Love the List

Over the years, I’ve espoused the importance of lists over and over again as a vital resource for the busy grad student. Today, once more, I find the need to cry out the wonderful benefits of list-writing. So, if you’ll indulge me as I get meta for a brief moment, here’s a list of reasons why lists are important:

  • They keep you organized. Pretty self-explanatory. The key here is understanding you own work habits and figuring out how to support them; “organized” means different things to different people. We all have our own individual ways of working and lists are going to function differently for each of us. Love your list, understand your list, allow your list to understand you.
  • They keep you from forgetting things. If you write it on the list, it’s there for you to see when you’re panicking about it later. Boom. Like magic.
  • They help you relax at the end of the day. Often if I’m in a real panic after work hours, sitting down and writing a list of the “need to do” things for the next day will alleviate this because it helps me see how much I actually need to do and keeps me from getting anxious that I’ll forget any of it. Lists also help me consolidate tasks for the day and see where I am in my work progression and what I need to do next to get where I want to be. If I follow my list, I can’t go wrong.
  • They keep you on track. Before I leave my desk at the end of a very busy day, I write a brief list for myself of what I need to do the next day. This allows me to free my mind for the evening, devote attention to other things, then dive in in the morning right where I left off without thirty minutes of figuring out where exactly that was. At-a-glance information is always better than “I put it somewhere” information; it’s all about trimming minutes off the edges of your many tasks so that you can fit as much as possible into one day’s work.
  • They give you a concrete look at what you’ve accomplished in a day. When you’re working on a giant, seemingly endless project that moves like the desert sands (like… say… a dissertation…), you need this. Without a hard look at the physical facts of what I’ve done with my daytime hours, all too often I feel like I’m spinning in a giant hamster wheel: running hard but never really getting anywhere. Incidentally, treadmill running also feels this way… but at least that gives me a good endorphin kick as a reward for my troubles. If I keep a hard copy list of tasks that I need to do in a day (or period of time), then I can see how much I’ve crossed off the list. I also get to give myself an awesome feeling of accomplishment when I tear up/cross out/scribble over/destroy by fire this page of notes. Boo-yah!

There it is; lists. Trust me on this. You’ll live a better life once you’ve taken their power for your own purposes.

Keep Calm and Soldier Forth

One of the hardest things about the Dissertating process so far has been acceptance. Specifically accepting that there will be things that happen in and around my life which have a direct impact upon my ability to work on a given day, but over which I have no control.

One of the many issues that plague us grad students is the constant drive to keep working. Because we are masters of our own time, and because there is ALWAYS something more you could be doing, it’s very easy to live with the constant guilt that you could be working right now. Weekends, evenings, much-needed sanity breaks; it doesn’t matter. There will always be that feeling that you could be doing something “more productive” than whatever it is you are currently doing. Even worse, since most of us work from home offices, there’s no sense of “leaving work at work”; my work is always with me just a click away.

What this means is that when life gets in the way, you feel doubly guilty. When you have to spend an hour or two taking your car to get fixed, or you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, or any number of acceptable semi-urgent life situations that just need to be taken care of during “regular business hours” and could throw a giant monkey wrench in your work day, you can feel pretty terrible about it.

For instance: right now, they are doing some major construction on my apartment complex. It’s disruptive, noisy, and means that there are generally workmen staring me in the eye through my office window even though I’m on the second floor. At some point during the next several weeks, there will be workmen in my apartment who I will be required to accommodate by essentially disassembling my office so they can get done what they need to get done. I also will not have access to my own home for at least two days during work hours since they will be in it.

This is not an ideal situation. It keeps me from being as productive as I could be (or “should” be). But I have almost no control over it. I can’t stop it, I can’t make it better, all I can do is work around it as best I can.

It would be easy to throw my hands up and say “I can’t work today because of this thing I have no control over.” The much more difficult path, and the one that I have to take if I hope to ever complete this monster project, is to cope.

Dealing with writing a dissertation is stressful and overwhelming. Dealing with the academic job market is stressful and overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that the world is going to stop around me; if I want to finish (and oh man do I want to finish), I have to find a way to work through the outside distractions and inconveniences. Adaptability is my friend; finding ways to vary up my routine that won’t prevent me from getting things done just needs to be a way of life.

It’s not easy; but if I wanted “easy” I wouldn’t have gone for a PhD. It’s definitely not convenient. But it is what it is; and I just have to soldier through to reach my goals. Nobody ever said that walking to Mordor would be a tiptoe through the tulips.

Take it Away

Hello, gentle readers. I am currently writing you from my spot holed up in a hotel room in quiet and scenic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; a place I had only ever heard of before because of the Billy Joel song that I’ve had stuck in my head since we arrived.

My partner has been traveling a great deal for his job lately. One of the many benefits of my insanely flexible schedule is that, since most of my work is reasonably portable, I can often pick up and ship out with him. As it turns out, being alone in the house with my computer, my books, and my fish for days on end isn’t the best thing for my sanity. As a result, whenever possible I take the opportunity to move my work with me. The crazy thing that I’ve found is that my gypsy life has made me much more productive. This is for several reasons:

  • Distractions are at a minimum. Since there’s not much to do in a hotel room other than the things I bring with me, I am forced into a situation where I have to focus on checking items off of my to-do list. I don’t look around and feel the urge to clean or straighten anything. I don’t have to cook, so I don’t blow off early to start an overly complicated dinner routine just to be away from the desk. I do go for runs still, but those are necessary. It’s a pretty great win-all.
  • Since I’m not at home, the usual at home requirements are on hold. I don’t have to suddenly go to a doctor’s appointment, or take my car to be inspected, or do a grocery run for some weird thing we forgot over the weekend. I don’t have to take out the garbage or recycling, or get the mail which might turn into a 20 minute distraction that takes an hour to re-focus from. I don’t have to deal with any household responsibilities that might take time away from writing. Again, I’m forced into a pressure-cooker situation with my work; my options are work on research or work on writing rather than work on work or work on life stuff.
  • While the hotel is comfortable, it’s not my comfort zone. I don’t feel the siren call of my bed beckon to me at 3:00 PM because my bed is several states away. I don’t have a comfy couch to lounge on with some Netflix at lunchtime. If I want coffee, I can grab some in the lobby; but this doesn’t turn into a spontaneous round of let’s do dishes. I have everything I need, without having any extras.
  • Any bad work-related habits I have are thrown off due to the lack of routine. Since my normal flight patterns are disrupted by not being at home, this means that I have the opportunity to create better ones in this space. When I find myself in a situation that strips me of my habits, I try my hardest to create new ones that are better than the old ones. This is particularly true when I’m in a space that’s temporary; I can be extra super diligent about working (you know, more than even usual) for a span of a few days and not allow myself the small distractions which can turn into big distractions because I can always go back to those “when I get home”. Being away gives me the unique opportunity to work out the kinks in my routine by completely scrapping the routine.
  • Since I’m not exactly in a hopping, bustling city, I don’t have the kind of after-work distractions that can lead to fatigue or illness the day after. It’s not like I’m going bar hopping in Bethlehem Pennsylvania (or doing much of anything that will keep me out late). I can go to bed at a reasonable time, not feel like I’m being “lame” or missing out on something because of it, and wake up refreshed and ready to work the next day.

In short, if possible, I highly recommend taking your work on walk-about. Break up your routine in any way that you can (coffee shop visits, libraries, etc.) just to get yourself out of the house and observing your work habits. You might find that such “work-cations” lead to increased productivity and overall betterment of sanity.

Write strong, my brethren!

Don’t Let it Win

Some days, the dissertation wins.

There are days when I walk away from the keyboard with a feeling of triumph. I’ve conquered some little corner of some little mountain, but oh man does it feel so good. There are days when I feel like I’ve accomplished something major like reading through my stack of allotted books, finishing a draft and being happy with it, or closing a chapter of research and being ready to prepare it for its next stage.

Those days, I win.

But some days, the diss gets the upper hand. I get burnt out, I can’t communicate my thoughts clearly, I get so wound up in the tiny things that I’m unable to accomplish anything of substance. There are days when I feel like an unmitigated failure for not getting through that last 250 pages of reading, for not muscling my way through red-penning those last ten pages, for finding myself with not enough brain functionality left to do anything significant after 3:00 PM.

I’m told it’s a common phenomenon.

So here’s the thing: you’re never going to have a perfect string of days no matter what you’re doing. You’re never going to always feel like the top of the world; you’re never going to always consistently succeed at every tiny task. There will be setbacks. There will be days when the stupid writing project wins the battle.

So long as you have more days when you win, you’re still at a net positive.

The important thing when you find that you’ve lost the arm wrestling match for a day is that you do what you need to do to recover. Exercise, drink a beer, sleep, watch some Netflix; whatever it is that will reset you and get you prepared to fight another day. Do it. Avoiding it when you’ve hit the bottom of the bucket is just going to do more self harm than good. Taking the time to self-care and recover is going to give you more productivity in the long run, so just put the red pen down and back away from your desk.

Then, get back on the horse. You need to keep going back into the fray if you ever expect to win. Begin each day fresh with new research goals, new word count objectives, and a new attitude. One bad day does not have to mean a failed project; it just makes you human.

Don’t let the dissertation win.

It can have the battle; don’t give it the war.

Tools of the Trade

Writing a dissertation (or any long project; particularly one that involves research) is a specialized skill that requires specialized training and (not to be ignored) specialized equipment. While I suppose in theory you could write a dissertation on a single laptop with nothing but Microsoft word and an internet browser, doing so would be a great disservice to yourself and make your life needlessly complicated. In the digital age, technology is plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and generally easy to operate. There’s no reason to do without certain vital tools that can make your writing days more productive.

With that goal in mind, I thought I’d take a minute to share the tools of my trade; the things I use to write and research that make my life infinitely easier. I would go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t have made it to this point in the process without them. For me, these tools are simply necessary to productivity; I think you’ll find them equally useful.

For reference: my primary machine is a basic model Macbook Pro from 2012. Nothing fancy, but definitely gets the job done.

External Monitor 

The only “excess” technological asset that researchers have found actually increases productivity is increased monitor space. It’s not the speed of your hard drive or parallel processing capabilities, but rather how much (literal) digital space you have to lay things out. For me, the external monitor is key to almost everything I do. It allows me to open a text on one screen and my notes on a second, thus transcribing with ease. It allows me to open my notes on one screen and my writing document on a second, thus allowing me to write from research with ease. It allows me to open multiple images on a large scale and compare them side-by-side. It allows me to have my citation manager available for reference during note taking and writing. My external monitor has been key to my work as a Graduate student, academic, and person in the world. And, when you’re taking a break for lunch or what have you, you can play your YouTube videos on one monitor while browsing the web on the second. It’s a win/win. If you’re not writing/researching from two monitors, you’re basically living in the dark ages. Invest in this not-terribly-expensive but terribly-useful tool now; I promise you won’t regret it.


Anyone who works on any serious project needs to have a backup strategy. While e-mailing yourself copies of your work might be one way to do this, there are easier and more consistent methods. I use a combination of Dropbox, Crashplan, and Google docs to save my work in triplicate both locally and in the cloud. No matter what you decide to use for backups, make sure that your plan includes: redundancy, frequency, and version history. You want to know that your work is being backed up on a regular basis, to several places, and that you can roll back a version should you need to.

External mouse and Keyboard

Because I’ve basically created a docking station for my mac, the external mouse and keyboard have become necessary. I’ve found, over the years, that I much prefer a conventional mouse to the built-in track pad that most laptops have. Additionally, an external fully sized keyboard makes it easier for me to type ergonomically. A few clever re-programs of the hotkeys on my Mac and it’s just as good as using the built-in keyboard. I use a Logitech wireless mouse/keyboard, and have since purchased several external travel mice for use when I’m on the go. 

Writing Tools 

I’ve previously gushed about the ease and functionality of Scrivener to my writing process.  If you are interested in Scrivener, here’s my affiliate link for windows, and here it is for Mac.  I will take this moment to emphasize how necessary the program has been to the continued success of my work. Additionally, this project is the first time I’ve used automated citation management software and I’m never looking back. I use Zotero because it’s free, integrates seamlessly to Word (where I do my composing; Scrivener I use for note-taking), and has a Scrivener work-around if I REALLY want it. If you do choose Zotero, make sure you know how to back up your library; it’s only a tiny bit tricky and requires an extra step every now and again to accomplish. Totally worth it for peace of mind.

Caveman Tools

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

This is not a technical tool whatsoever, but when I’m working with actual books (which I do with a surprising frequency), I use a bookstand to hold them up for ease of transcription. I seriously don’t know how I did without this thing. When I’m editing by hand (which I also do with a surprising frequency), I use a clipboard and many different colored pens. It’s crazy how much easier this has made my life; for years I’d edit on large hardcovers, notepads, or binders…. I finally broke down and spend the $5 on a clipboard and look at that! The rudimentary technology works exactly the way it’s supposed to!

So…. What tools are you using for dissertation writing that you simply can’t do without?

Professional Courtesy

Over the weekend, I found this post on HowlRound and it elicited a huge reaction from me. The story of my relationship with professional theatre definitely has a happy ending, but bears some striking similarities to the tale of Mr. Keel.

I’ve been a professional theatre-maker for most of my life. I had the good fortune to attend a performing arts high school, which gave me the training and know-how I needed to navigate New York’s professional scene from a very young age. I bought backstage every week; sent out headshots, resumes, and cover letters; went on auditions; booked jobs; and generally worked my tail off while going to high school. By the time I got to college, I was jaded enough to know that a four-year conservatory program wasn’t going to give me what I wanted; a full time career in the arts wasn’t about spending my college tuition money cultivating my art, it was about figuring out how to work with what I had. I bypassed the BFA in favor of a more “real world marketable” degree and continued my training on the side at some of New York’s many studios where such things were possible.

After college, I worked my way around a bit (both in and out of the field). It was during a

High school me performing in "The Laramie Project"

High school me performing in “The Laramie Project”

conservatory production of Twelfth Night at a big-name regional theatre that I experienced my career turning point. While I had learned a great many things from this company over the years (having trained and worked there several times), it was clear that the program I was embroiled in at that moment didn’t understand me, didn’t encourage me, and didn’t feed my art. I had found myself in an artistic dead space; while those around me could hear their ideas and emotions “resound” within the conservatory, mine were continually disregarded and devalued. Needless to say, I was depressed and lonely and just wanted to finish up my time there so I could go home, lick my wounds, and figure out if this whole “full time theatre professional” thing was really going to work out for the rest of my life. It came to a head one evening during a tech rehearsal in which the director, frustrated with the speed at which tech was running, stopped rehearsal to tell me (in front of the entire cast and production team) that I was “an idiot” for not understanding his clear-as-mud direction, and further elucidating how stupid I must be if I couldn’t comprehend what he was telling me.

That pretty much convinced me that I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. It wasn’t okay that someone felt like they could talk to me that way, it wasn’t okay that I had no recourse about it (what was I going to do, walk out of the rehearsal and never return?), and it wasn’t okay that if I did decide to take action I would be the one bearing the negative label for the rest of my career as someone who was “difficult to work with”. I finished the run, but packed in the trunk and retired from the stage, refocusing my energies on other things.

It took many years for me to want to come back to theatre. While I loved so many things about it, the negatives far outweighed the positives. Professional theatre seemed like a pleasant daydream; good for the young and naïve but in actuality not realistic if you wanted to work, live, and be treated like a human being. Hence my relationship with the term “professional” became fraught; professionalism and the lessons I learned as a professional theatre-maker were things I carried with me in all walks of life. Be fifteen minutes early, come prepared with your work, have a pencil on hand to take notes, bring a water bottle, make eye contact, communicate clearly… I could go on. But for that, being a full-time professional actor had baggage that I simply didn’t want to carry with me. I was angry. I was hurt. I was upset that I had spent so long hanging my hopes on a star that turned out to be a time bomb.

For me, after several years of staying away altogether and then an easy transition back into the theatre via teaching and mentoring (which I absolutely love), I can once again say that I am a “theatre professional” (or was I always a “professional” and just took some time off?). As you know, I now have several levels of theatrical involvement, all of which I consider “professional” engagements: I review, I fight direct, I dramaturge, I text coach, I teach, and (when the mood hits, but only when the mood hits), I perform. But that’s not the case for everyone. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

And I think that this, unfortunately, isn’t an uncommon experience. I think there are a fair number of folks who wanted to go pro, trained to go pro, and for one reason or another had to back away from the life of full-time professional theatre-making. Unfortunately, this experience can leave a bad taste in the mouth; we all have our reasons for breaking up with Thespis. As with any breakup, it’s painful and unpleasant, and the way that you handle that pain will determine your attitude about running into your ex at parties.

More often than not, performing looks way more like this for me these days. (Photo courtesy of Al Foote II Theatrical Photography)

More often than not, performing looks way more like this for me these days. (Photo courtesy of Al Foote II Theatrical Photography)

There are some who return to the theatre on an amateur level because they simply love making art. Theatre is a part of their blood, and just because they didn’t want to do it professionally doesn’t mean they should stop entirely. This is the best kind of community theatre: theatre made with perfect love. There are others for whom theatre on anything less than a professional level will have “the stench of failure”; they’re bitter, they’re angry, and they simply can’t let go of the past. This, I think, is part of where the “amateur” or “community” theatre stigma comes from; the idea that theatre made for pleasure is somehow “lesser than” theatre made for profit.

Let me make one thing clear: you have not “failed” for choosing a life that sustains and supports you. You have not “failed” for choosing a job with a steady paycheck and benefits, that will allow you to work human hours and be able to see your family on the weekends. You have not “failed” for not wanting to put your very soul on the stage eight shows a week for audiences, directors, and critics who may or may not be appreciative. You have not “failed” for refusing to do things that are degrading and/or embarrassing simply because you need to work this week and it’s the only job available right now. And you certainly have not “failed” for choosing to return to the theatre on your own terms, in your own time, in a way that fulfills your desire to make art.

Why is it “bad” or “wrong” to want to make theatre under any circumstances possible? Why is one person’s desire to perform seen as inconsequential or smaller than another’s simply because the first person isn’t being paid for their work and the second is? And what made us “professionals” fall in love with theatre in the first place? It certainly wasn’t the “spectacular” paychecks…

The “community theatre” stigma needs to be put to the side. I’m not saying that you have to sit through every amateur production of Oklahoma! you find in the papers with a willing heart and gracious applause, but let’s at least have some consideration for fellow artists. Everyone walks a hard road; why should we make it harder for each other when the world’s already a cruel place for us theatre types?

Soloist: Dealing with Isolation

One of the big challenges that we grad students (particularly non-resident grad students caught somewhere between late dissertation writing and the job market) face is isolation. Going from a structured schedule that involves a highly-social job (teaching and or learning) to sitting at home alone with your research every day can be extremely challenging. If you’re not the type of person that deals well with large tasks to perform in unstructured time, then you’ll face even worse troubles at this stage of the game (and frankly it’s a miracle you got this far). I’m not going to say that I’ve solved the many problems of academic isolation, they are definitely demons I face every day, but I’m coping and I certainly put a lot of thought into how to cope with these issues. Here are a few of my better brainwaves for methods I use to help deal with academic isolation.

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University's "Richard III"

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University’s “Richard III”

Get a Job

I’ve tried to keep a hand in teaching as much as I can, even when that means taking on alternative teaching jobs. I spent a few years teaching continuing adult education which was extremely rewarding and gave me somewhere to be once a week to make human eye contact and discuss things I was passionate about with other people. Though this program didn’t pay “the big bucks”, it was a worthwhile use of my time in that it got me out of the house, gave me a forum in which to try out new teaching materials, and gave me teaching experience that I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to acquire. But even when there are no teaching jobs available (this happens sometimes and it’s not your fault), consider taking on a very part-time, very temporary position somewhere near your beaten path. A few hours of responsibility, social activity, and paid work every week can do wonders for your self-esteem at this highly volatile time. Finding the right fit for this can sometimes be challenging, but think about things you’d actually like to do and see if you can’t monetize them. Remember: not every job you work has to go on your resume and you never know when you’ll meet someone who may just be a useful connection for your true professional calling.

Reach Out

I am not a highly social creature during the best of times, and my social energies get sapped very quickly when I’m under a lot of stress. What this has generally meant is that the dissertation process has made me not just an academic hermit, but a social hermit as well. At the end of the day, the last thing I tend to want to do is go out and be social. Despite this, I try to make an extra effort to see people who I know will 1) understand the process I’m going through, and 2) put positive energy back into my bucket. There are a few friends I have who I know are low-key to be around, will support me if I’m feeling not so great about my work life, and will understand if I just don’t want to talk about much of anything. Being around these people as much as possible (which, let’s face it, is not much when you have a demanding professional schedule) is important to keeping the lonelies at bay. I’m often pleasantly surprised at what an evening in the right company can do for my mood; and my mood in turn effects my productivity. In short: the right amount of time with the right people will help you be a better writer.

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Vitamin D

Sometimes, just leaving my house to go for a walk can help to improve a dismal mood brought on by dissertation-related isolation. Fresh air and sunshine are mood-lifters, and endorphins will give you an extra kick to boot. If you’ve been keeping up with Dani Dash, you know that I tend to go running rather than walking these days, but whatever your speed taking a break outside is definitely worth your while.

Have a (Small) Treat 

While we grad students live on a notoriously tight budget, now and again a special treat can help you support yourself. Sometimes, this treat can be productivity related; if I’m stuck in the “I don’t wanna” phase of editing, I’ll take my draft to a favorite coffee shop and grab myself a drink (I almost never buy coffee, so this is a great little treat). Sometimes, it can be self-care related; if I’m feeling extremely stressed or strung out, I’ll find a groupon for a massage and take an hour just to refuel and unwind. The pitfall here is obvious: too much of a good thing can break your budget and self-reward structure. Just be careful about how frequently (and how much) you are treating yourself; but don’t feel guilty when you do on occasion (especially if you plan and budget for this). You are worth it.

Remind yourself Why 

This one is the biggest challenge. Facing down today’s job market, it can be difficult to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. If you can find any way to remind yourself, any trigger to reinvigorate the passion which led you down the road you’re traveling, revisit it as frequently as you need. Often I get so caught up in the writing portion of dissertating that I can’t see the forest for the trees; it’s in these moments that I need to go see a show, or look at old journal entries, or re-read particularly glowing course evals from former students. Find a touchstone that will help key you in to what you love about the work and never let it go. I’m not saying you need to moon like an adolescent love poem, but without taking the time to reinvigorate your passion now and again you’ll slide into the doldrums of the grind and that is soul crushing. Fortify with frequent doses of vitamin L(ove) and try to ignore the vampiric voice of futility.

Get Help

I know many people (myself included) who are likely to thank their therapists in their dissertation acknowledgements. If you’re feeling stuck, depressed, or just unable to shake your mood, there is no shame in seeking professional help. The right person will be able to talk you through your troubles and inject some new light on the subject. If your issues seem to be mostly grad-school related, I highly recommend seeking out a therapist with a PsyD. Since this person has been through the process of getting a Doctorate, they are much more likely to understand your journey and be able to offer insight without you having to explain every step of the way. They have first hand experience with the stakes and stresses of exams, research, advisors, and the myriad of other field-specific stressors that academic life entails.

Whatever you do, don’t let isolation impede your progress. Breaking the cycle is a pivotal piece of “getting it done” (which, at the end of the day, is really what you need to do).


We All Make Mistakes

Over the past several years, I’ve had the enormous opportunity to do a great deal of teaching. I’ve had some extremely smart, talented, and driven students come through my classroom and I genuinely loved working with every single one of them.

I’ve also made a few observations about some of the most common mistakes that students make in a university setting. Between mentoring my own students, listening to my mentors tell stories about their experiences, and discussing teaching with colleagues, I’ve come to recognize a few basic patterns that students can develop which are ultimately destructive to their success in the classroom.

This is not to say that every student will make the same mistakes (far from it), or that

Jumbo: Tufts' Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

Jumbo: Tufts’ Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

avoiding these mistakes will guarantee top grades, but certainly remedying these issues can nip failure in the bud. Because I am discussing student patterns in general and not the behavior of any specific student (mine or otherwise), I don’t feel like I am betraying confidences to share these patterns in hopes that thinking about them might benefit university students in general. Please do note that I am not referencing any single incident or individual at any time, but rather a series of observations made over the years in dealing with many bodies of students.


If I had to pinpoint a single thing that could increase classroom success, it would be communication between student and professor. Instructors genuinely want their students to do well and are (on the whole) fairly generous with their abilities to help students do well. Student communication is key to unlocking this. If you feel you are struggling, reach out to the instructor. Chances are they have noticed and have a few ideas for how you can improve, or what you might do to remedy your situation. They also might know about university resources that can help you outside of the classroom should your issue be persistent/long term.

Office hours are a severely under-utilized resource. I can’t count the times I’ve sat in my office available and willing to help anyone who dropped by with no visitors to help. Simply taking a moment to stop by office hours with a clear problem in hand is the first step towards solving it.

This goes double if you know that an issue is brewing. If you know you are going to miss class for some reason, be late, or arrive in a state that isn’t best suited to learning, communicate this with your instructor well in advance of the conflict. Most of us are much more willing to be lenient when the students plans for a problem than we are to be forgiving after a student has a problem.


 Look at your schedule for the semester as a whole; do you have several assignments due in one lump “crunch time”? Are you going to be out of town unavoidably for a long weekend? Do you foresee any reason why you might not be able to execute what the instructor asks of you? Then discuss this with your professor. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan well in advance; this shows your professor that you care greatly about your success, that you have the skills to deal with managing your own time; and that you can be trusted with privileges such as extensions and extra credit. Your instructor wants you to take your success as seriously as they do, and proper planning can help assure them that you are doing everything in your power to succeed.

This can also apply to your assignments; leave yourself ample time (particularly if you’ve never before completed an assignment like what your instructor has asked for). This way, if you run into a hitch, you have plenty of time to ask for help or clarification. Remember: instructors do not answer e-mails 24/7. If you leave your big paper worth a significant chunk of your grade to the last minute and are held up because you need input from your instructor, you might be putting yourself in a bad situation that could have been entirely avoided.

Not Reading the Syllabus 

The syllabus is designed to be your go-to resource for pretty much anything you might want to know about the course. There’s a reason that they can be so long! Chances are, if you have a question, the syllabus will have your answer. Before e-mailing or taking class time to ask your professor what day something is due or how your grade will be calculated, check the syllabus. If your answer isn’t there or is unclear, then you can definitely feel free to ask the question. Always look at the syllabus first; your instructor spent a lot of time crafting it to help you out in situations like this one!

Always remember: your instructor is someone who loves learning, loves the subject matter, and is invested in helping you succeed. We are on your side, and we are always hoping to help you improve over the course of the semester. We can’t carry you to the finish line, but we can definitely coach you there!


Hello, all!

It being summer, it also happens to be a time of year when us educators are faced with the frustrating situation of explaining away certain myths about our jobs. One still prevalent is the “summer off”.

I know that the university calendar tells you that there’s no class over the three-month span between June and September. I am also aware that conventional ideas about summer equate to vacation, beaches, volleyballs, and children frolicking in fields of free time.

But let me assure you, simply because school’s out for summer doesn’t mean that we get “three blissful months” of sitting on our couches binge-watching Netflix. I can’t speak for everyone (especially because primary and secondary education are two different ballgames really). That said, I would like to give you a sense of what my summer, as an adjunct, a PhD Candidate, and a working artist, consists of:

I Write

So all that time during the “working semesters” when I’m not actually standing in front of a classroom teaching is generally reserved for teaching-related tasks. I have to prepare lessons, grade, deal with administrative issues, answer emails, meet with students, prepare exams, prepare projects, and monitor attendance (amongst other things). Since I am not in a situation where I am guaranteed work semester-to-semester, I also have to submit resumes, look for work for the coming semesters, and also work a few spare jobs on the side just to make ends meet. This means that my time to research and write is at a premium. As a PhD candidate, my primary focus needs to be finishing my dissertation. Summers mean that classroom-teaching-related-tasks go away and I can reclaim that time specifically for my dissertation project.

I Look for Work

As I mention above, I am not in a situation that guarantees work semester to semester (this is true for many adjuncts, by the way… having a long-term relationship with an institution makes your chances at acquiring work better, but does not guarantee you anything no matter how good you are at your job). This means that summertime is spent fervently applying to as many universities as possible hoping that enough of them will throw me a writing 101 or Theatre History class for the next semester. What with the way universities hire, I may not know whether I am, in fact, teaching a class until the week (or even days) before I step into the classroom. In some rare instances, I may be asked mid-semester to take over a class on a rush basis and come in same-day or next-day to teach someone else’s curriculum from someone else’s slides off of someone else’s syllabus.

I Work as Much as I Can

 Since teaching as an adjunct is not a guaranteed thing, and since the pay is generally poor enough that eking a living out doing it is nearly impossible, I have several side jobs. During the summer, in addition to the above-tasks, I also take on as much extra work as possible in hopes that I can squirrel money away to pay bills should next semester prove a bit lean.

I Battle my Mental Demons

Dissertation work is very isolating. Since summertime means that campus is very empty and I’m not generally leaving my house on a regular schedule to teach or run errands, it also means that I have a lot of time to spend by myself with my thoughts and my work. This can lead to some very unhealthy mental habits and thought patterns including (but not limited to): workaholism, depression, anxiety, and the host of physical complications which come with these troubles. Because of items 1-3, summertime can be extremely tough on a PhD Candidate, and a great deal of maintenance is required to ensure that we keep ourselves healthy. For me, this generally involves a high level of athletic activity (I’m currently training for a half marathon and a Spartan race); running several times a week ensures that I have micro-goals unrelated to my stressors which I can accomplish, that I leave the house and get some vitamin D with frequency, and that endorphins give me a little boost when I need it. I can’t recommend some kind of intense physical training in combination with dissertation-writing more; it has seriously changed my Diss-game dramatically.

All of this is not to say that Dissertation work is not rewarding (it is) or that I am not lucky to be where I am with my career path (I am), but to ask you to think a bit about some harsh realities. Particularly before you remark to your teacher friends that they are so lucky to have the summer off, or that you wish you could have three months of guaranteed vacation every year.

And on that note, I suppose I should return to my top priority: the ever-present dissertation. Cheers, all! Stay cool!

State of the Minuteman

Alright, so I know that I have been MIA for a while (and I know this isn’t my usual blog fare), but I’ve got a PSA for local runners/outdoor enthusiast and since this is my blog, it’s also my rules!

On Saturday March 7, I ran the length of the minuteman bike path (that’s 10 miles for those who aren’t local). In preparing to make this run, it occurred to me that it would be INFINITELY useful to have a report of the status of the minuteman so I could prepare for running conditions. Would I need my cleats? Would it even be possible to traverse the length of the trail? Who knew; the internet wasn’t giving me answers.

So here’s my report of the state of the trail as of March 7, 2015. I would like to say as a disclaimer that I did not run the last .5 KM on the Alewife end because I was meeting my ride home at the Kickstand Café in Arlington, so I doubled back to Arlington center. I have no reason to believe that section of trail is any different from most of the rest of it, but here’s what I observed.

From Bedford to Lexington, the trail is mostly melted and clear. There are huge swathes of pavement interrupted by only the occasional ice patch. It is quite traversable and a pleasure to run (since the surrounding woods are still snow-covered silent and Robert Frost-like). I brought my Yaktrax but did not need them.

Taken at the end of my 10. I'm a lean, mean, running machine!

Taken at the end of my 10. I’m a lean, mean, running machine!

Right around Lexington Center, get ready to hit a bunch of large ice patches. These are extremely slippery and difficult to traverse. I saw a few folks run across them like they were nothing, but for me I had a hard enough time staying vertical while carefully picking my way across. After crossing Maple Street, there were one or two more large patches, but it was mostly clear until I hit the Arlington line.

Arlington is basically an ice skating rink. At this point in the run, I outpaced a guy on a bike (and I run about an 11:30 mile) because he had to get on/off his vehicle at every patch and I just had to speed up/slow down. It was treacherous, dangerous, and awful; this was the only part of the run that had me seriously questioning the decision to run the length of the trail (and also had me seriously concerned for my own safety). The ice is slick and smooth with no traction and nowhere to bail since the path is lined with hefty snow banks. Unless you want to trudge through snow up to your knees, you’ll have to pick your way through the ice. This was slow going. Enough so that when I hit Mill Street, I bailed on the bike path and ran up to Mass Ave to go through Arlington Center. As an aside, the sidewalks on Mass Ave in Arlington (especially on the sunny side of the street) are completely clean and a joy to run on (particularly after the treacherous icy deathness of the Minuteman). I took a chance on the last leg of the run and instead of running the rest on Mass Ave ran through the Arlington Center to Alewife portion of the Minuteman. This was a mistake. The first .75 km off of Arlington Center are nice and clean, but then you get into yet another skating rink session. I turned around right after I hit Spy Pond to head back towards Kickstand; I’m reasonably certain that the Alewife/Cambridge section of the bike train is fairly untraversible (though it does snake through Thorndike field which gets a lot of sun, so perhaps that end is clear). I wasn’t willing to find out.

On the whole, I think with a few more melt days even the icy patches of death will be mostly gone (provided we don’t get many more serious storms…. Please, please no more snow). I plan on doing my running on the section from Bedford to Lexington because, like I said, that’s pretty much fine.

I hope this was useful to some of you out there! Run safe!