New graduate students need to…

Clancy writes:

In your opinion, what are the most important things new graduate students need to know (in terms of professionalization)? I have my own ideas: I think they need to have a strong handle on how they intend to position themselves in the field, specifically which conferences they plan to attend regularly, what their target journals are, what listservs they want to participate in, what professional organizations they want to join, what kinds of jobs they want to apply for (and whether they want to do national, international, or regional searches), etc. They need to have a clear understanding of what the term research agenda means. What else?

I tip my hand with the category I chose for this post. While I certainly understand Clancy’s intent here, I think worrying about mailing lists, conferences, journals, etc. is better for new PhD students than those starting MA work. I use myself as an example: when I began my MA, my knowledge of the fields of English studies was limited at best. Those first years, I really needed to read, read, read more than anything. Not to mention I didn’t find my niche in composition studies until I was deep into my MA work. For the students I often deal with here at Western, reading is even more important: many either (1) come from English departments where it’s possible to graduate without reading broadly, (2) studied English Education, and had to sacrifice reading in English for all sorts of state proficiency requirements, or (3) finished school fifteen-plus years ago. In any case (and sometimes all of them!) a bit of catching up is in order.

I agree with Clancy professionalization is important, and new graduate students are wise to start thinking about it on some level. In fact, I’ve started a professional development series here, and I often suggest that students build vitae, present at conferences, join NCTE, etc. But I do so with caveats. Keeping a vita? Yes, because it’s easier to do as you go, and it’s a valuable tool for self-analysis. Presenting papers written for courses at conferences? Sure, but keeping in mind no number of conference papers can substitute for knowledge of the field demonstrated in a thesis or dissertation. Thinking about the job market? Maybe. But it’s gonna be different when it comes time to search. Broadly speaking, I push students to professionalize with strong caveats, and in two other ways: (1) by reading books arguably histories of English studies, from Robert Scholes to Cary Nelson to Sharon Crowley, because they deal with not just marketable skills (to boil it down), or finding one’s disciplinary identity, but much broader questions of general value. (2) Finding an issue you’re passionate about, and figuring out how to talk about it with the language of the discipline. That’s finding a research agenda, and nothing says “professional” more to me than that.

On the question of mailing lists, however, like Collin, I’m just about done with them; I’m subscribed to one, and I read it as a digest. For me weblogs small and large, disciplinary and not, provide the topical reading mailing lists once did.

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