Anna Williams is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in the English Department at the University of Iowa, where she is creating a podcast dissertation under the direction of Professor Jeff Porter. Her dissertation considers the epistemic and practical differences between amateur and professional knowledge production in Victorian England. During the 2016-2017 academic year, she served as a Production Assistant at Iowa Public Radio, where she produced and co-hosted the podcast Lit City. Her website can be found here.
It’s fitting that Frankenstein is the subject of my first dissertation chapter. Not unlike Mary Shelley’s title character traipsing through the “unhallowed damps of the grave” to collect parts for his infamous creature, I’m spending my time as a Next Gen summer intern gathering materials for my own innovative creation – a dissertation in podcast form.
Of course, my collection sites have been less murky and my subjects less… dead.
Making a podcast means talking to people. Drawing on successful models such as This American Life and Invisibilia, I envision each ‘chapter’ being an hour-long audio essay that investigates a central question about a literary work and answers it using textual/contextual evidence and commentary from other scholars – actual recorded conversations with them.
One of the main challenges of the project, so far, has been finding people. Beyond seeking out relevant scholarly work from library stacks and databases – a skill now finely tuned through years of practice – I’m trying to locate the people behind all those mounds of paper and really talk to them, one on one, while recording our conversations. This, it turns out, isn’t so easy. Sure, I can find e-mail addresses for all of those Frankenstein scholars, but reaching out to them to conduct a recorded interview? It’s entirely new territory.
First there’s the e-mail pitch. It needs to be informative but brief, show familiarity with the scholar’s work, and convince her/him not only that my subject matter is interesting and worthwhile but also that my chosen form – while unconventional – is not completely off the wall. And once I do find people willing to talk to me, there’s the matter of mastering the technology that will facilitate and document our conversation… not to mention figuring out what to ask during that conversation in the first place. It’s a different way to engage with scholarship: articles don’t talk back, but their authors do.
Interviews with scholars are just one of the components I’m gathering in my summer quest, though. Like any true progeny, hideous or not, my dissertation will also include elements of myself – that is, an autobiographical narrative interwoven with the literary analysis and historical contextualization. Besides being a dissertation in Victorian literature, my dissertation is also an implicit statement about dissertations, including the story of how I got to the point of writing one.
For this I made a pilgrimage to Natchez, Mississippi, the place where I was born and where history and narrative cling to you like the shirt on your back in June. There, in the parlor of the 1896 home built by my great-great grandfather, I spoke to my second cousin Ginny Benoist about the extensive genealogical research she’s collected on our family.
I combed through the attic artifacts at Propinquity, the 1790 farmhouse where my (Great) Aunt Doris Ann and a small cemetery of ancestors reside beneath a canopy of live oaks and Spanish moss.
And finally, I conducted a tearful interview with Susan Mingee, the teacher/librarian who lived next door to my family until we moved from Natchez to Birmingham in 1990 and who had me ‘publishing’ stories by the age of seven.
If you’re thinking these sound like disparate and mismatched parts, you’d be right. But the magic I’m hoping to pull off is in the suturing – the stitching together of these irregular limbs into something more meaningful and (dare I say it) person-al than the average literature dissertation.
What I hope to let loose upon the world is a dissertation project that demonstrates the value of creativity and subjectivity in scholarship, and that expands the notion of what counts as knowledge production in the realm of professional literary studies.
Or, at the very least, I hope my dissertation doesn’t haunt me to the grave.
Gemma Goodale-Sussen, a PhD candidate in the University of Iowa’s English Department, is completing her dissertation under the supervision of Professor Harry Stecopoulos. She writes here about the work she is carrying out this summer with the support of a Next Gen summer internship.
My dissertation project analyzes the ways that turn-of-the-century criminology intersects with and influences American modernist literature. As writers struggled to interpret the modern world, many focused their artistic work on the sprawling, chaotic city—commonly thought of as the great hub of modernism. But several influential writers explored instead groups of people in bounded communities, such as the small town or the artistic coterie. Their engagement with these enclosed groups, I argue, is influenced by criminological thought and practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era when police detectives and prison wardens sought to assemble archives of criminal data in order to render the heretofore untrackable vagrant class more legible. In the work of Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, we can see attempts to cordon off sets of humanity for more detailed study, part of an effort to cope with anxieties about the possibility of “knowing” other people and about the archive/collection as artistic product.
Back in 2006, as a Grinnell undergraduate, I began volunteering with the Liberal Arts in Prison Program, which ran student-led courses in Newton Correctional Facility. It was probably the defining experience of my college years. Later, as a graduate student, picturing myself as that invigorated undergrad, and describing that experience to Professor Linda Bolton, reminded me of the hours I’d spent in the prison library talking about short stories and poetry, culture and representation. I began volunteering with the Writing Workshop at Oakdale Prison in Coralville. For my final paper in Professor Bolton’s Art, Ethics, and Justice class, I wrote about prison photography books and about the ethical limitations/possibilities of representing an under-represented “other.”
That paper became the seed of my current work. I went on to enroll in Professor Rachel Williams’ Feminist Theory course. Professor Williams introduced me to an emerging group, headed by Mark Fullenkamp, that was seeking to preserve and digitize a vast photographic archive of prisoner portraits from the old Iowa State Penitentiary. The collection (now housed in the University of Iowa Main Library Special Collections, thanks in large part to Fullenkamp’s herculean efforts), is incredible. Inspired by the faces that gazed out from these nineteenth-century photographs, I began to research the criminological apparatus of the era that had fostered the exhaustive documentation and collection of data on the so-called criminal man. I also began to imagine a dissertation that would honor the long-dead faces in the penitentiary archive and that would also reach into narratives written by prisoners of that criminological era.
Interestingly, however, I started to veer away from writing about prisoners of the past when I began discussing my work with prisoners of the present. An informal committee, comprised of writers incarcerated at Oakdale, generously reviewed my dissertation plan. The discussion it prompted helped me view criminological thought in less literal terms. At Oakdale, we talked about the ways that the criminal justice system can affect one’s mind, one’s worldview, even the way one sees and interacts with other people. This helped me to see how all people are affected by the categories of meaning in which we are culturally submerged, especially those categories dealing with deviance, surveillance, and “others.” I began to wonder whether, like prison writers, early twentieth-century authors also internalized and reflected their criminological era.
I now spend my time thinking and writing about the consanguinity of the modernist writer and the criminologist, the ways modernism depicted the prison without depicting a prison, the ways writers assembled Rogues’ Galleries from creative coteries. The most exciting finding I’ve made this summer is the discovery of a similarity between nineteenth-century Bertillon cards (designed to identify criminals) and modernist visual and literary artwork. Because the Bertillon card was intended to offer both a subjective and objective view of the person in question, the subject was photographed in both front and profile view, accompanied by a smattering of empirical measurements and personal data. Modernist artwork, too, sought to present a “full” portrait of another person. It was the supposed limitation of portraiture that led Picasso to depict many of his portrait subjects in both front and profile view, and that led Gertrude Stein to create verbal portraits that attempted to represent an (un)knowable other through simultaneously typological and intensely personal renderings.
The Next Gen summer internship is helping me hone my rhetorical skills so that a dissertation which bridges actual and artistic worlds, which addresses the history of incarceration and the development of modernist aesthetics, can communicate effectively with readers both within and beyond the academy.
Marius Kothor received her MA in History from the University of Iowa in Spring, 2017. She will be entering the PhD program in History at Yale University in Fall, 2017. Her research focuses on the role of market women in the construction of national identity in Togo. Follow her on Twitter @AfrikanaPress.
The Nana Benz are powerful cultural icons in the small west African nation of Togo. Starting in the mid-twentieth century, this group of female textile traders built a commercial empire by gaining exclusive rights to the wax patterned prints produced by the United Africa Company for the West African market. My dissertation examines how the Nana Benz used their cultural, economic and transnational networks to shape the political culture of the Togolese independence movement.
Last summer, I conducted oral interviews with some of the Nana Benz in Togo, and this summer, with the support of a Next Gen Digital PhD summer internship, I began the process of uploading these life histories onto the ESRI Story Maps platform. In translating and transcribing the interviews for this project, I noticed an important, and often overlooked, theme in the African women’s lives. Specifically, I discovered how important migration has been in shaping the lives of these influential women.
The mobility of individual Nana Benz throughout their lifetimes adds nuance to the historical literature on migration in Africa during the first half of the twentieth century. Studies on migrancy in colonial Africa have tended to stress the movement of men to urban areas in search of wage labor, thereby leaving women secluded in the rural regions with only the land to sustain them. In these narratives, African women emerge as agency-less, immobile, victims whose sole purpose is to reproduce the labor force for the colonial economy.
The life histories of the Nana Benz disrupt this gendered representation of migration in colonial Africa. Take for example, the story of Mama Afi, a prominent textile trader in Togo’s capital city, Lomé. (The name Mama Afi is an alias.) She was born in the predominantly Ewe-speaking town of Kpalimé in the early 1930s in what was then French Togoland. Despite her birth in the French occupied territory, Mama Afi’s family originated from the Ewe-speaking region of the British Gold Coast colony (Ghana). While she began her career as a market trader by selling household items in the rural markets in Kpalimé, she relocated to the bustling port city of Lomé in her late teens in search of a broader consumer base for her products. While in Lomé, Mama Afi also relied on her connections with market women’s associations in her ancestral homeland in the British controlled Gold Coast to finance her business ventures. With help from these organizations, she established lucrative transnational trading partnerships that eventually led to her becoming a premier distributor of the much sought after Dutch-Wax textiles.
Mama Afi’s story highlights the need for a more nuanced view of African women’s mobility during colonialism. Her movements between the rural and urban areas of Kpalimé, Lomé and the Gold Coast present a striking departure from the historical representation of African women as immobile during the colonial period. Moreover, Mama Afi’s lived experiences illustrate that, despite the limiting impact of European colonial rule on individual self-determination in Togo, the market place, as a historically feminine space in Ewe culture, allowed Togolese women some agency in defining the direction of their lives.
The Next Gen summer internship has given me the opportunity to spend the summer experimenting with various ways to digitally present the life histories of women like Mama Afi. In translating and transcribing oral narratives about the Nana Benz for this project, I discovered important insights into the ways in which migration was gendered in the late colonial period in Togo. This discovery solidified my belief that ESRI Story Maps is the most useful platform for my project because it enables me to map how individual women traversed regional boundaries as well as colonial borders throughout their lifetimes. By showcasing the stories of the Nana Benz in an interactive online platform, I hope to offer public access to a set of narratives about African women’s lives that is contextualized within the larger historical literature on African Women’s history.
Victoria Burns is a PhD student in the English Department of the University of Iowa. She was a member of the Spring 2017 Next Gen PhD pilot class, and as a summer 2017 Next Gen intern, she is working on several writing projects. Her research interests include twentieth-century American literature, trauma, and visual studies.
When I enrolled in Judith Pascoe’s Romanticism class last semester, I had little idea of what to expect. The course, titled Romantic Literatures: Alternative Scholarly Approaches (Next Gen PhD), proposed a process-oriented structure. We would spend the first half of the semester engaging in the familiar graduate-level reading assignments and discussions while also participating in workshops led by Stephanie Blalock and Nikki White, staff members in the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, and by Sarah Bond, Classics professor and mapping expert. In the second half of the semester, we were to focus on our independent research projects, which could take a wide variety of forms.
Rather than demanding a lengthy, polished paper characteristic of graduate seminars, Dr. Pascoe asked us to keep diligent notes about all of our literary and digital humanities research efforts, even if many of those notes would refer to eventual dead ends and failures. She would evaluate not only our final projects, but all of our work over the semester. This structure gave us the freedom to take ideas and run with them; to spend hours mastering new digital skills, even if we eventually chose not to incorporate the digital platforms into our final projects; to spend days and weeks researching topics of interest, even if our ultimate research areas diverged from our original focus.
At the semester’s end, I turned in an assortment of materials, including two (of four) attempts at an introduction to what I imagined would become a lengthy paper about Frankenstein and weather; an extensive bibliography of works ranging from weather-related documents from the 1750s to Mary Shelley’s letters to contemporary scholarly works; and a digital timeline using the Tiki-Toki platform. It was on the timeline that I merged much of my research—meteorological events, scientific discoveries, and moments from Mary Shelley’s life—in a visual manner. The tool’s visual nature also allowed me to fully appreciate the sheer extent of substantial scientific breakthroughs and remarkable meteorological events that occurred around the time Shelley penned the novel.
Because of the class’s format and the emphasis on process over product, I spent most of my time researching and reading, and I didn’t walk away with a polished piece of written scholarship. I can understand how people might see this as a limitation, especially those of us who need to submit a 15-page paper for qualifications. For me, though, this course was an opportunity to study Frankenstein in depth, even though I knew so many scholars had already studied it. The structure also kept me from feeling completely hopeless when I realized in early April that existing scholarship already covered essentially everything I found noteworthy about the novel’s dramatic weather scenes.
I don’t get the impression that process-oriented courses are intended to replace the conventional graduate seminars that require students to submit lengthy pieces of writing. However, I do believe that Dr. Pascoe’s Romanticism course and others like it can create valuable spaces in which students are encouraged to freely explore areas of interest without being overwhelmed by thoughts of a final final product. Furthermore, the writing assignments we completed in Dr. Pascoe’s course—ranging from three-minute thesis presentations to cover letters pitched at job opportunities outside of academe—allowed us to hone writing skills specific to shorter formats, formats often geared toward broad audiences.
Since I entered Iowa’s English PhD program expecting to pursue an alt-ac career path, I welcomed the opportunity to develop skills that I anticipate will be especially relevant for my future career. As the Next Generation PhD grant proposal notes, graduate programs often emphasize longer writing forms, including the dissertation and seminar papers, at the expense of shorter forms. I appreciated the chance to practice condensing and repurposing research findings to suit various formats and audiences, and I believe this practice will be useful for my future work.
As a grateful recipient of an NEH Next Generation PhD summer internship, I hope to use my summer funding to continue developing my writing skills, this time returning to the longer writing form typical of graduate work: the journal article. Though I initially considered finishing and polishing the paper I started in Dr. Pascoe’s class, I’ve instead chosen to focus my attention on a seminar-length paper I produced for another graduate course, one that better aligns with my interest in twentieth-century literature. That’s not to say that I am overlooking the skills I gained and the tools I discovered in the Romanticism course. I expect that I will regularly return to Joseph Williams’s Style (which was included in the class syllabus) as I heavily revise my seminar paper. Williams provides useful tools and exercises for producing stronger writing, and because he focuses on everything from sentence structure to overall organization, his lessons will be applicable to my writing in any form.
In my ideal scenario, I’ll walk away with a piece of scholarship of publishable quality by the end of the summer, but I hope to keep the Next Gen PhD’s process-oriented foundation in mind throughout my internship. Rather than concerning myself only with the pages I have to show at the summer’s conclusion, I hope to consciously cultivate new research and writing skills, acknowledging that these skills will be of value in a variety of future endeavors.
Kate Nesbit is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa. Kate studies recitation, elocution, and oral reading practices in Victorian England and is currently working on her dissertation on the nineteenth-century practice of reading aloud in the home. Her website can be found here. Her Twitter handle is @nesbitkate
Don’t get me wrong—I love paper and ink. I am of the strange species that still takes notes in notebooks, annotates paperbacks, and loves the satisfying sense of completion that follows stapling a freshly printed essay. As an English PhD student here at the University of Iowa, I was—like many doctoral candidates—tasked with the preparation of a rather infamous print document: the Comprehensive Exam Portfolio.
The Comps Portfolio—referred to by my fellow English grad students as “the port,” “the port to doom,” and “the fartfolio”—is an approximately 100-page compilation of written work meant to profile your expertise and prepare you for writing the dissertation. The portfolio is comprised of various parts—a review essay, an academic article, annotations of critical and theoretical texts, syllabi—that are ideally supposed to talk to each other and point towards the student’s dissertation.
I specialize in nineteenth-century sound, listening, and oral reading, and as I began to prepare for my exam, I realized print was perhaps not the best medium for my portfolio’s content. I wanted to link to audio and audio-visual content, and—as someone interested in oral exchange—I wanted the different parts of the portfolio to converse with each other more explicitly.
I completed a print version of my Comprehensive Exam Portfolio, but I also compiled an online version. I constructed this online portfolio using Scalar, a digital humanities publishing platform run by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at University of Southern California—Los Angeles.
As I began constructing the Scalar portfolio, the online version became central to how I thought about, composed, and organized my materials. I take great interest in media and how it shapes information, thought, and consciousness. In the case of my portfolio, the Scalar platform influenced how I perceived and experienced the Comprehensive Examination preparation process. I came to see the portfolio materials as:
Non-linear: Scalar, like most website platforms, allows a user to link different pages of her site through hyperlinks, paths (linear), and tags (non-linear). The Scalar portfolio
asks users to follow self-guided lines of inquiry through thematically linked content. Take, for example my special interest annotations. The Scalar platform allowed me to not only place annotations in multiple categories, but also visualize the relations between annotations and their thematic groupings (Fig. 2).
Conversational: In trying to think about where I could link to different pages and content on my online Portfolio, I found myself thinking more creatively about the connections between different scholars, as well as different aspects of my own work
Porous: By this, I mean that, by looking for ways to link to outside content (YouTube videos, other websites, online archives), I came to more fully appreciate how others’ ideas as well as my own are very much affected by and affecting happenings within and beyond the academy.
That being said, my online portfolio had its limitations. Since the URL is public, I could not include my article, which I hope to eventually publish elsewhere. My exam committee rightfully took issue with some of the ways I categorized, connected, and linked information. And…since I had to create both a print and an online portfolio, it took a lot of extra time.
Even so, I encourage departments and students—especially those interested in media studies—to experiment with different portfolio platforms. An online portfolio just may lead to fresh lines of inquiry and conceptual connections that are—believe it or not—even more satisfying than staples.
As has often been the case over the course of the University of Iowa Next Gen PhD planning year, the advice our guest experts offered ran contrary to the advice graduate students often receive. Our guests were Danielle Dutton, Assistant Professor of English at Washington University, novelist and founder of Dorothy, A Publishing Project, and Eric Zimmer, Senior Historian at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc.
We brought Dutton and Zimmer to campus to participate in a symposium focused on the CV and resume, miniature autobiographies which distill life experience, and which are being supplemented and enhanced by new kinds of professional self-representation (the personal web page, the LinkedIn caption), as well as being transformed in online formats.
We wanted Dutton and Zimmer to help us think about the opposed values of comprehensiveness and compression as they relate to the CV- and resume-writing process, and also to brainstorm about ways in which students might be encouraged from the beginning of their graduate school education to craft different forms of self-representation for different kinds of professional opportunities.
Our guests spoke about these things, but they also, surprisingly, spoke with particular emphasis and in one voice about the value of saying yes to wayward opportunities. Dutton and Zimmer each described time-demanding extra-curricular activities they pursued as graduate students, commitments that turned out to be directly relevant to their ultimate career paths, but which, to a cautious academic advisor, might have looked like distractions and diversions from the dissertation.
I suspect I was not the only member of the audience who recalled a moment when he or she had exhorted graduate students to keep their eyes on the prize, to stay focused on research and writing during the limited amount of time during which they were not teaching or preparing for teaching. But Dutton described her graduate student self as a bulldog who demanded to take extra classes, and who happily took on substantial editorial duties at a literary journal. Zimmer, whose dissertation advisor supported his “diversions,” recalled his participation in the UI History Corps, a graduate-student-led digital and oral history project that emphasizes “how history and the humanities affect everyone’s everyday lives.” In Zimmer’s view, the public history skills he developed in his work with History Corps prepared him for his current career.
Zimmer spoke about advice he’d ignored. “Don’t write book reviews,” he recalled being told, but he counted his ill-advised book review writing as training for his current job, in which he writes for varied audiences and has to communicate in pieces of varied length, for example, in the web site his company created for the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.
When inquiring audience members asked Dutton and Zimmer how they decided which add-on pursuits to follow, Dutton said she always tried to make decisions with integrity, based on what she really wanted to do, a sentiment live-tweeter Katie Walden suggested could serve as an apt slogan for a Next Gen PhD bumper sticker.
“I hate CVs,” Dutton exclaimed at one point, calling the CV a weird and awkward distillation of one’s being, but both she and Zimmer talked about how they came to a new understanding of CVs and resumes when they read them as members of hiring committees. Reading a CV is a subjective thing, they came to realize, and they recommended that job seekers use their application materials to tell a story about themselves. “A CV [or resume] needs to communicate that you are exceedingly competent and exceedingly versatile,” one participant noted.
Zimmer suggested that graduate students look for peripheral opportunities to expand their skills and experience, and that they reverse-engineer their graduate student experience so that their training leads to their desired outcomes. He cautioned that faculty should be open to this kind of graduate student initiative without insisting on it by means of added requirements.
Dutton emphasized that she’d benefited from good luck, but that this luck was partly predicated on hard work. She suggested that an ideal job candidate should demonstrate competency and versatility, but also a kind of emotional agility that does not typically get taught or cultivated in PhD programs.
Dutton’s and Zimmer’s were the last of a series of stellar guest participants in our Next Gen PhD symposia—many thanks to all of them. In our final symposium (scheduled for Wednesday, May 3, 2:00-3:30, Main Library, Studio classroom), we will be discussing this semester’s pilot version of a Next Gen PhD writing- and DH-intensive methods class.
The Next Gen PhD planning committee met this week to prepare questions for our upcoming CV/Resume Symposium, at which our expert guest panelists, Danielle Dutton and Eric Zimmer, will talk about their career paths.
Danielle Dutton (PhD in English, University of Denver, 2007, MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2002), is the author of the highly-regarded historical novel Margaret the First, which takes as its inspiration the life and work of Margaret, Duchess of Cavendish, the seventeenth-century writer and intellectual who was the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London. After receiving her PhD, Dutton worked as a book designer at the Dalkey Archive, and she founded the publishing project Dorothy, which publishes two works a year, mostly by women, in beautiful paper formats.
Eric Zimmer (PhD in History, University of Iowa, 2016), is a Senior Historian at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc. and a Research Fellow at the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies. Zimmer’s dissertation, “Red Earth Nation: Environment and Sovereignty in Modern Meskwaki History,” completed under the direction of Professor Jacki Rand, received the Rachel Carson Prize for Best Dissertation from the American Society for Environmental History. He is at work on a biography of a prominent Jewish politician and businessman on the Northern Plains.
In our Next Gen grant proposal, we talked about the CV and the resume as miniature autobiographies that distill life experience. As the committee composed questions for Dutton and Zimmer, we contemplated all the varied forms in which graduate students might be called upon to represent their personal attributes and aspirations. We were also interested in learning more about how Dutton and Zimmer manage to remain true to their intellectual and creative passions.
Here are some of the questions we’ll be asking Danielle and Eric at our Friday (April 7, 3:30-5:00, EPB 109) symposium:
1) What led you to pursue particular career opportunities (and perhaps not others) after receiving the PhD?
2) Please talk about your research and writing practices.
3) How have you framed yourselves for different employers? What kinds of advice do you give your current students or colleagues about this task of framing?
4) What kind of support (if any) did you receive as a grad student in shaping your CV or resume for the first time? How does your self-representation vary depending on the professional venue?
5) For Danielle: How did you go from a PhD in English and Creative Writing to a job as a book designer at Dalkey Press? For Eric: How did you arrive at your job as a corporate historian?
6) Please give us a glimpse of a day in the life of a small press founder and a public historian.
7) Please talk about your online self-presentation, the extent to which you curate a web site, Wikipedia page, or other modes of highlighting your interests and skills.
8) What are your strengths or interests that don’t get conveyed in your CV or resume? How do you communicate them?
9) Are CV/resume categories changing? Note, for example, the highlighting of where one’s writing is being assigned on syllabi. Is this new? Are there other new categories?
10) How do your imagine your future career path?
11) How did you maintain a confident sense of your scholarly and creative identity at moments of transition or when your career path seemed precarious?
12) If you could redo your graduate education, what would you change? What changes to grad training might be suggested by your experiences?
KatherineWalden, a PhD Candidate in the American Studies-Sport Studies program and is also enrolled in the Public Digital Humanities Certificate. Her research explores race/ethnicity and gender in representations of baseball in American popular culture, with a particular focus on baseball and music intersections. She also teaches a self-designed Rhetoric of Sport curriculum in UIowa’s Rhetoric Department. Her Twitter handle is @KWaldenPhD, and she has an online presence at www.kwaldenpond.wordpress.com.
On Thursday, March 2, UIowa’s Next Gen PhD project brought Slate columnist and German PhD Rebecca Schuman to campus to join with our own Classics Department’s Sarah Bond for a panel on blogging and public writing.
I had the opportunity to engage with Rebecca and Sarah throughout the day, from a grad student lunch to an ill-fated podcast recording session with Sarah (that tragically won’t see the light of day because sometimes remembering to be sure I’ve actually pressed “record” is hard), followed by the public flipped Q&A.
The blogging advice both panelists offered was simple, without being simplistic:
Build versatility, conciseness, and precision in your writing skills. Let your training as a humanities scholar shape your writing as you make sense of particular events or trends. However, a blog post isn’t the condensed version of a seminar paper. Most graduate students are being trained to communicate specialized knowledge to a specialized audience. Jargon isn’t the enemy, but imagine you are writing for a general education undergraduate audience. Not your Department’s upperclass majors—rather, the freshmen and sophomores who need convincing that your discipline’s way of seeing the world matters.
Find a way to produce consistent, quality output for a specific audience. Developing an audience and accumulating a body of work requires years of consistent output and quality content. Trying to build that while managing grad school teaching, research, and coursework loads can be daunting. Start with micro-blogging on a platform like Twitter. Find an online academic community or group of scholars/writers who are working in your area. Many academic organizations have an online presence with a blog; see, for example, the blogs of the American Musicological Society or the North American Society for Sport History. The African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives site gives graduate students the opportunity to be in conversation with established scholars in a vibrant, thriving online blogging community. I’ll be writing a post on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day in a couple weeks for the Sport in American History group blog.
Have a network and don’t be afraid to use it. Sarah Bond’s first piece in the New York Times was published after she reached out to a faculty mentor who wrote for the Times. Her evolution as a public historian was shaped by other classicists she identified as role models for the types of writing and public engagement she wanted to cultivate. Rebecca Schuman’s “Thesis Hatement” piece appeared in Slate after she reached out to a Slate editor. Find the people further down the line who are doing what you want to do. Comb their resumes/CVs, make connections, and be willing to invest in those relationships.
Avoid predatory or exploitative publishing models. Recognize that freelance blogging can provide some financial compensation—but likely not enough to support you full time. The peer-reviewed academic publishing model assumes writing and research labor is being undertaken by scholars who are receiving compensation for their work from an employing institution. Blogging when research and writing are part of your job description, subsidized by your employer, is a unique set of circumstances. I appreciated Rebecca’s clarity in this area. She doesn’t read, edit, or comment on pieces for free. She wrote a piece in the Chronicle on “The Academic Book as Expensive, Nihilistic Hobby.” Talk to a professional faculty member in a journalism department or someone you know who actively freelances. Start to figure out the business side of publishing. Learn the etiquette. Know what practices and publications to avoid.
Detailed advice, thoughtful advice, given by those with a lot of experience pursuing these types of writing opportunities. I’m looking forward to applying it when writing my own baseball-related blog post. If you came to the site wanting a recap of the Next Gen blogging event, you have now reached the point when you can stop reading, close the browser window, and go watch Lin-Manuel Miranda do carpool karaoke with James Corden.
Maybe it was the midterm fog that always seems to set in before Spring Break. Maybe it was the stress of a hectic week overshadowed by my own looming comprehensive oral examination (now successfully DONE). Whatever the full reason, trying to recap and process this Next Gen event has been hard emotionally, mentally, and intellectually.
Interacting with Schuman and Bond was a study in contrasts, for me encapsulated in a moment from the Q&A. Judith Pascoe asked what the panelists would do differently if they could redo their graduate education. Rebecca immediately responded with something along the lines of “I wouldn’t do it,” expanding on her answer to talk about the need for graduate students to get real information about job market prospects and legitimate, substantive support for finding alternate paths.
When asked the same question, Sarah responded “I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe make my interest in GIS clear earlier.” [Apologies to both panelists for my butchered paraphrasing.]
In the graduate student lunch, Rebecca talked about how her graduate school experience required her to shut down or set aside parts of what make her who she is.
In the lost podcast recording session, Sarah talked about her rich formative graduate school experiences, and about mentors who were supportive when her advisors and colleagues didn’t support her public writing.
Bond went from dissertating at UNC to a year-long Mellon Junior Faculty Fellowship at Washington and Lee, after which she was hired for a tenure-track position at Marquette University before taking up her tenure-track position at Iowa.
A study in contrasts. These are two people who had very different graduate school experiences and experienced graduate school (and academia) very differently.
From the conversations I’m having with other graduate students, I think coming face-to-face with someone like Schuman can be terrifying. Many of us want to believe we’re going to be Sarah Bond, but we know somewhere deep down that the job placement data in our fields suggests we’re more likely to have a job market experience like that of Schuman.
Both Bond and Schuman talked about the power and influence of mentors and role models, positive and negative. I’m grateful for the Vanderbilt University faculty who were brutally honest with a naïve PhD-bound undergraduate senior four years ago. They talked about tiered hiring. They talked about the real academic job market. They were as transparent as they could be about the challenges and pitfalls of graduate school. I wish every college senior with an inflated GPA and decent writing chops could receive the same level of candor. I came into graduate school with the rose-colored glasses mostly already off.
Emotional support and self-advocacy matter. I’m grateful for an American Studies department and advisor who are at least somewhat open to my zig-zagging path through grad school. Hearing about Rebecca Schuman’s graduate school experience, I was reminded that openness and receptivity aren’t universal. I’d like to believe the advocacy work that initiatives like the Next Gen PhD project are doing will help shift the conversation and expectations for future graduate students. I might hope that future Next Gen PhD students are provided with support, resources, and community, rather than being expected to figure it out and seek it out on their own. Speaking from experience, trying to build a new infrastructure and communicate alternate goals can be stressful and exhausting, even when faculty are receptive.
Beware the pitfalls of the gig economy. Labor that’s valued should be compensated. Perhaps I’m trying to make a statement about graduate student labor, but I’ll go back to Rebecca’s comment about not freely sharing her time, labor, and expertise. Since the Next Gen event, I’ve started paying attention to the amount of “free” labor expected in academia. [Hint: it’s often gendered emotional labor.] My students skip office hour appointments and expect me to reschedule. I’m irked when a faculty member doesn’t respond to my spring break email. In the now-infamous lost podcast, Sarah Bond talked extensively about the female mentors she leaned on in order to grow as a publicly-engaged scholar. Academia’s culture of undefined work/life boundaries doesn’t translate well into the freelance alt-ac market. To quote Rebecca Schuman, “We don’t live in a Marxist utopia.”
All of this is to say that being realistic matters. I’ve heard Sarah Bond talk in other forums about how her Mellon fellowship was an entry point back into an academic career. Without that experience, her digital and technical skills would have likely moved her toward the alt-ac market. Schuman’s point about getting real job placement information is well-taken, but at some level graduate students have to internalize and personalize the reality of those job placement numbers. “Special snowflake syndrome” is a great coping strategy but a horrible professional development strategy. In my first semester at Iowa, I saw the experiences dissertating students in my program were having on the academic job market. I found myself at the Grad College’s “The Malleable PhD” event, featuring the Lilli Research Group’s L. Maren Woods. It was the Next Generation PhD before we had a Next Generation PhD, and made the degree seem like more than an unemployment death sentence. Transferable skills. Converting CVs to resumes. Identifying skill sets and career sectors. Seeing the PhD as being about skill acquisition and professional development, as well as about subject specialization and research training. Yes, those are all buzzwords, but I’ve got to believe somewhere in there is a path through graduate school that leads toward sustainable, feasible careers for graduate students. Don’t be dismayed or unsettled by Schuman’s contrarian perspective. Visit the Versatile PhD website. Go to the Graduate College’s Open Doors Conference in April. Start to broaden the horizon toward which a PhD can lead.
Stephanie M. Blalock is Digital Humanities Librarian at the University of Iowa and Associate Editor of the Walt Whitman Archive. She artfully uses Twitter to spread the word of new Whitman discoveries. Her twitter handle is @StephMBlalock.
Dr. Ivan Kreilkamp’s “flipped lecture” on the use of Twitter in academia rightfully depicted the social media platform as a very public medium that at once has the potential to connect graduate students to scholars in their respective fields and–for better or for worse–to stand as a perpetual archive of the personal opinions they choose to share at any given moment. On the one hand, as Krielkamp and audience members pointed out, Twitter facilitates networking and community formation, allowing scholars and students to participate in social activism, publicize their own work, amplify the efforts of others, and benefit from having their efforts amplified in return. In an academic climate in which graduate students are increasingly and astutely advised to be entrepreneurial, to create professional online profiles in numerous online venues, and to make connections in and beyond their chosen fields long before tackling the academic job market, Twitter and the act of “tweeting” can play a key role.
On the other hand, Kreilkamp and attendees were also right to advise graduate students and, for that matter, anyone in academia, to exercise caution and to think carefully about the implications of rapidly firing off tweets in the heat of the moment. None of us wants to become famous (and jobless) in the way of Justine Sacco after what the New York Times called “one stupid tweet.” But listening to Kreilkamp and his audience pushed me to think about how graduate students and faculty have used or garnered publicity on Twitter, and, in this post, I want to briefly offer current graduate students a few examples.
In 2010, Dr. Jessica Lawson, then a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa, created the Twitter persona “Feminist Hulk”; the account’s profile picture features Hulk holding a copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. Feminist Hulk’s tweets are commentaries on gender and feminism and have captured the attention of the Ms. Blog, Salon, and NPR, among other media outlets. During the government shutdown in 2013 when WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food and nutrition service) faced uncertain funding and reduced services, Lawson created an online resource to help families find formula and baby food, and turned to the 74,000+ followers of her Feminist Hulk account to help.
In February 2017 and April 2016, Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student, saw his research go viral, both in print and on online news sites, with his work shared widely on both Twitter and Facebook. Turpin’s most recent discovery is a lost novel by Walt Whitman entitled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. Turpin had already uncovered “Manly Health and Training,” a previously unknown journalistic series by Whitman. The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (WWQR, @WaltWhitmanQR), an open access online journal, published both the novel and the series in full, as well as introductions to each work by Turpin. The discovery of Jack Engle was covered by The New York Times, as was that of “Manly Health and Training.” Articles on these discoveries were published on online news sites in Germany, Estonia, Slovenia, Romania, Finland, and Israel, among other countries, and the news was tweeted and shared repeatedly in the days following the publication of the works in WWQR. As of March 2017, “Manly Health and Training,” has been downloaded more than 28,000 times from the University of Iowa’s digital repository, while Jack Engle has more than 29,000 downloads. Turpin’s introduction to the health series has more than 6,500 downloads, while his introduction to Jack Engle has been downloaded more than 4,000 times. In each of these cases, Turpin’s research appealed both to academics and to Whitman’s large popular following, and the publicity generated by Twitter and Facebook posts helped to increase the number of people who encountered his scholarly work and Whitman’s lost publications.
In October 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed William J. Richardson (@HoodAcademic), a PhD candidate in Sociology at Northwestern, who started the #TheseAcademicHands hashtag, which called for Twitter users to tweet out examples of racism and microagressions in academia. The numerous responses are now collected in a “Twitter Moment” that documents instances of “Racism and White Supremacy in the Classroom.” Among the articles and experiences tweeted with this hashtag was the recent story of Suffolk University sociology major Tiffany Martinez, a Latina student, who reported that her professor had returned an essay, circled the word “hence,” and told her “This is not your language,” in addition to writing, “‘Please go back & indicate where you cut & paste,’” implying that Martinez had plagiarized the paper. Martinez’s blog post about the incident went viral in its own right.
Again, the aforementioned examples are not meant to be comprehensive, and they are not the only ways graduate students can use Twitter. But, taken together, they do show how Twitter can help graduate students to build communities of shared experience in and beyond academia; to participate in social activism; to increase the visibility of their experiences and worldviews; to bring their academic interests to bear on larger social, political, cultural, and economic issues; and to demonstrate the relevance and the public engagement aspects of their work. These examples also raise important questions that are worthy of further consideration and discussion. I would like to end with a series of such questions:
What does a replicable model of the successful use of Twitter by graduate students look like?
Can or should graduate students draw search committees’ attention to their use of Twitter for engaging in academic conversation, for making connections to scholars within and beyond their fields, and for demonstrating the public appeal of their academic research? And how much weight, if any, should such use of social media be given in hiring decisions for academic or even alt-ac jobs?
How can graduate students and faculty be given credit for public engagement via Twitter or other forms of social media? Should this be part of a graduate student’s portfolio? A faculty member’s tenure portfolio? Or does such an effort to draw attention to social media use risk becoming a conversation solely about the numbers; will we be measuring success on Twitter by giving credit for number of tweets, number of followers, and number of retweets, or for less quantifiable types of impact?
Is the small chance of going viral, of being visible and recognizable on Twitter, worth the risk of being publicly shamed or losing a job opportunity as the result of one all-too-hastily-typed tweet?
History PhD candidate Mary Wise, American Studies PhD candidate Katie Walden, and Classics PhD candidate Sara Hales contributed to this post. Katie and Sara’s Twitter handles are @kwaldenPhD and @saralynnhales.
In this final mid-year assessment of Next Gen activities accomplished thus far (the first two are here and here), three participating graduate students, after polling their peers, list priorities and future goals.
Some discoveries made through planning process:
Interest in discovering new ways to make research more accessible
Discovery that Next Gen is not only about Alt-Ac careers
Interest in priority given to transferrable skills
Appreciation for model (provided by Amanda Visconti) of making research more public
Interest in possibility of adopting more collaborative research model, perhaps drawing on strategies used in the sciences
Enthusiasm expressed for working outside of the academy—appreciate diversity of topics that Next Gen PhD planning process has covered
Some concerns identified through the planning process:
Risk factors in making research public at an early stage
Need to offer options to graduate students earlier
Importance of preventing Digital Humanities training from becoming one more thing, supplement to existing structures
Need to make sure graduate students have the resources they need in order to accomplish alt-ac work and alt-diss work
Would welcome more attention to divisions between scholarly writing and public writing
Need more discussion of interdisciplinary research and creation of actual collaborative processes within the university