My MLA 2014 Presentation for the “Rethinking the Seminar Paper” Roundtable

This is the text of my presentation for the MLA 2014 Roundtable, Rethinking the Seminar Paper. (You can read a description of the panel here.) I did a little ad-lib here and there, but this is pretty much what I walked into that room with. Note: A certain something I said later struck a chord with some of my listeners: the part where I say professors aren’t trained to teach writing. I will expand upon that in a later post. For now, I will say, teaching content and teaching writing are two different things in my head, and there’s nothing wrong with having someone who specializes in writing support/instruction to assist with teaching graduate student writers how to write for an academic audience. In the meantime, you can read my Hybrid Pedagogy article where I explain further my suggestions for that situation.

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So. Why do instructors assign graduate seminar papers?

I figured I’d cut to the chase right now and just call out the question that’s on our minds. To be fair, I don’t teach anymore, so I don’t have any emotional investment in uplifting or destroying this particular assignment, a staple of graduate school for so many in the humanities. However, the fact that I no longer teach allows me to approach that question from a different angle than, say, an instructor would. I deign to wonder out loud “why.”

Once upon a time I was a graduate student—actually it was in 2012 that I obtained my PhD. I was also a Graduate Writing Specialist until late last spring. This past fall, I taught a writing course for PhD students in biomedical sciences. It is safe to say that I have interacted with graduate student writers from many different angles: as peer, as teacher, as coach, as editor, as consultant, as cheerleader. In fact, I worked extensively with graduate student writers for the past three years up until I accepted my new position as editor at Women in Higher Education. As a writing instructor and writing coach, I have also seen lots of writing assignments, some good and some bad. I have also met with lots of confused and anxious students who didn’t know where to start or whether they were doing the right thing. I know their predicament isn’t new: writers in all sorts of genres feel anxious about their writing, and I’m certain many of you in this room feel the same way.

So what would I do when students came to me, anxious and upset? Well, first I’d remind them that these feelings were not unusual or weird, and then I’d ask them to tell me more about the writing assignment or requirement.

See, in my line of work one of my strong points is to help writers break down their writing goals or their writing requirements and help them understand what they’re being asked to do or why they’re being asked to do it. A lit review may not make sense, in narrative terms, but this is where you’re expected to insert it, I would say. Or, a teaching statement starts with you. I know you feel awkward about talking about yourself, but the teaching statement needs to show me what kind of teacher you are and what your approach is.

So when I was approached to present at this roundtable, I thought: instead of arguing for or against the graduate seminar paper, I want to encourage you to consider why the graduate seminar paper is assigned in the first place. Do instructors’ expectations match their writing assignments?

It’s been a while, but in my experience graduate seminars sounded a little something like this: we get together and read several texts at the same time. We have conversations about the texts, usually led by a discussion leader’s questions or a professor’s lecture notes on the author, book, socio-historical context, among others. If your students are anything like me, they’re taking notes on what everyone is saying, especially the professor. They’re trying to figure out where this is all going. And maybe you’re not hoping to go anywhere: maybe you just want to get the conversation going! Isn’t that what literary scholars do? Anyway, your students read and read and read all semester long until the last few weeks of the semester when the seminar paper is due.

And then all hell breaks loose. They don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They may rely on the sources you gave them throughout the semester. They may stay all weekend at the library looking up articles. And then they’ll write a paper in a week…or a few days…or overnight. (Come on, you know you’ve been there: last-minute paper writing. I know I have, and after that long night I vowed never to do it again.)

What just happened?

Oftentimes, when instructors assign the graduate seminar paper, it is in order to get students to practice disciplinary engagement, the kind that’s expected of scholars who plan to go on to a research-1 institution. Read, write, do some research, read and write again. The graduate seminar is meant to be the building blocks for future journal articles, dissertation topics, research areas. However, many graduate students write these papers hastily and forget about them later. They are not encouraged to build upon the work done in other classes, and when they’re told to convert them into journal articles, they’re not sure where to go with that. Not to mention, when they get to the dissertation proposal stage, all they have written are grad seminar papers

This brings me to my initial question: why the graduate seminar paper? I encourage you to take some time later in this session to think about what the seminar paper offers that other assignments do not.

When writing assignments, instructors should consider questions such as: what are you expecting students to practice in these seminar papers? When did you last revise your guidelines for this assignment? More importantly, are you prepared to teach them how to write a graduate seminar paper?

If the graduate seminar paper is meant to teach students how to engage with a scholarly discourse community in writing, they should work on the content as well as the craft. As I mentioned in my Hybrid Pedagogy article from last summer, “Help Wanted: Supporting Graduate Student Writers,” oftentimes graduate student writers have trouble with writing because their faculty is not trained to teach writing. And I don’t blame them! I understand that there are a lot of structural constraints working against faculty—not to mention, who has the time? Y’all spent plenty of time working on dissertations on very narrow research areas! Add “teach writing” to that?

However, I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping today we can start addressing them, and I am eager to hear about your thought process.

Muscle Memory

"IV4V2049_2op1" by Flickr user Patrick Savalle, CC-BY-2.0

“IV4V2049_2op1″ by Flickr user Patrick Savalle, CC-BY-2.0

“You need to develop the muscle memory,” my yoga teacher reminds the class, and I lose my balance while I attempt a beginner’s version of the tree pose. Later, when I’m at home pouring myself a bowl of cereal, I hear her words in the back of my brain. Muscle memory.

Muscle memories often come back to me when I go to yoga. Once upon a time I practiced Hinduism, and we would do some beginner’s poses during meditation. When I sit down cross-legged, my body still remembers where my feet go, even if I am not as flexible as I was at the age of 18. When I was pregnant I took prenatal yoga, which introduced me to many other poses. Cat and cow pose looks the same whether you’re pregnant or not, but sure feels a lot different when you have a belly dangling in between. I remember being a teenager and practicing my wheel pose; for me, that was a measure of how flexible I was.

Lie down. Bring knees up. Hands go above the head. Fingers point to shoulders. One, two, three, and up goes your tummy.

I have other muscle memories. One summer, I committed to a regular gym routine. I worked out six days a week, ran on the treadmill every other day, and worked out my arms, chest, legs, and abdomen. I was strong and, dare I say, lean. Leaner than I am now, certainly. I remember the contour of my arm muscles, the little bits of back fat that slowly disappeared from my eye’s view, the rounded buttocks. I loved the way I looked, but I hated the upkeep.

My brain still remembers what I looked like when I went on my gym binge, and even though if I wanted to I could try to go back to that—really, what’s keeping me?—I don’t. My brain remembers what it felt like to fit comfortably in size 12 jeans, but it also remembers what I told myself when I put on size 12 jeans: You could still stand to lose a couple more pounds.

My muscle memories come back with a soundtrack, a soundtrack I’d rather forget. So now, no longer a size 12, I go to yoga and I work on developing other muscle memories. And I’m trying to get back my wheel pose flexibility.

Lie down. Bring knees up. Hands go above the head. Fingers point to shoulders. One, two, three, and up goes your tummy…but not all the way. You collapse onto the floor. Your wrists hurt a little. You giggle and realize no one else giggled with you. You try it again next time. 

"IMG_9123_edited" by Flickr user film_fatale, CC-BY-2.0

“IMG_9123_edited” by Flickr user film_fatale, CC-BY-2.0

Featured image: “IV4V2049_2op1″ by Flickr user Patrick Savalle, CC-BY-2.0

My Favorite Dinner Date

I drove around the restaurant in my rented red Chevy Sonic, looking for a way to get to the parking lot behind it. The temperature had dropped and I was hoping I could park behind the restaurant instead of a few blocks away. There was some rush hour traffic in downtown Madison, so crossing the intersection of Blair Street and E. Washington was crazy.

After many circles, including going down a residential street dead end in order to do a u-turn, I made it to the back of Sardine. I was excited to have found an excellent parking spot: right in front of the door. I had dressed up just a little bit for the occasion, wearing a new oversized caramel-colored sweater and a long-sleeved gold-striped white sweater underneath.

I walked in and sat at the bar. In the past, when I dined by myself I would request a table for myself so I could read, but my husband talked me out of it. He travels a lot for work, as do I, and refuses to take a whole table for himself. It made sense to me, so now I sit at the bar. It’s nice to be in the company of people at the bar, even if they are strangers.

Drink at the bar at Sardine

Drink at the bar at Sardine

I had been to Sardine a few weeks before, my first trip to Madison, so I was familiar with the menu. I ordered a lavender-infused drink (don’t remember the name, for it was French) and then asked for a warm duck confit salad and house-made cavatelli pasta. I’m not a French restaurant aficionado (can’t pronounce most of the stuff on the menu anyway) but I came to this restaurant as per the recommendation of a friend and didn’t regret it. In fact, when I was planning my second work trip to Madison I decided I would revisit Sardine instead of going to a new restaurant.

Earlier, in November, it had been a brunch place in Cleveland Cincinnati, Ohio. (Edit: This wonderful place is called Taste of Belgium, and if you’re ever in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood you should check it out!) I walked half a mile on a Sunday morning, a few hours before my return flight to Houston, to a place that had been rated highly on Yelp. When I walked in, I barely found my way to the hostess; that’s how packed it was. But the wait was worth it for the tastiest chicken and waffles I’ve ever had. I can still taste the sweetness of the belgian waffle mingling with the spiciness of the chicken breast.

Had to take a bite before taking the picture!

Had to take a bite before taking the picture!

Ever since I started graduate school I’ve traveled often. First, there was the trip once a semester back to Puerto Rico. Add to that my semi-regular bus/car rides to New York City to visit family. Then there are the academic conferences that you must attend as a graduate student (how this puts many graduate students in debt is another post altogether). In addition, my husband has almost always traveled for his work as a broadcaster, and I sometimes tag along by myself or with the little one. Now, I’ve started a new job that requires me to travel every month or so. I always like to try local foods when I travel, but when I travel by myself I make a point to try to treat myself to dinner.

I remember one particular academic conference I attended in Calgary, Canada. I was staying at a hotel far from the conference location (because it was cheaper, of course). I was alone and didn’t know anyone other than the people on my panel. After a full day of panels and academic conversation, I returned to my hotel mentally exhausted–and I was hungry. I walked downstairs to the hotel lobby, trying to figure out if I should go out and try to find a cheap alternative or if I should just walk into the little restaurant at this hotel. I went with the hotel restaurant.

I don’t remember what I ate or how much it cost or who the waiter was. Now what I remember is making that decision to treat myself to dinner in a new country at an unknown place. I also remember looking at the menu and sizing up what I could and could not afford (after all, this was dinner at the hotel restaurant). The meal wasn’t anything to write home about. But it was a nice little treat for myself.

I don’t remember when I started doing it, to be honest. As a graduate student I was always being trained for austerity. Eating at a restaurant seemed like a luxury, like money spent on something other than books (or conferences, for that matter). But even when I was away at conferences I tried to take a little time for myself. My advisor suggested, when I was prepping for my first academic conference, to always take a day to take in my surroundings, go out, take a break. That advice has stuck with me ever since.

Taking myself to dinner is a form of self-care, I’ve realized. It can be pricey, I know. I haven’t always had the money to treat myself to a dinner at a hip French restaurant, even if it’s in Wisconsin. I understand that treating myself to dinner entails privilege. Heck, attending those conferences as a graduate student entailed privilege: I had a fellowship, I took out student loans in addition to the fellowship, I had a credit card (that I had maxed out by the time I had a daughter, but that’s Another Story, Part II).  But I always try to go somewhere nice for dinner, somewhere that isn’t a sandwich or a pizza or takeout. I think of it as spending money on an experience instead of on a thing.

Eating out isn’t something I started doing as a graduate student either. I grew up in a humble household. We had a little bit of cash, but my parents were not rich by any means. We watched what we spent all the time—a habit that sticks with me today; I’ll buy a bottle of wine and cringe if it’s more than ten dollars. But one thing my parents would do from time to time was treat us to eating out. Whether it was a sit-down place or a kiosk by the edge of the road in some far town, we always took time to go out and eat.

As an undergraduate in San Juan, I had a friend who loved going out for dinner. We’d go out once in a while and check out restaurants; sometimes I paid and sometimes he treated me to dinner. I was still a poor undergraduate, you know.

My sister-in-law likes to remind me of the Italian restaurant we went to the day we first met, and I tend to think that it set the tone for our relationship: we bond often over food, even now that I’ve started eating meat again and she has become a vegan. When I traveled more often to NYC, we would always find a restaurant to try out, and we shared plates so we could sample more things for the same price. This Christmas we ventured out to a local farmer’s market in Houston and had breakfast on our laps.

So when I travel, I go out. I don’t do it every night (I followed up dinner at Sardine with continental breakfast at the hotel lobby and soup from Panera on my way back from work), but I try to at least find one night where I go and find a restaurant with some good Yelp reviews and see what the future holds.

What’s in it for me, other than good food? The feeling that I’m doing something nice for myself. I am sometimes hard on myself and on my eating habits, so I am trying to talk myself out of monitoring what I eat and chastising myself for what I don’t. But when I go out, I give myself a pass. I try to enjoy the food for what it is, and remember that this will not happen again. This plate at this moment? This is it.

One thing I learned when I decided to step away from my tenure-track dreams was that I wanted more time for myself and for my family. When I was on the traditional academic track, I felt I had no control over my days because I always had something to work on in the hopes that I would become a professor some day. So now I make an effort to take time for myself.

Self-care is important at any stage of our lives and that it doesn’t have to be about things. Self-care can be about experiences, sensorial and otherwise. It doesn’t even have to be about dinner you buy for yourself; that’s just the approach I take. It could be about taking the time to make a meal for yourself, carving time out of your schedule to make something that you like or that you want.

Taking myself out to dinner (or sometimes lunch or brunch) is me taking a time out for myself. Sitting down, looking at the menu, waiting for the food: this process allows me time to just be with myself. They’re moments of being, in a life where I’m always multi-tasking.

Changes in Winter

"39-Teaching" by Flickr user John McCullough, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“39-Teaching” by Flickr user John McCullough, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

*Edited

As a child, I wanted to be a teacher. I remember when my parents first bought an encyclopedia set (do parents buy encyclopedia sets anymore?), and the day they received it I played teacher all day. As a teenager, I attended a summer camp for future teachers, thinking that teaching was a more viable career option than “writer.” When I went into college, I transitioned to “professor” and aimed high for a tenure track position. It wasn’t until I had a newborn and an adjunct position in a new city (and no benefits from my job or my significant other’s job) that I stopped to think whether the tenure track still fit me.

I had to reevaluate my career dreams.

In Kansas City I stepped away from adjuncting, took up a job as a writing center staff member, and finished my dissertation. All the while, I was focused on getting a PhD. That was my goal, and it had been for a long time. After finishing my dissertation I was thrilled to just sit back and let my mind wander for a while. I took a full-time job at my university, and also took on some freelance editing jobs. I kept mentally busy.

It wasn’t until my husband got a job in Houston earlier this year that I thought about my post tenure-track career trajectory: What was I doing? Where was I headed? What would walking away from KU mean in terms of my professional identity? I realized I was a lot more attached to that job than I imagined; it wasn’t just the wonderful people I got to work with (and still miss) but also the idea of stability and direction. I was headed somewhere, and I was working toward something. It was neat. It was clean. It gave me the same feelings I had from my TT dreams, the feeling of moving toward a clear goal.

This year has been one of big changes because of my husband’s job, but the past seven months (since I left Kansas City and relocated to Houston) things went into overdrive for me. My husband’s new job brought me to Houston. I went from my first full-time job to full-on freelance, and some adjuncting on the side. I mentioned in a blog post earlier this year how I felt like I couldn’t see too far ahead of me. Mid fall semester I got to a point where I became comfortable with the idea that I didn’t have to pick a career direction, right here and now. But a job opportunity rolled along late in the semester, an opportunity that forced me to think about those questions all over again: Where am I headed? Where do I want to go? Is this job attuned to my personal and professional goals? And what about the writing?

I admit that I do have the privilege to consider these thoughts without having to worry a lot about my financial situation. When I left adjuncting over two years ago, I did it because we needed some financial stability, not necessarily because of my moral compass. This time, my husband had landed his dream job and a good salary, and that salary allowed me to not worry about immediate full time employment. It allowed me to just write for the first time in a long time. But I still wanted a career, a profession, a trajectory. If there’s one thing my mother and I have in common, it’s that we’re working women (and I sincerely hope that my daughter doesn’t hold it against me that working makes Mama happy), and that my drive was looking for something to grab onto. So I said yes to the new job.

As of this month, I am the new Editor for Women in Higher Education.

Although it is my first time as an Editor for a major publication, my excitement for becoming a part of a publication whose sole focus is covering issues that concern women in higher ed trumped my nervousness about the job. The more I learned about the history of higher ed the newsletter and the better I got to know the founding editor, the stronger I felt about the mission of WIHE and my role within it.

I recently got to cover my first conference as editor of WIHE, the Association of College Union International‘s Women’s Leadership Institute. It felt weird to introduce myself  to people as “the new editor of Women in Higher Ed” and in a way I didn’t feel it was right to claim it since the founding editor was right there with me, showing me the ropes. In my head I felt we were working together instead of me taking the baton and running the rest of the race. But I tried the title on for size. It felt a little big, like when you buy a sweater and it doesn’t fit you just right. I know I’ll grow into it though.

One thing I realized while at the conference was that I am never done thinking about what drives me and what I want to do in my career. I’ve talked in the past few months about writing a book and doing more writing, and now I’m taking on a new job as an editor, but now I think: Where do I see myself in a few years? Where do I see WIHE? Who will mentor me? These are questions the WLI made me consider. Frankly, there isn’t a better time to reflect upon these questions than now.

Here I go.

Morning on Amelia Island

Morning on Amelia Island. Not bad when your job takes you to beautiful places like this and connects you to smart, wonderful women!

P.S.: If you are so inclined, please check out WIHE on Facebook and on Twitter. I’ll be taking over the social media soon, so both accounts will be back in action after the holidays. Feel free to tag us in your posts that relate to women and/in higher education. In the meantime, I’m still on Twitter at my new Twitter handle: @lianamsilvaford

Teaching Myself How to Write

My writing career started a very long time ago, when I was six, to be precise. My mother had given birth to my youngest sister, and for the first time in my short life someone else had the spotlight. I admit this was a very selfish point of view, but it’s the truth. So I started writing in the bad of my picture books in order to vent. I’d write about how I felt about my parents and about my new baby sister.

You could say my writing career started with me talking about myself in diary entries. In fact, I wrote a lot of diary entries until I started in college. I had different notebooks for this purpose: a notebook with a lock and key, a repurposed notebook from a past school year, a fancy journal with plain white pages. I usually sat down to write when I was struggling with something, but other times I wrote down ideas I had.

My latest writing journal

My latest writing journal

Personal writing wasn’t the only kind of writing I did. I wrote poems in elementary school, following the structure of the poems I had read in school. I wrote stories, lots of stories. Many of them don’t even exist anymore, anywhere. They got thrown away, or they disappeared in one of the many moves I’ve had so far. One of them was supposed to be a novel about a group of friends living together—a la Real World. I was in 8th grade, and thought this was edgy.

But reading has always been a part of my writing process. I was very good at seeing how others wrote and finding patterns I could imitate. That is one of the reasons I decided to become an English major: I thought I’d have the chance to read other people’s books and learn about their craft that way. I told myself I’d teach, but now I know that far from the practical surface, what I wanted to do was write.

I started writing diary entries, and then moved to fiction. In college, I switched fiction for academic writing. I’m not quite sure if I excelled at that kind of writing, but I know I did well enough to pass and get a degree. I remember quite well the feeling of being in a U.S. graduate classroom and having to think deeply about what kind of writing I was being asked to do. What is this supposed to look like? I wondered. I always went back to the articles we read, the conversations we’d had, the comments the professor had made about the writing. In graduate school I became even better at finding those patterns and deploying them. It was when I jumped into writing the dissertation that I realized that it was time for me to break out of those molds I held onto like life preservers.

Academic writing has led the way to nonfiction.

Nowadays I am teaching myself about nonfiction, creative nonfiction especially. Because I feel myself leaning that way in what I write regularly, I want to learn more about what makes for a strong nonfiction piece, and what distinguishes a nonfiction piece from a creative nonfiction piece. The ideas for fiction no longer come to me like they used to once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate. Now, if I try to think of a story, it just feels forced. And when I make notes of things I have seen or I have heard, I don’t think of how to fold that into a story, but rather I think about how I can make that image or that person or that moment seem real to the reader. I also think about what I want the reader to notice. I work on that.

What nonfiction is on my plate nowadays? Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and it is oddly riveting. For a while I was reading Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, but I haven’t kept up with that one. Overall, I enjoy reading about the craft of writing, but lately I have trouble finding books that tell me something I don’t already know. Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, on learning creative nonfiction, has filled that writerly void. Reading Gutkind’s book is a little weird because I feel like I should be taking notes and doing the exercises, but all I really want to do is read it. Maybe I’m waiting for inspiration to hit while I read it. It could also be that the experience would be different if I read it in hard copy instead of an ebook. I’m more inclined to gloss over exercises when I’m reading it on my iPad.

What nonfiction authors/books do you enjoy, dear readers? Feel free to leave me a comment or send me a tweet: @literarychica