Wednesday, April 19, 2017

I Teach, Therefore I Essay: Being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher, argues Caitlin McGill

by Caitlin McGill, Inside Higher Ed:

For past few years, I’ve been trying to convince students that I write essays “for fun.”

Only recently, however, while arguing that writing essays can be fun for students, too, did I realize that I don’t only enjoy the essay form but also depend on it - in and out of the classroom.

For me, being an essayist is central to, if not inseparable from, being a teacher.

When I first attempted to organize my thoughts on this topic, I hadn’t consciously embraced that notion. I had no idea where to begin. For several days, I thought about starting, but I kept finding papers to grade or assignments to design or an essay to revise. I put it off.

After plenty of procrastination that I now recognize afforded me necessary time to think, I realized that I needed to begin as I do all of my work, that I needed to employ the very arguments I’m attempting to make now. I needed to essay: to attempt, to test, to try out, to examine.

Once I realized this, most of the pressure I’d been putting on myself disappeared. Of course, I thought. I should’ve known. After all, the act of essaying leads nearly all of my work.

Just as writing these thoughts into an essay relieved pressure, viewing teaching as an act of essaying also relieves much of the pressure of stepping onstage before students. Not long ago, I realized that I could approach teaching like I could an essay: sure, I always have some knowledge when walking into the course, but I don’t have to know exactly where the class will lead us or where it will end. With a few goals in mind, I can wander and question and fumble in the dark with my students, just as I do as the essayist on the page.

Essays offer the freedom to ponder an issue that can’t be proven one way or another, and that’s what I want to happen in the classroom. I want to elicit free and open discussion. I want to create a place to test out ideas - to care and be conscientious of others but also to allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely without fear of condemnation - knowing that we might not necessarily prove a theory but can start to unravel our ideas together.

When I began to view teaching as essaying, I remembered that some of my most exciting teaching moments were unplanned, unexpected gifts that my students and I discovered together after meandering down uncertain paths. Those moments of unrehearsed discovery are, for me, among the most exciting parts of teaching.

Perhaps, then, we should view the class period itself as an essay. We enter with several ideas of where we want the class to go, hoping our students have done the necessary homework to inform themselves on the subjects up for discussion. But once discussion begins, we allow ourselves to wind up somewhere new, somewhere we couldn’t have planned. And, in fact, we hope that we do, knowing that as we fumble we can manage to stay on a path, however obscure.

I admit this approach might not always work. Some classes will yield more fruitful conversation and discovery than others. And that’s OK. Sometimes my own essays find themselves knotted up and incomprehensible and just plain old unremarkable. But usually that means I’ll be back on a new writing path soon, maybe two or three drafts down the road. And so, too, a class can get back on track. We - teachers, students, essayists - are not perfect. And I would argue that our form demands such imperfection.

I often begin my first-year writing courses with a cliché: I discuss the etymology of the word “essay.” I realize that is far from novel and that many other instructors make this move, too, but it feels absolutely necessary this early in the semester. Can it be clichéd to students if they’ve never heard it before?

I tell my students that one writes an essay to try to figure something out. And then I tell them the part that is often hardest to sell: we don’t always find an answer after the essay is written. Sometimes we find new questions, or something we hadn’t been looking for. And when I tell them that is the beauty of the essay, of essaying, I’m reminding myself, too.

When discussing research, I return to clichés again. I offer older, broader definitions: to seek out, to search, to go about, to wander. I stress that our research will certainly include scholarly, library research, but it will also necessarily include interaction with the world. I make the case, as many other instructors do, too, that research extends beyond searching databases from a windowless room to walking outside and experiencing our subjects.

Just as many of my colleagues and I try to dismantle students’ assumptions about the essay, I attempt to dismantle students’ preconceived notions about research. I attempt to infuse our research with the act of essaying - that willingness to test out, to try, to embrace uncertainty.

An essay often demands that its narrator embody an authentic persona. So, too, should research. Thus, I attempt to excavate students’ genuine interests - not just as academics, but also as human beings.

I ask the students to make a list of topics that make their hearts race or blood boil, that make them stop what they’re doing and call a friend, text a sibling or write a long-winded rant on Facebook. Then they pick one item and write a scene of a specific moment when they realized that this thing, whatever it might be, is of interest to them. In doing so, I’m modeling my writing process, which begs that my work begin with genuine interest, with authenticity.

Afterward, students read their scenes aloud and respond to each other’s work. Though I didn’t realize it initially, that write-read-respond format models the writing workshop.

During my time as a M.F.A. student, we devoted the first week of writing workshops to in-class writing and sharing. And it was this writing - with pen and paper instead of a computer, in a room full of writers instead of alone at home, with only 20 minutes to scribble instead of a seemingly endless morning of writing ahead - that often led to my most honest, urgent discoveries.

Now, I realize that my allegiance to essaying in teaching encouraged me to employ this model. If essaying demands authentic personae on the page, then it demands we listen to and act on our genuine instincts in teaching, too. One’s teaching philosophy, then, is a representation of one’s self.

I don’t expect my students to proclaim that what they’re doing is akin to essaying. But I do expect that my allegiance to essaying will ignite a curiosity that they sustain beyond our course. That whether they declare themselves essayists or not, they will wander through the world more vulnerable and curious, less anxious about the unknown, and more excited for what they might uncover. “Get lost and take risks,” I tell them, myself and my fellow teachers. “Embrace missteps instead of fearing them.”


Caitlin McGill teaches writing and literature at Emerson College and MCPHS University. Currently, she is working on a memoir in essays about trauma, survival, race and her journey to uncover her family’s hidden past and to reveal her own. One of the essays in that upcoming book was named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2016. Her website is

The Crisis Facing PhD Students


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hungary’s Assault on Academic Freedom is a Threat to European Principles

CEU Budapest (
by Kirsten Roberts Lyer, Central European University, The Conversation:

Tens of thousands of people recently demonstrated in the Hungarian capital of Budapest against attempts by their government to close the Central European University (CEU).

This was the second large-scale demonstration in Budapest in as many weeks - with protesters turning out en masse to challenge recent amendments to the national law on higher education that have been adopted by the Hungarian parliament.

As a university, CEU has a dual identity, and offers degrees accredited in both the US and Hungary. But the latest amendments make the university’s continued operation in Hungary virtually impossible. This is because the bill would require CEU to operate under a binding international agreement and to provide higher education programmes in its country of origin - the US - all within a very short time-frame.

At the time of writing, the legislation is on the desk of the Hungarian president for signature or referral to the Constitutional Court. Signature of the law would mean that the legislative changes would come into force, requiring a binding international agreement to be signed within six months of the publication of the law.

Referral to the Constitutional Court - a move which many of the protesters were calling for at the demonstration in Budapest - would mean that the law could be scrutinised for its legality and constitutionality.

Campaign against liberalism

CEU is a privately funded university with more than 1,400 students from more than 100 countries, that offers degrees accredited in both the US and Hungary. It is ranked among the top 200 universities in the world in eight disciplines. It excels in political science and international studies.

It has had its home in Budapest for more than 25 years, and is part of the life of the city. That CEU was founded after the fall of communism to promote democracy makes the current move against it all the more reprehensible. The university, ably led by the rector Michael Ignatieff - a former Canadian politician and internationally renowned academic - has mobilised an impressive campaign for support.

The response has been huge - with leading academic institutions in Hungary and around the world, as well as governments, politicians and individuals condemning the moves by the Hungarian government. The hash-tag #IStandWithCEU has also been trending on Twitter.

Freedom to teach

This outpouring of support underscores the importance placed in institutions that promote education and critical thinking. Academic freedom is also a prized European value, and countries across Europe rightfully take pride in the quality of their universities and support their development.

The freedom of universities to teach, research, and publish is fundamental to a free and open society. Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union provides that:
The arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint. Academic freedom shall be respected.
The need for such explicit protection of academic freedom is clear: universities and academics have long been targeted by autocrats because of the threat that free and critical thinking poses to their continued existence. And for an attack of this nature to take place within the EU should be cause for concern across Europe.

This is because the precedent it would set puts all academic freedom at risk. It is also a stark reminder of the need for constant vigilance to safeguard European democracies.

Targeting European values

While CEU has said that it will take all legal steps available to it to challenge the Hungarian law, this is not just a legal fight. This move to shut an independent university poses a fundamental question as to the extent to which European values can be ignored by an EU member state. Rule of law is supposed to be central to the operation of member states - and targeting freedom of expression through the closure of academic institutions runs directly counter to this.

This is not the only recent move by the Hungarian Government that potentially contradicts the rule of law. In October, a major national newspaper - Népszabadság - closed alleging government pressure. And the government has also recently targeted civil society with the proposed introduction of restrictive legislation justified by national security concerns and the need for additional transparency.

There also doesn’t seem to be much understanding within Hungary as to why the threatened closure of CEU is causing such outrage. Just a few days ago, in response to the protests and influx of letters in support of CEU, the Hungarian government spokesman called the situation a “storm of political hype” that was part of a “political circus”.

The European Commission has said it will discuss the situation in Hungary - and this is an important opportunity to reinforce fundamental EU principles.

But for now, individuals, institutions and governments in the UK, and across Europe, need to take note of what is happening in Hungary, and take action to make the closure of CEU a red line that cannot be crossed.

Kirsten Roberts Lyer, Associate Professor of Practice, Central European University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

How to Write an Abstract in Sociology: Definition, Types, Steps of the Process, and an Example

DaniloAndjus/Getty Images

If you are a student learning sociology, chances are you will be asked to write an abstract. Sometimes, your teacher or professor may ask you to write an abstract at the beginning of the research process to help you organize your ideas for the research.

Other times, the organizers of a conference or editors of an academic journal or book will ask you to write one to serve as a summary of research you have completed and that you intend to share.

Let's review exactly what an abstract is and the five steps you need to follow in order to write one.

Definition of an Abstract

Within sociology, as with other sciences, an abstract is a brief and concise description of a research project that is typically in the range of 200 to 300 words. Sometimes you may be asked to write an abstract at the beginning of a research project and other times, you will be asked to do so after the research is completed.

In any case, the abstract serves, in effect, as a sales pitch for your research. Its goal is to pique the interest of the reader such that he or she continues to read the research report that follows the abstract, or decides to attend a research presentation you will give about the research. For this reason, an abstract should be written in clear and descriptive language, and should avoid the use of acronyms and jargon.

Types of Abstracts

Depending on at what stage in the research process you write your abstract, it will fall into one of two categories: descriptive or informative.

Those written before the research is completed will be descriptive in nature. Descriptive abstracts provide an overview of the purpose, goals, and proposed methods of your study, but do not include discussion of the results or conclusions you might draw from them. On the other hand, informative abstracts are super-condensed versions of a research paper that provide an overview of the motivations for the research, problem(s) it addresses, approach and methods, the results of the research, and your conclusions and implications of the research.

Before You Write an Abstract

Before you write an abstract there are a few important steps you should complete. First, if you are writing an informative abstract, you should write the full research report. It may be tempting to start by writing the abstract because it is short, but in reality, you can't write it until you the report is complete because the abstract should be a condensed version of it. If you've yet to write the report, you probably have not yet completed analyzing your data or thinking through the conclusions and implications. You can't write a research abstract until you've done these things.

Another important consideration is the length of the abstract. Whether you are submitting it for publication, to a conference, or to a teacher or professor for a class, you will have been given guidance on how many words the abstract can be. Know your word limit in advance and stick to it.

Finally, consider the audience for your abstract. In most cases, people you have never met will read your abstract. Some of them may not have the same expertise in sociology that you have, so it's important that you write your abstract in clear language and without jargon. Remember that your abstract is, in effect, a sales pitch for your research, and you want it to make people want to learn more.

The Five Steps of Writing an Abstract
  1. Motivation. Begin your abstract by describing what motivated you to conduct the research. Ask yourself what made you pick this topic. Is there a particular social trend or phenomenon that sparked your interest in doing the project? Was there a gap in existing research that you sought to fill by conducting your own? Was there something, in particular, you set out to prove? Consider these questions and begin your abstract by briefly stating, in one or two sentences, the answers to them.
  2. Problem. Next, describe the problem or question to which your research seeks to provide an answer or better understanding. Be specific and explain if this is a general problem or a specific one affecting only certain regions or sections of the population. You should finish describing the problem by stating your hypothesis, or what you expect to find after conducting your research.
  3. Approach and methods. Following your description of the problem, you must next explain how your research approaches it, in terms of theoretical framing or general perspective, and which research methods you will use to do the research. Remember, this should be brief, jargon-free, and concise.
  4. Results. Next, describe in one or two sentences the results of your research. If you completed a complex research project that led to several results that you discuss in the report, highlight only the most significant or noteworthy in the abstract. You should state whether or not you were able to answer your research questions, and if surprising results were found too. If, as in some cases, your results did not adequately answer your question(s), you should report that as well.
  5. Conclusions. Finish your abstract by briefly stating what conclusions you draw from the results and what implications they might hold. Consider whether there are implications for the practices and policies of organizations and/or government bodies that are connected to your research, and whether your results suggest that further research should be done, and why. You should also point out whether the results of your research are generally and/or broadly applicable or whether they are descriptive in nature and focused on a particular case or limited population.

Example of an Abstract in Sociology

Let's take as an example the abstract that serves as the teaser for a journal article by sociologist Dr. David Pedulla. The article in question, published in American Sociological Review, is a report on how taking a job below one's skill level or doing part-time work can hurt a person's future career prospects in their chosen field or profession.  The abstract, printed below, is annotated with bolded numbers that show the steps in the process outlined above.
1. Millions of workers are employed in positions that deviate from the full-time, standard employment relationship or work in jobs that are mismatched with their skills, education, or experience. 2. Yet, little is known about how employers evaluate workers who have experienced these employment arrangements, limiting our knowledge about how part-time work, temporary agency employment, and skills underutilization affect workers' labor market opportunities. 3. Drawing on original field and survey experiment data, I examine three questions: (1) What are the consequences of having a nonstandard or mismatched employment history for workers' labor market opportunities? (2) Are the effects of nonstandard or mismatched employment histories different for men and women? and (3) What are the mechanisms linking nonstandard or mismatched employment histories to labor market outcomes? 4. The field experiment shows that skills underutilization is as scarring for workers as a year of unemployment, but that there are limited penalties for workers with histories of temporary agency employment. Additionally, although men are penalized for part-time employment histories, women face no penalty for part-time work. The survey experiment reveals that employers' perceptions of workers' competence and commitment mediate these effects. 5. These findings shed light on the consequences of changing employment relations for the distribution of labor market opportunities in the "new economy."
It's really that simple.

The Pace of Academic Life is Not the Problem, the Lack of Autonomy Is

by Carl Heyerdahl
by Alison Edwards, LSE Impact Blog: 

To many disgruntled with the quantification of scholarship, its impossible demands and meaningless metrics, it is the heightened pace of academic life that is the problem. 

For Alison Edwards, the crux of the problem is actually a lack of autonomy. Is it time for academics to take back control? This post is inspired in part by the Impact Blog’s Accelerated Academy series. 

If you work as an academic, chances are you were the smart kid in school. You always liked learning. It’s like being a fish in water, being an overachiever. You get off on performing. I hear you; I get it. Because me too.

But like many, I’m disturbed by the developments in the academy today. The quantification of scholarship, with its impossible demands and meaningless metrics, is creating perverse incentives and a toxic atmosphere. The situation has been aptly described as “heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest”.

Slow Academia has been proposed as a solution. But as a response to Neoliberal U, it is not yet fully thought out. It’s not clear that the pace of academic life is the issue here. More likely, the crux of the problem is a lack of autonomy - in which case a more felicitous call to action would be not necessarily to slow down, but (to reclaim the catchphrase of the Brexiteers) to take back control. 

Slow Academia 

It’s hard to argue with the ideas behind Slow Academia, as expressed in manifestos and movements like Slow Scholarship, Slow Science and the Slow University. To put the brakes on now and then. To let ideas brew. To “focus upon a more reflective way of being, doing and living connected to addressing … issues of well-being, the common good, connection and community”, as Maggie O’Neill puts it. Who could dispute the appeal? But Slow Academia has its critics too. In particular, it seems to have a troubled relationship with time. 

Pace is not the problem 

The focus on slow suggests the issue is specifically the frantic speed of developments in academia. But that’s not the whole story. Here’s the Slow Science Manifesto:
“Don’t get us wrong - we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media and PR necessities … however, we maintain that this cannot be all. Science needs time to think.”
It’s not about doing everything more slowly, then, but about having the space to focus on what’s important. Like thinking, rather than being slaves to the metrics machine or tethered to our email accounts (“I’m a professor of philosophy, not a cardiac surgeon”, writes Brian Treanor in the Slow University Manifesto. “How urgent can it be?”).

Filip Vostal advocates “unhasty” rather than slow scholarship, and points out that speed is not all bad. Rather, modernity has always been characterised by an inherent “will to accelerate”:
“Speed has often been chosen, desired, appreciated - either as an instrument or as a goal in its own right … [t]he commitment to speed…remains a powerful motivational force even today; a force profoundly entrenched in the modern individual’s calculating and strategising mindset.”
It’s not about being “sluggish turtles”, he continues. What academics want is “something akin to scholarly time autonomy, enabling them to determine how temporal resources should be used”. 

Autonomous academia 

So control is the crux of the matter, and it’s here that the politics of slow have been accused of being not radical enough. Rather than challenging the very nature of capitalist knowledge production and consumption, Slow Academia just asks for more time to deal with it. Or as Heather Mendick puts it:
“Slowing down is mainly a way to be a more efficient and effective scholar, with slow scholarship directed towards the same aims as fast scholarship but offering a better way of getting there. But … shouldn’t we be seeking to challenge the goals as well as the means of academic life? And more broadly shouldn’t slow disrupt rather than reproduce the dominant definition of progress?”
Yet for better or worse, it is productivity as defined by the establishment that drives many scholars. We might object to the rules, but can’t help playing the game anyway. We are hypocrites, achievement fiends, “addicted to the brand” of big-name journals.

The point is about choice. In asking “is slow what the Slow University’s about?” Luke Martell says: “the issue isn’t balance, but control over the balance. Lots of things grouped under slow are about quality of life … but the key is autonomy and the ability to reclaim our lives for ourselves.” 

Taking back control

Martell goes on to propose some solutions: “one is individual withdrawal from paid employment, going part-time, self-employed or freelance. Some who do this still have lots of work and a life of speed. But because they’re freer from institutional employment they feel liberated.”

This is the route I’ve taken. I did my PhD at Cambridge, where my thesis was accepted with the rare result of no corrections. I like to think I’m not lacking in the ability and ambition departments. But the establishment route, I began to notice, didn’t sit well with me. I spent large chunks of time writing applications for grants I had next to no chance of getting, a futile process made worse by how dodgy it felt. Where is the sense in using an ultimately taxpayer-funded position to write proposals in the hopes of landing yet more taxpayer money? (see Jan Blommaert for more on this).

On graduating, I was strongly encouraged to apply for a post in Germany just as I was preparing to move to the Netherlands with my new husband, who had landed a postdoc there. “If you caught the overnight train from Amsterdam every Sunday”, he said brightly, “you’d be right on time to teach at 9am Mondays”.

The prospect didn’t sound appealing. So I bit the bullet and went out on my own as a part-time, independent scholar, funding my research through freelance editing and translation. In a broad sense, I embrace the ethics of slow. Free of the tyranny of the tenure track, I have the luxury of investing in new knowledge. I’ll take a sidestep into an adjacent field rather than salami slicing yet another paper out of work I’ve already done to death. I’ll attend a conference I’m intrigued by even if I’m not presenting at it.

But that’s not to say I work slow. I don’t want to work fewer hours or be less productive. I see myself in Mark Carrigan’s admission: “I’m aware that I like speed … time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.” I may not have external targets, but I can’t get enough of imposing them on myself. There are papers in the pipeline, collaborative projects, a second book in progress, a blog and a small business. Oh, and I’m about to have a child.

Removing myself from the establishment route doesn’t diminish that drive. I expect the personal compulsion to do more, to achieve more, to produce more will always be there. It runs deep. But it’s on my own terms. 

Featured image credit: Control by Robert Couse-Baker (licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below. 

About the author 

Alison Edwards (PhD Cantab) is based in Amsterdam, where she works as a writer, translator, editor and independent scholar. Her latest research focuses on English in continental Europe and its role in local identity construction. She is the author of English in the Netherlands: Functions, Forms and Attitudes (John Benjamins 2016). She also blogs at Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.