Tag Archives: Advice

Why English and Rhet/Comp Graduate Students Should Consider Career Choices Abroad

If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be able to walk here from my apartment, I’d have…done…something.

November starts tomorrow, which means that job hunting season for new and expectant PhDs is about to really get going, and I am having bad acid flashbacks of weekends spend queuing up Interfolio dossiers and hoping I remembered to change the receiver’s address on each cover letter. I am hoping to stay put in my current job for a good while, and not only because I’m hoping to avoid crying in restaurants for a few years, but because I can honestly say that I am enjoying my job. Really, really enjoying it. And even though it wasn’t Plan A and even though I wound up here through a bizarre series of coincidences and chance encounters, I couldn’t be more grateful that I ended up here rather than at one of the other places that offered me interviews (but didn’t offer me jobs). Now, I certainly can’t say that my experience is typical, but it’s enough for me to recommend that English and Rhet/Comp students (and all fields, really)–facing increasingly dire prospects on the US market–look at an international career as a viable option. Some reasons:

Travel, duh.

Some of my current satisfaction has to do with location and the thrill of travel. I made a pact with my spouse when I began my job search that–and this is the exact wording–we would not die in Waco. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why, but you can guess some of them. Cut to three years later, and I am at interviewing for a position for a university in Waco. And I interviewed for two more jobs that were in places very much like Waco but with different weather. For many, no doubt, Waco is a brighter prospect than Moscow, where the sun currently comes up around 8:45 am, but a couple of weeks ago, we walked from our 600 square foot apartment to Red Square on a chilly day in the rain, and I was overwhelmed with disbelief that this is my actual life. Different isn’t always better, but when you’ve felt yourself grow stale in a place, going somewhere completely different feels like a rebirth. You aren’t better, but just by virtue of changing your life so radically, you lose a lot of bad habits and pick up a few new ones. You find yourself challenged and engaged in ways that are completely unexpected. And you learn a little bit about surrender.

Working Conditions

Speaking in more practical terms, the set of conditions under which I’m working are quite a bit better than what I could have expected in the US. Though this isn’t a tenure track position, it’s a renewable contract with an institution that was willing to make a pretty considerable investment in getting me over here. I am getting paid at near the top end of what Assistant Profs make in my field in the US. I have a research budget. I got to design and teach my own literature elective my first semester here. I teach a 1/1 load alongside my Writing Center admin responsibilities. My students are Ivy-League caliber and turn their assignments in on time and have forever ruined me for teaching in the US. I have health insurance. I could go on.

Building Something New

I teach at an institution that is only two decades old in an English department that is only a few years old. For some, I think this would in and of itself be anxiety producing. And there are drawbacks. The building I work in is decrepit, though that’s largely because the school invested in world-class faculty on the front end rather than facilities. The former Rector had to, you know, flee the country under the threat of political persecution, but we have a new Rector who seems extremely qualified and energized about where the institution will go next. In short, the people who work here seem to think that they are involved in doing something extremely important and urgent for their students, their research field, and their country, and despite the specialization of the school, the English department is part of that. And that, to me at least, is so much more exciting than slotting into a long-established literature or writing program at a centuries-old universities where the possibility of making a genuine difference means working against entrenched interests and traditions.

This Writing Center is only two years old and is the first of its kind in Russia. The US model Writing Center is rapidly becoming a very attractive import for many European, Asian, and Middle Eastern universities. Not only does this mean that there are jobs out there but that international, multi-lingual writing centers and writing programs are becoming a new frontier for research.

International Colleagues

Which brings me, of course, to the fact that the American academic universe is pretty much hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And particularly in the areas of rhetoric and composition studies, there is a LOT of interesting work that could be done if there were more exchange of ideas internationally. There’s always some noise about the need to do so, but very little of it actually happens in practice.

And then, of course, there is just the stimulation of having colleagues from all over the world just down the hall. I work with people from Belarus, Palestine, Turkey, and Italy as well as Americans who have made their entire careers abroad. And I’m interacting with these people in a place where “Americanness” isn’t neither the default nor the goal, where we are all foreigners.


For the reasons discussed earlier, Americans with English and Rhet/Comp degrees are extremely marketable on the international market, especially if they can bring some ESL/EFL experience together with expertise in a content field. the TESOL jobs site and the International Writing Centers Association website are good places to look for openings. Be aware, however, that in addition to talking about your research and teaching, you will need to be able to articulate–both in your cover letter and in your interview–why you want to work abroad and why you want to work in that country specifically. The turnover rate among expat employees is high because people get homesick or have a change in family circumstances or whatever, and schools who pay for moving costs invest a considerable amount in their faculty up front. So you need to be able to argue for why you are a good investment.

I was warned before taking this job that working abroad could hurt my marketability if I want to return to the US. I have heard anecdotal reports that this is true, but the person I replaced had two job offers in the US, so take that for what it’s worth.


Working abroad is not for you if:

  • You are seeking the traditional middle-class American experience with children, extended family in easy reach, and steady, reliable employment. Granted, for many of us, this simply isn’t an option we can count on. But the truth is that going abroad means being uprooted, many times, potentially. And it means going long periods without seeing your parents or siblings or old friends. If you go abroad, you need to wrap your head around the fact that this isn’t study abroad. This is going to be your life, and if you have doubts, it’s best to grapple with them early on.
  • You shun hassles. I mean, I don’t know anyone who likes being inconvenienced, but moving internationally is a giant effing hassle in every possible way. I have had to deal with more paperwork than it took to sell our house (and most of it in a language I don’t read well). Shipping a few boxes of personal items and research materials has been an undertaking so grueling and expensive that I question whether it was worth it (probably not). And airports, man. Airports.

The takeaway here is that it’s not going to be a glorious experience for everyone or 100% of the time, but it’s a career path that is very seriously worth considering as an alternative to stringing together adjunct work, taking a 9-5 office job, teaching a 4/4 lectureship with no opportunities for research or career advancement, or even *gasp* a tenure track job in quite a few cases.

Don’t Forget Your Towel: A Guide to Surviving the Job Search with Your Ego Mostly Intact

job_interviewNearly two years ago (ok, three, actually, but I don’t really count the first one), I started my search for full-time academic employment, and I am here to tell you that much of the hand-wringing warranted. It’s kind of a bloodbath, to be honest, and there’s no real way around that. I have, by my estimation, a healthy number of publications and a standout teaching record, and in two years, I interviewed for seven positions and received one offer. When you consider that almost all of those positions received upwards of 400 applications, that’s actually a pretty outstanding performance. Even though I’m not heading into a tenure track job (and I’m fine with that), the fact that I am now employed full-time and without a hard-and-fast termination date (my three year contract is renewable) means that this was a successful job search. If you did better than me, you’re a freaking star. And I say that as someone with a pathological case of self-doubt. But despite the good outcome, this was without question the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The odds are decent that I would have survived it without Lexapro, but let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t have to take that bet.

So yes, it’s as bad as you’ve heard. But the truth of the matter is that while MLA statistics and the sage council of placement committees can offer guidance, no one can tell you what your individual job search experience will be like or what things will matter most for your success. For me, having the degree in hand made a huge difference, but I know ABDs who got tenure track jobs their first time out. Publications do matter, but people without them do get hired. Teaching experience matters a lot, but some schools don’t necessarily care that you haven’t taught such-and-such course to first years. Some people seem to have gotten through their job search experience fairly smoothly (though maybe they’re lying), and for others (myself included) it has been a pitched battle with panic and self-loathing.

There is plenty of job search advice out there on the more practical aspects of entering the market: writing your cover letters, preparing your dossier, practicing for interviews, etc. And it’s possible that I’ll get into that in a future search. But surviving the job search emotionally is, while much more dependent on the strength of your self-image and your resilience under stress, also something I think you can prepare for. And mostly by telling you what I did that you probably should not do, I will try to provide a few pointers here based on my own experience.

1. It’s not you

Assuming you have done what you were supposed to do–taught your classes well, at least attempted to publish, made reasonable progress or (better) finished your dissertation, avoided vomiting on a search committee member during an interview–the subtle calculus of who gets hired over who doesn’t usually comes down to things you can’t necessarily control, and the sooner you realize that and embrace it, the easier this whole insane process is going to go for you. Very often, hiring decisions come down to that indefinable something called “fit,” and while there are things you can do to argue for why you are, in fact, a fit for this school, in many cases you simply are not or someone simply fits better. It’s not that you suck. It’s just that, like most relationships, this one just was never going to work out, and it likely has almost nothing to do with how awesome you are.

What this means is that while you should do what you can to put together the best job package possible, you can stop obsessing over whether or not to staple your cv or worrying about whether your ambitious research program is going to intimidate an older faculty member (you don’t want to work with him anyway). Focus on what you can control and let go of what you can’t. Seek pharmaceutical relief if you need to.

2. People in your life are not going to get it

Everyone understands that job searching sucks, but few people outside of academia–and a lot within (senior faculty are mostly useless in this regard)–get how ridiculous a process this is, especially now. They will not understand that you are interviewing for jobs in January that do not start until September. They will not understand that certain fields see 600-700 applications per job. If they are your grandparents, they will not understand that there are at least that many newly minted PhDs who are at least as qualified as you are. And they will not understand the panic you feel as MLA gets ever closer and you are trying to resist refreshing the wiki one more time. (Protip: five of the seven schools I interviewed with did their interviewing outside of MLA, so it’s not over for you if you don’t have tons of invitations in December).

For that reason, I made the decision this year that I would not answer questions from family or friends until I had an interview. I forbade my relatives to ask me about it at holiday gatherings, an injunction they pretty much accepted. At some point in January, I decided I wouldn’t talk about it until I had a campus visit lined up or until I had already been rejected. It was just too hard to come back and tell them it didn’t work out. I am thankful that I was too lazy to take The Chronicle of Higher Education up on their offer to blog about my job search. I do have a masochistic streak, but blogging about my failures in real time–even under a pseudonym–would have been a bit much. (Plus, commenters at the Chronicle can be vicious.)

In other words, you need to establish limits with the people in your life about when and under what circumstances you want to talk about your job search. Or you can say, “Nothing to report,” when they ask and then change the subject. Avoid, if possible, the impulse to take care of everyone else’s feelings about your job search.

3. Figure out who does get it

This is not your fellow graduate students who are so mired in toxic shame and panic that you walk away from job market check-ins reeling from the ambient stress in the room. It isn’t your advisor. This is also not your partner or some other person who has a personal or financial stake in whether or not you are employed next year. This is the person who understands what you are going through but doesn’t give a shit about whether or not you get some particular job. In my case, this person was my therapist. The point is that you do need someone to talk to, and that person’s emotional investment in the job search (yours or their own) needs to be minimal. You may have to pay them. But trust me, it’s worth it.

4. Be ready to bail on this whole academic career thing and decide what will trigger you to do it

I decided last summer that while full-time non-TT work was fine with me (and does actually present some freedoms not available on the tenure track), I would rather jump off the academic career path than do long-term work as an adjunct. There are many reasons why universities have become so reliant on extremely low-paid contingent labor. And while the corporatization of higher education and apathy of senior faculty and weakness of unions are certainly part of the problem, one other important reason is that there are desperate aspiring academics out there who are willing to take these jobs (and I know a few who are quite happy to do so because it suits their life circumstances, but they appear to be a minority). You don’t have to. You really don’t. If your threshold for indignity will allow you to do this for a couple of years, that is fine. Mine wouldn’t. I had non-academic career plans B, C, and D more or less figured out if some version of Plan A didn’t present itself this year. A lot of academics pay lip service to this, but you really do have to be willing to pull the trigger and recognize that leaving academia isn’t failure. In most cases, it’s an indicator of self-respect.

You do not need a tenure track job or even to stay in academia in order to have a good life, and despite what you may have heard, graduate school does not make you fundamentally unfit for any other type of employment. Not only can having an escape hatch give you peace of mind, it can give you the confidence that makes you an inherently sexier candidate.

5. Remember that it isn’t hopeless

This is definitely in the “do as I say, not as I do” category. There certainly aren’t enough tenure-track jobs out there, but there are jobs. We all know people who get them. And provided you’ve made the most of graduate school and provided you are able to support yourself in some way or another, it’s worth spending a couple of years on the market to see what opportunities emerge. Those opportunities might not be what you expect, and the best ones may involve stepping off the prescribed path laid out for you by your field, your department, or your advisor. But rather than seeing it as an exercise in desperate self-promotion, consider this a time in which you are shopping for potential lives. You are considering an array of possibilities, academic and non. You have choices. You have agency. You can say no. But you can also say yes.

The Story Only You Can Tell

I was a little bit surprised that my last post on what I affectionately and long-windedly call the “How a PWD made me count my blessings by being like the very incarnation of Baby Jesus” genre of admissions essays turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog.  I was immensely gratified by the thoughtful and honest comments, where we semi-debated the risks vs. benefits of writing about various topics.  My hypothesis there was that this particular type of essay is ubiquitous because high school students and those who advise them, writing about that one week where you volunteered to work with children with disabilities or built an orphanage in Mexico and had a totally transformative experience seems like a good way to pander to the bleeding hearts who tend to read admissions essays.  They stress the more impressive parts of the student’s record and come instantly packed with a certain kind of drama.

This prompted a comment from Anna about her doubts that she as a person from a non-privileged group would be able to successfully write about her experiences without also taking on the stigma of belonging to that non-privileged group. At the time, I agreed with her, but now I sort of want to back off from that.  For one thing, over the course of the intervening month, in which I read over 200 admissions essays, I became more aware of my gut responses to particular types of essays.  Let me just say here that my gut response isn’t the sole factor determining how I score an essay.  As I stated in the previous post, I do not come to these applications looking to have my political convictions reflected back to me.  The score is a measure of the quality of both the writing and the thought behind it.  I recently gave a very high score, for example, to an applicant who wrote about the experience of belonging to a political family, the political family in question being one that I pretty much despise.

That said, essays that adopt cliche approaches tend to receive middling scores because they lack individuality and depth, while essays that talk about intense personal experiences in an emotionally honest and nuanced way tend to be better simply because they reveal more about the student as a person and, because they are intense experiences, feature a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.  In the past few weeks, I have seen excellent essays about dealing with the aftermath of parental abuse or abandonment, identifying as queer in a conservative community, coping with a chronic illness, and assimilating to U.S. culture as an immigrant.  All of these could have invited a certain type of stigma, but I responded to these students well both as writers and as people, and I do not think that this is because I am simply an exceptionally sensitive, social justice-oriented person.  I actually think that most admissions readers would respond well to these essays.

The fact of the matter is that in admissions training both at my own institution and on a national scale, readers are taught to look for evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity in addition to more traditional markers of achievement.  Because of the backlash against affirmative actions, these injunctions are a way of taking all parts of a student’s background into account without resorting to identity politics.  And while it’s probably true that most admissions readers–who tend to be ensconced within the Ivory Tower–are bleeding heart liberals, evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity appeals to bootstrapping conservatives just as much.  When asked to score applications for a pre-med scholarship program, my Reaganite father admitted that he tended to be more sympathetic with kids from less privileged backgrounds at least in part because they reminded them of himself (not that applications should be scored on the basis of personal identification either.)

The essential point I’m trying to make here is that anyone who drives a student away from talking about the more harrowing parts of their background is probably doing that student a disservice.  No one should be pressured into leveraging their trauma in such mercenary ways, but if a student feels moved to write honestly about an experience, I think that student should just go right ahead. Furthermore, no student should feel pressured to embellish their narrative in order to make their personal history more melodramatic than it is.  I have also awarded high scores to students who wrote about the ups and downs of their entirely healthy relationship with their parents or their first experience in a debate competition in original and nuanced ways.  Just because an experience seems mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be the source of an inspired piece of writing.  It just means that the story you tell should be a story that only you can tell in that particular way, because writing from a place of true honesty and sincerity is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience.

Many people commented with their stories about why they chose the essay topics they did and what role they think that played in the fact that they did not get into their first choice institution.  I have one of those stories too.  It goes like this:

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, attending a private evangelical high school in a very affluent area.  That said, I did struggle with depression for most of my teenage (and subsequently adult) years.  One of the sources of that depression was a slow-burning crisis of faith.  Quite devout as a child, my skepticism about Christianity–particularly the conservative version of it that permeated my community–intensified throughout high school.  Though that crisis hardly made me an extra special snowflake, it was the most vivid part of my personal experience at the time, and I had an essay about it written before I threw it away at the last minute.  See, the problem with writing about that experience is that I didn’t feel I could show it to anyone as to do so would be to disclose the very thing that made me feel so alienated from everyone around me and that I feared would invite ostracism.  When I did venture to describe the essay to someone, I was discouraged from sending it in by someone who thought it sounded “whiny.”  So I wrote a generic essay about how I love books instead.

I can say with conviction that this was terrible advice, but I cannot say that sending the first essay would have guaranteed me admission to my first choice, where I was ultimately wait-listed.  The truth is that top programs and top schools turn down amazing people all the time, and usually there is no “one thing” that you can point to that makes one individual just a little bit less amazing than a person who was admitted.  So, basing one’s admissions advice on one’s personal rejection experiences is a bad idea.  As someone who has read thousands of apps and attended numerous admissions seminars, however, I am saying is that college admissions, for all its problems, probably is one of the few places where a student should take a few risks and be honest about who they are.    I know I would rather read an essay that chances a bit of exposure than yet another essay about how some person with vaguely defined characteristics inspired the student with generic positive feelings.

On Writing Anxiety

cover art for Anne Lamott's Bird by BirdCommenters Notemily and Mightydougla both brought up the issue of writing anxiety and difficulty starting/completing writing projects.  I can sympathize, as being compelled to take something of a left turn in my current dissertation chapter has led to a rather nagging bout of writers block.  I know (basically) what I need to write, but I’m not yet sure how I want to structure this next section and recent attempts to just plow ahead have produced little more than meandering dreck and pages and pages of disorganized notes.

So yeah, it happens to the best of us, though that knowledge isn’t really all that helpful.  I am not, however, convinced that making the usual pronouncements about just sitting down and starting the damn project are all that helpful either.  As a rule, I tend to avoid the writing advice columns on the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed like the plague.  They tend to compound my anxiety by confirming what I already suspect:  I’m not productive enough, I’m not disciplined enough, my writing process is pathological.  I know that the schedules, journaling strategies, etc. probably work for some people, but they fill me with shame and make me feel like there are all these other things I’m supposed to be doing before I can even write.

This is why I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, because with incomparable grace and humor, she dispenses the most fundamental and essential wisdoms about writing–break the large project into smaller tasks, don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts that no one is ever going to see, combat your inner critic, and just sit down and make yourself start somewhere already–while acknowledging that writing is a psychologically fraught activity.  We meet our best and worst selves in the midst of writing.  The chapter on the process that took one of Lamott’s novel’s from first draft to print is also a narrative about depression and a self destructive bender in New York City.  You don’t have to have perfect mental health in order to be a decent writer, but I do think that good writing requires a degree of self understanding as well as the willingness to look at oneself with compassion and a sense of humor.

If there is one overarching theme to that book, it is that believing we must be brilliant every time we sit down to begin a writing project is self-defeating.  It stops us before we even start.  Honestly, the best piece of advice I have ever heard about writing a dissertation is the following:  give yourself permission to write the trashiest dissertation ever floated under the nose of an unsuspecting committee.  Or, as one of my own committee members recently said, “a dissertation is a piece of paper with five signatures on it.”  In other words, the point is to finish, to produce something passable, not to write the next Of Grammatology.  If you’re faced with a class project, the point is to turn something in.  C’s are better than zeroes, after all.

And once you actually have something on paper, then you can use any extra time you have to make it good.  That’s why, when students come to me to talk about the early stages of a project, I usually insist that they bring something, anything in–an introductory paragraph, a page of notes, an outline, whatever.  You are always much better off if you have a document–even a really execrable one–to work with.  And within reason, I encourage students to bring me those execrable documents so that we can begin rehabilitating them (usually they aren’t as bad as the writers think).  If I don’t have time, I send them to the writing center.

So yeah, that’s my first big piece of advice:  lower your standards.  Lower them so that you can begin raising them again.  My second is:  know thyself.  Usually what we’re waiting for in the process of brainstorming, outlining, researching, and writing execrable drafts is the moment of inspiration, the epiphany that unlocks the whole project or even just a little piece of it.  Notorious Ph.D, in a wonderful blog post, recently called it the moment of Grace:

These moments are rare, and you can’t make them happen. That moment of inspiration is out of your hands. My job is simply to be there, doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, so it knows where to find me when it arrives.

Part of becoming a productive writer is knowing what makes those moments happen and trying to create the conditions for it, or, at the very least, ensuring that you’re ready when it happens.  If it usually strikes once the deadline is upon you, make sure you have material to build around it.  If you require particular atmospheric conditions–music or silence, long uninterrupted periods of time–try to give that to yourself.  I have noticed recently that moments of inspiration often come when I give into instinct and let myself read that book that isn’t quite but sort of is tangentially related to this writing project but that sometimes sheds a whole new light on the problem or provides a bit of context that had previously been hidden from me or illuminated a way to bring conversations in two different fields together.

But do remember that creating these conditions takes some time, discipline, and planning.  At some point in college, I realized that I needed about a month of short daily sessions to produce decent final papers.  By short daily sessions, I mean that on writing days, I would focus on completing a single paragraph and not really worry about its quality or whether it would even be staying in the final draft.  I don’t always write final copy on the days I do dissertation work.  Sometimes, my little assignment is to read and take notes on 100 pages from a book and transcribe potential quotes (transcribing those quotes is really satisfying, because you can think of them as actually contributing to the final bulk of the chapter).  The whole point is just to end the day with something, anything on paper, and I can rest in the assurance that no one even has to see it unless I want them to.

Your First Day of School

There is something perverse about the fact that public school teachers must undergo years of rigorous training, student teaching, and certification in order to take charge of their own classroom and individuals teaching at the college level for the first time are generally given a time, a room, and a roster and told to have at it.  If you are lucky, you will get a few days of orientation, an overview of university policy, and a round table discussion with experienced grad student instructors.  Hopefully, you’ll also get a faculty mentor, though I’ve heard of some faculty mentors (at other schools, of course) who say ridiculous crap like, “Pedagogy is for high school teachers.  I’ll teach you content.  You can figure out pedagogy for yourself.”  Uh huh.

I actually got pretty fantastic training, not only the summer before my first TA and solo teaching assignments but throughout the semester.  That said, I recall that the first couple of days of the August orientation week, in keeping with academic aversion to pragmatism, consisted mostly of high-minded discussions about the value of rhetoric and the philosophy of our writing program.  I remember sitting there feeling like I had swallowed a piece of granite thinking, “Fine, fine, fine, but what am I supposed to do NEXT WEDNESDAY?!?(The fall term starts on a Wednesday here.)  The fear of showing up on your first day with nothing to do or say can be overwhelming.  I remember how long 50 minutes used to feel, how I used to agonize about how I was going to fill them three times a week.  Now, I usually run out of time, so rest assured that that feeling eventually goes away, not that that knowledge really helps you right now.

So, what do you do that first day?  The good news is that no one really expects you to do much.  Remember the first day of class when you were in college?  You went around the table and said your name and major and your favorite food or some nonsense.  Basically you’re going to learn names, explain your course policies and reading schedule, demo your class website (if you have one), and just take care of business in general.  You are not required to give an inspiring speech unless you really feel moved to.  In fact, it’s advisable not to cover any real content on the first day.  The composition of your class is inevitably going to change over the next week, and you’ll save some time and trouble catching the new people up if you wait a day.

PRO TIP:  Mapping out a course schedule is very difficult until you get a feel how how a semester flows and how much time a class period really is.  You don’t necessarily have to pass out a complete schedule on the first day.  My first semester teaching on my own, I planned the amount of time we would spend on each unit and scheduled the due dates for major essays, but I handed out the detailed reading schedule and discussion topics at the beginning of each unit.  This gave me some flexibility without having too many schedule revisions out there confusing the class.

The first day of class is really about setting a tone, about letting your students know what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.  Go over your course policy statement in detail, and give your students a practical sense of how you will enforce them.  While this doesn’t have to be a “weed out” exercise, I recommend appearing stricter than you intend to be.  That way in you show grace later in the term, you appear benevolent and merciful.  If you appear easy to manipulate at the outset, your students will run all over you and resent you when you start enforcing.  By the same token, don’t assume that they will read the syllabus on their own.  I always give a pop quiz on the syllabus on Day 3 or 4.

You will naturally wind up doing most of the talking on this day, but if you expect to hold lively discussions in your class, it’s a good idea to get them talking too.  Do introductions but also consider bringing in some questions or ideas they can throw around.  For example, this past year I taught a class on Literature and Religion.  Knowing that religion is a sensitive topic, I had the class lay down some general guidelines for discussion on the first day.  It was both a tactic to get them talking to one another and prevent land mines from exploding in the class later in the term.

Alternatively, you could have students free-write on a topic for 10 minutes and then share their thoughts or bring in a very short reading (a poem or one page of prose) or image to discuss.  The idea is to give them what a typical day in your class might be like without necessarily delving into key material.

Finally, if you are going to assign homework for the second day, make it a handout or something that is accessible online.  Because students change their classes so much during the first couple of weeks (and various other reasons), some of them won’t have their textbooks at that point.  It will do you no good to get irritated about this fact (or the fact that they won’t read the syllabus on their own).  Just deal with it.

Oh, and let your class out on time, if not a few minutes early.  New students are trying to figure out where everything is, and giving them a little extra time is kind both to them and to the instructors who have them next.  One of my pet peeves is instructors who keep their kids over–making them late for my class–or continue to occupy the room right up until the start of my class (as if I don’t have anything to set up).  Get a watch and start making final announcements a good two minutes before the period is over.  Take long conversations with students outside or in your office.

Working and Playing Well With Others

We now resume our series on grad school survival by addressing Jadey’s question about how to get along and maybe even actually make friends with other graduate students.  This is one of those questions that’s actually refreshing to get, because I frequently feel like I am the only person on earth that has trouble establishing and keeping a more or less functional social life.  Like most nerds, I am frigging awkward around my peers, and tendency toward introversion usually means that I have no problem staying in on Friday nights watching The West Wing and talking to my guinea pigs (and possibly my spouse).  I often suspect that I am a rather odd duck indeed.  But graduate school seems to attract my kind, so you would think making friends among people who read Renaissance poetry for kicks wouldn’t be so hard.  But, in fact, it frequently is.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice:  stay in contact with or try to meet people who aren’t in graduate school. I haven’t been so good about this one, but my younger sister and her new husband recently moved into town, and I’ve been reminded how refreshing it is to get together for margaritas and a round of Settlers of Catan with people who aren’t boiling in the same fetid stew that is the Ph.D program.  It’s not that other graduate students aren’t wonderful, fun people to hang out with.  It’s just that you are all operating in an alternate reality, and it is extremely beneficial–mental health-wise–to get regular exposure to another perspective.

But when it comes to building friendships or good working relationships with other grad students, the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is this:  resist the urge to think of the other grads in your program as your competition. This is going to be especially hard for you if you are in one of those sadistic programs that ranks their grad students every year or admits more M.A. students than there are spots in the Ph.D program, turning your first two years of grad school into Survivor (except you took out loans and put your future on hold to be there). But even if you aren’t in that sort of situation, it can be tempting to ruminate on the idea that these people are going to be applying for YOUR JOB when you’re all on the market in a few years. This is irrational.  The grad students in your department are no more your competition than any other grad student in your field in the rest of the world.  They are no more your competition than the people who graduated from college with your major.  Yes, on some level you are sort of competing, and yes, the pool is smaller, but there are going to be thousands of people applying for the jobs you’re applying for, so the person in the cubicle across from you isn’t really your biggest problem, and neither is the person who beat you out for the “TA of the year” award.  The only difference between that person and the thousands of other grad students who won their department’s award is proximity. Direct your outrage about your job prospects toward the dysfunctional university system, or better yet, channel your energy toward writing a really good thesis, and quit obsessing about the so-called golden children in your program.  Though we all still like to pretend that academia is a meritocracy, no one really knows why any particular person gets a job.  In terms of their impact on your professional future, the golden children matter about as much in the long run as the person who beat you out for Class President matters to you now.

Instead, think of the person in the cubicle across from you as someone who may wind up blurbing your book or writing a recommendation to the tenure review committee.  Think of this person as someone you might go to for candid advice about an article you’re working on or to help organize a panel for a big upcoming conference.  In other words, think of them as your colleagues.

Collaborate when you can, whether that means co-authoring an article or putting together a dissertation writing group.  Some fields are more congenial to collaborative work than others, but taking advantage of opportunities to work with other grad students even in the most informal way can be an excellent way to learn from each other and develop a network of people that you can call on in the future.  For example, myself and two other grads formed a little peer mentorship group at one point, concurrent with our first solo teaching assignment in the English department.  We got together once a month to get feedback on our teaching methods and just vent in general when we needed to.

Don’t ask people how their dissertation/prospectus/M.A. thesis is going unless they bring it up. This is a sensitive subject.  You may think you’re saying it out of concern or interest, but you may also be saying, “I just want to check and see if I’m doing better than someone at the moment.”  No matter how you ask this question, it’s bound to provoke a slight sense of hostility.  Also, think about how you feel when your parents’ friends from church ask you this question and you have to stammer out something that a) makes it sound like you’re doing something with your life, and b) doesn’t sound like you are plotting the feminazi-queer-socio-fascist-kill-whitey-revolution.  That’s right, you hate that.

Do stuff outside the lab/library/writing center/TA office.  During my third and fourth year, I had a tendency to look at my writing center hours (especially when things were slow) as “social time,” since we would often just be sitting back in the break room complaining about working in the writing center.  That is a sad, sad fact about my life, so do as I say, not as I do.  Go out for pizza and beers.  Invite people over to watch So You Think You Can Dance or something where no one will be tempted to name-drop a French theorist.  Then resist the temptation to name drop a French theorist.

And finally, recognize that ultimately, not everyone in your program is going to be your bosom friend. As in every work setting, you will click with some people more than others.  Hopefully, you will find at least one person with whom you can discuss the multitude of personal and professional crises you are going to be facing, but also know that you won’t be able to trust a lot of people with that sort of thing.  Figure out who is a friend and who is a co-worker, a distinction that feels sort of odd since graduate school occupies that limbo space between college and the workplace, where peer relationships are dramatically different.  Also remember that both types of relationships are worth having.

Essential Grad School Reading

As promised, I’ve tried to narrow down two centuries of theory to a list of fourteen essentials in the fields of historical criticism, feminism, African-American and post-colonial studies.  These are the works you are most likely to encounter in graduate coursework in the humanities.  Some of them will probably be assigned at some point, but going ahead and reading at least parts (no one expects you to read the entire Marx-Engels reader in your first year, or ever really) of some of them in your fleeting moments of downtime really would be an excellent use of that time.  Other grads/profs can add their favorites in comments, but I didn’t intend this list to be encyclopedic.  It’s more of a survival guide than anything else.

Hegel–I would just go check out a Hegel reader of some sort and read a few excerpts.  If nothing else, you should be able to talk about the “Hegelian view of history,” which influenced guys like Marx and which guys like Nietzche and Foucault later revised.  In brief, the Hegelian view of history was proto-Darwinian, asserting that the trajectory of human history was toward greater and greater levels of improvement.

Marx–You will eventually want the Marx-Engels Reader for your personal library.  I guarantee you will see it assigned in multiple grad seminars. You should go ahead and read a little of it your first year, so that you can shut up The Theorist when it becomes clear that he actually doesn’t know what commodity fetishism is.

Nietzche–I think of Nietzche as semi-optional but certainly recommended reading for anyone who “does history” in some form.  Nietzche says absolutely batshit stuff at some points, but his answer to the Hegelian view of history is important for understanding more essential figures like Foucault.  If you see a Nietzche reader in a pile of free or cheap books, I’d pick it up.

Durkheim/Weber–Both are important figures in the field of sociology, though most folks in literature will get through grad school without having to read them.  Consider them essential reading if you are interested in the impact of economics on culture (Weber especially) or religion.  Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of my favorites.

Foucault–If there’s one theorist that you should start reading pretty much immediately, it’s Michel Foucault, because he turns up absolutely everywhere, and I think citing him in your term papers is mandatory (I kid, I kid).  You can start almost anywhere, but I wouldn’t jump head-first into The Birth of the Clinic or Archaeology of Knowledge without a bit of prep.  Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality,Vol. I are actually fairly accessible and are good introductions to his methodology.

Derrida–Derrida is definitely essential reading for revolutionizing the way we think about language, but don’t be ashamed if it takes you forever just to read a sentence.  I recommend small bites of Of Grammatology when you’re feeling particularly spry.  Eventually you’re going to cheat and just go read his wikipedia page for an overview, but you should give it the good old college try.

Freud–You are also going to want the Peter Gay edited Freud Reader for your personal library at some point.  It’s another one of those that will come up a lot. even though no one really cites him directly all that much anymore, he’s essential background reading if you want to understand Lacan or foundational feminist theory.  (I’m not putting Lacan in here, because just…ew.  But yeah, you’ll probably see him assigned as wella t some point).

Butler–Now we’re really getting to the good stuff!  Judith Butler is one of the founders of modern feminist theory, and you will want to pick up Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter once you’re tired of all the dead white guys I just listed.

hooks–bell hooks is essential for taking feminist theory beyond the study of white ladies.  She is also an essential voice in the field of feminist pedagogy.  Read everything eventually, but pick up Ain’t I a Woman:  Black Women and Feminism ASAP.

DuBois–I’m grouping these more thematically than chronologically, if you haven’t yet noticed.  DuBois is an essential voice in African American studies and in the study of race in general.  Along with William James, he was also central to pragmatist philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century.  And he’s refreshingly readable.  Get The Souls of Black Folk for your personal library.

Gates–Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s The Signifying Monkey is also a core text in African American studies and a really great read.  I would read DuBois and have a working knowledge of Derrida’s basic (hahahaHAHAHAHAHAHA…I crack myself up) ideas before reading it.

Said–The Palestinian theorist who described the Orientalist (a white Westerner who studies the Orient) gaze and more or less founded post-colonial theory.  Start with Orientalism and read Culture and Imperialism at some point.

Anderson–If you do anything in post-colonial/ethnic/area studies, you are going to hear Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities mis-quoted a whole lot by your fellow graduate students.  Go find out what it actually says.

Spivak–Gayatri Spivak may be the most erudite theorist alive right now.  She translated Derrida for sweet Baby Jesus’s sake.  A Critique of Post-colonial Reason is essential reading in the field of post-colonial and ethnic literatures, though it is indescribably dense.  You might check out her article “Can the Subaltern Speak” first, and my Amazon search tells me that she co-wrote a book with Judith Butler!  How cool is that!

The People You Meet in Graduate School

Tweed jacket with elbow patches
You're going to need one of these.

We had the welcome luncheon for new graduate students yesterday.  Given that I probably did everything in my power to scare people about the experience last week, I thought this would be a good time to dispense some practical and hopefully light-hearted wisdom about how to navigate the first year or so of grad school in the humanities.  I welcome questions, suggestions, and pitches for guest posts.  Email sfdrafts@gmail.com!

On my very first day, our grad advisor told us that grad school was about learning to participate in a scholarly conversation rather than merely jumping through academic hoops like you did in college.  In some ways, the very skills and strategies that made you successful as an undergrad (and therefore got you to grad school in the first place) are skills and strategies that may have to be set aside.  After the first semester, you will quickly discover that no one gets a B in a class unless they really screw up.  There really aren’t any tests (unless you’re doing something statistically based or taking a language or linguistics class) to study for.  There’s just A LOT of reading to do and a batch of term papers to write at the end of each term.

(PRO TIP:  When registering for classes, look through each course description carefully and note the final project.  Do not sign up for more than two classes with an article-length (20+ page) paper due at the end of term.  I quickly discovered that two is the maximum number of long papers a brain can reasonably be expected to produce within a month’s time.  Even if you only wind up with two, you’ll want to start one kind of early.)

Participating in a conversation means learning to deal with people in entirely new ways.  Success in graduate school does depend on making contact with the professors who do what you want to do and convincing them to supervise your M.A. thesis, prospectus, or dissertation down the road.  Most people begin making contact by taking classes with these people whenever possible, and seminars can turn into a sort of obnoxious cocktail party, with everyone vying to make the cleverest comment.  If the professor is attuned to that sort of bullshit, he or she will usually try to diffuse the tension.  It doesn’t always work, but you have to love them for trying.

It is virtually guaranteed, however, that in every seminar there will be  at least one ringer, one fourth or fifth (or tenth or twelfth) year asshole who has read every book in the entire world and seems to go out of his way to terrify everyone else into silence.  This person takes a variety of forms:

The Prof’s Advisee: She has been working with the professor for the better part of a decade and has read all of her books.  They seem to always enter the room together and complete each other’s sentences.  The student knows or is able to anticipate her reading of every text on the syllabus and her view on every political question and can parrot those views back while still managing to avoid sounding like the sycophant that she is.  They may affectionately disagree on one or two things, but you can be certain that the student’s dissertation is basically the sequel to the prof’s book.

The Medievalist: He is taking Nineteenth Century American Novels because he needs to show range and this sounds like an easy class.  He thinks your field is scholarship-lite because you don’t have to know Latin or Anglo-Saxon or whatever.  He has almost nothing to say about any given text but oozes disdain from every pore.  The prof in this seminar hates this student’s living guts but doesn’t say anything because his advisor is a known tyrant and probably in charge of tenure review.  This student’s advisor, by the way, was on my Qualifying Exam panel, and he pretended to fall fell asleep whenever we finished with his stuff and moved on to nineteenth century slave literature.

The Theorist: He read Derrida as an undergrad and was a philosophy major or something.  He seems to pipe up with something like, “I think Habermas would say…” at every opportunity.  If you are lucky, this person will have a single-minded obsession with a particular theorist, and everyone (including the prof) start rolling their eyes at her every time he goes off on a tangent about the brilliance of Adorno and Horkheimer.  Otherwise, he’s just going to make everyone else feel inadequate.

The Paragon of Lefty Virtue: Whether she is a radical feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegan, or all of the above, this grad student is there to sneer at your tepid political commitments and police any and all comments about her specific areas of activism for insufficient radicalism and theoretical rigor.  She will tolerate no nuance when it comes to questions like:  “Religious people–maybe not the absolute embodiment of everything that is wrong with the world?”  You feel embarrassed in her presence both because she has read waaaaay more Judith Butler and Marx and Weber than you but also because she is a walking right-wing parody of a lefty academic.  In other words, this is what your deleted blog commenters think you are like.

So yes, some variant of this advanced graduate student will be making an appearance in at least one of your seminars this semester.  Unfortunately, you can’t clam up.  Many new grads make the mistake of staying silent in class for fear of looking stupid and spend the whole semester bitching about that person behind their back.  That takes you further away from the primary goal of graduate school:  learning to participate in a scholarly conversation.  So the trick is figuring out how to make a contribution without getting shut down.

First, do as mom says and consider the source.  Advanced students in graduate school who show up in seminars that they don’t really need to take are, I guaran-god-damn-tee it, having a lot of trouble finishing–or even starting–their dissertations.  So yeah, this person may simply be trying to make themselves feel better at the expense of some noobs.  Furthermore, you have to remember that these students aren’t the fully fledged academic experts they may seem to be.  They may know more than you, but they aren’t perfect in their knowledge, and many of them can’t, for some reason, think critically about the ideas they parrot back from books.

The best thing you can do with these individuals is to strive to learn what they know and then raise the level of the debate.  You will quickly find that not everyone is as well-read as they pretend to be and not everyone understands theory as completely as it may seem to someone who hasn’t read it at all.  So, during this first semester, you will want to begin making a list of stuff that you need to read that isn’t on any of your syllabi, though in a future post I would like to put together a list on this blog to get you started.  Experienced humanities grads:  post your “must-reads” in comments or email your list to me if you have time.

Keeping Your Options Open in Grad School

Given the shittiness of the academic job market and the expense of higher education, common sense says that going to graduate school in the humanities is a pretty terrible idea.  Yet there are those of us who, for whatever reason, feel the need to go anyway.  For me, I think it was a combination of stubbornness, naiveté, and the fact that a Ph.D. in English has been a life goal of mine since 10th grade that led me to pursue graduate school and stick with it.  I don’t regret doing it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone.

That said, I think there is a way of approaching grad school without being taken for a ride.  There is much about the university-industrial complex that is dysfunctional, including a tendency to exploit the labor of wide-eyed idealists.  For every potential graduate student who thinks that living a life of the mind is more important than making a remunerative wage, there is a university willing to milk that person for 5-7 years of cheap (or free) labor without either guarantee of or preparation for a real job at the end of that period.  For every person who wants to be in academia sooooo baaaadly, there is a university happy to pay that person $20,000 a year with no benefits in a one-year non-renewable adjunct or “visiting” assistant professorship.

The key to not getting taken for a ride is to know where your interests lie, to decide from the very beginning what you are willing to sacrifice in order to get a Ph.D. and not sacrifice one inch beyond that point.  For me, it has meant deciding that wherever I land job-wise in the next few years, the Ph.D. was a worthy accomplishment in and of itself, a ridiculously huge bucket list item, if you will, and I refuse to see myself or my time in grad school as a failure if I wind up taking one of the less prestigious but actually pretty appealing alternatives to an academic career, like teaching high school or community college or running workshops on persuasive writing for a branch of the federal government (that is actually a real job, and it apparently pays really, really well).  I have, in effect, taken the words of perennial buzzkill Thomas Benton to heart:

Perhaps members of a generation that enters graduate school with no expectations of an academic position — who never even consider, for one moment, that they will become tenure-track professors — will bring about positive change in the way things are taught. Such students will be less beholden to advisers, and empowered to demand that courses have some relationship to existing opportunities. With an eye to careers outside academe, they will challenge the tyranny of the monograph; they might seek technical skills; they will want to speak to a wider public; and they will be more open to movement between academe and the “outside world” than previous generations, who were taught to regard anything but the professorial life as failure from which one could never return.

While I’ll be applying for academic jobs this year, I’m keeping my options open while doing so.  I’m trying to be a little bit entrepreneurial, a little bit mercenary about the whole thing.  I’m not pretending that money doesn’t matter, and I’ve laid out in pretty specific terms what I am willing to sacrifice lifestyle-wise in order to work at a university.  I am not going forward as if I can write my own ticket, but I refuse to be dazzled by the glamor of the MLA convention to the point that I’ll mortgage my life for the dream of playing in the NBA.

So what does an attitude like that mean for the way you approach grad school, and how can graduate students get through the experience without being psychologically and financially crushed?  If there’s one bit of advice that I could give prospective (or current) grad students, it would be this:

Graduate school is a job.  Don’t do it for free.

When I was applying to grad school in my senior year of college, I received two offers.  The first was from an elite Northeastern institution that wanted to charge me $20,000 a year for the privilege of learning and working there.  I kept their offer letter on my desk for a while, but ultimately I said no.  There was just no way I was going to go that far into a financial hole for this experience.  The second letter I received was from a less prestigious but nevertheless major public university.  They were offering 5 years of guaranteed financial support in the form of teaching appointments, including waived tuition, a living stipend, and state employee health benefits, with the possibility of two extra years of support contingent on performance and budgetary concerns.  I would never under any circumstances advise a prospective graduate student to settle for anything less.  Here’s why:

Graduate school is not worth a crushing debt load. I have a close relative who is now $150,000 in the hole thanks to college and law school debt.  His monthly payment is more than most people pay in rent.  Do not let this happen to you, especially given the earning potential of a fresh Ph.D. on the academic job market.  While even funded graduate students may require some student loans to meet living expenses, there is just no good reason to take out more in tuition loans each year than you will make your first few years as an adjunct or visiting assistant whatever.

Generous support packages indicate pretty good things about the university. As I quickly discovered my first week on campus, the generous support package was due to a strong history of collective bargaining on the part of graduate students and a faculty that “gets it” and is willing to go to bat for them.  The structured way in which graduate students progressed through their teaching appointments indicated a department with a savvy placement committee with a clear sense of what the job market required.  9 of the 12 people on the job market last year got full-time jobs at universities.  That is a ridiculously good record.

So that’s the first aspect of not doing this job for free, or more to the point, not paying for it out of your own pocket.  Once you’re in a program with decent support, don’t sign up for stuff that isn’t in your job description unless you’re making more money for doing it or there is a clear career reason for jumping at the opportunity.  Committee service and conference organization looks pretty good on a c.v., but it doesn’t look nearly as good as a finished dissertation or an article in a major journal.  If you want a shot at a job in academia, concentrate on the activities that are going to really help you:  writing, publishing, and teaching.  Everything else is extra.

I have, however, found that it can be both rewarding and beneficial to pursue paid work outside of your department.  In addition to teaching for English, I have worked as a research assistant in an interdisciplinary program without its own grad students, a freelance editor, a tutor in the Undergraduate Writing Center, a teacher in an outreach program working with underperforming high schools, and an application reader for an Honors program (that one paid ridiculously well, and I got to do it at home on my own time).  Each one of those represented two things:  1)  Extra income, which meant I could take a lower paying but less time-consuming job during the summer rather than teaching summer school in order to work on my dissertation.  I could also afford to go to 5 conferences this year.  2)  Exposure to alternative career paths in editing, writing center administration, high school teaching, and university admissions, and credentials in an interdisciplinary field.  I do not yet know if these are going to pay off in some way, but there is value in learning that you are good at things other than writing papers, that you can thrive in a variety of job situations, that there are, perhaps, other things you can see yourself doing after grad school.

There are, however, going to be numerous people at your university–administrators and faculty–who want you to do stuff for free, who will insist that it benefits you in some way to, for example, take on additional teaching and mentorship responsibilities with no extra pay.  Do not take these claims at face value.  Weigh your interests against theirs in the equation.  It is in their best interest to guilt you into doing more work for less money, to keep you around for as long as possible doing stuff for free and then paying them tuition when your funding runs out.  It is in yours to concentrate all of your energy toward finishing your dissertation, publishing stuff, and eventually getting a job.  While you can listen to advice from outside parties, you and only you can decide whether or not volunteering for extra stuff is going to be a good choice.

Finally, remember that leaving graduate school is not an admission of failure. In many cases, it is evidence of nothing more than unimpeachable common sense.  I know many people who left after the first two years for jobs that sound pretty awesome, and you are allowed to be one of those people, no matter what the bitter people who are determined to tough it out despite their misery or the shaming influence of a university-industrial complex whose interests are not aligned with yours.  When it comes to the decision to finish or not to finish, only one person’s opinion matters:  yours, not your advisor’s, not the department chair’s, not your parents’ or the people who attend your high school reunions.  If you come to the conclusion, at some point, that you would rather be doing something else or that you are the victim of a giant racket, GTFO.  Your career, your life in fact, is not a fraternity initiation procedure to see who can withstand something unnecessarily painful the longest.

Is this sort of depressing?  Ok, kind of.  But it’s important to know up front that graduate school can be a devastatingly disempowering experience, shockingly unlike college.  The difference is like that of a minimum wage worker at a retail outlet versus that of a customer at said retail outlet.  As a college student, the faculty and administration were collectively working together on your behalf. As a graduate student, you are a laborer–a laborer whose primary goal is to finish graduate school–and the key to having a rewarding experience is thinking of yourself as such, as someone who deserves to benefit from the work that you do.  Furthermore, if you are able to think of yourself as going to work every day rather than going to limbo, it can actually make the long run seem bearable.

How to Petition a Grade (If You Must)

So, you’ve done most of the stuff I recommended here for maximizing your potential grade in a class, and you didn’t quite get the results you wanted.  Is it ever ok to go back at the end of the semester and ask for a higher grade?  Truthfully, I think there are only three possible situations in which petitioning your instructor for a higher grade is appropriate:

  1. An objective mathematical or data entry error.
  2. Reasonable cause to believe that you were graded unfairly.
  3. Your performance on a final assignment or exam was so abysmal and so out of character that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you could do better if given a second chance.

Case 1 is usually a pretty easy fix, especially if it’s a case of a miss-keyed grade.  Simply bring the error to your instructor’s attention.  She will be mortified and fix it immediately.  Just make sure before you proceed that you yourself are not in error.  Triple check your calculations against the syllabus grade breakdown and make sure you are entering the correct values for each grade (i.e. does an “A” equal 100 or 95?).

It’s when you get into Cases 2 and 3 that you are wandering into uncertain territory.  If you honestly think that you’ve been treated unfairly or discriminated against in some way, appealing to the instructor may not help at all, and you may have to avail yourself of other avenues for redress provided by your college or university (I’ll discuss that in a later post on how to deal with unreasonable instructors).  But it is usually required that you try to correct the problem with the instructor first, and in any case, it is good manners to do so before going over their head.

Consider the stakes. Having completed the course and received a final grade, you, the student, really have nothing to lose.  At worst, your grade will stay exactly the same, and you’ll just never have dealings with that instructor again.  The instructor, however, has a lot to lose by changing your grade.  First of all, it means accepting a student’s judgment of their professionalism, competence, and integrity.  Secondly, an instructor who changes a grade for any reason runs the risk of word getting out, which means that they can expect to see more grade petitions in the future and that their authority in the classroom will be pretty well compromised.  Are those good reasons to deny you a fair grade or a second chance?  From your perspective, maybe not.  But it is best to go into these situations fully appreciating exactly what it is you are asking your instructor to do, what you are asking him to give up.

Make your appeal in writing. Some instructors actually have rules governing how they will deal with grade petitions.  Follow them.  In the absence of other instructions, always make your appeal in writing rather than simply showing up at this person’s office.  Sending a well-written email with your appeal and a request for a meeting gives them time to think about the case, so you are more likely to, at the least, get a thorough (if not totally satisfactory) response.  Furthermore, having a trail of written correspondence is helpful if you ever need to appeal to a higher authority.

Be respectful.  Be professional. Write your request thoughtfully and edit it carefully.  That ought to be obvious, but I have some pretty laughable grade appeals in my email archives that suggest otherwise.  Here are some selected do’s and don’ts for writing your appeal:

  • Do reference your performance on past assignments if relevant (i.e.  You made A’s on all previous exams, so this D was a fluke).
  • Do convey respect for the instructor’s professional judgment and remember that you are essentially challenging his or her professionalism, competence, and integrity.
  • Do point to specific assignment descriptions or test questions.
  • Do request a meeting to discuss your grade at the instructor’s convenience.
  • Don’t bring up the grades of other students in class.  (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing this with you.  Plus, you need to argue based on your own individual merits.)
  • Don’t make threats, even if you do plan to appeal to a higher authority.
  • Don’t get your parents involved if you are in college.  (Your instructor is legally proscribed from discussing your grades with them if you are over 18.)
  • Don’t cite things like regular attendance as reasons for why you deserve a better grade.  Attendance is a minimum expectation, not a guarantee of an A.

Humbly accept what you cannot change. Part of the educational experience is learning from failure, and if your petition is denied, you have two options left open to you:  1) Appeal to a higher authority, or 2) Accept the instructor’s decision and do better next time.  If you are legitimately the victim of discrimination, then Option 1 may be a good choice for you.  If you were a Case 3 appeal or if you had some other reason for petitioning that I didn’t list above, your best bet is to say “I understand” and move on.  If you continue to push in a way that could be perceived as stalking or harassing, things could get very, very bad for you.  Even if you don’t find yourself on the wrong end of a restraining order, word will get out, and you may sabotage potential relationships with future professors without even knowing it.

Learning from failure may mean that you have to adjust your own self-perception with regard to grades.  If your identity depends on having a perfect, you are probably going to run into a situation at some point in your life when clinging to that self-concept will no longer work for you.  Furthermore, blaming the people in charge of judging your performance is only going to go so far.  Not all of the people who judge you negatively will be wrong.  Better to deal with that while you’re young, I say.