The SMDS “Suggested Reading” List

I have to apologize to those of you who’ve joined the SMDS RSS feed over the past week or so, because your (much-appreciated) interest in my blog happens to coincide with my needing to step away. A dissertation deadline beckons, so I need to hoard all of my creative juices, gremlin style, until Tuesday, October 23.

Until then, dear reader, I thought I would pass along a “Suggested Reading” list for those of you who are new to the website. These are some of my favorite posts so far, and hopefully offer a little insight into what The Six Million Dollar Scholar is all about.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I wrote this post on what would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday. It’s my favorite post because it’s about one of my favorite people; you’ll enjoy it because it’s a reminder that sometimes we don’t need to look very far to find a hero. In my case, I realized I grew up with a brilliant, hardcore feminist in my basement, a woman whose improbable life deserves to be the stuff of books.

Vito Russo, about whom an entire post is coming very soon. Born July 11, 1946, died November 7, 1990. His is one of the many faces I can't get out of my head. Click image to see the website this image came from.

What I’m Learning from A Giant Stack of Obituaries

I came home from my most recent research trip with literally hundreds of obituaries, and no immediate use for them. I’ve since discovered that they may indeed have a home in my dissertation. Even if that turns out not to be the case, they were worth the money I spent printing them, because they taught me a lot about myself, about the research process, and about the fiction that is the personal/professional binary.

Dear Diary

This post has a special place in my heart, because it’s probably the single most effective life hack I’ve implemented since starting The Six Million Dollar Scholar. At the time I wrote the post, I’d only been journaling for six days, but today I can report that, for the first time in my life, I have a daily journaling practice. it’s now been almost two months, and I’m still going strong. It’s incredibly rewarding, and—for an historian, anyway—a great reminder that not all archives are brick and mortar.

Taken yesterday.

The Human Thundershirt

Quite possibly the strangest proof-of-concept blog post ever, I demonstrate that my newfound ability to calm the world’s most disturbed canine is a sign that the world needs more blogs like mine. Plus, there’s an abundance of pictures of a sweet baby puppy dog face girl.

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course ended up being cancelled, a highly improbable scenario realized by a perfect storm of utter lameitude. When I wrote this post, I thought I’d done a pretty great job polishing a gnarly turd of a moment in my teaching career. In hindsight though, it’s nothing short of amazing how everything worked out. After all, while I didn’t anticipate being out of a teaching job, I neither did I anticipate running into medical problems this summer that would have made teaching a damned-near Herculean task. Maybe, just maybe, the universe was looking out for me?

That oughta keep you busy! See y’all again soon!

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Grading Hacks, Or, Unleashing Your Inner “Continental”

Christopher Walken has a famous recurring skit on SNL called “The Continental.” If you haven’t seen it, you need to take care of that right now.

GIANT DISCLAIMER: As somebody who studies gender and sexuality, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the very premise of the skit is indeed disturbing. Walken is, after all, portraying a physical manifestation of all things rapey. In 2012, “comedian” Daniel Tosh got in trouble for telling a “joke” about raping a woman who walked out in the middle of his show. His (utterly unacceptable) rape joke prompted a larger much larger conversation, centered around a difficult question: can you tell a funny rape joke? Personally, I think “The Continental” suggests that it is indeed possible to tell a funny rape joke. The comedy in this skit does not exploit the various women that The Continental attempts to victimize. Christopher Walken’s character—and his creepy, inappropriate behavior—IS the joke, and the joke is only funny because the women he tries to coerce always get away (humiliating him in the process).

Nothing better than a blog post that starts with a tangent… sorry folks.

Back to the subject at hand. I bring up “The Continental” because I feel like that skit captures my relationship with one of the most basic elements of my job as a teaching assistant and occasional course instructor: grading.

I hate grading with a passion. I love teaching, I love my students, and I even love reading their writing, but grading is awful. I almost always leave it to the last minute, which means hours of torture.

At least, that’s how it used to be.

I think I’ve finally found a hack for grading dread, and that hack is mood setting. When I sit down to grade these days, I hear Christopher Walken’s voice in my head saying his famous line from “The Continental”:

“Sit back. Relax. Champagne.”

Now, the fact that I have Christopher Walken’s voice in my head may be a problem, but it’s not one I plan on doing anything about any time soon, because over the course of the past year mood setting has helped become a more efficient AND a happier TA.

So how do you set the mood?

  1. Location, Location, Location. I’m going against conventional wisdom in several ways with this piece of advice, so bear with me. I am most comfortable in my bed, so I grade there, snuggled up in my comforter. We’ve all heard it said that you’ll sleep better if you make your bed a space reserved for sleep and sex; similarly, a lot of grad students feel it’s important to do all their work in their office, so that home is an exclusively personal space. These are both valid pieces of advice, but they don’t work for me. Sitting at a desk hunched over papers makes my back and neck ache. This makes me cranky. When I’m sitting in my bed, I have more support, and—as a result—fewer “physiological distractions” from the task at hand. 

    Okay, maybe cowbell isn't the best choice, but I wouldn't be me if I let the opportunity to include a Christopher Walken gif pass me by.

    Okay, maybe cowbell isn’t the best musical choice for grading, but I wouldn’t be me if I let the opportunity to include a Christopher Walken gif pass me by.

  2. Seductive tunes, baby. If I’m listening to classical music (or instrumental jazz, if I’m feeling crazy), whatever I’m doing becomes automatically classier. It borders on Pavlovian: as soon as I hear these genres of music, I know that I need to calm down and get to work. This only works, of course, because I don’t listen to classical music when I’m punking around on Facebook
  3. FIRE! I’m a bit of a pyromaniac, but this is actually a trick that I think will work for everybody. It’s common for meditative types to stare into a flame when meditating, because it calms you down. I heard about a study a million years ago (which I, naturally, can’t find now) that suggested that this is yet another reason why smokers sometimes find it hard to quit… the act of lighting a lighter is and of of itself calming. I light scented candles when I’m grading, and make a point of looking at them from time to time. Because I associate candles with calm and quiet, having them around is great for the moment when you stumble onto an essay or exam that’s truly rage inducing (it happens… trust me). Now that I know how to chill myself out, the red ink I spill all over my student’s work are consistently less destructive, and more constructive. I’ve never been a mean grader, but I’m sure adjusting my attitude impacts the tone of my comments.
  4. Timing, Part One: I am at my best grading in the evenings before bed, or right after I wake up in the morning. The rest of the time I’m more likely to lose focus, get annoyed, or spend an hour staring slack-jawed at the same two sentences over and over again. Find the time that works best for you and stick with it.
  5. Timing, Part Deux: Before I do any grading, I decide exactly how much time I’m going to spend on each exam/essay/assignment, and what kind of comments I’m going to provide. I then set a timer, and stick to it. For example, I’m currently grading a short essay assignment. I’m not supposed to grade on composition, so I decided in advance that I am not doing line edits. Accordingly, it makes more sense to type out substantive comments, print them, and attach them to the student’s paper. I wrote out a series of questions that I have to answer for each student (re: the quality of the thesis, evidence selection, etc.), and determined that—since I have that template pre-made, I should be able to give each student about ¾ page worth of typed comments on their assignment… in ten minutes. It’s cut my stress in half, and I think the student will be pretty happy to see the amount of feedback they’re receiving.

Walken2So there you have it. Find the mood that works for you, set it, and then unleash your inner Continental. Every time you feel like getting up and running away, lure yourself back to the task at hand. Be as creepy as you need to be. After all, the only person you’re coercing into grading… is you!

Sit back. Relax. Champagne.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

A Tribute to My Favorite Bulldog

I didn’t grow up in a family with money. We never went hungry, and I never went without anything truly important, but—especially now that I’m a bill-paying adult myself—I know that almost every month was a major struggle. Despite our financial challenges though, my mother (who, as I’ve mentioned before, is a living saint) never compromised when it came to my education. My mom taught me to work hard and value knowledge, and the two of us worked our butts off to make sure I got the best education we could beg, borrow, and steal.

(Okay, we didn’t steal… but I could totally imagine my mom robbing a bank on my behalf. Never for herself, but for me? Hand over the ski mask.)

As a result of our combined efforts, I had the privilege (and it really was a privilege) of attending a college preparatory academy from 7th-12th grade, and spending four life-changing years at Bryn Mawr College. I walked away from two incredibly expensive institutions with almost no debt, thanks to a combination of financial aid, merit scholarships, and college tuition support provided by my mother’s (then) employer. And it’s a good thing, because—shockingly enough—doctoral degrees aren’t cheap. I have all the debt I can handle right now, thank you very much.

All of this is to say I know exactly how valuable my education was, and just how blessed I have been and continue to be. Sometimes, though, life decides to give you little reminders. Today has been one of those days.

I woke up this morning to an email informing me that my high school debate coach (we’ll call her Mrs. H) is battling leukemia. She was my English teacher in my senior year of high school, but I’ll always remember her as my coach, the woman under whose watchful eye I spent so many hours training, travelling, and competing.

The news that she is sick knocked me on my ass.

A la Susan Sontag, I really hate the use of military metaphors in discussions of the human body, a sentiment that I imagine Mrs. H would be proud of, as she’s devoted her life to helping young people develop critical thinking skills… and figure out what metaphors are. However, if anybody could be described as “battling” leukemia, I truly believe that it would be Mrs. H.

When I was in high school, I frequently referred to Mrs. H as a bulldog (behind her back, of course). She demanded commitment of energy and time that I wasn’t always prepared to give. She expected excellence, and didn’t give out participation trophies. Her debate kids went to nationals, and they placed. I…. was an alternate for nationals. Twice. She didn’t ever make me feel bad about it, but I knew that SHE knew I could have worked harder, given more time, been more successful, etc., had my heart been 100% in it.  I LIKED Mrs. H, but she was the teacher under whose critique I was most likely to whither. I’d heard from other students that she’d quit a very lucrative corporate job to become a teacher, and always assumed that her direct approach to dealing with her students was a holdover from the days when she commanded an army of employees.

It’s been almost ten years since I graduated high school, and oh how my perspective has changed.

Today, if you asked my students, I bet a great many of my students would describe ME as direct. I demand a commitment of energy and time that THEY aren’t always prepared to give. I expect excellence, and I do NOT give out participation trophies. I genuinely believe that most of my students like me, but I’m also sure some of them wither—or at least wilt a little—as a result of the ink I spill on their papers. I believe I am a good instructor, and change I see in my students after working with me seems to support that assertion. I also know that I can be a bit of a bulldog.

There are many reasons that I am the instructor I am today. Part of it is the fact that I know exactly how valuable an education is, and refuse to give my students anything less than my best effort. My sense of what one should expect of oneself academically is undeniably conditioned by the fact that I’ve never been in a learning environment that wasn’t incredibly rigorous. However, I’m also the instructor I am today because I learn by example.

For four years I watched Mrs. H turn shy kids into nationally-known orators. I watched her find and cultivate skills in students that they didn’t even know they had, through sheer force of her personality.  I watched her prove to students that YES, they had something to say, and YES, what they said mattered, and YES, that people were listening. She taught us to act like champions, and within a couple years of starting our school’s debate team, we needed another trophy case. If that’s what bulldogs do, I want to be a bulldog too.

Thank you Mrs. H. I don’t know who I’d be without you. You are loved immensely. Get well soon.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

 

When One Door Closes, Make Lemonade

My summer session course got cancelled a few days ago due to low enrollment. It was a pretty big disappointment to me, and—I imagine—to my department, which had anticipated that the class was going to be a big draw.

They had good anecdotal evidence to support that assumption. I taught the same course (“Sex in U.S. History”) last year as an upper division seminar, and it was not only really successful, it achieved full enrollment. My department chair and I decided that, given all the positive reviews of last year’s class, we’d capitalize on student interest, and offer the same class again, this time as a 15D (the GenEd-iest of general education courses). At the time it seemed like a slam dunk, but lo, the same course that was packed to the gills last year couldn’t attract more than 10 students this year.

“Sex in U.S. History” ended up being a victim of a perfect storm of sorts, one for which absolutely nobody is responsible. The success of the class was contingent on multiple factors above and beyond student interest, and it looks like we managed to lose every single mini-gamble we took in offering the course.

Am I disappointed? Of course. I genuinely love teaching, and I especially love teaching this subject. Several former students of mine had signed up to take the class, and I’d very much looked forward to showing them what I do when I’m not teaching composition. Being a course instructor is a veritable butt ton of work, but it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. So yes, losing my class was quite deflating.

Then there’s the money. I was kind of counting on that money. Woops.

Luckily, my department is unendingly supportive of me. They got me a position as a grader which, while not nearly as lucrative as an instructor position, means I won’t be eating cat food all summer. While it’s not the role I envisioned for myself, it’s going to give me the chance to work with students studying 19th century US history, something that my two year appointment in the First-Year Integrated Program meant I’ve not yet had the opportunity to do. I’m also going to be working with one of my dearest friends in the History Department, who—on account of being awesome—has already arranged for me to give a guest lecture in her class. The topic, death in the Civil War, is one I’ve wanted to lecture on for ages, so this is a fantastic opportunity.

The disappointment of having my class cancelled has been remediated somewhat by the fact that I’m not going home empty handed. It’s been remediated still further by my ability—when the occasion calls for it—to be rabidly optimistic.

For the first time in two years, I’m going to have a break from designing lesson plans, lecturing, and all the other time and energy commitments that come with teaching. I’d cut out my own heart if I thought it would help my students, so I tend (at times to my detriment) to think of teaching less as a job, and more as a way of life. I compare primary sources while trying to fall asleep, I read new books looking for fresh material… I get pretty absorbed in making sure I’m giving my students the best intellectual experience I possibly can. Sitting sidecar will free up my schedule to do research I would have certainly put off until the fall had I been teaching. At this stage in my career, that’s a really good thing.

This experience has taught me a lot about the dangers of chicken counting in academia (I can only imagine how crushing this same scenario would be as an adjunct). It’s also reminded me that, in this profession, you may run out of time, money, and patience, but you’ll never run out of worthwhile things to do. I’m exchanging the rewards of teaching for the rewards of archival research. That’s an incredible trade. There aren’t very many jobs out there where the glass is so consistently half full, and I feel lucky every day that I’m doing work that matters on so many different levels.

And there you have it… the borderline alchemical transformation of bad news into gratitude. When it comes to polishing turds, I’m a rock star.

But seriously, something’s wrong on a campus where a class about S.E.X. doesn’t fill. I mean… I used “twerking” in the course description! Get it together, anteaters.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.