Teaching…

Lots of folks I know view teaching as a graduate student as a vexed opportunity/ circumstance of obtaining an advanced degree. Depending on your department, you may have very few chances to teach, or more chances than you would like. There are tons of benefits to teaching, including job experience, income, and a huge sense of accomplishment. Despite the benefits, balancing teaching and research/writing/coursework can be difficult. Oh, also, teaching can be ROUGH and definitely is lots of work. I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve figured out the hard way—through hours and hours of trial and error in the classroom.

 

1. Classes vary, and you will probably have to change up your teaching style to match your students in a given semester. Some classes are talkative and some are quiet. Some love group work, while others just want to listen to lectures. Be prepared to vary your teaching styles, try out new things, and definitely ask for feedback from students—I usually have a miderm eval…

2. Along the same lines, some classes are great, and some, to be real, are not. There are some groups of students that for some reason just don’t mesh. It can be easy to take that personally, but don’t jump to that assumption. Take a good look at your class, and honestly assess the situation. Are you putting in too little time? Are you unavailable to students? Are you regularly unprepared? If you answer “no” to those questions, it’s probably not your fault, so you’ll just have to muddle through. But don’t despair! You will have good classes in the future!

Photo by Ben Skirvin/WFIU. Accessed from http://www.flickr.com/photos/wfiupublicradio/5163362832/.

3. A class is always the hardest the first time you teach it. Expect to put in hours prepping and developing assignments. The flip of that, though, is that classes are much easier the second or third time around, so save your materials—and make notes on what worked best and what you would like to update…

4. If you’re feeling intimidated by teaching—and everyone I know has felt this way—a quick shot to your confidence that should help with your class is to put on your finest teaching garb and light it up! Really, it should help you feel more professional and, for me, in any case, affords me greater confidence. Sometimes you just have to fake that you are a professional/authority figure/expert and eventually you’ll believe it, and your students will too. Fake it ‘til you make it…!

5. Finally, a note for you perfectionists out there: set boundaries on how much teaching prep you do. I have definitely lost entire weeks of reading/writing to teaching: it can absolutely can take over… So you have to remember that you are also here to research and write; don’t let that side of grad school suffer. Limit the hours you can use to prep, and force yourself to be efficient and to prioritize what really needs to be done (i.e. do you really need all those hilarious photos for the PowerPoint? Probably not.).

 

Here’s hoping that you have a blast with teaching… It is part of the vocation for most of us and while some are more “natural” at it—in the sense of having a defined teaching style that affords someone confidence and students a good learning experience—everyone I know is always working to becoming a better teacher. It takes work and, like with most things, if at first you don’t succeed try, and try again!

Where to live in Bloomington?!?

This question, more than most, seems like it is really hard to answer abstractly: the best places for me to live are certainly not the best places for lots of undergrads who are as invested in partying as taking classes! So, with that as the backdrop, here’s a few things to consider:

(1)  I’d strongly encourage you to look into campus housing for your first year at IUB. Personally, I lived in an IUB apartment building for my first year, which was a really great thing for me: I got to live close to (but far enough away from) campus, didn’t have to deal with the hassle of setting up utilities, and figured out where I wanted to live next. Which brings me to…

(2)  Bloomington has lots of neighborhoods and several neat living possibilities!

  1. The South side of Bloomington has several apartments and condos that can be rented for as low as around $500/month (and as high as $1K/month). My impression is that the South side has more working professionals: it is a relatively nice and quiet area with people who get to bed at a reasonable hour and get to work early. It may not be a terrible idea to take out a loan and buy a condo if you’re planning on being here in Bloomington for four-five years…
  2. The East Side is mainly stand-alone homes and is very family-oriented. Lots of faculty live on the East side of town, and while it has a broad range of homes (including some that run for $1mil on the market), it is usually beyond graduate students’ paychecks.
  3. The area around the IUB Stadium is pretty hectic! It is renown for partying: don’t be surprised to find that someone mistook your stoop for a urinal at three in the AM if you ultimately decide this is the area for you!
  4. There is a fair amount of IUB housing that is available to faculty/ staff/ students on/around campus, including spacious apartments on/around N. Fess, on 10th street (Tulip Tree), and on 3rd street (Campus View). Because they’re located at different places—though usually close to campus—they have different feels, though they’re generally fairly quiet and usually within a 10 minute walk of campus.

Hope these thoughts help—feel free to comment if you’d like any more specific suggestions!

Being a Muslim in Bloomington

I’d like to share a bit with you about “religious diversity” here at IUB. In particular, I’d like to share with you a bit about being a (Sunni) Muslim here in Bloomington. For starters, Bloomington is a pretty liberal place in the sense that it has a lot of well-intentioned folks—some of whom have a hard time understanding the idea of American-Muslim-ness. Generally speaking, though, I’ve only ever heard a few stories of out-and-out prejudice against Muslims as Muslims—of the three I can recall one was expressly against a muhajibba (someone who wears hijab) and the other two were directed against Muslims in the world. With that as the backdrop, it is worth noting that: (1) Considering how big it is, Bloomington has a lot of Muslims—from all walks of life and from around the world—far more than most towns the size of Bloomington; (2) if you’re used to living in a city with a big Muslim population (e.g. a Philly, Deerborn, NYC, etc.) prepare to feel somewhat isolated and deprived of a variety of halal options. That said, one of my favorite restaurants serves halal meat (<http://www.restaurantanatolia.com/>) and there are at least three other halal options in Bloomington for folks who like to eat out. And, I should add, we’re not so far from Indianapolis (about an hour by car), where you can find a lot more variety in the way of halal food…

There are definitely useful resources for Bloomington-based Muslims. There is, of course, the “Islamic Center of Bloomington,” which plays an important role in the lives of many Bloomington Muslims <http://www.icob.org/gl/public_html/>. There’s also the Muslim Student Union on campus (used to be an MSA but is no longer—long story about which details are sketchy and scant), which has become an increasingly open and welcoming space <http://www.indiana.edu/~msuweb/>. The MSU facilitates “campus jumah” that is open to everyone who doesn’t feel like attending—or can’t attend—jumah at the masjid. Moreover, the MSU office is open to all IUB faculty, staff, and students who want a place to pray on campus. Personally, I really appreciate the enthusiasm and openness of the MSU—the spaces they create are open to all Muslims, regardless of theological positions (i.e. there are many Shi’a who attend campus jumah, we’ve even had Shi’a give the khutbah and lead prayer), gender, and ethnicity/race. I’m not sure how the MSU would do with “out” Muslims, but, as far as I know, to date this has not been a practical question. If attending jumah here in Bloomington gets tiring, you can always try to get up to Indy, where there are several masajid with a range of orientations—including a WD Muhammad masjid, a few Salafi-oriented masajid, and the ISNA headquarters—such that you should be able to find a place you feel comfortable with. To sum up, then: my impression is that practicing Muslims in Bloomington are certainly exposed to various modes of prejudice that mobilize Islamophobic tropes, but Bloomington offers practicing Muslims a few worship-communities and a broad range of Muslims to befriend… Hope this helps!

A few questions to consider when you’re evaluating which program to attend

So this is where you’re probably at the end of your rope. Hopefully you have several fantastic options to choose from and are confronting the luxurious question: which graduate program should I attend?

Now I’m not going to be so crazy as to suggest that I know where you should go. If you want to know what the future holds you might want to give these folks a shot: < http://www.psychicsource.com/landingpages/lpnonseasonal.aspx?imc=609298&pg=122&tfn=1.855.204.4912&gclid=CKnMq-PBlq8CFcJM4AodiQtgyg&CookiesChecked=true>… I wouldn’t put my future in their hands, though!

Instead, I thought I’d share with you a few questions to consider as you evaluate where you should go for your graduate education:

(1)  How do you feel about the people you’ve been in touch with at the schools that have offered you admission?

  1. Do you like the graduate secretary? The director of graduate studies? The chair?

(2)  How do you feel about the faculty you’d work most closely with—the faculty in your area of study?

  1. How promptly have potential faculty written back to you?
  2. Do you think they are invested in your work? Are they going to push their research agenda on you—or, alternatively, will they help spring your career by including you in their research?
  3. Are they tenured?

i.     If not, will they be able to get tenure or will they likely leave?

ii.     If so, will they be willing to be a strong advocate for you in department politics?

  1. Will they be staying at the institution you’re considering? Are they currently considering other offers? What might prompt them to leave?
  2. Are your potential faculty in administration at the departmental//collegiate level?

i.     If so, are they still taking on graduate students? Would you be able to work effectively without supervision—autonomy can be a bad thing!

(3)  How are your possible stipends in relation to the cost of living in the towns you’re considering?

  1. In other words, no real news here: $20K in NYC doesn’t stretch nearly as far as $20K in Bloomington, IN!

(4)  Would you like to live in the town/city that hosts your graduate program for the next 5-8 years?

  1. Do you have friends/family nearby?
  2. Do you know where you might live?

Hope these help!

Spring Break?

So I just wanted to share with you a bit about different possibilities for Spring Break… In the past I’ve often insisted that, just like the undergraduates who I’m teaching//TA’ing, I’m going to take a few days away. More often than not, for me this meant that I was going to give my eyes a break from staring at a computer and, usually, to watch a ton of TV and movies and catch up with friends who I wasn’t able to chat with. Usually this routine would last longer than it should have: usually I’d hang out and lay low for about 5-6 days, instead of the “brief” break that I intended—3-4 days. Not so this year…

Instead, this “Spring Break” began with me at the library working on a conference paper/presentation at 830 AM on a lovely Saturday. BUMMER! This spring break I had to write up a paper (nearly from scratch) and prepare two different presentations using the same material. So, rather than spending my Spring Break hanging out, watching TV, and catching up with my people (who, for the most part, are no longer in Bloomington), I was at work every day by 9 AM—usually at the Wells Library, though I went to the Bakehouse a few days too (http://www.scholarsinn.com/bakehouse.html). I also LOVE Sweet Claire’s as a work spot, though their hours were slightly less conducive for me—over break, that is (http://www.sweetclaire.com/). So the paper got done on Saturday night (yuck) and I read it and edited Sunday till 4 and then sent it out. And I think it turned out fairly well—the first presentation sparked some, err, heated debates? The second presentation (totally different audience) was well-received and enjoyable across the board. So, all things told, it worked out well, even though I had no real Spring Break…

Moral of the story? It might be something like this: to and for me, balance is a great thing. A great, great, GREAT thing! I wish I would have had more work done for the conferences so that I could’ve had a few down days over Spring Break, though I also wish that I had been more consistent in plugging away on work in previous Spring Breaks. How about you folks? What’s your take: should graduate students enact their own Spring Breaks? Or should they get on the grind given a brief break from coursework?

PETS!!!

As you begin your graduate program, and as you fully grasp your reality of being in Bloomington for a while–expect a minimum of five years–you will have to determine what it means for you to make a home in this small—but lively—Midwestern town. For some this means buying a home, for others it means planting a garden, but for some it means adopting a companion animal. Considering bringing a dog or cat into your family is a complicated issue; graduate school for most comes with financial strain, and getting a graduate degree almost guarantees a few years of instability after graduation. On the other hand, an animal’s companionship can help to offset the isolation of advanced studies. What to do?

I should note that I have consulted a cat-loving friend of mine to help think through the pros and cons of adopting a pet as a graduate student. We came up with a few tips that, as always, are based on a limited set of perspectives. Feel free to add your own pearls of wisdom in the comments section! More than anything, it is important to remember that adopting impulsively puts your own and your pet’s quality of life at risk. Here are some things you may think about.

  1. Consider finances. Would a pet fit into your budget for this year, next year, and the next five (or longer)?
  2. Consider travel and pet care. Are you planning on spending a year or two overseas for research? If you anticipate attending conferences, do you know two or three people who could provide quality pet care within your means? I knew from the beginning of graduate school that pets were out of the question due to my doctoral research.
  3. Consider time. Do you have the space in your schedule to give a companion animal attention? Remember that they will not only need food, but also play time!
  4. Finally, weigh the benefits with the losses (financial and other). My friend-turned-consultant feels that although her cats have added to her financial strain, they offset the isolation of a research and writing lifestyle. For her, then, the benefits far outweighed the costs (or at least that’s the story she’s sticking to)…

Pets can provide much needed companionship to many young scholars, but we encourage you to think carefully about what you have to give to an animal. And remember: even if you can’t adopt, you can always volunteer at a local shelter!

(here’s a fun picture of one of her (two) cats…)

Dealing with Stress

To say that graduate school (or professional school) can be stressful is an understatement. Graduate work can be fulfilling, absorbing, and thrilling, but it can also (and often simultaneously) be isolating, overwhelming, and hard on self-esteem. I write this not to dissuade anyone from graduate school—I am so pleased with the possibility of reading, writing, and teaching for my life—but to emphasize the need to be prepared for the toll getting an advanced degree can take on your mental health. A few lifestyle choices, though, can make a big difference between being crushed and being fulfilled by your graduate program. So, I’m going to offer a few thoughts to consider… Obviously, these suggestions come from my experience, and you will need to find your own strategies for dealing with stress.

First, take care of your body. Exercise, eat well, and set up a regular sleep schedule. It took me far too long to realize that I needed to take care of my body, and once I started doing so, I immediately felt happier and more in control of my day.

Second, have a life outside of school. Make it a point to participate in activities that not only take place off campus, but also involve people not affiliated with the university. Take a community art class, volunteer at a homeless shelter, join a running club, or become active in a religious community. Such activities not only give you a reprieve from school, but also help you maintain perspective—there is a fulfilling, challenging world away from the university campus!

Third, take up a hobby that has satisfying, small accomplishments. When the first chapter of your dissertation has you feeling like you are in quicksand, running a 5k (or knitting a baby sweater, or learning how to bake a mean honey wheat bread) will feel like a huge accomplishment. Research and writing a thesis of any kind can be paralyzing—getting stuck on a paragraph can make you feel like you can’t do ANYTHING. Small accomplishments can fend off that paralysis by reminding you that you accomplish things all the time, and sometimes it just takes a little bit of time.

To get the most out of graduate school, come prepared to take care of yourself! And know that everyone is different, so you will need to develop your own self-care practices, but hopefully these ideas will at least help you start figuring out what you can do to manage graduate school stress, and have a wonderful experience.

A few things to do in Bloomington…

So before I got here I was really unsure about attending IUB because there’s precious little diversity at the institution and even less in Bloomington. That said, it turns out that—for me—Bloomington has been a pretty cool spot to be, even in spite of being a fairly homogenous little town. So I thought I’d share with you four of my favorite things… about Bloomington, that is!

(1)  For the number of folks living here, Bloomington is a culinary heavy weight. Seriously, there are so many—and such a broad range of—good places to eat that, frankly, it isn’t a good thing for my checking account! My personal favorites are: Anatolia and Turkuaz (both of which serve Turkish food—and halal meat), Laughing Planet (an interesting take on burritos), Mother Bear’s (pizza and salad—wings, too, if you eat them), and Esan Thai…

(2)  IUB has an AMAZING campus. It is easily among the most beautiful campuses I’ve ever been to//seen, and has—give or take—six thousand great locations for people watching! There are also a range of good spots to study: the IMU has some pretty well trafficked places you can park and work for a while; the Wells library has both the “undergraduate” and “graduate” sides—each of which has its own charm; the Music Library is an amazing place to check out a CD (or three) while getting some work done…

(3)  Another pretty great thing about IUB are the gyms: the SRSC has easily the best equipment I’ve ever been around; the HYPR (aka, the other gym) is also really nice—though it pales in comparison to the SRSC! The only downside to the gyms is that they get wicked busy at peak times—so much so that I’ve had to wait for, literally, an hour and a half to play a game of 5-on-5 basketball before! Again, though, the gyms are definitely fantastic, and among my favorite places in Bloomington.

(4)  There are some awesome lakes around here! Seriously! Having lived in Colorado I knew that I loved mountains; I’ve also lived seaside (in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia) for a while and knew I loved the ocean… but lakes? Weird, right? But, still, seriously: pretty cool! Bloomington has Lake Griffey close by, and then both Monroe Reservoir and Lake Lemmon are within 20-30 minutes driving. What’s cool about lakes, you ask? Well, for me, more than anything, they lakes around Bloomington have been great place to get a bit of a reprieve…

Hope these help if/when you make it out here!

Health Insurance!

 

Who needs health insurance?

You! That’s who! So graduate school will, as you know, definitely make you an expert in your field; it’ll afford you an opportunity to showcase and develop your talents, to ameliorate your academic weaknesses, afford you new strengths, and, generally, help you be far better equipped to be productive in ways you will find satisfying when you’re done—or, at least, that’s how the story goes. And, really, that’s pretty cool—you should get paid to do what you find compelling.

BUT, graduate school will also wear you down, beat you down, chew you up, spit you out, and certainly see you through a few colds, coughs, nicks, and bruises. So? So here’s an unsolicited piece of advice: make sure that you get a decent health insurance package before you accept any offers. And, if you have a family you will support through this process (don’t kid yourself, they’ll support you too!) make sure that you’ve budgeted for their health insurance as well.

What leads me to share all this with you? Well, beyond all the coughs and colds I’ve had to deal with over the years (and there have been more than I care to remember), this semester my health insurance covered physical therapy for tendonitis and plantar fasciitis… And, as though that wasn’t enough, I just recently sprained my ankle—playing basketball—something terrible. Thankfully, I was able to head over to the IU Health Center and, after an excruciatingly long wait, X-Rays revealed no breaks and so I departed on crutches and in a walking boot—both covered by my health insurance. Now if only I could find a way for health insurance to write my dissertation for me…

I wanted to get y’all a picture or two of my glorious ankle (after the sprain, of course), but, unfortunately, the image is too big…

 

(note the broncos socks)

Letters of Rec

Obtaining strong letters of recommendation, for me, is a really vexed thing to do. Here’s some pointers that I’ve been working with for a few—hopefully you find them helpful:
DO:
*Only ask people to write your letters if: (1) they know you in at least a classroom capacity, but ideally they also have a sense for a range of skills you possess (e.g. teaching, researching, communicating in class, etc.). (2) you are confident that they can write you a strong letter.
* Be strategic in who you will ask for letters and how you will ask for them. Anyone can write you a letter of recommendation; not everyone will write you a glowing one. Not only do you want a stellar letter, you also want a letter that will come from a person who is well-positioned to evaluate and speak to your strengths. On this note: ALWAYS ask for strong letters; a mediocre letter will only hurt your application and you don’t want that—and, in all likelihood, neither does your letter-writer.
* Communicate with your letter-writers WELL in advance of deadlines. I typically give at least one month whenever I can—though I have had to ask faculty to write letters for me in a pinch. As soon as I find a grant (job, fellowship, etc.) that I want to apply for I put it in my calendar and set a few reminders to myself about sending out emails soliciting letters well in advance.
* If you’re asking someone to write a letter and they have never written one for you before be sure to ask them what all they might find useful in writing their letter.
* Regardless of whether this is their first letter for you, you should do your best to get them a copy of the materials (even if they are rough) that you will use in the application they are writing about. I often also send a copy of my CV and, as appropriate, an abstract of the project I’m proposing in the grant (in addition to the complete materials).
* Be super polite!
* If, for any reason, someone is not able to write a letter for you—whether because you haven’t done well working with them, they’re swamped, or they have a conflict of interests—don’t freak out! It isn’t the end of the world!

DON’T:
* Assume you have a right to letter writer’s time, energy, or their good graces. It is always an honor to have someone write a strong letter on your behalf, and I’ve found that the more I share with them about how much it means to me, the less faculty hesitate to support me.
* Ask someone to write a letter for you that is due two days later. That’s never good form!
* Be too shy: if you need a really strong letter then you have to be up front about it. Most people will write a letter if asked to; that doesn’t mean it will be what you want.