Archive for the ‘Advice’ category

The Pages Were Red With Ink: On Feedback

June 27, 2013

You’ve always been an all-star student.  In third grade, your teachers talked about you in the teacher’s lounge, “She used a word I had to look up.  I don’t even know what vacillate means and she used it in a sentence…”  You were the top of your high school class.  College felt a breeze.  When your favorite professor said you should consider grad school, you smiled and rattled off the top programs you were already contemplating.  He loved your work.  You always got As.  You were destined for greatness.Red Ink

Then you arrived at grad school… and everything seems to have changed.

You receive feedback on your first… maybe second paper… and it’s full of red ink.  There are abbreviations for errors you don’t even understand.  What have I done?  Who has failed me?  Why do I keep writing in the passive voice?

Graduate school is meant to be a humbling experience.  What most students master at the undergrad level is how to speak the language of the professor.  “Oh I know Jones… he loves when I connect the Civil War to theology and reference Mark Noll.  I do that in every paper!”  Then the students replicate the winning formula with every subsequent paper, affirming self-fulfilling prophecies.  Then when students try to do that kind of thing in graduate school, they quickly realize the goal is not to say what the professor wants to hear, but rather write something the professor him/herself has never even thought about.  The goal of graduate school is innovative, unique, and powerful thinking.  This does not happen over night.

I will not pretend to be the expert on this.  I’m still working on my doctoral work, but what I do have to say is to take heart.  A page full of red marks means that the professor believes there is hope in “fixing” your writing.  Let it influence you.  Take in the comments and learn from them.  Not all professors agree on good writing.  Every year committees argue over the Pulitzer and the Bancroft because no one can agree on the best research and writing.  Fortunately your first seminar paper in grad school is not up for a Pulitzer.  So, learn from the red ink.

I will finish with this advice.  Visit the professor not out of a concern for the grad, but to learn more about how to think.  Teachers face students all the time who are concerned with grades.  GPAs, of course, in our market economy can determine all sorts of quality of life issues.  In short, for undergrads, the difference of a few letter grades can determine a $10,000 grant or not.  That’s a huge deal.  But what professors want to hear is a genuine concern for learning.  Grad school, as expensive as it can be, should not just be about your grades.  Rather, focus on learning.  “I see your comments here about this awkward sentence.  Can you explain to me how to write it more clearly?  How can I improve the way I’m thinking about this historical time period?”  Those questions will go a long way in establishing your relationship with instructors, as well as your own intellectual progress.

Take a few red marks on the chin.  Don’t argue with the grade, but always learn from criticism.  Remember that when you get out of grad school (if you stay in the academic world), there will be editors, peer reviewers, and still more red ink to fix.  Revision is part of the writing process.  It doesn’t mean you’re not an all-star student any more; it just means you’ve made the all-star team and the coaches here intend to push you harder.

When will you be done? And other questions grad students can’t handle.

June 2, 2013

This is not a post for graduate students.  This is a post for everyone who loves a graduate student.  Here are some things we hate to hear and a few reasons why.  If you are a grad student and can’t bear to say these things yourself, maybe you can click “share” and let these words speak for you.eating-alone-2

1) When will you be done?
We know you mean well with this question, but graduate degrees (MAs and especially PhDs) are not defined by chronological status updates like a BA or BS.  To complete a full original research project may take years even before writing begins.  Some scholars research quickly and take years to write.  Some take years to research and write in no time.  Others take years to do it all.  Oh, and as most readers are aware, most scholars are doing all of this work in the evenings or on weekends because our days are full of teaching undergraduates.  We don’t want your sympathy, but you might consider asking, “how is your work?”  Please don’t ask, “how is school?” like we’re still in elementary school.  We know you mean well, but grad school is our job.

2) When will you get a real job?
This is a difficult question that often does not get asked directly, but it’s what people mean.  When you ask when we’re getting done, you’re basically leading to this.  “So… you’re in your late 20s and you’re still in school… you have no money and no prospects… when are you going to throw in the towel and come work at the bank/bar/hotel/factory with the rest of us grown ups?”  We don’t want to hear that.  We don’t need to hear that.  We need support.  Graduate students took a leap of faith the days we applied, got accepted, and began working on this.  Our work is the life of the mind.  We know that you won’t all “get it,” but that question doesn’t really help.  By the way, if you’re really curious, our answer to this question is almost invariably, “when the market normalizes, my research is complete, Oxford publishes my manuscript, and the perfect job at the place I want has an opening and everyone on the committee thinks I’m amazing.”  In short, we have no idea and the truthful answer might be never.  Is it still worth pursuing?  Absolutely.

3) What does your spouse think of all this?
This one is sometimes in the form of a condescending statement, as in, “Oh your [significant other] must really love you to put up with ALL THIS SCHOOL.”  Again, I point to number one in reference to this being a job and not school.  But… more to the point… the sanctimonious attitude present in this all-too-common question/statement is that we, grad students, are mere leeches on our significant others, bringing down the household income to pursue some silly dream.  I didn’t buy a Corvette and go cruisin’ down the coast.  This is not a quarter-life crisis.  This is a graduate degree that is part of a larger career.  It’s personal advancement as well as, at least we hope, helping to expand the knowledge base of humanity.  You’re welcome.

The main thing we grad students need in this process is support.  We want you to care and sustain us, but this is neither a hospital stay nor boot camp.  We made the decision to get into this ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we always enjoy it OR always hate it.  We love and despise the life of the mind.  The best advice I can give is to treat graduate students like the professionals that they are.  Would you ask your dentist when he’s finally going to quit doing all the small time local patient stuff and get a degree in oral surgery?  Would you ask your lawyer why he’s working on your small time local stuff when he could be slaying corporate giants downtown?  No.  You would talk about their work with respect and dignity, with the care and precision of a semi-interested non-specialist who cares but does not condescend.  On behalf of grad students everywhere, we would love a little of the same.

Teaching “May Term”: Some Reflections

May 30, 2013


teacher writing

Some call it “May Term”… some call it “J term”… if I were a poet, I could come up with a third.  Regardless of your terminology, I’m writing about the “intensive, semester in a few weeks EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME” that many schools have.  “Back in my day” as an undergrad, this was not an option.  However, I’d like to offer a few points of advice from this side of the podium on how to handle teaching an intensive semester-in-a-month class.

1) Cut back – Cut back on everything.  Your Chair will tell you not to.  Your spirit won’t want you to make the class any “easier,” but the bottom line is you have to cut some content.  Students cannot retain in five weeks what they can in fifteen.  Remember the whole “uncoverage” conversation.  I don’t care if you’re teaching World Civ or US history, something’s gotta go.

2) Don’t lament the structure; embrace it.  Initially I found myself frustrated with the smaller class size and the restricted time to develop my ideas.  “I can’t do this…” I said.  “This is too hard…” I said.  But I could do it.  Once I learned to listen to my students (I know, I sound like Mr. Myagi now), I realized they were making different sorts of connections in this format.  Unlike us, these students don’t spend three hours a day working on history.  So when they do for an intensive class, they make unique observations and connections they may not make in a standard semester.

3) Let less be more.  This point is related to the first point, but what I mean is rather than focus on “whole texts” and longer readings (that students frankly cannot finish in the format), try breaking down sources together.  Running a class like this (with three hour meeting blocks), creating a “workshop” style atmosphere can be very beneficial.  While it might seem like you’re covering less “survey” material, the hands on connection points are invaluable and, for some of us, more enjoyable.

To some these might seem like obvious ideas, but I know I had to learn them the  hard way.  Feel free to share this post with friends and colleagues who may be teaching in this format over the summer or for intensive classes next fall.

Any thoughts or ideas you might have, feel free to comment below!

Advice for Surviving Graduate School

April 1, 2013

While I’m not completely finished with graduate school, I am on the “downhill” side of doctoral coursework and comprehensive exams, so I thought I’d provide some thoughts on surviving graduate school for some of my junior colleagues. In a world spent mostly looking toward what’s next in my career, it seems appropriate to take a look backward for a moment. books

  1. You can’t read everything, so read strategically. There are some graduate advisors cringing at this right now because they read so adamantly, they’re even reading my blog. They won’t skip point two because it might be the point that unlocks the piece. But the bottom line is that you can’t possibly read everything, especially when a syllabus has “extra readings” for the week. On top of the two books required, the professor suggests you read three of these others. Really, professor? Five books for one class? Yes, seriously. This will be asked of you. So you have to read strategically. Learn to grasp the nuts and bolts of an argument quickly and efficiently. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s best to acquire it early in the process.
  2. Stay balanced. One of the biggest mistakes people make in grad school is selling out to their program of study. You have to go to the gym. You have to sleep. You should stay plugged into a church. Even though none of us are studying science, we need to know enough about how the human body works to give it food and workouts and rest. Your brain will not allow higher level thinking if you don’t take care of your body. Aside from that, research shows that creativity (and higher level processing) happens when we shift our focus away from what we’re working on. It’s why places like Google and 3M allow their employees to play pingpong and take walks. Because when those workers return to productivity, they have better ideas.
  3. Make and cultivate relationships with colleagues. Graduate school is, by definition, an alienating experience. You are becoming one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in your niche of specialization. So in that, there are very few others who can relate to what you’re enduring. Your significant other may not “get” what you do. You friends may not understand the time commitment and may drive you nuts with the “so when will you be done?” question, as if grad school is just a jog around the block. That’s why connecting with colleagues, beyond just someone to complain about that “stupid paper we had to write this week” is important; they can commiserate on the life of the mind.
  4. Protect your intellectual vitality. This is not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, what I mean is not that you read more but that you stay connected to the important influences that directed you to graduate school. Don’t get so sidetracked by the theory-heavy reading lists of courses that you forget to read theology and life-giving ideas about the profession that motivates you. Read pedagogy when you’re frustrated with disengaged students. Read a biography of your all time favorite pitcher if it breathes life into your historical intellectual curiosity. Don’t get bogged in the mire of grad reading lists.
  5. Vary your studying atmosphere. Some of my colleagues have their spot. For some it’s at home, others a coffee shop, and some (shockingly) can get work done in the office. But wherever it is, you will eventually hit a wall. When that happens and the words won’t flow or your eyeballs seem to cross, find a new place. Universities are full of places to study. Switch it up. Study in a different building on campus. Go to a different part of town. Sometimes studying at a friend’s house can result in minimal actual “study” work, but I’ve gotten more done in 15 minute chunks in intellectually-stimulating places than I have for hours in the institutional confines of various places. Find what makes your lightbulb glow, but don’t stay plugged into the same outlet. Explore and illumine other places.

So you want to go to grad school? Five things advisers won’t tell you but you need to know

March 1, 2013

When students get the idea to go to graduate school, they immediately put their undergraduate advisor in a difficult position. The professor can encourage you to press on, apply, and go for your dreams. Or, he/she can choose to be honest, explaining the realities of the dreaded “job market” and the general societal malaise for all things “higher education.” Somewhere in this conversation of “well… you know” and “how can I say this without sounding offensive?” awkward moments, maybe inklings of truth creep through.

I decided, in my service here as the CFH grad rep, to save some of the trouble with five things your adviser never told you, but you should definitely consider about graduate school:

  1. Grad school is nothing like college. Nothing. Seriously not even a little bit. It’s a job. You’re going to a job that doesn’t pay you anything. In fact, you’re going to a job that is quite possibly going to cost MORE than your undergraduate debt. The glorious stories of drinking coffee, up late in your tweed smoking jacket pontificating about some great historical figure are often squelched by extra side jobs, chicken-scratch esoteric jargon-filled commentary from frustrated research professors, and a general disconnect from the beloved “academy” that sparked your initial interest in the “profession.”
  2. Job Prospects. The golden goose at the end of it is not a guaranteed “practice” as in the medical professions. No, instead, you will be in the precarious position of trying to oust a senior colleague who is, at that time, making the most he/she has ever made in his/her career. There’s a reason people don’t retire.
  3. You start putting quotation marks around everything and your friends/family hate you for it. No, seriously, graduate school after the postmodern turn is akin to walking on eggshells EVERYWHERE you go. You start talking about “race” and “class” instead of race and class. You read Foucault and start deconstructing everything. You order a chocolate donut and begin asking yourself about the global impact of your personal cocoa reliance… then you throw the donut away and hope that the good people of Nicaragua forgive you for exploiting them. Then you put “exploiting” in quotation marks and feel awful, again.
  4. You feel guilty for having hobbies. You will find yourself justifying going to the gym because it’s time spent away from books. You have this immaculate pressure that, because your life is not on a 9-5, it must be a 24/7 immersion in theory and difficult readings. You will be in the middle of a workout wondering what a Marxist critique of this gym might look like. You wonder if anyone else has ever even contemplated such a thing. You apply Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” to the gym rats. Then you cry a little, and remember you have a precis to write by morning. You cancel whatever fun thing you thought about doing that night and go read because no good grad student has hobbies.
  5. Awful War Stories. All survivors have a story. Mere survival IS the story. Graduate school, should you survive, makes for awful stories. When your “friends” ask where you’ve been for the past two years, you explain that you were on a mountaintop of exalted consciousness, connecting with the great minds of the ages. They ask about your library fines and tease about your use of quotation marks. Then, your friends stop calling you to hang out because either they don’t like quotation marks, or, more realistically graduate school changed the way you look at the world so much that you can’t tell a single, solitary story anymore without giving a theoretical background, a brief discussion of historiographic context, and an explicit, clear, well-articulated thesis statement. “Bro, we just asked what you had for lunch. You didn’t have to talk about the history of ‘Po boys.”

*This is decidedly tongue in cheek. If you’d like advice on attending graduate school, do not hesitate to email me at I’ve had some really incredible “experiences” in graduate school and am happy to help any aspiring students with the pesky questions you’d never really ask your own advisors. And yes, I do put a lot more things in quotation marks now.

Letter from the President – Professor Barry Hankins, Baylor University

August 18, 2011

Dear CFH Grad Students,
As we start another school year I want to send along the CFH’s best wishes for a successful semester. I’ve always believed that the primary benefit of the CFH is that it brings Christian scholars together for fellowship and mutual encouragement. In recent years this vital function has been extended to graduate students in unprecedented ways, so let CFH be a resource for you. Stay connected through the website and Greg Jones’s blog, and begin now to network with CFH members on faculty at Christian colleges. Also, as you develop seminar papers this semester, keep the October 2012 biennial CFH meeting in mind. When you give a paper at a CFH conference, you will encounter a diverse array of participants who want to help you develop as a scholar and who see you first and foremost as a human being created in God’s image. Finally, when you hit that mid-semester point when you wonder whether all your effort is someday going to be worth the sacrifice you’re making, stay in the present. Being a scholar means reading, thinking, writing, and teaching, which is what grad students do. In other words, while grad school is in one respect “training,” it is also one’s entrée into the vocation of scholarship. God has opened doors for you to be a scholar right now, so make the most of the opportunity. Be a good steward of your present calling and trust God to open future doors at the appropriate time.

Barry Hankins
President, Conference on Faith and History

What He Tells His Grad Students

March 8, 2011

Check out this article in the Chronicle about advice for graduate students.

If you’re not already queasy about the job market, this ought to do it for you. I guess the only silver lining I can find here is that in history, I suppose, no hiring committee would expect three publications for a freshly-minted PhD.

Any veterans want to enlighten us or react to this article? Give us hope, please?