May 15, 2011

From the trenches of grad school: notes from the semester's edge

Well, I think that was the longest semester I have ever experienced.  I think I was pretty much behind starting in week two, and I never really caught up.  The good news is that this was my last semester of coursework, so I am done with seminars at long last.  Nothing against graduate seminars--they are great and all--but I have been taking them since 2007 when I started my M.A., and I am definitely ready to be done.  Maybe someday I will look back and long for the days when I was taking classes and scrambling to read and write papers all week, who knows?  Right now though, I am glad to be done so I can focus on grant proposals and finding a way to get myself into the field (so I can actually get this PhD thing done).  That's the project goal for this summer: get myself into Baja California by mid Fall.  Wish me luck.  Anyway, how about some rambling notes from the trenches of grad school?

1. Writing papers.  I am not sure if I am the only one, but by the end of my time taking classes I feel like it's really time to get out into the field to actually get some real data to work with.  I have written all sorts of papers about development, the politics of tourism, history, and other such things that pertain to my research site--and I have written papers from some different theoretical positions and perspectives.  However, at this point, it feels like I am pretty much spinning in circles.  It's fun to put ideas through different theoretical pinball machines, but at some point there is a need to actually go do a project, collect data, etc.  I'm ready.  I wonder if this kind of I'm-writing-in-circles-feeling happens to anyone else. 

2. Grants.  I read an essay by Michael Watts about grant writing and he said that this is some of the most difficult work in grad school (and probably after).  I agree.  Grant writing can be a pretty brutal process.  You have about 10 pages (at most sometimes) to convince people that YOU ARE THE ONE who they really need to fund.  I am still working on my technique with all of this, and I will keep you all updated about the process.  I worked on my NSF proposal all last semester, and then revised it before submitting it for the January.  I did not get funded on that first round, but I did learn some important lessons.  I will talk about some of these details more in the future, but one of the first and most important things I learned is that writing these things is really, really all about strategy and tactics.  In my case, the reviewers definitely did not agree about my proposal--so this is something that we all have to prepare for.  Probably the hardest part about writing these grants--at least for me--is that it's not easy to imagine who the audience is.  My very mixed reviews made this all the more clear.  Usually when I write I have a certain idea of who I am writing for--but in the case of the NSF my proposal could be reviewed by anthropologists or other social scientists who come from some very different theoretical or methodological camps.  This means that we all have to plan accordingly when writing these things.  The key--I suppose--is making your theoretical position/argument clear without completely alienating scholars from "opposing" perspectives.  A tall order indeed.  In the end, it's all very political, and it requires walking some tightropes.  Some of the best advice I have received lately: when it comes to certain theoretical trends, a little bit (meaning a little mention) can go a long way.  Don't pile it on--the people who are on board are already on board.

3. Some lessons from Grant-landia: Writing these documents is a trial by fire learning process.  But I have at least learned a few things from my first attempts here.  One is this: it's not necessarily the best idea to fill your theoretical discussions with THE BIG NAMES.  Probably because grant reviewers always have to see the references to THE BIG NAMES.  So it's a good idea to include a lot of the not-so-big-names so that people know that you have read them.  This is purely tactical.

4. Anthropology, grad school, and purpose.  Brian McKenna posted this link on the E-Anth listserv.  It has sparked an interesting discussion.  Read through it and see what you think.  My question: what, exactly, are we producing in academia?  Are we simply reproducing the system in which we exist, or what?  The ironic thing about anthropology and many other social sciences is that they spend a lot of time critiquing systems, looking at the GAP between discourse and actuality, etc.  But when the critical eye gets turned inward, it's not always that comfortable.  At the very least, it's worth looking into.  I read articles like this and they start making me wonder: ok, so what IS the point of all this anthropology stuff?  What am I going to do with it?  Not a bad thing to ponder, if you ask me.

Speaking of purpose, public engagement, and DOING SOMETHING, check out this article.  Also, have a look at Owen Wiltshire's discussions about his thesis project.  Very interesting.

5. Get in the field.  Some of the best advice I heard all years was this: just get yourself into the field.  It's easy to sit around and think about what's going to happen, or how you ideally want fieldwork to unfold--but there is theory and there is reality.  I agree that getting into the field is key, and that focusing on a solid methodological plan is a good starting point.  From my past experiences, the realities of "the field" can never quite be predicted when you're writing grants and proposals from thousands of miles away.  This is why I always find these processes really frustrating--especially when it comes to theoretical discussions in proposals.  I am pretty reluctant about casting some theoretical net over a project beforehand--but many I am just too inductive.  However, during my M.A. fieldwork I learned not to get too attached to the theoretical frameworks in my proposals--it's best to keep things flexible, and to bring theory along as a kind of tool kit.  If it works and helps with the analysis, great.  If not, either set it aside until later or just ditch it.  Regardless, getting into the field makes a lot of sense, and I wish that more of the methodological design phase could take place in the field setting rather than from the detached perspective at the University.

6. Traditions.  There are some deeply entrenched traditions in anthropology, but I don't think all of them make a lot of sense (economically and otherwise).  There is still a good amount of prestige attached to those DISTANT field sites.  It seems that many anthropologists--and funding reviewers--are holding on to the Malinowski model of fieldwork.  Nothing against traveling half way around the world to undertake fieldwork, but I don't think this is necessarily the BEST MODEL for everyone, especially since there are plenty of opportunities for more locally-based anthropological projects.  In fact, in my view anthropology needs to focus a bit more on research that takes place in the US.  Granted, there are issues and problems to be addressed all around the world...but they are also plenty of issues happening right around the corner.  Just my two cents--especially after talking to some of my colleagues who are doing work here in the US and who are not always getting the support and interest they should. 

7. Going outside/living life.  Probably the worst part of grad school--at least for me--has been the sedentary lifestyle.  Some people manage to keep up with going outside and living life, but I have to admit that I spent a ridiculous amount of time in front of my computer for the past two years.  This is not necessarily all that good for productivity or mental clarity.  In fact, at this point, I think my brain and mental creativity are both pretty well charbroiled.  So I really do believe the folks who argue for balance in life...although I am not always sure how and where that balance is supposed to fit in to graduate life.  Now that my classes are over I am really looking forward to getting away from the computer and the books for some good mental breaks.  I am also hoping that my brain recovers and I the creativity fires up again.

8. I  read another article recently (sorry, I forgot the link--I will try to find this) that said academics spend a large chunk of their time working on writing grants.  Overall, I am not sure what I think about this.  If we work hard for years and then spend the vast majority of our time trying to write grants, what does that mean?  That we actually produce more bureaucratic documents than anything else?  More about this later.

1 comment:

matthewjoy said...

You're talking about Strategic Planning. This is the science of defining and writing out a business plan so that not only you know the direction you are going and how you will get there, but enabling others to follow a proven and accepted form of business communication so they can decide to help and fund you ,or to even consider your proposal.

I started a blog on this exact topic last year when I was interested in starting my own non-profit. There are several models used in Strategic Planning and the whole subject is absolutely fascinating, and difficult, and involved. I assume you know all about it but for those who are reading your post, they can start at Wikipedia and go from there.