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!

 

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.

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.

How to Be an Undergraduate Again

Our instructor faced the class, arms crossed over his chest, stern face piercing us all into extraordinary guilt. Most of us had bombed the latest French quiz – a pop quiz, mind you –  and he adopted that distinct teacherly Not Pleased tone.

“I’m going to talk in English,” he says slowly. “Because this is serious.”

We get a stern talking-to on how we must study, on how this is French 21, guys, not French 1 or 2 or 3. This should be review. We have to study, don’t we get it?

I know what he’s doing because I’ve done this move before with my own students. It’s the Bad Cop move, one I only employ after a particularly dour night of grading, where every single student response seems to be utterly off, and ugly feelings start to sink in: “These students are so lazy!” “They don’t care about writing at all!” “Haven’t they done the reading?” “Why did they submit this at 3:00 A.M.?”

I can see these same ugly feelings on his face; for him, it seems ludicrous that we wouldn’t get these concepts. I get it. Hence, the Bad Cop comes out.

Now that I’m taking on the role of an undergraduate in his class, I’m quickly realizing that Bad Cop never ever works; it just turns all of us students into puddles of shame. Another student I’ve befriended who – bless her -studies much harder than I do for this class, turns to me and whispers, “I’m so scared.” Me too, my dear friend, me too. I’m not scared about the quiz outcome though (frankly, another part of this trick is to pull out the Bad Cop on low-stakes assignments, like quizzes, so that the high stakes ones don’t result in similar failure). What I’m scared of is knowing I might fall into the temptation to do the same thing. And I don’t like that.

First, a little bit of context: I’m taking an undergraduate French class right now because I’m required to do so. All English department graduate students need to demonstrate “proficiency” in two different foreign languages. Don’t get me started on the journey that got me to my little desk in a little dark classroom with the grimiest of chalk boards and weathered carpeted floors in all of UC Davis. All that you need to know is that I’ve got to take this French class in order to take my qualifying exams and write that, like, dissertation or whatever.

So, here I am: the only graduate student among a group of undergraduates being taught by other graduate students. I’ll occasionally get some knowing nods from the graduate student instructors; we’ve got a kind of solidarity going on where they recognize that I recognize all of the “student engagement” moves they’re trying. Work in small groups! Think pair share! Yep, got it. I went to the TA Training Orientation too.

I realize I sound a little embittered, but all of these rehashed undergraduate experiences – the shame of the failed pop quiz, the lost dignity after performing an impromptu skit, the swelling of pride when the instructor tells you you’ve done something right – have given me some new perspective on my own teaching and have helped me to appreciate what my own students go through all the more.

Simply, I forgot how stressful it is to be a college student in a college class environment. I forgot how many little assignments that are to keep track of every day. As a graduate student, one has to be a time management expert, but an undergraduate education is its own kind of time management training grounds. So, there’s a lot more I can say about what I’ve learned about teaching again, but here’s how I’ve survived being an undergraduate. Again:

  • Do homework every day right after class. As soon as class is over, I go straight to work on the homework while the ideas are fresh. OK, so, maybe I check my e-mail first, but then it’s homework time. It’s condensed and I get it done to have the rest of my day free for other work.
  • Chat with my classmates about the assignments. So, at first, I wanted to adopt this stand-offish “I’m older than all of you an I know what I’m doing” persona, but as soon as I got my ego in check and realized that I need to actually practice the collaborative learning I preach, I realized my classmates were awesome resources. Not to mention that they’re all fresh off the heels of AP French, so they all know a whole lot more than I do.
  • Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards. Language classes require a lot of memorization, so I’ve been whipping through flashcards, cutting them into fours, and carrying them with me everywhere I go. When I have a minute, I flip through them, keeping the knowledge as fresh as I can. I don’t know how any undergraduate in a language course could survive without these.
  • Participate like no one’s business. Again, I wanted to be too cool for school for a while, especially since I was such an eager beaver in my actual undergraduate years. But then I realized that it’s not that much fun not to participate; I get way more out of my experience by speaking up, even though I say something wrong 90% of the time. Being wrong and failing is learning.

I’m still collecting tips on how to do this better, though somehow, I realize that by the time I’ve got all of this figured out, I’ll be on to the next quarter, on to the next project, learning instead how to be – well – a graduate student. That’s still one I don’t have a checklist for.

 

What’s in a Name?

Every six months, I go through this cycle where I wonder if I’m a sham.

I’ve identified myself as a “writer” for most of my (young) adult life, but I frequently find myself in a self-loathing moment where I wonder, “If I don’t write, can I call myself a writer?”

That niggling assertion frequently gets countered with: “Well, that’s a silly question to ask. It’s not that you don’t write; it’s that you don’t write for YOU. You write comments on students’ papers, you write hundreds of e-mails, and hundreds more notes. You write text messages and you write to-do lists. You’re writing!”

This is the logic I take with my teaching, too. I try to empower students and help them to believe that they ARE writers even if they major in biology and chemistry and animal science. I suppose at the heart of it, I like to say that all of us can identify as writers as long as we make the commit to thinking about our writing and being mindful of what we write, how we write, where we write, and why we write.

A question I find myself drawn to in my studies is, “how do we gain the awareness of our writing practice necessary to understand both the affordances and constraints of that practice?” The question to naturally follow this might be, “Well, what does it matter? Why should we be aware of the affordances and constraints of writing practice?”

I’d say the answer is simple: to ensure that we’re smart producers of content. What I’m afraid of is the knowledge that so much of my current writing practice in the digital age occurs in a place where content is endless. I write in a (virtual) institution that swallows up knowledge as quickly as possible, just gobbles it up. So, how do I remain aware of this institution that shapes the way I write without becoming completely paralyzed by it? I don’t want to produce content that doesn’t DO or SAY anything, but I also don’t want to be voiceless.

So, how does one get past these competing desires to be identified and to have a voice, but also to be mindful of the fact that it is very difficult to assert one’s voice in a room of chatter? I don’t yet have the answer to this, but maybe the answer doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s still about speaking just loudly enough to create a small tremor of sound in the ceaseless murmur.

“Just SHOW Me” Or How to Impress Your Boss in Industry

I am an emoticon abuser. Whenever the situation is appropriate for a smiley face, you bet that I’ll go ahead and include one.

This is not something of which I am particularly proud. Granted, the New York Times has justified the existence of our smiling keyboard friends, but this does not make me feel a whole lot better about the ways that I liberally sprinkle them through text messages, GChat instant messages, and even professional e-mails (though to be fair, I only felt free to do so when one of my professors opened the emoticon door first and typed one of his own to me). Emoticons are almost a compulsion for me; when I’m smiling, I want to SHOW the other person that I’m smiling; I want to transmit my smiles through cyberspace and I’ve somehow lazily relied upon a colon and a parenthesis mark to do the trick for me. Why do I need to bother to express my joy, my enthusiasm, or simply my light-hearted understanding  when I can simply excuse it away with a :)?

I want to believe that there’s something still irresistibly powerful about expressing something in language that simply cannot be expressed via an image. I want to believe that I could say whatever I want to say BETTER if I just used my words.

Yet I’ve come to discover that no matter how hard I want to believe that the word is the most powerful means of communicating, it may not necessarily be true in the digital age. This week at my internship, my supervisor asked me to draft up some proposal suggestions. My first suggestion was a long e-mail explaining how I would organize the information. My second suggestion was a series of PowerPoint slides illustrating the ways that I would organize the information. Guess which one he actually looked at and responded to?

In this situation, I can understand why the PowerPoint was more rhetorically effective; I’m re-organizing help information for an interface that is entirely contingent upon visual logic. Why should I write out my ideas in words when the information will eventually be presented entirely visually? The issue at the heart of the help documentation I am supposed to re-organize is, in fact, in its wordiness; apparently, customers are not reading the help information because they simply want to be shown how to use the software that the company has sold them. So, I probably should have assessed this rhetorical situation a little bit better at the start and just made the PowerPoints to begin with rather than spending the time drafting paragraph after paragraph of well-written ideas.

My boss actually spoke to this in a meeting that we had, too. We met in his office to discuss both the e-mail and the slides that I had sent him. Initially, I attempted to explain through my justification for fashioning the slides in the ways that I did, explaining the visual choices I had made and why I had organized the information in a particular way. At a moment of pause, my boss pointed his finger to his laptop and said:

“Look, with words, we’re always going to misinterpret each other. When I explain things to you, you probably won’t understand me and I won’t always understand you. So, just SHOW me what you have here.”

It was a striking statement. I don’t think he meant it in any aggressive way; he was just being honest. But I remember feeling vaguely hurt by the statement. DOES he always misunderstand me when I speak? I pride myself on clarity; I’d like to think that I am articulate. But perhaps I have too much pride in this respect for the PowerPoint certainly upstaged everything I said. Once he saw what I had in mind, he finally liked my idea enough to give me the feedback to continue to move forward with the project.

The thing is, I really did not enjoy mocking up those slides. It was a task with which I quickly grew impatient and distracted. Adjusting the heights of different boxes, determining what information went where on the page was a surprisingly taxing activity. But it was one that I had to do; I had to SHOW him what I had conceptualized and that required an awareness of spacing, formatting, and organization.

To be fair, I’ve never been particularly detail-oriented (case in point: when my sister and I used to cook together, I messily chopped the ingredients into pieces while she designed the beautiful platters. I was never trusted with design. I probably still shouldn’t be trusted with design). Even now, thinking about my goals for the summer and the forever-lingering goal to redesign this very page, I find myself hesitant to do the task; I simply don’t like the tedious work of figuring out the perfect colors for the appropriate boxes or the correct sizes and orientations of different objects on the page. It matters to me, but not so much that I am willing to invest my time in that way. I would rather read about design and think about the implications of design choices then to do the dirty work myself.

But you know what?

It is a good thing for me to feel uncomfortable. I have not felt this discomfited by my efforts in a long time. As I’ve mentioned in past entries, I’ve tended to pursue work at which I KNEW I would succeed (or at least I knew I would enjoy, which inevitably involved stories! Ideas! Words, mere words!). So, to see that a powerful industry like information technology makes decisions based primarily on graphics, tables, and icons is powerful; I see that I need to stretch my ways of thinking more, to be OK with feeling uncomfortable.

In the meantime, perhaps I should also forgive myself for the emoticon abuse. After all, if this is, indeed, a world invested in the logic of an image, maybe it’s OK that the simple warmth of a smiley face excuses my own inability to articulate what it is I want to express.

The Sound of Silence

My office is a very quiet place. But for the mechanical gushes of air conditioning that grace the office airwaves on the half hour (I look a lot like this most days), the only other sounds I hear are the click-clacking of keyboards, the gentle shuffle of someone off for a walk, and the occasional, “So, you want to send me that…?”

I am an introvert. I live alone. I’ve tended to pursue work that requires much solitary time and attention (see: reading, writing, reading about writing), but never has a space so quiet felt so alien to me.

The quiet makes sense, of course: this is a work space. We certainly do not need a myriad of distractions. And within this space, efficiency is valued above all else. After all, we’ve got a product to make here, people! This is serious business!

But the work environments I’ve loved most are those that alternate between this essential solitary space and a vibrant, collaborative dialogue. Working alone, there is only so much I can accomplish. I don’t pretend to think that my Romantic, individual genius will carry me through tasks; if there is anything I learned in both college and graduate school, it is that I produce my best work when I have worked closely with others on formulating and thinking through ideas. I miss that dialogue and wonder whether this solitary space is something endemic to a business environment. Have I just been living in that “academic bubble” where ideas are exchanged freely and without suspicion? Does this… not happen in other places? I mean, are we only supposed to think like:

Or is this kind of solitary energy I’m experiencing something unique to this company?

I’ll admit that I am hesitant to start dialogues. I suppose I could. That’s one solution. But I started out asking a lot of questions. However, one can only see so many beleaguered and/or bewildered expressions on their supervisors’ faces before deciding to figure things out for one’s self. This could have to do with the fact that I am temporary help; there’s very little need to invest in my full understanding or contribution. I’m sure this primarily has to do with the fact that my supervisors are very busy ladies. Granted, I’ll admit that I don’t really know what exactly they do and, when I’ve asked, I’ve received answers I am not sure I understand, interspersed with a lot of rhetoric from a discourse community of which I am clearly not a part. Perhaps this is how others feel when I retreat into that comfortable literary theory space and try to describe my own projects?

If so: yikes. Please let me do a better job of keeping my own work grounded. Will you (whoever you are reading this because you’re most likely someone who knows me in real life) feel free to tell me if/when I say things that are incredibly confusing?

So, I suppose that this is a long way of saying that I’ve been given a lot of time to fend for myself, which inevitably leads me to draw ever inward, and even more inevitably, perhaps gives me just a wee too much time to reflect upon why I am there in the first place and how this compares to my academic experiences.

Oh, and if you’ve made it here, you’ve definitely earned this (because come on, INEVITABLE):

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

Fear and Self-Loathing in the Humanities

Greetings!

It’s good to see you. Take a seat. Oh, you’re already seated? Well, grab yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable.

Ever since DML, this blog has been sadly neglected. This was not for lack of things to write about. In fact, I have a folder of bookmarks full of exciting links I gathered over the past few weeks from SXSW Interactive, a new (and very fascinating) advertisement from the Guardian, and the buzz over Curator’s Code. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the chitter chatter circulating re: Mike Daisey’s falsified Foxconn tour. For those of you who haven’t listened to it already, it is absolutely worth your hour to check out the “Retracted” episode from This American Life all about the fact-checking process on Mr. Daisey’s story and, of course the “defense” from Daisey himself. This goes not only for those interested in technology, but anyone interested in issues of journalistic ethics and – well – what it means to capture an experience “truthfully.”

The great thing about writing about technology is it seems that there’s no lack of things to talk about. New stories arise every day. Gadgets are exciting! The development of new technologies (typically) means the cultivation of new ideas or at least the streamlining of old ones.

But I don’t think I’m going to talk about those things today. Those things will (likely) emerge in upcoming posts, ones that will appear shortly after this one, not after a long hiatus. After all, what good is reporting on news that ever-so-quickly becomes old news?

I think this post will end up being more reflective because I’ve hit the end of (yet another) quarter. Two quarters down and one to go for completing my first year in a PhD program. It’s surreal. I’m sure this will feel all the more surreal once I’ve actually completed this first year. By then, I have even more right to say, “Well, NOW I’m 1/5 of the way through this whole graduate school experience.”

But at 2/3 of the way through this first year, I’ve surprised myself with the number of apologies I’ve been compelled to make about my career choice. Why am I pursuing a PhD in English? I end up falling back on hackneyed lines:

I love to read! I love to write! I love to teach!

Heck, this is a great way to spend five years! The economy sucks right now, so why not go back to school?

Yet all of these reasons somehow sound like lies to me. They’re not. They’re abbreviations of the truth. Yet they’re stale and they somehow feel ridiculous to say aloud. Sometimes, I feel like telling people I’m pursuing a PhD in English is as remarkably dumb as telling people I’ll be an elephant trainer in the circus. And if I told people that, I’d probably get more positive response than a tight-lipped smile, raised eyebrows, and an “Oh, so what do you plan to do with THAT?” at the end.

Let me explain: I was at a family event this past weekend and it became starkly clear to me that no one knows understands how I spend my time and make a living. I was introduced to friends of family as a “teacher” or simply as a “writer,” but never as a student of English. Questions that followed included:

“So, do you like working with kids?”

“So, have you read any good books lately?”

I didn’t know how to answer these questions. Kids? Well, are college students “kids?” If so, aren’t I technically still a “kid,” only two years out of college? Am I simply a kid teaching kids?

And GOOD books? Well, I’ve read plenty of books. I read at least two books every week. Are they GOOD books? I don’t know; I thought about a lot of different things. Could I name you new favorite writers? Probably not. But, again, with the thinking. That’s how I spend most of my time. In my head. Thinking.

How do I explain the fact that I’ve chosen a career where my job is to think? I may have had final seminar papers to write (a primary reason why I haven’t written in here lately) but other than papers that one other person (my professor) will read, I’ve produced very little. Nothing, in fact. The other favorite question asked this weekend:

“So, when are you going to write a novel?”

I’m not producing a novel any time soon. This isn’t my job. But again, when one’s job is relegated to reading stuff, saying some smart things in a room with ten other people, grading undergraduate essays, and writing a little bit here and there, what does that mean precisely?

Well, here’s the short answer: I see this time as an investment. One way or the other, I’m investing in a future. Will that be a future in academia? Possibly. It doesn’t have to be. And I think that’s OK. I’d like to think I’m receiving some valuable training on how to be an organized thinker, how to communicate with others. These are likely skills I’d gain doing a lot of different kinds of things; I just so happen to be receiving this training while talking about things like literature and literacy.

Given this perspective, I still struggle with my compulsion to laugh nervously when someone asks me what I want to do with my future. I don’t like that I feel the need to backpedal and apologize for choices that I’ve (mindfully) made. This would not be an issue if I was a law school student or a medical school student. Without having to say a word, my accomplishments would be deemed impressive. But since I’m pursuing a higher degree in the humanities, I’m met with skepticism. This whips my ego into a tailspin; the inner former Honors student emerges indignant: “I’m making a GOOD choice that YOU simply don’t understand!”

Of course, it’s a good thing I don’t allow that inner former Honors student to emerge like the Ghost of Christmas Past too often because she says some awfully silly, immature things. However, whether I like it or not, she is still very much a part of me and very much a part that leads me to wonder, “Why do I pursue work that so few people understand?” If I care so much about communication, about clarity in prose and clarity in thought, why am I in a field that takes me a good five minutes to justify?

This does not mean that I regret my choice to attend graduate school by any means. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to work with bright, forward-thinking individuals in a major, public institution. My college experiences all indicated to me that the kind of work I’d do in academia would be work that would fulfill me, enrich me, and make me feel like I am contributing to something larger than myself.

Unfortunately, I often feel mired in recursive self-loathing/self-indulgent thinking. I want to remain open to questioning, open to seeing the bad for the bad and the good for the good in the field that I’m in. But I think that I also need to make sure that the bad I see in the work that I do is not influenced by  my fear of uncertainty or my fear of criticism.

Next quarter will be a time to remain open-minded, to pursue the work I love, and to be mindful of the fact that training (AKA graduate school) exists for a reason: to give me the space to ensure that I continue to make choices that will ultimately benefit both myself and others.

A Humbling Weekend

Most digital natives have likely had an experience like I had this weekend: helping mom with the computer.

I’m not sure why she entrusts me with this task. I probably don’t know that much more than she does (though, of course, I have to adopt the bravado to act like I do). But our big task was to determine why her desktop computer was not recognizing a thumb drive.

My solutions to these sorts of problems tend to follow a simple, sequential sequence:

1. Mash the thumb drive into the USB port repeatedly until something new happens.

2. Try to run the E:/ as many times as possible and see if anything shows up.

3. Google the problem and see if someone smarter than me has a solution.

Alas, none of my typical problem-solving techniques proved successful. Eventually, we realized the ever-simple solution: turn off the computer, turn it back on again. Facepalm.

In any case, I suppose this rather minor technological gaff proved to me one thing: keep it simple and always have a back-up option.

I wish I had followed my own advice as I conducted interviews for my final project this weekend. I had some fantastic conversations with Eric and Brian this weekend (I learned some incredibly useful things about both of their writing/blogging processes), but all of my recording technology failed me. All. Of. It.

I spoke to both Eric and Brian over Skype and used CamStudio to record our conversations. Alas, during my conversation with Eric, my screen started flashing in all sorts of bright, photosensitive epilepsy-inducing colors. In a panic, I told Eric that I had to shut down my computer and we ended up resuming our conversation over the phone. Fortunately, with a computer reboot, my precious laptop was well and good, but I was far too terrified to reboot CamStudio again. I tried screencasting parts of our conversation (as Eric was generous enough to share his desktop screen with me and walk me through his design/marketing processes on his blog). Still no luck.

After I got off the phone with Eric, I felt utterly defeated and incompetent. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy to do? Wasn’t I supposed to have easy solutions to troubleshooting problems like this?

Before I spoke with Brian, I did a few test runs of CamStudio and saw what I had been doing wrong with Eric (I had not adjusted the settings appropriately; go figure). So, Brian and I had a nice, hour-long conversation, CamStudio chugging away in the background recording.

Hooray! This is working! I’ll have all of this fantastic data! 

So, my enormous video file with Brian saved successfully, but now? I can’t seem to open it any of my media players. I keep getting error messages with every media player I attempt to use. I even attempted to open the file in a web browser. No dice.

In short: I’m frustrated. It’s even a little ironic perhaps that I’m writing a project on the relationship between functional and rhetorical literacy and I can’t even master functional literacy for myself!

I briefly whined about this to Mary and Aaron and they both encouragingly suggested that my struggles could, in fact, enhance my project. To share that I was learning as I’ve been going along is  a helpful admission of my own process in developing greater technological literacy. So, I’m grateful for those reflections from them and I’m not willing to entirely give up hope on Skype recording software. I have one interview left to go and I don’t think I’m really willing to risk losing more footage via CamStudio. Research time!