Career, community, Learning, Purpose

Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

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Murder your Darlings

Last night’s writing meetup began with a lively critique of a zero draft. Building a frame from the pulpy beginning is the most entertaining part of the process. It’s a barn-raising. “Develop the scaffolding like this.” “It needs a 10-point list and then the explanation.” “You’ve got to figure out which of these two things you are doing, because right now you’re trying to do both and it’s not working.” The author, all grace and nods, filled three pages with notes. She knew she had brought us rubbish. Her excitement about taking the suggestions home was infectious and everyone was giggling by the end of the discussion.
It turns out proofreading for a government contracting journal can be more pleasant than a root canal.
The benefits of writing group participation are obvious to anyone who has been in one. We know anecdotally that the combination of camaraderie, accountability, and feedback keep us moving towards better work. If only my frazzled doctoral students would drink the kool-aid. They hear it from everyone then hear ten more times from me: Cobble a group together early. Like first-year early, well before you head off to the Balkans or Omaha or wherever your research strands you. Before you discover you must birth this monster all alone.
Curious about the scholarship out there on writing groups for graduate students and hoping to find a study correlating participation and degree completion (I didn’t), I dug around in the education literature. The piece I wrote on the topic, Writing Better Together, notes that the intuitive benefits of group participation are supported by the research. Students who participate in groups report improvements in output, skills, and confidence.
Surely, we hoi polloi can glean a thing or two from the findings. Here is one: Groups with diverse membership showed the greatest gains. The ideal setup is a mix of native and non-native English speakers with various levels of experience and a mix of research interests. Participants are forced into a greater awareness of the reader and more dexterous communication with a wide range of audiences.
Here is another: Some folks complain that groups are a time-suck and that energy is better spent attending to one’s own work. This doesn’t pan out. Collaboration and group participation contribute to productivity, even when the attention is on others’ material. Beyond the obvious improvement from receiving feedback, folks are often surprised at how much their own writing develops as a result of giving feedback. The reciprocal advantages of peer tutoring help explain why attending to the form style, and clarity of some other fella’s work can improve the writing of the one doing the critiquing.
Finally, a good writing group thwarts the doubt, insecurity, and fear of rejection gumming up the works. Regardless of variance in skill levels and topics, folks who stick by one another report being more productive, confident, and motivated to write.
We are lucky. Our first Tuesday meetup has a solid core surrounded by a porous outer layer. The folks who stick with it have come to depend on each other. Taking our work out of our private alcoves and placing it into rough, human hands makes it better. Or rather, it makes us better at making it. Signing on forces the choice: improve or keep hiding.
Last night near the end of the gathering, our own Sir Edmund Hillary led us into a heady conversation about criticism. “What was the best critique you ever received?” Around we went, re-living the mortification of having mentors and friends pierce our inflated egos. Here are some of the scars that make us marginally better today than we were yesterday:

  • Where’s the “so what”?
  • The first draft is always garbage.
  • Clear writing = clear thinking.
  • The reader doesn’t care about this subject unless you are in love with it.
  • Don’t be boring.
  • Be the reader’s surrogate.
  • Murder your darlings.

We go home and hammer away at our projects. Someone who knows we are capable of better and more will be asking us about it in four weeks’ time.
Commitment is a cruel mistress. She cracks the whip.
Now, how to get my students to enlist?


Happy 100 Days: 88

At the end of a long Friday at the end of a long week, I am missing my son’s birthday dinner because I have to work late. This is really okay, I keep telling myself, because I took him out to breakfast at Bob Evans and walked him to school myself. We carried the brownies for snack time in a hand-painted shoe-box. I will see him for a few hours on Saturday, and I have taken the day off on Monday because his school is out even though my university is not. And we were up late and up early, and then there is the actual swimming-pool birthday party next weekend, and and and.
But it is 3:50pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I am upstairs in the windowless meeting room rolling around pre-fab tables to prepare for a series of presentations by doctoral students on public policy research.
This is my job. I love my job. I love my doctoral students, and I am curious about their passions, even when they start growing breathless over things like “financial liberalization in emerging market economies and international capital flows.” Yes, even that.
Several times in any given month, I seat myself in a room like this and drink from the information fire-hose. Sometimes it is a dissertation proposal. Sometimes it is an actual dissertation defense, the candidate as crisp and polished as a new apple but damp at the temples and speaking too fast. At weekly brown-bag lectures, faculty members talk about their projects. Peppered throughout the year are seminars by visiting professors, mini-conferences, and workshops like these where budding scholars present current research in a faux-conference setting in order to prepare for the real thing.
This program does a fine job expanding analytic capabilities and policy expertise, but most of the PhD students are just sort of expected to figure out how to present. Some are further along the curve than others. I have been wowed by a couple of rising stars who have employed both art and editing to design trim presentations with moments of humor woven into tightly organized structures. Most, however, cram 197 words on a slide, whisper and “um” through 25 uninterrupted minutes, and slog through table after table swimming with microscopic bits of data. Without a hair of irony, they refer to the endogeneity vs. the exogeneity of their various stochastic models, and their committee members let them get away with this gobbedly-gook. Everyone in the room, it is assumed, understands this language (where do you think the students learned it?) and anyway, the rest of the feeble-minded masses can just sit in the back and smile pretty.
At most of these things, I try to pay attention to the presentation itself. Masters degree notwithstanding, I usually only kind sorta comprehend the first and last quarters of each presentation. The middle chunk? The part that starts when the chi-squared flashes up on the screen? That’s where my bulb dims. So, I shift gears and attend to the presenter’s tone, body language, slides, tempo. The topic is beyond me, but I hope to give the student decent feedback on areas of strength and potential improvement. I am a quasi advisor, after all, so it’s nice to have something about which to advise when the best I can offer on the subject matter is, “Love how you had both an independent and a dependent variable! Super cool!”
So now it’s 4:00pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday and we are starting late because a few faculty members who had volunteered to provide feedback are not here yet. The students are here. More show up to support their peers (At 4:00pm! On a sunny, 81-degree Friday!), then more, until almost every chair in the room is taken, and professors keep sneaking in and grabbing the coveted back-row seats. We all finish our supermarket cookies and settle in.
The first presenter begins.
And she is good.
I mean it. Good! Her topic is fascinating. She is a stronger speaker than when she started the program a year ago. Her research explores the relationship between childhood obesity and participation in certain kinds of leisure physical activity. Specifically, she asks whether spatially expansive activities (she explains, God bless her, that this means things that need lots of room to do, like soccer on a field) are more significantly correlated to low body mass than, say, activities like playing Wii, jumping rope, or even recreational swimming.
Relevant! Easy to follow! Her data, though problematic in ways that the peanut gallery discusses with her, are clear. She actually takes time to explain them. She even had the foresight to keep the research questions simple enough to tackle in a 20-minute presentation.
It is 4:35pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday. After a short break, the next presenter begins. I take a breath and prepare to busy myself with my to-do list. My list does not stand a chance. Another fascinating topic. This one is about land use in Lahore, Pakistan. He has big maps illustrating population growth in the developing world, and I learn all sorts of things about suburban sprawl, corruption, and the history of colonization.
By the third, presentation, I have stopped watching the clock. This one tracks the policy implications of the de-institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities in Virginia. This, in a state with active institutions 40 years after the Supreme Court case that was supposed to do away with such approaches to the special needs population? Curious! Appalling! So much more to explore!
It is 5:35pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday. I have a heap of questions to ask every presenter, and we have to cut off discussion because half a dozen hands hover in the air, people are sitting forward in their seats, and we were supposed to be done five minutes ago. I help one of the student organizers pack up the equipment. “This was really so good,” I tell her. “This was the first one of these I’ve been to. . .” I stop, realizing I’m not sure how to say it without insulting the entire student body.
“Where all three presentation were actually interesting? I know!” She says, laughing. We fold up the cords and tuck them away. “Usually once the equations come up, I’m a goner,” she tells me sotto voce. “I know I’m supposed to understand that stuff, but boy, it’s nice to hear a presentation that doesn’t take so much work to follow.”
We grin together. She actually had to get a half-decent score on the GREs to get into this program, and I know she has received high grades in her statistics courses so far. It’s comforting to know the bright people I revere occasionally feel like dimwits.
It is 5:45pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I explode out onto the sunny plaza and stride to the metro. On the ride home, I give myself the delicious pleasure of reading a Jonathan Lethem short story in a rumpled New Yorker I found in my office. I have missed my son’s birthday dinner, but traffic smiles on me and I catch Bug at home a few minutes before his dad comes to pick him up. We open the last of the presents. We cuddle on the couch and read a sweet little Patricia Polacco book called Mrs. Katz and Tush. Larnell shares a Kugel with Mrs. Katz who is alone on Passover after her Myron dies. (“My Myron,” she sighs. “What a person.”)
It is six years to the day after my son pushed his way into the world. Life looks absolutely nothing like I imagined it would. That night, someone dropped onto my naked chest a real boy. I felt him land there, that complete and living human, and I whispered, “Welcome to the world, little guy.”
The world, you know. Such as it is.
It is 10:40pm on the Friday of my son’s birthday, and I am alone in the spare room of my parent’s house. The night may not be as sweet as I expected, but oh, how rich the flavor.