Archive for the ‘Tips’ category

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!


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.

Think Before You Tweet (or Blog or Update Your Status)

February 24, 2011

For the “next generation” of scholars, social media is part of our lives in significant ways. This very blog is part of a trend of being digitally connected while also occupationally and spiritually aware.

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed provides a timely reminder about caution with social media.


Staying Healthy

April 12, 2010

“Healthy” and “Grad School” may seem mutually exclusive. When school doesn’t consume my life, I’m actually a fitness instructor and buy a weekly share of produce from an organic co-op. But, I can say that my “dissertation diet” was pretty terrible. But even on the days I eat Girl Scout cookies for breakfast and dinner out of the library vending machine, here are some rules I live by:

1) 8 Glasses of Water – Buy a Nalgene with your school’s logo, drink four of them per day, and you’re covered. This makes all the difference, particularly when it comes to thought clarity.

2) Eat an Apple – “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It’s true. This little adage helps me make sure I’m at least eating something fresh everyday, and it’s easy to stick in your bag in the morning. Apples also help with digestion and act as a sort of natural toothbrush.

3) Fifteen Minutes of Activity – Sometimes this just means skipping the shuttle and walking from my office to the library, but it’s so necessary to move around and clear your head. Also, you’re a lot more productive if you stop and move around.

How do you stay healthy during crazy times?

Open Thesis

February 22, 2010

What is Open Thesis?

OpenThesis is a free repository of theses, dissertations, and other academic documents, coupled with powerful search, organization, and collaboration tools.”

This is a good database for determining what is being written in your sub-field. My preliminary searching shows that most are not full text, but that might change over time. The abstracts seem to be fairly complete. It’s definitely worth browsing!

Meeter Center Launches New Web-based Resource for Reformation and Post-Reformation Studies

November 30, 2009

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (October 31, 2009) —

A newly-available research tool,
sponsored by the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and the
Hekman Library at Calvin College and Seminary, promises to aid the work
of scholars from around the world. The Post-Reformation Digital Library
(PRDL) is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on
early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible
collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly
initiatives, and corporate documentation projects. The core of the PRDL
project involves the organization of thousands of documents available
in digital form from sources including Google Books and the Internet
Archive. Also included are the offerings of select libraries from
Europe and North America, which are beginning to make digitized forms
of their holdings available to the public. The project covers the work
of hundreds of authors from a wide variety of theological,
philosophical, and ecclesiastical traditions, from figures like John
Calvin and Martin Luther to the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621)
and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). According to David Sytsma, moderator of
the PRDL editorial board, the current availability of a vast array of
materials is unprecedented in academic history. “The opportunity
presented by this kind of digital access is matched by the challenge to
the individual researcher to deal responsibly and comprehensively with
a broad cross-section of source material,” observes Sytsma, a doctoral
student in historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. “The
PRDL is one way to help ensure that the reach of technical
digitalization does not exceed the grasp of the scholar,” he says. The
first stage of the PRDL project involved the collaboration of dozens of
scholars from around the world on a privately editable website, or
wiki. Once a standard level of comprehensiveness was achieved, the wiki
was transitioned to a publicly available bibliography hosted by the
Meeter Center. The site will continue to be updated and users will be
able to suggest revisions via interactive web forms. Dr. Richard A.
Muller, P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin
Seminary and current chair of the Meeter Center Governing Board, notes
the potential of the PRDL to advance research in a variety of
disciplines. “The Post-Reformation Digital Library will be a boon to
both students and professional researchers alike,” he says. Muller also
serves as a member of the PRDL editorial board, as does Lugene
Schemper, theological librarian at Calvin College and Seminary, who
oversaw the migration of the resource to Hekman Library’s LibGuides
system. Members of the PRDL editorial board represent institutions from
across North America and Europe. In addition to Muller and Schemper,
the PRDL editorial board includes: Jordan J. Ballor (University of
Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological
Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester
(Calvin Theological Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton
Theological Seminary). Schemper led a roundtable discussion of the PRDL
and other digital research tools at the Fall meeting of the Chicago
Area Theological Library Association earlier this month. Board members
Jordan J. Ballor, David Sytsma, and Todd Rester are scheduled to
present on the PRDL at a “New Technologies” session at next year’s
annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, to be held in
Venice, Italy (April 8-10). Access the Post-Reformation Digital

Contact Jordan J. Ballor at (616) 617-7669 or
for more information. About the Meeter Center: The H. Henry Meeter
Center for Calvin Studies is a research center specializing in John
Calvin and Calvinism that opened in 1981 and is located at Calvin
College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.


October 26, 2009

A few weeks ago I blogged here about citing sources. Well, I found something better than EndNote. It’s my new obsession: Zotero.

Zotero is a FREE web-based citation organization system developed by historians. Among other things, you can add sources from an online library catalog with one click, insert auto-formatted footnotes or bibliographies into a Word document, and organize your sources into multiple categories. It’s changed my life. Really. I’m not exaggerating.

Spend an hour or so getting to know this program and it will save you lots of headaches. Note: you need the Mozilla Firefox web browser, which you can install for free on any computer.