Setting goals for the summer

Summer is like New Year’s for academics: a time of reflection and goal-setting, both in work and in personal life.

2016–2017 was rewarding—I finished my dissertation and landed a tenure-track job—but intensely difficult. Neither of the New Year’s resolutions I made really worked out long-term.

I lost sight of writing 5 days a week while I was in the depths of interviewing and landing a job, although I got better about it when it came time to pushing to the finish line.

I meditated pretty consistently for a month or two, until interviewing and getting a job became extremely difficult and intense for me. This is when you need to meditate the most, or so the wisdom goes, but the last thing I wanted to do was sit around with my thoughts. Meditation is harder than it sounds.

Forgiveness being crucial, I want to try again, and set out some new Big Changes for myself before I get lost in the hubbub of the 2017–2018 schoolyear. Really committing to all of these would be impossible, so this is more of a brainstorming session. I will feel accomplished if I manage just one or two of these big changes.

  • Journaling with a pen and paper. I have a terrible and deceptive memory. I want to record the ideas I get as I get them. I want to keep track of the things I achieve daily, for revisiting when I have those days where I feel like I haven’t been useful in ages.
  • Designing thoughtful syllabi for my courses next semester. I’m teaching Theory III, Graduate Theory Review, and Graduate Analytical Techniques at my new job. I have a lot of planning to do!
  • Recommitting to exercise. Yoga has been difficult for me to do since I almost broke my toe a few months back, but I can still do select poses at home… I just have to get up and do it. Also, I’m considering lifting? I don’t know.
  • Writing a couple of blog posts. My blog is another thing that was left by the wayside while I lost my mind getting a job. But I have a few ideas for new posts: making a poster for SMT, reviewing the IASPM conference that I’m attending later this month, and just trying some casual analysis of something just because.
  • Reading an academic book or two over the summer. I have successfully started reading for fun again. But academically, I don’t have to read stuff that’s related to my diss anymore! I can read anything I want! I’m thinking of William Cheng’s Just Vibrations or Robert Fink’s Repeating Ourselves. I got a Kindle for my birthday so maybe I can even find Kindle versions of these things to make reading a bit easier.

I recently read a tweet that said that summer is an especially hard time for academics, because our work is already isolating, and summer takes away all our structure. It’s doubtful I’ll get to all of these things, but I hope this will motivate me on those summer days where I have trouble remembering what to do with myself.


What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

I, personally, did not have to face much hardship as an undergraduate student. My family supported my education, emotionally and financially. I had scholarships to help lessen their burden. I had to work to help pay my cost of living, but the jobs were good jobs—accompanying fellow music students and church choirs, and a brief stint as a student assistant in the fundraising office. As an undergraduate, my focus was almost entirely on school, and on musicianship.

Students like me tend to be the kind of students that continue their education by going to grad school, and the kind of grad students that stay in academia to become professors. School is more fun when you have the privilege of focusing on your studies. The more you can focus on writing, the better your writing becomes—if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from the dissertation, it’s that writing is a job, and like a job, you need to dedicate a good amount of time to it to succeed.

What about students who have to write papers, but do not have that good amount of time? People like me, who have been full-time students all along, can easily forget that not all students were as fortunate as we were to have uncomplicated lives. I’ve met students who commute for hours every day and get to class hours early because that’s when the cheaper train is. I’ve met students who have families (who says that potty training twins is the exclusive domain of professors?). I’ve met students with learning disabilities who are deliberately declining to use the accommodations to which they are because they’ve been told that the “real world” won’t accommodate them. I’ve met students who are trying to write their paper before they get their tumor removed the following week.

Why don’t these students I meet in the writing center speak up to their professors, so they can work together to a solution amenable to both parties?

Because they believe their professors will roll their eyes at them, tell them to suck it up, or not even believe them in the first place (“show me a doctor’s note”; “bring me the funeral program”; “get a babysitter”). This is why students vent to their tutors instead of talking with their professors. They’re not stupid. Even if the professor would never say such things to a student’s face, students can certainly sense the condescension in communication with a professor that thinks this way.

And at this point, who has not been exposed to the kind of snark in the tweets above, either through Twitter, Facebook, or edgy op-eds? Jesse Stommel, a notable voice in the world of critical pedagogy, wrote an article, “Dear Student,” in response to a series by the same name  published in Chronicle Vitae. He gives alarming statistics about how commonplace this attitude is among faculty.

Some stats from a few recent studies of bullying in higher education:

  • 62% of professionals stated they had been bullied or witnessed bullying in higher education vs. 37% in the general population. Women, African Americans, and members of the LGBT community are disproportionately bullied.
  • 51% of students claimed to have seen another student being bullied by a professor/instructor at least once and 18% claimed to have been bullied themselves by a professor/instructor at least once.

These statistics are definitely in sync with my anecdotal experience. I have heard stories or seen students mistreated by faculty (and faculty mistreated by faculty) at every institution where I’ve worked. If you haven’t seen this bullying running rampant, you may be the bully. And it may be unintentional, because the problem is systemic.

Joshua Eyler’s Inside Higher Education writeup, “Against Student Shaming,” though apparently not written in response to these Anonymous Professor tweets, speaks to the larger issue of why even anonymous venting about “lazy” students is harmful (emphasis added):

Even anonymized, these stories are embarrassing and give the impression that faculty constantly see themselves in opposition to students. Such narratives about students are often little more than straw men used for rhetorical effect, but they convey a powerful message to readers, especially any student readers: despite the stated desires of faculty members to help students, here is what we really think.

One of my greatest journeys thus far as a pedagogue has been learning the value of being on the student’s side, not against them. I used to have strict attendance policies, no late work, etc., and students in violation of my policies were somehow punished. I found that as a result, students would lie to me about this or that kind of emergency preventing them from turning in even the smallest homework assignments—and it was immensely frustrating.

It would be easier for my ego to conclude from this experience that my students were being dishonest and lazy.

The truth is harder to accept: that I had set up the environment where deceitful behavior was rewarded, because trust was not there between my students and me.

Having such a policy sends a signal: I am judging you; I don’t trust you; you have to prove your struggle is worth my time.

This environment is not conducive to learning. Another quote from Eyler:

It’s actually a difficult thing for a student to say, either in concrete or in less obvious ways, “I don’t know something. Please help me to learn it.” Students trust us, and it seems to me that we violate that trust when we write essays that call them on the carpet simply for struggling through the difficult process of education.

I am not trying to be the “cool aunt” professor by eliminating my attendance policy and being more lenient with makeup work. I am making my classroom function better. Having a default policy of “prove it” is putting yourself in opposition to students, and students will not feel comfortable approaching you when they need help. 

Now, of course, some students will lie to you. Some students are lazy. Yes; this is a fact of life. But whether or not some students are lazy is not the point. The point is that I don’t know what my students are going through. In light of this, the proper starting point as a pedagogue when dealing with absences, lateness, or subpar work is to assume that the student is trying their best, and to ask the student what they need help with to succeed. When I approach students from this angle, I usually learn that the student is going through something very difficult indeed.

If you are at a school where your students are generally not going through difficult things, there are two possibilities, that I think are actually not mutually exclusive in any way.

One, you are teaching at a very privileged school with very privileged students. Maybe you teach at a residential private small liberal arts college (SLAC) that does not have a vibrant sports or Greek life culture that detracts from studies. Maybe the concept of students who are “homeless, cannot afford books, starving, and don’t sleep” seems preposterous to you teaching at such an institution. In which case, maybe keep in mind that those of us that teach at places where such situations are a little more commonplace are going to find your perspective out of touch and a bit offensive.

Two, more likely, you are wrong in your evaluation. It’s easier to see, at a New York City public school like the ones I’ve been involved in the past five years, that students can go through unbelievable troubles during their careers. But students going to fancy schools also have troubles, but maybe they’re not as obvious, for a number of reasons. Because even a residential private SLAC has students who may be homeless, etc. Many kinds of hardship that students go through knows no class or color: sexual assault, depression, death of a loved one, to name just a few to get us started.

I remember, as a first year master’s student, telling a PhD student all about how stressed out I was. Then I quickly remembered my place and deferred by saying, “Of course, it’s nothing like your stress level, I’m sure.” This person, who was on the job market and about to defend his dissertation, responded, “It is like my stress level. If you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Maybe my tolerance for stress is higher than yours, but we are equally stressed.” These words of compassion have rung in my ears each time I interact with a “stressed” student. Even if my life really is “more complicated” than a student’s, at the end of the day, who am I to tell a student that their suffering is not real? Each person experiences their complications in their own way, and their stress is real. It’s not a competition, and nothing is gained by putting someone down that way.

Taking the time to listen to your students and empathize with their situations can be difficult and emotionally draining. But I have benefitted immensely from reflecting on my practices, realizing how I might be contributing to my own problems in the classroom, and considering how to create the best learning environment for my students while still maintaining rigorous standards. The lesson is ultimately that professors have no idea how complicated their students’ lives are, and simply giving them the benefit of the doubt can do loads of good.

New Years Resolutions for 2017

I’ll echo what everyone else is saying, that 2016 was a trying year for many reasons, including personal ones. Tied up with all that difficulty though is a lot of personal growth. Even though a lot of bad stuff happened in the past year, I have learned from every part of it.

Amsterdam, October 3, 2016

I’m going to continue this lemons-into-lemonade kind of approach into 2017. To that end I’ve come up with a few resolutions for myself.

Really important and big resolutions:

  • Maintain a daily meditation and/or yoga practice. In May of the past year I got an injury in yoga class, where I pulled my left hip adductor (basically, groin). I was ordered to quit going to yoga until it was fully healed. This really bummed me out, because I felt I had benefitted a lot from the mindfulness practice that my yoga teacher incorporates into her classes. Luckily I realized that I could practice mindfulness without yoga, and I got my toes wet with meditation. I’ve been meditating more and more since then, and it’s helped me quite a lot with taking a breather from my work and with sleeping better. In 2017 I want to do this basically every day. You can meditate for as little as 5 minutes, so there is no excuse for not meditating besides “It’s not important to me.”
  • Get back into writing 5 days a week. I’m on the job market this year and it’s very time consuming. Luckily, I think the most time-consuming parts are behind me. I’ve gotten much faster at writing my cover letters, and all my materials have been created at this point. With that, I am re-committing myself to writing 5 days a week, if not my dissertation, then some kind of blog post. I have previously noted on this blog that writing 5 days a week is essential to being a prolific scholar.

Even though these are big goals, they can be broken down into tiny ones, since they’re both every-day activities. Each day, I just have to do a little bit—at least 5 minutes of meditation, and at least 250 words. Come on, I can do that! My Facebook password is changed to something I don’t know now, so that I can’t log on and waste time there. I’m hoping this leads to more productive activity, even if that productive activity is a game or knitting, two things that are relaxing but not as pointless as browsing Facebook.

I also want to briefly reflect on things I’ve achieved in 2016, because I personally struggle with giving myself enough credit for what I’ve done.

  • I started this blog in March 2016, and I’ve written 24 posts—not a great number, but nothing to sneeze at either!
  • I submitted my first manuscript to a journal, after spending a lot of time doing archival research (another first).
  • I started singing professionally, including securing my job singing High Mass in Latin at a Catholic church, and taking voice lessons.
  • I designed and taught a course on Analysis of Popular Music that I think was a big success.
  • I went on a short vacation with my cousin, who is my oldest friend, and reconnected with her.
  • As a co-chair, I put on a successful graduate student conference, and wrote up a thorough manual on the process for future chairs.
  • I started doing the household budget and really sticking to it! I hate numbers so this is a big achievement for me.
  • I applied for 25 tenure-track jobs in music theory, and even had my first on-campus interview.
  • I spent two weeks in Europe.
  • I started meditating.
  • I started a new job at the Writing Center at Medgar Evers College and have learned a lot about effective feedback on written work.
  • I started volunteering with CUNY Citizenship Now! and joined a group of politically active women.
  • I made a resolution to read 6 books, and almost did it. Maybe next year.
  • I knitted a fluffy cowl, a little doll of Smudge, some gauntlets, and a large portion of a sweater.

I forgot about a lot of these things until I went back through my calendar and looked at my appointments. I see a lot of firsts and a lot of change in there.

So, here’s to keeping up this level of achievement and self-improvement in 2017!

What helps me survive writing my dissertation

For dozens of years in a row, I was a student that took classes every semester which were taught by a professor and culminated in a final project or exam. I didn’t really need long-term goals because they were largely articulated for me. I got pretty good at writing a 15-ish page paper every semester for every class.

Transitioning into the new full-time job of writing a long document (my dissertation) has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore.  I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there. (This seems to be a pretty common type of post for a PhD blogger!)

  1. Getting out of the house to write. Writing at home never, ever ends well. I have two cats that love affection and play, I have video games, I have my piano, I have snacks, I have chores, I don’t have to get dressed… all of these things are awful for writing work ethic. Plus, leaving to write forces me to see other human beings, and also makes writing seem more like a job.
  2. WasteNoTime. Like all human beings I can kill a lot of time on Twitter, and even if I say “okay, no more Twitter,” I can find other websites to cure my boredom, ad infinitum. This browser plug-in locks down my internet for a period of time that I designate (I usually do 20 or 60 minutes). You can blacklist and whitelist certain sites, and there are other customization options too. Really instrumental for the “shut up and write” concept.
  3. Investing in ergonomics. I’ve recently been suffering with really unpleasant recurring neck pain, and my doctor told me it was because I work hunched over at my laptop. I’ve since augmented my workstation by buying a laptop stand that holds my screen at eye level, and an external keyboard and mouse. I concentrate on keeping my chin in and leaning back in my chair.
  4. Scrivener!! Microsoft Word is horrible for writing long documents. HorribleBut Scrivener, on the other hand, has changed my world. It’s kinda like a trapper keeper on your computer, or like if you could have an ideal work table just covered in all different kinds of media for your work and all of that was imported to your computer screen. They explain it better than I do. But the point is: your ideas don’t come from beginning to end. Most of the time they come in a bunch of scraps that you later have to piece together somehow. Scrivener works with that. And now that it’s out for iOS and I can write on the train, I’m falling in love all over again.
  5. Time Out. This takes over your screen every now and then for mini breaks (15 secs) and longer breaks (10 mins), all the durations customizable of course. I become a zombie sometimes when I work at my computer, but stopping every now and then forces me to be more mindful about how I’m using my time. This is another stellar app for breaking bad habits. (I hear it’s possible to break habits on your own through your strong constitution, but that sounds hard.)
  6. Writing something every day (i.e., five days a week). My desktop background is text pulled from this blog post, which states that academics who wrote every day wrote ten times as much as those that didn’t. So I have a daily goal of 250 words. They don’t have to be great words, but words of some kind. That blog post also gives ideas for other ways to be productive when writing on a blank page just isn’t going to happen.

July is already almost over so most academics I know are currently lamenting the disparity between number of goals they’ve reached vs. the number of goals they intended to reach this summer. Sometimes when you’re in a rut, weather-induced or otherwise, shaking up your work routine by incorporating a new tool like this can really do the trick!

Reading about embodiment (Heidemann on timbre)

Since I first saw it, I’ve been fascinated by this video of an impressionist singing in the style of many different singers. I love karaoke, and I love doing impressions of quirkier singers myself (Celine Dion, Idina Menzel, and Britney being a few of my favorites)—I’m nowhere near as good as Christina Bianco, but it’s good to have goals.

Actually, watching Christina Bianco convinced me that it must be possible for anyone to sing beautifully. It must all just be muscles and vowel placement and so on, if this one woman can make all these different kinds of voices!

Never having studied the voice seriously, it’s hard for me to describe how I would make these different voices. But it’s probably the first thing you’d try to do in describing this video to someone else. I’m reading Kate Heidemann’s article, “A System for Describing Vocal Timbre in Popular Song,” recently published in Music Theory Online 22/1, which I find a completely wonderful way to discuss vocal timbre. This article pinpoints the kinds of distinctions I’m tuning into when I watch that Youtube video above.

Her methodology for timbre analysis is centered on embodiment of vocal timbres, and naturally her writing about it frequently describes what the body does to create these sounds. For example, paragraph 3.19:

By pulling one’s larynx lower, tilting the thyroid cartilage forward, expanding the pharynx, and drawing the velum upwards (but not completely closing off the nasal passages), it is possible to create a vocal sound that listeners often perceive as much darker, and sometimes quieter, than those previously described. Estill refers to this vocal timbre as “sob” since she relates the vocal setting that produces it to “silent, suppressed sobbing” (McDonald Klimek, Obert, and Steinhauer 2005b, 31). In teaching this sound, vocal instructors might encourage a student to breathe deeply through the nose to lower the larynx and expand the sidewalls of the pharynx, or yawn to aid in tilting the thyroid cartilage, opening the pharynx, and raising the velum. This sound can often be heard in operatic singing, and is an important component of the “crooning” vocal style. It is a regular feature of Bing Crosby’s singing (e.g. in “Christmas in Killarney,” Example 12), and characterizes Cher’s singing voice as well. It can require extra energy to maintain an expanded pharynx while singing, but this vocal tract position is typically very easy on the vocal folds—this can make listening to and mimicking this vocal timbre feel rather soothing.

To turn to a more meta perspective and discuss the act of writing: I’m struck by how engrossing this writing is, even while it’s very technical. The explicit verbal descriptions of how one embodies these techniques really draws me in as a reader. It’s very powerful to imagine your own body interacting with these different vocal sounds. I almost think there should be a directive at the beginning of the article to read it in a space where you can confidently sing with these actions!

I saw this paper presented at the SMT national meeting in 2014 (I think). The paper was delivered in the traditional way, as a lecture, but I would love to see this presented again as some kind of workshop, where Heidemann gets audience members on the right track with embodying the sounds and producing them themselves. Or alternatively, this would be an amazing article to teach in a class to students, immediately engaging all of them. It was published too late for me to include it in my pop music seminar this past semester, but I’ll definitely make a point to fit it in at my next opportunity.