Defending the Arts. Again.

When I was a Master’s student a decade ago at the University of Virginia, someone had posted on the department office wall a cartoon in which a young boy described his dad’s new girlfriend. She seemed really smart and motivated, the boy explained, because she talked about getting her “M.R.S. degree.”

“I think it’s something in the art history department,” he quipped.

The arts have, of late, been a punch line, if not a punching bag, in debates about the role of higher education. Frank Bruni points out that it’s not that new a phenomenon, but maybe it was President Obama’s dig at my field of art history in a 2014 speech that made it feel fresh.

The standard line of defense for the fine arts these days seems to be that they foster critical thinking, which is problematic. It’s not that it isn’t true.  The argument is that exposure to methodologies that question conventional approaches to knowledge – say, feminist theories of art history – is beneficial in the creation of good citizens, which is undeniably true. But it’s beside the point.  After all, biologists and physicists challenge conventional wisdom and push the envelope too. (Check out a compelling critique, from a slightly different point of view, of the critical-thinking argument here.)

The arts are not important solely because they do what other disciplines in the humanities can do.  Rather, they’re important because they do what other disciplines cannot.  They are crucial because they are our humanity. As Alissa J. Rubin wrote, the destruction in Aleppo, Damascus, and countless other cities, and the looting of countless archaeological sites, including Dura-Europos (which I routinely teach in art history survey courses), means the loss not only of buildings, mosaics and frescos but also of the knowledge that different religions coexisted in this now war-torn space. And losing that history only enables those who’d wish to marginalize or eliminate groups with whom they differ. It’s about a lot more than buildings.

Are the arts a luxury? Maybe. Do your students ever ask you this? Friends outside of academia? If you are in a STEM field, what is your opinion of the arts and the purpose of the academy? How have the humanities impacted your work? It seems utterly silly to me that the humanities need to be defended at all, or that they’re derided as luxuries. We couldn’t do without them.

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NY Academy of Sci events for grad students & postdocs

Visit NYAS Science Alliance for professional & career development opportunities for grad students and post-docs.  For example:

Feb. 12: Perspectives in STEM: An evening with Dr. Cherry Murray discussing her career trajectory, sharing insights on innovation, followed by Q&A and networking

March 6-7:Software carpentry: Learn basic computing skills to be more effective in the lab

April 18: Personal branding

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Revisiting Your Resolution

With the (short) extra time off this week due to snow, I’ve used some of the time to reflect upon the month that was January 2015.  I’m actually not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. I think an arbitrary end point shouldn’t affect your ability to make changes about yourself if you really want to make them happen. Positive changes can happen in any month of the year, why wait till January? I find it amusing when people make broad resolutions like “Eat healthier” or “Exercise more”, as they purposely make them non-specific enough to allow themselves to slack off or forget about them by mid-February. An annual custom I’ve come to enjoy is the extremely crowded cardio equipment section at the gym that seemingly becomes empty usually 4-6 weeks into the semester when exams and papers start piling up.

While my resolution sounds clichéd and broad (become a better organizer), I’ve focused on specific smaller ways and used the start of a new semester as a rationale for bucking my resolution trend.

My organization goal actually relates to both of my roles as a graduate student, in both my teaching and research.  My desks both at home and in my office are a complete mess. At home, I often find it difficult to find space for my laptop at night. I mean, I need to have space for the important stuff like my Staples’ Easy button, right? My desk at my office is not much better, scattered with books, journal articles, and that Science section from the New York Times dated October 14, 2014 that I’m definitely going to read this week. I’ve found this disorganization to flow into 2 key places that affect my daily life: my flash drive and my messenger bag.

My flash drive used to look like a 6 year’s old toy chest, scattered with random files of data in raw and Excel formats and folders that say “New Stuff” and “Original Stuff” and it makes me wonder if I’m ready for life after graduate school when I label multiple folders “Stuff”. So, I’ve used this as a jumping off point to organize my flash drive as well as other sections of my computer into labeled folders, placing as much information into folder and file names as possible including semester, year, and full journal article titles. It’s really helped during the writing stage to be able to find that specific experiment or journal article that I used to take me 20 minutes.

The second aspect of my resolution focuses on my messenger bag which contains all my supplies for teaching this semester. Rosters, attendance sheets, graded assignments, and non-graded assignments that I need to collect from students that my bosses want for reasons I’ll never understand. All piled and squished into separate folders but some sections having much thicker folders than others despite having the same amount of students, which after inspection usually is my agenda and teaching supplies from 2012.

Well, not THIS semester. At least that’s the plan. Only 2 weeks in, I think I’m on the right track. What was your resolution and can you make it 11 more months?

Most importantly, prediction that’s relevant for this weekend: Seahawks 28, Patriots 27.

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Enjoy Graduate School at Rutgers

Feel excited when you know you’ve been accepted to graduate school? Or feel nervous, stressed or anxious? Just don’t let your emotions get in the way of setting yourself up to succeed once your new program starts.  Here are some small tips that might help you survive and enjoy graduate school at Rutgers.  First of all,

–Expect to be busy

You are a grad student now, the assignments you’re given will be more involved, the exams you take will need more preparation, and most importantly you’ll be spending much more of your time on academic work, whether it’s on research, thesis paper, or keeping on top of your studying. You need to take responsibility especially if you’re working in a group on a large project.

–Select the work you’re really passionate about

I can’t imagine you can devote hours on end working on something you can’t stand. The truth is that you’ll grow tired of it and simply won’t put forth the endless effort that it takes to get through days and nights of studying.  The bottom line is pick something you absolutely live and breathe so that you can keep moving towards your goal.

–Don’t forget you have an advisor

I’m not sure what the situation is in other departments, but in our computer science department, each graduate student will be assigned an academic advisor and later a research advisor. Your advisor is there to help with any questions you may have regarding programs, research, faculty issues, etc. It’s advisable to set up a regular meeting with your advisor to check in and see how things are progressing for you.

–Be tolerant of your mistakes

You are a graduate student, you are learning, and it’s normal to make mistakes. Seriously, don’t be so hard on yourself. What you’re doing is admirable and difficult. The world isn’t going to come to an end because you make a mistake, the earth won’t stop rotating because your research experiments haven’t gotten inspiring results yet as you expected.

–Take time to experience life

Through your courses and busy research work, remember to take time to experience life as well. You’re a grad student and you’re also young, life is versatile, it’s not only study and work, you deserve more.  Rutgers has a fantastic location, I won’t talk more about it here, there are many great posts in this blog, I’m sure you’ll find them and know where to go to have fun in the area. And last but not least,

–Love your school

Yes, love Rutgers, love where you’re living and the school where you’re studying. You know, not everyone is as lucky as you to be accepted in. Maybe it’s not ranked number one in your field, but somehow I believe in destiny, what you get is actually what is most suitable for you. The miracle is, when you realize that, you feel happy every day, you feel proud of Rutgers, you feel lucky to be a grad student at Rutgers, and you’ll be full of confidence to overcome any difficulties that may happen during the journey.

Love your school, and enjoy your graduate life at Rutgers.

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Learning to Teach Something New

I have taught school finance as an adjunct professor at the graduate level for many years, and my ideal role is that of professor. I enjoy teaching, writing, publishing, and research. One of my greatest joys is observing how students begin to grasp school finance concepts and budgeting principles before ultimately developing an understanding of how proper school finance is linked to the provision of a top quality education. Like all students regardless of age, educational setting, or grade, the epiphany occurs differently and at different times for different students. Most importantly, the epiphany occurs and serves my students well over their careers.

The overwhelming majority of the students, who have attended my school finance course over the years as part of their Master’s in Education, are teachers. Almost all of my students report feeling some level of trepidation when registering for the course because school finance has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences. However, my students report that they find it instructive to attend a course that has the little or no overlap with other courses they have attended or previous life experiences because it helps them focus on understanding how students learn new things and, perhaps more importantly, how to hone their skills for teaching concepts that their students find new.

I help my students overcome their trepidation by demonstrating how they have performed many of the budgetary process steps that we discuss in the course in their own life; they called them something different but many of the underlying concepts are the same. Slowly but surely my students gain confidence. Many of my students have told me following the course that their experience in overcoming their trepidation for attending a course focusing on “something new” and learning the new material has informed their pedagogy.

Perhaps we can all benefit from accepting challenges to learn new things especially when these new things seem outside our comfort zone. Moreover, perhaps those studying to become teachers will work hard to understand what it is like for students who feel challenged learning new material because they fear they might fail while doing so. Similarly, those studying to become teachers might incorporate this understanding in their teaching by demonstrating the keen sense of accomplishment that stems from learning something new and realizing a return on their investment that overwhelms their risk.

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A Grad School Sense of Humor

As I approach the halfway mark of my fourth PhD year, one of my favorite ways to keep moving forward is by maintaining a sense of humor. To summarize a great article on gradhacker.org, a sense of humor can help with grad school success because: 1) you will experience failures before you achieve any success, 2) you will inevitably embarrass yourself from time to time, 3) you aren’t going to finish everything you set out to do, 4) stress happens, and you need to let go of it, and 5) dealing with frustrating people and situations is sometimes unavoidable. My favorite laugh a day type website is http://whatshouldwecallgradschool.tumblr.com/. Check out the archives for Dec 29th 2014 for an accurate description of how my fourth year is going. Let me know if you have any favorite daily sites you visit for a good laugh!

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