Friday, April 21, 2017

A First-Generation Academic

"First-Generation College Student" is a label proudly worn by many undergraduates at NIU. These students used to be the minority. But since the twentieth century's Civil Rights movement and resultant anti-discriminatory provisions ensured everyone a fair shot at education, and since increased government funding and loans enabled more and more students to eke out some tuition, students from all walks of life have flocked to universities and community colleges to do better than their parents did. As an instructor, I am aware of their unique challenges. And I am also aware of their unique advantages; they bring to the culture of the university a fresh outlook and a profound appreciation for the opportunity to learn.  However, their challenges sometimes outweigh their eagerness and talent, and many do not complete degrees.

While this is a big problem for first-generation students, it is an even bigger problem for first-generation academics.  Those of us who come in as first-generation, complete that bachelor's degree, and then stick around for more degrees... well, we are not only entering the realm of university life without much direction, we are entering a culture in which a very small percentage of Americans ever participate.  Academia is its own beast. So the stick-tuitive-ness that got us our bachelor's degrees is not necessarily enough to finish a masters thesis, and certainly not enough to push us through the drudgery that is Ph. D. work and dissertation writing. We need a special kind of help. But no one really knows what to do for us.
But...we're so alone!

Scores of extensive, longitudinal studies have been done on the first-generation college student. Those kids have been around for some time! But the first-generation academic is still a somewhat rare anomaly. Also, the amount of time it takes to produce one of us (years upon years of coursework, going back to school after taking breaks, part-time work while having kids, etc.) means the data just isn't there or hasn't been collected yet, that is, extensive data on who finishes, who achieves success in academia, and what kinds of services, attitudes, or funding, got them through all of it.  This is something that needs to be studied, both for the success of these students and for ensuring that the future fields of technology, education, health, and others, can benefit from an increasingly diverse pool of talents. 

Quite frankly, I think that first-generation academics are the key to revitalizing the stagnating university model. We can innovate how we do research in a budget crisis. We can engage with the community outside of academia and bring our discoveries to bear on the "real world." There, I said it. Academia needs us! Or it might just perish.  Nowhere is navel-gazing stronger than academia, a group that can cut itself off from the struggles of the world (and of their students) by living, working, and socializing among their university bubble. But this phenomenon of the academic enclave does not apply to blue-collar and low-income academics. I take offence when any blue-collar type tries to accuse me of being out of touch, just because I'm doing a Ph. D. ...Sorry, guy, I'm living in your "real world" every damn day. And I can also think abstractly! :D

While the studies are lacking, the stories are not. In fact, our Thesis Office Director, Carolyn Law, published a book entitled This Fine Place so Far from Home, a collection of personal accounts and essays from first-generation academics working in the 1990s.  The pieces range from opinionated, to irreverent, to poignant.  You can check it out here, at Temple University Press.

Think about it -- college is a defining experience for many people. But a decade of college and then a *life* at the university is, well, your entire life! When no one in your family or inner circle has any experience with college, let alone designing experiments and writing monographs, this can mean that not only is your college journey a lonely and confusing thing, but so is the life of the mind to which it leads you. Even the most supportive families can only offer hollow messages of encouragement -- they literally have no idea what we're doing.  Blue-collar scholars, like the ones in Law's book, speak of not being able to fit in anywhere -- afraid of being found out at the university, afraid of getting made fun of at home. (And of course, saddled with the debt of climbing out of the lower classes.) How do we address this? What can universities do to help us find a balance? And, perhaps more importantly, what can they do to ensure that our unique voices are not drowned out by the ideas of the privileged, established scholars?

Let us know in the comments of anything you've read on this. Or tell us about your experience!

Yours Truly,
Daughter of a Truck Driver, M.A.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing Happens Step by Step, Day by Day

“So…how’s that writing coming along?”  It seems the longer you’re engaged in your project, the more often this question—or one like it—finds a way into conversations with colleagues, friends, and family.  For insights on writing progress and occasional writing delays, below we share a few sources of wisdom from a little beyond the well-traveled paths.
“Avoidant Syndrome”?
Writers sometimes hit snags.  Perhaps you find yourself lingering over getting a part of your project started—or, even after starting on it, getting stuck and staying that way for a noticeable while.  Are you avoiding pressing tasks at hand?  Maybe.  But not all writing delays simply boil down to avoidance.  Writing can slow or come to a stop due to multiple factors, some beyond the writer’s control.  Yet if you experience a lengthy writing block that feels closely bound to thoughts of dodging criticism or rejection of your work, perhaps you’re flirting with what some call The Avoidant Syndrome.

I’m adapting the above terms and ideas, by the way, not so much from experience as from information about writing stoppage found on the detailed Website of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, an organization I hadn’t heard of until very recently.  As you might guess from their name, they’re a support group for creative people modeled on organizations that guide members as they follow a twelve-step program to recovery—the acronym in their name stands for Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps.  OK, quick disclaimer.  My aim here is not to promote or question A.R.T.S. Anonymous (or any similar twelve-step programs).  Instead, I want to point out some of the principles that inform the way this support group treats the creative process and creative blocks, which share a few things in common with the writing process and writing blocks.  These principles can be of some use to anyone working toward completing a thesis or dissertation, perhaps the longest and most vexing writing project a grad student may ever face.
Useful Insights
Process, Not Product:  A.R.T.S. Anonymous outlines a path toward creative success in their list of Twelve Talents for a Good Life.  Item 11 in the list stresses that the creative process itself—rather than the product eventually created—is the artist’s (or writer’s) most valuable reward.  Useful for writers of all stripes, this principle is especially helpful for writers in the final composing phases of a master’s or doctoral program.  One of the biggest reasons such writers sometimes experience stoppages may be that the aimed-for product is so highly esteemed.  The thesis or dissertation is a mark of academic distinction that propels its author (you) through the beginning stages of the post-degree career.  It’s hard not to contemplate that weighty fact as you work on your project.  But heeding the principle of process over product healthily encourages you to defer such reflection until the most appropriate moments, which likely come after, not before, the process of writing the whole thing is complete.  

Setting Goals: In guidelines they provide for their initial meetings, A.R.T.S. Anonymous suggests that participating creators draw up a simple plan of tasks with projected completion dates.  The list they have in mind should be structured something like this:
Task 1 ______________  To be completed by ______________
Task 2 _____________    To be completed by ______________, etc.
Such a scheme is commonsensical and calls to mind the project-based angle on completing the thesis or dissertation, which this blog touched on last November in a review of the book Writing the Dissertation: A Systematic Approach.  Yet two bits of advice stand out in the A.R.T.S. Anonymous view on goal-setting: (1) you do need to jot down a projected completion date, but then (2) you shouldn’t feel pressure to complete the tasks in the order you list them or on the exact date you set.  At first glance, these tips seem contradictory, but they mesh with their process-over-product principle.  The essential message of A.R.T.S. Anonymous, once again, is that you must constantly engage in your creative endeavor.  Process is primary.  Time taken and final product are secondary concerns.  It’s a message that can certainly be of help to some of you in the thick of writing a thesis or dissertation. 

Daily Five Minutes:  A.R.T.S. Anonymous calls this 5 Alive, and it’s fundamental to their program.  The idea behind this potentially transforming practice is simple: devote five full minutes each day to your project.  Consider how just five minutes per day gradually adds up: after one week, you’ve put in 35 minutes, and after one month, nearly 2 1/2 hours.  Yet surely that short daily session can easily turn into a longer one, leading to more productive weeks and months.  And that’s the idea.  If you commit to a firm but manageable daily schedule, you’ll not only stay productive but often find yourself exceeding original expectations for your progress.  Writers sometimes employ similar schemes for individual composing sessions.  For example, the ten-minute freewrite: put pen to paper or hands on keyboard and write anything and everything that comes to mind, nonstop, for ten minutes.  No matter how unrefined or choppy, the text you compose in a freewriting session nearly always yields a phrase, sentence, group of thoughts, or some combination of these that you can build on as you work toward shaping your ideas in writing.  And last December, this blog detailed ways to organize a chunk of writing into four 25-minute sessions, a so-called Pomodoro.  But setting aside five solid minutes each day to your project is by far the simplest and most achievable benchmark we’ve come across.
Routine is Key
In summary, several ideas from A.R.T.S. Anonymous deserve consideration as you keep your writing going.  Most important is to make time for focused engagement with the writing process every day.  One last bit of related wisdom, which eloquently stresses some of the points raised above, especially the importance of daily writing: a short but powerful piece penned by detective and mystery novelist Walter Mosley, which appeared in The New York Times.  Happy Daily Writing!

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons