Seminar Papers and Pubs: Revise, revise, revise

Academic publishing invites more failure than success, and this failure can make the practice feel like a treacherous landscape where junior faculty have to earn their maps. Whether the sentiment is Publish or Perish! or Publish and Flourish!, the intent is the same: As an academic, you better publish.
The way through is even murkier for graduate students, whose acclimation to academia may or may not include attention to professional expectations like publishing. Most grad students will produce article-length pieces for individual professors to evaluate against particular criteria in the specific context of a course. Without significant revision, though, most seminar papers are generally unsuitable for publication in peer-reviewed journals. In this post, I’ll outline three major points of revision for graduate students looking to revise seminar papers into publishable articles.

Most seminar papers are generously read as approximations of academic discourse, as they should be. As a genre, they’re intended to provide practice for novice scholars in inventing novel arguments, showing (ever-growing) sophisticated depths of understanding, and producing fluent prose using appropriate sources. Seminar papers often rely on a set of shared course texts, are produced under duress and on compressed timelines, are responsive to specific criteria, and are often exempt from the kinds of sharp criticism visited on journal submissions. A seminar paper that earns high marks in a graduate-level class is, at best, a very rough draft of a potential journal article.
The point to keep in mind is this: Revising from seminar paper to publication will transform a text that meets one set of requirements into one that needs to meet an entirely different—more stringent, more demanding, far more incisive—set of expectations. A seminar paper written for a specific class will necessarily work to make a student’s understanding visible in the context of the course.  A journal article must meet the expectations of a specific journal’s editor and audience.  Before addressing revisions, the savvy grad student will survey a range of disciplinary journals to get a sense for which one(s) may be open to the topic and treatment. This student will read copious published articles from those journals to gain a sense for the editor’s expectations. Revisions will be responsive to these considerations.

Problem: A tired or naïve argument
An argument interesting enough to earn a high mark in a graduate course may, in the competitive world of academic publishing, be disingenuous, naive, or tired.  It’s often the case that the key arguments made in seminar papers are influenced by both time and course constraints and thus overlook important strands or reject more compelling arguments in favor of those that better show a student’s reading knowledge. 
Revision: A revision for argument would look at the central argument as contributing to ongoing conversations in academia, in journal articles but also in edited collections, monographs, conference proceedings, and any another professional discourse. Further, the publishable article presents a timely argument. The most compelling point to reviewers or to a general academic audience may not be the author’s idea of the most compelling point. Read, read, read current scholarship and scour bibliographies to get a sense for extant arguments. Search, search, search databases (both university and discipline-specific, like CompPile) for prior iterations of the topic to see how the current topic may add to what the community knows or thinks about that topic. Academic research is intended to push the edges of understanding, even if it’s just a bit. 

Problem: Uncritical or irrelevant source use            
Seminar papers may be light on mapping the scholarly landscape, since both students and professors work from a set of shared texts. Seminar papers may thus elide larger, more important, or more compelling arguments in favor of arguments that better meet the course’s objectives. Sources may be skimmed for content and important quotes, instead of being read carefully to note nuances in argument and implications of that argument. Sources may also be chosen because they were available, because they were expected to be used as a part of the course, or because the student (or professor) really enjoyed the argument (even if the argument doesn’t best contribute to the overall goals of the seminar paper). Misunderstandings or misreadings, even of a single source, can create a sense of sloppiness or uncritical reading practices. 

Revision: Sources need to be updated to include the most relevant to the topic and core argument, not only those sources used in the course or those sources that were easiest or quickest to find. Reviewers will assume that the author has carefully read and understood each and every source he/she employs in service of his/her argument.  Search, search, search for sources related, even tangentially, to the core argument.

Problem: Overwrought tone and imprecise prose.
Seminar papers lend themselves to the kind of academic overwriting that journal reviewers might tag as unclear or imprecise. In many ways, seminar-paper-ese provides examples of how graduate students invent their own universities by mimicking the inflated language and looping structure of published authors. What’s lost in translation is often clarity of thought, as ideas become masked by imprecise language.

Revision: Imprecise language is often a symptom of unclear or unfinished thinking. It may be that spending more time in invention renders more clear language, however a writing group (or even just a single writing partner) can cue authors into the places where they slip into the textual abyss.

These three problem areas are, of course, interconnected and should be viewed as recursive processes.

The pace at which graduate students are expected to produce seminar papers may demote important Writing-to-Learn (WTL) processes and crowd out moments of authentic discovery; at the same time, because the seminar paper is a genre completely constrained by graduate courses, these products may be assessed highly against other examples of the genre. This assessment could convey a sense that a seminar paper is suitable for publication without significant revision. Attention to shifting genre expectations—from seminar paper to journal article—may begin the revision process so that graduate students can enter academic conversations with some sense of the landscape ahead.


The Season of Letters: Communicating with Referees

Around the time stores trot out their Thanksgiving decorations, academics enter Letter of Rec season. In a staggering display of irony, both the academic job market and doctoral programs bear early winter deadlines. Dossiers for both positions share letters of recommendation, a point which speaks to academia’s value in word-of-mouth vetting. Typically, these letters triangulate with the other dossier elements to give committees (hiring or admission) a richer snapshot of someone’s potential.

Letters of Rec are tricky, because they assume a relationship of trust and knowledge between referees and candidates; that is, they rely on human connection and verifiable (in detail!) elements of a candidate’s promise. “Damned with faint praise” becomes a bulwark against writing letters that lack appropriate detail or enthusiasm. Many referees will refuse to write this kind of letter, trading the student’s disappointment for the unsavory task of writing a lukewarm (or negative) recommendation.

While many of the other job and doctoral dossier elements are textual artifacts within a student’s control, letters of recommendation gesture toward the human relationships we cultivate in academia. Personal Statements and writing samples can be revised ad infinitum and may improve with help from peers and advisors. Tests can be studied for. CVs can develop with elements like participation in professional development, publications, and conference presentations (though candidates should be aware of the “fourth-quarter” push problem where all of the activity happens in the same two months).

Letters of Recommendation, however, are different in two ways: First, these important relationships often develop early in a student’s graduate career. For MA and MFA students on a two-year plan, that means that these connections likely happen in students’ first semester in the program, since they’ll be asking for letters in their third semester. Second, the content of these letters exists beyond the candidate’s control. While it’s possible to revise a damaged relationship—depending on the damage—most of these programs are too aggressively paced to leave room for major flubs. To recap: Students asking for letters must have the forethought to develop meaningful relationships with faculty members so that, when the time comes, those faculty members can speak in detail to the student’s capabilities (as a scholar or a teacher or a teacher-scholar).

The whys and whats of recommendations are less murky than the hows. MA and MFA candidates may feel defined by their primarily evaluative relationships with professors and program administrators, the faculty who will write their letters. Requesting a letter can feel strange or presumptuous. It might cue uncomfortable conversations about FUTURE PLANS. Worse, some students misread the situation and ask for letters in ways that may negatively affect their relationship with their referee. Students should keep these points in mind as they approach faculty for letters:

1.      Have a two-minute narrative ready when you make your requests. Briefly describe your intentions (“I am looking at doctoral programs in rhetoric and composition, specifically these six schools….”) and why you are approaching this particular faculty member for a letter. Pro-tip: “Because you seemed friendly to me” is not a good enough justification for asking someone for a letter. When you choose referees for doctoral applications, think about asking those people who know something about your scholarly curiosity and potential as a researcher. It is also the case that many doctoral programs expect candidates to teach in their first year, so it’s not unwise to ask for one of your letters to address, at least in part, your potential in the classroom. For teaching job letters, it’s wise to get a letter from the program’s director or your teaching supervisor and letters from people who have directly observed your teaching.These observations should not be peer-observations, but observations by experienced faculty in the program.
2.      Asking a referee to be a referee can happen in person or by email. If you decide to ask someone in person, make sure to set up an appointment and give some context for the meeting (“I’m applying to graduate schools, and I would like to ask you to write a letter…” or “After I finish my degree, I hope to get a job teaching at the community college, and I’d like to ask you about writing a recommendation…”).
3.      This goes without saying, but still: Ask far far in advance. Most referees need at least a month to write a clear, detailed letter that will serve you well. I expect my students to contact me at least eight weeks in advance, since the fall semester is usually very busy.
4.      When asking someone to serve as a referee, consider qualifying the request to say, “Would you feel comfortable writing me a positive letter of recommendation?” Candidates have been burned by not-so-positive recommendations. (I don’t wish to set up a paradigm where paranoia is default, but it’s helpful for referees to see that you’re thinking into the impact of their letter of your dossier.)
5.      If someone agrees to write for you, provide that person with all the necessary materials to speak to your capabilities in detail: an updated CV, drafts of your personal statement, writing samples, and other artifacts help ground a referee’s personal experience in your larger scholarly context.
6.      Be aware that even if you apply to multiple schools or multiple jobs, your referee will likely write one letter to serve for all applications. Don’t expect customized letters. I’ve certainly written these types of recommendations, but only in novel situations. It is not common practice for a referee to produce multiple versions of a letter for a student. (With great customization comes multiple chances for error.) That said, make sure you give your referee enough context about why you’re applying for these jobs (“I want to take what I’ve learned about multimodal writing and teach in two-year colleges…”) or these programs (“My goal is to research second-language writing and digital spaces…”) so that your referee can write one detailed, effective letter.
7.      Courtesy: Follow up with your referee if and when your opportunities come to pass. It’s always disappointing, as a referee, to spend hours and hours writing a good letter for a candidate to hear nothing in response, good or bad. If someone agrees to write for you, that person is invested in your success. Let them know the results of their efforts, even if those results aren’t the desired ones. And it’s old fashioned, but a thank you note goes a very long way to showing your referees that you understand the time and energy it takes to write a good letter for you as you progress through your career.
8.      What if someone declines your request for a letter of recommendation? In the past, I have declined to write for students for a number of reasons: a too-soon deadline, that student’s history in my classes or as an advisee, or because I knew little of that student, beyond a face and name. Understand that a referee who declines your request is doing so because the alternative would be to write a not-so-helpful letter. Be gracious and learn from the refusal, even if the only lesson is that not every faculty member you work with will be available as a referee.
9.      Most applications—job and doctoral—request three letters of recommendation. Sometimes, this number is bound by the method of application, meaning you can submit only three. Consider asking one additional faculty member than you need, since it’s the case that a referee could forget or have to withdraw his/her letter because of other commitments. Incomplete applications may be thrown out, so having a backup plan is wise.

Asking for letters is certainly more complex and contextually influenced than this list suggests. Often, students have to make decisions between asking two faculty members for letters, as they balance familiarity with prestige or personality. Or they have to navigate the strange land of requesting teaching job letters from mentors, who may see these students as students and not colleagues (a shift which could influence the tone of the letter). But it is the case that during the Season of Letters, faculty members spend hours during the busiest weeks in the semester because we like to see our students do well. These nine points may preserve that relationship.


Activist Mentoring: It's Still Okay to Go

Last year, I wrote the blog entry, “It’s Okay to Go,” a sideways nod to Benton's“Just Don’t Go” articles (Part 1 and Part 2). I wanted to address the overwhelming belief held by many graduate students that staying in academia, either as an NTT faculty member or a doctoral student, is the only acceptable step after the MA. I received 27 indignant emails in response. Some snippets:
“Who are you to tell people what they should do with their lives? You followed the expected track!”

“You’re setting psychologically fragile people up to fail as they waste the two years’ of graduate education and as they enter the private sphere untrained for those positions.”

And the worst: “What an irresponsible mentor and unpleasant person you must be. I feel sorry for your grad students. I’m sure you fill them with thoughts of failure unnecessarily.”

I had hit a nerve, with both graduate students and other professors. After a year of reflection, I stand by “It’s Okay to Go.” In fact, given current trends to defund public education and the growing (ever growing!) over-reliance on contingent labor, I’m even more firmly convinced that graduate mentors must address life outside academia with their students; otherwise, we’re helping support the corporate university’s business model that clamors for cheap and plentiful labor. You can read a little more about this activist mentoring here, a recent article of mine in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor.

Alt-ac—or alternative-academic—careers are a recent and still controversial area for discussion, which speaks to this isolating notion that the only measure of success in graduate school is either more graduate school or a TT professorship. Is there a line of support for bankers or relators or mechanical engineers who are considering new careers? (Maybe it's a line of defense, to keep them in.) Perhaps the problem is that academia is fully invested in its separation from the private and public sectors, even as many public institutions become big-box edu-businesses, influenced by corporate interests and always looking after bottom-life profit.

The MAs I mentor often don’t yet know enough about the business of academia to make an informed decision about their paths. My first commitment is to encourage them to move away from identifying their whole selves with academia. When they do—when they conflate who they are with what they do—they internalize as personal failure the lack of academic job opportunities and, if they become NTT faculty, the lack of security and adequate compensation. The game is, of course, rigged. The failures are systemic, not individual. To encourage them to think more fully about their next steps—doctoral education, teaching off the tenure track, working in the private or public sector—I rely on some version of the following 12 questions. These questions are focused on graduate students in English, but I think they may be adapted for other disciplines:
What is it you like about academia? Specifically, what practices make you happy?
What parts of academia stress you out or make you upset?
Is it important that you live in a specific city, state, or region?
What kind of financial compensation do you need to be happy?
What sort of daily or weekly schedule do you envision as your ideal?
Is teaching/research/administration a practice that you could envision yourself engaging with over time?
What feelings do you experience when you think about not working in academia?
What kind of job could you imagine yourself doing and being happy?
Do you like to research and write?
How do you deal with timelines and independent goal setting?
If you had to describe your ideal day at work—from waking up to going to bed—what would that day look like? What challenges might you encounter? What high points might you experience?
What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth? Your values? How do you prioritize these identities? 

Grad students find this discussion depressing, and rightfully so. Some of them have been sold a career path where TT jobs are plentiful, where everyone gets a position, even if it’s not at their top school.  Some haven't yet considered the academic job market as a real thing; others follow paths prescribed to them. Still others make decisions based on idealized dreams of teaching on the college level. I don’t get my kicks out of making these students sad, but I do feel an ethical obligation to least show them the map and help them make a choice based on the realities of the academic job market.


Environmental Anxiety and the Academic Job Market

Job searching is a bit of a microcosm of the academic lifestyle. High-stakes texts are produced quickly, are still assumed to be ironclad, and all the while candidates are expected to be going about the rest of their job duties: researching, writing, teaching, mentoring students, and presenting at conferences. (And having a life? Maybe.) Peer networks during this transitional time can provide the best support, since the academic job market is (in mostly destructive, arcane ways) unlike any other hiring system. I don’t think I understood collegiality—the lived practice of being a supportive and cooperative colleague—until I went on the academic job market.

But at every juncture, candidates are pushed to think about themselves in negative terms: The money they may not have for new clothes, convention travel, and dossier costs. The dissertation chapters they may not have written yet. The time they don’t have to write, teach, prepare search materials, and hold together a normal life. What starts as a collegial support system could easily devolve into a black hole of mutually reinforced anxiety. Depletion is the key term, the keystone experience of most graduate students on the job market. Spending time with overwhelmingly negative people only exacerbates this depletion. This post will start to talk about ways candidates can provide empathy without absorbing so much of this environmental anxiety.

Problem solve
: Negativity tends to grow from feelings of helplessness or a lack of relative control. Overwhelmingly negative people may be closed off to thinking about their situation in positive ways; however, serving as the problem solver, or the person who brainstorms, even off the cuff, about potential answers to larger problems may help keep ambient anxiety at bay. If job-market talk moves from strategies for success to fears of failure, it’s okay to be the person to steer the conversation back to problem solving. Problem solving may look like organizing a dossier materials peer review or mock interviews, troubling shooting a particular question, talking in safe spaces about alt-ac options, or brainstorming ways to reorganize the CV to highlight different strengths and experiences. Action is the antidote to anxiety. Be ready for the fact that some peers won’t be open to problem-solving approaches.

Refract, don't absorb:
Job-market stress can cause even typically roll-with-it types to lash out. Friends and family, those who are closest and most supportive, can bear the brunt. Even if it sounds personal—“It’s easy for you to say, there are so many more jobs in your field!”—this lashing out is not personal. It’s true that the market in most fields is incredibly limited. Acknowledging stress as valid and completely rational honors the reality of the situation, which may include complex family, financial, and emotional issues.The idea here is to bounce those feelings of negativity back, through the prism of authentic care. The qualitative interviewing method of backchanneling can support these conversations: "Yes, I absolutely understand why you're so down. I'm sorry. It must be tough."

I risk sounding like a jerk here, but if there is someone or multiple someones whose negative energy becomes too much for you to bear, limit contact with those people. Everyone’s busy, so it’s not improbable that your schedule may require you to back out of informal commitments. If a peer group isn’t working, leave it. Practice saying no to social or professional scenes where you might leave less psychically comfortable than you arrived. I have been lucky to get to know some incredibly empathic people in academia. Some of these people are likewise deeply sensitive to ambient negativity. It is painful to watch them deplete their stores of energy to boost others. The job search is a self-centered process (again, microcosm for academia, unfortunately), and sometimes self-protection really is the best solution.

I’m interested in suggestions from readers who have navigated this difficult social and affective space. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Is this psychic energy transfer a function of the job market and thus a rite of (academic) passage?


The CV: The first gate

I don't remember thinking very much about my academic CV until I went on the job market. I submitted a copy to my dissertation adviser, who returned it promptly, covered in ink. Whole sections were deleted. Elements had swapped places. My dissertation synopsis sounded more like an abstract and less like a rationale. What I had treated as a fairly clear cut genre turned out to be more complex and nuanced than my writing sample. Like the personal statement, used often in doctoral program applications, the academic CV (curriculum vitae, in Latin, the course of life) is a functional document which serves as a proxy for the candidate. Its audiences are varied, but in all cases, if an academic CV is requested, the stakes are high. Often, the CV is the first element in any dossier; as such, it acts at the first gate through which candidates pass in their move from graduate student to colleague. This post is intended to begin discussion on the genre, lay out some basic guidelines, and call attention to typical pitfalls.

It's most helpful to think of academic CVs--and any dossier materials--as contextually bound and responsive to the exigencies of each job call.  For example, when I entered the market, I sent applications for positions at R1/R2 institutions and SLACs. Some of the positions were focused entirely on teaching, some on research, some on administration, and most on a mix of the three.  Further, like most doctoral students, I could lay claim to a number of areas of interest and expertise.Working backward through my educational history, I could foreground experience with professional/technical communication, writing program administration, research methods, rhetoric, and composition. The job advertisement determined not only which area I chose to highlight but also the order of elements, like teaching awards, publications, and service to my department.

If candidates remember that job search committees are made up of humans who are very likely already overworked and exhausted, they can best craft a document that efficiently and effectively communicates their potential value. Knowing the gloriously convoluted process of the academic job search may help: The search committee has access to all of the dossiers from all the candidates. From the initial stack, they choose perhaps 10-15 candidates to move to the next stage. Often, prior to phone, Skype, or MLA interviews, schools will request additional materials from a larger pool of candidates in order to further narrow the field. Once a candidate has been invited for a campus visit, the entire voting faculty has access to that candidate's dossier.

While CV templates can be created in advance, candidates should also do their research by checking out each school, department, and program to which they are applying. If job ads cite particular classes the candidate would be expected to teach, that knowledge should help structure the CV. 

1. The first and most golden rule: the first two pages should carry the weight of the candidate's professional identity and potential contributions. I'm not arguing that committees never read past the first two pages. I am arguing that search fatigue makes those first two pages the most important.

2. Candidates applying for a range of foci should create separate CV templates for each. A CV for a candidate applying to teach 4/4 at a SLAC would look very different from an advertisement for a research position at a large university. Further, a CV for an administrative position would order its elements to showcase pertinent work. Details get even finer grained as candidates with multiple academic interests assemble materials for these different institutions and positions.

3. However, even candidates applying for R1, research-intensive, positions should remember that teaching is valuable. While publications will appear before teaching awards, recognition for outstanding teaching should appear on the first two pages, if possible. Candidates with multiple professional contributions (may we all be so prolific!) should, of course, still include publications, conference presentations, and grant funding before teaching when applying for research positions.

4. Personal skills and interests have no place in an academic CV. The document is intended to communicate professional contribution. As such, the first page is prime real estate. Candidates should resist the urge for font pyrotechnics. The first page, regardless of focus, should include contact details, educational history (in reverse chronological order, stopping at undergrad), information about the dissertation or capstone (title and adviser), and a short list of research interests. The order of elements following this core information should meet the exigencies of the position and institution.

5. Candidates should resist the urge to put anything on the CV that they're not comfortable discussing at an interview. These entries could range from fabrications to side-work taken on to float the bills during graduate school.

6. All of these shall-nots may work up the CV as a potential textual minefield, and it can certainly serve that function if care isn't taken. However, candidates who consider the CV an opportunity to display their work--that is, the last five to seven years of their academic life, maybe more--are those who have started to make the move from candidate to colleague. Indeed, the CV stands in for this important identity shift and is often the first document a job candidate creates which will mirror his/her post-graduation status.

I give each of these points with the caveat that candidates should never drive themselves crazy customizing CVs. High levels of customization translate to high instances of typos and other egregious errors. While misspelling the name of a publisher buried on page six of an eight-page CV may not cost a candidate an interview, forgetting to change the name of the school in the "Courses I am Interested in Teaching at State University" might.

A CV documents past achievements and hints at future potential. In contrast, the job cover letter contextualizes these achievements and moves them into the future tense. In the next blog, I'll break down this very important element of the dossier, as it works to supplement the CV.