Monday, December 08, 2008

PhD Reflections #3

Sometimes to be a student is to be like a fish, unaware of the water in which you are swimming. Sometimes, however, there is awareness. In the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about the “water” of graduate schools: classrooms and teaching. I foreground this consideration with a reflection about the coursework from my MFA. I found the most exciting courses ones that were challenging throughout the semester and offered by the final two or three weeks of the course some sort of intellectual transformation. This “Aha” moment as I have come to call it was incredibly gratifying and made the struggle and uncertainty of the earlier weeks worthwhile. I know from teaching on course to undergraduates that, while it seemed to me effortless and magic when my professors did it, in fact to construct a course that way is challenging. I wonder if even the best professors are able to do it every semester and in every class. There is some sort of alchemy that happens among the syllabus, the professor, and the students; sometimes the outcome is magic and sometimes it isn’t. When the magic happens for me as a student, it is incredibly fulfilling. When the magic falters, frustration ensues. The path to that alchemy, that “Aha” moment, however, is not an immediate one; it is impossible to know how it will turn out in the end so all along the way there are interventions, reassessments, and new directions.
I’ve been thinking about how my professors this term are currently engaging in their job of teaching and about what I might do when faced in the future with similar challenges. Martha Nell Smith has responded in our Feminist Literary Theory Seminar to a group of students with both vastly different experiences and histories in feminist literary theory as well as in feminism in general and to different levels of engagement developmentally where people are in their degree programs, by doing “mini-lectures” during each class meeting. At first I was surprised by this didactic approach as she approached the seminar on the long poem that I took with her a year ago very differently. As the class has moved forward, however, the quality of discussion is reflecting her intervention of providing background information and thoughtful overviews of both the things that we are reading as well as broader issues in the field of feminist literary theory. On the other hand, WMST 601 suffers in discussion. I’ve not found a useful way to participate to build a more rich and nuanced engagement. I’m mindful that the interventions of the professors reflect their experience and their desire to contribute to that transformative alchemy. I am hopeful that the moment from which I write this is simply one of those challenging ones that will have an end of semester reward.
New directions for my thinking fall into two categories: thoughtful and mundane. In the thoughtful category, I read Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line and have been reading her scholarly articles as well. She is doing the blend of history and literary work that I want to do, and so both reading her work and thinking about how she puts together her arguments is gratifying. In the mundane category, I’ve been thrilled with Zotero, the free online bibliographic tool. It is giving me greater confidence in organizing information in ways that are useful and retrievable for future projects. The consequence of having a tool that I can trust for this is I feel more bold in my explorations of things and don’t have a perceived need to limit my casting of the net as I know I’ll be able to process things that I find.
The greatest dilemma of these few weeks is about collaboration in academia. We are currently working on our collaborative paper for WMST 601. Let me begin by saying, being collaborative is central to my identity as a person engaged in the world. While in the working world, I was always striving for decision-making and work processes that were collaborative. I think of myself as a good collaborator and perhaps more importantly as someone committed to this sort of process and work. Thus, it has been challenging to me to have a collaboration not go well, when I co-lead a class with another student in WMST 601, and to face the collaborative writing project with trepidation. This should be the thing that I am good at! Nevertheless, I have trepidation about this, which almost becomes anxiety because of the way in which the project was framed as challenging and difficult with little attention to rewards.

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