Forward in all directions, or, Life after comps

Life doesn’t slow down after comps. Sorry to disappoint you if you aren’t there yet and anticipated otherwise. But there’s much to look forward to. Comps is a major hurdle to overcome and it will be a huge relief to get it over with. One can only take so much hazing after all, and it’s good to return to a healthy lifestyle after all that sitting and sleep deprivation that we know is terrible for your long-term well-being as a member of the genus Homo. And life after comps comes with greater freedom and flexibility.

Advancing to your comps means no more classes – ever. Unless you finally get the courage to sign up for that ballroom dancing class you’ve always wanted to take. (Good luck finding a partner for that by the way.) Passing your comps means you’ll probably never have to take an exam again, you’ll be that much closer to being done (hooray!), and you’ll be on more equal footing with your academic mentors. Life after comps means you’re much closer to being done (wait – yipes!), you can concentrate on your work, and you can look forward to getting on with the rest of your life. Maybe you can even hope to return to a balanced, more well-rounded lifestyle where you don’t have to self-violate federal labor laws on a regular basis. Or maybe not. In any case, before you can get to life after comps you have to pass comps, so below I’ve incorporated some of the major lessons I learned from my comps experience into recommendations for approaching comp-dom. Hopefully you find them useful.

Get started on those reading lists. Pronto. The sooner you can get your reading lists together and start knocking out some useful notes, the better. Some departments and members of your examination committee will have pre-existing lists they’ll just hand you, while others much prefer to have you come up with a draft and add to it over time. Everyone is different. Find out your examiners’ preferences and move forward. Don’t wait until the final few months before your exams.

Give up the idea of reading every word of every item on your lists. That’s a fool’s game. Much as you had to adjust your expectations after finding out what grad school is really like, you’ll need to be prepared to let go of some of your idealism about mastering every single argument in every single work you read. You are human and perfectionism in your comp prep will only bog you down. Concentrate your notes on the major arguments, sources used, methodology, contribution(s) to the field, historiography, and criticism. When in doubt about how in-depth you need to go, talk to your advisor.

Go digital. I have plenty of comrades who went the way of hand-written notes organized in binders and made it work for them. But I took all my notes in OpenOffice, saved them to a usb (or two), pasted them as individual documents in Google Drive, and uploaded and tagged them in Zotero. (See my previous post where I discussed all of this in more detail here.) While it turned out I didn’t use my tagging as much as I anticipated, and instead usually searched by the subject categories on my reading lists, being able to search the text of my notes via Google Drive and grab quick footnotes from Zotero was AWESOME. Searchability and importable footnotes proved to be enormous time-saving strategies that provided a much-welcome bit of ease, especially whenever exhaustion set in. So do yourself a favor and begin experimenting with such techniques now.

Budget your prep time so that you have at least three days off before you begin your exams. You really won’t add much to your knowledge bank in these final days anyway and will already have worked so hard that your mind and body will appreciate the downtime. This is particularly true if you have an exam schedule similar to UNL’s: 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, 1 day off, 3 days on, then you’re done with writing but still have a 2-hour oral exam. In addition, be sure you take care of yourself during your exams. When you have a day off commit to really taking time away from all things academic. Sleep in, take a hot shower, eat tons of junk food (mine was cookie dough paired with red wine), and watch junk television (here I recommend the 1990 cult classic Tremors. Make your way through Tremors 2 and 3 at your own peril).

Be confident. If they’re worth their salt as mentors your comp committee would never let you begin exams unless they believed you could pass. So be confident in the prep work you’ve done, focus on what’s in front of you, and forget the rest. You’ll do great. Then you can move on to life after comps: forward in all directions.

*Shout out to Dr. Douglas Seefeldt for the “forward in all directions” phrase. I’m not quite sure where it comes from but I’ll credit him for putting it in my brain.

We do not recite in recitation

I’m not sure who originally thought “recitation” would be a good descriptor for college-level discussion sections, but it seems high time to abandon the term. After all, we don’t want to give enrolling students the impression that they’ll be expected to attend lecture two days a week and recite lecture the third day. No, our expectations for them in these discussion sections – and for ourselves as instructors – are much higher than that. We want our students to come to discussion sections prepared to, well, actively discuss. The discussion section should be a time for students to receive more individualized attention to their learning needs. It should be a time set aside for refining and honing each student’s understanding of the major concepts, themes, and ideas presented in lecture and the connections between lecture and course readings. It’s a time for both the instructor and the students to think on their feet. Therefore active discussion – not a mere parroting of lecture – is central to any successful discussion section.

I certainly don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about the best pedagogical methods for discussion sections, and I welcome any and all comments on the subjects (especially recommended readings and helpful teaching resources). But I have learned a few things from the three semesters I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a t.a. assignment that includes the teaching of discussion sections as one of my central responsibilities. And last semester at least one of my students anonymously nominated me to receive an award from UNL’s Teaching Council and Parents’ Association for making a “significant contribution to their lives at UNL.” This was a great honor, one that solidified for me the notion that discussion sections offer unique opportunities for reaching students – on both an educational and a personal level. Discussion sections are a space in which we, as instructors, have the opportunity to make an enormous impact on students’ college experiences. Below I’ve outlined some of the major lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience teaching discussion sections, including some things I changed just from last semester to this one.

  • Come to discussion each and every week organized, prepared, and with several specific goals in mind. Set the tone for your discussion sections from day one. If you arrive disorganized and unprepared and your questions seem unfocused or disjointed your students will (understandably) take this as a sign that you aren’t serious about the work they are being asked to undertake in discussion. This negative impact on the students’ perceptions of discussion sections will sour the classroom climate and, although this can be corrected with time, you’ll lose precious teaching ground in the process. So consider using the very first day of discussion – when students are still “course shopping” – to explain what purpose the discussion sections serve for the course as a whole, what they will be expected to do each week in order to be successful (including what it means to actively participate), how participation will factor into their overall grade, and what role YOU serve in your capacity as their t.a. Dress professionally, provide an overview of your teaching philosophy, gradually let them get to know you a bit as a person, and be consistent and clear in your plans for each week.
  • Be your best self. I’m interested in becoming a professor because I’m invested in both research AND teaching. I believe I have a responsibility to pass on what I learn not just about history but about professionalism, navigating the structures of academia, understanding diverse perspectives, media and digital literacy, and an array of other skills that will be beneficial to my students beyond the discussion section or course I am teaching. Because the best teachers I know are also mentors, I strive to be both for my students. If you aren’t interested in teaching your students will notice and it will impact their expectations not only of you, but of themselves and of the course as a whole. So begin each teaching day by asking yourself what’s important to you about teaching, share your teaching philosophy with your students, and work hard to be the best version of yourself that you can – especially when you are in front of your students. Even if you only had three hours of sleep, are having a really bad day, have oodles of other work on your mind, make a concerted effort to be in the teaching moment. Of course there will be some students who, for a variety of reasons, will be beyond your reach but if you give your students your best and let them know you genuinely care how they perform (and notice when they don’t), you might be surprised at the effort they’ll put forth.
  • Seek to engage, not entertain. Many students, though certainly not all, will arrive with a desire or an expectation to sit and be passively entertained. This can be particularly true for freshmen, who are still learning what a college education means and what the college experience is all about. Naturally one of your primary tasks on day one (see above) is to divest them of this expectation for entertainment. Discussion is not lecture and education is about engagement, not entertainment. This doesn’t mean you can’t be entertaining as a means of promoting engagement, but you must walk a careful line. For example, I like to think I have a good sense of humor, and I think that sharing this sense of humor with students can be beneficial in certain situations. At its best, humor is a tool that can help establish connections between people. Revealing your sense of humor, if you have one and it’s good, can show your students that you are more than just an instructor: you are an actual human being, you have a personality, and you can relate to many of the experiences of your fellow human beings. Inserting a bit of humor every now and then, especially if the discussion for the week is a bit grueling or students are stressed about an upcoming paper or exam for example, can be a way to promote a healthy classroom atmosphere. Too much humor, however, and your students will become rambunctious and distracted. And bad humor, like any form of unprofessional behavior, will spell far worse for both you and your students (hence my use of italics above for emphasis and warning). Using humor to promote engagement means entering a balancing act that demands constant monitoring, plenty of skill in classroom and self-management, and a good deal of instinct and common sense to move effectively from one teaching situation to the next. Don’t enter into the task lightly.
  • Require the students to take a turn leading discussion in small teams of 2-3. This is one of my strongest recommendations for discussion sections, particularly those offered at the freshmen level. Requiring the students to take a turn leading discussion helps alleviate a degree of the passivity some students enter the course expecting to get away with. Thinking on your feet is hard work and a vital skill. Active discussion provides one opportunity for students to learn to voice their ideas and arguments orally, in response to changing circumstances and contradictory viewpoints, but leading discussion is when I see most students really get a grasp on what’s involved in and important about this skill. Allowing them to lead with teammates hopefully diminishes any nervousness or intimidation they feel at the prospect of leading their classmates, plus it forces them to be responsible to one another and collaborate to come up with discussion questions. This does not, however, mean the instructor is “off duty” and can simply kick back come class time. The students need to be provided with very specific instructions on how to effectively lead discussion, what their responsibilities are, whether the discussion questions they’ve come up with are true discussion questions and connect to the larger themes of the course, and they need to know that their instructor will be there to help guide them and interject when necessary. I outline my plans for discussion leadership during the first week of classes, allow my students to choose their own date for leading discussion, provide them with tips for leading discussion (which I post on Blackboard as a permanent course document available throughout the entire semester), explain and warn against plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, and I require them to submit their proposed discussion questions and a “plan of action” to me in advance so that I can provide them with feedback. Most students do an excellent job leading discussion and supporting their fellow students by participating in active discussion regularly. I believe they also emerge from the course with a greater understanding of ways to effectively collaborate and communicate their ideas to others.

I hope you found some of this post useful and repeat my invitation for comments and recommendations for readings on pedagogy and teaching resources.

*Please note that, due to my upcoming comprehensive exams, this will likely be my last blog post until at least Friday, March 29th (after the written portion of my exams is completed). I have a few more blog posts on the brain, especially on the subject of pedagogy and mentoring, but precious little time to compose them. I completed this post in transit – on a couple of bus trips to and from campus. I may be able to do the same for another post sometime before the end of March, but unfortunately cannot make any promises… 

‘Tis the season…for comprehensive exams

It seems the Spring of 2013 is the season of comprehensive exams for a core group of history grad students at UNL, including yours truly. I can’t recall another semester during my grad school stint that witnessed so many people I knew comping at once. But it’s a good thing. We comp buddies have to stick together. Because being a grad student is one thing, and being a comping grad student is another.

If you’re a grad student who hasn’t comped, you likely view the compers with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and nervous anticipation. If you’re a grad student who has comped, a.k.a. a comp mentor, you probably experience a little shiver of schadenfreude when you encounter a comper — just before you quell your internal naughtiness and offer some helpful advice of course. I’ve received plenty of helpful tips from comp mentors and comp buddies alike. Below is a summary of the primary methodologies I’ve developed for preparing for comps, as well as pdfs of my three comp lists. I hope this pays forward some of the help others have provided me (and explains what’s going on if I miss a post or two in the coming weeks).

Summary of methodology for my comp prep:

  • Take notes on every reading using the following categories as an outline: main arguments, aim/goal/purpose of the work, methodology and sources, historiography, major criticisms/praise of the work.
    • Keep these notes as specific and succinct as possible. Strive for a one-page maximum.
    • Save these notes as searchable text documents in OpenOffice, in Google Drive, and (perhaps most importantly) as tagged entries in Zotero.
      • Apply tags in Zotero carefully and deliberately from a pre-established list. Tags on my list range from the generic, such as “pedagogy” or “transnational,” to very specific tags for subject categories and time periods. Be brutally consistent and do NOT over-tag. If you’ve never used Zotero before, I highly recommend giving it a try. Whether you use it for comp preparation or for organizing and storing your research, it’s one of the best research tools out there and will save you oodles of time in the long run. If you are hesitant, watch one or two of the demonstration videos, download Zotero, and play around with it for a couple of days before letting yourself bail. Remember: don’t be afraid to explore and poke around. You won’t break it – I promise!
  • Clearly label every reading at the top of each page of notes, in bibliographical formatting.
  • Place all notes in carefully and deliberately arranged folders on a usb for OpenOffice text documents, on Google Drive, and Zotero. The point here is to promote not just organization, but searchability as well. Use your comp lists as guides to help delineate categories for folders and subfolders. Again, be brutally consistent.
  • Set a goal for a set number of readings per day and hold yourself to it. Do what you need to do to arrange your schedule and balance your life so that preparing for comps comes first.

My comp lists:

(You can see the way the UNL History Department breaks down the comprehensive fields here, under “Degree Requirements.”)

North American Comps List

Urban and Social Comps List

  • Compiled and brought to you courtesy of my friend and colleague, Brian Sarnacki.

Transnational 19th Century Comps List

  • Please note that this list is still undergoing some reorganization.

Break? What break? Don’t you know I’m a grad student?

It’s hard to believe Winter Break is nearly at an end. Like most graduate students I use the term “break”  rather loosely. Contrary to popular perception, the life of a graduate student is a far cry from the life of an undergraduate. Graduate students have a much larger workload, never really have nights and weekends “off,” and are forced to constantly assess and reassess the value of their endeavors to their field of choice. Throw in the heart palpitation-inducing issue of the current job market and the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding funding, and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty stressful lifestyle — unless, that is, one learns the importance of balance and adopts habits that serve as healthy stress valves. Readers familiar with my blog know I personally look to regular exercise, meditation, and family time to center myself, but I’ve also discovered that work itself can exert a calming influence.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shifted into full-time comprehensive exam preparation mode and it’s been a relief to do so. It was difficult to establish a regular routine of comp preparation in the Fall semester since I was (1) gone nearly the entire month of September on a whirlwind of back-to-back travel that included the Bosch Archival Seminar for Young Historians, (2) was working as a teaching assistant in an area outside my discipline, and (3) was responsible for teaching three recitation sections each week on top of the standard t.a. grading responsibilities. Winter Break, while not a genuine “break,” has nonetheless allowed me to realign my history mojo and return my focus to my personal goals. Spending time out of one’s regular routine (and particularly away from campus life every now and again) can be very beneficial to re-recognizing the importance of long-term goals over day-to-day responsibilities.

Daily life will always bring interruptions and distractions. Meetings will demand your time, grading will demand your attention, students will need your help, the kitchen floor must still be mopped every now and then, your spouse might wreck the car, family members could pass away, friends may encounter crisis. But, as you enter the New Year, take some time once in a while to “do you.” Remember why you do what you do and center yourself around what you need to do to accomplish your goals. Be a little more selfish with your time when you can, visit your family, don’t overcommit, take care of yourself, be kind, don’t worry so much about what others think, don’t let the unkindness of others ruin your day, and recognize that imbalance will always come back to bite you eventually.

Next week, I’ll post on some of my strategies for preparing for comps. Have a happy and healthy New Year.