first day of (grad) class

As usual, I want to get the semester started off right on the one graduate course I teach each year, and every time I teach this course, I decide that there are a few more things that I should not take for granted that the students will know. While I usually turn to Fabio for All Things Grad School, his take on the Grad Skool Rulz of how to take a class falls somewhere between “don’t” and “do a decent job of it,” so from a professor’s perspective, that leaves a bit of a gap in helping students know what they need to get the job done. I’ve compiled a short list of things I intend to go over on the first day, before we get to the content of the course, and I was hoping for some feedback and additional suggestions.

Reading. It took some time for me to figure out that students need help with this one, since they can obviously read. But I read differently now from when I began graduate school, and sharing some of the approaches to reading that I have developed over the years might be useful to students, especially if they are overwhelmed by the total volume of reading assigned.

I used to read sociology books like novels, cover to cover, as I lay on the couch in my tiny apartment, eating chips and salsa. Rather than taking notes, I would underline the text and dog-ear special pages, without any system behind what I underlined and why. A nice life, indeed, but not a very successful approach to learning or to getting through several books per week. Since then, I learned to read book reviews first, which often helps put a set questions in my mind as I read the book. Of course, since I began grad school in the ice age and emerged doctorally in the stone age, I actually went to the library to look up book reviews of assigned texts in the social sciences indexes. I’m sure that story will amuse the students. My syllabus also has issues and questions, which students will do well to take up critically as they read.

While I’m reading (book or article, now), I take notes according to a system that pulls out the basic claims of the work, the method, the gap in the literature it fills, and things I find inspiring/curious/wrong. I also make note of ideas that the reading inspires, new questions that might be addressed, and how it relates to work I do (or might do). I pay attention to bibliographies and methods, and I don’t read cover to cover, or in the given chapter order. Mostly, I read like it’s my job to extract the necessary information and discard the fluff, and I focus on how this work fits with the larger field (a much easier task as one gets more familiar with a field, of course).

Class participation. One of the things I will emphasize is that most of the students’ notes on the week’s class should be complete before class begins. While I am not opposed to students’ taking notes during class discussion–indeed, if I didn’t do this, I would surely forget what I wanted to say–but many grad students still come to class with a blank notebook, expecting to write down the pearls of wisdom that fall from my lips. That makes for a terrible class discussion, since it takes much less preparation to listen attentively than to engage in discussion. Do the prep, know the readings, and write out your own pearls of wisdom, questions, and critical comments in advance.

To make this point clear, I will shamelessly poach Omar’s observation that “the biggest challenge that all students face during their graduate training is making the transition from (intellectual) culture consumers to culture producers.” While Omar was talking about writing, I think this also applies to class discussion. Polite listening and quiet consideration no longer cut the mustard; now, you must actively participate, which includes both talking and listening, and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is to prepare my ideas before speaking them aloud. If there is something difficult to understand, work hard enough at understanding it to bring yourself the point where you can ask a question, rather than just giving up and saying you don’t get it.

Workflow. I have mentioned elsewhere that I am becoming a workflow ogre, and my grad course is no exception. I have built-in workflow requirements of the grad students in my course; I’m sure that this is why they love me. For example, they have to write every day at least one page on their term project, a research proposal. Everyone knows that daily writing is good for you. From there, it’s just a matter of aligning incentives. You’re welcome!

Tools. There isn’t much to add to Kieran’s thorough review of this topic, but I can point students to these posts, and I can encourage them to share their ideas with each other, and with me–I’m always looking to find things out the easy way.

I also will add a few more rudimentary things, such as using an RSS feeder to keep up with journal articles, Social Sciences Citation Index, and bibliography software, though I still haven’t landed on the perfect software myself. I despise Endnote for its clunkiness, costliness, and difficulty dealing with co-authorship, but I can’t tread into Kieran’s world of LaTex/BibTex. Zotero looks promising, but is in beta and has many fixes yet to go. Also, I just downloaded Papers for pdf management, and it looks good. If only Alan were still posting, he’d have all this vetted before I even knew I needed it. Do I need to mention I’m a Mac person?

Resources. This is where I am less confident. At what point does piling on resources start to overload the students? Will recommending something on basic writing skills, though much needed for some students, insult others? I have a few resources I put together for my undergraduate research methods course: a layout of the general format for research papers, a model annotated bibliography, an assignment that walks students through the process of turning an idea for a paper topic into a research question. I know from experience that some of my grad students could use these resources, but others will not. I know from further experience that if I just put them up on a website, the students who need them least will be the most likely to access them. Would it be too lame to bring them into class and hand them out?

Finally, all this seems like too much. What to cut?

15 thoughts on “first day of (grad) class”

  1. Tina, this all sounds like very helpful information. Here are some reactions in no particular order.

    I doubt that some overview of writing advice would be superfluous even to the better students. Writing academic papers is a skill and too many courses and profs assume students somehow have this skill inherently. (Uhm, can you tell I’ve just finished compiling my syllabus for our required “how to write a publishable quality empirical research paper” grad course?:)

    IF you can afford to spend a good chunk (or even all) of the first class meeting on such issues then what you have here may not be too much. That said, certain things you could likely shift to a bit later. For example, dealing with bibliographies may not be the most urgent issue. (Yeah, sure, organizing them is handy from the start, but it can wait a week or two.)

    Please don’t assume that your students know what RSS is or how to use a feed reader. (Remember, this is what I study so I’m sensitive to these issues.:) Certainly feel free to suggest to them that they start using such a service, but be prepared to explain what it is and how to get it working. I even go over such basics as advanced search queries, because it turns out that a lot of students don’t know that either (e.g., how to exclude a domain from your searches or restricting searches to only academic institutions, etc.).

    As for coming prepared to participate in the discussion, I would ask for a memo ahead of time. That’s what almost all of our profs did in grad school and I’ve done it for my course as well (not the one I mention above, for that there are other assignments). It guarantees that they’ll have something to say about at least one aspect of the readings. But I understand since you already have them writing for their proposals this may be too much. Another possibility is to rotate leading the discussion among students. That way at least one or two of them should be prepared to talk about the readings.


  2. Huh. I don’t have a clue about using RSS or a feed reader. Maybe that’s why I never know what is going on.

    Re advance memos, I had good experience in a grad seminar using the discussion board feature in our on-line course software. People got credit for posting their comments at least X hours before the class. Because it was a discussion board, everyone could see everyone else’s comments, and it often got the discussion going before class. It also let me see what was on their minds in advance.


  3. Oh, I got a shout-out, and a fond one at that! I may just have to come back and blog again… I’ve been reading some pretty good productivity porn lately.

    On references, I’m a pretty committed Bibdesk guy. Here’s a good thread on using it with non-LaTeX word-processors, and some info on export templates that facilitate that. I’ve managed mostly to avoid working with Endnote, and on the handful of occasions that I needed a different tool, the web-based RefWorks system worked surprisingly well.


  4. I didn’t know you could actually RSS journal articles. Do you go to a particular article database that allows you to do that? How does it work?


  5. Here’s AJS’s feed, for instance. Here is ASR. Most journal homepages have RSS feeds now, though the quality of the implementation varies. AJS and other Chicago journals are good. The ASA ones are less so.


  6. This comment is somewhat unrelated but there will never be a good time for it which means that now is as good a time as any.

    I found this blog when I was looking for a professional-academic political science blog. And although the disciplines are very different, as a person about to enter graduate school (hopefully) I have found Scatterplot to be incredibly useful and (what’s the opposite of intimidating?) reassuring. So thanks.

    No matter what you do in life there’s always these “other tasks” that those who become professionals excel at, and the others fall by the wayside. I’ve been a by-the-wayside cat for too long. Students learn and teachers teach but everybody has to write and go to seminars and conferences. Everybody has to jump through someone else’s hoops to prove their “in” status and participate with the pros. Everybody has to be able to talk intelligently about the tools of the trade whether those tools are concepts (in the form of vocabulary and professional canon) or actual tools, like Stata.

    So, here’s how I hope to tie into the discussion at hand: In order to be “good grad students” and in order to “move from culture consumers to culture producers” you have to instill in them the confidence to join the discourse, to believe that their opinions are valuable: worth hearing and therefore worth saying.

    Reading journal articles and analyzing the conversations that take place within and among them is important, RSS feeds and all that are too. But letting your students know that as grad students they are already doing (or should be doing) what professional academics do. What do you do? Well, that’s what your students should be doing too. So if they’re not, then I would add that to the list of things that you should teach them. Make your day-in-the-life their day-in-the-life.

    I’m rambling from a point of ignorance but as a pre-grad student, that is something I hope to get from my future professors: a window into what life is like as an academic so that I can imitate that behavior, modify it to suit my own interests, needs, and talents, and then become an academic myself.


  7. Tina, I love your section on reading. I’ve never discussed how to read with students, it just hadn’t occurred to me. If they listen — what a gift you’re giving them. I wish someone had explained this to me.

    I think it might be nice also to say a word about jargon. My best and most frustrating graduate course was one in which the theory seemed so dense and exclusionary that I didn’t even know how to participate (What on earth are these people even talking about?!). But I eventually figured it out and realized I had much to say of value, I just hadn’t realized because I’d been intimidated by the language itself. Actually my current work is grounded in these same ideas/theories/concepts and colleagues outside the field frequently say that they find it a bit too jargon-y — no wonder I did as a student!

    Anyway, I tell students to ask their embarrassing, Jay Leno questions publicly without shame.

    PS Can I take your class?


  8. Great ideas, everyone. I should have also mentioned that, later in the semester, I point to Eszter’s tips on public speaking, and the students have really found that helpful and reassuring.

    And I always get a blank stare whenever I say RSS, so I should have explained it from the get-go. I can’t imagine doing without one, and it will keep me posted whenever Alan decides to get back in the game (and mom, too!)

    JimP: Thanks for your perspective. I try to make discussion as inclusive and confidence-building as possible. One rule I have is that drawing links to scholarship that was not assigned is encouraged, but the speaker must introduce the work first, then draw the link.


  9. I hope I haven’t sat on my hands too long, here:

    I love all the ideas you’ve generated, Tina, and that others have shared. I wonder why I’m the first to note (although JimP suggests) that this thread is not unrelated to the one next door on privilege. Making these unstated “rules” of academia explicit is one way of combating traditional hierarchies. Or so I like to think.

    Anyway, my contribution really is to suggest that your students also archive the materials you provide to them. I began with a folder of “professionalization” materials in grad school–I now have a file cabinet full…useful when I’m called upon to do a ProSeminar session or help one of my students.

    Somewhere in that archive I’ve actually got “worksheets” on how to extract information from a scientific article (that is cribbed from something given to me by the great Gina Neff), how to ask questions (and different kinds of questions given different needs), how to compare and contrast arguments, how to produce effective/useful criticisms of arguments (…not to mention a book’s worth of stuff on preparing for and surviving the job market. That last actually is a book that ___ and I haven’t written just yet but surely will).

    Anyway, your post makes me miss teaching, even though I’m on sabbatical.


  10. The first class is Monday, so I still have time for a few additional thoughts. I don’t feel ready to start the semester this early–I never do–but I sure do enjoy the long summers we get up here.

    I like your idea, jlena, and mostly I want to get my hands on your stuff. If you have anything electronic and wouldn’t mind sharing, please send it my way: fetner [at] gmail [dot] com.*

    *Does this really work to reduce spam? I find it hard to believe that bots haven’t yet been trained to read “at” and “dot,” but smarter people than me make this a habit, so I’ll go with it.


  11. Does this really work to reduce spam? I find it hard to believe that bots haven’t yet been trained to read “at” and “dot,”

    Yeah, you’d think. I suspect Kieran and Jeremy can’t tell, because they probably get spam on those addresses from other sources anyway.

    Jeremy seems to have enough code in between the elements that that might confuse bots. And perhaps Kieran added the dot after edu as diversion.

    I use ASCII character codes for part of my address on my home page, which you might think bots would have also figured out, but I have a unique address on my site and it’s never gotten spam, I don’t think. I don’t know if this will show up here correctly, but I’ll try with TT: contact06 @ That way people can just copy and paste (although they do have to remove spaces), but bots may miss it. (If it just gives an address in full here then perhaps View Page Source for the code.)


  12. jlena–I’d also be interested in seeing some of the “professionalization” stuff you’ve collected (anything not going in the book, of course). You can easily find me at the above, non-spam protected website. (like errant free radicals drawing crow’s feet and laugh lines on my face, spam is the price I pay for the effort of living, I suppose…smarter people than me disagree; but, I suppose they get more email as well.)

    or, if that fails to work…c h e w i l y [at] h o t m a i l [dot] c o m (the guys at languagelog DOT COM seem to think spaces work wonders and they’re very popular.


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