October 22, 2014; 3:30-5:30pm
Brian Reed, department chair
Juan Guerra, graduate program director
Alissa Bourbonnais, Graduate student panelist
Kirin Watcher-Green, Graduate student panelist
Chris Martin, Graduate student panelist
Rachel Graf, GSO co-executive officer
First Hour devoted to questions for Brian and Juan:
1. Can you give an overview of the “benchmark” system for evaluating graduate student progress, including its goals (from a faculty perspective) and its practical impact for students?
BR: Faculty have been trying to make our MA/PhD program more coherent, so that each step follows from the one previous. For a long time, we prided ourselves on having a flexible program, such that individuals could follow broad interests. Desire to maintain that, while having a “road” people can be on to evaluate their own progress. Decision to enforce benchmarks more follows series of student surveys on the program. Surveys were done to isolate moments people get stalled. There is pressure from above to think about time to degree, but also assume students want to move through the program faster. Wanted to draw added attention and clarity to moments of transition that have been stumbling blocks. The idea of enforcing benchmarks makes it “a trip wire element”. Not meant as punitive, but more encouragement. Average had been more than a year between exams and prospectus, even though it had been a guideline to do in a quarter. Time spent on first chapter will be more profitable than on prospectus.
JG: Looking at those surveys, we saw a number of problem issues. Stumbling blocks. A number of reasons for long time to degree. One reason is the exam itself is psychologically over-whelming, and has a negative effect of paralyzing people. Those of you who take exams know after you’re exhausted. Want to find ways to intervene (including info meetings) and develop them. A side effect of timeline problems is funding complications. Wanted to be fair, so that those working more efficiently get fair share of money, especially those who had entered the program unfunded. Now the problem is getting the faculty on board to support graduate students in finishing and meeting benchmarks. Faculty will retreat in spring, and the graduate studies committee will try to generate a set of proposals beforehand. It was a unanimous faculty vote to enforce benchmarks in this way.
Don’t want to burden anyone. Individual case-by-case extensions if there is need. If problems arise, Juan can extend the benchmark on the prospectus for someone for another quarter.
BR: previously we occasionally enforced things, which led to real inequity. Goal is to make the playing-field the same.
2. One of the big challenges in graduate school is mastering new genres, such as the prospectus. How would you describe the prospectus as it relates to other academic writing?
BR: The prospectus is point in the program where faculty have most divergence. The question of genre is sub-field specific in many ways, thus tendency to say talk to committee. B’s point of view is that the prospectus is first version of genre (book prospectus, fellowship application, many pieces of job application). Unless it’s been built into a class, it’s not a genre you’ve had the opportunity to practice before. Important skill set.
JG: Unless you’ve worked for an NGO or something of that sort it will be new to you. The prospectus is really a proposal. “I propose to do this and here is how I propose to go forward with it.” You can go look at examples, which is helpful especially if they are related to your research, but in the end, you do really need to go meet with your committee and they’ll tell you what their expectations are. I also certainly encourage you to talk to your peers for models, but in the end it is your committee who will decide. Thus, the conversation about prospectus with committee really needs to happen early on. I recommend to students to keep a file about prospectus ideas while reading for exams. So that when you do sit down to write the prospectus you have a starting point.
BR: To write a prospectus you need to have a clear idea what a dissertation is. In surveys, students do not seem to have a clear sense of that. Tackling not only prospectus genre but also dissertation genre. One problem is students trying to tackle a topic that is a life-time project. Another problem is the reverse, thinking of the dissertation as 4 seminar papers. It’s important to talk about the shape of a dissertation with your committee and peers.
Prospectus itself will typically have: abstract where you say “my dissertation will do this, and I will do so in this manner,”; some form of literature review (ie, “Judith butler has written about this topic”) blunt overview, often a paragraph devoted to each major aspect; some statement of “my contribution”; a section on method or literary approach; chapter breakdown (speak with certitude in the future tense about things that will change); some sort of logistic section that says timeline (archival trips, defense date, etc). Typical prospectus often has those pieces in some configuration. Committee will often tell you, “Too broad.”
JG: You will use this genre again, so it doesn’t hurt to try to do it well this time because then you have a model. I used this same structure for my book proposal for my manuscript, which when done doesn’t look anything like what I wrote in proposal. Important to acknowledge and understand that what you end up with is very different from what you propose, because in the course of writing it you need to learn new information, reading and connecting ideas, adding things that are not part of your original plan. Write a good, strong prospectus but don’t commit yourself to it to the death.
BR: Again why we want it done within a quarter, because it’s a step, doesn’t need to be rewritten along the writing process.
Student asks: Is this breakdown in the prospectus structure universal in the program or does it vary in and of itself?
JG: I think it varies. Your committee will define what they’re looking for, so you have to listen to their suggestions. What Brian described is a paradigm just like the 5-paragraph essay is a universal structure, with a lot of variation. Stress again: talk to your committee. Writing a dissertation the audience is not the field: it’s the three members of your committee. This year the faculty will try (maybe fail) to set parameters for dissertation and prospectus.
BR: amount of detail in each section varies quite a bit
Student asks: In relation to the prospectus needing to be done one quarter after exams, that seems to incentivize people to take exams later. Why would I take exams earlier then?
BR: If you take the exams in winter and write prospectus in spring, then you have summer to start chapter one.
Student: but the way that it’s tied with funding puts that pressure onto it.
NB: Brian Reed emailed following the meeting with this clarification:” I checked with Kathy Mork about the prospectus & benchmark enforcement.
Here is a clarification of the prospectus benchmark:
It must be completed by the end of fall quarter of ‘year five’ in the program (‘year four’ for those who enter the program post-masters).
Can you please circulate this clarification? I misspoke when I said it was ‘one quarter after exams.'”
Student: This is related to problems with the exam process.
BR: If you take exams in Spring, then you have the fall to do prospectus, but anyone in that position I advise to use the summer to write chapter one. In regards to enforcement policies [for all students], that would be one to talk more with graduate studies committee about specifics.
NB: Kathy Mork clarified the process for resolving individual problems meeting the benchmark versus enforcement generally speaking: “ If any individual “5th year” graduate student thinks he or she cannot complete the prospectus by the end of this current quarter (Autumn 2014), he or she should contact the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) NOT the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC).
If the graduate students would like to effect a change in department policy or rules, they should approach the Director of Graduate Studies with their proposal, and the DGS would bring the issue to the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) for discussion. Another way to effect a change would be to use the graduate student members of the GSC to bring up the topic for discussion and get the item on the GSC agenda.”
Question: Is there a benchmark that identifies when chapter one should be written? Inconsistency doesn’t seem equitable.
BR: no. If you’re doing a dissertation requiring human subjects it takes longer.
Student: Why was this the first change, rather than fixing flawed exam process?
JG: To wake people up. If we waited until we fixed the system the number of graduate students falling behind would keep increasing. Not trying to be heartless, but in department systems there are benchmarks you have to meet. This is the life you’re buying into.
Student: I understand that, and I don’t think any of us object to having to work under pressure. But my concern comes from lack of institutional support.
Student: Also stakes of financial incentives really high. Notification process is where conflict was created.
JG: hoping by September next year the faculty will have worked out system to make all of this run better.
Student: Do you anticipate faculty will have conversations about equity in mentorship? Is that an anticipated focus of the retreat?
JG: It is. We’ve been talking about trying to come up with some sort of Rights & Responsibilities as faculty and graduate students. I think Anis, will take on some of the responsibility of developing that. We know, of course, that some faculty are very responsive and some do not give feedback. With tenured faculty we cannot force them to do anything against their will, but we can certainly set benchmarks and guidelines for them and mentoring. We need to talk about integrating course work, exams and dissertation. I’m not sure which of the array of issues we discuss we will decide need to be addressed most quickly.
BR: This quarter I’m going to try to get a code of conduct that applies to faculty, staff and students, which we don’t have and need because we’ve had problems with micro-aggression on all levels. Once we have that in place we can have the kind of guidelines Juan is talking about. You have to understand that our faculty, always vote to make things tougher and more rigorous, but they don’t necessarily follow through in their individual actions. Faculty culture that we need to work on.
Student asks: Did you say that code of conduct has to do with micro-aggressions?
BR: Guidelines for social media use. Particularly concerning use of UW email. We’ll start with the faculty senate version of this.
3. You’ve both advised many graduate students at UW. What advice can you share based on that experience? Are there particular stumbling points you’ve noticed? Are there strategies you recommend to your own advisees?
JG: With my own students, and as DGS, I try to remind everyone that this is a comprehensive program with several moving parts. It’s important to begin to make sense early on of how they (course work, exams, diss) work together. Use course material for reading lists, so it becomes a matter of reviewing material instead of reading from scratch. Once you take exams find ways to try to imagine what dissertation might look like. Don’t end up reproducing and doing the same thing over and over again.
BR: If you’re at the point of asking “what do I do next?” Sit down and ask yourself, “What have I done? What do I love?” Even if you love it, some days you’re gonna hate it, but you need to do a dissertation you love. A dissertation is a rough draft of a book. It is not your book and not your career, but it is a step. The dissertation, people tend to be over ambitious. “What have you done? What do you love? Where do you want to go?” Ask yourselves, “Is the diss going to give me skills? An archive? An argument? How will it launch me where I want to go?” This what will get you through the prospectus, the dissertation, the job process. It helps you with set-backs, it helps you with opportunities.
Second Hour devoted to questions for experienced grad-students:
1. Panelists introduce themselves.
Chris Martin: Technically a 7th year, entered in MFA program. Writing last chapter, will defend either in winter or spring. Working on Medieval lit + textual studies.
Alissa Bourbonnais: 4th year, prospectus approved in the spring.
Kirin Wachter-Green: 5th year, turning in diss next week. Defending in Winter.
2. What do you wish you had known about the prospectus earlier?
KWG: (26p prospectus) I felt like the prospectus was a bureaucratic hoop, mystery genre. Frustrated by the project. If you feel resistant to it, you are not alone. I wish I had known how useful it ended up being. I was able to construct diss abstract for job market from prospectus, and turn prospectus into introduction, as well as being a touch stone as I was writing.
CM: (40p prospectus) Prospectus was really hard because I hadn’t yet done my research. Had to hypothesize what I would find and extrapolate from it. Took a year to write prospectus. You just have to bullshit, even though you don’t know what your dissertation is going to look like. The committee needs it more than you need it. Just give it to them. They also won’t look at it ever again.
AB: Mine, chaired by Brian Reed, was 10 pages. I drastically changed my topic between exams and early plan and what I turned in as prospectus.
Student asks: Do you feel like there’s a greater connection between exams and prospectus, or prospectus and diss?
AB: There are people who have their question and theoretical lens who then go look for objects, and there are people who have their texts and need to find their theoretical lens. I found that I had these texts I loved, but I couldn’t write about them, because of personal attachment to them. So the texts had to change. New texts seemed like completely different worlds, but it’s actually still very much the same theory and questions driving my project. I think you’ll find that some of the same questions you had in exams will come back up.
KWG: As a counter-point, you don’t have to change your project from exams. My project has stayed consistent. If you have a clear idea at the exam stage that you’re committed to, power through. Recycle, like Brian said.
AB: If you do think you need to get away from whatever you’ve been working on, you can mediate how far away you go. It is far more valuable to just pick texts you think your chapters should center on, and then if you change it later that’s fine, but otherwise you get caught up in the process.
3. How did you structure your prospectus?
CM: Mine was pretty much Brian’s structure. I had a couple of those parts. The ones most useful to me in the dissertation were the chapter breakdowns. Also the bibliography. Talk to your committee about what they want out of it. Mine didn’t expect my prospectus to be 40 pages, but they did want a comprehensive idea of what you want to do for each chapter. Then I would take chunks of those descriptions and use them writing the chapters themselves.
KWG: I had 5 pages of context, all historical, social, political context of big issues. Then 5 pages detailing my research interests and my rationale. Then 6 pages detailing research question and stakes. Then 2 pages of archive. Then 5 pages of chapter outline.
AB: Mine was what Brian said, because he’s my chair. I really do think of it as a recipe and he was helpful. What it is to write this piece of fiction, it was weird and satisfying to write the abstract, “My dissertation says this.” Just doing that made it easier to go ahead and write the rest.
4. What writing strategies have been most useful to you?
AB: Free-writing on one text at time just to get going.
KWG: When I broke the prospectus up into various parts it seemed reasonable. Start with whatever seems reasonable. Whenever I finished a section I sent it to my chair and got feedback. Then when I turned it into a cohesive piece I was able to streamline it.
AB: All underscored by it really mattering who you director is.
KWG: My chair didn’t encourage me to think of this as bullshit. He wanted me to think of it as really serious. I’m glad he pushed me to think of it as the chance to really figure out what my argument was.
Student Asks: Did in any of you consult rigorously with peers in addition to your advisor?
KWG: Yes, every week. I strongly encourage you to find a person or a group of people. It helps you hold each other accountable and work through things.
CM: 100% agree. For me the best thing was to see what other people’s writing had become. They had the same problems I had, so I didn’t feel behind. Read each other’s work.
KWG: Writing the diss is really isolating, unnecessarily. I looked at a student who also studied with my chair and read his dissertation, as well as similar topic. Get with people who are working with the same chair.
CM: The worst thing for me was transitioning from doing exams to doing the prospectus. For those of you writing a prospectus, I would say don’t stress out about it. Just get it done.
What are the things that helped you get going?
KWG: For me it was just to work. Do the easier things on days you can’t stomach to do much. Like writing quotes. I never tried to do it in a linear fashion. Truly, be gentle on yourself. Find multiple strategies for contending with the stress and the anxiety. Do one little thing everyday. Do not beat yourself up.
AB: The biggest piece of advice I wish I could give me before this, was just to stop reading, because I’ll read and take notes for ever and not write anything. Forcing yourself to stop and just start doing it.
CM: I also do what Kirin said. Sometimes I’ll just type out historical information, lit review the easier stuff. Same for the diss. I have a lot of hobbies. I use them as rewards for my writing.
What have you enjoyed about the process?
KWG: I love my topic. I’ve loved my project.
CM: Kirin has a magical experience. I don’t like writing my dissertation. I love research. I like the process. Grasp on to those things that make this a cool process. If you really like writing theory, relish in that, or whatever it is. You also become an expert on what you’re talking about.
Student: Embrace tangentiality. What has helped me is letting myself go when I find something interesting.
Student: How did you come to position yourself in relation to other scholars? Did the prospectus help you make that shift?
KWG: What I do is controversial, so I had to find a cluster of other scholars who had sown the ground before me, so I can say I am following in their wake. So then I said, “My dissertation builds on the work of …”
CM: Doing a textual approach, my authority has to be rock solid, so I need to stand on what I find. I definitely have other scholars that help me build my case and over-all argument, but at the core of my argument is all about reading texts side by side. There are 2 major theorists on the texts I work on, so it’s really hard for me to say anything that challenges them. So I have to be aware that they are also in some way my audience.
AB: I don’t feel like I shifted. I feel like this is brand new. Two of my texts no one has ever written on at all. So I’m pulling from and cobbling together different approaches. Which also speaks to why this is fun and enjoyable.
Student: I’m not sure if the research I do fits into Brian’s model of timeline. How much did you follow that?
KWG: I didn’t do a timeline.
CM: I did actually have to go do research, but I wasn’t sure when I was going to. Textual studies program is looking for a reason to give money away for research travel.
Addendum. Brian Reed followed up via email with additional information, copied below:
Hope it was helpful — sounded to me though like “what is a prospectus” begs the question “what is a dissertation.” I can say “abstract, lit review, etc” but it isn’t going to be a useful template unless you have a sense of what kind of project you should be describing. I’d be happy to be involved in a future event called something like “So, now you have to write a dissertation,” or “How do I prepare to write a dissertation.”
Here is another possible resource:
It is **not** a document approved by faculty in the English department, but it was written by Marshall Brown, who was in the EngDep for decades, and it is an official document over in CompLit:
It good provide another data-point for people trying to figure out what they should be doing.
Three things we didn’t touch on at the meeting concern the length of the prospectus & the bibliography & the prospectus meeting.
(1) Length. Varies based on committee. But typically, in the EngDep, 10-15 pages, double spaced, plus bibliography. American studies faculty though tend to like longer & fuller prospectuses.
(2) Bibliography. Varies based on committee. But often includes “List of Works Cited,” the items mentioned in the body of the prospectus esp. in the lit review, and then afterwards “List of Works Consulted,” where you show the fruits of your preliminary research. What stuff out there is going to be relevant for this project? I usually advise students to break the “List of Works Consulted” down into different thematic or methodological categories, so a committee member can see at a glance where you’ve been concentrating your energy & where there might be important texts that aren’t present. Finally: some committees expect the bibliography to be annotated; if so, it’s worth checking to see what kind & extent of annotations, so that you don’t kill yourself trying to note everything about every book.
(3) Prospectus meeting. Optional but recommended. Not an exam. An opportunity to get your committee into one room & talk about the prospectus with you & formally say “go forth & write.” Usually takes the form of “here are potential problems I foresee” and “have you thought about X.” If you have a meeting, the committee signs off there on the magic “go forth” form (or says “go make these revisions and get back to us about signing off”). If you don’t have a meeting, then you have each committee member sign off on the form at the point that she feels the prospectus is satisfactory.