Uncommon Ground

Academics

What graduate students would like to tell their professors

Over at the Daily Nous (a blog with “news for and about the philosophy profession”), a post last Wednesday invited graduate students to leave anonymous answers to the question

What would you like to tell your professor(s) right now, but can’t?

There are a few answers like this

Thank you. I had a great education with you and with the whole department, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without you.

or this

Dear Professor,

you were one tough cookie, relentless and unforgiving. Sometimes it really hurt. Thank you for all that – were it not for the growing pains, I would not have grown. And thanks for all the time you spent on me – being a professor myself now, I can just ask – when did you sleep?

but more of them are like this

To my advisor:

You couldn’t possibly ever understand how much your care, friendship, and ability to consistently challenge and push me philosophically means to me. Thank you so much. And special thanks for being pretty much the only man in my life who I feel like I can trust, intellectually and emotionally, and for being interested in me for philosophical and friendship reasons and not weird sexual or fetishy or emotionally weird reasons.

To (nearly) everyone else in my department: it’s totally transparent that you don’t care about grad students.

Some amount of angst and conflict is inevitable in pursuing a PhD. I’ve never met anyone, no matter how smart or talented she is, who finished a dissertation without facing (and surmounting) at least one significant obstacle. Most encounter two or three. In the midst of those challenges, it’s completely normal for a PhD student to think that no one, including her advisor, cares about her or isn’t willing to give her the support that she needs. What I find so depressing about many of the comments in this post is that they were made by students after they received their PhD. I hope that when my students finish their PhDs, they look back and realize that the times when they were most discouraged and most disheartened were among the times when they learned the most about science and themselves.

Smart teachers use struggle to enhance learning and deepen engagement with their subjects. They call it productive struggle. Why would you encourage students to struggle while learning? (These answers focus on classroom teaching, but the principles generalize easily.)

  • It prioritizes the student-centered portion of lesson.
  • It builds authentic engagement.
  • It emphasizes that [the subject] makes sense.
  • It creates ample opportunity for assessment, intervention, and feedback.
  • It builds perseverance.

I’ve tried to use these principles in advising my graduate students, and I hope I’ve been successful. But you’ll have to ask them how they’d respond to the question at the top of this post if you want to know the answer.

Legos and graduate school

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 12.49.36 PMGraduate students are very creative, and I recently learned about an anonymous graduate student in her/his sixth year at a private, West Coast university who is more creative than most – @legogradstudent. I’ve been out of graduate school for more years than I like to admit,1 but I can still relate to the feelings @legogradstudent captures in her/his tweets. S/he has just short of 2600 followers now, but I’m sure that number is going to grow. Inside Higher Ed described her/him this way in the article that brought her/him to my attention:

Lego Grad Student has fans across disciplines, who often use some variation of “devastatingly true” to describe his experiences. Indeed, his tableaux focus not on the intricacies of his research but rather on the human experience of graduate school: feelings of being on a treadmill to nowhere, being beaten to the intellectual punch by colleagues, using sophisticated avoidance techniques during a class discussion and the horror of seeing free food disappear before his eyes at departmental events.

If you’re in graduate school, if you have friends or relatives who are in graduate school, or if you’re just interested in graduate school, you owe it to yourself to follow @legogradstudent on Twitter or Instagram.


134 years last June, if you must know.

Letters from graduate school

I recently learned of a new website that is worth putting in your bookmark list or adding to the subscription list of your RSS reader: Letters from graduate school. Here’s what they say about themselves.

For every graduate student, graduate school is a different experience filled with ups, downs, failures, and successes. The goal of Letters from Graduate School is to build a collective of graduate school experiences—your experience, in your own voice! (http://lettersfromgradschool.org)

There are four essays in Issue 1 (August 2016)

  • Love and abuse in graduate school, by an anonymous contributor, which makes a plea for teaching graduate students “that their love for research doesn’t have to be siphoned out of a finite pool of respect they’re allowed to show towards themselves.”
  • Writing on an island, by Becky Vartabedian, which describes a physical practice that helped her find her way out of the isolation that is an inevitable part of doctoral study.
  • Post-PhD: the jobs didn’t get and the one that I did, by A. Seun Ajiboye, which talks about how he found what profession he wanted in (and how he got there) after realizing that he didn’t want to be in academia.
  • Don’t check your optimism at the door, by Renee Geck, which provides some excellent advice – “Grad school doesn’t have to be a year of ignorant bliss and then a dreary trudge to the end. If you find people whom you trust to help you through the worst patches, chances are you’ll come out the other side a lot better than the people who go it alone.”

If Issue 1 is any indication, Letters from Graduate School will be a valuable resource for graduate students and graduate advisors. I look forward to reading the essays in future issues.

Beloit mindset list 2020

Every year Beloit College releases its Mindset List. Although the list has its critics (http://www.beloitmindlessness.com/must-be-destroyed/) and it’s been parodied by The Onion, I always get a kick out of looking it over. It reminds me just how old I am. Here are a few gems from this year’s list:

  • There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay.
  • There have always been Cadillac Escalades.
  • West Nile has always been a virus found in the US.
  • They have never had to watch or listen to programs at a scheduled time.
  • Vaccines have always erroneously been linked to autism.
  • They have no memory of Bob Dole promoting Viagra.
  • John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired.

What counts? Evaluating public communication in tenure and promotion

Last Friday, the American Sociological Association released a subcommittee report entitled What counts? Evaluating public communication in tenure and promotion. It suggests that public communication of research can be assessed along three axes:

  • Type of content: explanatory journalism, opinion, application of research to a practical issue
  • Rigor and quality of the communication: peer-reviewed, edited, non-edited, effectiveness of communication for the intended audience
  • Public impact: number of readers, breadth of influence on policy or practice

Amy Schalet, Director of the Public Engagement Project at UMass Amherst, argues that public communication should be included in faculty evaluations, because when we include it, “we encourage [faculty] to share their knowledge with the members of society who could most benefit from it.”

I agree, but as always, the devil is in the details. Among the questions I wrestle with are:

  • To what extent is public communication of scholarly work an aspect of scholarly achievement?
  • Should public communication be regarded primarily as service in the tenure triad of teaching, research, and service?
  • Is public communication worthwhile only if it leads to changes in public policy or professional practice? Is it worthwhile if it leads “only” to greater aesthetic appreciation of the human or natural world?

The University of Connecticut has been recognized as a “Community Engaged” campus by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching since 2010 (ref). These are clearly among the questions that we need to answer.