Musings from a Soon-to-be Graduate

Graduation frame - public domain image Text added by Grace @ Cultural Life.

Graduation frame – public domain image
Text added by Grace @ Cultural Life.

Last year, I was walking to class one day and another student was talking on his phone in front of me. Snippets of his conversation floated back to me and one of them was:

“Can you believe it? I’m actually getting a degree!”

I smiled when I heard this because I understood the feeling. As students, we know that we will get our degrees, as long as we study and work hard — well, even the students who don’t work hard can get degrees, but their degree classification will most likely suffer! — but it still feels slightly surreal.

When I walked out of the exam room for the last time, having spent the past two hours intensely focused on writing exam answers, I felt a strange mix of happiness and wistfulness. Graduation is a time of change and transition, which can bring mixed emotions with it. As I reflect on the past few years, I can see how far I have come and how much I have changed from day one to the last day of my undergraduate degree studies. I have developed increased self-assuredness and strength, as well as confidence in my own abilities and determination to reach my goals and push through challenges.

I completed my degree at the end of May and I received my official result in June: I am graduating with a First Class Honours degree! As most of my readers are from North America, achieving a First in your degree is equivalent to a 4.0 GPA. Needless to say, I am very happy with my degree classification! I’ll share some photos after my graduation ceremony in a few weeks.

Jumping for joy! (Public domain image source)

On the whole, my undergrad experience wasn’t the stereotypical student life; my mother developed a serious illness in my first year of studying and it culminated in a year’s leave of absence from my studies while I coped with being her caregiver and all the responsibilities which it entailed. However, I returned to academic life after my leave of absence and the experience gave me a greater sense of perspective.

Meanwhile, although it is exciting to graduate, I am already busy formulating a plan for the next step: working while studying part-time for a Masters by Research.

I have a research proposal for a linguistics project which is ready to go ahead and I will be sharing more about this in the coming weeks. The only obstacle is that the project needs funding. Earlier this year, I applied for funding from an academic research council, but unfortunately I didn’t get it. There are no scholarships available; I have written to educational trusts in the hope of obtaining a small grant, but many of them only fund undergraduates or PhD students.

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Academic funding budgets are small and have been cut in recent years. As a result, more and more graduates are turning to alternative and entrepreneurial ways of funding academic projects, including crowdfunding. As a student said in a Financial Times article,

“It’s really hard to find funding for postgraduate courses in the UK, in the same way that it’s really hard to afford the fees for undergraduate courses in the US”

I plan to work to fund living expenses and I will conduct my linguistics research part-time, which will take two years. Although I have mixed feelings about it, I am investigating crowdfunding as a funding method; my university has its own crowdfunding platform and other postgraduates have successfully raised funds.

Cultural Life is strictly non-commercial and is a space for me to share posts and connect with other bloggers. However, I decided to join Amazon Associates a few days ago after seeing that a few blogging acquaintances use it. If you click through to Amazon and make purchase anything via my Associates link, I get a tiny percentage as a reward for referring you to Amazon. Anything that I receive from being an Amazon affiliate is going to fund my project. Thank you very much!

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As always, I welcome feedback and discussion in the comments section. What advice would you offer to graduates who are transitioning to the next phase in their career?

Also, I am aware that crowdfunding can elicit negative responses — what do you think about the growing trend for postgraduate researchers to seek support via crowdfunding platforms? Please be honest! I’d love to hear what my readers think!

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Sunday Snapshot

I’m not feeling great today. I think I am still recovering from exams and the build-up to getting my degree result. I’ll write a post about finishing my undergraduate degree soon, when I have more energy.

In the meantime, here’s a Sunday Snapshot with a very apt quotation!

Kittens are born with their eyes shut. They open them in about six days, take a look around, then close them again for the better part of their lives. ~Stephen Baker

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On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

At this time of year, the pressure builds up for most college students. Spring break is over for many students, there are multiple deadlines for papers to be turned in and preparation for exams is in full-swing. But perhaps this pressure could be reduced if more students took a deeper interest in their classes. Arguably, students who are driven solely by grades come away from their college experience with a lot less knowledge than students who are motivated by interest.

Public domain image source

Exploring my intellectual interests is something that motivates me. I have posted before about how inspired I am by studying linguistics and how it is my aspiration to teach linguistics. In February, I applied for grant funding for graduate study and writing my research proposal felt great, chiefly because it involved my own original ideas, informed by the literature I read. All questions have to come from somewhere and in academia, you have to know what has been said already to generate new research.

However, I recently found myself losing sight, just a little, of the bigger picture and having to be particularly intentional in reminding myself what it is. Of course, grant funding is highly competitive. I am awaiting the decision, which I will hear in the next few weeks, and in the mean time my work is keeping me busy (hence, the sparsity of recent posts on my blog). To get funding, I need to get excellent results in my undergraduate degree and even then, it may not be awarded to me. Naturally, this has been on my mind quite a lot and I have been working solidly during Spring break: writing, writing, researching, and writing some more.

The idea for this post arose when I realized that I have been working so hard, focusing on getting the grades so I can continue my academic career, that my enthusiasm kept dipping. Personally, I find the more I fixate on pursuing grades, the less creative I become in exploring ideas. Grades are important, yes, because they are a measure of academic excellence. But I would argue that there are two versions of doing ‘well’: a materialistic version where you check all the boxes, such as being at the top of the class, a straight-A student, achieving a 4.0 GPA….etc. We hear a lot about the “straight-A student” as the benchmark for academic excellence, perhaps more so in high school contexts than in college. To me, this implies that the system prizes material scores over the other version of doing well: exploring ideas, learning because you want to learn, and not simply because you want a good transcript.

Public domain image source

While traditional grading systems, such as the letter grade, are deeply rooted in the education system, my personal opinion is that academic institutions should place less emphasis on students getting a perfect test score and, instead, focus more on intellectual interest.

Being engaged with what you are learning results in better work. Yes, it feels great to do well in an exam, but scoring perfect grades should be merely a byproduct of study that is motivated by wanting to know more, by curiosity and absorption. As I wrote above, I found that placing too much focus on the endpoint spoils the journey and results in work that is less creative and less intellectually engaged. I’d rather focus on the second version of doing well, and then the first comes much easier!

Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The end of the academic year

Classrooms and exam halls lie empty, until the academic year begins anew
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At the beginning of June, I published this post, which marked the third anniversary of Cultural Life and let my readers know that my blogging over the next few days would be sporadic due to my exam schedule.

I am very happy to report that, all the exams were fine. I have a tendency to put pressure on myself and I always think that I can do better, but I was delighted when I got my results last week. Overall, for my second year of university, I achieved a First! In GPA terms, because many of my readers hail from Canada and the U.S., that equates to a 4.0 GPA. Not too shabby! 🙂

Now that I have absolutely no studying to do and no deadlines to work towards, I have more time for reading non-academic books without feeling guilty. This morning, I finished reading Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

It is a highly acclaimed novel which has won many awards, including the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award and the U.K. Man Booker Prize. The story spans three continents and explores themes of race and identity, focusing on the main character, Ifemelu, who leaves her native Nigeria and her teenage sweetheart, Obinze, to study at college in the States. The novel begins with a description of a Princeton summer and evocatively compares its “lack of a smell” to other American places in the summer: “Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage”. Ifemelu is an immigrant and she views the U.S. from the refreshing perspective of a non-native.

Her insights into modern-day America are sometimes pithy and always insightful. To express her observations, she starts a WordPress blog, writing about race and racism in the U.S. from the point of view of a “Non-American Black”.

Ifemelu: “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America”

Her blog, entitled Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, soon becomes well-known for its controversial, unreserved and challenging posts about racial identity and ethnicity in the U.S. Many of her posts are included in the book and I have no doubt that if Ifemelu was a real life WordPress blogger, she would be featured on Freshly Pressed a few times!

Americanah is a novel of many genres. It is a story of returning to your roots, to the country which runs in your veins. Ifemelu and Obinze, at different times, both return to Nigeria and Adichie’s writing strongly evokes the spirit of living in the country: the juxtaposition between the wealthy Lagos businessmen and the traditional ways of life, the Nigerian heat and sounds and colours. After reading this novel, I feel like I was given an insight into parts of Nigerian society: the part that longs to better itself, the ambitious young men and women who seek education and opportunities in the U.S. and the U.K., and the wealth of political corruption in Nigeria.

It is also a romantic story of love, which is divided by bureaucracy and rejected visa applications. It is a story of the search to discover one’s identity and, above all, it is an insightful narrative of attitudes towards race in three different countries: America, England and Nigeria. It left me pondering anew how shocking it is that, in this day and age, people still face discrimination based on their skin colour, even in the wealthy, highly educated and highly developed nations on the planet. I’ll finish with a quote which stood out to me: “Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding”. Yes, indeed.

Have you read Americanah? If not, has my review made you want to pick it up?