Revisiting my last post as another semester winds down

College is not wasted on the young.  The student who made me sad in the last post has turned out to have the instincts of a reporter.  He’s not my most disciplined writer – so he doesn’t pull the best grades – but he goes out and finds stories that could be published in any news outlet.  Because they’re newsworthy.

I’ve had so much fun teaching media writing this semester.  We have to be generalists at Longwood; some classes feel like more of a stretch than others.  Teaching Media Reporting and Writing feels like breathing – teaching it comes that naturally.

Oh yeah, it’s a lot of work.  Lots of reading articles and giving specific feedback.  Depending on your perspective, I have the luxury and/or the misfortune of teaching 29 people in two class sections how to newsgather and mediawrite.

Of course, it’s the 80 I teach in three other class sections that brings me to the semester I’ve had.  Media & Society – a range-y course in which we struggle with two questions: how does media affect society?  And how does society create and control media?  Like I said – a range-y survey course in which we cover too much.  My goal, however, is not the content as much as teaching critical thinking, particularly media criticism.  This can be a lot of fun, but it means moving beyond multiple-choice tests and into the realm of blogging and small group presentations and writing.

That’s right – more reading of student writing, more feedback on student writing. And that’s time intensive.   Messier than A B C D.

But that’s what these college students need.  They need practice writing and they need my feedback on how to do it better.  And, like the rest of us, they figure out what they want to say be writing it out.  Epiphanies abound.

And I guess that’s why I’m here, teaching at Longwood U, working so hard that I neglect both my personal life and the rest of my professional life … this blog, for example, and my Eastern Shore Stories Project.

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Is college wasted on the young?

I teach media studies at a small public university in central Virginia.  My classes are filled with students from the region – we’re a well-kept Virginia secret – and almost all the students are between the ages of 19 and 22.   I do have one older gentleman in one of my classes and he is excited to be in school.  So excited to be learning.  I understand that feeling, having chosen to get my Master’s and PhD as a “non-traditional” student.

Learning can be fun.

On Thursday during class, we left the classroom and walked the campus.  The course is media reporting & writing. The topic of the day was “where do story ideas come from?”  So much of university work is purely intellectual, but media writing is not.  It involves all of a person’s senses, with their curiosity completely engaged, to become an effective media reporter and writer.  So we walked the campus in search of stories.

Found them we did.  We walked into buildings that most of us hadn’t entered before.  Talked about history that predated any of our tenures at Longwood U.   Back in the day, there was no central pedestrian commons uniting the campus – there were streets that locals used to get across town.  Even after the commons was built, at least one older local resident drove down the sidewalks and flowerbeds – he still thought it was a city street.

In the music building, two professors emerged from their offices to talk with us.  More ideas for potential stories.  One eloquently urged us to explore the basement practice area, to talk with music students sequestered there – “for whom the homework is never finished.”

“It’s not like math,”  he said to us, “where there are right and wrong answers.  Music students have to practice again and again.  And to be self-critical.  Did they get the fingering, the feel of the piece?”  A solid feature profile idea from a chance encounter.  It was better than I hoped we’d experience on our walk around campus.

I also had a student disappear from the walk.  He apparently thought that a walk around campus was his chance to escape from class.   He’s the same student who keeps asking me why we’re doing things – “what was the point of that?” is his general approach.  It makes me sad – his youthful arrogance will cause him to miss so much.  And he’ll likely be paying student loans for years on classes he barely attended.

He makes me think college is wasted on the young.

And now … the rest of my professional life …

Since I started teaching full-time at Longwood University in August, I have had to focus on course preparation, the transition to new job, new routine, new institutional culture, and completing and defending my dissertation, which I did in October over Longwood’s fall break.

No time for blogging.  Not much time for anything really, except the job.  But I was “hooded” in a December graduation ceremony – officially becoming a Doctor of Philosophy in Media, Art, and Text.

Being “hooded” sounds creepy, but I found it to be a cool ritual.  I walked into the ceremony as part of the formal procession of faculty and graduates, carrying my academic hood over my arm like a four-star waiter’s towel.  During the graduation ceremony, my name was called, I walked forward, gave the hood to Dr. Kathy Bassard, chair of VCU’s English Department, and turned around so she could drape it over my neck and arrange it behind me.

Because she’s shorter than I am, I had to kneel down slightly – which added to the ritual of the moment.  Being hooded felt like a sort of soft-cloth knighting ceremony – with roots back into the Middle Ages and the birth of universities within monasteries.

My parents, my husband and my daughter were in the audience as witnesses, as well as several professors and some MATX’ers I’ve been in seminars with.

Also in attendance was the chair of my dissertation commitee, Dr. Noreen Barnes, who let me wear her academic tam instead of the standard-issue mortarboard VCU had given me.  Not only was the tam more attractive – the fact that she let me borrow it for the ceremony was a nice symbolic gesture. As an Associate Professor in VCU’s Theatre Department, she knows the value of ritual and gesture.

So now that I’ve completed the MATX PhD program, the question becomes –  how do I stay fresh and engaged with my field so my classes in Communication Studies at Longwood stay fresh?  And, given the interdisciplinary nature of the MATX degree, what constitutes my field?  What journals do I follow and what conferences do I attend?  Is that even the path I will take as an academic?

Those questions are why – although I could have spent the day grading the design projects I took in on Wednesday or working on notes for the Communication Theory class I’m teaching – instead I spent the morning investigating professional associations and journals.

The Oral History Association ?

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication ?

One I may join simply because I love the fact that they meet every March in Orlando, Florida, and cover topics like: “Gender and Feminism in Science Fiction”,  “Staging Monstrosity” and “Terrifying Futures: Post-Apocalyptic, Post-Human Dystopias” …  The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts

Who do I want to become as a writer, media producer, and scholar?

I can see the forest, but it’s a blur!

You know that moment when you’re riding a roller coaster and you’re poised at the top of the first rise for split second before the coaster releases and barrels forward?

Everest roller coaster, Walt Disney World, November 2009

Click, click, click … those few seconds of anticipation …  excitement and terror threaded together.

I know I’m not going to die, but as I slam through the turns, I feel like I might.

That’s the way I feel right now,  a few days away from the start of the fall semester.

The job search is over.  I accepted a position teaching communications full-time at Longwood University.     This fall, I’m teaching multiple sections of Public Speaking and Media & Society.

Meanwhile, my dissertation has been revised twice and is  ready to go to the full committee, with a defense planned for this fall.

It looks like I might graduate in December.

Oh yeah, and the ESVHS & I were awarded a second grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to continue collecting farm life interviews for the Eastern Shore Stories project.

There’s more, but I’m breathless.

Wheeeeee … here I go !

Does this mean if I look behind me I’ll see the forest now?  I think the answer is yes, but the trees are a blur ’cause I’m moving too fast.

on being plugged in … how much is too much?

This seems important for my dissertation research, as well as my eventual teaching in media studies. Turkle argues that we need to ask ourselves if an obsessive use of social media technologies is taking humanity to a place we’ll want to inhabit.

In my research, I’ve broadened the question to include other forms of technology, like bioengineering and the use of chemicals in agriculture. What if our trust in technology is taking us someplace we don’t want to be? Seems true for farming. For a sense of community and local economies. For freedom and privacy. For civil discourse. For happiness.

Definitely an issue worth talking about. A conversation, perhaps over a meal … with everyone listening and no one texting.

I do think that most people try to strike a balance and unplug themselves occasionally … at least in our sleepy southern city of Richmond. Or maybe I just run with a more contemplative crowd – a crowd that likes to unplug, that dislikes the tether of instant communication. Seems like people I know are asking these questions. I don’t think I know anyone who sleeps with a cell phone … wonder if Turkle’s research took her outside the urban Northeast corridor?

I’m either writing a dissertation or running away from home …

I’ve carved out a few days to write – away from Richmond and my family – hanging out on the Eastern Shore … just me, the dogs, limited access to wifi, and spotty cell reception.

I’m restless … that’s usually the case on the first day I’m here alone with a project.  I can feel momentum building … I’m hoping that an explosion of words, phrases, sentences that make sense will follow.   Right now, ideas and connections are bouncing around just at the edge of articulation.

Solitude is good for this stage of writing – allows stuff to perk without having to explain my not-yet-formed ideas.   Of course, I’ve also been fantasizing about a new career direction in solar panel installation and I took a nap after an early lunch of leftover quiche.

Since yesterday I’ve read most of one book, and skimmed two others. Matthew Crawford’s book Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work is one I’d like to share with everyone I know … as well as future students.  Seems apt reading for someone finishing a doctorate.

His analysis about the value of skilled manual work is useful as I try to parse out the general sense I got from the farm life oral histories I’ve collected about the intrinsic reward in knowing how to do things.   People don’t usually state it directly … but knowing soil and microclimates, plowing straight rows without GPS systems, growing quality vegetables, being self-sufficient … a grounded pride in knowing how to do stuff comes through in the interviews.   That’s what my fourth chapter is about, among other things.

Now I can add writing a blog entry to my list of moodling activities.  All part of the process … luckily I’ve done enough writing to recognize it for what it is – a priming of the pump, so to speak.  Either that, or I’m using the dissertation as an excuse to run away from home for a few days.

On seeing the forest …

I’ve been in a job search frenzy for the past week or so.  Starting to lose sight of why I enrolled in an alternative, interdisciplinary PhD program in Media, Art, and Text.  Starting to think that dragging my family all over the US in search of that tenure-track faculty position is what I did this for. That was never my intention.  Never.

Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast, summer 2011

Like the picture?  I took it this summer on our family trip – inserted here simply because I like it.  Okay, and because it has trees.  So … I never intended to chase after that elusive tenure-track position.  I’m a teacher by trade, a good one.  I’ve been working on my Teaching Portfolio this morning – adding a few things, modifying a few things.

Because I’m working on an application to teach core communications classes, I pulled up the Core Curriculum Course I designed to take another look at it.  I call the course: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?   The idea is that I use interesting course material from media studies as a Trojan horse to provide students a place to practice and improve core academic skills:  presentation skills, writing, information fluency (we used to call it research), critical thinking.

Here’s the syllabus: Obsession & Outliers, Insiders & Outsiders: Whose Story Is It?

So what was my intention in pursuing the Media, Art & Text PhD? I do want to teach at the University level – I do it well and I needed the paper credential to have a shot at earning a living wage.  I wanted to continue to improve as a writer. I’ve done that. I’m also gaining skills as an audio documentary producer. And an oral historian. I designed my own website and know enough about coding to clean up the posts on my blogs.

Oregon Coast

The forest? I’m kinda deep in the trees right now.

Applying for jobs that sound interesting and that I’m qualified to do. In places we might consider living. ‘Cause it’s the next right thing to do, sort of like getting this degree was the next right thing to do.

“Way will open” – that’s what Quakers say. Kinda like what you see in this picture, also from our summer trip.

At the start of this trail, I smelled something strong, with a twinge of ammonia. I thought it was urine.  My assumption was drunks partying and peeing in the woods, but the park rangers said that a mountain lion had been there, that the scent was hers.

There’s much I don’t know.  I do know, because I walked it, that the end of this sandy trail through the woods opened onto the vista I posted in the other photograph.  Sand dunes and small stands of trees and the Pacific Ocean stretching out beyond everything.  I was with people I love on a beautiful day, in a beautiful place.

When I looked back, I could see the forest.

on conference choices and career building

Over the weekend I picked up a book on building a platform for a writing career.  Turns out I’ve started to do exactly what they recommend, mostly propelled through my graduate school work.  But it’s time to get more focused.

For example, I’m delivering a paper at the Virginia Humanities Conference on March 26.  Giving academic presentations is one of the ways a person builds an academic career.

At the same time, I am jazzed by my writing seminar this semester.  The career I have in mind is not a traditional academic career, but a creative one blending scholarship with creative projects.

Which means the conference I probably should be attending is the Writers at the Beach Seaglass Conference in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware.  It takes place at exactly the same time as the VHC in Staunton, Virginia.  I can’t be in two places at the same time – and I’ve already paid the registration for the VHC, booked a hotel room, and had planned to attend the entire conference and network with people teaching at Virginia colleges and universities.

Now I’m wondering if attending workshops and networking at the Writers at the Beach conference might be more productive than attending paper presentations and networking at the VHC.  So I’m thinking about giving my presentation at the VHC on Friday morning and then booking it across two states to Delaware to attend the writing conference.  Seems a bit crazy.  And expensive.  And perhaps unfair to the folks at the VHC.

after reading "just don’t go"

Just finished reading two depressing articles about the lack of jobs for Humanities PhDs.  I already knew this, but Thomas Benton certainly states it bluntly in his Chronicle of Education articles. It’s true that most English PhDs end up working as adjunct professors for less than a living wage.  That’s not where I want to be even five years from now.  But then I stumbled on this paragraph in his follow-up article:

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

I didn’t enter this PhD program in order to find a tenure track job in the Humanities.  That would be a wonderful thing, but my expectations are low.  As Benton says, it’d be like “winning the lottery.”  Do I even want a tenure-track job?  I entered an unconventional PhD program to learn technical skills and to broaden my choices in crafting a hybrid kind of career … one that combines teaching with writing, and perhaps nonprofit work propelled primarily by grants.

That’s why my focus this semester, beyond completing the hoops for the doctorate, is my writing – perhaps completing a book of short stories to shop around by July.  That’s the other part of this binary star of a career I’m trying to jumpstart. 

Thomas Benton’s “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go”
Thomas Benton’s “Just Don’t Go, Part 2”

working in thin winter light

This time of year I find it hard to be motivated, productive, or light-hearted.  I don’t know if it’s the chill or the long nights … but I want to hibernate … to sleep and to dream.  Instead, I work on my projects and make lists and push myself to check stuff off the lists and keep our household running as if the weather and the thin winter light didn’t exist.

I blog less when I’m in this state.

One reason so many people become giddy with snow that closes everything down is that most of us are pushing too hard.  It’s not good for our bodies.  It’s not good for our spirits.  But there’s the mortgage to pay and achievement to show at the end of the day.

I love to work … but most work I’ve been asked to do over my lifetime has not felt like real work to me, but like something I do to promote someone else’s agenda and to bring in life-maintenance money.  As long as I sort of agree with the agenda, I’ve been able to pull this off.  With every passing birthday, however, I increasingly tire of wasting time that I won’t get back – that’s why I’m pursuing a PhD.  I’d like to spend my life doing the work I love to do … writing and research and teaching writing and research … and get paid enough, maybe just enough, to provide food, shelter, clothing, and soul-sustaining cultural experiences for me and my family.

It’s a simple goal.  I’ll see it more clearly as the days get longer and the nights shorter.