Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Rules for Grad Students: No Pens in the Bed

Welcome to a new installment of Chicken Soup for my Grad Student Soul, where I lay down even more regulations than your student handbook.

Today's rule is one I break frequently.

No Pens in the Bed!

Pens in the bed cause daily disaster for me.

It's even worse because I prefer those rolling ball point pens. Can you even imagine what that does to pillowcases? And my face?

Meanwhile, one of my grad student friends reports that her significant other is so fed up with pens in the bed that he's one Bic away from going Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane, except replace "snakes" with "pens" and "plane" with "bed".

This is one of those things that sounds like a good idea -- "oh, I'll fall asleep in a pile of my books and fade in and out of consciousness while notetaking!" -- that rapidly falls apart when you wake up too late to scrub the pen off and you have to go to school looking like a canvas for a four-year-old. Even worse if you are taking notes on your topsheet. Or your girlfriend.

Pens on the couch are still permissible, so if you must hibernate in a den of work, take all your pens there. You're less likely to mark up innocent bystanders there.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grading Dinosaurs

Utahraptor: surprisingly knowledgeable on Greek mythology. Well done.

T-Rex: conclusions might not be so far off base. Avoid informal language, and the phrase "super sexy". And I guess "sexed up" should be avoided too. But "cheezed" can stay.

Dromiceiomimus: that student who never speaks, but rather anxiously keeps their heads down to "be less noticeable". I see you there, Dromiceiomimus, and I'm calling on you as soon as I figure out how to pronounce dromiceiomimus.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Spring Semester Giveaway Results!

Thanks to everyone who entered. I really enjoyed reading through your book lists, and you've given me a lot of ideas for my own endless list of books to read. But, the randomizer has spoken, and the winner is:

"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter", here you come!

And a Happy Spring Semester to all!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Last Chance for Some Books!

Reminder, folks: Be sure to enter the Spring Semester Giveaway! I'll be choosing the winner tomorrow morning and posting the results on the blog. Just think about what $25.00 from Amazon could do for your book collection!

Spread the word to all your friends who might be tempted to go on a recession book-buying binge.

Stay tuned for the announcement tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Punxsutawney Phil, You Lie

Well, we got a Snow Day. This is extremely rare where I live, a place where people scoff at the term "Snow Emergency" as they fill up their bathtubs with water and get out the can opener to prepare to eat clam chowder cold. But the Snow Day was welcome! A chance to rest and do work and not spend an hour and a half of my day driving and parking at school!

Of course, that's not how it went. By 10 am I had pulled out the sewing machine, telling myself that I needed a new apron and I needed it NOW, and grading could wait until a day where we actually had school.

Do other people have this experience?

I guess my approach to the Snow Day is not unlike that of a grade-schooler. If someone had told 8-year-old me, "Hey, it's a Snow Day, there's no school, but go ahead and get out your math workbooks and do that for a couple hours" I would have actually laughed in their face. Math? No way! Time to get on the snowsuit and play outside in the sub-zero temperature!

And so today went. I read, I watched television, I sewed, I played with my pets, and yes, I put on the snowshoes and the snowpants and wandered around outside. Which is why I'm pulling the post-Snow Day All-Nighter. Blast!

Well, for any of you in deep-freeze places, I hope your Snow Days are more productive than mine!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Spring Semester Giveaway!

Already buying a library's worth of books for the new semester? Here's some back-to-school support!

Chicken Soup for my Grad Student Soul Giveaway!

A $25.00 Amazon gift card!

Want it? Need it? Here's how to enter:

1) Is there a book you're dying to get? Leave the title in the comments (or, if you're like me, a list of potential titles!) and you're entered.

2) Followers are automatically entered, so if you're a follower and you leave a comment you'll have two entries.

3) I need some way of getting in contact with you if you win, so don't post anonymously!

4) Check back on Sunday, February 6, when I'll announce the winner on the blog! Then you can get me your contact information by emailing me (link is on my profile page).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In An Open Relationship with Monographs

I like this. Perhaps more importantly, I feel this.

Except I'm pretty sure I'm married to Clio. Either that, or "Divorced" from "Reality".

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Back to School: A Comparative Packing List

First Grade:
-backpack large enough to fit art smock, soccer ball, and sticker book
-new Crayolas
-cookies to share with the class
-lunch in Lisa Frank unicorn lunchbox
-thermos of hot chocolate
-big puffy coat to keep warm at recess

Grad School:
-backpack large enough to fit 50 exams, manila folders, and textbook
-new red pens
-cookies to share with people in group office
-lunch in PolarTek insulated lunchbox
-thermos of hot coffee
-big puffy coat to keep warm during cross-campus hike from parking lot

So, actually, really not different.

Me, then and now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

These Aren't the Trusted Adults You're Looking For

Well, I've recovered from the AHA. Good for me, because now I have new problems.

Look, I was raised in a time and place where "tell a trusted adult" was pretty much the response to anything that could possibly go wrong. Bullying? Tell a trusted adult. Creepy person approached you? Scream, then tell a trusted adult. You ate a battery? Tell a trusted adult, which may include a Poison Control worker. My school went to extremes with this, even parading in a bunch of friendly-looking police officers and firefighters to show examples of trusted adults. In my young mind, there were two kinds of adults: Strangers (Danger!) and Trusted.

Of course, it is never that simple. I used to work at a place where I was a mandated reporter, required to report certain things that people mentioned. Now I'm in the opposite place, trying to avoid being the recipient of misplaced personal information from students.

So, are we instructors trusted adults, or not?

There's a lot of evidence supporting the position of "we are". If kids were brought up to believe that teachers are the ultimate trusted adult, that assumption may extend to college lecturers, TAs, and professors. At large institutions, the TA might be the only instructor to know each student's name, or the only instructor students get any real face time with, which ratchets up the points on the Trusted Adult scale. I myself have said, and have heard others say, "Come see me as soon as you're having trouble with the material", which for me translates to "avoid giant problem" but often ends up as "let me tell you about a giant problem".

But there's evidence on the other side as well, including but not limited to actual mandates from various college offices instructing professors to avoid being drawn into the personal dilemmas of their students. Don't ask questions, don't make suggestions -- in many places a professor or TA can't advise a student to seek medical help or counseling. Nobody wants to enter lawsuit territory, so maybe "we aren't".

I struggle with this. I don't have answers. I wish I did, since next week the students will pour back into my classroom and onto campus and I know somewhere, somebody will be immediately dealing with these issues, and we'll all be hoping it isn't us. They will probably struggle silently, doubly afraid to get involved and admit any involvement at all to others. They probably won't have a trusted adult, either.

Friday, January 14, 2011

AHA: The Grad Student "Reception"

The grad student mixer, also known as the Reception for Graduate Students, is truly a mixed bag. Sometimes you strike up a conversation immediately with interesting people who aren't antagonistic or otherwise problematic. But that's for lucky people. If you aren't a lucky person, you bumble around for 20 minutes, wondering if you should leave, attempting to make eye contact with people, hoping you bump into someone in the room who will make it worth your while, all the while praying you won't do or say anything to horribly embarrass yourself.

Here are other things that sometimes happen:
-Sometimes you experience the Surprise Encounter, someone you haven't seen for years until you almost knock them over in the food line. This can be either a positive or negative experience.

-Sometimes you're the only person in the circle who has no idea what's being discussed, but you have to pretend you do. That, like the first scenario, might have varying degrees of success.

-Sometimes you get into a fight over the last piece of chicken satay. It's really a lose-lose situation at that point.

-Sometimes, despite being completely sober, you are so addled from the grad student mixer experience that you are unable to locate your car in the parking garage and are forced to ask one of your new grad student mixer friends to help you look for it for over 20 minutes, thereby demonstrating epic incompetence. [True Story. I was in great form this year. Thanks, David! For more on this, see my post on why you need grad student friends to save you.]

-[REDACTED] There's a reason I like to call it Historian Speed Dating. The high tables, the lack of seating, the constant moving around the room, the three minute conversations of "SO, real quick, what do you study?". It's both fun and ridiculous, and by the end of it, you're not entirely sure what's happened. In keeping with theme, where this ends is somewhere on a spectrum between "well" and "so, so badly". Like prom.

Someone once asked me why, if there's a high possibility of an awkward situation, do I go to such events. The answer is, I like interesting people and I'm generally confident in my ability to suss them out. Granted, sometimes you end up with a guy who won't let go of your hair (like last year), but other times you end up meeting a bunch of new smart, fun people that you're likely to see again in the future. This year might be able to cancel out last year. Maybe.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

AHA: Getting Started

The feedback I've been getting from people who attended the Annual Meeting is that it can be quite intimidating. There are a few reasons for this. It involves travel, which requires planning and coordination. It is massive -- literally thousands of people, most of whom you don't know. It is tightly planned, with a huge number of panels, meetings, and sessions that overlap and you have to wade through the program and figure out what is most useful to you. It facilitates social and professional networking, which can be awkward and which some people just plain don't like.

I try to make the most out of the meeting, but have come to understand that there's a learning curve to these things. I think I did better than last year, in part because I did the following things:

1) Prioritize time. I figured out what was "high priority" and made sure I did all of those things. If there was time or energy left over for the rest of my itinerary, I went, but I at least tried not to burn out.

2) Understand that there's a bit of madness involved. No amount of pacing the paths between rooms and scouting the conference center would have prepared me for navigating the Annual Meeting. I made peace with it.

3) Force yourself to talk to at least one person per session. This is hard. This is awkward. But it can lead to all sorts of great stuff. Worst case scenario is the person isn't interested in talking and you move on quickly to someone else. Best case scenario, you end up having lunch with a bunch of people who like what you like.

These, my Annual Meeting New Year Resolutions if you will, made a big difference.

Do you have any helpful hints for making conferences and meetings productive? I'd love to hear them, I need new resolutions for next year!

AHA: Navigating in a Bubble

Last year, you might recall from my posts, the Annual Meeting was held in San Diego, where every couple of hours you would leave one hotel for a lovely seaside stroll to the next. This year, it was in Boston, and in Boston on a weekend where there was a snowstorm. The upside to the planning was that the conference center and hotels were linked by a mall and skybridges. The downside to that is I went three days without going outside and wasn't even consciously aware of it.

Until the third day, when a fire alarm drove us from the building. It was truly an interesting experience. I was in the audience of a fascinating panel when the alarm went off. At first, no one was sure what was going on. Instead of the usual fire alarm, it was a beeping tone. Then we heard the WAH WAH WAH and it was clear we needed to get out.

Now, back in elementary school, we learned what to do in this instance. Before you even get to stop, drop, and roll, you 1) abandon all belongings, 2) walk single file, quickly, out of the building, and 3) do not get in elevators or on escalators or touch anything electronic. Still, when the alarm went off, we all hesitated. "Should we leave? Is it real? Could we just stay until we wrap up the third paper? We want to hear the comment!"

Eventually I sprung into action, having been well-trained by my first grade teacher in such matters. It was down the stairs, through the hall, around a wing of the mall, out the door to shiver and huddle together for warmth (not having to go outside = no coats) until the fire department gave approval for reentry.

The whole thing made me think about the set-up. I have to admit that I got lost in the mall. Several times. I managed to find my way around San Diego but I couldn't get from one building to another without accidentally ending up in The Gap. Historians rushing to sessions met crazed shoppers on their own turf. As one professor put it, "at this AHA, we get to have contact with civilians."

Fortunately for many, nothing was actually on fire, and things proceeded smoothly from there. Though it gets one thinking. If monthly fire drills for elementary school students, who are quick and spry and can easily escape out of windows, are a good thing, perhaps emergency-drilling at conference venues shouldn't be out of the question.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

AHA: Academic Knock-Down Drag-Outs

Have you ever given a presentation that just went wrong? Like nothing you said was what you meant to say, or everybody was misunderstanding you, and the whole thing was a dud from the first? This can happen at a conference, and then the audience and the panel is stuck there for a couple of hours trying to figure out how they're going to make it right.

I'm a generally congenial person. But those of you who might have experienced being in a course with me also know that I have an edge. An edge that likes to manifest in verbal brutality when one of the following happens:

1) someone is lying
2) someone is wasting everyone's time
3) someone is rude

When those things happen it's all I can do not to go off like a Roman candle and give them a piece of my mind! But I've gotten better at controlling those urges. Unfortunately one of the places my intellectual rage is welcome is at conferences, where two people going head to head on a specialized subject is among the best dreams an academic can experience. In that environment, a hastily-worded question can devolve a roundtable into a very hostile, very long mess.

Most panel discussions I've witnessed are pretty passive events. A few get a little heated. But rare is the panel that started off simmering and then sustains fire for hours. My tips for avoiding this in the future:

1) if things get bad, and you can get out, LEAVE
2) feel out the situation and keep your mouth shut once things start to really head downhill
3) decompress afterward, either with people who were part of the discussion who are as shell-shocked as you, or with people who weren't there
4) make a note of the people involved in the intellectual skirmish for future reference
5) anticipate the response to your question. I failed here, and in doing so, really failed everyone in the room by throwing my verbal brandy in the fire pail.

As it was, we emerged mostly unscathed, and toddled over to recover over coffee and donuts while just staring at each other, eyes wide. Now that I've had a few days to think about it, I am able to chalk it up as a learning experience entitled How Not to Run a Panel.

Monday, January 10, 2011

AHA: The Haps

So I promised I'd be live-blogging from the AHA. Turns out, internet was shockingly difficult to come by. So instead, I'll be breaking with the historians' tradition and will be posting achronologically. My experience has been that conferences tend to be a collection of distinct adventures rather than one continuous event In that spirit, I'll be back-posting some of the highlights, after I attempt carefully to remove identifying information.

For those unaware, the annual conference is held in a number of hotels. They need a few because several thousand people register. The location is chosen years in advance, and so those thousands of people flock to a different city every year, yet always dressed remarkably the same. Once there, a variety of panels, meetings, round-tables, ceremonies, receptions, and presentations await people. After four days of this, all historians go to bed for several days.

And so, here we go! Check back in the next few days for the rundown! Or scroll through last year's accounts, posted last January.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Grad Students and Volunteering: A Retrospective

One of last year's New Years Resolutions was "volunteer more". And volunteer more I did, but it wasn't always easy. Shockingly, one of the major hurdles I faced was finding appropriate organizations which could actually utilize my skills. There are several issues that graduate students face when it comes to getting involved with charities:

1) We're often broke. I can't give money. Some weeks it's like, "No, I can't put a dollar in your box, ringy-bell-Santa, because that dollar is going to feed me lunch today." So I have to rule out groups that need money more than manpower.

2) We're not always around. Things like school breaks, research trips, and conferences mean that I'm missing for chunks of the year. I have to scratch off orgs that need me to be there at 9 am sharp every week, no excuses.

3) We can be wary of taking on too much. I know I will get the flu next semester, and when that happens, I go into survival mode. I only go from my bed to school and then right back to bed, all the while sucking down Airborne and Saltines. Then there's exam periods, last-minute meetings, that student randomly showing up for help...

My conclusion is that often the best volunteering opportunities for graduate students are those where there's a big return for an hour of time. So I went off in search of high-impact-for-your-minute activities. A few things I tried last year:

-I took pictures of animals at an animal shelter for their website. In an hour I could take and process photos for about 12-15 animals, and the numbers show that web exposure increased adoption chances.

-I wrote holiday cards to troops abroad. In one hour I could write, address, and mail about 10 cards, and cost me only for the 42-cent stamps and the paper.

-I took part in a park clean-up. Nice weather, friendly people, they gave us water bottles, and after a few one-hour sessions the park looked great and free of horrible stuff.

-I volunteered to help out at the church Christmas pageant. In one hour I realized that it was going to be a mess, but the parents would like it anyway, and then I finished the wise man outfit.

My main advice for people looking to volunteer is to find organizations that are flexible. With the animal shelter, I came in as often as I could, but they didn't have a problem with me being gone for weeks at a time. The letters to the troops could be completed at home, on a plane, anywhere. Look for an organization that actually wants volunteers and knows how to coordinate them. Your school might have some kind of community service organization that can help with this. Finally, pick something you actually like, whether it's kids, soup kitchens, or web design. It's easier to stick with it and get something out of it that way.

And good luck generally as we formulate plans for taking on this year's resolutions!