What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School: Bronwyn Williams

Williams photo 2015By Bronwyn Williams
Professor of English
Director, University of Louisville Writing Center

While there is a lot I didn’t know walking into graduate school for the first time (Who is this Mrs. Dalloway everyone keeps talking about and what has she written?) what I want to write about today are some of the things I had learned from other experiences and other people that have been applicable to my grad student life and beyond. These are things that have no direct bearing on research, teaching, or service. So, with that in mind, here are four ideas/metaphors/practices that have been helpful to me in negotiating the culture of academy, as well as staying somewhat sane.

“Tell them what you’re going to do, do it, and tell them you did it.” A supremely wise friend gave me this advice. It means that, as a faculty member, there will always be people wanting to get you involved with different committees or projects. This kind of pressure is particularly true for many new faculty members, and even more the case often for women. The problem is, the projects and committees others want me to get involved with are often things I have no interest in and no patience for. Rather than waste my time and have my head explode, I think about what I am interested in doing, in all areas of my academic life. I find out if there is a need for it, or some way to get involved in it. If there is a way to do it, I tell my chair or relevant colleagues what I’m planning to do, I do it, and then I tell them I did it. (Small Example: When I came to UofL there was no 4C’s proposal writing workshop going on. I asked if I could hold one. Did it. And then sent a brief email to the chair telling how many people showed up.) This approach has three benefits. First, you keep the focus of your work closer to things you’re actually interested in. Second, you keep your chair and colleagues informed about the good work you’re doing. Third, and most important, people begin to think of you as someone who is very busy, and you stop getting requests for things you don’t want to do. But it’s also a metaphor for keeping in mind the things you want to do professionally and finding ways to get involved in those, rather than letting other people take up your time with their agendas.

“Don’t Rely on WebMD” You know how it is, you have a sinus headache and five minutes on WebMD can convince you that it’s a tumor. In the academic world – or really any workplace – gossip and bad information is pervasive and, like the information on WebMD, either hysterical or lacking crucial context. So you’re surrounded by information that is often wrong and, even when it’s right, is probably none of anybody else’s business. What held true in middle school is still relevant. Walk away from gossip when possible, or at least get some other more rational perspectives. I also consider that people who seek me out to gossip are usually not doing so from the most ethical or altruistic of motives. When I hear something odd, or even infuriating, I figure I owe it to the person who is being talked about to go talk to them in person and get their perspective. I also try to spend my first year in a new program having coffee and talking with as many people as possible so you can begin to get a sense for who is reasonable and who is toxic (you can’t always tell about the toxic people right away, but eventually you begin to get a sense for it). A corollary to this is that, when someone offers information about a person, process, or policy, but is not the actual person or in charge of the policy, I don’t believe it until I go to the official source. (I’ve lost track of the number of people who have told me my opinion or policy about something, without ever asking me about it first – and usually been wrong).

“There’s no such thing as a Composition emergency.” A lot of you have heard me say this. Linda Baldwin and I used to remind each other of this when I was Comp Director, that the work we were doing was important, but to keep things in perspective. For me, however, it is also a metaphor for keeping life in perspective. Our jobs are useful and productive, but there is so much life to be lived outside of work and we need to make that at least an equal priority to anything at work. I have no patience for the tendency in U.S. academic culture of people trying to top each other with how hard they are always working, or how stressed they are, or how grad students need to be warned about the really horrible stress coming when they become faculty members. Sure, there are busy times and occasional long days. And, yes, I complain about it when it happens. But I take no pride in working a 12-hour day and I hope that, if I do complain, it is never taken as glorifying 12-hour work days or working all weekend. “There are no composition emergencies” I try to not answer most email on weekends. I take up friends and family on offers to do something fun, even with a deadline coming up at work, and I’m never sorry when I do. I play music, cook, go for a hike, watch movies. Enjoy life.

Oh yes, one more thing, nobody reads everything. I had small children at home when I went back for my Ph.D. Even if I had wanted to read everything, there simply wasn’t time (and, given the chance to play with my sons or read theory? Well, there’s no such thing as a composition emergency). I read what seemed to be the core texts in detail, if I could. Other articles I would read the introduction and conclusion, try to get a sense of the point of the work and make some notes about how it fit into my interests so I could go back to it if need be. And I played with my kids.

Time to break out the guitar…..

I’m in the middle of writing a book, tentatively titled Literacy Practices and Composing Identities: Perceptions of Agency, to be published by Routledge. I’m exploring how people perceive their abilities and opportunities to read and write successfully when they perform literate identities. The perception of agency, not just whether a person is able to read and write but whether she or he perceives and feels able to read and write in a given context, is crucial in terms of how people respond to writing situations. Though some may consider agency difficult to define, it is a goal often articulated in research, on course syllabi, and in learning outcomes. I believe it is important to investigate how individuals perceive agency, and what factors they regard as enabling or constraining their actions. At any moment there are many factors shaping agency and literate identities from social forces – history, material conditions, institutions, social roles, semiotics – to internal conditions – motivation, emotion, narrative, and memory. For the book I’m drawing on interviews and observations I’ve done over the last few years with students in several countries to explore the intersections of the social and personal in regard to how, but also crucially why, people engage successfully or struggle painfully in literacy practices. I think if we can identify such patterns and moments we can, as teachers and researchers, rethink our approaches to teaching as well as intervene in the learning of individual students to help facilitate a sense of agency as writers and readers.

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