Archive for the ‘Life of the Mind’ category

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.


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.

Spring 2013 – Status

January 26, 2013

AwaitingFriends, colleagues, and fellow Christian historians,

Hopefully your semesters are off to a rousing start.  I hoped that we could communicate a bit more extensively about our respective programs.  One of the great things about the CFH is that we have this (inter)national breadth of scholars in various places, points in their careers, and experience levels.  We all wrestle with similar problems and frustrations, yet we seemingly all put up with (or do I mean endure?) them for the same reasons.  It’s my idea that in the comment section of this post, some of you might be willing to share an extended “status update” of sorts with colleagues.  Who knows, maybe there’s a fellow CFH member at a nearby school… or sitting at the other table in your coffee shop.  Won’t you join us?

I suppose I’ll get us started.  After the awesome CFH Conference at Gordon College in the fall and the birth of my baby girl, life’s been a bit of a roller coaster.  I’ll decline to comment publicly on the exact status of my dissertation, but suffice it to say I’m near(ing) in the end.  That said I’m adjuncting (and, apparently, gerunding) at two different schools in two different states.  I’m thankful for both opportunities.  I am particularly excited about a course I’m teaching at Geneva College called Digital History in which I’m working with 7 undergraduates to build an archive.  We’re still narrowing our focus and determining what it will look like exactly, but I hope to have something to share with you all.

In terms of “what I’m reading” these days… that’s an oddly personal question but one I like thinking about.  I’ve been trying to read more on postmodern education, as I see it as an important obstacle to effective teaching compared to the late-modern era of schooling that bore my scholastic self.  I’m working on N.T. Wright’s *How God Became King* for a dose of the theological.  For my academic historical reading, I’m trying to broaden some theoretical work on correspondence in the 19th century as well as failing horribly in my attempt to keep up with the unending waterfall of Civil War historiography.  The best book I’ve read recently is Mark Schantz’s *Awaiting the Heavenly Country* about death culture that motivated the society of Americans that fought and supported the Civil War.

So… what say you?

Guest Post: History That Matters by Daniel Cooley

October 30, 2012

Daniel Cooley is a graduate student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  He was kind enough to accept the invitation to reflect on CFH President R. Tracy Mckenzie’s Presidential Address from the conference at Gordon College.  Please take a moment to view his family’s adoption page.

History that Matters

Recently, I learned that some members of my church were concerned about the growing balance of our benevolence fund, which is devoted to assisting members in financial distress. It seemed as though the rate of distribution of these funds was slowing. I spoke to a former member of the committee that is responsible for distributing the money, and she shared something revealing. She told me that
no one with a legitimate need was ever turned away; however, the definition of legitimate need had changed. It had narrowed. This former committee member felt that the process was designed to protect the church against being taken advantage of rather than for increasing access to these funds. As I reflected on Tracy McKenzie’s address from our recent CFH meeting, I wondered if Christian historians might sometimes be guilty of an analogous practice. I wonder if we historians who posses a wealth of knowledge are sometimes guilty of a similar practice of narrowing the definition of need?

Through the course of the professionalization of history writing, the definition of what a historian can legitimately say has narrowed. So the sort of history that finds at least part its raison d’être in moral example is no longer a “legitimate need.” A famous example would be Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which suggests that superstition and religious belief are dangerous to society. It brought down Rome, and it can bring down Enlightenment rationalism too.

This professionalization, of course, has afforded tremendous advances in the field, but this has also changed the definition of “legitimate need.” What I mean by this is that the sort of projects which are deemed significant, useful, and helpful has changed. Up until the modern period, it seems that historians were more likely to view their task in relation to their own real world context rather than an academic ghetto. Their task was to help their community to make sense of their identity, origins, purpose, and morality. At the same time, I suspect that nearly every professional historian working today would agree that they too want to make sense of questions related to identity, origins, purpose, and morality. If that is so, why does it seem that “public intellectuals” rather than professional historians are answering these historically minded questions for the general public?

To take this one step further, exactly how am I supposed to write history that matters? Who decides what is significant, useful or helpful? As I reflect on the conference this past week, these questions have been circulating in my mind. In the last few weeks, I obtained approval from my committee to begin writing my dissertation, and so these questions take on a new urgency for me. When I began to form my proposal, I did not sit down and think about these questions. My immediate concern was to write a dissertation that would satisfy my committee. My next concern was to write a dissertation that could get published. As I think back on this, I am not sure this was the best start in writing something that mattered. What do you think? How do we determine which projects are significant, useful, and helpful?

I think this question ought to compel us how we might “advance the field,” but I also think that it moves us beyond the world of the academy and into the realm of the world and the realm of the Church.

ESN on Failure

March 27, 2012

Grad students are not perfect (collective gasp!).  In fact, we often produce some lousy work in a rush.  Sometimes late night brilliance results in poor writing, bad thinking, and less-than-stellar grades.  For reflection on failure in graduate school, enjoy the Emerging Scholar’s Network article on the topic.

Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 40

January 31, 2012

*Re-posted by permission of John Fea’s The Way of Improvement Leads Home*

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here.

After what I consider an embarrassingly long hiatus, I return to my Graduate School Dispatches routine.  Thanks to Dr. Fea and to my readers (Hi, Dad!) for your patience during my absence. I felt especially uninspired during the fall semester. I had what only a privileged graduate student could consider an unfair grading assignment that had my nose in bluebooks for a disproportionate amount of time. I needed the winter break desperately and feel reinvigorated for my final semester as a PhD student before I enter candidacy (fingers crossed) in the summer.

I look toward my last semester of coursework with a bit of heartache. In some way, this is the beginning of the end. In less than six months I take my qualifying exams and move from student to candidate. Although a quick search through the past year and a half of Dispatches will return more than a few melancholy missives on graduate school life, I envy those students still sitting in the lecture hall or seminar. What I love most about the study of history is the dialogue, the collaboration, and the opportunity to learn from seasoned scholars. To borrow an analogy from Jane Jacobs: the classroom ballet. Academia is a lifelong pursuit of knowledge, but there is a marked difference between furiously taking notes from a foremost historian on the Bracero Program and standing before a classroom delivering a synthetic commentary on the United Farm Workers. I will always look fondly on my time facing the lectern.

Despite the distress I felt (and will likely continue to feel) over my workload, I am more equipped than ever to take on my nine concluding credits. My course lineup agrees especially well with my interests. I’m taking two readings courses, one in urban history and the other in food production and consumption. The former prepares me for my secondary field in urban history, while the latter familiarizes me with a literature necessary for my dissertation prospectus due next fall. I am fortunate to work with two great faculty members, Philip Vandermeer and Matt Garcia, respectively. In my other course, North American Cultural Landscapes, we will read the likes of Tuan and Meining in order to better understand the systemic interaction of human beings with their environment.  Susan Gray, whose work deals with the interplay of place, race and gender, teaches the course.

It’s quite the array of courses if I do say so myself, and what a fine way to close out some of the most rewarding
years of my life.

Check it Out: Kennedy on Science and the Church

January 16, 2012

Please check out this link to Point Loma’s Professor Rick Kennedy’s (Former CFH President) latest work.  It’s of particular interest to folks interested in science, Darwinism, and how that intersects with faith.  The historian/philosopher’s take is engaging if also re-orienting.  

As historians, this is an important read.  It shows that not only do we not have to check our faith at the door of secular universities, but also that it is a worthwhile (perhaps even necessary) conversation.