Assessment, Teaching & Disciplinary Writing

My colleagues and I recently published an article on our experiences creating a senior portfolio of writing samples, and assessment. In this piece, we acknowledge that faculty begrudgingly participate in assessment directives from administration. However, we also show how assessment – conducted as social scientific research – can provide valuable insights on student learning.

Most of us have probably heard someone say something along the lines of “we know best” while providing a series of anecdotes or talking about “common sense.” This, however, is not scientific. Such assumptions about teaching do not exemplify the critical thinking skills we supposedly teach our students. As sociologists, we regularly teach our students that common sense, might not be reliable or accurate. As such, applying sociological insights to teaching and learning can help us critically think about pedagogy.

With 215 portfolios, consisting of 1,028 student papers, collected and assessed we have solid evidence on the strengths and weaknesses of our students. An unsurprising finding in our research is that student writing could use a great deal of improvement. However, we also have evidence linking this to the inability to apply theory and write a decent literature review.  In other words, components of good sociological writing. This is something, I’ve touched upon in my blog.  Good writing, on some level, means disciplinary writing. It means writing for an audience e.g. fellow sociologists. This involves prose, as well as different styles of citation

Right now, my grant supported research is delving into this problem through the angles of community building and co-curricular activities. Put simply, will identifying as a sociologist – as a fellow social scientist – improve a student’s writing? Using surveys, focus groups, and existing assessment data, I am tackling this research question – as research.

This project is ongoing, and I’ll likely have a post on it once it’s completed. However, I’d like to end this post by saying, assessment doesn’t have it be assessment. I can be research as well. This is research that can inform one’s teaching, as well as curricular changes.  Importantly, it can do so by using evidence rather than anecdotes.

What is top-tier?

This blog post is a follow up to my previous defense of scholarly writing and a response to something I have been hearing from some colleagues at my institution– that publishing in top-tier journals is “impossible” for most faculty at my university. In this post, I want to first unpack this problematic assumption and then offer my thoughts on getting work published.

A bit of background: I happen to do interdisciplinary work. What I’ll be addressing might not work for all fields. Also, I am writing this while  at a regional teaching-oriented institution that has a 4/4 course load, where some publishing is required. Despite our faculty collective bargaining agreement explicitly stating quality matters more than quantity, many on my campus would argue that our contract does not offer guidance of how to evaluate quality over quantity. The result has been predatory publishing squeaking through the tenure process in the past, and more recently faculty getting denied due to ill-defined notions of quality.

Getting back to the question of publishing in particular venues – I think that the concern of my colleagues needs to be re-framed in the following ways. What constitutes a top-tier journal? Are we just talking about flagship journals of professional organizations? Are we talking about impact factors and other bibliometrics? Quantitatively, top-tier could mean anything within the first two quartiles of ranked journals in a field – which could account for several dozens of journals that are well cited and publish solid work. However, there are also journals in subfields that are also ranked. Web of Science and Google Scholar have categories beyond traditional/major disciplinary areas. Subjectively, it depends on your subfield. Is it a journal that you have cited in your own work? Is it a journal that publishes work you read regularly?

If I had to provide my own definition, I would say it’s simply a journal that publishes work that fellow scholars in the field recognize and respect.  Usually, this means there’s a correlation with citation counts, but it could be that it is affiliated with a professional association or be with an well known/established publisher. So yes, it’s a broad definition. However, you should always keep in mind what does or does not count in your department/institution as well as your field.

The idea that certain types of publication is “impossible” is dangerous. I think my colleagues mean well. We are a teaching oriented institution. However, this assumption discourages junior scholars from attempting to publish in highly ranked journals that can help grow a career. Indeed, one should always keep local tenure/promotion timelines in mind. However, I personally believe that scholars – especially young ones – should always aim for the best journal their work fits in. It increases the visibility of your hard work. Also it is work that is future proof if the journal is ever acquired by another published.

They key here is that the work is a fit for the journal. Prior to submitting your work to a journal, you need to do your homework. Do you cite articles in that journal? Or authors that have published in that journal? Do you engage in the literature that those who have written in that journal work in? Does the journal publish primarily qualitative or quantitative work?

Indeed, it is harder to get published in some journals than others. However, rejection can be valuable. The best advice I ever got in graduate school on publishing is to have a ranked list of where you would like to publish. If you get rejected from your first choice, you move down to the next one until you get an acceptance. As you move down the list, you will likely get feedback that can help you improve your manuscript and have it published in a well regarded venue.

Finally, for some good tips on publishing see Victoria Reyes’ article in InsideHigherEd

 

In defense of scholarly writing

In this blog post, I would like to defend scholarly writing as well as the academic peer review process. I say this while also being very critical of the process and its inaccessibility. However, I don’t believe we should disregard its strengths.

There are two major critiques to academic writing and publishing. The first involves is the seemingly absurd process of publishing academic work. Submitting a journal manuscript for publication can mean a multi-month to multi-year commitment. Not only is time involved with revision as well as rejection, there are countless horror stories associated with the peer review process. In some fields, it is particularly bad. Editors face headaches as well.

However, if publishing was like the job market, my CV would likely be blank. The double-blind peer review is one of few places in which scholars from less recognized institutions are not judged based on affiliation and who they know. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that single-blind review does have bias toward well-known researchers and institutions. However, they found double-blind review does reduce biased found in the review the process of the journal they examined.

I work at a regional teaching-oriented institution and have a PhD from a middling state institution. I am at a disadvantage not only due to these biases, but I have fewer resources that scholars and doctoral recipients from more well-known schools. Thanks to double blind review in my field, my work has generally received fair evaluations – which includes acceptances and rejections from prestigious journals in my subfield. Certainly, the peer review process can be improved. There are suggestions out there. However, I want to say that the process is not without merits.

The second critique is the inaccessibility of research. On Twitter, I have certainly shared plenty of articles that argue academics need to change the way they communicate their research. This problem is complicated, when academic knowledge is hidden behind expensive paywalls. Many on academic social media have discussed the problem of work that counts (or does not) in promotion and tenure processes and problems with the use of prestige/impact factor. As my colleagues have noted on Twitter, non-academic writing is not valued in tenure and promotion processes. This pushes scholars to put their work in the hands of publishers that are not committed to sharing knowledge.

However, I do not believe it is as simple as saying blogs or other public writing should count. For instance, the American Sociological Association, which I am a part of, released a report called “What Counts? Evaluating Public Communication in Tenure and Promotion.” The report essentially calls for context when evaluating public work (see: discussion in Inside Higher Ed).

For me, this context is engagement with the field. There is value in engaging with your peers, just as there is value in work that is aimed at non-academic audiences.  Academic writing – even at non-research schools – is useful in keeping one’s skills up-to-date. Indeed, it is a highly specialized form of communication. However, that is fundamentally what it means to have a PhD and do academic work.

Working Over The Summer

APSCUF (my faculty union) currently has a blog series that examines what professors do when class is not in session. This is a response to politicians characterizing our workload as being only 17 hours a week. Pennsylvania professors are not alone in sharing their “off contract” and summer activities. Faculty in Connecticut are keeping busy. So important are the summer months to our professional work, faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have written an advice piece for Inside Higher Ed on how to get the most out of the summer (and not burn out). I have my own blog post on summer writing written two years ago. For this post, I’d like to add to the discussion of – not just how much we work as faculty – but how important our so-called “off” time is.

Indeed, for me, as well as my colleagues, there is no “time off.” We work year round, but time for different activities may be allocated differently throughout the year. Summer is when I do much of my course preparation for the next academic year. This means reading new books on the areas I teach, revising syllabi, and updating data in my PowerPoints. This probably is not surprising to those outside of academia.

Summer is absolutely necessary for research and writing, which is not included the politicians’ 17 hour calculation. While we are not paid for the summer (unless we teach), this is when many of us conduct the research that is integral to our jobs as teachers and educators. At teaching oriented institutions, such as the PASSHE system, summer “free time” is even more important for continuing our scholarly growth. During the regular academic year, the time needed to manage four courses per term, grading, student advising, as well as committee and service work makes it extremely difficult to focus on research and writing.

For example, I study cities and globalization. Summer is my chance to travel to the places I study. In the past, I have visited universities in Ethiopia and Turkey. Last summer, I participated in a conference in Italy. While overseas, I am not only interacting with other scholars, but also investigating the processes that shape urban life. The only way this can be done without interfering with my teaching is to do it during the summer. This work is not just “research,” but it helps me in the classroom back in Pennsylvania. By conducting research, I am also preparing for my teaching. In gaining first hand knowledge and other experiences to share with my students, I can be a stronger teacher.

Summer is also the time in which I write up my research. In my field, this means an 8,000 to 10,000 word article that goes through many rounds of revision before submission to a scholarly journal for review by peers and other experts in the field. I believe that my strength as a teacher comes from my ongoing research and writing. Rob Jenkins, who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has discussed how writing helps him in the classroom. Personally, I push myself to write for the same reasons we make our students write. It forces me to actively engage the literature and current trends in the field. This requires reading what others of written, thinking about my own research, and figuring out a way to make an effective argument. Furthermore, I submit myself to peer review for the same reasons why peer review is good for student writing as well. It forces me to clarify and effectively communicate ideas – valuable skills in the classroom.

As a sociologist, the American Sociological Association (ASA)’s annual meeting in August typically marks the end of summer. In the past four years, Kutztown has sent six undergraduate students to the ASA Honors program. This puts us in the company of elite research schools and selective liberal arts campuses – campuses that provide greater institutional support for research and professional development. Supporting student research and encouraging students to apply for such programs, requires active engagement in the discipline. My colleagues and I do this, because it is part of our professional identities – which extends beyond our specific university employment. This is tied to our passion for our field, research and desire to share the discipline with our students. In order to do this, we need to keep up with our research and spend our summers preparing for our annual conference.

In conclusion, our “off contract” time is valuable to both our professional identities, as well as our students. We go above and beyond because of we made the decision to devote our lives to the study and teaching of our disciplines. Claims by politicians that we only work 17 hours and have summers off demonstrates both a lack of understanding and respect for our profession.

My Favorite Class as an Undergraduate

Splatter BackpackI’ve been meaning to post a blog for a while on my favorite courses. As an educator, I regularly reflect on the courses I had as an undergraduate (something I think is important for teachers to do regularly). I also want to specifically thank UC Irvine’s Humanities Core program for my success as a student and scholar. Despite taking the class over a decade ago, Humanities Core always comes up when I think about my undergraduate coursework. So I can easily say the course was effective and impactful. During my new freshman orientation, I was placed in the course, because it fulfilled requirements for humanities majors (history at UCI is in the School of the Humanities) and it satisfied the lower division writing requirement for general education. However, it was much more than something that fulfilled a requirement. I’d say that Humanities Core laid the foundation for my later success as an undergraduate and graduate student, my work as a researcher, and my job as an educator. So in this blog post, I’d share with you all why Humanities Core was the best course I ever took. *** No offense to any of my former teachers and professors reading this blog.

Humanities Core is a year long interdisciplinary course that is taught by a team professors across the humanities (such as art history, history, philosophy, and literature). The year typically revolves around a theme, and I believe that the theme for my year was the “journey.” Although it had a theme, the material was incredibly diverse and varied. That year, I read the work of David Hume, Plato, the Chinese epic Journey into the West, and the work of Freud. I watched Hitchock’s Rebecca, Hiroshima mon amour and the opera Madama Butterfly. I learned about the Aztecs, William Bradford’s religious beliefs, Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences in the New World and was introduced (briefly) to Chicana/o studies. In addition to content, the course had a substantial writing component which meant that the course was worth 8 credits (or two courses) per term. So this was much more than just a year long survey of the humanities, it was a sustained effort in reading, critical thinking and writing in my first year of college.

I believe that the structure of Humanities Core was incredibly in developing my critical thinking skills and writing. It was one of the few courses that truly balanced content and writing instruction. I still remember the lecture given by a philosopher Terence Parsons on ‘a priori’ and ‘a posteriori’ knowledge following a reading of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The follow up in the writing seminar on argumentation helped turn the lecture material into something that would help my writing. Looking back, I see that the intent of the reading assignments, lecture and writing assignment was to make us think about how we make arguments. When we read historical works like that of William Bradford and Cabeza de Vaca, we were not just learning content. We learned how these historical figures legitimized and justified what they wrote. We also learned that these texts were primary sources to be used in making our writing effective.

The teaching assistants/writing instructors for the course were typically advanced graduate students from throughout the humanities. I don’t remember if it was luck or if I was placed in writing seminars with historians, but I was. In either case, I believe this positively affected my writing as a young social scientist. I owe a great deal of my writing training to Robert Blackman who I had both in Humanities Core (and later as a history instructor). I learned that when you quote or cite texts it is to support your argument and not to use quotes as a crutch. It was about using/analyzing a text (such as the diary of William Bradford) as a means of providing evidence. Essentially, I learned how to find/use evidence to discuss some form of historical, social or cultural phenomena. Oh yea, and I learned how to use the Chicago style of citation not MLA (thankfully!).

I could go on and on about how great of a course it was, but I won’t. While this was ‘Humanities’ Core, I believe that this course laid the foundation for my social science training (I declared sociology as a second major as a junior). In conclusion, when I reflect on my time in Humanities Core, I don’t just remember what I learned. I remember that I love learning. It reminds me of why I went into research and why I enjoy teaching the subjects I care about.

To my fellow educators reading this via social media, what was your favorite class?

Why I wrote about Spider-Man

Although my primary area of specialization is urban studies, I recently published an article entitled “Fear of a Black Spider-Man: Racebending and the Color-Line in Super Hero (Re)Casting” that is now online ahead of print. In this blog post, I figured I’d talk a bit about why I wrote that piece and link it to why I think personal interests, research, and teaching are closely connected.

My article seems timely given the recent news that there will be a new Spider-Man movie starring a new actor produced under the watch of Marvel. It may also seem timely given the recent suggestion that Idris Elba play James Bond or the recent news of Mehcad Brooks playing Jimmy Olsen in the upcoming Supergirl television show. However, this is not a new issue and the issues of race, racebending, and casting is a recurring debate amongst fans of superheroes and other genres. This debate is something that I have been following as both a fan and a social scientist for the past few years. However, this is my first research article on the topic.

The origin of my work on race and superheroes goes back to my dissertation. In a chapter, I use Zorro to discuss the not-so-fine line artists, authors, and writers walk when they appropriated non-WASP culture for popular dissemination. I specifically discuss how Johnston McCulley was very careful to make Zorro of Spanish and not Mexican descent. This choice to make Zorro specifically European was not simply to tell a good story. It was a choice that was influenced by racial attitudes of the time. However, my dissertation wasn’t about Zorro or superheroes. It was about the use of “Spanish” culture in California’s built environment and visual culture.

The reason why I became interested in the Donald Glover controversy is that I enjoy comic books, superhero movies, and video games. However, as a critical social scientist, I cannot help but be persistently aware of the under-representation of different groups in popular culture. As a sociologist, I’m always using my “sociological imagination” to see the connection between aspects of everyday life to larger social realities. Essentially, I wanted to put my training and curiosity to use, while digging deeper into something I enjoy.

Another reason why I chose this project is that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to explore a different topic and employ different methods to test myself. To put it simply, I made myself write this article for the same reasons why I make my students write papers. Doing the research and writing the paper allows me to develop and test my skills and knowledge in another area of interest.

Finally, I was teaching courses on race and ethnicity every semester when I was working on this project. So reviewing the literature, conducting the research, and writing helped me in the classroom. Bringing this research into the classroom – partially since it was about Spider-Man – was enjoyable for both myself and my students. It was a fun way to show my students the connection between personal interests and research.

It’s unlikely that I’ll continue to do research on superheroes, but I think it’s an exciting time to be a fan. The news that Spider-Man can be included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the coming Captain Marvel and Black Panther movies, as well as the recent shake up of the Avengers in the comic books are intriguing on so many levels.

Teaching Social Science Writing

Like most semesters, I assign a lot of writing despite my heavy teaching load. However, this semester I have spent a bit more time discussing what makes social science writing different from what they might have encountered in other classes (e.g. why MLA is inappropriate for our class). This blog post will discuss some of my concerns and thoughts regarding teaching social science writing.

A few premises I want to get out of the way. I think effective writing across the disciplines is important. There are a lot of issues with student writing. For example, political scientist Michael Allen has a good post on passive voice. Like Steven Pinker, I’m against academic gobbledygook. I understand that basic skills in writing and research are difficult to learn and just as difficult to teach. For instance, at Kutztown, the other sociology faculty and I created a guide to writing academic (sociology) papers on our webpage. However, a persistent problem is the lack of discipline specific training in writing.

My goal is to make students not just critical thinkers, but much more rigorous thinkers. Not only do I want my students to be better communicators, I want them to be accurate writers. So here are just some of the issues I encounter every year that is specifically tied to social science writing.

  • Use of Sources
    • We live in a world where good writing is often more important than good research. As Michael Chabris explains on Salon, popular nonfiction work such as Malcolm Gladwell’s fails to meet the rigor social science. A criticism of Gladwell is his cherry picking of studies. Our students do something similar. They find a quote in a text to ‘augment’ their writing (rather than build an argument based on existing research results and methods, or theory). When I’ve asked students to construct literature reviews, very few actually survey the research. Most structure their literature reviews author-by-author plugging in quotes that include the terms and concepts they want to write about. Here the quote is a crutch. They’re augmenting their writing rather than building a foundation for an argument that is grounded in the research. That’s not to say what my students are writing aren’t relevant, interesting or significant. However, the way they are using sources tends to emphasize the significance of what they are saying, rather than provide evidence that what they are saying is reliable and valid.
  • Generalizability and Importance
    • Sociologist Robert Merton in his classic work Social Theory & Social Structure, discusses (or grossly generalizes) different approaches to research. For example, Merton suggested that, Europeans take the position: “We don’t know that what we say is true, but it is at least significant.” While the Americans take the position: “We don’t know that what we say is particularly significant, but it is at least true” (pp. 494-495). As a qualitative and critical researcher with postmodern inclinations, I tend to agree with criticisms of positivist social science. However, I believe that significance (or social relevance) and truth (validity/reliability) are both important. The balance of those two sides in research is what makes us social scientists.
  • Unit/Level of Analysis
    • When my students write about inequality, they do a fairly good job emphasizing it as a social problem. However, a common problem is that many will mention things such as racial segregation in the United States and slums in the developing world in the same paper. There’s no unit of analysis. There’s also no sense of level or scale. This is linked to the aforementioned problem of precision, validity and reliability. However, it is also connected to the disconnect between course content (information) and the notion of research. Student papers spend a lot of time reporting facts, rather than transforming that information into data that can be analyzed. In other words, writing doesn’t just open up discussions of social problems, but is part of operationalizing research.

While I verbally address many of these problems in class, I feel that I could (or should) do much more over the course of the semester. As this semester wraps up, it’s time to head back to the drawing board to come up with new ways to encourage better social science writing in my courses.

Post-Dissertation Research Trajectory

handwritingAs I write my tenure and promotion application letter that recaps what I’ve done, I’m also thinking a great deal about where my career will be going. Raul Pacheco-Vega has blogged a bit about his own trajectory. So I figured, I’d spend #ScholarSunday (Pacheco-Vega’s creation) doing a bit of writing on my own trajectory.

For some of us PhDs, we have a love and hate relationship with our dissertation. It was our ticket to being called “doctor.” It led to publications that helped us get jobs and advance our careers. However, we are often sick of it (and possibly the topic) once we’ve squeezed what we can out of it. Yet, moving on is hard. I was recently talking to a colleague of mine and she expressed concern about future research once everything in her dissertation was published. Moving on to a new project is often scary and intimidating.

I actually haven’t thought much about my dissertation for the past 2-3 years. My trajectory is (maybe) different from others though. There were a number of ideas that I had when I was starting my dissertation that were not feasible for a number of reasons. As such, I had a U.S. (or California) -centric dissertation on architecture and culture despite being trained in globalization and global cities. After getting a few articles out of my dissertation, I started moving on to a very different area of study. While my recent work on wildfire comes out of a very brief section of my dissertation, it was essentially a new project that required a lot of new research. I basically had to train myself in environmental sociology. Since then, I’ve been working on global urban and environmental issues rather than culture and built environment. Also, visiting Turkey and Ethiopia the last two summers have allowed me to explore new angles to look at the connection between environment urbanization, but in a way, I’m returning to my roots as a Binghamton Sociology trained scholar.

This shift (or return) led to a bit of awkwardness at the American Sociological Association (ASA) meeting last week. When asked what I work on, I struggled to find an answer. I think for the time being, the simplest explanation is that I look at the “intersection between built and natural environments in the U.S. and globally.” Six years ago, if a time traveler had told me that this was my future, I’d have been shocked.

I’m not sure if this trajectory makes me look unfocused, but I think my short attention span and desire to constantly work on different topics keeps my intellectual curiosity strong. Loving learning is what brought me here, and I still get excited when I learn something new. So hopefully, this excitement can inspire many more years of research and writing. After all, I’m still an early career researcher / scholar.

Summer Writing

handwritingIts summer time, which means I can get a lot of work done without the distraction of student emails, service work, and other things that take my attention away from research. So I’ve decided to devote this entry to my writing regimen.

In an Inside Higher Ed article, Hollis Phelps discussed how he’s been able to continue doing research at a teaching focused institution. While a very positive piece, many of the commentators below the article had harsh words for him, claiming impossible workloads as a barrier to getting writing done. The reality is scholarly writing is difficult and graduate school is generally a poor training ground for it. So, in the last year, a few people have asked how I’ve managed to publish while teaching a 4/4 load with no TA support. Or how I can write, teach, grade, and be involved without a 60 hour work week? So, I’ve decided to write this blog post on my writing process.

First, I think it’s important to get a few things out-of-the-way. I’m privileged to have a tenure track job. I have a PhD adviser and other colleagues to co-publish with. This either isn’t the case for those in fields where co-authorship is less common. Also, having a spouse that’s a graduate student in a social science field helps. I have ready access to a proofreader. I’m also lucky in that I teach courses related to my research. In other words, I’m privileged to have resources and be in a situation that others are not.

It also helps to have a writing strategy. When I was working on my second comprehensive exam (area paper) in graduate school, I realized that reading and writing at odd hours was not working for me. I also couldn’t wait for inspiration to hit me. The reality is scholarly work is my job, and I should treat it as such. Every moment in front of the computer should be productive. Of course, this is all easier said than done, so these are my 5 strategies for staying on task when writing:

  1. Know Thyself. It’s important to know what works and doesn’t work for you. I tend to write better before sunset. I also tend to work best if I devote 2-3 hours a day solely to new writing. I tend to write less junk that requires a lot of revision if I work while in that zone. So once my time is up, I move on to other work (like revision, course prep, reading, etc). Finally, I write better in my office than at home. This was my discovery in graduate school, and I’ve stuck to it ever since.
  2. Organization (daily and annually). Once you know what works for you, you need to organizeyourselfaccordingly.
    • Daily. Take advantage of the time that you have. Every minute is valuable to me. I not only organize my day to optimize my writing time, but I keep my notes, files, and references organized. It’s completely ridiculous to not use citation management software like EndNote and Zotero! I also organize my day like a typical 9-5 job, this allows me have a routine that includes time to clear my head when I get home from work (see below). In other words, being organized helps me balance work and leisure – both of which are important.
    • Annually. I don’t have a 60 hour work week because I work all year round. Summers are when I do 90% of my course prep for the next academic year. This saves me a lot of stress during the academic year. It’s also when I’m able to have distraction-free writing time year round.
  3. Routine and Discipline. Writing is a craft. You have to keep working at. It’s also not easy. As mentioned above, I write best in the morning. If this means I need to wake up earlier to get an hour of writing in before my 8 or 9 am class, then I get up earlier. If I’m not traveling during the summer, I try to go my office 2-3 days a week (or more). Being disciplined about your routine helps you stayed organized, which in turn helps you have time for your life outside of academia.
  4. Clearing your head. Something that helps me stay focused for those 2-3 hour blocks of time is making sure I feel refreshed mentally. I do very little writing at home. This allows me to recharge my mind before re-opening that Word document again the next day. I also devote a lot of time to mindless pursuits like television and video games. During the summer when I have more time, I go to the gym a lot. I shut down the academic part of my brain when doing these things. This keeps me from burning out. Some people can breathe academic work 24-7. I can’t, so I don’t.
  5. Learning to let go. I have way too many friends and colleagues who hold back their work. They think that an extra month of revision will help them perfect their work, and this ends up being month after month of delays. Part of knowing thyself is knowing that you’ve done all that you can on the manuscript (such as editing, proofreading, double checking sources and data, sharing with colleagues, etc.). Once you’ve done all you can, it’s in the hands of editors and referees (or advisers and committee members). The reality is that the peer review process inevitably yields some sort of criticism you have to deal with or some other kind of revision. This means there’s a time where you have to let go and trust that you submitted the best work possible.

What I’ve written above is what’s worked for me the last decade or so. It might not work for you, but nonetheless it’s useful to learn how to work with your strengths and around your weaknesses.

Good luck reaching your summer writing goals.

Thinking About Summer Reading

Splatter Reading

ReadingAs we approach summer, many of my professor and teacher friends are posting on their summer reading plans. Also, several of my friends have been posting this piece on reclaiming reading for leisure and enlightenment via Facebook. In many ways, all of this echoes the things that Neil Gaiman has said about reading. Essentially, that reading fiction for leisure is good. I agree. I also don’t think people (and especially young people) read enough. However, I want to offer my own very different personal trajectory as a reader and suggest that we all read for different reasons. Also, I’d like to argue that we all read for different things as well and that we shouldn’t idealize certain approaches to reading.

This past winter, while staying at my parent’s house, I showed Hande my writing assignments from grades 5 to 10. In that folder, there were papers on Constantine the Great, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare’s plays, the American Civil War, To Kill a Mockingbird, the history of Iraq, and nuclear power. She remarked it was very clear I was meant to be a social scientist as my English assignments weren’t nearly as good as my “social studies” papers. In response, I said that I never liked “literature” anyway. My comment that day wasn’t completely true. I grew up reading a lot. My family had a set of abridged version classics such as Moby Dick, several works of Dickens, Mutiny on the Bounty, Black Beauty, and the work of Mark Twain that I read while in elementary school and junior high. I also read fantasy novels and had a love for Greek mythology. I remember enjoying The Great Brain series of books. Yet, it felt easy for my say that I didn’t like “literature.”

As literature lover, Hande was horrified by my response. She demanded that I never say such a horrible thing again. I reacted by re-igniting our longstanding argument over Catcher in the Rye. I hated the book and still consider it a waste of $8 (I read it for the first time 8 years ago on a boat ride from Turkey to Italy). She loved the book and we’ve been arguing about this for years. I’ve only recently come to understand the reason for this disagreement. We read books differently. She likes the characters – Holden, his teacher and sister Phoebe. However, the Catcher in the Rye has none of the things I look for in book – history, politics and details of social life/structure.

As a kid reading the abridged version of Oliver Twist or even watching the musical Oliver! I don’t think I ever thought much of the characters. Today, the characters are a blur. What stood out and continues to stands out to me were the conditions that the characters lived in. Orphanages and workhouses stand out in my memory more than individual characters. As I reflect upon the many books I’ve read, in general it’s not the characters or even story I remember. In Moby Dick, I was more fascinated by whaling more than with the characters. I remember harpoons and blubber, not Ahab’s obsession. In The Great Brain series, I was most interested in the technicalities of toilets being installed in the “frontier” West. The practical economic realities of collecting money from a fountain to live in a museum is one of the few things I still remember in the From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I don’t even remember why the kids were in the museum.

There’s magic in reading. However, for me the magic was never found in larger than life characters or the idea of adventure and fantasy. The magic for me was being able to see the past come alive, or how society worked. Basically, as a teen, I was reading as a social scientist. I wasn’t interested allegory, symbolism, and the things that most people celebrate when they discuss the joys of reading. I’m not interested in dreaming with open eyes. Rather, when I read fiction, I am searching for nonfiction in those texts. In other words, I disagree with Neil Gaiman’s statement that “reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” I disagree with Gaiman’s assertion that fiction has a special place in activating our imaginations. While, I agree that fiction can be a gateway drug to reading, it doesn’t mean that nonfiction can’t inspire us.

We all read for different reasons, and we all read for different things. Today, I don’t read a lot of fiction. The last novel I read for fun was A Game of Thrones, and I believe prior to that might have been Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly and before that Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (over a span of 5-6 years). There might be some Dan Brown in there also. However, I enjoy reading nonfiction more than fiction. I know I enjoyed SuperFreakonomics more than any other recently read fiction

In conclusion, I don’t think people read enough. As an educator, I believe reading books is important. However, I don’t believe in the idealized myth of what reading is supposed to be like – reading a physical paperback novel and daydreaming. Reading nonfiction on an e-ink Kindle is still reading. It might be a different experience, but it can still inspire and provoke deep thought.

My reading list this summer consists of:

  1. Finishing my friend Jeff Howison’s book on Reagan.
  2. Bourdieu’s Distinction
  3. Robert Sampson’s Great American City

Happy Reading Everyone