Week 12, or How to Handle the End of the Semester Without Burning Out

If you’re reading this, more than likely you are where I am right about now: in the midst of classes ending, staring at a vast sea of papers to write and books to read. You might be wondering how am I going to juggle readings for class but also finish the semester out with strong papers and preserve my mental health?

I definitely do not have all the answers, but what I can provide is a guide to how I’ve survived the last three semesters and the push for final papers.

  1. Put your health first. Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. Make sure you’re getting enough to eat, you’re resting enough and you’re emotionally supported. The fact of the matter is that you cannot be productive if you are not physically able to.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you don’t meal prep, maybe try it out during finals season, or at least cooking in bulk. Save yourself time and always have some fresh food around when you don’t feel like cooking or going out.
  2. Create a Schedule. When I’m about a month out from the end of classes, the first thing I do is create a schedule. I figure out when all my final papers are due, and then map out how much I need to write per week, at minimum, to reach my page minimums for the end of the semester.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Write your schedule down. Put it in a notebook, in an app, on google calendars, but put it somewhere that you will see it so that you will hold yourself accountable.
  3. Start Early. We are so past the time when we could write papers the night before and get an A.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Start early to give yourself as much time and space to work as possible.
  4. Set Goals for Yourself. In the same space where I create my schedule, I also create weekly and daily goals for myself. If, at the end of a week, I want ten pages written, I set a goal for two pages per day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Don’t forget to reward yourself for reaching goals, and be kind to yourself if you don’t get as much done as you’d hoped.
  5. Work on a Little at a Time. As I mentioned in Step 4, I break my weekly goals into smaller, workable pieces that I can do in one day.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Setting my mind to working on two pages rather than trying to just tackle 25 pages is much more manageable.
  6. Get Drafts to Your Professors, if Possible. Many of my professors offer to read drafts, which is why you should (step 3) START EARLY.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: If you can get feedback on your work, you should!
  7. Peer Review. If your professors do not read drafts, read each other’s work! Just getting a fresh pair of eyes on something you’ve been working on for weeks can do wonders for your piece.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Form writing groups with your colleagues. It’s a great way to hold each other accountable and also get feedback on your work.
  8. Leave Enough Time for Edits. Even though getting words on the page can be the hardest part, editing can take an even greater amount of time.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Make sure that you start writing early enough that you can take a week or even a few days, to sleep on your words to make sure that you’re saying everything you need to say.
  9. TAKE BREAKS. Circling back to Step 1, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to conserve your energy, not blow it all at once.
    1. RECOMMENDATION: Watch Netflix. Go to the gym. Take a walk. Play with an animal. Chat with your friends about something other than what you’re working on. If you’re close to family, visit with your family– if not, maybe FaceTime them.

The most important thing to remember is that this too shall pass. Do your very best but take care of yourself in the process. As long as your priorities are straight, everything will be just fine.

Week 11, or Finding the Right Mentor for You

This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time with one of my faculty mentors from the University of Virginia, Professor Claudrena Harold. As always, I learned a lot from listening to her speak, the passion she has for working with undergraduate students, and making sure that she’s being true to her intellectual and artistic vision when pursuing a history. I am always in awe of the way that she pursues certain forms to tell certain stories and I hope that when the time comes, I can be as inventive in my own scholarship.

My time with Professor Harold got me thinking about mentorship and advising relationships, as well as how to find the right people for you. So I thought I’d offer a short post on questions to consider when finding an advisor.

  • First, ask yourself what you need from an advisor or a mentor. This might be difficult. You might not know immediately what you need, in particular if you’re negotiating a new space. I know for me, I came in with one advisor who was particularly tough and in all honesty, I wasn’t ready for her. As a student freshly graduated from undergrad, I needed someone to be a little milder with me. I needed pep talks. I needed guidance, assurance and affirmation, so I picked a different advisor. Now that I’m almost two years deep in my program, I feel I can handle the toughness that will make my work the best and sharpest that it can be, so I’m considering switching back to my first advisor.
  • Second, see who you gravitate towards organically. The person you are assigned or who you pick when you first arrive in graduate school simply may not be the best person to advise you. You pick these people often based on similar research interests, but they may not cater to you in other ways. Take your first semester, or even your first year, to see if there are any professors you find yourself drawn to, even if your research interests don’t align perfectly. See who takes a genuine interest in you. Those professors are often going to be the ones to guide you with the most compassion.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to switch it up. As I’ve mentioned previously, you may need different people in different stages of your journey. Who was great for you during coursework, may not be the person to get you through comprehensive exams, and they may not be the person to get you through your dissertation. Different stages may necessitate different types of assistance.
  • Fourth, don’t be afraid to look outside of your immediate program for mentorship. Some of the best mentors I’ve had have come from outside my actual program of study. (Professor Harold being one of them; I was a French major in undergrad and she was a professor of history and African-American studies.)
  • Bonus: If you can find someone who caters to you emotionally, but also provides you with excellent feedback in a timely fashion, signs all your forms for you, and helps you make connections HOLD ON TO THEM TIGHT. More often than not, you may not have an advisor who can do all of that; you might have different professors that provide you with different things and together create the perfect mentor.

I believe the key to all of this is knowing what you’d like in a mentor or an advisor, but this takes some time to discover. For me, I like someone that is firm on deadlines, but lenient when necessary; that gets me good feedback in a timely fashion; that, in essence is dependable, but also can be gentle with me when I’m feeling the sting of imposter syndrome and the urge to drop out of grad school. I also like to have someone who can empathize with my experiences as a Black woman in the Academy, but I don’t often have those people to choose from in my current environment.

Keep in mind that everything that I offer up as advice has been my personal experience, so take it with a grain of salt. All of these suggestions may work for you when deciding on a mentor or advisor, or they may be entirely useless. Whatever the case may be, I do hope that on your journey, you find people, in your field or elsewhere, that can provide the necessary support that you personally need in order to be successful in your journey.

Week 10, or “Fake News” and Real Mentorship

My professor, Liz Losh, gave the William & Mary Tack Lecture this past Thursday night.

The Tack Lecture series is a pretty big deal. It’s a part of a new W&M tradition in which each semester, a professor is asked to give a public lecture on something that both academics and community members will find engaging, allowing everyone to be a part of the University’s intellectual discourses. This semester, Professor Losh gave a talk entitled “Fake News for Real People.” As the rhetorician that she is, Losh began by discussing what creates a persuasive news story: ethos (an appeal to ethics), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and logos (an appeal to logic). Fake news stories, she argued, include too much pathos and not enough ethos or logos– we need all three in credible news. Losh argued that fake news is not a purely partisan issue, that fake news may have purposes other than deception and the problem isn’t just fake news– it’s a crisis about truth telling in an era of simulation.

Fake news is not a new concern, it dates back to Orson Welles creating mass panic with his radio broadcasts, however our fake news tends to be a simulation, copies for which there is no original– or in this case, news stories for which there is no source. She argues that there are three genres of fake news: Fake News 1.0 (satires of political theatre), Fake News 2.0 (asymmetrical disinformation warfare) and Fake News 3.0 (disparagement that undermines traditional news organizations.) Fake News 1.0 was actually helpful in some sense– it improved media literacy. Viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report tended to do well on news quizzes and were more equipped to identify satire. The problem is that people care less about the source and focus more and more on the content, which is to say that they care less about the context and more about the content.

In our current moment of Fake News 3.0, Losh argues that there is confusion about what fake news is. There is cause to doubt traditional news sources and, therefore, people become confused about basic facts. She proposes three trends which may explain our issue with fake news: authority is replaced by authorization, authenticity is replaced by authentication and veracity is replaced by verification. Finally, she offered a few solutions to fake news: technology companies created the problem, therefore they should be in charge of creating solutions; teach media literacy and news literacy early and often; and fund the humanities, because knowing history, rhetoric, philosophy and foreign languages helps in identifying fake news stories.

Professor Losh ended her lecture by shouting out the Equality Lab fellows (I am one) and the Race, Memory and the Digital Humanities Symposium, which I wrote about last semester. Hilariously, the picture that she chose to represent RMDH with was one of me flashing my conference badge and smiling like a goofball. The picture (which several of my colleagues made sure to take snapshots of) stayed on the screen throughout the entire Q&A section. It was mildly mortifying but also hilarious and had been done with good will.

Professor Losh ending with a picture of me made me start think about her commitment to mentorship. Yes, she is a prolific scholar; yes, she is basically an academic rockstar; but she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work she does with her students. When Adrienne, Ashley and I came to her with a partially formed syllabus for an independent study on comics, Professor Losh did us one better and turned our independent study into a real class that would show up on our transcripts. She makes sure her students and Equality Lab fellows have access to scholars in our fields so we can ask them questions and share our own work with them. (She’s also willing to give you a little nudge when you might otherwise be too shy to share on your own. [Me. All the time.]) She makes sure that we have a physical space to work and create together. She gives you lengthy, but kind, feedback on your writing with the sole purpose helping you get better. Stick around long enough, she’ll present you with all kinds of opportunities you would have never thought imaginable and, best of all, she gives really great pep talks.

For the last few weeks (or much of the semester, take your pick), I had been feeling completely burnt out and utterly uninspired. I talked incessantly of quitting grad school– taking my MA degree and hightailing it out of her to pursue a glamorous (though admittedly not lucrative) career in publishing or editing in a city like D.C. or Richmond. I hated going to class, I hated reading for class, I hated talking to people, I hated being here. I had talked to everyone I knew about quitting, including my advisor– everyone, that is, except Liz. I had avoided talking to her because I knew if I did, she’d make me stay. Professor Losh was the one person I knew who would be able to talk some sense into me and I wanted to leave so badly I didn’t want to hear sense.

Sure enough, it took a quick chat with her and a week off to help me clear my head.

Ever since, I’ve been trudging along with a little more determination in my heart. I still don’t know if I can finish this whole PhD game, but I do at least know I can finish this semester. This graduate school game is wild, but good mentorship, like what I get from Professor Losh, and a strong support system can pull you through.

My attempt at joining the Academy