How an academic can have an epic summer

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Summer is winding down (not scientifically, but according to the university calendar, which at NCSU begins tomorrow!). This brings a combination of dread and groans from scholars who again feel they didn’t accomplish as much as they wanted to. I’d like to think of myself as a positive person (even though my last post used the word frustration no less than four times), so I’m going to buck this trend and explain why I had an epic summer, because remember all that was great about it will surely keep me in a cheerful mood past Labor Day.

How to have an epic summer

Do some work – but prioritize: Your list of things to accomplish that are academic-related might include 10 different things. Be realistic. It’s the summer; that will never get totally completed. Pick the three most important things and focus, focus, focus. When you’ve accomplished them, you’ll feel great. I narrowed my priorities to the most important professional development for a PhD student: getting published. I’m happy to say that an article I’ve written with Ashley R. Kelly will be published in the SIGDOC Proceedings from this year’s conference, and I should be able to discuss another publication soon, too. Achieving those two things made my summer feel enormously productive and successful. I also completed a research assistantship with Carolyn R. Miller, which expanded my knowledge of genre theory and gave me a well-rounded list of things to do.

Go away. As in, take a vacation that is truly a vacation, in which you “unplug” and don’t read anything remotely academic or try to keep up with Twitter. I was lucky enough to get to do this several times this summer, including trips to Canada and Aspen, and multiple long weekends at the beach. The trick is to have done some of my first point – productive, prioritized work – and then you can really enjoy getting away. I used to feel guilty about taking a day or an afternoon off, but realized that was not a healthy or good way to think about a much-needed break. Focusing and working diligently to achieve my main goals allowed me to soak up the time off, enjoy the Rocky Mountains for the first time, and come back re-energized and ready to tackle a new project/school year.

Hiking to American Lake in White River National Forest, Aspen, Colorado with my dear friend Julia

Read for fun. Yes, being an academic requires a lot of reading, so you wouldn’t think that reading when you’re not working would necessarily be a first choice, but I find it’s important to keep using your “reading muscles” outside of the school year. I say “reading muscle” after a discussion with a faculty member who suggested that, particularly for doctoral exams, that you need to train your “reading muscles” by starting out with small reading goals, and gradually building up to being able to read greater amounts of text each day/week. And if you stop using your reading muscles, they atrophy. Thus, reading during the summer is important, so that you do not start off the semester with a weak reading muscle. I find I was able to keep up by reading books that are unrelated to my research but are important topics for other parts of my life: healthy lifestyle, vegetarianism, and local food movements. Some of the books I read: Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Peas and Thank You by Sarah Matheny.

Nothing I’ve said here is necessarily ground-breaking or novel, but it’s so easy to be so wrapped up in our work that we don’t enjoy the summer as much as we could. It’s the best season of the year, after all, and while it still requires work – which many non-academics don’t understand – the potential for flexibility in our schedule is there, and we shouldn’t forget to use that. Enjoy life!!

The difficulty in being a digital media scholar

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Like many people, I love the Internet and all things related to digital media, spend a lot of time on the internet and with technology, and as my husband would argue, am (borderline) addicted to it all. Unlike many people, however, it is my job to study/research/analyze digital media and the Internet, as a part of my research for my PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State. This means, at the very least, I have a good excuse for being addicted to it (unless you are my husband, in which case, it only means that I way too frequently bring my work home with me and work wayyy too much. Which is basically the life of an academic. I guess I have some explaining to do…). But my relationship with the Internet and other technology is not so simple.

It is fun and fascinating to study this broad field, but it can also be very frustrating, difficult to make productive, and hard to keep up with. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy with my graduate program, and I do love what I study – but it comes with some built-in difficulties that you have to learn to manage if you’re going to make a go at it with any real consequence. Here are some of my thoughts on the field (which is probably not even the best way to put it) after my first year of PhD work:

Studying the “field” of digital media/technology/the Internet (and yes, I know these terms are not interchangeable) is frustrating because the field is so large and unwieldy, grows bigger all the time, and transcends pretty much every other field in academia. At NCSU, we study rhetoric and digital media, but that is just one angle of digital media research. It’s being done by nursing programs, who analyze use of tablet computers for improving patient care, and political science, to examine the influence of social media campaigns on elections. And those are exactly the studies that we could undertake in our program as well. So how do we distinguish ourselves in the humanities? Or should we at all? Should we market our research outside of these select fields of Communication and English?

It can also be frustrating to study rhetoric and digital media from a humanities perspective because we have no clear methodological sense for how to effectively analyze these artifacts and all of the data they can produce. To borrow a term from Steven Krause, researching the internet in particular is akin to searching in “a haystack full of needles” – there is too much information out there, and it can be challenging to sort through all of it to find some kind of meaning/finding/publishable anything. Those in the humanities have yet to articulate any meaningful considerations for methodological study of digital media thus far, though my colleague Ashley R. Kelly and I will have a paper published in this year’s ACM SIGDOC Proceedings that begins to tackle this issue.

It can also be difficult to make research into digital media/technology/the Internet productive, and by productive, I’m referring to producing work that adds to the general body of knowledge in the way that academics aim to do (generally through publishing). A key challenge here is deciding what is meaningful and what is not, and this is directly related to the dearth of methodological literature. If we cannot conceive of the important considerations for digital media study, how can we know what artifacts and data are meaningful? Or when we do know what’s meaningful, has it taken so long that the information is no longer timely and relevant to academics and the general public?

This leads me to my third frustration with studying rhetoric and digital media: it is so difficult to produce work that is relevant and timely with the way that academic publishing works. Sure, in my seminar one semester, I was right on point with my analysis of a new technology or use of social media. But by the time I can revise a draft for a journal, send it out, revise a manuscript, and have it published – it’s no longer so timely and relevant. Obviously, this issue is not unique to digital media scholars, nor is it a new one, but it’s exaggerated by the fast pace of technology and digital media advancements. But as an ongoing issue, I strongly feel that we need to address it and find ways to make our research more available in a more timely way to the public – after all, we aren’t trying to only speak to each other with our work. Or at least, we shouldn’t be. The University of South Alabama has recently established a new journal that sets out to work on this issue, The Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. Let’s support these new ventures so that we can find ways to keep our work timely and relevant as well as rigorous.

So, to recap: studying rhetoric (or insert any academic field, really) and digital media is challenging to say the least. But it is also exciting for all of the potential that is there. We just need to find ways to study it meaningfully – not just any old website or new gadget – and rigorously, as well as to make the information available when it is most relevant and not a year and a half or two years after it made news.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of studying digital media/technology/the Internet/whatever you like to call it? How do you deal with the issues I’ve mentioned here?

Uncertainty about the academy

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A concise, poignant post the other day sparked a snowballing conversation across the Internet about life as an academic, specifically in the humanities. An excerpt:

Because I am being limited personally, financially, professionally, and creatively…
Because I want to continue to love it…
Because sometimes I consider how my light is spent…
Because there are other places where that training and preparation will be rewarded, respected, and used…
Because I am capable of more than I can do here…
Because leaving the system is a reclamation of the dignity and agency it has attempted to take from me…
I am leaving the academy.

The “doom and gloom” articles about job prospects in the humanities abound (so do the satirical videos about graduate school, too), and now, we’re hearing from someone (albeit anonymously) that she is quitting (yes, I’ll call it that). 

Today, a response to the post piqued my interest: “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ to Lose, Motherf*cker.

The reason “because” had to be written is, well, …
because we have colleagues who would rather beg for scraps than be ethical
because T Th classes are more important to us than pointing out flawed curricula. Because if we do point that out, we might have to teach on Fridays.
because no matter how much we bemoan the loss of tenure, we do so out of self-interest. Because we believe we are owed something for years of grad school and poverty.  Because we are entitled.
because we are afraid of rocking boats when others are begging for our jobs.
 

Quite frankly, this dialogue is downright frightening for a current PhD student. What am I getting into? What kind of job future/security am I going to have? It’s very romantic to think that I’m going to learn for the rest of my life, help others learn, and make the world a better place, but I’ve got to be practical too – I need to make a living. (Allan has a great job, but – I was not raised to rely on men for my living!) So how can “my generation” of academics (ie. those up and coming/just starting out) approach these issues? Should we get used to the idea of tenure falling by the wayside and participate in conversations to develop a new system for promotion/job security that rewards us for hard work and benefits the university at the same time? Can I really live with having “a job” because others do not, even if the conditions are far less than ideal?

At a more personal level, this also has me wondering how to position myself as a scholar in an interdisciplinary PhD program. If more traditional English scholars (literature, composition) have a hard time finding jobs and working within the system of their department, where does this leave an interdisciplinary scholar? In terms of identity: Am I a rhetorical scholar with the ability to also teach communication courses? Am I an English/Communication interdisciplinary scholar? Am I a media scholar that specializes in rhetoric? What will allow me to be more marketable and/or find the right fit of an institution for my career? This is a struggle I see for some of us in this new, up-and-coming CRDM program. I love it – what’s not to love about learning more than one discipline? – but at the same time, I am concerned about the “working conditions” and job potential that lie ahead.