teaching and realizing where what I was doing fit into the field more generally). I had a passable big idea — sleep and its relationship to industrial capitalism — but as far as how that idea could travel, it took a long time to flesh that out.

And, no dissertation is perfect: it won’t feel that way when you turn it in, and it won’t feel that way years later. The best that a dissertation can be is an archive of evidence, ideas, and experiments that you can use for years to come — for conference presentations, articles, and eventually a book. If it’s also coherent and persuasive, consider it a victory.

 

August 17, 2016 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Designing a Syllabus

It’s easy to underestimate how much time and thought a syllabus absorbs, but they demand a lot of attention, especially because they’re one of the most direct mechanisms to communicate with students. People sometimes dismiss that long syllabus, but I’m definitely on the other side of the divide: I try and make my syllabuses as comprehensive as I possibly can — in part to make sure that I have a place to point to when students have questions, but, more importantly, to head those questions off altogether. I also find that the more I teach a class, the more I refine and scaffold the syllabus, the closer it gets to inspiring new courses and scholarship.

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After I figure out what the class is topically concerned with, I tend to start by thinking about what kinds of assessments are being used, and that usually depends on the level of the course. If it’s a lower division course or an introductory course, I tend to use exams, and schedule one every 4-5 weeks in a term. If it’s an upper division course, I still use exams — but I space them out more and offer students other options for assessment. So, for my upper division students, I usually allow them — by petition — to write a research paper or write periodic precis of the course content. This allows more advanced, specialized students to focus their attention on a more meaningful project — but, like students taking the exams, they still have scheduled deadlines for various part of the project. You can see exams of an introductory syllabus here (Intro to Cultural Anthropology: ANTH 166 2016) and a more advanced syllabus here (Medical Anthropology: ANTH 134 2014). The one exception to this upper division structure is when it’s a required course, and in those cases I still stick with exams, which tend to be more essay oriented (like this upper division survey of anthropological theory, ANTH 152 2015). In any case, when I use exams, they tend to have short, take home essays (like 2-3 pages) as well as short answer portions — in my attempt to meet every students’ test-taking strengths and weaknesses.

I find that having the schedule of the assessments helps to provide an outline for the content of the course — so if an exam happens every 4 weeks, within the preceding 4 weeks, I’ll try and cover 2, 2-week units, or 4 1-week units. If we have a big conceptual unit, I work to consolidate it all on one side of an assessment. I work with the assumption that students can bomb an assessment (if they take a month off, say), but they should be able to get back on track with the next assessment if they get back in the saddle. So my assessments tend to be non-comprehensive — they only include the material since the last assessment, with the exception of the final exam. Generally speaking, these assessments make up about half of a student’s final grade, and I structure the grade so that even if the student scores only 50% on all of this material, he or she can still pass with a C — as long as they complete all of the other work in the class.

The rest of the grade in most of my classes is based on attendance (usually no more than 10%, and typically only for attending section, not lecture — unless it’s a seminar and I can take attendance), with the lion’s share being some form of reading comprehension assignment. In lower division classes, I tend to use a single reading question for each reading, which students answer through an online portal (like Blackboard or Sakai) — it tends to be a question to help the student focus on a key point in the reading, and to integrate it with things that we’ve discussed in class or that he or she has encountered in other readings. So, for example, it might ask a student to define a theory in the present reading and compare it to a concept from another reading; or the question might ask the student to define a concept from another reading and support it with evidence from the present reading. If it’s an upper division course, I tend to use reading guides, which ask the students to identify the author’s thesis, discuss the evidence used and how it relates to the thesis, attempt to identify the debates the author is engaging in and with whom, and, ultimately, to articulate whether they find the piece compelling. In both cases, I find that these kinds of assignments prepare students for coming to class ready to discuss the content at a level appropriate to the class, and they also serve to create an ongoing study guide for the class. By the end of the term, if the student has completed these reading assignments, she or he has a large body of notes they can draw from to prepare for any final exam or final project.

I’ve discussed elsewhere how I choose readings for a class, so I won’t go into that much here. Basically, at the lower division, I tend to choose an article or book chapter for each day (about 25-30 pages); less than that, and I find it hard to have much to lecture on or discuss with students. At the upper division, I tend to assign about 5 readings per week, with more of them being due early in the week. So, for example, if it’s a Tuesday and Thursday class, I’ll ask students to read 3 readings for Tuesday, with 2 for Thursday (assuming they have more time on the weekend to do schoolwork, which isn’t always true). If the reading is especially dense or theoretical, I tend to use about 20-25 pages worth, and have it be the sole reading for the day — or I might pair it with an illustrative example that’s easy to read and see the application of the theory in. One thing I try and avoid is reading a whole book with students over 2-3 weeks of the class.  I find that after a day or two talking about the book, they stop reading it, and only get back into it at the very end of the section. Instead, I use chapters from throughout a book over the course of the term — so selections from the books will be paired with other readings thereby — maybe — illuminating the relationships between the books and other existing scholarship. The exceptions to this are when we’re reading a whole book over 1 or 2 weeks in class, and the contents of the book are such that they give us a lot to discuss on a daily basis.

I usually fill 2 single-spaced pages with various policies for the class, from discussions of academic misconduct and learning services on campus, to proper citational practices, my work expectations for students, and rules about when and how students can contact me. The most important of these is the last: I have a window for answering emails, usually first thing in the morning, Monday through Friday. Emails received after the window are responded to the following day, and emails received on Friday are responded to on Monday. I also tell students that I don’t respond to student emails if the information they’re seeking is in the syllabus. Since implementing that policy, the amount of student email I’ve received has been reduced by 90%. Some students erroneously think I don’t want to communicate with them, but I try and make clear to them that I do — just only during certain times, since answering student email is a very small part of my overall professional responsibilities.

One policy I’ve tried in the past, and may very well revisit in the future, is a Good Faith grade. The idea is this: if a student turns in all of the assignments on time and minimally complete, she or he can receive no lower than a C in the course. The couple of times I’ve used this policy, no one who was failing the class had turned in all of the assignments on time, so they were ineligible for the Good Faith grade. But I did find that students seemed to like me more when there was a very straight forward policy on how to do a minimal amount of work and still pass the class.

Ultimately, I take a ‘no surprises’ approach to the syllabus: I try and get as much into it as possible so that students aren’t taken off guard by assignments, expectations, policies, or the schedule. Making the syllabus as clear as I can — which can sometimes mean 15 page syllabuses — helps save me time over the course of the term (and maybe does the same for students).

Other tips or questions? Post them in the comments below.

August 8, 2016 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Let’s Fund Every Graduate Student for 7 Years

Several years ago, I had an incidental conversation with a senior colleague, Ken George, who was at the time the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He had come up with an idea to fund graduate students for seven years, and not through some enormous endowment, but through state funded education. It’s been a decade, and to my knowledge, no university has tried out a scheme similar to what George devised. So I want to put this idea out into the world and see if any institution will take me up on it — it’s a worthy experiment, and one that might radically change the way we train graduate students, how students experience graduate study, and the integration of undergraduates and graduate students on the contemporary campus.

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My memory of the conversation with George was that he reasoned that the average time to Ph.D. for an Anthropology student was seven years. So, to be a competitive program, Madison would need to fund all of its incoming students for at least that long. The kernel of the idea he pitched to me was that students would receive teaching  or research assistantships for years 1-3, then receive a fourth year that was fully funded — so they could conduct research unfettered and without the need of securing external funding — and then return to the university for years five-seven, during which they would serve as primary instructors for their own classes. The funding they would receive in years five through seven would be reduced to pay the university back for the research year. There were probably more details to the plan, but these are the parts that have stuck with me — including George’s mention that he had discussed the plan with a university financial officer who told him it was feasible. And, after almost a decade of teaching at state universities, I think it might be the necessary future to address many of the concerns faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates face.

During their instructor years, I’m assuming that graduate students are teaching two to three classes per year (probably three), basically a reduced tenure-track teaching load and not-totally-abusive adjuncting teaching load. Like faculty, most of the graduate student’s commitment during the school year would be to teaching, but he or she would also have time to write up the research from year four — and work on other professionalization matters. More importantly, they would receive a living wage, which would support them for three years and also provide them with security of employment so they could spend their summers writing and not seeking a new job.

I don’t want to be evasive, but I also don’t know the math. I’ve tried to puzzle out how this all might work, but every institution is different and what they pay instructors who are ABD vs. Ph.D. varies, as well as the cost of health benefits. But the basic idea is this: income should be consistent over the 7 year period, adjusting for inflation. So whatever one is paid in year four — the research year — should be the same as what one is paid in year five. It’s probably not going to be great — it might be the equivalent of $20,000 each year — but it should be reliable.

But if you just want some numbers to think about, consider that it might cost a university $40,000 per year per graduate student (including stipend and benefits), and that three, 20-student classes generate about $60,000 per year (assuming students pay a relatively cheap $1000 per class). Now, most graduate students don’t cost that much, and most undergrads pay more than that per class, so even if the margins are tight, the university would still be operating with a profit, which can go towards facilities, administrators, and all the other gears that need to be greased to make a university run.

One thing I’m always asked when I bring this proposal up is: what does a department do about a student who takes the fourth year funds and then never returns? Again, I don’t know that there’s one universal bureaucratic right answer, but basically the funds would be converted into a tuition fee and the student would need to pay it back. Likewise, if a student decided not to stay for the full seven years — say she or he gets a tenure track job somewhere — she or he could pay the prorated remaining balance from year four off. So, if a student takes a job at the end of year six, she would need to pay one year’s worth of the forward funding back to the university for year four (about $7,000). Students could also decline the research year and just proceed to the instructorship or pay off the research year with an external grant. It shouldn’t be a form of entrapment, but rather the kind of security that provides at least partial liberation from base anxieties (like paying rent and buying groceries).

The big challenge I see is having classes for the returning graduate students to teach. Given a modest graduate program of six graduate students, this would mean that during any given year (not adjusting for attrition), the department would have 18 instructors teaching a total of 54 new classes. Some of these courses might be in the major, but most of them would need to be channeled elsewhere. And this is the crux of the proposition as I see it — where does all this labor go?

My best guess is to create a new requirement for every major on campus, namely a two part writing or communication class that’s major-specific and taken during year one or two of an undergraduate career. For example, in an anthropology department, majors would be required to take a two term sequence in Reading Anthropology and Writing Anthropology. The first would teach them how to identify theses, supporting arguments, the use of evidence, basic genres of social scientific writing, etc. The second course would focus more squarely on getting students to write as novice anthropologists, with all of the expected generic conventions in place. Both of the courses would help them in their major, and benefit them overall with more intensive critical reading and writing training that could be applied in other courses they take, in and out of their major.

There’s another basic math problem, which is that the number of graduate students in any particular program might be out of proportion to the number of undergraduates enrolled in the department’s major. One way to handle this would be to have graduate students from cognate programs teach at the undergraduate level in departments with excessive majors. So, for example, biological anthropology Ph.D. students might teach the Reading and Writing Biology courses in the Biology department, freeing up graduate students there to do the laboratory work they are needed for by faculty in Biology.

The tougher question is what to do about majors like Computer Science, where conventions of communication vary significantly from other disciplines. But courses could be offered to train graduate students in the necessary skills, and there might be significant monetary incentives to lure them into teaching in these programs. Each institution would need to figure out what the roadblocks are and address them with local resources — or, potentially, start new interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs to meet the needs produced by new requirements.

In any case, the course content should be determined by the instructor to reflect her or his areas of confidence and strength, but assignments across iterations of the same class should be similar so as to ensure that standards are being met. Teaching critical reading and writing skills to undergraduates also benefits instructors, whose own reading and writing skills tend to further develop through teaching. And such intensive teaching helps graduate students gain confidence and skills in one of the primary skills they’ll need in their future as educators.

There are some significant reputation dividends to be gained with a program like this for departments and universities: the university can brand itself as especially dedicated to undergraduate reading and writing skills, and in a landscape where graduate training seems precarious if not exploitative, the university can cast itself as ethical and intensely focused on the professional development and economic security of its graduate students.

If you convince your department or dean to experiment with a 7-year funding plan, let me know. And if you can think of any thing I missed, let me know that too…

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