Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.
It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.
At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.
And you go see what they’re doing.
And you realize their topic sounds familiar.
And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.
And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.
Because … they’re doing your topic.
And your palms sweat.
If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?
No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)
Your work is still original, and so is theirs.
Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.
You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).
We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).
But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.
You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.
I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.
Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:
A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.
Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!
Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.
In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!
So, now you know how to read in the way your professor expects you to. But you’re taking three seminars, and maybe also a foreign language class, and somehow you’re supposed to read four books a week and do two hours of homework a night. Is your social life over? Will you ever see daylight again?
Let me say that I am no stranger to this question. Halfway through my first year in the doctoral program, my first long-term relationship (11 years) ended. Trying not to commit academic suicide by negotiating a move while working full time and enrolled in two classes, I remained co-habitating with my ex through the end of the spring semester (this was probably a bad idea). A few years later, I got married (also in the middle of a semester), but I was reading for comps that year. We’ll cover comps soon.
For the first six years of my graduate program, I worked a full time, 40-hour a week job. I was fortunate in that said 40-hour a week job was at the same university in which I was enrolled as a student, so it was both a source of financial aid (staff education benefit), and lenient enough that I could swap out a 3-hour block of time during business hours for shortened lunch breaks other days to make up for it. (I also took a reduced course load, averaging 6 hours per semester instead of the usual 9).
So, what I’m saying is that you can have it all! Or you can have enough. And part of this is accomplished by developing study habits that give you what you need to be successful, but don’t take over the rest of your life.
One of the things I see lots of graduate students doing is acting as though their career as graduate students is temporary and “normal life” will resume when it’s done. Considering it takes an average of 7 years to get through a doctoral program, that’s a lot of “putting life on hold,” and, more to the point, John Lennon was right: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
You need to be able to maintain a work/life balance. Everyone knows that one apocryphal student who only studies and never goes out because there’s a lecture on something on a Friday night or there’s an exam in three weeks — whatever happened to that guy, anyway? (It does seem to always be a guy, for some reason).
Don’t be that guy. Here are some things I’ve learned about organizing your studying and reading life.
1. Your professor doesn’t expect you to have the book memorized.
First off, buy nothing before you get the syllabus on the first day (unless it’s otherwise requested). Look at the syllabus. If there’s a different book every week, that means that you’ll literally be reading each book to discuss in class once.
If you buy them all, that’s a lot of money you’re pretty much wasting on books that will be read once, put back on the shelf, and resold at the end of the semester for a fraction of what you paid for them. Just don’t.
In all likelihood, the copy that your professor put on reserve in the library is going to suit you just fine. Don’t run out and buy every book listed — if you think something is going to be useful for your research later on, then you can buy it from the used listings on Amazon or at the local used bookstore.
Okay! So, you went to the library and got your course reserved book, and it has to be back in two hours. Now what?
Remember the four questions I posed in my previous post?
What is the argument that the author is making?
How is the author’s argument new and different?
Does the author’s argument make sense?
Does the author successfully prove his/her argument?
Prioritize the two hours you have with the book to answer those four questions.
I’m going to repeat the importance of these four questions over and over again. Get used to answering those four questions. You’ll need them every week in seminar, and they’ll be doubly important when reading for your qualifying/comprehensive examinations.
As you progress, you’ll notice that seminar discussion really doesn’t stray far outside of these questions. Anecdotes that either the professor or other students share from the book’s content will mostly be presented in the context of addressing these.
I pretty much guarantee that your professor will never give you a pop quiz and ask what happened on November 10, 1789 (Ronan, that was for you!) unless what happened on that date was important to the author’s argument, in which case that’s probably what the question is really about. And there will almost certainly never be a pop quiz.
Take detailed notes and bring them to seminar with you. Personally, I liked handwriting my notes because I felt like I retained the information better. Some people do this just fine with typing. Try both, see what works for you.
You probably won’t need the book in front of you (notice that students who bring the book to class don’t open their copy that much, if at all). I would wager that half of the students who bring the book to class are trying to look prepared primarily in order to impress other people. Ignore this.
If you don’t trust yourself to be able to carry the conversation without paper backup, scan or photocopy parts of the book that you think are important to back you up–the intro and/or conclusion are the obvious suspects, or a section where you feel that questions 3 and 4 are being illustrated well (or poorly, depending on how you answer the questions).
In short order, you’ll learn to extract what you need from a book — and what you won’t need. This will give you a good sense of how long you need to spend with a book to get what you need — and that’s key for maintaining a good work/life balance.
2. There will be weeks you don’t have all the reading done.
It happens. Hopefully it won’t be the same week that everyone else in your seminar had a massive research assignment due for someone else. At the very least, plot out two hours to spend some quality time with the book so that you have something to say, and focus on the four questions above (it’s always about the four questions).
I focus on getting it done in two hours because that happens to be how long you can borrow course reserves at my university’s library, but also because I learned how to get through a book in two hours and answer these questions. It may take you a while to learn the mechanics of it, but you can spend just a couple of hours with the book and arrive at seminar with things to contribute to the discussion!
If you have one of those weeks where it just all went to hell and you didn’t even look at the book … well, speaking personally: If class participation is part of the seminar grade, your professor would probably rather you didn’t come at all than have you sit there for three hours not contributing. You’ll notice early on that you can always tell who’s trying to BS their way through the conversation without having read the material. Just because no one said anything doesn’t mean they didn’t notice.
3. Schedule study time, and make it sacrosanct.
This is really important for the work/life balance. If you have people in your life (partners, children, parents, friends) who aren’t also in graduate school, it’s very easy to treat your workload as an inconvenience or secondary in importance. Don’t.
I set out certain blocks of time that were Study Time. In my case, they were more procedural blocks of time (i.e., Saturday after the grocery store run, Sunday after breakfast) than, say, a firm “I will study from 3-4 on Wednesdays”–but that also works. The important thing is that you have a mental time slot when you “should” be studying and to get both body and mind to expect it, and to signal that something is off if you’re not doing it.
The firmer you are about this, the easier it is on everyone else. I liked to read in the mornings because my brain was fresher, and because it was less intrusive: usually if we were going to leave the house for something it would be an afternoon movie or to go out to dinner. It also made it much less stressful for me to schedule plans with friends with confidence; otherwise they become sources of tension and angst on your part.
That said, I did have to put my foot down a few times and ask my fiancé (later husband) not to schedule things on the weekend without consulting me first, especially toward the end of the semester when I also needed to be doing research and writing.
However, on the flip side, once I had developed a set schedule and knew what I could accomplish within it, I also had more confidence about scheduling leisure activities in my free time.
4. Environment is important.
Where you study is just as important as when you study. Find a place where you can study successfully. I highly recommend that it not be the same place you do other kinds of reading (leisure reading) or watch TV. It should “feel” like the place where you go to get things done.
For me, it was the dining table. We don’t use it much, so I could leave books there. Books went flat on the table, my feet were flat on the floor, I was sitting upright. It’s also quiet, although occasionally I did have some unexpected help.
A lot of people like to go to coffee shops or the library to study – if that’s your thing, great. It doesn’t work for me. The popular campus coffee shop where everyone at my university likes to hang out is loud and boisterous and the chairs were clearly designed by a devotee of the late Marquis de Sade, and I just don’t understand why people think it’s all that (and the coffee tastes burnt).
In addition to my well-documented hatred of That Place, I also always felt like that I was putting too much pressure on myself to be productive once I arrived, got situated, and opened a book. I felt like I would spend more time evaluating whether I had “done enough” to justify the trip than I did paying attention to the material. I also discovered that if I drank coffee after noon I would have problems sleeping.
The idea is that you should feel like you’re in a place that merits serious attention. When you’re here, your brain is primed, and your body reacts accordingly. This is why I don’t recommend mixing the physical locations where you enjoy leisure time with the location where you’re being studious. (This is an actual thing, psychologically speaking, and it can lead to both anxiety–which there’s enough of in grad school as it is–and insomnia.)
5. Know your limits.
I worked full time for 11 years before starting my doctoral program. During that time, I got used to the concept that when I got home from work at 5:30, the rest of the day was mine. It was a very hard habit to break myself of–in fact, I never successfully did so.
When I first started my graduate program, I tried my best to come home and be productive, but I was usually tired (because I was in the office at 7:30 am), and my brain was uncooperative. The most productive time I was able to eke out on a weeknight was about an hour. I could get through an article (singular), but it wasn’t enough time to get through a book, and I realized that my ability to retain any information about a book was diminished if I split it up over multiple days. I also noticed that I was looking at the clock a lot more than I did on weekend mornings.
Eventually, once I realized this, I shifted most of my productive time to the weekends (this was why I had to be more militant about ensuring that I had some control over weekend scheduling).
I also noticed that I was better at working through books with longer stretches of time (like two hours), and that I was at my best if I didn’t try to get through them right before the seminar where they would be discussed.
Your mileage may vary, and you’ll realize your own quirks and how you work best. Pay attention to the mental and physical cues your body and mind give you, and don’t struggle against them.
6. The first five are a lot. Speak up if you’re struggling.
Your professor is probably teaching at least two other classes, and in all likelihood the other two classes are undergraduate lecture courses that require a lot of work. Most of us operate under the assumption that if a student needs help, they’ll say something. And, whether by hook or by crook, graduate students tend to get less attention because it’s assumed that they’re more mature and capable of speaking up if they need something.
Unfair, but true.
Graduate students often experience depression and anxiety, and it can be bewildering if you’ve never experienced it before. And as difficult as it can be, often times it is incumbent upon the student to make the first move.
But please do.
If you’re struggling with the workload, talk to your professor. Speaking personally, I will bend over backwards to help a student who is struggling (and reward the effort come grading time.) I can’t help if I don’t know.
If you’re struggling with your mental health talk to … someone. Your professor. Your advisor. Friends.
Look up the student disability services office (because mental conditions count) and see what services they offer.
Find a yoga class.
Take a mental health break.
Take care of your mind. After all, graduate school is about training your brain, so keep it in tip-top shape!
(Note: I went through a humanities program, and most of my advice in this and future posts in the Grad School Survival Guide is aimed toward humanities/social science programs. Hard sciences and advanced degrees in fields like law and medicine have their own skill sets, although you’ll still probably find what I say here somewhat useful.)
You’re probably looking at the title of this post and thinking, “I learned to read in the first grade, dummy.” Of course you did. (Or didn’t. I assume if you’re reading this you’ve mastered the skill at some point.)
When you arrive in the humanities or social science graduate program of your choice, however, you may find yourself in the following situation. Maybe it’ll be the second seminar. Maybe it’ll be the fifth. But you may find yourself realizing that other people in your seminar seem to have an awful lot to say about the readings for this week…and you don’t.
Why don’t I have anything to say? You will ask yourself. Is there something wrong with me?
The answer to the second question is probably best left to the medical or mental health professional most familiar with your specific case. The answer to the first, however, is much easier to address: it’s because when you arrive in a graduate seminar, the professor expects you to know how to read academic books and articles, but most graduate programs offer little to no guidance on how to do this.
This will especially be the case if you’ve entered a graduate program in a different discipline than your undergraduate degree. In my case, I did my undergrad in International Relations, my master’s in Middle Eastern Studies (an interdisciplinary program), and my doctorate in History. I was always playing catch up.
How You Learned to Read and Why It’s Wrong
Most of us learned to read for class in grade school, using dry, corporately produced, written-by-committee textbooks that make people think they hate history because it’s presented as a list of one fact after the other, to be duly memorized, spit out at exam time, and then forgotten.
A lot of us employ the same skill as undergraduates. When assigned chapters from a book, we search for names, dates, events–tangibles we can get hold of and cling on to–and ignore the dry stuff. If we asked ourselves the question of what was important about the reading, we usually meant some variant of “what is important to know for the exam?”
Much of the time, our undergraduate classes consisted of lectures in which the professor echoed the material presented in the books, and often by the end of the semester we had stopped reading because the material was redundant and the professor was more interesting and had the added advantage of knowing what was going to be on the final.
In graduate programs in humanities and the social sciences, however, most classes consist of smallish groups that engage in discussion for the whole of each session (If you’re in the UK, substitute “module” for what I call a “class”). Professors lead discussion, but they don’t lecture. They expect you to show up with something to say about the readings. It’s bewildering at first, because you’ll feel like you’re constantly unprepared. And you may find yourself staring at a page of text trying to will yourself to have an opinion about it.
For me, the moment of realization came in a graduate seminar taught by a Name Professor housed in the department of anthropology. Every week, this seminar met and his doctoral students–a doting, adoring (nay, sycophantic) bunch–would dominate discussion. Their commentary was completely unintelligible to us lowly Master’s students, and they seemed to be engaging in some sort of unspoken competition to invoke the most obscure French poststructuralist.
[For the record, seventeen years, two graduate degrees, and five semesters of teaching later, I am more than ever convinced that this is exactly what they were doing.]
I would stare at the material and think, Why am I not seeing this? Why don’t I have anything to say?
If this is causing deja-vu, Fear not, I have suggestions.
How to Learn to Read–Again
Unless you’re in a graduate program–or were lucky enough to be in an undergraduate program–in which someone takes the time to explain to you how to read an academic monograph or an article out of an academic journal (and these are, sadly, few and far between) you’re probably approaching the material in the exact same way you approached a textbook.
Herein lies the issue.
Stop seeing the material as a series of facts to be memorized, written by an infallible author, and start seeing it like an academic (which you are): an argument-driven thesis written by a scholar whose work may not be perfect.
Academic monographs are an argument presented by their author. This is why they’re not that lovely, flowing, easy to follow narrative employed in a textbook.
The entire text has an argument. It’s set out to prove something (and bear in mind that what the author wants to prove may be a how or why rather than a what or when). Each chapter has an argument that is meant to support the overall argument of the book in some fashion.
The argument will have nuance. You’re not going to read an article or monograph that argues that the French Revolution happened in France in 1789. You may read an article or monograph stating that the French Revolution happened, in part, because of a meeting that happened in Switzerland six years earlier (I am, for the record, not a French historian and am completely making these examples up). Or that the French Revolution happened in 1789 because there was a period of warm weather that caused crops to fail in Bordeaux the previous summer, and we just figured this out based on atmospheric data.
So, if you find yourself feeling left behind in class discussion, or like each class meeting is like dropping into the middle of a conversation that started without you (and believe you me, I felt this a lot), it most likely boils down to this: your classmates are treating the book as an argument that can be critiqued, while you’re viewing it as a set of facts to be taken at face value.
My classmates in the anthropology seminar were using theorists to suggest that, if one looked at the argument from a different perspective, one could deconstruct and reconstruct the author’s argument in radically different ways. (This does not change my conclusion they were trying to one-up each other in naming obscure theorists, though).
Where do I find the argument?
Well, funny enough, it’s probably been staring you in the face all along.
Monographs and articles are structured in much the same way–at some point, you’ll be instructed on how to construct your writing this way, too.
Start with the introduction. These are wildly inconsistent–sometimes the introduction is called “Introduction,” sometimes it’s called “Chapter 1.” (It’s never the acknowledgements and usually not called Preface.)
They usually begin with a hook to get you into the story. An anecdote, something to illustrate why what is being discussed is important. (They don’t always–some of us [embarrassed cough] employ this technique heavily, others just jump right in.)
Then you’ll get into an arc that will present the basic issue, usually explaining how it’s traditionally been seen in the field.
Then there will be a literature review. You’ll know this section because of all the footnotes or inline citations. (Pro-tip: if you found this book or article because you’re writing a research paper, this is the section to mine if you’re looking for tips on who else has written about this topic). This is the second most important section of the introduction.
Then you’ll see a line that says something like “[Title of monograph] argues that” or “I posit that” or “The thesis of this book is that …” Here’s your argument. Star it. Underline it. This is, for the author, and for you, the person who has to discuss what the author has done, the most important sentence in the entire book. (Note: in an article this declaration may come before the literature review.)
After presenting the argument, the author will lay out their strategy–and the way they will do this is by outlining the book for you. In Chapter 1, I will describe A and demonstrate B. Chapter 2 continues this by describing how B then led to C. And so on.
In other words, it’s the section you’re often tempted to skip right over because you’re going to read the book. Why in the world would I waste what little time I have reading about what’s in the book when I can just read it?
Now that you know what the author’s argument is, you can explore why it matters.
Back up and look at the literature review. (In history books the literature review tends to come before the author’s presentation of their argument, but this isn’t set in stone. It may come afterward).
The literature review is meant to answer one basic question: how has the issue that the author is presenting been described by other scholars who’ve approached the same or similar issues?
Your task as a reader is to answer two basic questions:
How is what the author is doing revisionist? (read: new and different. In the field of history, revisionist can be a bit of a loaded term.)
How have other authors written about this topic before?
If you can answer these two questions, 75% of your work is done.
The rest of what you need to address in your reading of the material consists of:
3. Does the author’s argument make sense?
4. Is the author’s argument convincing? (This is similar to, but not the same as, the previous question. It is perfectly possible for someone to put forward a sensical argument and then do a poor job of backing it up. This is, in fact, a good place to start your evaluation of the text.)
You’ll notice I haven’t asked you if you can remember what happened on November 10, 1789. And your professor probably won’t, either. Remember, it’s not that kind of class.
Okay, I did that, but I still don’t have much to say …
If you’re still a little lost, or have done all of this but aren’t sure how to move from “Okay, I understand the author’s argument, but I still don’t have much to say about it,” don’t be afraid to look at book reviews of the title you’re reading (this is harder with journal articles, but not impossible. Check out Google Scholar and search by both title and author).
This is especially important to do if you notice that the author takes particular issue with another scholar’s work–see if that scholar responded or had something to say about your author’s critique. Obviously if one of the two was dead when the other was published, this won’t work as well.
Reviews also give you some insight as to where to start looking if you’re not sure how to go about critiquing. Your first semester in, you probably aren’t married to a particular theory, school of thought, or have a favorite theorist–and that’s perfectly fine (I still don’t).
Even if you found the argument and have answered questions 1 and 2, you may still be a little unclear as to how to go about answering questions 3 and 4.
First off: It’s okay! You’re still learning. A good graduate seminar will pull in a lot of books from different perspectives, and it’s totally understandable that you won’t be well-versed in all those fields.
You should, however, be able to follow what’s going on when classmates offer critiques or comments better than you were before. The more you practice this kind of reading, the better prepared you’ll be. And after a few weeks, you’ll be able to jump into the discussion yourself.
It’s the beginning of another semester, and I am teaching a new class this fall.
Ladies and Gentleman, I give you … Terrorism and Extremist Movements. Ta-Da!
The reaction that this has caused in a few people has been … well, probably predictable.
“You’re teaching WHAT?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Chris.”
“What does this have to do with your dissertation?” (I particularly like this question, as if any of the other courses I’ve ever taught have anything to do with my dissertation. In fact, I should like to meet anyonewho teaches an undergraduate class on the topic of their dissertation.)
If there were one thing I would say that I didn’t think through on this one, it’s that maybe the semester I’m trying to finish writing and start revising my dissertation wasn’t the best time to also try and teach a brand-new class on material that I am not intimately familiar with.
I can do 20th century Middle East or the Rise of Islam in my sleep. However, that’s also the reason why I didn’t want to teach either of those courses again.
As an adjunct, I don’t get to innovate. I actually wouldn’t mind coming up with a class on The Middle Eastern Front in World War I, for example. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack there.
The issue is that I’m teaching a general education course under the topic “Challenges of Globalization.” For two semesters I taught a course on the 20th century Middle East in which I framed the topic question of whether it’s fair to blame the Skyes-Picot Treaty and European imperialism for the state of the region today (in two semesters, my students never quite figured out that this question…printed front, center, and top on the syllabus…would also be their final exam prompt).
However, it was the aforementioned ability to recite this material in my sleep that, it turned out, was the problem. I realized about four weeks into my first semester of teaching that the problem wasn’t my students, it was me. I assumed a lot of background knowledge. Way too much background knowledge.
Here I was talking about the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire when I knew from years of experience that the Texas world history curriculum barely mentioned the Ottoman Empire…at all. (Trust me, I know.) I was speaking in shorthand and my students didn’t have the answer key.
I quickly went into revision mode, changing my approach for the rest of the semester. The next semester, I revised the curriculum further, tightening the focus and narrowing the amount of material covered.
I also realized that it might be best to get away from the material for a bit. After two semesters of teaching it (and the extra hours both doing prep work as well as writing a dissertation), I was bored with the material and recognized the dangers of what this might mean in terms of my attention to the class and my propensity to shorthand.
What might help, I thought, would be a new subject entirely.
First, I dumped the long academic course name with the colon (yes, I did that. Rookie mistake).
Then, I decided to focus on student expectations. My university has a strong criminology program, as well as a strong political science program. How do I appeal to those majors?
So … the idea of doing a course on terrorism sprang to mind. (I honestly don’t remember why). It would be comparative; after all, despite popular memes to the contrary, terrorism is not just a Middle Eastern phenomenon. I wanted it to be global in focus. But, other than South Asia, in which I do (terrifyingly) have the requisite number of credit hours to pass myself off as an expert … was I qualified to teach a globally focused class?
Then I had an idea: what if I didn’t teach the entire class? What if the class, working in groups, each took responsibility for a particular movement in a particular global region, and contributed to the learning environment? The more I thought about this, the more I liked it; and others that I shared the idea with were enthusiastic.
So, I put a proposal together and it went on the course schedule and I did what pretty much everyone does: I forgot about it until about two months beforehand when the campus bookstore started prodding me for my textbook choice.
Despite what seemed like insurmountable odds and a few nights of lost sleep, I produced a syllabus and guidelines for a class that I hope will be not only be successful but also interesting to my students.
I was honest with my students the first day: this is an experiment, and if this isn’t what you’re looking for in a course and you’re not on my roster at the end of the week, no hard feelings. I lost a couple, but the vast majority stayed put.
So, here’s to an experiment. I look forward to sharing how it goes.
No, not that kind of safe space. Well, maybe not that kind of safe space.
Let me begin at the beginning. Hello! I teach classes about the Middle East to undergraduates who often have taken few, if any courses on the region.
For the last two years, I’ve taught a required junior-level elective (the course number is required; my particular course is one of around 16 offered under said course number), and on the first day of class, I’ve asked the students to tell me why they’ve enrolled (“because I have to in order to graduate” not being an option). Most of them tell me that they know little to nothing about the region, and that’s whey they’re there. (The second time I offered this course, I also took that explanation off the table, although it was not as satisfactory an exercise as I wanted it to be).
Then I go into my rules for class, and the first thing I say is, simply this: this is a safe space.
What do I mean by that?
I did public scholarship–the term we used was “outreach” but nowadays we’d call it public scholarship–for 18 years as a full time job, based out of a university, traveling around the state of Texas, working with teachers who wanted to know more about the Middle East — usually so that they felt smarter than their students. The textbooks that the state assigns are pretty bad, and when it comes to describing the browner, non-Christian parts of the world, some of them are downright awful.
I’d been doing this for a couple of years when I noticed that, at these sessions, there was always a group of people who would prevent me from running to the bathroom at breaks because they had lots of questions. Questions are good.
As any professor, lecturer, TA, teacher, trainer, or educator of any variety quickly learns, the questions are what keeps the job interesting. I have literally found myself compiling grocery lists and writing emails in my head while talking out loud, so checked out am I from the content I’m giving. The questions are what change every time, what keeps me on my toes. What keeps it interesting for me after I have delivered the joke about taking the water buffalo out for a walk for what seems like the four hundredth time in a given week (from a lecture about the geography of Egypt).
And, honestly, a lot of these inter-session questions were good. Insightful. Well thought out.
“Why,” I asked one day, “didn’t you ask this in front of everyone? In fact, when we come back to session, I’d like you to ask it and then we can talk about it.”
“Well,” came the sheepish response, “I didn’t know if it was an offensive question.”
Aha. There it is.
I didn’t ask because I was afraid my question would be offensive.
I get it. No one wants to have a room full of people turn to them with hot eyes and tight lips and facial expressions that ask, How dare you?
On the other hand, I’ve noticed that people who aren’t concerned about being offensive have no such qualms. Like the day I asked a group if they knew what defines someone as an Arab, and one participant responded, “They’re ragheads.” (For the record: the answer I was looking for is their first language is Arabic because Arab as an ethnicity is actually defined culturo-linguistically).
That one…took me a moment to recover from.
So, my question then became How do I get these questions out in front of anyone? Even the “Ragheads” comment had its value. Okay, now we have a base level of understanding in the group … in this case, one that’s fairly low … that we can begin to build on. If I had blathered on about cultural-linguistic identities and not engaged with the remark (“Where do stereotypes come from?”) I would have lost the audience entirely because I was operating on a completely different level than they were. (And, yes, for the record, the fact that I was in a room full of teachers who are educating the next generation was not lost on me. Some things you just can’t let bother you in the moment or you’ll freeze up, or at least that’s what my therapist told me at our following session).
This is why I decided that, when I went into the college classroom and found myself on the other side of the podium, that I had to encourage such questions. The painful ones. The ones that students are struggling to address. The ones that they don’t want to ask because they’re not sure if it might be offensive, or that they’re using the right word, or name, or whatever else. This sets the pace for me as an educator. Where do I need to start? What expectations or stereotypes do I need to address? If the question isn’t asked, I assume they know. And experience has shown me I’m usually wrong.
So, I start off by explaining that the classroom is a safe space. I ask students not to rush to judgement when questions are asked. Let’s hear our colleagues out. A question asked from a place of honesty needs to be addressed in a like fashion–without fear that classmates are going to jump on you if you don’t phrase it in just the right way.
This extends to me as well. I admit, I’ve had a couple of students whose English is weak who have made comments in class and actually been saying the opposite of what I thought. This happened just last semester, and, when I realized I was having a negative reaction to a comment from a student that I had misunderstood, I actually stopped myself and told the class what was happening.
“I’m having a strong reaction because I misunderstood what [x] was saying. Remember when I said this class was a safe space? Well, that applies to me, too.” And I took a beat, refocused, and continued by addressing what the student had actually said.
Part of this arrangement, I tell students, is that if they are offended by something a classmate says, is that I want them to bring it to my attention – it doesn’t have to be in front of everyone, they can stop me after class, or send me an e-mail.
Every campus has an office that exists to deal with student concerns–and I’m certainly not trying to circumvent that established process if the situation calls for it.
I think here of a colleague who taught a course on Modern Egypt, who assigned as one of his texts The Yacoubian Building, an Egyptian novel by Alaa Al-Aswany that became the Peyton Place of early 2000s Egypt. The book is notable in that it was a bestseller in Egypt–and it includes a gay character. The characterization is clunky (al-Aswany was a dentist before taking up writing; the novel isn’t exactly fine literature), and he meets a bad end at the end of the book – but the point is that even this was revolutionary for Egypt, something my colleague wanted to discuss. However, a student, on reading the novel, reported my colleague for assigning homophobic material.
Hence, my plea was: if there is an issue about the suitability of course material or course discussion, please bring it to my attention first. After all, I do occasionally assign problematic material because I want students to appreciate why it’s problematic.
My first actual test of this policy was, perhaps not unpredictably, during one of our discussions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. One student was a bit uncomfortable because he felt that another student–of Arab descent–was using the word “Jew” just a little too broadly in some of their comments, when they should have been using “Israeli,” or, even more accurately, “Israeli military forces.”
In this case, the student making the observation did have a point. Rather than singling out the other student, I made an announcement at the beginning of the next class, not as a reprimand, but just a clarification that terms are important, and, now that we were discussing post-1948 Israel, when discussing Israeli actions and policies, students should distinguish between “Israeli” and “Jewish” in order to clarify their meaning. This worked: in class that day the student corrected themself in mid sentence, and that was that.
As an educator, I can’t help students learn or grow if they don’t trust me. And I have to learn to trust them (which, believe me, is harder than I expected). It’s a work in progress that I refine a little bit each semester.
After all, even though I’m (probably) months away from having those coveted initials after my name … I’m still learning, too.