By Jamiella Brooks

Tackling the Academy: Practical Advice for Navigating the Culture

“Try a different tack.” I stared at a picture of a sailboat in water, headed towards some unknown venture. The boat image was an advertisement for some exotic elsewhere, a watered-down promise of adventure for the elite who could afford study abroad at cost. 

I was standing alone in the hallway of my department, and this was the day of my qualifying examination. 

I was a fourth year in graduate school in a language department. Several people were in the next room, determining my future, talking behind closed doors while a wisp of my name would every once in awhile slip through. I pulled away further down the hall, imagining the hard "no" I expected to come. Any answer was better than this academic purgatory. I could go elsewhere, I thought. I could give up all I had and teach and be anywhere but here. I could fail here, but I had other futures, I tried to convince myself.

The phrase “try a different tack” is a nautical term, which might be described as “coming about,” or positioning the sails so that the ship will sail obliquely into the wind, in order to make progress toward a destination, since it is not possible to sail directly into the wind.

This wind was beyond my own control. In that moment of standing in the hallway, unsure if I had done all that was necessary to pass the ritual of the academic examination, I realized could not command the wind, nor could I determine my own future. I had worked to the best of my own ability and overcome much— isolation, aggressions, institutional racism, ignorance — to get to this moment. If I was deemed a "failure," I had decided before I was called back into that room, it was because those powers had decided it, and not because I had tacked poorly.

I was called back.

I sat down.

“Well,” the voice said, in a tone I would never forget— a tone that was conceding, hesitant, almost conciliatory. “You passed, with stipulations.”

The wind — the academy — is capricious. It can be harsh, and sometimes that harshness it tries to call mercy. 

A decade later, I am a “Dr.” with years of experience — and by experience, I also mean familiar with the scent of failure. I am Associate Director for a Center for Teaching and Learning. I help instructors through the process of thinking about their classrooms and how to improve their pedagogy. I am not tenure track, but I occasionally teach, and I am firmly planted in the academy. My basic pedagogy is this: everything is iterative, and we build upon what we thought we knew before, but it is by no means a linear process.

When I was a graduate student, I was shocked to find that strategies that worked well for me in a small liberal arts college did not serve me in an R1 university. The rules were not new, but shifted — such as, how to write e-mails advocating for myself to an advisor who did not believe I was working hard enough, and how to find mentorship in the unlikeliest of places. 

My time in college was a mixed blessing. I am personally familiar with four institutions now, in the East and West coasts, the Midwest, and the South, and have connections in and knowledge of institutions across the US. 

I often think about the classroom, and academic spaces in general — not just because it’s my job, but it’s the air I choose to breathe. Learning, our endless capacity to learn, is one of God’s many gifts to us. Our minds are not computers — they are more beautiful than them, because they can accomplish the unimaginable. 

This piece is about navigating the academy — "tacking” all that it throws directly at us — with grace. It is also about giving grace to those (students) who are also in the process of that navigation. I write to the new graduate student who must learn to navigate these waters, just as I write to the professor who mentors a student unfamiliar with these academic norms. We are in this together.

Office Hours

Let’s be real: sometimes we educators send mixed messages about office hours because we really do want to get other work done during that time. But, office hours are a key moment where we can engage with students in a low-stakes, and more personalized, environment. 

There are also useful alternatives that help save time and reduce anxiety. Some instructors hold group office hours, where students pair up or get in small groups and come together. Some instructors opt to call them “Student Hours” to make clear whom these hours are really for.  

One exercise I walk my students through is to have them work through a chart. In the first column, they list the name of my course (and others, if time allows); in the second, they describe what they thought the goals of the course where — what they should be getting out of it. In the last column, they have to think about what challenges (academic or personal) they might encounter that could prevent them from attaining the goals in the previous column. Then, I told them that these are questions they should bring to office hours — clear, descriptive, and personal questions about how to succeed in that specific course. In that class session, we also watched a video where an awkward professor discusses what office hours were for. One of my students hit the nail of the issue on the head when she said: "In my high school, we understood that office hours were for teachers to get lesson plans done. You don't bother them. This helped me realize that that's not what this is about here." Another said, "I wasn't sure what I could say. But if I think of questions ahead of time, I get over my nervousness." 

As a graduate student, I had a very different relationship to office hours. I learned (almost too late) that I was expected to attend them as a means of professional development and ensuring my mentors and advisors felt included in the academic process. (In some ways — and I’m being a bit harsh — the office hours seemed a way to ensure their ego remained intact. I needed to communicate to the faculty member that I needed them in some way.) I also learned that I needed to structure time I attended those office hours to make it a useful time for myself. I had to be the one to come up with the purpose, takeaway, and plan forward, and to manage this I created an office hour “log” to ensure I had met with every professor in my department at least once a year (while doing coursework) and communicated with my own committee at least once a semester. In some fields (such as STEM), office hours are also the change to discuss the professor’s research agenda and published papers. It may feel awkward, but it is a good idea if you are looking for a starting place to bringing the professor’s own paper (highlights clearly visible) to a meeting and use it as a starting point for discussion.

Emails

As a first generation PhD, this is the area I’ve spent the most time thinking about. It’s odd, because it many see face-to-face interactions as more threatening, but a poor e-mail can set the wrong professional tone, and negatively mark the relationship we are trying hard to build. E-mails are not text messages (some of our students think so) — they approach business letter status. What you write is a voice you speak inside the head of whoever is reading you.

I direct my students to my favorite article of all time on this, “How to Email your Professor (without being annoying AF)” which, beyond the title, is the most specific and grounded advice I’ve seen. But what about those of us in graduate programs or who hold faculty positions?

My first rule: punctuation matters. This is difficult because different generations “hear” punctuation differently. I read a period as short and sometimes too blunt, but others in generations above mine see the period as respectful, or even neutral. To get around this I try to vary my punctuation and — as much as we love them — limit the exclamation points to one or two per e-mail. An exclamation point or two can convey enthusiasm. Too many can be interpreted as too familiar or casual. 

Second rule: Save a draft, reread the e-mail in five minutes. It almost always doesn’t hurt as long as you make a note to come back to it, and letting something simmer often lets you see that glaring spelling error, convoluted sentence, or extra exclamation points.

My third rule: respond often, even if it’s just to say, “Thank you for this communication, I appreciate it because *blah blah blah* and will get back to you soon.” Why? The tendency to receive an e-mail and “mull on it” is great, but no response sends a stony wall of silence to the other party. I remember getting great feedback from my advisor and setting off to immediately do what was asked of me. But I never communicated my appreciation to my advisor for their work in looking at my draft in the first place. When I eventually sent the draft (months later), I sometimes received a stony response, one that seemed to say, “Where have you been?” A quick “thank you” even if you don’t respond to the communication itself helps convey the immediacy of your response.

My final rule: make the point of your e-mail clear, but not blunt. There’s a rhetorical trickiness to this, but ultimately ask yourself, “What concrete thing do I want my reader to walk away with?” If I want someone to do something, I make that clear as politely as possible, remembering that e-mails are stripped of intonation, hand gestures, and facial features that facilitate communication. For example, if you "cc" someone on an e-mail without making explicit why they are cc-ed, the recipient may feel targeted. A simple, “I’m including [person x] on this discussion for [reason]” helps clarify these fraught moves.  

Time Management

I had both of my children in graduate school. I joke that if it weren’t for my children, I would be a terrible timekeeper, and it’s true — when you’re a low-income student paying $12.50/hour for childcare, you do your work efficiently. 

I have written about how to manage the dissertation while doing the PhD as a parent. For everyone, my key recommendations are to know yourself — particularly your study weaknesses — and use these to your advantage. Some of us know that we study too much, delving deeper in the research than will serve our audience. By all means, research-dive, but do it intentionally, while configuring time to surface and write words on the page. My Achilles' heel is that I am easily distracted. I like information. I love knowing everything about anything, so when I open my computer to type notes, I am inundated with 70 windows (not an exaggeration) of things I want to read. But, if I have a book stand with the book I need opened to the very page I am studying next to my computer, I am more likely to gravitate towards those words and work with them first before opening computer (same for leaving open the article I need on "full screen view").

Ultimately, time management is an exercise in self-analysis. It’s about knowing your limits: your time limits, your resistance to time constraints, and cultural interpretations of time. In some settings, “on time” is, in fact, late. In academia, deadlines are higher stakes because we are beholden to other deadlines from the higher-ups. Over time, I’ve learned that to be early is in fact to be on time — as much as I argue about time as a “construct,” I leave my love of lateness to barbecues and kids parties.

Finding Mentorship

I once sat at the door of a faculty member to whom I had sent five unanswered e-mails over the course of a quarter, waiting for her to appear at office hours. When she did, she reluctantly let me in her office, fired a series of questions that was meant to make me feel unwelcome, and sent me on my way.

Finding mentorship is fraught, but my biggest recommendation is to find a mentor outside of your field who will actually support you in your journey. The word "mentor" as it applies to a PI or dissertation advisor is a misnomer — their interests are often research-focused with the intent of crafting scholars like themselves. 

A mentor outside of your field, however, often has insight that those in your discipline cannot offer. Because they aren’t in your department, you can often disclose sensitive information to them without politics impeding your need to vent/find closure/etc. This person is one who will champion you whether you decide to stay in academia or not. Finding a mentor outside of your field could include participation in campus-wide or non-discipline-specific programs, such as a Center for Teaching and Learning, enrolling in fellowship programs for the underrepresented, seeking out a staff member in the retention center or career services, etc. My most beloved mentor is someone completely outside of my field, but she supports me in ways that those within my department simply can’t. For those of us underrepresented in the field, these relationships are critical. 

The best advice I’ve gotten for how to do this? “Show up where you are least expected.” Campus-wide workshops, talks, or professional development programs are not just a space to become a better scholar, but a networking opportunity. If your campus sends out a weekly digest about campus events, set aside half an hour to rifle through and commit to attending a few throughout the semester. These are opportunities to find allies who can become mentors, even informally, as well as a way of getting out of the sometimes toxic department environment.

The Way Forward

One of my favorite descriptions of the Holy Spirit is in the very beginning where “darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Genesis 1:2-3)." That sense of hovering over the chaotic, unordered universe takes a tremendous weight off of my shoulders for how one might tack through the academy. I have no control over the wind, yet I can make a series of navigational decisions to reach my desired destination. Likewise, there are a series of decisions you can make while having faith that God is ultimately in command of the chaos. I have learned that the academy is not the place where I look neither for mercy nor hope. However, by learning and sharing some of the navigational techniques mentioned above, I have learned that I do not have to rely on myself to find my way through this process. 

About the Author

Jamiella Brooks is an Associate Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. Her primary work at CTL focuses on programming and support for equitable and inclusive teaching practices. Jamilella earned her PhD in French Literature at University of California, Davis, and her BA in English at Oberlin College. She has served as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant in France and participated in the McNair Scholarship and Mellon Fellows programs. Her teaching and research interests include sociolinguistics, language and power, discourse analysis, and anticolonial pedagogies, and she has presented on codeswitching and linguistic equity. Her current project involves analyzing pedagogical practices of settler colonial education that persist in present-day teaching practices. Prior to coming to Penn, Jamiella served as founding director of the Teaching Assistant Program at Berea College. Jamiella is a mother of two, wife of Lindsay, descendant, and daughter.  

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