The Research Year: Planning a Workflow

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide!

I have several posts envisioned detailed how to plan your research year, and I’ve decided to start with a couple of posts about what to do before you even leave home or set foot in your first archive.

(Full disclosure: This series will primarily discuss doing archival research; although what I say will be somewhat useful if you do oral history or other kinds of fieldwork, I won’t be targeting those specifically because I have pretty much no experience with them myself).

I’m writing these in no particular order and, in fact, I’m starting with workflow because a couple of friends are already working through this and I thought it would be most useful to them if I started here.


What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?

Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:


to this:


It’s a bit difficult to see, but the PDF of the document in the top photo with the blue cover is digitally attached to the entry highlighted in the screenshot on the bottom.

(For the record, the top photo was taken at the British National Archives in Kew).

Now, you may be asking yourself: yes, but why do I have to figure this out in advance?

The most important reason to have a workflow figured out is this: you need to determine how you’re going to get those thousands of pages you find in an archive into a usable format and bring them home with you.

1. Photocopying is expensive. Even if it’s just 7 cents a page, if you wind up photocopying a thousand pages (which is *incredibly easy to do*), you’re going to spend some serious bank. Photocopies are also heavy and take up space in your luggage. And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if they get wet, dropped, spilled, stolen (along with the rest of your luggage), torn, burnt, etc.

2. Photocopying takes time. A number of archives do not have self-service photocopy machines; they have copying services which will do it for you. This comes at both a monetary cost and a time cost, because unless the copyist is literally sitting around with nothing to do, you may not get the copies back the same day.

3. Okay, I’ll scan them. Sure thing! Except that scanning and photocopying are usually two halves of the same coin, performed by the same person at the same copy service that charges per page and probably won’t get to it as fast as you’d like or need.

I’ve been in a couple of dozen archival collections and I’ve seen exactly one with a self-scanner. It was located outside of the special collections room where the material I wanted to scan was kept, and I wasn’t allowed to take the material outside of the room.

4. Scanning has its own challenges. Also … even self-service scanning may not be free. There is a flatbed scanner at the Wellcome Collection in London, which is a research collection that I adore for its cheerful atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, decently priced cafe with surprisingly good food, and bookstore that I can never get out of without dropping at least £20. In fact, I recommend that anyone passing through London whose research pertains in any way to science or medicine take a look (their catalog is online so you can see in advance what they have).

It is, in fact, the same flatbed scanner that my home university library has, with the same little port to plug in a USB device, and I was delighted to find this out became it meant I wouldn’t have to mess around and figure out how the machine works. I laid out my book, hit “scan” … and nothing happened.

That’s when I saw the little sign saying that there was a cost of £0.10 per scan.

In one of my few moments of actual frustration at Wellcome, I discovered that the cost of the scan has to be paid with a copy card, which can only be purchased in cash. American readers may not see the issue here, so let me clarify that the UK is well on its way to being an entirely cashless society. I had literally not been presented with a cash-only situation during my entire stay in the UK, save for the weekly food market behind Birkbeck College, which had huge signs at the entrance warning people and pointing them to the nearest cashpoint.

I had no cash on me, and as far as I was able to tell there wasn’t an ATM anywhere within the same block as the library. So … yeah.

So, how do I plan a workflow?

What it comes down to is this: you need to have a plan as to how you are going to capture the documents you want, store them securely, and annotate them (this is so, so important), and you need to be comfortable with both the hardware and software that you’ll be using before you leave the house for the first time.

Learning this all in the field wastes your time and money. Most of us are on some sort of research funds (I actually wasn’t–more about that in a future post), meaning that we need to produce while we’re there. Losing a day’s work because you took all of your photos at the wrong ISO and they came out so pixelated as to be unreadable is a risk you don’t want to run (even more if you don’t understand what I just said).

Plan your workflow by working backwards.

Start by asking yourself this question: when you are sitting at your computer writing your dissertation, how do you want to consult your documents? Are you envisioning them as multi-page PDFs with searchable text? As paper copies in front of you (as much as I just pooh-poohed the idea of photocopying, if that’s your thing and you have the funds to support it, go for it)? As something else?

I’ll stop asking you these questions and tell you my personal answer, but I want to emphasize again and again, as I have throughout this entire guide to grad school, that the most important thing is that you devise a system that feels natural to you and that you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to do it the way I did.

I wanted to have PDFs of the documents. I have to admit that I didn’t really think much more through it than that, which became something of an issue when I got to the British Archives and discovered that a file number could refer to a single piece of paper in a folio, or to two massive boxes bound together with twine. This is where creating bookmarks within PDFs became important.

The question for me then became how to capture the documents as digital images and get them into PDF form.

Camera, laptop, documents, iPad … check! Turns out this was a bad idea.

I originally did this using my digital camera–the British National Archives has camera mounts for stability–to capture images, which I then transferred to my laptop using Adobe Lightroom where I … you know what, I don’t even remember. I did this on a short research trip and the workflow of getting the images off my camera into Lightroom and thence into a PDF was so utterly cumbersome and time consuming that it literally took me three years to get everything processed.

See, I like to take photos and I know how to use Lightroom … for photos. As it turns out, I did not know the first thing about using Lightroom to create documents from photos.

This is why I insist that you try your workflow at home. Pull that copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire off the shelf and act like it’s a book you need to copy.

I wound up regrouping using a capture device I hadn’t taken seriously: my phone.

A friend pointed me in the direction of a scanner app — Scanner Pro (no, I don’t have this monetized) — that works on the iPhone. There are similar apps for Android and other platforms, and Office365 and I believe Google Docs are jumping into the fray with their own entries.

Scanner Pro isn’t free, but I realized it would pay for itself after about three archival boxes so what the heck.

What I like about it is this: it does a terrific job of capturing print documents, of deskewing them (meaning: if you take a photo of the document at an angle, or the document is crooked in some way, as it might be if it’s bound together, as the British documents are, you can draw a box and it kind of straightens it out; enough for government work anyway), of creating multi-page PDFs, of running OCR (optical character recognition, meaning that it looks for recognizable text within the image–this is what makes the document searchable), and–extremely importantly from my point of view–it uploads the documents to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box are all covered at least).

Hence, by the time I left the archive I would have already uploaded that day’s work into the cloud. Even if my phone got lifted on the tube ride home, I wouldn’t have lost my work.

Now, as I said–I have no vested financial interest in Scanner Pro and could not care less if that’s the app you choose to work with. The important thing is that you pick an app and work with it a bit so that you know how to use it pretty well before you set foot in an archive.

I would suggest that you try out a number of different types of documents in different formats–Goblet of Fire is a big, fat book, so you can see how your program deals with curvy pages. Also try single documents, big type, small type, and if your work is likely to involve images, try those too.

I do not find that Scanner Pro works great with images, but I didn’t have many to contend with and was just as likely to use the actual camera function on my phone for those.

Dealing with the files

Okay, so you now have a system to digitize images into files. Great!

Hey, where are you going? Our work here isn’t done.

In fact, what comes next is VITALLY important.

It’s also incredibly tedious and easy to let slip. Try not to let it.

So, now you have a bunch of digital files … now what?

If you’re like me, your hard drive starts to look like this after a while.

Annotation 2019-06-21 101657

In case you were wondering, there are six hundred files in this folder.

Also in case you were wondering … those are not the original file names that I gave these. I retro-organized this folder almost a year after I collected these articles because I realized that I had no idea what any of them contained. (The format is YYYY-MM-DD because Windows keeps it in order by date that way).

So, first up: two other tools I used.

Annotation 2019-06-21 102218

One is a PDF editor. Scanner Pro does a lot, but sometimes I need a little more boost. Or I needed to OCR a language other than English. Or I wanted to insert bookmarks, as I did with this copy (left) of the testimony to the Milner Commission in 1919, because the file I generated was over two hundred pages long.

Sometimes I leave little digital sticky notes in the documents. As long as it took me to learn how to work paperless, I did eventually master the skill because … did I mention there were six hundred files in that one folder alone?

For this task, I lit on PDF XChange Editor. I’m not linking to it here because they’ve changed the way they sell the software–when I first found it, the PDF Viewer and the PDF Editor were sold together for about half the cost of what they’re selling each individually for now.

If you’re with a university and have access to student pricing, compare with Adobe Acrobat or see if your university offers another solution.

When it came to putting it all together, I am a huge fan and devotee of Zotero, which I will link to because it’s free and fucking fantastic.

Zotero is your digital librarian. There’s a lot of training available online (free), and a lot of universities support it pretty well–it can take a bit to unlock all of the things it can do, but here is why I like it a lot.

Here, for example, is what the Zotero version of the folder I posted above looks like:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103350

I did have to go in and enter the title of each article, the author (if it had one), and date — this is something I would highly recommend that you get into the habit of doing daily. When I would come back to the flat I rented in London for my research stay, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in front of the TV and pick away at this on my laptop. If you let it go, it becomes unwieldy.

But here’s why this is useful. First off, you can include tags on each entry:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103649

Now, if I want to find all of the articles from the Egyptian Gazette that have to do with unemployment demonstrations, I can find them.

Second … if you double click on the entry, it opens the PDF. (I use Box storage as my Zotero storage). It’s all linked right there.

Third, Zotero has plugins for Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (and other things–as it’s open source, people are constantly developing plugins) so that you can generate footnotes and endnotes without having to retype everything.

You can also import records into Zotero directly from your university library’s catalog — again, you don’t have to retype everything.

Seriously, given the number of people I know who had to spend days “fixing” their footnotes prior to submitting the dissertation, I cannot recommend Zotero enough.

But again, it has a learning curve.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is my last piece of advice here, and it’s one I’ve said over and over: make sure you know how to use your tools. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. If something is a bit squidgy (academic term), google and see if there’s a workaround or how others have dealt with it.

You’ll have enough unanticipated issues to deal with on the road as it is. Having a solid plan as to how you’re going to work with the material you can collect from the beginning will take a lot of the stress off of your shoulders, so that when you get to the archives you can be productive right away.

In future columns on the research year, I’ll discuss how to plan out what you’ll be doing, and how to try to keep sane while you’re on the road. Stay tuned!

Someone else is doing my topic. Is my academic career over??

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.

Very 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!


Grad School Survival Guide: How to Read

So you got into graduate school. Congratulations!

(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, and are tempted to skip over because you’re asking yourself why you would read an outline of the book that you’re about to read. Don’t! It’s key to understanding what the book is trying to accomplish.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

Next up:

How to read a book (or more) a week … for each seminar … and still have a life. It is possible!

You’re Teaching WHAT?

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 anyone who 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.

Why It’s Important for My Classroom to be a Safe Space

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.