If You Love Something, Set It Free — Or, Why an Intro to Grad Studies Class?

Oh, boo hoo! “Set You Free” via Krystn Palmer Photography on Flickr:

In my previous post I mentioned that I’m worrying over one of the courses I’m teaching this term. I’ve decided that it would be liberating to simply throw out there, into the intergalactic Internets, the six lectures I deliver at the beginning of the semester. This might bore the crap out of my legions of loyal readers who wait with bated breath for my normally gripping posts, but I’ll willingly run the risk of slightly annoying you for the sake of offering something of potential value to teachers and grad students out there. I’ll post the lectures in succession, and unedited (hence, you might be confused by a few inexplicable slides and notes about administrative issues):



  • SLIDE 3]Helping students find fruitful connections between theory and practice, which, especially during the students’ first semester (and sometimes beyond), are separated into distinct classes. This bifurcation occasionally leads to students declaring, based on their experiences in these early classes, their identification as either “theory people,” “management people,” or “production people.” This course is intended to explain and model (through guest presentations) the potential gains of interweaving these various threads of the program. Stated ambitiously, the course is intended to embody the spirit of our program.
  • [SLIDE 4]You all chose an MA – not an MFA or an MBA – which indicates that you’ve bought into the idea of studying media studies within the tradition of the liberal arts. Some of you might be completely on-board, and you can take off running in this class. Others of you might be open to the idea of what we stand for, but might need a little guidance in seeing how theory and practice can come together. [Image: Sevel Liberal Arts – Trivium (Grammar, Dialectic [Logic], Rhetoric) + Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy)
  • [SLIDE 5]Most explicitly, we hope to cultivate an appreciation of how research skills and theoretical grounding can enhance students’ production work, and how working knowledge of media production can inform their understanding of theory. We also want to demonstrate that the relationship can be more than one of mutual support; it also has the potential to evolve into a relationship of convergence: theorization can become a form of practice, and practice a means of theorization.
  • [SLIDE 6]Helping students cultivate frameworks for processing — and questioning the assumptions of — the material presented in other content- and skills-based classes.
  • Helping students orient themselves and map a trajectory (or a dérive!) through an often overwhelmingly large and diverse program. In the past, students commonly expressed regret that they finished the program without recognizing the need to plan ahead in order to complete a thesis, that they didn’t have an opportunity to meet (and sometimes didn’t even know about) faculty in the program and across the university who shared their interests, or that they hadn’t thought critically about their course choices (including, in particular, their methods courses). This course aims to impress early on the importance of identifying useful resources and planning ahead.
  • [SLIDE 7]In the process, this macro-scale overview should help to demystify the curriculum and degree requirements – should help students understand the logic behind seemingly arbitrary requirements and regulations. – ASK QUESTIONS
  • We also want to impress the importance of commitment and engagement in graduate study; these two qualities that distinguish it from undergraduate study. Some graduate programs force this engagement by requiring comprehensive exams and making theses mandatory. We instead invite our students to be engaged by sharing with you, through this class and elsewhere, the ways you can be.
  • [SLIDE 8](Relatedly,…) Helping students identify opportunities – e.g., MA thesis, independent study, coursework in other divisions (Parsons, NSSR), internships, contact with faculty working in their areas of interest, participation in professional organizations or activities – that they can pursue over the course of their studies, and helping them to develop a feasible plan for achieving their goals.
  • [SLIDE 9]Helping students cultivate reading, research, and writing skills that will serve them well not only in UMS, but in their future classes – and even in the world beyond the MA program. In this course, we focus on helping students cultivate healthy scholarly and professional practices, to think critically about their working processes, and to become familiar with common academic and professional forms (e.g., the form of a literature review or a grant proposal), without expecting them to have yet mastered the content that fleshes out those forms.
  • Often resistance from students – yet faculty agree that these are areas in need to continual development!

There’s WIDESPREAD PRECEDENCE for this kind of course. Lots of grad programs – including large ones, like ours – have “Intro to Grad Studies”-type courses. In creating this course, we looked at how other universities taught their courses.

Also looked at pedagogy literature — I did a “literature review,” which you’ll practice doing in this class, on the transition to graduate education.

Found an inspiring article published in 2003 by a group of graduate students; it appeared in Pedagogy, a journal distributed by Duke University Press.

  • They called for an introductory graduate course that [SLIDE 10]“prepare[s] graduate students for taking an active role in shaping the future of the discipline” (Crisco et al. 372). This course would [CLICK](1) “survey the historical development of the field”; [CLICK] (2) “critically examine some of the key terms presently at the center of debates concerning the defining goals and purposes of the work” in the field; [SLIDE 11](3) “create a collaborative, explicitly intradisciplinary space within the department to explore the often competing commitments of our discipline and to articulate the stakes (individual, fieldwide, institutional, cultural) of the various approaches to reforming” the field; and [CLICK](4) “provide students with opportunities to locate themselves and their professional commitments in relationship to the field” (ibid. 369).
  • [SLIDE 12]These proposed course objectives map remarkably well onto those for UMS.
  • We’ll start off next week by reviewing the history of the field and some of its defining goals.
  • Over the following weeks, we’ll introduce you to many of the research resources in our field, and prepare you to seek out on your own more of the field’s historical and contemporary debates.
  • In the second half of the semester, through our guests’ presentations, we’ll address some of the key terms, defining goals, and stakes of their work, and the competing (or complimentary) commitments they represent.
  • Then, through the assignments, you’ll have an opportunity to “locate [yourself] and [your] professional commitments in relationship to the field.”

Studying how the field’s history and general goals map onto the work of the field’s practitioners, Crisco et. al, suggest, would [SLIDE 13]familiarize [students] with the rules, conventions, folkways, and habits of mind that inform the profession and the discipline” (363). Yet it also presents the field of media studies, and the various professions it represents (scholar, producer, activist, educator, manager, etc.), [CLICK]“as sites for institutional critique, not as idealized future spaces wherein fully realized and credentialized professionals do their work” (ibid.).3

[SLIDE 14]This program – and, on a smaller scale, this class – can offer you a space for institutional critique – critiquing not only media institutions, but also educational institutions

One central institutional structure that this program attempts to crumble is, of course, the boundary between theory and practice, between thinking and making.

[SLIDE 15]Joanne Hershfield and Anna McCarthy argue that “if we continue to view ‘making’ and ‘analyzing’ as mutually exclusive categories, then our students will never receive the full benefits of what media studies as a field of practices and knowledges has to offer” (Joanna Hershfield & Anna McCarthy, “Media Practice: Notes Toward a Critical Production Studies” Cinema Journal 36:3 (Spring 1997): 108-112.)

[SLIDE 16]Some of the questions we’ll be asking throughout the semester:

  • How can we, individually and collectively, think across media platforms about the relationships between traditional and new literacies?
  • How can we regard media technologies as tools for research, and how can we use those same tools as new means of disseminating our research findings to wider audiences?
  • How can we make sure these new tools for expression and argumentation are held to the same rigorous standards to which we hold more traditional forms of presentation, like scholarly writing?
  • How can we make sure our making is inherently analytical, and our analysis is generative?”

[SLIDE 17]I also examined how educational researchers talked about the pedagogical values of a class like ours – values that, as I hope you’ll see when we take a look at the syllabus, play out in the design of the class:

Michael Gunzenhauser & Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin: “Engaging Graduate Education”:

  • [SLIDE 18]“helping [students] identify and accomplish research projects that are personally meaningful” – “life-projects” (I won’t use that term)
  • We’ll talk more about finding ways to make your professional and personal interests converge in research and research-based production projects
  • What G & G-P do: “We do not encourage students to dwell on personal reflections about their subject positions, instead getting them to articulate the use and contribution of such reflections to their formation of research questions, their reading of the research literature, and their self-formation as researchers. By quickly getting students to engage in dialogue with relevant texts by other researchers interested in similar questions, we / wish to avoid solipsistic tendencies
  • [SLIDE 19]Draw on Crotty’s (1998) helpful distinctions between the terms “epistemology,” “theoretical perspective,” “methodology” and “method
    • Theoretical Perspectives: covered in Ideas classes
    • Methodology: introduced here, explored in depth in three credits of methods coursework
    • Epistemology: theory of knowledge – begin to ask yourself those questions here (objectivism, subjectivism, constructionism – Crotty)
    • “distinguish epistemologies from theoretical perspectives, to demonstrate their relation to each other, and to show how they inform methodological approaches
    • “In light of this epistemological and theoretical diversity, which expands with the proliferation of theory and method, graduate students have multiple options for positioning their own work. Students need facility with theoretical perspectives to engage prior research, synthesize it for their own understanding, and create methodological plans that serve their own projects.”
  • [SLIDE 20]Crotty: “scaffolded learning,” which he describes as “an approach to teaching and learning that, while careful to provide an initial framework, leaves it to the learner to establish longer term structures…. Students need considerable exposure to each element and a sense of how they fit together, how researchers in the past have negotiated the relationships, and what it would mean to get the various parts of the framework to speak together or to each other.
    • G & G-P have their students develop research proposal and carry it into subsequent courses
    • You’ll do something similar here: identify interest and develop skills that, within the context of this course, will build upon each other – but will also carry over into your other courses
  • Resistance from “… students obsessed with instrumental goals are resistant to challenges to their time and their existing (and often unquestioned) assumptions and conceptions about their professional practice
    • “perhaps mimicking the characteristics and actions of their mentors early on to “try on” the discipline—and devote themselves to becoming members of a research community. This model infantilizes graduate students, treating them as if they know little of consequence and inviting them to disconnect themselves from prior knowledge and experiences in favor of a superior, enlightened subject position

Online forums w/ current and former graduate students discussing “what I wished I would have learned”

  • [SLIDE 21]My Intro to Grad Studies course emphasized (amongst other things) citation style and basic writing techniques. Students b*tched and moaned about it at the time (and I’m sure I did too), but I’m glad I had it in retrospect. – mountainguy, 11/6/10, “Grad Student WritingChronicle Forums.

Intro to Graduate StudiesChronicle Forums (July 20, 2009)”:

  • [CLICK]Some of the things that scholars use most are rarely formally taught, in my experience — things like: how do you organize your citations and articles when working on a topic? What kind of notes do you take when reading? …[W]hen I started grad school I read by trying to read every word, slowly, in order, and it was disastrous. I also retained relatively little of what I read because I had no systematic way of keeping notes.
    A class that presented various professors’, and more advanced grad students’, ways of dealing with really practical stuff like this, without implying that any one way is “the” right way, would be very valuable in my opinion.
    • How to skim readings and take good notes. I’m still reading nearly every word and tend to over-highlight.
  • While I appreciate the “how to read a book in an hour” recommendations, and while those got me through the final few weeks before comps when I was filling in gaps, I think they depend on knowing which books you can read in this manner and which books you must not read in this manner. A couple of students in my immediate cohort have been caught out repeatedly (and often embarrassingly) during seminars for blatantly having used this technique inexpertly when they shouldn’t. I think that new grad students need time to learn when they can skim and when they should buckle down and grind (though one rule of thumb may be that if you’re going to read a book in an hour so that you can watch your favorite television show or spend more time at the bar, you’d better not).
  • How to write a good grant application; if you time it right you could actually have the class all apply for an external grant.
  • Drafting abstracts for conferences. I’ve no idea how to do this on my own and am quite frankly somewhat deathly afraid of it. How do you know when you have enough material to swing a presentation? At what point in your grad school career should you be submitting to conferences?
  • [SLIDE 22]More discipline-specific information, ranging from the citation format(s) to the top and good journals in the field/subfields. You’d probably expect everyone to know this already, but if you establish it early on then they’ll have no excuse when they try to use some weird MLA-Chicago mishmash instead of APA down the road.
  • [CLICK]I also like the idea of the research overview. It catches everyone up to the current state of the field (as undergrad courses often lag behind in this regard) while giving an overview of all the different subfields. I know that in a discipline as widely flung as mine it’s quite possible to be unaware a given subfield exists, let alone know much more about it beyond its name.
  • [CLICK]…we’re expected to have a very wide & general knowledge of the whole field before we settle on a specialization. So a series of meetings with different faculty members, each talking about his/her subfield and interests on a general level, might have been useful. My cohort arranged some informal meetings like this that I found very useful.
  • I know it’s a cliche, but I would just spend some time talking about the importance of just finishing and how easy it is to let perfectionism (and many other things) derail you.
  • [SLIDE 23]…What I felt like I was missing at the time was some basic information about how the whole program fit together. What are these “comps” of which people spoke? What were the advantages and disadvantages of writing a thesis for the MA? What is a DGS? I would have liked a basic road map for how the next several years of my life were supposed to work. Yes, I know I could have just looked up everything in some handbook somewhere, but what I needed was someone who actually understood the handbook to explain it in plain language and separate the really important parts from the boilerplate.
  • [CLICK]Its somewhere between the nuts-and-bolts stuff people are suggesting and trying to understand what a field is and your place within it.
  • What I was confused about at the time was the basic transitions between undergraduate and graduate study (some of which have been mentioned upthread). These include how to read journal articles (we mostly read books and sections of books at UndergradSLAC), how to balance grad school and life, issues regarding the requirements for the degree (do I get help finding an internship if it’s required; what is the timeline for completing the thesis; how many readers should I have on my thesis committee; if I want to go on for a PhD, what would be the best courses to choose).



  • Introduce TA’s
  • Discuss Pass/Fail Grading – History of Grading
  • We won’t discuss everything we read – still worth reading
  • FOCUS AREAS: Some presentations might be more immediately relevant and compelling than others; still obligated to familiarize yourself w/ breadth of work in field
  • Scaffolded Learning: Even if the research you conduct for this class doesn’t ultimately make its way into a larger or long-term MA project, it’s not for naught! This work will likely shape your interests and methods in ways that will become apparent to you years from now; and it may resurface unexpectedly in a future project. For now, follow your immediate interests, and give yourself the freedom to explore. Your first semesters in a graduate program are your time to explore – to try out theoretical approaches, methodologies, and, in developing your material consciousness, various approaches to production.

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