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?