Thursday, June 25, 2009

How to Succeed in Academia without Really Trying?

This post is partly inspired by my lunch today with the awesome Historiann (It was great meeting you! And thanks again for lunch!), and it's partly inspired by something I just found in my work email in-box. So, as Historiann and I had our lunch, we got to talking about publishing and such, and I said, in an off-hand way that I never would have been able to get my book out without my dissertation director refusing my claims that "a good dissertation was a done dissertation" and forcing me to spend a full year revising the thing. That's right: I had a complete version that I tweaked for a full year. But so H. said that I should do a post about how grad school prepared me for the job that I have now, and how it has enabled me to be a productive scholar at a teaching institution. I know I've got a lot of readers out there in situations similar to mine - maybe not with 4/4 loads but with 3/3s - and who are similarly productive, so I thought, you know, maybe this would be a good post to do and hopefully people will contribute their own experiences in the comments.

This won't be the first time that I've talked about scholarship on the blog, but I think I tend merely to a) complain about things I'm working on, b) express joy when things work out, or c) to talk about it as something that happens magically and that I don't entirely understand. But in the conversation with H., it became clear that I really can map my productivity now in circumstances that wouldn't seem to lend themselves to scholarly productivity back to my training in graduate school at an institution that is radically different from the one at which I work. H. encouraged me to post about this because, and I'll paraphrase her here, most people do not end up at jobs at institutions like the ones where they train, and so laying a foundation at those places for the kind of job you will end up having is important, and has everything to do with the scholarly things one might achieve, particularly early on in one's academic career. While I don't think that an excessively long time to degree is desirable, I do think that the continued push toward shortening times to degree can get in the way of the foundation-laying that really does need to happen if one is to have a life as a scholar as one moves forward on an academic career path. So.

What foundations were laid in graduate school that have gotten me to this point?

1. First and most significantly, I was able to get my book out before tenure with a 4/4 load because my adviser pushed me to get my dissertation as close as possible to a book before I defended. This is not to say that I did not have to put the manuscript through massive revisions after the defense - I did. I did not just publish my dissertation with only a few minor changes. But, and this is crucial, the shape of the dissertation is the shape of the book, I created a dissertation that had a book-length argument in which each chapter built on the chapter(s) before it, and in my final year - in which I had moved back to Hometown and was temping for 11 bucks an hour to make a living - I really spent the time refining not only the content of the thing but also the prose. That's not to say there wasn't a ton of dissertationese still there at the end, but I did find my voice as a scholarly writer in that time, and I really did get beyond the phase of just getting ideas down on paper. I still have problems with fleshing out my ideas with the sophistication that they require, but in that final year of tweaking, I learned how to spot when I do that. I learned how to take very specific criticism of particular passages and to translate that criticism to a project as a whole. I learned how to think beyond myself, if that makes sense - to put myself in a reader's position and to get outside of my own head with a draft. All of that took time. It took a willingness on my part to think that deeply, but it also took the pressure and the demand to think that deeply from my director - otherwise I would have defended that thing a year before it was as ready as it could be. This was huge for me because I got my job ABD. I defended on August 5, and I started my job on August 15. Could I have defended sooner? Probably. Would that have been good for my subsequent career as an academic? I do not think so.

2. This is connected to the previous: my mentors in graduate school encouraged me to think in very deliberate ways about my scholarship, and to think about how the various projects on which I was working fit together with each other. In other words, I guess I learned to think about the big picture of my scholarship, as opposed to thinking in a single-minded way about just the dissertation, or just a seminar paper. My mentors (dissertation director and others) encouraged me to flesh out my identity as a thinker, and to realize that the dissertation was not an end but rather a first step and just one piece in a long career. One outcome of this was that I presented papers at conferences throughout graduate school, and those papers were not all culled from the dissertation project. Further, the publications that I managed during graduate school were not publications that came out of my dissertation. Nevertheless, nothing I did was totally unrelated to the bigger questions that the dissertation took on: rather, I was encouraged to flesh out a scholarly identity that extended out from my dissertation project, and that would continue to do so. This gave me confidence to start a new line of research once I started on the tenure track, and it gave me the skills I needed to work independently on new ideas without a great deal of mentorship. This is huge once one starts actually working in this profession, because most of the time, we work as scholars without a whole lot of support. Sure, we get support at conferences, or in periodic visits with friends, but much of what we do must be undertaken independently. If I hadn't been trained to those skills throughout graduate school, I'm not sure that I would have understood how to proceed as I moved forward into my career on the tenure track.

3. My mentors instilled in me the necessity of connecting what I do as a thinker and scholar to the work that I do as a teacher. I don't think that they necessarily realized how important this would be in my current situation - I think that they imagined this only in their own context, in teaching graduate students and in teaching undergraduates at an elite university - but I still learned the lesson, and I did carry it with me into my current professional life.

4. My mentors were not terribly generous in the sense of offering their guidance, and this taught me how to ask for mentorship when I needed it. At the time, I did not like this very much. Now, I am grateful for it. This more than anything else has helped me to forge professional relationships with colleagues at my current institution and at institutions other than my own, and it gave me a sense of ownership over my professional life and autonomy within my professional life that I'm not sure I would have felt as quickly otherwise. And, ultimately, I do think that it's this ability to forge relationships when people aren't necessarily banging down my door that has resulted in a lot of my scholarly success over the past six years.

5. I learned from my mentors that publication was ultimately just a part of the job, just as teaching is, and just as service is. It was presented to me as a worthy goal, and as a responsibility, but it was not presented as the end-all be-all of my identity. Rather, my identity was about thinking interesting and sophisticated stuff. Publication, ultimately, was presented as the result of my ability to do that. Nobody really made a big deal out of publication, or made it seem as if it was this holy grail of achievement. It was just expected. And I think that this attitude has definitely shaped my continued productivity in terms of publishing, especially as I work at a place where nobody is throwing parties for me when I publish something. I just putter along, having my ideas and fleshing them out and publication happens and then I go about my business of day-to-day stuff. The motivation to publish, ultimately, isn't about external praise or reward. It's about the fact that my job is to add to knowledge - teaching is part of that, speaking at the public library once a year is part of that, and scholarship is part of that. It is not this weird or lofty thing: it's just part of the gig I signed up for.

But so those foundations have led me to a place where I've been a productive scholar in conditions that many would say are not ideal for productivity as a scholar. I left graduate school with strong foundations: I knew how to work independently, I knew how to figure out research problems on my own, I knew how to ask for feedback, and I knew how to put myself out there as a scholar. I knew not to be intimidated by more esteemed people in my field, and I knew how to take opportunities that came my way. I knew how to network. I knew , in short, how to be a thinker and how to be a professional.

The result is that my research didn't stop with my dissertation. I had that major project, a very strong draft of a manuscript, under my belt when I started my job. This gave me the freedom to begin having new ideas and to translate those new ideas into new scholarship. I forged new professional relationships, and as I did so, new opportunities came my way. And so yes, over the past six years, I have often felt like I don't really have a plan in terms of scholarship, but partly that's because I haven't really needed a plan. Because I had such a strong foundation, I could in some ways ride that wave to more scholarship, more ideas. Or perhaps it's fairer to say, I have had a plan, but it was a plan that was set in motion long before I ever got my tenure-track gig.

It's all very strange, especially when I think about how things have gone with my scholarship over the past few months. I just had a book review come out in one journal, I was invited to have an essay in an edited collection based on a conference paper that I presented, I found out that another essay will be published in a collection that has finally found a home with a very strong university press, a very good journal would like to publish my article that I revised and resubmitted, and, today, I was just invited to review a book for one of the top journals in my specialization. All of this since the end of April. None of this was premeditated on my part. You know what my spring was like - scholarship has been pretty much off my radar since the book came out, and I'll be honest - I've not really had scholarship at the top of my list of priorities for most of the past six years. I do it because it feeds me intellectually, and I do it because it's what made me want to be a professor in the first place. But I don't put a lot of pressure on it, and I, throughout the academic year for sure, typically have a lot of things that come before scholarship in my professional life. I plod along as a scholar, and apparently am doing well at it, not because I have some grand agenda, but rather because I started off with carefully cultivated foundational skills that have allowed me to sustain scholarship as part of my professional life. If I hadn't gotten those skills in graduate school, I'm not sure where I'd have gotten them. And I think that I got those skills in graduate school because I had mentors who slowed me down, rather than sped me up and out.

But so anyway, those are my thoughts. I'd be interested to hear what others think about how their graduate education has influenced their continuing lives as scholars, particularly if they are not at research-intensive universities.

Oh, but one last thing. At our lunch, H. also marvelled that I've been this productive while at the same time keeping the blog and teaching the 4/4. As I said to her, the reason that the blog is possible on top of everything is because I don't draft or edit. I sat down to write this post an hour and a half ago. And now this post is done. If I were a more careful writer on this blog, or a slower typist, this blog would totally not exist. :)

I'm off for a weekend getaway! More upon my return!


fatedplace said...

Great insights Dr. C. I particularly like the way you suggested that seeing the connections between your scholarship and your teaching are vital to being more productive on both fronts.

Meadow said...

I'm at a research intensive place. Not super intensive, but kinda intensive. As a grad student I was fully responsible for teaching one or two classes every semester. So when I graduated and had to teach two classes and do research it was no big deal as that's what I've always done.

I find it hard to do research if my course load is more than 2 or 3 per semester. So hats off to those who can.

Your advice on how to blog is useful. I stopped last year because it was too time-consuming. Must find a way of blogging that doesn't take much time as I'd like to be part of the community.

Anonymous said...

I'll be honest, it sort of depresses me that all of your points start with "my mentors taught me" and "my mentors instilled in me" and the like. I don't have a job, so I obviously can't play this game, but I can't imagine "my mentors taught me" is going to enter into it for me.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

You were very fortunate to have such mentors. I am still, mid-career, trying to figure out these things for myself (hi, Anastasia!), and your posts along these lines have been eye-opening.

I think I was meant to leave some cat-blogging comment: my captcha is "purnap."

Shane in SLC said...

I dunno, I need to think about this, but I think I disagree with the advice for ABDs to slow down the diss. My advisor was definitely of the "best dissertation is the one that's finished" school. And the dissertation I wrote wasn't publishable: it ended up feeling like two loosely-related mini-books, and I could never really bridge the gap. But my committee judged that it was good enough to let me go take the job I'd already been offered at the time of my defense. Then I went off and developed my teaching repertoire, and worked on other projects, and got some distance from the diss for a couple of years. Then--and this is crucial, and something that most people can't take for granted, I know--I received a year-long research fellowship, which gave me the time to take the second half of my diss and develop it into a whole new book with a very different focus and scope. And it's a way better book than my dissertation would have been after an extra year of tinkering.

Anastasia also makes a good point: lots of people don't get good mentoring no matter how long they spend in grad school. In my case, my advisor was very helpful in terms of self-marketing and job market-type advice, and he was an expert in the geographic region and period I was writing about, but his scholarship was decidedly old-fashioned, and I'm skeptical that he would have helped me improve the diss dramatically with an extra year. (The fact that he was dying of cancer also introduced a certain urgency into my dissertating, but that's a story for another day...)

Bottom line: the dissertation is just a credential that you need to have stamped, and it usually isn't publishable as is anyway (or so my contacts in the publishing world tell me). For most people, procrastination and perfectionism are bigger problems than rushing through the thing. Get it done!

life_of_a_fool said...

I am also somewhat skeptical of spending more time on the dissertation, though ultimately I suppose this depends on individuals. I also had a job offer, and I also definitely did not feel like it was feasible to spend an extra year "tinkering," from a financial and a mental health perspective. Sure, my dissertation probably would be "better," but I appreciate that my committee recognized me and my needs (or limitations, or whatever) and respected what I felt I needed to do.

Partly in response to your original post, and partly also to Anastasia: some of what I learned in grad school was a result of my faculty mentors, but a lot of it was also a result of work that I did outside the university. I was a full-time professional researcher (i.e., not an RA and not at the University) for several years and I taught 6 courses a year for several years -- this helped professionalize me and it helped me learn to balance competing demands. It also slowed me down and reduced the number of tangible markers of success (i.e., publications), but there were also many benefits. In other words, it isn't only faculty mentors that can give you the advice, direction, and professionalization that will benefit you. (I'm not suggesting that Dr. Crazy would disagree with that, just that her experience wasn't that. . .)

The key, I think, is to leave as a professional with a somewhat realistic understanding of the profession, which not everyone does but people get to that point in a variety of ways.

life_of_a_fool said...

Also, I think teaching at an institution much more likely to one at which I'd end up was also very helpful to me. I did teach a few courses at my fancy-pants grad institution, but also many classes at another local U. Both for the exposure to multiple types of students and universities and having experience teaching non-elite students. . .

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for all of your comments! I'm sorry I posted this big long thing and then left town - that's the sort of lame blogger I am :)

At any rate, some responses:

1) I didn't mean for this to be a one-size-fits-all model at all. Just my experience and all that. And yes, I was very lucky to get a lot of real life mentorship of the kind I described, but I don't know that this is the only way these lessons can be learned. I was lucky that I did get them this way because when I was in grad school there was really very little other potential for mentorship from elsewhere - no academic blogs, etc. Also, I should note, my mentorship came from a lot of places - not just my dissertation director or even my dissertation committee. I'm counting people outside my field at my PhD uni, undergrad teachers, people I met at conferences along the way, and many more. Were I a student now, I'd probably count lessons I learned from reading blogs and meeting bloggers - I know I count things I've learned over the past five years in those ways as deeply related to blogging and bloggers. In other words, part of the reason that I used the word "mentors" is that for me it's a really flexible term. Heck, even my aunt I went to visit this weekend probably is somewhat responsible for the foundations I discussed in this piece. And she's not an academic.

2) Shane, I think you're right that the dissertation is, ultimately, a credential, and to be fair, my diss adviser always had that in mind. That said, ending up in the job I got, there are no leaves before tenure, and very few opportunities even for research-related course releases. In my situation, having a closer-to-book dissertation was the only way I probably ever would have published a first book, as even after tenure we only get to apply for one semester of fully paid leave. Had I ended up at a more research-oriented place, this may have been different. Also, I'll say this: my book totally would have been a better book had I had real time to rethink it after the fact. I did not publish with the fanciest of publishers, and it's in no way going to set the world on fire. That's not to take away from the accomplishment of doing it, but rather to acknowledge that having a closer-to-book dissertation in no way meant that I wrote the book I probably could have written with more resources and support after finishing the PhD.

3) i also should note that I was a person who wanted to go on the market a year before I was ready, so I've always been itching to jump the gun throughout my academic career. Not everybody needs the slowing down advice that I needed, but I suppose my point is that "speeding up" advice would have been detrimental to my career, given the person I am.

Thanks for the conversation, everybody! Especially since I was such an absent moderator of it!