Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…

 

 

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Read to write

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

Style guides of various sorts from my own library.

In my Academic Writing class, my students often ask what they can/should do to improve their writing aside from learning grammar and stylistic conventions in English. Aside from referring them to the various style guides around, my answer never waivers: ‘Read. Read as much as you can from writers who write well and writers you admire and enjoy.’ The clever sods typically follow-up my response with a question that inevitably stumps me: ‘Who should we read? What books do you recommend?’

So many amazing writers , both contemporary and historical, provide excellent examples of clear, clean and crisp writing it’s a challenge to come up with a list of any kind. Given that so many others have created their own lists of ‘must-reads’, it feels weird providing my own answer this question let alone that anyone is genuinely interested in my response. But, as their guide in all matters related to Academic Writing, I have thought about this quite a lot since returning to the classroom. At the very least, here’s hoping I’ve added to their holiday reading list and possibly provided them with a few gems previously unknown to them.

Given how often I get this question, I decided to put together a list (and link) that I can refer them to.

So, who should my students read?

Typically, when I’m asked I immediately respond with John Irving. To me, anything written by John Irving is a) brilliant; b) weird and slightly surreal; and, most importantly, c) exceptionally well-written. I tell my students to read anything he’s written (because I love him), although my favourites consist of The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read each of these books over the years. I love them each time. His characters are always tragically and bizarrely flawed. But, it’s the writing that astounds me anew every time. Mr Irving’s use of language and style combined keep me reading him, even when the stories fell well short of my hopes. In short, I love his writing—stories and characters aside.

In terms of other writers who provide excellent examples of style and language, here’s my full list (I supplement my own list with recommendations from friends gathered in Facebooklandiastan below). This inventory is in no particular order.

  • John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, but anything really.
  • A S Byatt: Possession.
  • Haruki Murakami: Anything goes. Despite being translated into English, because Mr Murakami knows English so well, I suspect he plays a significant role in the translations of his books and short stories into English. He’s a masterful story-teller, and has a brilliant translator.
  • Alice Walker: The Temple of My Familiar.
  • Vikram Seth: An Equal Music is perhaps one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. This book moves me to tears, quickly advancing to uncontrollable sobbing during several passages. Absolutely incredible writing and an exceptionally example of carefully placed phrases, words and punctuation.
  • Ernest Hemingway: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man & The Sea are my favourites. But, just about anything Papa ever wrote is worthy of reading and demonstrates simple eloquence in all its brilliance.
  • Maya Angelo: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Norman Rush: Mating — another incredibly beautifully crafted piece of writing which earned Mr Rush the National Book Award.
  • Ian McEwan: Atonement.
  • David Sedaris: Just about anything ever written as well.
  • Edward Abbey: Dessert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved.
  • Alice Munro: Just about anything she wrote.
  • Paul Farmer: As my discipline-specific idol, I love his entire body of works. But, he’s also an exceptional writer, academic or otherwise. AIDS and Accusation was one of the most important works of his which still resonates with me roughly 20 years after I first read it.

Now, the recommendations from others. Friends from all walks of life provided the following list. I’ve placed an * next to those I fully agree with and neglected to include in my list. If you have additional writers or titles that you think belong here, please share them!

  • Charles Dickens for his beautiful eloquence. (Interestingly, John Irving loves Dickens; Dickens is not a favourite of mine).
  • Kurt Vonnegut*: I haven’t read any Vonnegut since high school, but I love him still. 
  • Stephen King: Despite borrowing from his own book on writing for my class, specifically his insistence on the active voice, I don’t find his writing that compelling. But, it is incredibly sound technically, and, undoubtedly the man has a wicked imagination.
  • Ursula la Guin
  • Richard Dawkins* ‘makes science easy to read without trivialising it’, commented one friend. I fully agree. I haven’t read much of him since I left graduate school. He’s incredibly eloquent as a speaker and writer both, and bloody brilliant.
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Anne Rice for her prose. Again, not one of my favourite writers, but that’s mostly because I’m admittedly a snob.
  • Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor and chemist. I’ve not read anything by him, but will do.
  • Flannery O’Connor
  • George Orwell*
  • David Lodge: Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work.
  • Julian Barnes* — I can’t remember which book it was that I read first. But, I love Julian Barnes. Amazing writing.
  • Jane Austen: just about everything. 
  • PG Wodehouse
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Isaac Asimov
  • TC Boyle*: I’ve read both Drop City and A Friend of the Earth and loved both.
  • P J O’Rourke
  • Barbara Trapido
  • Christopher Hitchens*
  • Mark Twain: Rather embarrassing that I neglected to include him in my list, given that I adore him and grew up not far from Hannibal, Missouri. 
  • Henry Miller
  • James Joyce: Dubliners
  • Christopher Brookmyre
  • Arundati Roy*
  • Salman Rushdie*
  • Marmon Silko
  • Michael Chabon
  • Margaret Atwood*
  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History seems to be a favourite amongst others.
  • Hunter S Thompson*
  • Douglas Adams*
  • Terry Pratchett: According to one friend, you should start with Guards! Guards! and move onward through his catalogue.
  • Spider Robinson
  • David McCullough
  • Gina Berriault
  • Joy Williams
  • Richard Yates
  • John Cheever
  • Virginia Woolf*: A Room of One’s Own
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Bertrand Russell*
  • Harold Pinter
  • J M Barrie
  • Alan Bennett
  • Jean Paul Sartre
  • Albert Camus
  • Conan Doyle
  • Russell Brand
  • Truman Capote*: In Cold Blood. What an absolutely amazing piece of writing.
  • Richard Feynman: QED and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman were both recommended.
  • Gloria Naylor
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • James Lee Burke
  • Marilynn Robinson
  • Sherman Alexie
  • Nicholas Kristof
  • David Brooks

US$1 Trillion and Counting…?

It was always a foregone conclusion that I would attend university. But, I must be one of the only people amongst my friends who didn’t graduate from university or graduate school with crippling student loan debt.

Despite an early career as a ‘professional student’, which included an extended period spent ‘finding myself’ and finishing my undergrad (1988-1993, spent at two separate institutes and with enough credit hours to have at least three majors), a Master’s (1994-1997), and just shy of a PhD (1997-1999, with a few extra semesters still on the roster spent in absentia), I didn’t take out a single student loan. Not one.

To be completely transparent, from my third year onward as an undergrad, I worked at least part-time and had help (particularly with tuition fees) from scholarships and/or my family throughout. My entire graduate education tuition was provided for through assistantships and fellowships, and I was paid as a teaching or research assistant (at times very handsomely). I worked hard; and I played hard. But, I had no debt of any kind at the end of it all. Even the credit card debt I’d wracked up when times were leaner were paid off by the time I left the halls of the academy for ‘the real world’.

I am a rarity in the US evidently.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across graph from a study carried out by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY), which included current college loan debt by age range and was astounded to see that a healthy percentagee of those in their 60s still had outstanding balances from their college days. A healthy 5.3%, in fact. That amounts to nearly 2 million individuals in their 60s! Think about that. You’d expect that an individual would graduate university sometime in their early to mid-20s. Then, get a job straight away, work for 30+ years, and then they still have student loan debt? How is that possible?

I well remember peers of mine in graduate school tabulating how much their education had cost. One such peer had a PhD from NYU, one of the leading schools in his particular field. Because teaching jobs at the time were few and far between, he could only get an adjunct teaching position, which meant he was paid about the same as I was as a first-year PhD candidate on a fellowship and assistantship. His student loan payments were double his rent and car payment combined, and he lived in a shit hole. Another friend who had completed his Master’s and was a brilliant archaeologist and historic preservationist had something like US$70 000 in student loan debt upon graduation. Finding jobs for them was more about survival than what they were necessarily trained to do or enjoyed doing.

According to the same study carried out by the FRBNY, student loan debt in the US now tops both outstanding automobile loans and credit card debt, and has been estimated at US$1 trillion. That’s staggering. Granted, that balance isn’t shouldered by one individual nor even one generation as the graph above shows. But, still. With roughly 37 million individuals (or 15.4% of those who have debt of any kind) collectively carrying that debt, that’s a heavy burden to bear.

From my relatively privileged position of not being saddled with crippling student loan debt, it’s easy for me to say that I fully support an education system which is free to all. Recent graduates have plenty enough to worry about—securing a job in their chosen profession, developing their careers, etc. For those who happen to marry and/or have children at the same time, which is perfectly within their rights, why add the burden of student loan debt to that list of concerns? Furthermore, shouldn’t we as a society want to see our citizenry well educated and trained, equipping them as much as possible with the tools they need to succeed in their professions?

If knowledge is power, why do we make it so difficult to gain a body knowledge? If it’s inherently better to teach a man to fish, why charge him with interest to learn to do so?

The Ultimate Go-Go Juice

Give me intravenous coffee as an alarm -- the perfect alarm clock.

As I opened up my various daily news sources, I had to chuckle when this headline and the associated image at alternet.org popped up. Intravenous coffee as an alarm clock has long been my idea of the perfect gift/gadget.

I love coffee. It’s taste. It’s smell. The various ways in which you can brew it. And, most of all, I love the varieties. I’m a bit of a snob in some ways in that my perfect cup of joe is a fresh dark roast finely ground just minutes before brewed. Most days, I’ll take whatever I can get as long as it is extremely strong and a rich dark roast.

As an undergraduate in Atlanta, I’d normally start the day with an entire pot of coffee. At the time, hazelnut was my preferred flavor (can’t stand it anymore). I had this huge 32-oz coffee mug that I’d carry with me throughout each day during classes. I’d run to the commissary in between classes to fill it up. At the peak of my consumption, the tally was shocking—something like more than 20 cups a day on average. As I said, shocking.

In graduate school both at The University of Alabama–Tuscaloosa and at The University of Connecticut in Storrs, we were fortunate to have brilliant coffee joints on or close to campus. In Tuscaloosa, the coffee shop across the strip from campus (and luckily a mere 5-minute walk from my flat) would roast their beans in-house. The smell was amazing, and the coffee matched that aroma. It was then that I realised just how yummy a fresh dark roast can be. My consumption went down, but the enjoyment of the coffee increased. My favourite cups of joe were those shared with my thesis advisor, mentor and friend, normally in the afternoon.

In Storrs at UConn, Java Joint became my daily dose source. This is where I learned what flavours I truly enjoyed. Tanzanian Peaberry. Sumatra. Ethiopian something or other. Brazilian Santos. Guatemalan Antigua. I think of them all the Sumatran and the Brazilian Santos were and still are my favourites.

Every day, I’d arrive at the little trailer which became a bigger trailer which eventually became a proper shop inside the bookstore with my more manageable thermos and have it filled with the most divine coffee. I’d usually stop in sometime later in the day in the afternoon before a seminar or office hours or a meeting with a committee member. Occasionally, the cup of joe would serve as a prop and pick me up during a peripatetic meeting with a close friend and intellectual giant with whom I was fortunate enough to work. I miss those days, and I desperately miss that coffee.

Bags of cafe de cuba from a fantastic coffee shop in Havana, Cuba.

These days, I’ll take whatever dark roast I can get. The latest great-tasting coffee to hit our kitchen is Cuban coffee. It’s subtle and lovely, and packs an outstanding kick. The Cubans in my life think anything other than a thimble’s worth of coffee is too much. I’m quite happy to enjoy two cups a day now.

That said, it’s time for that second cup.