PALS Summer Post Roundup

Site visits and page views are lean for PALS between the May and Labor Day. A summer readership drop-off is a common occurrence for many academic blogs, perhaps especially so for a blog focusing exclusively on teaching. Our traffic successes follow the rhythms of the academic school year. (You can read more about our traffic flow here). Our visits are robust during the fall and spring terms, but drop off during holidays and extended breaks. Again, the readership drop-off phenomenon isn’t exclusive to PALS, as these tweets from Robert Keys show.

 

By the way, if you’re not visiting Keys’ Adverts 250 Project throughout the entire year, you’re missing out!

We even joked about this drop-off earlier in the summer. Our joking paid off and turned into one of our summer blog posts! Side Note: We’re always looking for guest post pitches. Hit us up with your ideas!

The summer months have always been lean for PALS since our rollout in the late summer of 2015. Our readership has climbed over the subsequent years, but the summer drop-off has remained a constant. However, the summer of 2018 topped all previous summers for site views and visitors, no doubt facilitated by a rather substantial uptick in content generated by our regular and guest contributors. PALS usually takes the summer months off, a practice reflecting the fact we understand our success is tied to the rhythms of the academic year.

However, in the summer of 2018 we posted a lot more than usual, which might explain our uptick in visitors to the site. Today’s post is a rundown of our summer 2018 content; it covers May through Labor Day. Think of it as an extended ICYMI as your semester starts to ramp up!

Teaching (Vocation Optional) by Meagan Ciesla

I bring this up because the idea of teaching as a vocation has been on my mind. For many of us in academia, we came to teaching through some other pathway: an interest in lab research, reading that kept us up at night, writing we didn’t want to stop doing. And although teaching is for many enjoyable work, it is often not a calling, but a career.

Teaching Japanese Internment Using Julie Otsuka’s When The Emperor Was Divine by Jessica Thelen

Since I teach at a small, predominantly white institution, I knew that bringing in historical contexts before starting Otsuka’s novel would greatly contribute to students’ understanding and engagement with the text. This was made clear when, on the first day of this mini unit, I asked my students if they had learned about Japanese Internment in school or in some other context, and only a handful of students raised their hands out of a class of twenty-eight.

Dear College Professor: On Your Incoming Students by Clay Zuba

I’m a high school English teacher. I’m writing to you regarding our students, their preparation for college, and how you can best build on this preparation in your classrooms. I freely admit that I am still learning to teach my own students. And I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do. But in my younger days, almost every faculty member with whom I spoke at least once said, “students today . . .”

School’s Out: How to Focus Your Writing With a Summer Writing Group by Randi Tanglen

As many of us know from teaching writing workshops and incorporating peer revision into the classes we teach, writing is a collaborative and community process. Our students’ writing benefits from the feedback and support their peers provide. Yet for many of us, the demands of teaching and instruction make our own scholarly and creative writing an isolating and solitary process. Further, because many of us who read the PALS blog tend to emphasize teaching and pedagogy, our writing might not always be the priority we would like it to be on a day-to-day basis. A summer writing group may help you and your colleagues address concerns about writing in isolation and how to prioritize your own writing.

Some End-of-Semester Thoughts on Academic Struggle by Caitlin Kelly

In my current position I have the opportunity to serve as advisor to first-year students and this was my first time to do that. In one way or another, almost every conversation with my advisees turned to struggle. While some of the struggle they face comes from outside of the university community, a lot of it comes from within. I can only speak to the students I’ve taught but one of the things I’ve noticed about selective institutions is that there is a sense that all high-aptitude students are capable of anything if only they try hard enough.

Schooled in Barbecue by Thomas Hallock

I confess, I had other expectations. Being summer, the time when teachers become learners, I asked Mr. Walker to teach me how to cook ribs. He agreed to school me.

The Field of Reads: Weird Adventures in Course Design and Planning by Greg Specter

The assigned books in my fall honors class are a weird mélange. Notice that I didn’t say “The books that I assigned…” A few of the included texts come via a menu of options generated by a committee of instructors teaching different sections of an honors class in the fall.

Intro to Postmodernism: Questioning the Truth Claim by Matthew Luter

Literary postmodernism is a tough concept to introduce to my high school students. Many students have never heard the term postmodern at all; a few are aware of it as a kind of buzzword that has become a right-wing boogeyman; and more than a few are a little turned off by how academically highfalutin’ it sounds. In order to introduce it to my students, I developed a set of tasks that lean into rather than steer away from the complications of literary postmodernism.

Writing Academically with Emotional Clarity by Brianne Jaquette

I also have come to realize that I didn’t just need to write more; I needed more explanations for what makes good writing. I think the focus on what makes for competent writing in academia is a bit off. Yes, people care about our argument. They care about our sources and our research. But rarely is anyone talking about the quality of our writing, and we fall into bad habits of super long explanations and wordy clauses. We think we already know how to write, so we do not ask anyone about the clarity of our sentences. We only ask, “Does this argument make sense?”

Making Space for Voice and Choice: Assignment Design in an Online Course by Jacinta Yanders

However, in recent semesters, I’ve been thinking more and more about student ownership in the classroom and working to provide opportunities in which students have a hand in shaping the course. In the spring semester First Year Writing course I taught, for example, I had students generate the assessment criteria for their essays and vote on what they believed to be the most important elements of that criteria. By this point, students had seen and worked with sample essays as well as given feedback on drafts from their classmates. They had some sense of concrete moves that came across well to them as readers and other choices that hindered them. Collectively, they were responsible for setting the stakes for the essays and ultimately revising their work to meet those stakes.

This is not a Desk Copy by Greg Specter

It is no wonder the books start getting beaten down physically just by going in and out of bags. Corners dinged. Corners bent. Corners peeling. Stains. The physical destruction of my books is disconcerting for someone that takes care of their books. I take pride in reading a book and finishing it in mint condition. The semester is cruel to my books.

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“Way Harsh, Tai”: Writing Advice for the Personal Statement

This essay is connected to a prior post I wrote about helping graduate students become better writers. While not exactly on the same topic, this piece continues with the idea that we need to find more ways to support and help develop student writing in the discipline of English. The following essay takes that as the overarching goal, but I also deliver particular advice about writing the personal statement for grad school applications. If you are here only for the most practical of the writing advice about the personal statement, it starts after the video from Clueless. If you are here for the long haul, here goes:

Last fall I wrote about how in our discipline we don’t focus enough on teaching graduate students about writing and what writing in the profession actually looks like. We think good writers pick up the tools of writing by osmosis. But we should know better, since so much of the coursework in our profession is dedicated to teaching writing. In the composition classroom, we constantly repeat to our undergraduate students that writing is a process, people aren’t just magically good writers, writing is hard work, etc., yet once we get passed the introduction levels when many of our courses shift to more of a literature base we don’t teach enough about writing. As I wrote about in the last post, this lack of attention to writing falls of a big cliff when students enter graduate school and are expected to be able to navigate all of the ins and outs of writing with very little guidance.

I have realized lately, though, that the biggest drop-off in support for student writing might not happen in graduate school but even before that when students start to gather their material for graduate school. Unlike when students are applying for colleges—when the advice is so plentiful it is probably dizzying—the amount of reliable information about graduate school is lacking. I have a theory on this* but my general advice to students looking to go to grad school is to use as many resources, from your professors to writing on the subject, to figure out where you want to apply and how to apply. I know that many universities have workshops about applying to graduate schools and professors who are asked to serve as graduate school advisors for any student in the department interested in graduate school. Make sure you are using all of the resources at your disposal but also be as discerning as possible in your seeking. I have heard a lot of not great advice about applications, and I think some of the most dreadful of it comes with the personal statement. This is especially true if you don’t have access to good mentors and are trying to comb through resources you find yourself.

In the rest of this post, I want to give some tips for one of the most important parts of the grad school application—the personal statement. But before I get into the meat of the discussion, I would like to mention two important elements:

1) I’m not advocating here for anyone to go or not go to graduate school. You have to make up your mind for yourself, but if you are reading this as a student thinking about applying to graduate school make sure you do your research about graduate school and academic jobs in the profession. And if you are advising a student about graduate school, think about how you can best mentor the particular student you are working with.

2) All of my advice is discipline specific. I would guess that it would broadly apply to at least other programs in the Humanities, but I am only speaking from my personal experience in English literature graduate programs (M.A. and Ph.D.). I know what I am talking about, but it is also coming from my own relationship to grad school and the profession.

Below is my advice to students on their personal statement. I believe it will also help those professors mentoring students, but it is addressed to the students themselves. And while it applies to all personal statements in the field, I am specifically addressing undergraduate students who have probably not written these kinds of personal statements before:

Some of the following points might make you bristle a bit because they are a little bit blunt, but it is hopefully practical too. I just want you to succeed, I promise.

Before you write your statement: 

  • Get as involved in your academic discipline as possible. These are all things that you can do in the year or two before you apply for graduate school. I think a lot of application committees would be interested in you discussing:
    • Your senior thesis. If you have the option to write a senior thesis, you definitely should.
    • Your involvement in English-specific organizations, such as Sigma Tau Delta.
    • Any conference that you have attended.
    • If you tutor or work in the writing center.
    • If you have been an RA or TA for a professor.
    • A student journal that you have worked on.
  • If you are applying now and you haven’t done any of the things I mentioned, that isn’t necessarily a huge problem, you can still discuss the coursework you have done and the papers you have written for your classes.

While preparing to write your statement:

  • Be skeptical about information you find online. I know you can find out anything from Google, but I have not read a lot of good advice on personal statements on the internet. (If you have gotten here because of a Google search, well, you have to make the big decision whether to trust me or not.)
  • The personal statement is incredibly misnamed. It is not personal at all. Rename it in your head: the professional statement. Once you have made this switch, you will have a better understanding of what kind of information needs to go into the statement.
  • Think of yourself as a scholar and begin to construct a narrative of your scholarly interests. It will be easy to do this if you are an M.A. student applying for Ph.D. programs, but you should start thinking this way even if you are an undergrad. (Some people will probably argue that this is too much professionalization to ask of an undergrad, but I think this is where we are at in terms of what will impress committees.) When you applied to college, you were most likely trying to be a well-rounded student. You played soccer, were in the school play, took vocal lessons, and maintained a great GPA. The kinds of extracurricular activities that you listed on your college applications and in your college essays don’t matter anymore. You want to construct a narrative of your intellectual history and scholarly interests.
  • In order to construct a narrative of your intellectual history, you want to think about the choices you have made in your course work and the other activities I mentioned above. What are the threads that you see in your work? Do you see yourself continually working with the same themes? Are you drawn to particular time periods? Have all the papers you wrote in the last two years been about poetry, or fiction, or…? In other words, close read your own choices as an English major and draw connections in order to see the throughlines.

When writing the statement:

  • No one cares if you love literature! I know this is harsh, but I promise you do not need to convince anyone that you love literature. Of course, you love literature; you are applying to graduate school. Leave the section about loving literature in your draft. It doesn’t need to be said to the application committee.
  • Do not tell the story about when you first learned to read, or when you first were drawn to literature, or when you decided to become an English major. This is something I have seen over and over again, and I think it wastes time and space in a personal statement. I would just jump right in to what I had to say about my scholarly interests.
  • What committees do want to hear about:
    • The history of your intellectual career so far. What courses have you taken? What work have you done? What papers have you written?
    • How this has combined to give you a trajectory moving forward. In other words, how will you use this past history in grad school?
    • What your specific area of interest is. You do not want to study English. You want to study nineteenth-century American literature or contemporary Latinx literature. Be as specific as possible here.
    • A specific focus/research plan depending on your program and what level of program you are applying for. You might, for example, outline what you would want to write your M.A. thesis on depending on how the program you are applying to is structured.
    • Any teaching/tutoring experience you have that will be applicable to the requirements of your program.
    • I think the personal statement should be personalized for each school. What do you know about that school and what do you specifically want to do at that school? Why are you applying there? This can include:
      • Professors you want to work with.
      • Classes you want to take.
      • Organizations you want to be involved in.
      • Special collections and archives you want to work in.
    • Your long-term future goals. Why are you getting this degree?
    • It is important to note that you will not be beholden to any of this. You will not be punished if you say you want to work on a specific topic and once you are in graduate school, you change your mind. Professors want to see that you know what to expect from graduate school and that you will be capable of doing the work. It is okay to shift once you are there.

After writing the statement: 

  • Send it to your professors to read. Ask them for their thoughts on your drafts.
  • Proofread the heck out of it.
  • Make sure it is appropriately personalized for each school.
  • Send it to the professors who are writing you recommendation letters, so they can write about your plans in their letters.

Those are my main ideas about personal statements. I’m sure people have further tips to give, so I would love to hear it. What is your best personal statement advice? What do you wish someone had told you before you applied to graduate school?

*Academia is full of gatekeeping. One of the first acts of keeping that gate closed is the application process. Of course, applications are by nature ways to keep some people out and let others in. However, a big part of the gatekeeping for the application also has to do with how students are or are not taught to approach the application. Maybe there isn’t a lot of information about the personal statement because people don’t really want you to know—there is some sort of prestige in figuring it out on your own. I don’t really believe in this kind of thinking, so I hope this essay unmasks the process a bit.