The Old College Try: Year Two


Today I spent about 5-6 hours working student registration and advising new students into the best possible schedule. I have to say it felt GREAT being back on campus–almost a sort of homecoming. The excited students (and even the nervous ones) exude an energy that is hard to describe. It’s also a good chance to see some of the other students who “woke up” and suddenly realized they’d graduated high school last June and are supposed to be “doing something” now that it’s fall. Despite being something of an introvert when it comes to socializing, I really do enjoy working with people in a professional capacity–be it colleague to colleague or professor to student. And it is fun to help set these students off into a new direction–who knows how some of them will turn out?!

Tomorrow is the faculty and staff convocation where we officially get welcomed back to campus and collectively usher in the new academic year. It will be good to see some of my coworkers again. Frankly, I feel like I was losing my mind a bit towards the mid-end of May as I was preparing to head off to IUP to take my Ph.D. candidacy exams and wrap up my doctoral coursework. So, I’m hoping they can get my back up to speed in time for the start of the year (Which computers did we have special programs installed in? Whatever happened to those grant requests? Where’s my office? lol)

I’ve decided to set a few goals for this semester and I hope they work out okay:

1. Be a good dad to Noah and the incoming little boy (whose name Lisa and I are not yet releasing).
2. Be a good husband.
–> I love my job but at some point, I will need to retire but my family will always be there (I hope!), so priorities are important.
3. Find 2-3 new ways to be a better teacher for my students.
4. Reach at least a couple students in each course I’m teaching. Help these students “get it” when they never “got it” before.
5. Strengthen the rest–help them be more confident in their abilities and see good in themselves.
6. Between new babies, teaching overloads, doctoral prep, and new additional responsibilities… I’m hoping I don’t lose my mind. But more important than that, I hope I have a lot of fun!

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My Road to the Ph.D.: The Final Countdown!


In less than 3 hours, I will be getting in my car and driving east.  Then, it’s time for a much-needed family vacation to Florida.  Needless to say, I’m counting down the hours.  Still, it’s a little odd to think that I am about to sit in my class as a student.  From this point on, it’s independent work only and then I reach my terminal degree.  Very weird.  Almost surreal.

It’s been a weird experience.  Last year, I felt much more excited about being a “Ph.D. student” and I was more immersed in my coursework.  This summer has been much more of a metacognitive experience where I’ve been much more aware of how my classmates and I were responding to the teaching material and methods employed by our professors.  And frankly, how well they did or did not facilitate learning in the classroom.  From discussions I’ve had with classmates, it seems many of us have learned that some of our best learning and teaching this summer came from within.  While I’m not sure that was an explicit goal for everyone one of our professors, I can at least go home today feeling every bit as confident in my own abilities.

And as I’ve mentioned before, it’s confirmed my belief that the life of the scholar is not for me.  I’ll use this degree to create opportunities for me, but it’s teaching that most revs’ my engine, and I’m glad to clear away any doubt about this.  From this point on… I’ll probably still blog a bit but the focus on my doctoral will probably diminish some, and will instead focus on teaching and pedagogy as this something I’m really interested in learning more about.

For now though, I’m just happy to be going home.  I have a wife who is in much need of her “trophy husband” (as she likes to call me), and a boy who needs to partake in a good deal of rough-housing (as all boys need!-).  I also have a date with the state of Florida and the Land of the Mouse.  Banana Daisqueris, here I come!

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My Road to the Ph.D.: A Wrong Turn?


I feel disappointed in many regards that my posting this summer has been so minimal.  It’s hard to keep a record of something if you don’t write things down, right?  Still, it’s been a busier and far more frustrating summer than I was hoping for in many ways.  I think, under the auspices of ‘If you can’t say anything nice…’ I was aiming to simply not write anything at all.  Still, I’m nearing the end of my second summer, as well as the tail end of my doctoral coursework, and I thought it’d be a good idea to jot some thoughts down.

First off, I’m beginning to think I’ve taken a wrong turn in pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  I’m thinking the degree I’m pursuing is not the right course of study for me.  Pretty hard lesson to learn after already having secured over $20k in loans and when my wife will have invested over 20 weeks of single parenting once this summer is done.  I should explain this a bit.

Where to begin?

I guess I never really saw how isolated many professors in the field of English literature are from their students.  Let me ask a question and see if this puts things into perspective.  What sort of job do you think the overwhelming majority of graduate students who are getting a Ph.D. in English will do once they receive their degree?  While I’m sure there are other options out there… I can’t think of anyone who isn’t looking to secure a position as an English professor in higher education.  Realizing that this is the direction that (more or less) all of us will be going, why then don’t we hear about how we can use the specific course content within a classroom setting?  And while I’m only talking about doctoral students here, I can tell you a large number of English majors from my undergraduate and master’s programs were all going into teaching (at some level) as well.  The question remains: Why don’t the vast majority of professors take the time to incorporate pedagogical elements into their classrooms when they should know that’s where we’re all going?  I’ve had the experience of attending a private four-year school, a public state university, and a research-level 1 university, and I can only think of 2 or 3 professors that have ever dealt with this issue directly, and only 1 who made it an explicit part of the course (and her course was an elective–not a required part of my program of study).

This leads me to a few conclusions.  First, it confirms to me that my passion is continuing to cool when it comes to literature.  While I don’t mind talking about books and picking them apart, I see this is more of a leisurely experience with little practical value when done in isolation–as I often see happening in college classrooms today.  What I find much more fascinating and worthwhile is seeing how these activities can serve as vehicle for developing critical thinking and hone one’s ability to communicate with the written and spoken word.  I think it’s amazing when we look for ways that we can take texts and help students connect them to their own experiences, which can then help them find words and experiences to help shape and give voice to ideas they might not otherwise have been able to articulate.  But knowing how to create these experiences with our students and these texts–many from different periods of time and different cultures–can be very challenging, especially for teachers who have not been in the field for as many years.  This is the direction we as a field should be taking, and I don’t see anywhere near enough of this taking place.

Furthermore, I sometimes feel like there is an actual resistance to this movement towards making texts teachable.  While this might sound ludicrous (and I hope it does!), I’ve personally seen it this semester from both students and teachers–though fortunately less from my classmates.  Some time back, I had someone actually tell me teaching some groups of students was a waste of time (see one of my blog entries from last summer).  Even this past summer I had a fellow student say in class that we shouldn’t always have to worry about whether we can teach this book or not.  Then why the hell bother with it?!   I’m willing to concede that some books can be artistic and do not lend themselves to instruction.   Further, I fully understand that art and literature are not always meant to be utilitarian in nature, so we shouldn’t expect everything to have a practical, teachable use.  I get it.  But when I suggest that one of the strengths of a novel is that it seems very teachable and I’d be interested in discussing how others might consider using in their classes, I’m not sure why someone else would openly state total disinterest in classroom application?  Why such hostility towards finding ways to improve what we spend 10 months (or more!) out of the year doing?!

While there are certainly good, pedagogically-oriented English teachers out there, I guess I’m finding that between my own experiences and discussions with colleagues these rare and exemplary people are the exception–not the rule.  And frankly, if the field of English literature cannot more readily embrace the concept of relevancy in the classroom, then I am openly embracing the already increasing trend of the disappearance of the field altogether.  That’s right: I’m all for letting the field die.  And you know why?  Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom before one figures out it is time to do something different.  It’s what Milton referred to as the “fortunate fall” and it’s what Bruce Wayne was told as a child–we fall down so we can pick ourselves back up.  Maybe this field needs to fall even more, be further abandoned enmasse as it already is by undergraduates left and right.  These students who fully recognize that this is a field of study that does not want to meet them where they are, but instead, wants them to scale the mountain and learn from the “masters.”  Maybe it’s time we come down off the mountain ourselves and find ways to make this wonderful body of knowledge relevant to the world today.  I still believe there is a place for the classics and I count it a disservice to students when we remove Shakespeare from the curriculum; however, if we fail to make this relevant to them in a real world fashion, then it’s a pointless exercise.  And really, who has the time to commit to studying this stuff if the teacher can’t bother to connect the students to the reading.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon.  And so, I’m left feeling like I’m on the wrong field of study.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to get this degree because whether I like it or not, teaching in higher education often requires those funny little letters at the end of one’s name.  I also think that maybe years from now, I may try and work some change from the inside.  But for now, I’m much more interested in learning how to become a better teacher of writing, reading, and critical thinking.  I’d rather spend my days helping students develop and better navigate the world in which they live–something I’m just not seeing enough of in classes today.  I do find myself thinking perhaps getting my doctorate in education would have been more relevant than literature, but at the end of the day, it’s less about the funny letters at the end of your name and more of what you do that counts.

Yes, content is important but I think using content to help our students become more aware of themselves and the world they live in can be a far more valuable approach.  Failing to bridge the gap, I think this field is going to continue to be in trouble.

First off, I’m beginning to think I’ve taken a wrong turn in pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  I’m thinking the degree I’m pursuing is not the right course of study for me.  Pretty hard lesson to learn after already having secured over $20k in loans and when my wife will have invested over 20 weeks of single parenting once this summer is done.  I should explain this a bit.

Where to begin?

I guess I never really saw how isolated many professors in the field of English literature are from their students.  Let me ask a question and see if this puts things into perspective.  What sort of job do you think the overwhelming majority of graduate students who are getting a Ph.D. in English will do once they receive their degree?  While I’m sure there are other options out there… I can’t think of anyone who isn’t looking to secure a position as an English professor in higher education.  Realizing that this is the direction that (more or less) all of us will be going, why then don’t we hear about how we can use the specific course content within a classroom setting?  And while I’m only talking about doctoral students here, I can tell you a large number of English majors from my undergraduate and master’s programs were all going into teaching as well.  The question remains: Why don’t the vast majority of professors take the time to incorporate pedagogical elements into their classrooms when they should know that’s where we’re all going?  I’ve had the experience of attending a private four-year school, a public state university, and a research-level 1 university, and I can only think of 2 or 3 that have ever dealt with this issue directly, and only 1 who made it an explicit part of the course (and her course was an elective–not a required part of my program of study).

This leads me to a conclusions.  First, it confirms to me that my passion is continuing to cool when it comes to literature.  While I don’t mind talking about books and picking them apart, I see this is more of a leisurely experience with little practical value when done in isolation–as I often see happening in college classrooms today.  What I find much more fascinating and worthwhile is how these activities can serve as vehicle for developing critical thinking, honing one’s ability to communicate with the written and spoken word.  I think it’s amazing when look for ways that we can take texts and help students connect them to their own experiences, which can help them find words and experiences to help shape and give voice to ideas they might not otherwise have been able to articulate.  But knowing how to create these experiences with our students and these texts–many from different periods of time and different cultures–can be very challenging, especially for teachers who have not been in the field for as many years.  This is the direction we as a field should be taking, and I don’t see anywhere near enough of this taking place.

Furthermore, I sometimes feel like there is an actual resistance to this movement towards making texts teachable.  While this might sound ludicrous (and I hope it does!), I’ve personally seen it this semester from both students and teachers–though fortunately less from my classmates.  Some time back, I had someone actually tell me teaching some groups of students was a waste of time (see one of my blog entries from last summer).  Even this past summer I had a fellow student say in class that we shouldn’t always have to worry about whether we can teach this book or not.  Then why the hell bother with it?!   I’m willing to concede that some books can be artistic and do, not lend themselves to instruction.   Further, I fully understand that art and literature are not meant to be utilitarian in nature, so we shouldn’t expect everything to have a practical, teachable use.  I get it.  But when I suggest that one of the strengths of a novel is that it seems very teachable and I’d be interested in discussing how others might consider using in their classes, I’m not sure why someone else would openly state total disinterest in classroom application?  Why such hostility towards finding ways to improve what we spend 10 months (or more!) out of the year doing?!

While there are certainly good, pedagogically-oriented English teachers out there, I guess I’m finding between my own experiences and discussions with colleagues that these rare and exemplary people are the exception–not the rule.  And frankly, if the field of English literature cannot more readily embrace the concept of relevancy in the classroom, then I am openly embracing the already increasing trend of the disappearance of the field altogether.  That’s right: I’m all for letting the field die.  And you know why?  Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom before one figures out it’s time to do something different.  It’s what Milton referred to as the “fortunate fall” and it’s what Bruce Wayne was told as a child–we fall down so we can pick ourselves back up.  Maybe this field needs to fall even more, be further abandoned enmasse as it already is by undergraduates left and right who fully recognize that this is a field of study that does not want to meet them where they are, but instead, wants them to scale the mountain and learn from the “masters.”  Maybe it’s time we come down off the mountain and find ways to make this wonderful body of knowledge relevant to the world today.  I still believe there is a place for the classics and I count it a disservice to students when we remove Shakespeare from the curriculum; however, if fail to make this relevant to them in a real world fashion, then it’s a pointless exercise.  And really, who has the time to commit to studying this stuff if the teacher can’t bother to connect the students to the reading.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon.  And so, I’m left feeling like I’m on the wrong field of study.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to get this degree because whether I like it or not, teaching in higher education often requires those funny little letters at the end of one’s name.  I also think that maybe years from now, I may try and work some change from the inside.  But for now, I’m much more interested in learning how to become a better teacher of writing, reading, and critical thinking.  I’d rather spend my days students develop and better navigate the world in which they live–something I’m just not seeing enough of in classes today.  I do find myself thinking perhaps getting my doctorate in education would have been more relevant than literature, but at the end of the day, it’s less about the funny letters at the end of your name and more of what you do that counts.

Yes, content is important but I think using content to help our students become more aware of themselves and the world they live in can be a far more valuable approach.  Failing to bridge the gap, I think this field is going to continue to be in trouble.

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My Road to the Ph.D.: Adapt and Overcome!


“Adapt and Overcome!

I remember hearing this all of the time as an Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet and then as a junior officer while in the Field Artillery.   Far more often than not, we were confronted with situations that did not present themselves the way they did in the manuals or in training rehearsals.  It’s the reason that so many of the NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) who I worked with stand out in my mind as the ones who ended up helping me as a new lieutenant.  It wasn’t about what we “learned” in ROTC or in Officer Basic Course (OBC), but instead learning on the job–OTJ as they would tell me.  After a few years, the advice and prodding of my NCOs and a couple stand-out commanders sunk in and I got to be pretty good at making things happen where others would get stuck.

That was years ago–hard to believe.  Now I’m working on my Ph.D. in English Literature & Criticism during the summer between teaching developmental college English .  Could I possibly be in a different field of work?!  And yet, the same lessons those commanders and NCOs taught me are what is helping to keep my head in the game.

I’m currently taking a seminar course focused strictly on James Joyce’s seminal novel, Ulysses.  This book has absolutely nothing to do with either the area that I’ll be working in for my dissertation nor will I ever find myself working with Joyce or this book in any of the classes I teach.  It’s part of the reason I’ve nicknamed this summer my “battle for relevancy.”  But, facing a class that initially appears to have no bearing on my professional development, I still know that as a professional in the education field I need to do more than just throw up my arms and call it quits.

And this is how the idea of adapting and overcoming has been creeping into my mind the past couple of days.  In fact, my feelings of growing frustration over the way the material is being handled and the readings themselves began making me think about how some of the students I’ve taught may have felt the same way.  I know there have been times over the course of the past year at the college where I teach that I know I’m hitting a wall with my students.  This summer experience is definitely giving me an opportunity to see things better from their perspective.  While I might not find much value in the actual content of this course, I can certainly do more to take notes on what I would do differently and how I could translate that over to my own teaching.   I certainly don’t need to spend any additional time above and beyond what I need to achieve the course objectives, but I could spend additional time mapping out the strategies I’m using to “push through” this challenging (and frankly, thoroughly less-than-enjoyable course work) and find a way to convey this to my students.  Maybe I can take this course which, at face value, does not seem to have much value to me and instead, turn it into something that has some practical use even if not the must “fun.”  That way, I can help my students learn how to “Adapt and Overcome!

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My Road to the Ph.D.: Sources of Amusement…


Question of the Day:  How do you amuse yourself and what good does it do you?

If you break down the word amuse you see two part: a/muse.  Muse is another word for “think.”  When we refer to the Muses of Greek mythology, we’re talking about the spirits of inspiration.  It’s no wonder many artists and poets called upon the Muses for divine  inspiration or often referred to beautiful women as their muses.  So, when we muse upon something, we do more than give it a moment’s thought.  We’re spending some engaging deeply in a creative, imaginative process.

So, when we add the prefix “a” to word, we’re trying to denote the opposite of the root word.   What does that leave us with when we take a second look at the word amuse?  When we think amusement, do we think of turning our brains off?  Maybe.  But looking at the second part of the question, we have to ask what good that does for us?  After a long day of monotonous work, do we really need to turn out brains off any further?  What forms of amusement do we seek with significant others (minds out of the gutter!) that does us any long-term good?

Food for Thought:  Maybe the next time you’re bored and looking for something to do (either alone or with someone else), maybe look for more than simply being amused.

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My Road to the Ph.D.: Not Exactly The Start I Was Hoping For…


I was really thrilled when the opportunity to take a course on the evolution of the graphic novel came up in the Summer 2011 course catalog.  Could there have been a more perfect fit for me?  Probably not.  So of course, the past three weeks or so has been filled with a continual back and forth as to whether or not the class would actually run due to enrollment issues.  Not exactly something I wanted to be dealing with as I was going into my doctoral candidacy exams.

After much hunting, I initially decided to take a course out of the department that would focus on developing literacy and writing programs–something that seemed relevant to my field of work.  And a little shot of relevancy can be a good thing.   Of course, I needed a waiver of the course pre-requisites.  Failing to hear back from the instructor, however, I opted to make a request to be written into a traditional course–after all, classes begin in less than 10 hours from now.  I’m still waiting on formal approval of the overload from the Academic Dean (the instructor and department chair are fine with it), but I’m glad I mentally committed to this as I was recently denied the literacy program course.

Not exactly the start I was hoping for going into the first summer session of the semester.

I won’t lie either:  My motivation this time around is pretty low.  Leaving my increasingly pregnant wife home with my increasingly cool 2-year old isn’t something I particularly cherish.  Coupled with the fact that I’ve still not entirely come to grips with this literature degree and the field that I love working in, well, it’s a bit of dead weight on the motivation.

SO I sat down last night and did do some work on drafting a sort of “Ph.D. Student Manifesto” of sorts.  I figure that this endeavor is one that is a major investment on the part of my family and myself, so I need to make sure I continue to have a darn good reason for what I’m putting all of us through here.  I think I hold on to the first draft for now; though as promised, I will put a copy up here eventually.  I’m perfectly fine with airing one’s frustrations out, so long as it is done with the intent to move on and move forward from that point on.

So, for tonight I will focus on the following points as I start this session:

  • Classes run from 8:00-12:00, which means that I am done with all formal obligations after lunch and am on a total flex schedule the rest of the day and night;
  • I’m able to have the time and resources to invest in a major project like this where many other might wish to but be unable to do so;
  • I have a wife who is willing to carry the workload for two so I can do this;
  • There is a support network of a few close friends here in the program who I can rely on for both professional advice (i.e. editing & revising my papers) as well much-needed sanity checks (may or may not include a beer or two);
  • I know the pushing myself as a student will continue to help me better understand the challenges my students face in both direct and indirect ways… and this may just end up helping me be a better teacher–the real long-term goal.

So there you have it for tonight.  Probably still a bit on the “rant-ish” side of things, but I suppose the frustration is still a little fresh; however, I am going to try to keep a bit more positive here.   

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My Road to the Ph.D.: Year Two


This past Tuesday I arrived back in Indiana, PA to begin my second summer of doctoral study, and aside from two independent studies I’ll be doing next year, this will pretty close out my time as a student.  Whoa.

I’m not sure anyone will actually recall this from past posts, but Thursday and Friday were the day when I had to take my Ph.D. candidacy exams.  We were required to sit for two 4-hour session in front of a laptop and write 4 essays (of approximately 5-10 pages in length) focused on four periods of literature: Period A (Brit Lit from before 1660), Period B (Brit Lit from 1660-1900), Period C (US Lit up to 1900) and Period D (Literature after 1900).  Further, we had to analyze 3 out 4 of these periods from a different critical theory (Marxism, Feminism, etc), and 2 out of 4 essays required as to also include a pedagogical approach–how we would structure a course based on these sources.  To prepare for this exam, we compiled reading lists of about 120+ books (at least 30 sources per list) so we could draw upon a variety of sources to respond to each set of questions.  A passing score on a response is either a 2 (Pass) or a 3 (High Pass); a 1 results in a failure for that period’s essay response.  Needless to say, the preparation for and the tests themselves were stressful and now, they’re done.  And while I think it would be pretty cool to land a 3 on one or two of my responses, I’m really just hoping I managed to score at least a 2 (pass) on all 4 the first time around.

I’m also ridiculously frustrated over the fact that the one class I was looking forward to this summer (ENG 985: The Evolution of the Graphic Novel) is now going to get cancelled at the last-minute leaving me with “academic leftovers.”  As a result, I’ve decided not to take a class within the Literature and Criticism department (where I’m getting my Ph.D.) and will be taking a Teaching College Writing class from the Composition and TSEOL program–something that will actually end up being FAR more relevant to my day-to-day experiences in the classroom.

And since this post is more a “catch up” for where I am now, I promise my next one to  (hopefully) be a little more interesting.  In fact, I’m working on writing a statement of purpose for why I am pursuing my Ph.D. especially since the degree is (more or less) in a field that I’m not really working in… and I’m not entirely sure I will work in.  So, I’ll see if I can’t get a draft up by the end of the holiday weekend, and  you can let me know what you think.

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