Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do as I Read, Not as I Do

Many of my friends have just finished applications to grad school and more are planning to apply in the future. Therefore, today's special bonus recommendation is a whole slew (where slew = 4; I believe it's a metric unit) of books that I've found useful as a neophyte teacher/researcher and as a long-time student. Perhaps, because I have only completed a master's and a few semesters of my PhD, these recommendations are not that weighty, but they helped me, and that's where I am, so maybe they will help you. I make no promises, only recommendations.

Note that for the purposes of this blog post, I define grad school as the process of studying for advanced degrees that prepare one for an academic career, not degrees such as law or medicine; I simply know very little about those degrees and I believe that the professional expectations surrounding those fields are very differently inculcated in students. This belief is based only on my exhaustive questioning of law student friends and my exhaustive review of Grey's Anatomy reruns.

So! On with today's recommendations!

1. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities by Gregory Colón Semenza. If you want to go to grad school in the humanities, you need to read this book. Period. There is simply no excuse not to. Too many grad school "advice" books rely on vagaries and statements about Really Wanting Something; they paint the experience as some kind of self-discovery where moxie and pluck alone can lead to success.

Semenza will give you an even-handed assessment of what you need to do to survive. Too many books critical of the academe engage in hand-wringing and scare tactics. Again, Semenza's book is even-handed and lacks the shrill, easily dismissible tone of those other books that simply shriek at the reader about how doooooomed the academe is. He lays out, from application to job search, what can be expected and provides an explication of the professional expectations put upon grad students. When you're studying for an advanced degree in the humanities, you leave all clear-cut answers behind. The nice thing about this book is that it is almost infuriatingly prescriptive, and while you will likely not want to hear much of the advice he dispenses, one gets a strong sense that success will follow if you listen to his advice. If you read no other book about grad school, make it this one. This is the book I recommend to acquaintances interested in applying. I tell them this over and over and over and over (my recommendations seem to fall on deaf ears).

2. Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but used copies are fairly reasonable and it seems a new edition (ca. 2005, import) is available. It can also be borrowed from libraries. It is aimed at the person teaching English to adult speakers of other languages, but the basic teaching advice - from determining what "kind" of teacher one is, to diagrams showing how classroom dynamic is affected by desk arrangement, to suggestions for how to call on students with hand gestures other than pointing - is applicable to the young teaching assistant. For those who have never taught, this is an incredibly useful guide. It is straightforward, jargon-free, and accessible.

3. Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia Caveat: I have only read the earlier edition of this book, and I recommend it with liberal sprinklings of salt. I hate to say it, because I truly respect Ms. Mentor (a sob sister character invented by Emily Toth, whose column appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education) but the earlier edition of the book was grievously old-fashioned. Particularly infuriating was her recommendation that female academics (in 1997) refrain from riding bicycles. Really. However, Ms. Mentor is truly to be commended for building an academic career at a time when it was significantly more difficult for women to do so, and the book should be taken on its own terms; readers should understand that her struggles have necessarily informed her advice. And some of the tips are very valuable. She's at her best (at least in the older edition) when she's giving very specific tips such as on how to build a case for tenure and keep records. Certainly, at the very least this book gives remarkable and valuable insight into the experiences of the generation of academics likely to be teaching and advising incoming students, and that context alone is worth the price of admission (currently $11.54 for used copies on Amazon). Since the updated version deigns to include gentlemen as well, it may be even better; in fact, I bet it probably is. eta Ms. Mentor's channeler has informed me that the 2009 book is actually a completely new book, rather than a revision! I apologize to Ms. Mentor for this embarrassing mistake and implore readers to investigate this new offering.

4. What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" by Michael Bérubé. This book is more of a meditation on teaching than a discussion of "classroom bias" (an issue I find so patently ridiculous I can't not put it in quotes; if you want to know why, read the book). Bérubé does an excellent job of dismantling and discrediting the more well-known cases of "bias" while still describing, with compassion, his teaching experiences that have involved contentious political issues. He describes the day to day lifestyle of teaching and, more valuably, provides narratives of his experiences teaching. At times his rhetoric is incendiary and possibly alienating to those who truly believe that higher education in the United States is inherently "biased" but I doubt those people would read this. If they do, power to them.

The book lays out a significant number of classroom situations and how Bérubé dealt with them. At times, the examples come across as slightly self-congratulatory, but I appreciated them nonetheless. In today's world, where students seldom accept or respect the credentials of college instructors, it's important to respond to thornier classroom issues meaningfully and authoritatively. The book, as the cover states, defends the value of the liberal arts for all thinking humans- something that can never be done enough in our brain-dead, earnings-obsessed, dying culture. This book is useful for gauging the current atmosphere of the university for professors. It's not as needlessly negative and hopeless as other books I have read. Rather than screeching about the inevitable demise of the academe, Bérubé offers actual models for strategies to negotiate the times. And isn't that what the liberal arts are supposed to be about anyway?

on a side note, thanks so much to all of you who've been reading since we launched this blog! I am excited for 2010 and am hoping to make this blog even bigger then. You know, like, bigger as in more than ten readers. But the point is, I love the ten readers we have. And if you love our blog, please tell some friends! My New Year's resolution is to update more! Maybe Thom's is to update at all! Happy New Year! And finally, if you have something you think I should recommend, send it my way! Maybe we can also work out guest posts!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice reference to Ms. Mentor's first book.

    Just wanted to let you know that her second book is a THOROUGHLY NEW book, not a sequel or a new edition. It's called MS. MENTOR's NEW AND EVER MORE IMPECCABLE ADVICE FOR WOMEN AND MEN IN ACADEMIA, and it's published by the learned worthies at the University of Pennsylvania Press. It is full of new wisdom.

    I am merely Ms. Mentor's channeler.

    Emily Toth, emtoth14@Yahoo.com


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