What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: You Think You’re Busy Now?

By Dànielle Nicole DeVoss
Thomas R. Watson Scholar-in-Residence, University of Louisville
Professor of Professional Writing, Michigan State University

lg_danielle_headshotMy last semester as a PhD candidate, I was teaching a new prep—a 250-student lecture that was a new institutional offering part of a revamp of
the general undergraduate education initiative. I was finishing my dissertation and working on several manuscripts. I worked as the Associate Director for two summer institutes: one the long-running Computers in Writing-Intensive Classrooms Summer Institute (which has since moved to Ohio State University and become DMAC), and the second a new initiative called Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum, oriented toward K-12 teachers and students. I also worked as the Associate Editor for the journal Computers and Composition. These were the big tasks; there were dozens of other smaller-level obligations and responsibilities.

At one point late that semester, I was standing at the departmental copy machine, preparing editorial materials on one end of the table next to the copier, and preparing CIWIC workshop materials and organizing them at the other end. I had a notebook open on top of the copier and was taking notes, prepping to teach the next day. Cindy Selfe, my dissertation advisor and mentor, felt the waves of anxiety rolling off of me, laughed, and said “If you think you’re busy now, wait until you’re a faculty member!” Not in a mindset to recognize and respect the ample knowledge of my mentor, I rolled my eyes at her back, thinking “there’s no way I could get any busier!”

I got busier. A lot busier. Throw a book at my head if need be, but, honestly, the demands of graduate school were small potatoes compared to the demands of a tenure-stream faculty position. What marks this difference, also, is that as a graduate student, you’re recognized as a learner—someone acclimating to academia and an intellectual–professional life. As a faculty member, you’re presumed to have your shit together, and to know what you need to do and how to get it done.

As a faculty member, you have to think strategically and you have to be a time manager. You can’t live day by day, and, depending on the demands of your institution, semester-by-semester. You have to plan your time, schedule your projects, calendar your work, and triage the busyness. One of the first documents I open every day is a word-processing to-do list. On it, I have big upcoming deadlines listed in a grid. Below that, I have weekly milestones. Below that, I have daily tasks I need to complete. There are a dozen different ways to do this sort of mapping—use a smartphone app, keep a work  journal, etc. They key thing is having the map—and sticking to it.

There are days when I sit in my car in the parking ramp because I worked 14 hours straight (no breaks, no lunch—when I say straight through, I mean straight through) and I need to muster the energy to press the accelerator. There are days when I need to rally my strength to open the to-do list doc and face its oppressive bullet points.

But, that said, I will say that there are three perks to being a faculty member and facing a tenure-track workload: First, if you love what you do, you’re in the best place possible. I couldn’t imagine another life for myself—a life where I’m not surrounded by dynamic, engaged, excited people doing work that is incredibly  meaningful to them. These people are undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty colleagues, and others. Second, I never overlook or minimize the freedom I have as an academic. Yes, I have a lot of obligations, but, overall, I have incredible flexibility in terms of my schedule. I am on a 9-month contract, and I can choose whether I want to teach over the summer or spend the summer leisurely working across research projects. If I’m on a “research day,” I can take a break and go grocery shopping at 11am. Or at 11pm. A final mitigating factor is pay and scholarly rewards. These don’t just come to you, obviously, but I believe that if you work hard, work within/toward the institution’s values, and think rhetorically and strategically about how you talk about and share your work, you will—or at least can be—rewarded. There are some such rewards as a graduate student, but faculty salary and annual merit pay blows grad student stipends out of the water.

My research interests include computer/technological literacies; digital-visual rhetorics; social and cultural entrepreneurship; innovation and creativity; and intellectual property issues in digital space. I’ve published (as author or co-editor) eight books, and am currently working on two more: One with Jim Purdy on space and infrastructure in composition studies, and one with C. S. Wyatt on visual rhetoric and typography. I’m currently working on about 10 different manuscript projects; two examples are a collaborative webtext focused on connections between the Computers and Writing and Digital Humanities communities, and another collaborative webtext (with students from Louisville’s ENGL 688 Fall 2015 class) on multimodal composing practices and processes.

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