Invasion of the Information Snatchers: How the Internet Taps into Our Fear of Malleable Identity and Authority — and What We Can Do About It”

invasion of the body snatchers

As a child, I had a recurring bodysnatching nightmare. In the nightmare, I would be safely tucked into my bed, but I would then sense a glowing presence moving down the hallway that separated the front door to the house from my bedroom door. I would stay frozen under the sheets of my bed, pulling the blanket up slightly so that it covered my ears, but my gaze would remain on the hallway as the presence drew closer and closer. The presence would eventually approach the frame of my bedroom door and its full form would become clear: it was a humanoid creature, but with tentacles for legs and arms that were merely wisps of cloudy air. Its face had only eyes and a mouth but no noise. While its outline glowed, its body was the color of smoke and its presence just as seemingly ephemeral. While I pretended to be asleep, the presence entered my bedroom and eventually hovered over my body and, somehow, I knew that it deigned to inhabit my physical presence so that it could snatch a body and take on a solid physical presence of its own. Just as the presence was about to attempt invasion, I would wake up, startled. I would often double-check to make sure my bedroom door was actually closed (my real life self thought that if the door was shut, the nightmare presence couldn’t possibly make its way into my bedroom).

My particular body snatching nightmare eventually faded from my nightly rotation, but the deep, ingrained fear that my identity could somehow be taken away from me, that my body could somehow be filled with someone else’s thoughts or that my thoughts could somehow be put into a different body continued to disturb me. The notion of body snatching has long been a popular fear in the American imagination too. How many stories of embodied possession and zombie takeovers have we encountered in the Western world? (A lot, and many other people have theorized these stories better than I. See, Jesse Stommel on “The Dead Things We Already Are,” Joe Fassler on Zombies, and Sarah Juliet Lauro on More Zombies). 

The idea that anyone could willingly take over my body without permission was a fear, I see now, of losing agency and not having the ability to determine when I could use my own voice and how (this is not an uncommon fear or one unique to me). I realized when I was young that my voice was essentially all that I had; my body was certainly a vehicle for that voice, but it only mattered insofar as it was attached to the voice. Once that voice was gone, well, the body was merely a shell.

I’ve been thinking a lot about body snatchers as I’ve been thinking about the Internet and the crisis we’re facing at this moment in the early twenty-first century about credibility online and how people distinguish and understand information. I’m realizing that it’s a “body-snatchers” problem too. Online infrastructures take various forms and disguises, but without knowing who’s writing on the other end, anyone can take any amorphous form to represent any idea from any voice that they so choose. As a popular cartoon from The New Yorker concludes: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

"On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.'

The joke of The New Yorker cartoon is predicated on “body-snatching” anxiety: that if any dog can write online as an authority, the fact that you are a dog doesn’t matter in building your potential online persona. That said, this “body-snatching” anxiety is nothing new; we can trace back the anxiety with “body-snatching” all the way to the disembodiment of spoken voice from physical body with the simple act of putting pen to paper. That is, the rise of print culture – and the subsequent technological revolution of mass printing and mass literacy  – made it very easy for someone’s words to become something far, far removed from their own bodies. “When you write a book, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

To overcome the anxiety that dogs could be writing printed books, we developed a really strong connection between printed literacy and the educational system. Basically, around the same moment that books, newspapers, and printed materials were distributed in the Western printing world, so too were children being sent to school, not as laborers but as learners. Mandatory public education became a hallmark of the Western world at roughly the same moment that print literacy as social practice became ubiquitous for anyone of any social class. Print literacy was made authoritative in the classroom: teachers passed down the proper books for their students to read so that students could learn (mostly) about how to become good Christians. While plenty of adults received their access to writing through newspapers and paperback novels, the authority for those sources proved exceedingly questionable. These sources were sinful, sensationalistic, and not vetted with the authority of God. In other words, when there wasn’t a body present to assure individuals that the source was trustworthy, we used another body transplant of authority, like a teacher or priest, to help us understand what was OK and what wasn’t.

The main difference between the era of mass print literacy and conceptions of authority then and the era of mass digital literacy and the conceptions of authority now are that we have started to lose trust in our authorities and are not sure who to turn to in order to reclaim that trust (David Roberts’ piece in Vox on America’s epistemological crisis is tied not only to the authorities behind news media, but authorities behind any research-based institution, in my opinion). News outlets and “mainstream media” sources are no longer authorities, are no longer trusted bodies that can communicate disembodied voices. Even schools and universities are no longer perceived as fully authoritative or expert spaces. So, what do we do? What happens when material and infrastructural frameworks slip away and we fear that all of the expert bodies have been snatched by inept ones?

In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the body-snatching threat only stops when police authorities finally see the evidence of the seed pods that are invading human bodies. In zombie lore, the zomvie virus only gets destroyed when the zombie body is killed; the human body cannot be restored once the zombie virus has taken over. So, if we’re looking to fiction for our answer to this question, it seems like there’s only one option: annihilation.

When it comes to real world body-snatching, however, I don’t think annihilation of threatening information sources is necessarily the right answer, mostly because it’s impossible. If we are to maintain a free and open flow of information, we have to give everyone an opportunity to share and circulate ideas, even if those ideas are treacherous and tricky. So, one way we can annihilate anxieties over “body-snatching” is by disambiguating who or what is snatching our bodies from the start, making transparent the processes and practices that go into making information, whether that information comes from a book or from the Web. In other words, we need to distinguish between the appearances of alien seed pods and the appearances of – well – humans to regain trust in our bodies again. In non-metaphorical terms, we need to distinguish between trickster writers and trusted writers, and understand what these trusted writers do to find factual information and, well, why that matters.

There are a lot of resources to help readers understand what fact-driven, research-based writing is and how people do it, so I won’t rehash what others have described in better and clearer terms than me. Instead, here is my annotated list of resources I think are really useful about this topic in the hopes that you may explore them further and overcome your own fears of body-snatching and related anxieties:

So, why might it matter to see concerns with source credibility through the lens of body-snatching? Well, I think it helps us understand the extent to which fear and mistrust guide our decision-making. If we think that information is coming from people or sources we trust, we are more likely to follow them. When we discover that the sources we trust are not who we thought, we feel misguided, concerned, confused, and de-centered. It’s not that we can’t trust anyone, but if we are able to look for the signs that allow us to frame sources effectively, we can understand whether the bodies have been snatched already or not.

I still fear body-snatching insofar as now that I have a much more established voice in a larger online conversation, I know that my identity could be easily stolen or threatened. That said, I know that body-snatching is part of the risk of entering into public discourse without my body to advocate for me. It’s the risk we all take, all of us who dare to put ourselves online and out into the world. We have to trust that readers will come to understand who and what body snatchers do and how to distinguish the real voices from the fake ones. 

Today, I try to stay brave enough to keep my (metaphorical) bedroom door open and trust that I will wake up in time to blow the body-snatching smoke monster away. As an educator, I hope to give my students that same strength too, and the critical ability to understand when body-snatching is real – and when it is truly a figment of a nightmare.

Embracing Failure

The silence on this blog is glaring. Crafting yet another introduction to yet another apology for silence fills me with a familiar feeling of fraudulence, a nagging insecurity about my repeated inability to embrace the constant grind that being a writer requires.

Yet I can embrace one thing: the knowledge that the root of all of this silence comes from my persistent willingness to value success over failure. That is, my silence roots not from an inability to speak, but an inability to accept the failure that inevitably comes from each and every attempt I will ever make to express myself wholly. Good ideas do not emerge intrinsically; they emerge from iterations and iterations of an idea, and it takes a lot of failure to get to a successful idea worth sharing. And while I could have been iterating on failures, I was instead, finding short-term successes in my career. Much of my daily job requires producing successes, which means that much of my work happens in the form of ephemeral face-to-face interactions or in short, satisfying e-mails. I am not shaming myself for engrossing fully in this work (it has been the right thing to do at this point in my life), but I also want to work on embracing more fully the work required to write.

That is, today, I want to embrace the work of failure. I’m starting this by writing what’s going to be something of a failure at a blog post.

Why am I already saying that this blog post is a failure? I’m saying it’s a failure because it does not adhere to any of the conventions of a blog post. Its title is not that catchy; it won’t get caught on any search engine optimization filters. The only way anyone will ever read or find this is if I share it through social media. Otherwise, it’ll just be a part of the block of Internet content noise. Fine. So be it. I’m embracing it.

It’s also a failure because it’s not going to compel you to do anything. It won’t offer you an action item; it’ll simply offer you with some understanding of how I’m feeling about my writing now and my identity as a “writer.” Maybe that’ll be worthwhile to you. But this post is still something of a blogging failure precisely because it doesn’t explicitly offer you much of anything. I’m aware of your needs as an audience, but I’m not really addressing them right now. I’m going to apologize – yes, sorry – but I know that apology probably seems a little insincere because I’m not really going to do anything to remedy this failure of a blog post. It’s going to live as a little failure.

I’m deliberately making failure to help myself embrace it. What I’ve learned from my various identity pivots over the years – thinking of myself as a creative writer to a journalist to a burgeoning professor to a “higher education professional” – is that boxing myself into successes and expecting myself to produce my best work possible at all times is not possible. My pivots have been possible because I’ve been willing to “fail” and, have, instead, turned my failures or falterings into futures. I’ve never always been entirely comfortable with that, but remaining flexible, trying new things, and discovering new strengths has, much to my surprise, made me pretty happy.

I’m going to fail a little more on this blog soon and make this my space to keep experimenting with ideas and allowing this to be the space where I see things that are working and not working. This will be the only one I’ll continue to learn and grow.

 

The Care and Keeping of Your Ph.D. Candidate Family Member or Friend

For Ph.D. students, the holidays can be a dreaded time because it means inevitable questions from old family and friends about a lot of stressful topics, from their long-term projects to their future career outcomes. Believe me, Ph.D. students do a great job of worrying about these issues for themselves; they don’t need anyone else to remind them of everything they need to get done!

I understand that family members and friends want to show support for their Ph.D. friends or family members and, you know what? There are a lot of ways you can do that without causing undue stress! While I know it can be hard to show support for someone who’s doing work that you may not understand, that you may not relate to, or that you may not see the importance of, one thing Ph.D. students could use in spades is the feeling that people support them and think that the work they’re doing is valuable.

Here are some handy tips for the holidays on ways that you can kindly show that you care about your friend or family member working on a Ph.D.:

  • Mirror their excitement. If they’re excited about something, affirm it! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve enthusiastically explained something I’m working on to someone outside of academia, just to see them wrinkle their nose and go, “So… why does that matter?” That’s probably the biggest possible enthusiasm buzzkill for your Ph.D. family and friends. Even if you don’t know why something matters, couch your questions first with mirroring the excitement: “I’m so happy you’re so excited about what you’re doing!” A statement like, “I’d love to hear more about that” or a question like “What part of your work do you love the most?” is going to go a lot longer way to getting your friend to open up about her work than “What does that mean?”
  • Don’t make disdainful comments about the jargon or specialized terms your Ph.D. friend uses. OK, so your friend’s new and confusing Ph.D. jargon might drive you crazy, but chances are, the reason they’re using that jargon is because they don’t know what else to say or they don’t know how to express their ideas in another way quite yet. It can be tempting to say something like, “Um, can you talk in PLAIN English please?” but nothing is more alienating than expressing disdain about the new ways of speaking your Ph.D. friend has picked up. Even something as simple as “I’m not really sure I understand what you’re getting at. Can you tell me what you mean by [x]?” shows that you’re listening and that you care, even if you don’t understand the jargon or specialized terms.
  • Never ask, “So what’s your dissertation about?” Instead, ask “What kinds of things are you working on?” One of the biggest stressors in your Ph.D. friend’s life is how he or she plans to focus his/her project. This is a source of huge contention – particularly if your friend is in the early stages of working on the dissertation – so if you want to ask about your friend’s work, get them to talk broadly about what kinds of things they’re exploring. That’s a much more stress-free way to get them talking, and it’ll give you more room as well to ask more specific questions if you’re curious.
  • Don’t joke about how little money your friend makes as a Ph.D. student. You might have seen TV shows or movies that joke about graduate students’ impoverished lifestyles, but unless your Ph.D. friend offers a joke him or herself about finances, don’t joke about or discuss money. This is a source of real concern for Ph.D. students; making light of it is not only disrespectful, but it can be downright stress-inducing for your friend. Try not to make their situation more uncomfortable by pointing out something they’re already quite aware of.
  • Avoid referring to their work as “school.Ph.D. students see their work as work. One of the most common misunderstandings of graduate student work is that it’s an extension of what students do as undergraduates. Once Ph.D. students finish their courses, their work actually becomes a lot more like what freelance workers or research associates do; they’re not students so much as they are apprentices to professors. The stakes of graduate student labor are a lot higher than undergraduate student work, as what they produce in graduate school will dictate much of the work they do beyond their graduate training and into their future professions, whereas undergraduate student work typically amounts to a course grade that has little to do with their final professional outcomes. Respect the labor graduate students do and ask about their work the same way that you would ask a friend with a desk job about their work.
  • Never ask, “When will you be done?” Instead, ask, “What are you most excited to do next?” Ph.D. student timelines, contrary to popular belief, are often out of students’ control. Their timelines depend immensely on the needs of their advisors, the results of their experiments in labs, or the availability of historical or archival material they’re attempting to explore. This is perhaps the most irksome question of all because it suggests your impatience with their work and how eager you are to move on to talking about something else (even if you don’t mean it that way, that’s how a lot of Ph.D. students will see it). Asking what kind of work your Ph.D. friend is enjoying will show that you care much more about his or her wellbeing than the timeline at which he or she will complete that work.

So, enjoy the holidays ahead and the thoughtful conversations you’ll have with the academics you love in your life!

 

Should I Blog My Research?

Let me start with some Obvious Things:

Obvious Thing #1: I’m pretty good at starting and abandoning blogs. Why is that? Well, here’s an obvious reason for my obvious fact: writing is hard. I’ve come to accept that (and embrace it on my best days). This is, of course, coming from someone who likes to write, but who can be intensely critical of her own writing especially when it’s – yowza! – public!

When I teach writing, I like to analogize writing with exercise. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it and even easier to come up with excuses not to do it. When you do it, it is painful, but gradually (graaadually) it becomes something you like to do, even when it’s painful. I’m past stage #1: I like writing and I always have. I’m now on stage #2: how do I train myself to become a “marathon writer?” How do I keep myself writing? These are questions more for me than for you, but I’m stating them anyway in the hopes that some (many?) will relate.

Obvious Thing #2: I’m in an industry (i.e. academia) where blogging is becoming an increasingly important part of one’s identity. Web presence is not only “a thing,” but a big and important, potentially career-defining thing (The Guardian has written about this, Henry Jenkins sees blogging as a good way to connect with a broader public, and some folks from the LSE find that blogging is the best way to communicate ideas that won’t make it through the traditionally slow academic publication timeline very quickly). As someone billing herself as a specialist in digital culture and rhetoric in particular, I’ve got to be extra-super (supextra?) aware of how I present myself online, how often,and what sorts of things I’m writing (i.e. more relevant hot topics in my field, less whining probably?).

Obvious Thing #3: I’m working on a dissertation.

Given these discrete obvious things, I’m at a cross-roads where I must make a choice: should I blog my dissertation progress? I’ve read a lot about the process at this point, from this open thread on GradHacker to the Remix the Dissertation webinar last week. Because I like lists, I’ve decided to lay out some more personal pros and cons, based on info gathered and my own personal circumstances:

Pros: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #2. Here’s a way to show people that I know how to do the blog thing! I’ve got a knack for it! I can write about my work for a “general public!” This is valuable and highly encouraged!
  • It’ll keep me reflective and thinking about my writing process the whole way through. The dissertation is a long haul, and there’s real value in having an informal space to reflect on ideas that may make their way into a project, but may not.
  • Low stakes. Let’s be real: how many people are actually going to read my work-in-progress dissertation blog (to be hosted on a site I’ve just set up with a free WordPress URL)? Probably my dissertation committee (that’s 3), and maybe my boyfriend on a day where he’s feeling particularly generous (OK, 4), and my mom will skim it and tell met that I’m smart (So, 5?). This is a good thing. It makes me feel like I’m not revealing to the entire world my trials, pitfalls, and potential mistakes.
  • It’ll give me a space to hash out nuggets of ideas that really could turn into potential articles and blog chapters.
  • Choosing which topics to blog about may help me see which ideas for my dissertation are actually useful and interesting. This seems like a potentially silly advantage, but I tend to think that everything is interesting (my co-chair had to tell me to STOP collecting primary texts for my project)… until I actually start writing about it. It’s when the metaphorical rubber hits the metaphorical road that I actually can sit back and assess my ideas more clearly.

OK, so Cons: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #1. I don’t want to contribute more blog detritus to the world if I don’t write regularly (though this is really my own problem and not necessarily a “con” to the whole venture).
  • There’s potential for ideas to be “scooped” by random readers and could potentially jeopardize the ability to distribute ideas in things that people have to actually buy, like journal articles or books.
  • I don’t want to look like an idiot?

My pro list looks certainly more compelling than my cons (especially since 3/4 cons are enveloped in personal concerns). But what do you think? Should I blog my dissertation? Why or why not?

Commenting on Comments

My poor, almost four-year-old laptop is on the brink of collapse. She moans and churns and thinks really hard about loading webpages now. Awakening her from digital slumber takes a few pushes and prods at her buttons. It’s not her fault; this is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

So, I’ve started the overwhelming task of researching new laptops, tempted by the possibilities of sleek and fast Chromebooks in particular. 90% of the work I do on my computer is online anyway, and rarely do I use any of the clunky software I impulsively buy for various “productive” uses that quickly fall by the wayside. I’ve thought about switching to a Mac too, but I can’t bring myself to invest in a product that requires consumers to buy individual and unique cords for basically every function (I take pride in being able to plug overhead projectors directly into my computer without having to use the limp-necked, insultingly-named “dongle”).

Yet there’s one Microsoft tool that I just can’t quit: Microsoft Word commenting and Track Changes. OK, OK, I know that Track Changes is prescriptive and ugly and red, but when it comes to my own writing especially, I love that I can see the changes I make dynamically, visibly, and quickly.

I’ve become especially fond of commenting on my own writing as I’m writing. Comments are what I use when I have something more I want to say about a particular idea, but am not yet sure how to incorporate it into the prose. My comments include everything from venting about how clunky my phrasing is to wondering whether a particular idea makes sense to expanding upon my prose more with ideas that I know must fit somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where.

I’ve even found myself writing things in comments like, “Well, what I really want to say is more about… but I’m not sure it’s relevant to put this thought here…” In other words, comments free me from my desire to have every thought of my writing placed in a linear and particular order. For better or for worse, I often feel obligated to constrict my writing in particular ways, to only write things in the order that I know I’ll finally want them. That’s totally silly, of course; I should know as a writing instructor that the space of a page, the space of a word processing document never ever has to be written in a “final” order and, in fact, words and paragraphs should be moved around. A lot! But there’s a part of my personality that resists a desire to move things (at least until I have every idea down). It’s not a convenient impulse.

So, what do I do instead? I write myself comments. I often wind up moving the comments too and they feel wonderfully liberating. They allow me to see just how messy and insane my writing is. And that’s a good thing.

Every day, writing is hard and I work to psyche myself out and convince myself that it’s not. One way that I’m making sure it feels less hard is by allowing myself to comment and comment freely. I don’t think I’ll wind up buying a Chromebook – I’m still exploring my options – because I think that using a Word interface comforts me, gives me infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, allows me the freedom to see my messy thoughts and mistakes. Believe me, I’m still working away from Microsoft applications for other purposes (See “Citation Woes”), but for initial drafting at least, the comforts of my good ol’ software applications still give me the space I need for the most important thing: my ideas.

Citation Woes

I sheepishly admitted something  embarrassing to a member of my dissertation committee yesterday: I still use Microsoft Word to take notes and keep track of citations.

“Jenaaaaae,” he groaned. “Seriously? It’s time to get with the twenty-first century.”

For those of you new to the citation software game, Microsoft Word is not twenty-first century. It’s kind of like the AOL of citation management; if you’re still using it, it means you’re old or incompetent.

For those of you skeptics wondering, “Why should it matter where citations get stored? Can’t they just be copied and pasted from document to document? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

The resounding answer to that is: “No. No no no. Why would you do that to yourself? No.”

Why is the resounding answer a series of emphatic “no’s?” Well, because it takes way longer to hunt down various citations from random files in random places on one’s computer. Copying and pasting citations from various documents (rather than storing them in one place) is kind of like putting your clothing in a bedroom closet, in a bathroom medicine cabinet, and in the refrigerator. Why would you ever do that? You wouldn’t.

And I know this. I’ve known this. I downloaded EndNote, a citation management program that our library lets students download for free, when I first started graduate school. I felt very pious about it and I quickly learned the basics. It wasn’t hard to use, but it felt cumbersome, like an additional step in the already-long and concentrated process of writing up research.

Here and there, I’d halfheartedly enter in some citations for papers I was working on, telling myself, “You’ll thank yourself for this later.” The problem was that I never got into a habit of it, and I found that for my seminar papers and my prospectus, I was often working against deadlines that made the simple task of entering the citation into EndNote feel like an enormous chore. Though I recognized the looming, long-term disadvantage of copying and pasting citations for the rest of my being, the short-term incentive to finish up writing to do anything else sounded better.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve found great soothing comfort in a Word document. It is, after all, the only word processor I’ve ever known, and it’s pretty much done everything I’ve ever needed it to do (except crash on me on several occasions; it never, never had to do that).

So the thought of abandoning the warm familiarity of a long, blank scrolling page (ha, who’d have thought I’d ever describe a blank page as “warm?”) has just made me want to cuddle up in all of its mainstream, moneyed glory even more. In other words: old habits die hard.

But indeed, it is time to get with it, this twenty-first century business, and actually manage my citations in a reasonable, organized, deliberate, and totally un-crazy way.

During this meeting, my committee member showed me Zotero, and while it is in many ways similar to EndNote, I think it may actually suit my working style a whole lot better (and one can only hope) actually motivate me to store my citations in a reasonable and systematic way.

The biggest advantage to Zotero for me is the fact that I can save readings I’ve accessed from my browser and store them immediately to Zotero. With the version of EndNote I got from the library, this isn’t possible (though perhaps newer versions of EndNote do this?).

Another huge advantage is that Zotero includes a note-taking tab along with the citations stored that allows me to write endlessly in a vertical view along with the citation. In EndNote, the “notes” section is a single bar that also scrolls endlessly, but it scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. This might seem like a totally nit-picky thing, but as a reader, it is much less cumbersome to read down than across.

Zotero also features a dynamic tagging view that will allow me to sort my articles and books by tags that I determine. Again, EndNote does this too, but with Zotero, the tags look a lot more like ones I’d seen on a blog.

In the scheme of things, these might seem like some small differences, but learning and becoming attached to new tools is part of becoming a better researcher. The more flexible I can become in how I write and store information, the better!

My Hesitation to Talk about Research is Not About You.

Whenever I am asked, “So, what’s your research about anyway?” my stomach dips. My mind goes blank for a moment; what is my research about? Do I even know? Sometimes, I feel like the project I’m working on is so big that I don’t know where to begin and there’s a certain dread I experience in trying to capture this project in a few sentences. So, my answer typically meanders through some qualified, fuzzy statements, like “Well, you know, it’s like…”

Let me just assure you of this: my hesitation is not about you. It’s all about me.

After I passed my qualifying exams, I thought that I would finally feel comfortable with the big research question. After all, I managed to convince a committee of five professors of my competence; surely, I could convince others of the same. Yet months after my qualifying exam, I somehow feel more insecure than ever about explaining my research.

The reason for my insecurity is simple: the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know very much at all. The more I start to probe my research questions, the more depth, complexity, and texture they seem to take on. I feel as though I’ve hatched open a large egg and have just discovered that the creature hatched is not just a lizard but a fire-breathing dragon. I’ve got to get myself one hell of a shield.

Feeling like an incompetent nincompoop is a classic learned person problem. It’s impossible not to feel like one when your days are filled with reading, writing, reflecting, and asking questions. In fact, at the beginning of every graduate seminar I took, the professor always asked the participants to introduce themselves and their major fields of interest, and every time, my peers and I would have to qualify our interests with statements like, “Well, I’m not really an expert or anything, but…” Arguably, all of us in that room were well on our way to being experts, yet none of us could own that title. It felt uncomfortable. It still feels uncomfortable.

The thing is, the only way I’ll be able to convince other people that I’m doing more than picking lint out of my navel these days is by giving the dreaded 2-minute version of my research. People like Nicholas Kristof have called for making academic research accessible to the public and I completely agree. I don’t struggle very much with colloquial language and making ideas accessible, but I find I struggle with condensing an argument and making it clear without either obfuscating the point or over-simplifying it. In other words, I don’t want to misrepresent an idea, but I also don’t want to bog down.

What’s the solution here? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my call to you if you’re reading this (and if you are, it probably means you know me in person because – let’s be real – this blog is mostly getting circulated through my Facebook friends): ask me about my research. Keep asking me. The more practice I get, the less uncomfortable I’ll feel, and hey, maybe the more coherent I’ll become too. I want to be able to share ideas and discuss them with you, whether you’re an academic or not. I might be afraid to do so and I might seem a little weird about it, but ultimately, I’ll be grateful. If I don’t seem grateful, just point me back to this blog post and allow me to eat my words. They’ll be delicious.

Why I Keep (Some) Old Graded Writing

Last week, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my living room sorting through piles of old papers. It’s only when I begin a move to a new apartment that I go through this purging ritual. This time around, I had to exude an enormous amount of personal strength to throw away photo-copied poems from college seminar classes (I’ll take note of the titles I like and find them online, I reassure myself), favorite New Yorker stories (again, these are all available online, I remind myself as I toss away bundles of magazine clippings with a wince), and even old stickers and leaflets I picked up from boutiques and bookstores that I once thought quaint and charming. Those too I chucked with a reluctant sigh. Nostalgia is a powerful force.

Yet every time I go through an apartment purge, I always find things that I still can’t bring myself to throw away for one reason or another. This time, it was a select collection of college papers annotated by former professors. First, allow me to defend myself and say that I threw most of my graded papers away; the majority of them did not have much on them by way of marginalia anyway and there was no sense in keeping reminders of the “A-” papers I wrote over the years.

Yet a couple of papers had comments that moved me beyond nostalgia, that made me reflect on my writing in ways that I hadn’t before and that I hope will be sobering reminders of where my writing can still grow and what I can keep doing to sustain the enthusiasm I had for writing through my college years.

First, see Exhibit A, an artifact certainly graded by a graduate student TA in a “Bible as Literature” class I took during what I believe was my junior year of college:

 

Bible Paper_Jenae

 

The comment in the image may be hard to read, so here’s what part of it says:

You raise some great points throughout this paper on John 5 and Jesus’ complex role in that text, and you do a good job of citing your source material and reading into it. Still, your paper seems disorganized at times, and in need of a much more effective overall argument to bring your various points into a more convincing unity… you make a number of different points about audience that would be even stronger if your argument was more specific and contentious.

As soon as I re-read this, I realized that this is often the kind of feedback I still receive on my writing. I may offer great ideas, but they’re frequently without a strong enough argument. I’m able to come up with a lot of different ideas and make some pointed observations, but there needs to be greater unity connecting all of these “interesting” ideas. In other words, I still struggle with coherence and argument strength and even as I’m working on an article and a dissertation this summer, I’m realizing how I often manage to fall into the same pitfalls of writing and observing a number of different and exciting things without necessarily seeing one particular argument they’re pointing to. Writing this out, the solution seems simple: articulate a clear argument and keep that argument alongside my paper as I write, ensuring that each observation ties into that argument. That, of course, is the advice I’d give to another writer.

Yet I know that this solution is much easier said than done. The biggest problem for me with articulating an argument and sticking with it is knowing that arguments frequently change during the writing process. I often find myself analyzing evidence and realizing part-way through my analysis that the conclusion I thought I had reached is only one small part of what I’m noticing and that, in fact, the argument I initially devised still needs to be more nuanced (and perhaps “contentious” as the TA in the comment suggested) than I thought before.

So, I’ve always been of the “write as much as you can and then go back and revise to create a better argument” school of thought. I still think this may be the best way to approach the particular “contentious argument” problem, but this approach takes a lot of time. I imagine in college that I didn’t review and re-write my essay nearly enough times to notice where the argument lapsed or where it seemed disorganized. I imagine too that I may have felt overwhelmed by the source material; the gospels are no joke and there’s a lot to look at there that can make the articulation of an argument even more challenging. I always tell my students that the more challenging of an idea they’re grappling with, the more likely their grammar and sentence structure is to break down. I’m really no exception to that rule; I find that the more I struggle to express a complex idea, the less clear it is going to be articulated.

So, what do I do with this knowledge that I’ve been suffering from the same writing problems for years?

At this point, my response is: remain mindful of these mistakes. I’m keeping this particular paper because it places in front of me an error I’m prone to make and helps me more mindfully look at it. Sure, I may not need to keep the paper to maintain this memory, but there’s something about holding a tangible finished product and seeing the pencil-written note assuring me that it’s not yet finished that humbles me and reminds me of how much further I still have to go with writing for all different purposes. Writing has to be slow cooked and simmered; it’s easy to forget that, especially as I compose a blog entry, the “fast food” of writing in many ways.

Of course, I keep old writing, too, not just as a form of penance, but also as a reminder of what I can accomplish and the hope that mentors have had (hopefully still have?) for me.

An example is Exhibit B:

Uplifting Comment

 

 

This one’s a bit easier to read, but just in case you can’t:

Another excellent interview Jenae – I just hope in 30 years you will still find outlets for your obvious talent.

This is a bittersweet comment in its suggestion that there may not be outlets “in 30 years” for “good writing.” What it also assumes though is that I’ll still be writing in 30 years. That is the part that motivates me and fills me with some additional confidence. A professor at some point in some time had the confidence to believe in my writing for years and years to come. I saved this paper too to share this reminder with myself, that I will still be able to produce work and that I have “talent” for it. I hope that these 30 years keep getting recycled, that after 30 years, I can remember that there are 30 more years where I can keep working and writing.

Perhaps one day I’ll throw these papers away too, but in the meantime, they’re the ones I can’t quite commit to the recycling bin. They still offer me something that I couldn’t find elsewhere, artifacts of writing projects completed and motivation for projects to be completed.

 

What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.