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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.

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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.

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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…

January 19, 2016 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

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

I often jokingly tell graduate students that I wish someone had told me about the sheer number of meetings I would have to attend as a faculty member — not to dissuade me, but to clue me into the bureaucratic reality of what it’s like to be a faculty member. This is my attempt to distill my experience as a tenure-track assistant professor at two large, state research universities and the lessons I learned about the reality of what being an assistant professor is like with an eye towards preparing future faculty for the everyday reality of professorship. As usual, it’s largely based only on my experience — other people surely have different experiences (even at the same institutions), and the experiences of friends at other kinds of institutions clearly differ from my own.

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Briefly, my own institutional biography: I accepted a job at Wayne State University while finishing my dissertation in early 2007. I spent a year there — I actually started teaching in the summer term — and then moved to the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was at UCSC from 2008 through 2015, and went up for tenure there in 2012. So, in total, I spent one year as an assistant at Wayne, and four as an assistant at UCSC. Generally, the experiences were not significantly different in their broad contours.

The big change from being a dissertating graduate student to being a tenure-track faculty member is that you move from being almost entirely self-directed to suddenly being beholden to the needs of others — in the classroom, but also in your department and the university and profession more generally. Usually, this is referred to as “service” and it can include everything from being a department chair, to serving on job search committees, to giving guest lectures in other people’s classes, to serving on M.A. or Ph.D. committees — and so many more permutations, especially outside of one’s departmental home. Service happens at the level of the department, the level of the division, the level of the university, and the level of the profession. So, on the one hand, I had ongoing commitments — like serving on Ph.D. committees, the number of which steadily increased over time — and new, one- and two-year commitments that changed with each academic year. In any given year, I tended to accept two to three new service roles, most of which changed the following year — and these included things like serving on the graduate admissions committee, the professionalization workshop I ran, prize committees for undergraduate and graduate students (both at UCSC and through the Society for Medical Anthropology), the academic review committee for students in danger of being expelled or suspended, the university’s committee on faculty welfare, and a variety of one-off activities (like guest lecturing, serving on external grant agency review panels, and a host of peer-reviewing for journals). On any given week, it probably amounted to 2-4 hours of work and meetings — sometimes, though, it was dramatically more, like when I had to write a report for a committee that I was serving on (which probably took something like 10-15 hours in one week). And any peer-reviewing I did tended to take 3-4 hours, usually once or twice each month.

There are many more meetings — and emails, and telephone calls (still — some people actually want to talk on the phone!) — which range from meeting with eager or delinquent undergraduates, to meeting with current and prospective graduate students, to meeting with teaching assistants, to faculty meetings, to university-level meetings. At Wayne we had biweekly or monthly Friday morning faculty meetings; at UCSC we had nearly weekly faculty meetings on Wednesday afternoons. Most of these meetings required no preparatory work on my part, and on average I would spend 3-5 hours each week in meetings. It could be dramatically more though, especially with university-level and meetings to support the discipline, and in a couple of cases I easily spent 10 or more hours in meetings in one week.

It’s easy to minimize the amount of time it takes to prepare and teach new courses, but it can be all-consuming. At Wayne, I was tasked with teaching a two-semester sequence of theory in medical anthropology at the graduate level — which was an entirely new course and not one that was particularly portable — and also an introduction to cultural anthropology for undergraduates. When I moved to UCSC, none of these classes were usable, in part because at UCSC the senior faculty protected the junior faculty from teaching the very large (~400 students) introduction to cultural anthropology course. But, also, I designed my intro class to resonate with the life experiences of students in Detroit, so a lot of the content would have needed to change as well. When I got to UCSC, I was asked to teach an introduction to medical anthropology course for undergraduates, and from there it was up to me to design my curriculum — so, I came up with graduate courses in science studies and experimentation, and undergraduate classes in the biology of everyday life, medicine & colonialism, and, eventually, I took on the service requirement of teaching the introduction to cultural anthropology, ethnographic methods, and cultural anthropological theory. (You can see my syllabuses on my Teaching page.)

Each of these preps took a few weeks of part-time work before the term began — and in most cases, took a lot of work at the stage when I had to propose the course at the departmental and university levels in order to get approval to offer the class and to garner general education breadth designations. During the term I first offered the class — and to a lesser extent with later iterations — there was significant work throughout the week, reading material, preparing lectures, writing assignments and exams. On top of service requirements, commuting, childcare, running errands, and everything else, this meant that I got very little new writing or research done during the term. (Over time, I was able to develop a rhythm wherein most of my writing and research would get done in terms with old classes or during the summer, and editing work or revisions on articles were saved for the intensive teaching terms.) Only late in my time as an assistant professor did I get to the point where I was teaching classes I had taught before, and then had more time for research and writing — but then started teaching more new classes, and also developed some fatigue related to teaching some of my steady classes. All told, it tended to be about 5 hours per week in the classroom, plus another 15-20 hours per week in preparation, emailing with students, office hours, and other sundry teaching support (which goes down to 5-10 hours per week with a retaught class).

Then there’s things like giving colloquium talks and attending conferences and workshops, all of which can be edifying, but also time consuming. Until The Slumbering Masses came out in 2012, most of my invitations were based on my social network — after the book came out, the invitations started to widen. I developed a rule pretty early on that I wouldn’t give more than one colloquium talk per term and wouldn’t travel to more than one conference per term. I also wouldn’t travel over the Mississippi River more than once per year, since I tended to lose too much time to travel. There were exceptions, but having the rule meant that I really paid attention to my schedule for the year, and that I would try and avoid excessive travel — and maximize the travel I did do. I also tend to only present new work at conferences and colloquia; if I recycled the same talk, I might approach things differently, but given that I was always working to produce new material for talks, I wanted to make sure I had the time to do the necessary writing. In any given week, these kinds of speaking engagements had little effect, but when I was traveling, it tended to take 3-4 days (plus the writing to support the talk).

Publishing also loomed large, and my tenure requirements at both institutions were about the same: a few articles and a book. I tend to write an article or two each year, as well as working on book chapters. I was fortunate to get an advanced book contract rather early, and had a handful of article manuscripts by the time I started at UCSC, so most of the real, anxiety-inducing pressure was off, but I did have to work on actually getting everything written and published. I tend to work in fits and starts rather than in a steady stream of productivity, so I would sometimes work on edits or small writing during the term, but most of the heavy writing was left for periods when I wasn’t teaching. The biggest challenge was writing the book, which took 3-4 months of intensive work — which I spent at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota, while my partner was in India doing her own research — and then was followed by another intense period of revisions, which happened about six months later (at which point we had a newborn). That was followed by needing to work with a copy editor and then to correct the proofs of the book. The intensive writing and revision work often took all day, every day that I could fit it in (based on teaching and family schedules); the editing and proofing work also took all day, and because there was often a very small window (like 2 weeks) to turn things around, it often meant squeezing it in whenever I could. And when I’m just writing — articles, book chapters, talks — I tended to work a couple hours each day, but that could be anything from actual writing, to editing, to reading in support of the writing project or transcribing old research. When I could, though, I’d binge on writing and work all day, but that changed significantly after having our first child.

I’ve hinted at it throughout, but it’s worth remembering that there’s all the duties and joys of non-professional life too, and spending time dating or with a partner, parenting, having hobbies, grocery shopping, commuting, talking to your parents, reading for enjoyment, fixing the toilet, cooking, and everything else that life is really all about takes up a lot of time. Developing a schedule to make sure that you’re not just working is vital to staying happy.

I’m pretty low stress, and my departments at Wayne and UCSC were supportive of me and my work, but there was still stress enough during those four years at UCSC for me to develop shingles twice (which my family doctor was sure was stress-related). Know that if you go into the professorial line of work that there are significant demands on your time and all sorts of stressors — but approaching them deliberately can significantly mitigate their effects on you. And make sure you sign up for health insurance — just in case.

June 25, 2015 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

“But What Should I Publish?”

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Last year, I posted a series on article writing, offering a method for the novice on how to approach writing an article in six steps. But one of the questions I’ve left a little unanswered is what one should publish early in an academic career. I’ve previously suggested that the primary consideration here is the job market, and that it’s useful to think strategically about what kinds of jobs you’ll be applying for and what kinds of journals exist that would make evident your expertise in those jobs. For example, in cultural anthropology, jobs tend to be posted that call for expertise in particular geographic regions and topical subfield. If you do research in Latin America, there’s the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology and if your work is about medicine, then there’s Medical AnthropologyMedical Anthropology Quarterly, etc. In other disciplines, period can also come into play. But identifying journals isn’t enough — there’s also the question of what, exactly, you should work on publishing, and why.

So, here are two ways to think this through:

The Nagging Anecdote Method

By ‘nagging anecdote’ I mean any kind of case, data, or event that you’ve turned up that continues to be something you think about — maybe without any real resolution. It might be something that you talk with people about when you discuss your research, or just something that sticks out from your research. Probably the reason why the case sticks out for you is because it shows something about your research that’s novel in relation to your field.

The challenge with this method — and probably the reason why the anecdote is nagging at you in the first place — is that you have to figure out what the anecdote actually shows and whether it has any legs. Sometimes an anecdote can be just that: a quirky case, data burp, or event that other people will find kind of compelling to think about. But if it doesn’t actually show much, it’s not worth hitching an article to — it might best to relegate it to a conversational hook. If it does have legs, it’ll be because it helps to show something in relation to existing literature, which is either theoretical or topical.

The next step is to put the nagging anecdote alongside some other, less nagging evidence. So, answer this question: if this nagging case is the exception, what does the rule look like? You might have two or three more normative cases that help the naive reader to understand what the nagging case is of deeper interest. These other, more normative cases might not only be yours — they might be drawn from existing scholarly literature, which might lay the basis for a literature review. If the data is coming from your own research, you might be establishing the broad outline of the evidence that will be the heart of the paper.

The challenge at this point is figuring out what kind of contribution you’re making to your field. It can be modest — your set of data can confirm how widespread a particular set of circumstances are or how common certain outcomes might be. It can also be a much more profound contribution, if the cases you have are really exceptional. In either case, this kind of article really depends on knowing the topical literature well and making an argument that’s based on a shared understanding within your audience of what’s normative in a particular research context.

The Medium-Sized Debate Method

In any field, there are theories that people use to think through their research material. In subfields and area studies, the theories that people are using aren’t usually as macroscopic as they are in the flagship journals in any field. So, for example, in the social study of medicine, ‘medicalization’ is a theory that is widely used, whereas in the discipline of anthropology more generally you have bigger debates around ideas like ‘globalization,’ ‘culture,’ ‘neoliberalism,’ ‘ontology,’ etc. Anyone who has successfully completed their qualifying exams should be able to identify these smaller, subdisciplinary or area-focused debates — it might take a little time, and you might have to go back to your reading lists, but the knowledge is there (and the debates haven’t changed much since you did your exams). It might be worth writing down a list of relevant debates in your areas of study, and then figuring out which ones you have something to say about.

Having something to add to a debate can be really straightforward: you can really focus an article around providing further proof of a concept in a different context than its initial elaboration. You can also argue against a concept by its inability to fit in a particular context. And you can do something in-between, simultaneously accepting a concept and showing how it might need revisions based on a particular set of circumstances (which are the basis of your research). So, to go back to ‘medicalization,’ you can provide an set of examples of it working along the lines that Peter Conrad has elaborated the idea; you can show how it’s not the logic underlying a particular set of circumstances (which is what I try to do in ‘Natural Hegemonies‘); or you can work to extend the concept based on its insufficiency in a particular context (e.g. Adele Clarke et al.’s Biomedicalization).

Once you have a list of potential debates to contribute to, the challenging part is figuring out the right data to match up with those debates, and what this data might show. Probably the safest place to start from is the assumption that your work will confirm whatever theory you’re working with, and you might set about figuring out how it does so. You might get to one of the other positions (let’s call them ‘contradiction’ and ‘complementarity’), but in the beginning, assume that you’re working to confirm the theory.

Break the theory down into its constituent elements. So, to continue the medicalization example, the basic idea is that what was once accepted as natural human experiences are now treated as medical disorders and in need of medical attention. In the case of my research on sleep, sleeping in more than one period was once considered normal, but is now often thought of as insomnia — or, in some cases, narcolepsy. With the categories of insomnia and narcolepsy, particular medications are identified as being helpful, which necessarily involves medical professionals. With treatments being prescribed for individual patients, the medicalization process is complete — although when you take the perspectives of patients into account, the process gets a little upset. This is the basis for an article of mine that could be useful to look at. But, basically, you need to tease apart the theory and then find evidence of yours that matches up with the component parts. This might sound a little schematic, but if you’re really working with a particular theory, this is a good way to demonstrate to your peer reviewers that you know what you’re talking about. It will also help you see whether or not you’re complementing the theory, contradicting it, or confirming it, since a variation in your evidence from any of the theory’s components will be pointing you down either the contradicting or complementing roads…

Finding a journal to send an article like this to should be pretty straightforward: since it’s a theory that emerges from or is particularly relevant to a subdiscipline or area-studies interest, you should be able to identify a journal that fits under one of those rubrics. Before you have the whole manuscript written — but after you have a sense of what it’s going to be about — make sure you take a look at the journal’s submission requirements and to take the time to analyze a model article from the journal you’re planning on sending the article to for review. Taken together, the submission requirements (like word count) and the model article should give you a clear sense of what an article should look like for the journal you’ve identified and how to put it together.

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I’m more of a Medium-Sized debate writer than a Nagging Anecdote one; but some Nagging Anecdotes have appeared in my work over the years. More often, I feel like what I write about are pretty modest topics that gently expand theoretical perspectives. But I know a lot of people who are definitely in the Nagging Anecdote camp, and that works just as well.

Whichever route you pursue, forethought is critical: what you don’t want is an article manuscript that has a hard time finding a place to fit. If that’s what you end up with, you’ll need to go back to the manuscript to get it into the right shape for the journal you end up identifying as your first target for peer-review. The more you know about a journal and what its editors are looking for, the better the odds of your work being accepted for publication there. A little upfront research will save you lots of time rewriting to meet the editorial and audience expectations of any journal.

If your article doesn’t make it through peer-review at your first pick journal, don’t get discouraged. Take the peer-reviews into account, do some rewriting, and send it out for review again. Journal articles can take years to find the right editors, peer reviewers, and audience — so, again, knowing the right journals to send things to is critical.

 

March 20, 2015 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Oh, That’s What They’re Looking for… Job Letter Edition

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A while back, I set about asking for input from faculty who serve on search committees to weigh in on their experiences and what they’re looking for when reviewing files from applicants. Between some random social media outreach and targeted invitations, I ended up with several responses, which both confirm and challenge some of my assumptions and experiences. In this post, I’m reproducing a handful of answers to my first question — what do you look for in a job letter? — and a few reflections on job letters these days.

So, from a friend at a large, public research university who has served on a few search committees over the past decade:

When reading a job letter I look for the usual things, like descriptions of the candidate’s dissertation, next project, publications, and teaching, but also something more: a quality of self-knowledge and even vision. Does the candidate have a vision for the field — what it is and should be — and clarity about how their own research and writing move it in that way? In part, this requires clarity in explaining the dissertation itself. I like to see one or two sentences that express the central finding or argument of a dissertation, as opposed to merely describing the subject matter, topic, questions, methods, approach, and so on. I also look for a concise discussion of what the work means — its larger implications. Can the candidate describe their dissertation’s core argument in a way that reflects a compelling understanding of how it fits with (or is set against) a larger configuration or trend of scholarship? Does it exemplify certain intellectual or ethical values we should all be considering?

Another thing that should go into a job letter is an abundance of care in reading the job ad. This is not my issue personally, but I have been on enough search committees to know that many colleagues treat this as extremely important, explicitly or tacitly. From the candidate’s point of view, the job in my department may be just one of many on a list to apply to, but from the committee’s perspective, it is the one and only job that we are thinking about and trying to fill. So seriousness about this job is important to demonstrate. Another reason to read the job ad carefully is that nearly every word of a job ad is carefully chosen, and the criteria stated in a job ad are reviewed by many parties and can be binding on the search committee, so they are crucial to recognize and address.

A more junior faculty member at a small, private research university responded to the same question with, “‘Spark.’ Some trace of what they are passionate about. Something that shines through the formulaic phrases that, somehow, have become normative.” Another junior colleague at a large, state research university added, “A sense of what they do and who they are in scholarly life beyond the dissertation.” Who knew that having a life beyond your dissertation was even possible?

A junior faculty member at a large, private research university suggested, “Clear articulation of an argument and contribution to existing literature, clear articulation of research program. Writing that is clear and accessible to scholars outside the immediate area of the applicant’s research.” This is especially important in departments that are mixed — like Anthropology, Sociology and Criminal Justice, or Human Development, or Cultural Studies — where you might be the only representative of your field.

A full professor at a medium sized private research university added, “A cogent account of what their dissertation project was about, what it contributes to the wider field, what their methods were (and why). A sense of where they might head next, project-wise — though perhaps more important is a sense of what they’ll do with their dissertation work (turn into a book [have they been talking with editors?]? journal articles [are any in the pipeline? out?]).”

And, finally, from a mid-career faculty member at a small, private liberal arts university,

First and foremost are qualifications and fit for the position. From there, I look to see how much effort has been made to tailor the letter to the institution and job description. I don’t mean simply that the candidate has incorporated the language of the job ad into their letter, but that, for instance, if it is a small liberal arts college, they have emphasized their commitment to undergraduate teaching, rather than simply spending the entire letter talking about their research. Brief mentions of personal reasons for being interested in the position (i.e., proximity to family and friends) don’t hurt, particularly if the institution or location is not conventionally considered desirable in its own right.

My own thoughts on job letters haven’t really changed much over the years, but these responses definitely add a few things to consider for prospective job seekers:

1) Don’t just be descriptive. When it comes to describing one’s research — especially a dissertation — it can be pretty tempting to get bogged down in the details. But what people really want to know is that there’s more to a dissertation project than the content — and they want to be surprised…or at least intrigued. A lot of dissertation projects can be pretty predictable — topic from Column A, theory from Column B — to the point that a well informed reader can pretty much guess the findings with a brief overview of the data. And when you saturate a job letter with pure data, it doesn’t really leave anything to the imagination. It’s better to hold back on the description of evidence and lists of topics, and instead give a sense of what the debates in your field are and how you’re entering into them with your project — and potentially your whole career. Taking such an approach also gives people a sense that your interests extend beyond whatever your dissertation is about, and that you have contributions to make — what was referred to above as “spark.”

2) Give a sense of your trajectory. I tend to think that your CV tells your past and your job letter tells your future. You don’t need to spend a lot of time recounting your achievements — they’re in the CV — but you should take the time to tell readers what your plans are for the future. This can have to do with your next project, but, also where you are in terms of publishing your research material and what your plans for it are. Faculty want to know that they’ll be able to recommend you for tenure at their institution — in part because they might not get a chance to replace you if you don’t get tenure since the economy is awful — so looking at the profiles of recently tenured faculty and thinking about your trajectory in similar terms might be very helpful. Did they just need a few articles? A book and some articles? A huge NSF grant? If you have a sense of what an institution is looking for in junior faculty, work it into the job letter.

3) Respond to the advertisement and institution. It’s really tempting in an age when there are a lot of demands on one’s time during job season to not customize every letter that you send out, but consider it from the reader’s perspective: when you’re serving on a search committee at an out of the way institution and you receive 200 applications that make no mention of the part of the world you’re in, what the ad is calling for, and the strengths of your institution, the handful of letters that do will really stand out. I used to allot myself a set amount of time for each application to do some research on the institution in relation to the advertisement, to check out the local area (looking at real estate and local newspaper websites can be very helpful) and reading faculty profiles and abstracts of their published work. Generally where this all fits in is in the paragraphs about teaching and your institutional fit, but if you can fit it into your research statement — maybe in the opening sentence as a hook — all the better.

4) Appear to be a human being with thoughts, feelings and something resembling a life outside of academia. Again, in an age when people are reading 200 applications for one position, appearing to be a human being with a life outside of your dissertation research can make a huge difference. Remember, you’re applying for a job that might be for your entire career — and the entire career of your future colleagues. Having a sense that you can talk about more than just your research might go a long way to differentiating you from the pack. And a canny way to do this is to think about what your life would look like where the institution is — are there features of the place that are particularly appealing, like national or state parks? Are there institutions that you might reach out to, both as faculty and a member of the community? Do you have personal ties to the area? All of these things give letter readers a sense of life beyond the research.

There’s a lot to fit into 2 short pages, but I always tell people that job letters are like a Las Vegas show (not that I’ve ever been to one): you need to leave your audience wanting more. If you tell them too much — especially about the dissertation — the conversation is pretty much over. But if you can engage them on their own terms by addressing the advertisement, the institution, the area, and their imaginations as scholars, you can get out of the slush pile.

Other thoughts on what should be in a job letter? Or have great job letter success or fail stories? Share them in the comments. And thanks to the anonymous friends who responded to my questions.

(NSFW alert: In searching for a picture of a wringer, I stumbled across a fetish I never considered. If you need something to disturb you, check out images of ‘the wringer’ on Google Images.)

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