Students: Units of Profit

When I graduated from my undergraduate institution, I decided to take a gap year and brave the job market to save up for graduate school. I found myself working at a local university (on the administrative side of things) gaining experience that, I hope, will prove useful throughout my career.

While I was sitting at my desk this morning, a colleague walked by and mentioned that a lot of students were touring our campus today. She expressed her delight with a slight giggle and exclaimed, “All those little units of profit!!” Her statement totally shocked me… and not just because I’ve never heard a student referred to as a “unit of profit” before. My first instinct upon hearing her statement was to remind her that there is “so much more” to education, especially college education, than just profit. I wanted to lecture her about the rigors of the curriculum, the beauty of conversations between students and faculty that lead to amazing intellectual discoveries or conclusions… I wanted to stand up for all the academic ideals that inspire me to pursue my own education and to ultimately strive for a job in this field.

But, because it was barely nine in the morning, I did none of that. I chuckled and nodded, the dark circles under my eyes and the absent look on my face letting her know that I wasn’t mentally prepared for her jokes this morning.

I gave myself some time to process everything, though, because I feel like there’s something important buried in that statement. Maybe it’s the difference between “faculty” (or, in my case, future/potential faculty) and “administrators.” Maybe it’s the the fact that I’m an idealist and she’s a numbers person. Or maybe it’s indicative of a shift I’ve been allowing myself to be ignorant of: the movement from the ideals of education to the financial realities of running (and attending) a university.

There is a lot of talk at my university about budgets and I would imagine that it’s the same at almost every university around the country. Money is tight and, inevitably, programs end up getting cut, budgets are restricted, and (as the rumor went at my undergrad institution) admitting more “out of state” or “full pay” students to increase revenue. While I certainly can’t claim to have any real knowledge about the world of university finances, I know enough to say that it shouldn’t be the center of higher education.

Most, if not all, colleges are largely funded through tuition and fees so it makes sense to view students as simply a means to an end. But to deny that students are coming to the university with certain expectations about what a college education means and is. This focus on finances has lead to things like the adjunct crisis, leaving too many professionals struggling to get by under a huge workload and too many students with professors that just can’t care as much as they should. It’s forced programs (largely in the humanities) to suffer cuts, telling students that the humanities ultimately doesn’t pay… inspiring some students to ditch those fields entirely. I’ve watched schools with large athletic programs, like my undergraduate school, spend MILLIONS of dollars on stadiums, scholarships, food, “freebies,” and a number of other things on their most gifted athletes while your average student struggles by with loans and an overall lackluster college experience.

This isn’t the voice of someone that is bitter… I don’t want anyone to think that I am losing faith in higher education. I just believe that we need to remind ourselves why these institutions exist. It isn’t to serve as a farm system for the NFL or NBA. It isn’t to hire low-wage adjunts/graduate students to educate the masses. It is to provide real, quality education to students… all students.

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I’m a grad student. And a mom.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am getting ready to enter my first year of graduate school this fall. While I am extremely excited and appropriately nervous about my new beginnings, I also have something that weighs pretty heavily on my mind. I am not going to graduate school as a “normal” twenty-something… I am going to graduate school as a single mother with a toddler. Though I absolutely love being a mother, now that I’m getting ready to start this new chapter in my life, I find myself plagued with questions and anxiety. How is my graduate experience going to be different from the experiences of my peers? How am I likely to be treated because of my parent status? To tell or not to tell?

I often look to The Chronicle of Higher Education (and their career advice site Vitae) for advice about these sorts of questions. Vitae recently ran a four part series about graduate school/academia and motherhood. Sarah Kendzior (Should You Have a Baby in Graduate School?), Rachel Leventhal-Weiner (The Perfect Academic Baby), Kelly J. Baker (Are Children Career Killers?), and Elizabeth Keenan (The No-Baby Penalty) discussed their experiences and gave me some things to really think about as I leave for grad school this fall.

It seems that, overall, women are troubled by the connection between their reproductive and graduate school years, between their desire for a family and their desire for a tenure track job. In one sense, I’m glad that I’m not suffering through these things alone, but the fact that we are even still asking ourselves these questions deeply disturbs me. While I certainly would echo Sarah’s advice (“Do you want to have a baby? Have a baby. Do you not want to have a baby? Don’t have a baby.”) I can see why there are so many concerns about doing just that. In a job climate like the one we’re facing, it’s easy to understand why a woman would want to avoid doing anything that could prevent her from getting a job. But as Elizabeth shares, the choice to postpone motherhood, especially when motherhood is something one really desires, can lead to devastating (or at least incredibly stressful) results. The question that continually plagues me is “why are women being punished for having children while men actually benefit?”

I know that, in part, this answer lies with traditional gender roles and expectations. A woman that becomes a mother is expected to keep a more flexible schedule, readying herself for any last minute catastrophe that might arise. Women often pay for this “benefit” with decreased wages and an increased difficulty in finding (or keeping) a job. It surprises me, however, that academia (a magical place that, according to my grandmother, hides all the “liberals” of the world) would be so far behind the curve in terms of taking a progressive stance about gender roles and their relationship with starting a family. The fact that I could suffer (in graduate school, in my job search, in that tenure track job I probably won’t get) because I am a mother disgusts me.

But what troubles me even more is what I asked myself immediately after reading this articles. Without even thinking, my first thought was, “Well, maybe I just never mention the fact that I’m a mother.”

Like it or not, motherhood is part of my identity. It doesn’t shape my entire self but it definitely has impacted the way I look at life, responsibilities, and my future. Though many might look at my life and think, “There is no way that she can do this,” I look at what I’m faced with and think, “This is going to be really hard… but I have to do it.” Being successful is not an option for me, it’s a requirement. And I’m not going to hide my son, the child that helped drive me to where I am today, behind some facade. There will be days that I question everything in my life… there will be days that I am so stressed I don’t even know which way is up. But I’m not going to let those days, or anyone else’s unwelcome opinion about my life, shape my drive or my future. People don’t have to like the fact that I’m a mother… but they better not count me out because of it.


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Graduate School and Summer Projects

It’s been quite some time since I sat down at the computer to start writing for this blog again. Life, as it usually does, managed to get in the way and this blog fell off of my list of things to maintain. I’m sure this is taboo to say, but it’s just not that important to me yet.

Since I stopped writing, I was accepted into (and will be attending) a graduate program (for the sake of privacy, I won’t say which one) for the fall of 2014. I am beyond excited to attend even though it means leaving my current job… and my home state. Leaving home is, as these things usually are, simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I find myself struggling to create a budget (with an undetermined monthly income), devise a plan to balance work/education/motherhood, and to find the time in my schedule for “just me.” While I can’t plan these things yet, I am working every day to pull together what I can to make sure that I am ready. This is going to be the biggest change of my life… and I can’t even begin to say that I’m totally ready. But I am certainly ready to try and I think that is what’s important.

Now that I know I will be attending a program in the fall, I decided to spend my summer reading and researching. While I know that this might not make the most sense (as I will soon be buried in more books than I know what to do with) I decided that using this time to explore my interests, broaden my scope, and to discover new texts. I have a few projects on my back burner that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time… now seems like a good time to start moving through those projects and look for things that could become a thesis or other large project.

I’m going to try and start writing a little bit more each day… I really need to get back into the swing of things. So even if I’m not writing here, at least I know that I will be writing somewhere!

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Personal Statements: My Nightmare

The personal statement is, easily, the most difficult piece to write for graduate admissions. Anyone that has ever applied can attest to this. Having to sit down at a computer and think about a way to differentiate yourself from the MASSES (and in some cases, you really are up against the masses) is almost impossible. You have to be informative but witty. You should tell a story but don’t overwhelm your reader with narrative. You need to find a way to talk about how (in my case) literature relates to who you are as a person. You need to tell how literature created you.

Getting this message across was something that I struggled with for weeks. I wrote about ten drafts, sent them out to my AMAZING friend who did quite a bit of editing for me. I finally reached a final product after receiving some constructive criticism from a former professor. I’m not going to sit here and preach that I know how to write a personal statement. Because I only learned how to write my personal statement. Each and every person is going to have to take a different approach; we are all different people and different things will work for each of us. But I will share a few things that I learned. Hopefully a grad applicant somewhere will eventually find these things useful.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let people read what you’ve written.

    I got some of the best comments from my friend and former professor. They were constructive in their criticism and taught me how to approach a writing genre I had absolutely no experience with. Each person, more than likely, writing a personal statement has never had to write one before. It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing! Ask for help from people who have been there and (more importantly) from people that know you. Though you might not always like what they have to say, taking the time to listen can only benefit you.

  2. Take risks… within reason.

    My friend started her personal statement off with a discussion from a sexual education class that she taught. And while this might seem like a risky endeavor (“Who talks about sex in their personal statement?!”) it worked for her! She is someone who is very focused on sexual education, rights, etc. and having the chance to talk about her classroom experience in her personal statement was probably part of the reason she landed a spot in her PhD program. I decided to take other risks. See #4.
  3. Be honest.

    I didn’t have a problem with this one in my statement but I feel like it’s something that needs to be said. Write from your own life. Write about things you are actually interested in. Remember, you are showing them who you are. They need to make sure that you are going to be a good fit for their university, their faculty, and their resources. If you decide to misrepresent yourself, you could end up making one of the biggest mistakes of your life.

  4. Argue.

    When I first sent my draft over to my professor, he noted that it seemed like I was practically worshiping the people that I wanted to work with. He encouraged me to treat these people like colleagues as opposed to gods. So this was where I decided to take my risk. I read a piece by each of the faculty members I wanted to work with and I found a way to discuss (and sometimes challenge) what they had written. This might not be a good piece of advice for everyone, but I found that it was a way to put my thoughts in conversation with work that was already out there and establish my place in literary criticism. We’ll see if that ends up working out.

This is, obviously, not meant to be a comprehensive list of things that you should/should not do in your personal statement. Like I said, everyone is different and everyone will have different experiences. I hope that someone finds this useful and if you find yourself reading this as you apply to graduate school: GOOD LUCK!!!!


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Single Mom… Going After Her PhD?

As I’ve discussed a couple of times on my blog, I am currently in the process of applying for graduate school and I’m hoping to enter in the fall semester of 2014. I’ve posted about the mental struggle of preparing for the GRE exams (I’ll eventually post about personal statements… and other struggles) but the biggest concern that I have about pursuing graduate school is the fact that I’m a single mother. Finding the motivation to complete my undergraduate degree was easy: I was already more than halfway through and I knew that, in today’s economy, it’s almost impossible to get a well-paying job without a bachelors degree. But now that I’ve completed my degree (a semester early!!) and I’m in my first full-time job, I’m finally starting to find some stability for my son and myself. The idea of disrupting that stability with a future that is SO uncertain is terrifying.

I know that getting into a PhD program means that I get a small stipend. I also know that this stipend may not be enough to support me and my son. I know that I will have to move to a state that is far away from my family and other support systems that I have. I am well aware that there is no guarantee that I will get a job after I graduate with my PhD. I am well aware that, if I do get a job, it is likely that I will have to move across the country to some state I have never lived in. I know that I will be cranky, exhausted, absorbed in my reading, and that at times, I won’t be the best parent that I can be. I know that my plans to buy a house are going to have to be on hold for years… and years. I know that I will basically be living the life of a hermit: I will see my son and the inside of classrooms and libraries. And that’s it.

And despite all these uncertainties, I cannot let myself go on in life without pursuing this dream. I know that a lot of people probably think that I’m insane. People thought that I was crazy for trying to finish my bachelors right after my son was born. But to those people, I say “Shush!” I don’t have time for your negativity. Hell, over the next 6-7 years, I won’t even have time to sleep! I know that this is something that I can do… I just need a graduate program to agree and decide to let me in! I’m applying to seven schools and I’ve already decided that if I don’t get in anywhere that I’m not going to apply again. If I can’t get in this round, maybe I need to consider another career. But I have faith that I will end up in a wonderful graduate program.

So even though I’m going to spend the next 6 years of my life pinching every penny, living with roommates, and reading more words than I can even imagine at this point… I already know that I won’t regret it. Speaking of which… I better get back to writing my personal statements.

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GRE Literature Exam

I have spent a lot of time lately studying for the GRE Literature exam… and I’m starting to realize how little I actually know about literature and literary history.

Being a student of nineteenth century British literature, I have rarely strayed from studying much outside my favorite century. I’ve studied Chaucer (I’m extremely thankful that I did so!!), took a couple of eighteenth century courses, and took one class on American Lit, but for the most part, I’ve stayed in the century that I know and love. And now I’m kicking myself.

As if it wasn’t already bad enough that I wasted so much of my time pretending that I was going to go to medical school. All the credits (and time) I wasted in science classrooms could have been spent broadening my literary horizons. My GPA would be better and I wouldn’t be scoring so miserably on all the practice exams for the GRE Lit.

I’m pulling on a number of sources trying to work on this latest (greatest?) project. I’ve managed to create a little “study plan” for myself so we’ll see how that works out. I’m working to study a little bit each day, even if it only means reviewing flashcards right before bed or over my morning cup of tea. I’ve also managed to work a little exercise into my plan. I’ll pick a set of flash cards to bring on every trip to the gym… and when I have my boyfriend give me quizzes, I have to do a set of ten workouts whenever I get a question wrong. I’m hoping the endorphins/increased blood flow will help stimulate my brain and will help me work through the questions.

The next exam is in April but I know I’m going to need more time than that. Hooray for a summer of studying and reading!! I’ll probably start posting my thoughts about a collection of readings, movements, or schools of thought that I find interesting. It will give me a chance to really cement the information in my brain and help me remember it. Wish me luck!

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This is My Body.

An absolutely amazing video with an even better message. Your political, religious, moral beliefs might be different than mine, but we all have to stop waging a war on women and their bodies. WE have the right to choose how we live our lives. WE have the sole right to choose how we maintain, treat, and make decisions about our bodies. No one else has a say in the matter. They are OUR bodies… not yours.

“Do not be afraid of a world in which women know themselves, their voice, and their power. That world has arrived.”

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Article Discussion: Gender on Twitter

I was reading a post on Ted Underwood’s blog and he linked an article by a group of linguists about using gendered language on social media sites and the use of computers in determining author gender/group.

The article, “Gender on Twitter: Syles, Stances, and Social Networks,” (Bamman, Eisenstein, Schnoebelen) discusses the multifaceted relationship between gender and language, discussing cases that both adhere to and deviate from gender language norms. Through a combination of computational techniques and social media theory, the authors provide a new perspective on how individuals “act out” language in social media forums.

The article begins by discussing a large amount of work that has been done by other researchers, covering a wide variety of research and theories. The authors discussed a variety of problems with previous research, indicating that one previous study focused largely on groups “with social network connections to unambiguously gendered entities: sororities, fraternities, and hygiene products.” Focusing on these groups undoubtedly lead researchers towards individuals with very specific gender identities, perhaps skewing their data. They also discuss the Eckert and McConnell-Ginet findings, illustrating that gender differences are not entirely stable throughout socioeconomic classes. The authors also use Eckert’s work to point to the fact that the social meaning of linguistic expression matters deeply on the social/linguistic context in which the expressions are used.

When the authors begin discussing their own findings, they list the three major contributions they are making to the current field:

“1. We attempt a large-scale replication of previous work on the gender         distribution
of several word classes, and introduce new word classes specifically for corpora
of computer-mediated communication.
2. We show that clustering authors by their lexical frequencies reveals a range of
coherent styles and topical interests, many of which are strongly connected with
gender or other social variables. But while some of these styles replicate the aggregated correlations between gender and various linguistic resources, others are
in contradiction. This provides large-scale evidence for the existence of multiple gendered styles.
3. We examine the social network among authors in our dataset, and find that gender homophily correlates with the use of gendered language. Individuals with
many same-gender friends tend to use language that is strongly associated with
their gender (as measured by aggregated statistics), and individuals with more
balanced social networks tend not to. This provides evidence that the performance
of popular gender norms in language is but one aspect of a coherent gendered persona that shapes an individual’s social interactions.” (10-11)

The authors provided their findings in a graph (15-16):

Gender in Twitter, chart part 1 Gender in Twitter, chart part 2

 Among those results, expressive lengthening was also determined to be a female marker (i.e.; nooo; yessss; coooool).

Though their findings initially seem to cohere with previous findings, the authors point out that categorizing these results will undoubtedly lead to problems: to say, for example, that females are more expressive (due to expressive lengthening, emoticons, and punctuation) would be difficult because swear words are also expressive forms of language and are predominately used by males. Women also utilize a lot of abbreviation (lol, omg) which prevents one from arguing that women must avoid swears because they wish to adhere to standard language. The authors point out that these differences and problems lead them to conclude that a much more nuanced manner of analysis, allowing for the formation of several different categories of language.

The authors then moved on to create “clusters,” organizing authors according to subject matter or area of interest. These groups were not organized using gender but the authors discovered that the clusters had a strong gender bias.

Cluster Results, p. 23

Cluster Results, p. 23

Fourteen of the sixteen clusters demonstrated a significant gender difference, measuring at least 60% for the dominant gender, even in the smallest sample set. The authors point out that a 60/40 spread is at a probability that is less than 1%, making their findings all the more indicative of an important relationship between gender and language use.

The cluster method allows the authors the ability to break down how gender is constructed in each of these individual groups. Men, for example, are largely represented in the ‘sports’ cluster; but do men that enjoy baseball define masculinity in the same way that men that enjoy wrestling do (26)? These differences in gender construction allow us the opportunity to determine the performance/construction of gender in each group and understand how and why it differs.

This article is definitely a fascinating read, bringing to light the ways that we use social media to communicate (and in a way, define) who we are. I can’t claim to have a huge understanding of linguistics (I took one course on it in college) but I think that this article is accessible enough that people without a linguistics background can understand it.

I hope that you get the chance to read the article. It is truly interesting and may impact the way that you think about gender, language, and social media sites.

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My Current Thesis Project

So, it’s been quite a long time since the last time that I had a second to post anything on my blog. For that, I apologize.

Since then, I’ve done A LOT of things. My son is now 18 months old, I’ve been through two more semester of college, I graduated from college, and I started hunting for a job. I also started writing (and am nearly finished writing) my “senior thesis.”

Even though I already graduated, the professor that I’ve worked with has agreed to continue advising me on my project. It was a lot of work to get finished in one semester and I honestly wasn’t thrilled with what I had at the beginning of December, when UMD’s semester ends. It’s taken me a long time to think, research, and write on this topic and I wanted to make sure that I had the best possible product. That, and I am interested in finding a place to submit it when it’s finally finished.

So what is it about? Well let me give a little background.

I was reading Our Mutual Friend (one of my absolute FAVORITE novels ever) and I noticed that something a little weird happens at the end. Bella has just married John (then Rokesmith) and she has started reading all these domestic manuals (think Isabella Beeton) to learn how to become a good housewife and mother. That part is totally normal (for the nineteenth century) but Bella also does something a little out of the ordinary: in a conversation with John about what her perfect house would have, Bella states that she would love an aviary filled with exotic birds.

This might not seem weird to you, but it instantly struck me as something that I needed to look into. After months of learning about animals in the nineteenth century and finding nothing useful on birds, I finally decided to look back to the place where Bella started: the domestic manuals. I read as many as I could find (in total I found 6) and noticed that three books talked specifically about birds and their place in the lives of young women.

Since then, my project has developed into an argument about the role of domestic manuals in creating the domestic woman and how the inclusion of animals in these manuals impacts what we think the manuals are doing. When most people think about domestic manuals, like Isabella Beeton, we commonly imagine a text that is creating the perfect housewife, the perfect image of domesticity. And I’m not arguing that that isn’t true because I believe that it is, I just think that it’s more complicated than that with some of these manuals, including the most popular text of the nineteenth century (after the King James Bible, of course).

Beeton's Book of Household Management

Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Some texts obviously totally support the idea that a woman belongs in the home and no where else, drawing hard lines between the male and female spheres. But a lot of the texts that I have looked at, including Isabella Beeton’s, draw lines that are a bit blurry. While many of these still encourage a woman to cook, clean, and raise her children, they also encourage women to learn as much as they can about the natural world around them. Some provide ‘practical’ reasons for this education (like understanding where one’s food comes from or being able to raise one’s children) but some do not: they merely present the biological and taxonomical information to the reader and allow them to determine it’s use.

It is here that I am developing my piece. I am currently at 30 pages but I have a lot more writing and editing to do so we’ll see where I end up.

But this was a nice post to bring me back. I’m currently reading Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel  (Nancy Armstrong) so it might be a while before I get around to posting a piece about that text. I just finished Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and George Eliot’s Silas Marner, so expect posts about those texts in the near future. It’s great to be back!

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Bleak House: General Overview

English: Cover of serial, "Bleak House&qu...

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Over the past month, I’ve been working on reading Bleak House for my Romantic to Modern British Literature course. I finished the book last week and I have to say… I’m absolutely astounded. I’ll talk about it more in the coming weeks and will focus on a variety of specific topics (the use of touch, vision/sight, mud, the body) but today I want to give a general overview.

For those of you that haven’t read the book, I absolutely encourage you to pick it up. It’s a hefty read at just over 800 pages (which may vary slightly depending on what edition you buy) but the beauty of the text is worth it.

Dickens utilizes both the third person omniscient narrator AND a first person narrator to weave together the world of Bleak House. The third person omniscient narrator is harsh and bitter, writing with all the negativity he can muster when dealing with the less than desirable characters that populate the muddy sphere Bleak House resides in.

But Dickens also does something brilliant: in giving us a first person narrator, he gives us Esther Summerson. Because her mother has died, Esther spends her childhood with her aunt. Her aunt constantly tells her she was a mistake, was her mother’s shame, and is the essence of shame in and of herself. It’s a wonder that anyone could come out of such a situtation without any significant emotional damage. Even more astounding: that Esther would be the kind, caring, and selfless individual that she is.

Dickens brilliance lies right here: in giving us a narrator that is a huge contrast to the third person, we begin to see the glimmer of light peaking through the dirt and grim, reminding us that the potential for change lies just under the surface.

The narration develops the plot beautifully, creating a ‘pulsing’ effect (as Anne Thoma talks about) bringing the narrator closer to the world then pushing them back as the narration oscillates between the two types of narration. This type of narration brings the reader closer, emotionally, to some characters, and keeps them emotionally distant from others.

I don’t want to give away plot details (because I hate finding out how a book ends before I finish reading it) but let me assure you that this text has a plot that is very easy to get into. Towards the end of the novel, it becomes a kind of detective story, drawing the reader through London trying to figure it out alongside the characters.

Have you read Bleak House? What did you think? Are you going to read it soon? Let me know!

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