This post is just to announce that I’ll be maintaining Breaking ABD at a new (ad-free!) site from now on. That site is: https://voices.uchicago.edu/breakingabd. Nothing else is changing, and I’ll keep existing posts on the WordPress URL. But all new posts will go up only at the new site. So if you want to see the one I publish this weekend, you’ll have to head over there.
Recently, the College Board made news for announcing changes to the scope of Advanced Placement (AP) World History. From now on, the AP exam will cover only the period after 1450 CE. High schools could still choose to offer an additional course covering world history before 1450 — making it a two-year sequence — but only material from the later time period will appear on the exam. The main goal, according to the College Board, is to bring the scope of the exam more in line with what can be covered in a single college course.
A large number of educators have criticized the decision, leading the College Board to say that they will reconsider and issue a final decision in July. The main focus of this criticism has been how shifting the timeline of the course will affect teaching about the Americas, Africa, and Asia. With the course starting in 1450, students would learn about many areas only in the context of European colonialism, if at all.
To be fair to the College Board, starting in 1450 is more manageable in terms of chronological coverage and more in line with what would be covered in a single quarter- or semester-long college course. However, college world history courses are organized in sequences that cover a much broader scope of history, so by offering a truncated timeline, the AP course would not be approximating what students learn in college sequences. There’s an argument to be made too, that starting in 1450 doesn’t skew the entire course towards a narrative of inevitable European domination. In the case of China, a course starting in 1450 should cover the golden ages of the Ming and Qing dynasties, whose power and prosperity more than matched their European counterparts. Looking beyond the height of Euro-American imperial power, the history of East Asia in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries offers many examples of how this domination was contingent and contested. And if we can get this complexity from studying more recent history, then there’s something intuitive about erring on the side of the modern.
Intuitive, but misguided. It’s natural for us to tend toward the familiar and immediate, but studying history should be an antidote to this. In times of crisis when there are pressing problems to address, this can make history seem like a luxury society can ill-afford. However, it is in just such times that the ability to imagine a world that is different than the one we currently inhabit becomes indispensable.
Preparing for teaching next year has forced me to think about the value of ancient history in particular. One of the courses I’m teaching is on approaches to the field of world history. This discussion about what should be part of high school world history will almost certainly have a place.
Another is a course on the history of China from earliest times to 1500, i.e. the period that is being cut from AP World History. Designing a course covering such a broad range of time requires thinking a lot about what larger themes or narratives should organize the course. One way I could go is to focus on the “seeds” of contemporary China in the premodern period. There are some pretty obvious places to go with this — like “Confucian” tradition — and you can find themes like that in a lot of courses on China. If nothing else, convincing students that understanding China’s history, however distant, is tantamount to understanding its present is a tempting vanity project.
I’ve found myself drawn in the opposite direction, though. Instead of a steady narrative about the development of a unitary tradition that persists to today, I think it’s important to draw students into the complexity and contingency of Chinese history. That means studying political structures, patterns of social relations, and clusters of ideas that have long since changed. Of course, some things persist, especially as people internalize their own history, or at least the stories they tell themselves about it. But this is not going to be a course that traces all of these dynamics up to the present or examines how ideas about the past shape contemporary China, valuable as that would be.
So what use is ancient history if it doesn’t lead right up to the present — or at least the time period I study and find most interesting? It forces us to correct our projection of contemporary ideas and frameworks on the past in order to understand ways of life very different from our own. This isn’t a simple process, especially when teaching high school and college students. We want students to really digest the historical material we’re covering and demonstrate that by expressing its significance in their own terms. But we also want them to learn about the limits of the terms with which they are familiar.
My first quarter as a teaching assistant was in a course on pre-modern world history. Early in the course we were discussing the emergence of writing; trying to review lectures and readings and get discussion going, I asked students how writing had changed human societies. One of the students suggested that it created more jobs. In some sense, this was an excellent answer: a thoughtful synthesis of points we had covered in class. But it also caught me off-guard because it wasn’t a quintessentially “right” answer. The idea of an economy based on jobs (let alone an “economy” at all) would have been a foreign concept to people during the time period we were studying. Moreover, writing helped fundamentally restructure human societies by facilitating greater wealth accumulation and social stratification. Pegging it as a job-creator was a bit of an under-sell.
But the only way to appreciate the scope of that transformation is to understand the constraints of pre-literate societies, which are fundamentally unfamiliar to people living today. Our societies today face plenty of constraints, demands, and benefits of their own. Studying ancient history is a way to learn not to take those for granted and to anticipate how they could change, for better or for worse.
Memorials are one of the most useful sources for historians of late imperial China like myself. In this case, ‘memorial’ refers not to a physical object like a monument nor to the word’s usual association with memory, like the upcoming holiday, except in a very abstract way. Instead, I’m talking about a type of document written by an official for the benefit of the emperor to inform him about local conditions, describe current policies and their effects, request a certain course of action, etc. – so like a memorandum/memo. Memorials, at least in theory, kept the emperor in touch with what was going on across the empire and in the capital. To the extent that they are preserved and are reliable, they are valuable sources for historians.
I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with memorials for a chapter I’m currently drafting on how warfare in the 1850’s and 1860’s, including between the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping (usually referred to as a rebellion but really so much more), affected Jinan. This chapter is partly a military history, exploring how Jinan fit into the overall strategic situation. Naturally, then, memorials containing reports from officials leading armies and organizing local militias are useful sources of information. Some of the memorials I’m using come directly from my research at the First Historical Archives in Beijing last year and in 2014. There are also a large number of relevant memorials reprinted in collections like the 26-volume Archival Materials on the Qing Government’s Suppression of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom 清政府镇压太平天国档案史料. Reprintings like this have the benefit of having printed text and being punctuated, which makes reading go a little faster.
As you might expect from a bureaucratic document, Qing memorials are formulaic and often mundane. A universal feature is the use of a series of words and phrases that memorializing officials used to convey their subordinate position (e.g. “I memorialize kneeling”) and the elevated status of the emperor (e.g. “Imploring Your sagely reflection”). They often set the context by quoting from another government document, either a report from a subordinate or an order from a superior. This allows us to reconstruct a kind of bureaucratic conversation. Memorials represented the voices of officials. The emperor spoke through a couple different channels. One was adding notations – in vermilion ink – directly on memorials, usually at the end but sometimes in the margins of the text. Another was through issuing edicts. Sorting through a series of memorials and edicts can sometimes magnify the tedium induced by the individual documents, especially when they keep quoting each other or when the emperor is relatively disinterested in the contents of a given memorial, giving it only the perfunctory notation of “Noted” (知道了). But sometimes, a dynamic back-and-forth among various officials, the throne, and past events gives these documents a life of their own.
One example is a memorial written by the Governor of Shandong, Zhang Liangji, on December 24, 1853. Two days earlier, Zhang had received a harshly worded edict, criticizing a course of action he had described in a previous memorial. In this new memorial, Zhang submitted himself to the emperor’s rebuke while trying to explain himself.
Zhang was facing a difficult situation. Earlier that year, Taiping forces had captured a series of important cities in Jiangsu Province, to the south of Shandong, and then dispatched an army northward to attack Beijing. Zhang’s predecessor, Li Hui, had effectively prepared defenses along the Yellow River, which divided Shandong from the provinces to the south. This forced the Taiping army westward, until they eventually crossed into Henan Province and continued northeast toward Beijing, looping all the way around Shandong. Qing forces scrambled to keep them from advancing northward and to keep them from heading back south into northern Shandong. At the same time, though, Zhang was worried about the possibility of another Taiping army attacking from the south. Somehow, he needed to simultaneously oversee armies in northern Shandong – arranged to defend against the first Taiping army – and defenses in southern Shandong.
Since Jinan – the provincial capital – was in the center of the province, he decided he might as well station himself there. That left subordinates in charge of affairs in both the north and south, but put him in position to keep an eye on both fronts, see to the defense of Jinan itself, which was naturally of some importance, and handle other affairs he had been forced to delegate while absent from the capital. This seemed like a good plan.
The emperor disagreed. In an edict he castigated Zhang for staying behind in Jinan while his subordinates took charge of the armies in the northern part of the province that were supporting the fight against the Taiping. He told Zhang to go to the place where he was most needed, which was certainly not Jinan since it was by no means under direct threat.
So, Zhang wrote this memorial to back-track. He explained that he was on his way to inspect the encampments in northern Shandong and would continue to assess where he was most needed. He tried, though, to sneak in a bit of self-justification, emphasizing the importance of Jinan, which was, after all, the provincial capital.
The emperor did not take kindly to this. Interjecting in the margins of the memorial, he commented, “In Shandong, of course [Jinan] is of fundamental importance. But compared to the overall situation in the northern provinces and the importance of the capital, it is another story.” The emperor went on to review Zhang’s past performance fighting against the Taiping, which had been less than exemplary. While he was governor of Hunan, the Taiping had managed to capture the capital, Changsha while he was elsewhere with his troops. The court reminded him that he hadn’t always prioritized defending provincial capitals, but rather seemed to prefer being wherever the rebels were not:
When there were rebels at Changsha, you kept a distance from them [and stayed] at Changde. Duliu [north of Shandong] has rebels, and you have left the provincial commissioners at the front line while you have withdrawn to the rear, again keeping them at a distance. If you say that the provincial capital is fundamental, then what about this: was Changsha not fundamental to Hunan? We are not excessive in this criticism; it is all in order to punish your mind that we send this.
The emperor kept up his caustic exhortation in the rescript he attached to the end of Zhang’s memorial, writing, “You are not untalented and not incapable of pulling yourself together. If only you will rouse yourself a bit, then naturally there will be a day when you show it. Make an effort! Make an effort!”
Such emotive and immediate responses to memorials are more the exceptions than the rule, which is why this memorial in particular stood out to me. It is a good example, though, of how interesting memorials can be but how also how important it is to read them in context. Zhang’s memorial only makes sense if we read it in light of his previous reports and the throne’s responses. Moreover, the seemingly minor issue at stake – where Zhang positioned himself – is relevant only in light of the geography of the military campaigns taking place in Shandong and other provinces in North China. Zhang’s personal history – helpfully highlighted by the emperor – provides further context for understanding this back-and-forth.
Since not all memorials are so direct, it can take reading quite a few to pick up a story. But the possibilities – usually hiding beneath the surface, but sometimes right in front of you – are what make these such a useful but frustrating source.
If you enjoy reading about the sources I’m using in my research, check out my posts about local gazetteers and a document that sums up what my dissertation is about.
One of the main points of this blog is to highlight the diversity of work that all-but-dissertation (ABD) students engage in. I like this focus because it’s not the most obvious thing about getting a PhD. That honor probably belongs to “it takes a really long time.” But the two are necessarily related: if all PhD students had to do was finish a dissertation…OK, it would still take a long time, but maybe not quite as long. But spending years researching and writing a dissertation isn’t only an overarching fact about the process. It’s also a condition that shapes it. In other words, writing a dissertation isn’t just something that takes a long time; it’s a project that is itself a product of taking a long time to complete. That means that writing a dissertation is a qualitatively different experience from other types of writing projects, like term papers or even BA/MA theses.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on how the duration of dissertation-writing affects the process because I’ve had to reconnect with old work. By old work I mean two papers that I wrote about four and five years ago, respectively. Re-working these papers into chapters has been part of the plan for my dissertation since before I completed the proposal. This preliminary research did not give birth to my dissertation project en toto, but it both generated specific questions that led me to topics for other chapters and served as the vehicle for discovering the overarching problem I am addressing. I am incredibly fortunate both that these papers worked out this way.
Now, though, I have to revisit these chapters and think about them not just as stepping stones but as building blocks. I’ve been batting these would-be chapters around in my mind for years now. I’ve known they still need work. Neither’s argument quite aligns with how the dissertation has developed. One required reading some more sources, including last year while I was in China. I spun one into a journal article.
Naturally, this early work and re-preparation has helped. I do have a sense of where I’m going with these things. Yet I find myself retracing some of the same writing steps as a number of years ago. One of my go-to writing moves is to write out a section that’s heavy on narrative and figure out where the argument is heading as I go along (and then go back and re-work the section after I’ve figured it out). I should have had the argument for this chapter section worked out well before I sat down to write, though. But there it is, lurking beneath the surface, until I start filling the screen with words.
The difference is that when I find what I want to say, what I’ve wanted to say for quite some time, I can recognize it, feel it, and believe it. That’s different from the “new” chapters, the ones that have ideas but no paragraphs to give them shape. Those chapters are a bit scarier, the corners of my dissertation where “there be dragons.” (I wish! That would be a great chapter.)
Of course, “familiarity breeds contempt” – something I’ve heard from more experienced writers about projects that just need to end. And contempt breeds writer’s block. I’ve worried about that, especially when words that should come easily just won’t. But looking back over the last couple weeks, I’ve written a lot. So I’m not in a rut, yet.
I imagine there are some people reading this with wry smiles. I’m still not too far into the life cycle of a dissertation writer. And even after I finish the dissertation, the project will not be done: I’ll start picking up the pieces again as I begin to work the dissertation into my first book. Writing the book will also take several years, and other large projects will take a long time too. That’s the best case scenario.
As unique as this period is, especially the amount of time I can dedicate to a single writing project, it is a kind of preparation for needing to adapt to a more drawn-out writing process. I’m recognizing my project as more stratified – made up of layers that are deposited over time. As I’m writing, I need to account for this but still strive to present a smoother, more unitary narrative to readers.
Writing the dissertation has also forced me to think about the future versions of me that will pick up where present me leaves off. Organizing notes in an objectively reasonable (but still, I’m sure, idiosyncratic) way takes on special importance, as does keeping track of notes on others’ feedback. Fortunately, since this process is driving me back into my old notes and preliminary projects, I can see where past self has sold present self short and try to do better.
During my time in graduate school, I’ve really enjoyed living in communities that are shaped by the institutions I’ve attended. Some people will say that moving out of the neighborhood and creating some space between university life and everything else is essential to their sanity. To be sure, no university neighborhood or college town can offer everything. But I find a certain satisfaction in taking what’s there and living with it. Being close to campus is convenient, of course. And living near colleagues has helped me grow relationships that are closer than that of co-workers. This builds on my sense that a university should be more than a workplace, not just a part of a community, but a community in and of itself.
But universities are inevitably parts of larger wholes. And often this relationship between a university and its surrounding community, or neighboring communities can be deeply fraught. I was reminded of this recently when Irvine, one of my former homes, popped up in the news because of local opposition to a new emergency homeless shelter. This news wasn’t directly related to the University of California, Irvine, where I went to school, but it reminded me of my time living there. Having grown up on the east coast, the move to the heart of Orange County was a big deal for me and my wife. In some ways, Irvine is paradise-like. The weather is essentially perfect year-round; the scenery is beautiful – the juxtaposition of pines and palm trees sticks out to me; the beach is a fifteen-minute drive from campus. The city boasts a thriving population of immigrants and is plurality Asian/Asian-American.
But it is a profoundly strange place. Carefully manicured landscaping and shopping plazas with names like Fashion Island can make you feel like you’ve stepped just a little bit outside the real world. The city’s ethnic diversity belies its upper-middle class (emphasis on upper) socioeconomic uniformity. Somehow, Irvine both makes you forget major problems the world is facing today, like gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth and ecological crises like water shortages and simultaneously drives them home precisely through its masking of them.
To be sure, the university, its campus, its administration, etc. bear the marks of its environment. But it also deserves credit as an effective vehicle for social upward mobility. And, as a graduate student – definitely on the lower end of the income distribution spectrum – it was a bit easier to enjoy the benefits of living in a place like this without thinking of myself as bearing too much responsibility for its excesses.
If, living in Irvine, the challenge was explaining to people the relative opulence of my surroundings, I’ve had very much the opposite experience after moving to Chicago. The image people have of this city – especially the south side – is as crime-riddled and very dangerous. As the saying goes, though, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods; my surroundings and day-to-day life are vastly different from areas only a mile or two away.
The University of Chicago is located in Hyde Park, south of downtown. Its eastern edge runs along Lake Michigan. In some ways it is very different from Irvine. The weather is an obvious one. To me, though, the main difference is Hyde Park’s blending of a small town atmosphere with the perks of living in a major metropolis. For someone who grew up in the suburbs but has since spent a lot of time in larger cities, it is pretty ideal.
And Hyde Park is much safer than people assume when they hear ‘Chicago.’ There is crime, of course, and even rare shootings. But, in my experience, those never involve university students.
At least that’s what I used to say. Last Tuesday night, police responded to a report of a man breaking car and building windows. When he ran at one of the officers with a metal object in his hand, the officer shot him in the shoulder. Fortunately, the wound was not life-threatening, and he is recovering; although I imagine he has a long road ahead of him in many ways. Only after shooting him, an email from university administration said, did the officers learn he was a university student.
That last fact – or the need to note it – has struck me. Would things have turned out differently if the responding officers knew that he was a student? If so, what does that say about us?
The force responsible for policing this neighborhood – and a bit beyond it – is the University of Chicago Police Department. It is one of the largest private police forces in the country. Having a private force that bears public responsibilities – including life-and-death decisions – without the same transparency and accountability as a municipal police force is inherently problematic. The university’s statement implied what I think most people would assume – that UCPD necessarily provides special protection to members of the university community. Protection from other members of the university. But probably more so protection from people not affiliated with the university. That’s certainly the impression we get from security alerts that detail reported crimes that happen in the neighborhood (versus other crimes and complaints we don’t hear about).
Again, I can say that I’m not the main reason things are this way. The university has to care about the opinions of parents paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year in a way that it doesn’t have to care about mine. I absolutely support a more just, accountable, and transparent police force for Hyde Park. Just like I support homeless shelters in Irvine.
But I also enjoy living in a community tailor-made for me and people like me. I can get by just fine living in a neighborhood with as few homeless people as possible and a police force that is built more for me than for others. It is an enjoyable life, but by no means a good one – for myself as an individual or for my university. Even if we achieve an academic community that is healthy and harmonious internally internally, it will be, at best, for naught if we don’t account for how we affect our neighborhood and city.
The relationship between students, universities, neighborhoods, and cities is so complex that the argument of this post is embarrassingly narrow. As I think about what I’ve written about in the past, I am struck by how little I have talked about where I live, with the exception of when I was abroad. In effect, I’ve treated my neighborhood – outside campus – as external to my life as a graduate student. But that doesn’t reflect my day-to-day experiences. Re-thinking, or re-writing how I present the relationship between being in academia and in my neighborhood is a small step. But I think it’s in the right direction for us all.
Last year, I wrote about how April was a crazy month for me. This year it was February. The way deadlines coincided and piled up over a couple-week period was a good reminder of how grad school brings things at you from all different directions. It also led me to think about the value and pitfalls of deadlines now that I’m past coursework.
The main culprit was the week between February 9th and 15th. In that period, I had five different deadlines I had to meet. Besides short-term deadlines when I was a TA last quarter, that might be more than I’ve had all the rest of the year. Where did they come from?
The first and biggest was the deadline for a workshop paper. Our workshop, focused on East Asian history, meets about every other week and is a forum for students to present and get feedback on works in-progress, like dissertation chapters. Back in the fall, I applied to present a draft of my first chapter. I figured January or February would be a good target date for presenting since it gave me a realistic amount of time to get something together but would come up quickly enough that it would motivate me. I got scheduled for the 15th, which meant I needed to submit my draft by the 9th, so workshop participants had time to read it.
This has been my main project over the last several months. It was a challenge both because it was the first chapter I’ve written and because I was using sources that are difficult to read and in a genre (poetry) I’m less familiar with. I’m pretty happy with what I came up with, but it was definitely a rush to finish the draft. Consequently, it was longer than I wanted it to be. That may seem counterintuitive, but once you’ve been in school long enough, the less time you have to write, the longer the text you wind up turning in.
The next deadline was also writing-related. In January, I received reviews on a journal submission and was asked to make relatively minor revisions. The deadline for those revisions happened to be the same day that my workshop paper was due. There was a lot less work involved than writing a chapter from scratch, but the turn-around was also much quicker.
Next up was a teaching application for next year due the 12th. Ideally, I would have spread out work on that (writing a personal statement, grading a sample paper, etc.) much more than I was able to. It worked out, though: I got an interview and was offered a position.
The 15th itself was my workshop presentation. At our workshop we spend most of the time discussing the pre-circulated paper, which attendees are expected to read in advance. So presenters usually spend just 10-15 minutes introducing the paper and explaining its relationship to their larger project. It’s much less formal than a conference presentation and so takes a lot less time to prepare. But I still had to organize my remarks and prepare a few slides (mostly images).
The 15th was also the deadline for applications for panels for the 2019 American Historical Association Annual Meeting. For a variety of reasons (including being a little busy with everything above), I got a bit of a late start on this. I did get an application together, though. This involved sketching out a basic framework for the panel, putting out calls for participants via several listservs, responding to prospective panelists, finding another panelist to round the panel out, drafting an abstract for my own paper, drafting an abstract for the panel as a whole, collecting and checking abstracts and information from the other panelists, and then inputting and uploading everything to the online system. This wasn’t my first time organizing a panel – you can check out my panel at the upcoming Association for Asian Studies conference – so I had an idea of how much work it entailed. This time around really drove home the importance of starting early. Nevertheless, I’m really excited about how the panel shaped up, and I hope it gets accepted. (We’ll find out by early May.)
Needless to say, with all this going on February was a pretty stressful month. March has been considerably more relaxed, even with needing to submit my paper for an upcoming conference last week. Strangely, though, as I got past February’s deadlines I started to experience a different, but familiar kind of stress. In place of the pressure of impending deadlines, I began to think more about the feasibility of the long-term timeline I’ve set for myself. February’s deadlines had been a kind of shield, insulating me from worrying too much about the big picture. With those out of the way, I’ve had more freedom to redirect my energies but also more time to ruminate about the future, including parts of it that are beyond my control.
So the time-freedom of being ABD is very much a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s possible for so many deadlines and events to converge that you forget that you’re “all but” anything because it just seems like one thing after the other. On the other hand, the lack of structure can be conducive to momentum-killing, spirit-crushing speculation about the future. And sometimes those contradictory feelings arrive in quick succession.
But it’s also possible to experience the best of both worlds and not the worst (at least some of the time). Setting and meeting your own goals is very rewarding, especially when it moves you towards completion of a large project of your own design. The challenge is using deadlines like tools – to help you manage your work – and not facing them like obstacles – that you have to contort yourself to squeeze through. I hope I won’t have too many weeks like that one in February, but setting deadlines for myself here and there can actually help reduce stress.
One of the challenges professional historians have faced in recent years is how to prepare PhD students for careers other than being professors. This is a response to both increasing pressures in the academic job market but also longstanding reality that there is much more that people do with a PhD than research and teach college students. Programs like the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity for Historians Initiative have grown out of a recognition that PhD programs have paid insufficient attention to how to prepare students for the variety of careers they will have to and/or want to pursue after graduation.
Of course, if we wanted to be more sympathetic toward PhD training in recent decades, we could note that programs haven’t a very good job of preparing students for “first-choice” jobs as professors either.
To be sure, PhD programs do train, or at least expect students to become competent researchers. And this is an important part of working as a professor. However, preliminary results from a study done at Boise State found that professors spent just three percent of their (sixty-hour, on average) workweeks on primary research and two percent on manuscript writing. They spent a far greater percentage of their time on teaching – in the classroom, preparing lectures, grading, etc. – and other tasks.
Together, research and teaching make up two legs of the three-legged stool of evaluation for professors. It’s no secret that the relationship between these two is lopsided – superlative research is a much more likely route to high levels of prestige and compensation in the academy than superlative teaching, even though it makes up a surprisingly small percentage of the average professor’s workweek. This lopsidedness also manifests in graduate education, although programs are increasingly requiring PhD students to at least gain experience teaching before graduating. Courses and workshops that train students to teach are, however, generally optional and are spread across individual departments and university units.
The third leg of the stool is service. Service can include serving on committees within a department or division, working as the editor for a journal, or contributing to the community (e.g. through programs at local schools). Graduate students also engage in various forms of service, like organizing workshops and serving on departmental committees. Even more than teaching, though, the rewards for service in terms of tenure and promotion are slight. This is especially problematic since expectations for service are unevenly distributed by gender and race.
This year I am serving as the president of our department’s graduate student association. This has entailed working with our board and members to manage our budget, schedule meetings, coordinate events, communicate with our department’s graduate student advisory committee, and maintain our lounge. It has taken a considerable amount of time and would take even more if I had it. I really enjoy some of the tasks involved. Others, I don’t particularly care for on their own, but I appreciate how they contribute to our community.
I also appreciate just doing things in an academic setting that aren’t research and teaching. It’s intellectually rewarding to shift my focus from my own research project to analyzing our budget or designing questions for our annual survey, like stretching a muscle after you’ve been sitting for a long time. Service gives me an opportunity to collaborate with gifted colleagues in ways that aren’t possible (or at least likely) in research or teaching. So service helps build (or at least keep from atrophying) skills beyond those which I use for my research and gives me experience working as part of a team, which is very different from my dissertation research, most of which really rests on my shoulders alone.
These happen to be some of the things that the academy is recognizing are essential for preparing graduate students for jobs both in and beyond the academy. Moreover, it seems that preparing graduate students to undertake administrative responsibilities would be one way to bolster faculty governance of academic institutions. Likewise, encouraging community engagement would help extend the influence of intellectuals beyond the “ivory tower.” Both of these should be welcome at a time when academics are anxious about their role in shaping debate in the public sphere and guiding the direction of their own institutions.
Nevertheless, the incentives for engaging in service are even slimmer for graduate students than for professors. Unlike teaching (or the dissertation, of course), service is not a requirement for graduation, nor is much (if any) funding tied to it. A record of service may help on the job market, but I think graduate students and hiring committees – at least at many institutions – see the benefits as marginal, at best.
This puts students in a difficult position. On the one hand, engaging in service provides tremendous potential benefits to both individuals and institutions. On the other hand, students, who are being expected to finish their PhD’s ever more quickly, can’t help but see these activities as an added burden that their current and future institutions are unlikely to value. This pattern is tailor-made for reproducing existing attitudes towards academic service. It is highly detrimental, though, for providing more comprehensive training for PhD students and improving the academy as a whole.
I’m writing this post from our campus library. Right now, things are quiet – it’s Saturday morning after all. This is a far cry from what it will be like during finals week, as the tables and carrels are packed with students cramming for their exams. The calm today is welcoming.
This is actually one of the few times I’ve been to the library so far this year (2018). I work from home a lot, and I’m not teaching this quarter so I have fewer reasons to be on campus anyway. From home I can use the notes I’ve already compiled, sources available online, and, yes, books I’ve checked out from the library. Still, it feels odd to spend so little time in a place undoubtedly at the center of my individual and communal (intellectual) life.
Equally surprising is how infrequently I’ve referred to my university’s library in this blog. The closest it’s come to center stage is ironically a post I wrote before leaving for China, whose conceit was the graduate student’s ritual returning of (unread) books before a trip. Maybe I haven’t given the library its due because it embodies the intersection of the mundane and highly specialized nature of my work as a graduate student. But maybe it’s time.
Last Friday morning I organized an event on campus. It was bitterly cold. Only a couple people came. There was a book I wanted to check out from the library, so I stopped by on my way back home. It was not one of the library’s busier days, but compared to the deserted campus pathways outside, it was practically bustling.
Almost immediately on passing through the gates I ran into a classmate who I hadn’t seen in the new year. He had just finished teaching his first discussion section of the quarter. It was good to see him and hear his class had gone well. As we parted and I headed toward the stairs, I encountered another friend who works at the library. We had just seen each other the night before, but I was able to relay that another friend had failed to appreciate the economic and comedic genius of a plan we had hatched involving singing candles/holders.
My first destination was the B level of the basement. Having to retrieve a book from the social sciences stacks down there irks me. The second floor is the proper domain for a historian, while the fifth floor houses our East Asia collection. The basement is at best a distant third in my hierarchy of library stacks.
On the way, I realized that I should probably check out the next book on another of my reading lists too. I couldn’t remember what it was, much less the call number, so I seated myself at one of the computers, checked my list, and punched the book title (Inscribed Landscapes, if you’re curious) into the library’s online catalog. To my initial confusion, the first result was for a different book with the same title. I looked at the abstract and table of contents and realized it was something I might want to read. I added it to my list, sighing at the futility of hoping this list of things to read would ever shrink.
Scrolling down the results page, I found the book I had originally wanted. I noticed there was an electronic version. I could have accessed this book from home, but I was at the library anyway, and I much prefer paper versions. Its call number told me it was on the second floor. If there’s anything more irksome than having to go down to the basement in the first place, it’s having to double back, wondering all the while how two books being used for the same dissertation chapter could wind up so many floors apart. Soothing my inner rage, I saved myself some exercise by taking the elevator. Finding my target book, I cursed the author. 580 pages. Not what I needed, or, at least, much more than what I needed. My opinion of the author changed quickly as I flipped through the pages. When I put this book on my reading list eons ago, I probably knew that it was mostly a translation of primary texts and that what I really wanted to read was the introduction. I had long since forgotten. Bless you, Richard Strassberg.
So I returned to the ground floor, fumbling my library card out of my pocket and into the hands of the circulation desk attendant. And I was on my way back home.
In some ways graduate students’ perceptions of the library epitomize how we see life in academia in general. It is isolating. It is harsh. It is focused. However, our experiences here are much more multi-faceted than this. It is a space of encounter with people and ideas, both planned and otherwise. It is both a symbol of the vastness of human knowledge and a tool for acquiring it. But it is also a reminder of the finite nature of my own knowledge about the world and the time I have to acquire more. The library stacks invite leisurely perusal even as they goad me, the would-be reader, to move quickly because the list of things to read is only growing longer.
Sometimes I get so wrapped up in writing about all of the other things that go on in the life of an ABD student that I forget how long it’s been since I talk about the dissertation itself. I hope I don’t give the impression that I’m not making much progress on that front. In fact, I’ve made a lot of progress this quarter towards writing a chapter. One part of this has been figuring out what a dissertation chapter needs to do differently from other pieces of writing. It’s hard to separate that from the content of the chapter I’m writing itself, so a little bit of an introduction is in order.
Partly by coincidence, I’ve been working on the first chapter of my dissertation. I had actually done quite a bit more preliminary work on a couple other chapters (three and five) even before I went to China. I’m going to space out working on those alongside the other chapters that I’m writing more from scratch. I chose to start with chapter one because I felt really good about it and had a lot of source material for it, a large amount of which I hadn’t read in detail.
This chapter focuses on writings about Jinan’s most famous scenic site, Baotu Spring. I’m explaining how a corpus of literature about the spring developed over time, some of its major themes, and how ideas about the importance of this particular place informed and were affected by a series of southern tours undertaken by the Kangxi (reigned 1661-1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1735-1796) emperors. In particular, I’m interested in how authors positioned Baotu Spring within both local and empire-wide geographies.
I’ve been interested in these problems for so long now that it’s easy to forget there was a time they weren’t on my radar. Early in graduate school, I was thinking about focusing my dissertation on social movements (like protests) and maybe violence. This reflected how I first got interested in Jinan – through a series of property disputes involving American missionaries in the 1880s and 1890s, which I actually wrote a paper about before I got to Chicago. I realized that where the missionaries tried to buy property mattered a lot, which is what got me interested in the issue of urban space. It seemed especially difficult for the missionaries to buy property in the western portion of the city. I also discovered that the name of and academy that played an important role in the early phase of these disputes – Luoyuan – was another name for Baotu Spring, which is located outside the southwest corner of the old walled city.
After “finishing” that project, I still had a lot of unanswered questions about this and other topics. One set of questions – how the previous decades shaped the elite class of Jinan, whom the missionaries found so incorrigible – became the topic for my first major research paper at Chicago (and the third chapter of the dissertation). During spring quarter of my first year here I took a course on “Chinese Spatial Strategies” in our Art History department. It was a bit beyond my comfort zone, but it was a great opportunity to encounter another field of scholarship. And, because the course required a research paper, it pushed me to dig more into the questions I had. I found some answers, encountered new materials (especially important 11th century texts), and realized that my interests might intersect with the history of these imperial tours. (Any time you can connect a couple of super important emperors to your study of what many people consider a pretty non-descript place, it’s a bonus.)
A couple important things happened over my two trips to China (in the summer of 2014 and last year). First, I discovered that there were a large number of recently-published books about Baotu Spring and other famous sites in Jinan held at the provincial library. A decent number of these reprinted primary sources. Together with sources I could dig up on my own, I knew that I would have plenty of materials to build a chapter out of. On my first trip I also noticed something odd: a map of the area around Baotu Spring in a 19th century book about the Shandong salt administration. I made a note of it on my first trip and went back to it last Fall. It’s a long story, but I was right to be surprised: there were no salt-related facilities around Baotu Spring. Upon further reading, I discovered that this would be another tie-in to the imperial tours. I also discovered that there was a digital version of a very important text about Baotu Spring available through the Chinese Text Project website, which would enable me to do some different things with analyzing the text as a whole.
In part because there is such a wealth of sources for this chapter, getting writing started has been a bit slower than I would have liked. And, now that I’m making good progress, I’m finding that I can write an awful lot without moving very far through my planned outline. Consequently, the partial draft that I have written is long enough (but certainly not finished enough) to be a chapter itself.
I suspect other graduate students will recognize a familiar pattern: some interests and questions morph into a research interest that is very different from what you originally intended (my dissertation is no longer focused on violence); some choice sources emerge that make this seem like a viable project; you wind up with so many sources that you wonder how you’ll ever get around to writing; you start writing anyway; you discover the problem isn’t having too little but too much to say, you pare down and revise. In some ways, writing a dissertation chapter isn’t too different, then, from writing other research papers.
The process, though, has been longer, playing out over more than four years. Another difference I’ve faced is in how I narrow down this chapter. Any research project will entail leaving aside certain questions. Writing within the context of a larger project, though, forces you to think about the big-picture ramifications of not addressing a topic within an individual chapter. A topic relatively tangential to one chapter might be something you want to revisit in a later one. So maybe it is worth discussing. Or maybe a complete discussion of the topic should be pushed to a later chapter. There’s also the problem that if chapter A doesn’t address a given topic, and chapter B doesn’t either…then it’s not going to come up in the dissertation. While that might be fine as far as the individual chapters are concerned, it might be a problem for the dissertation as a whole.
Earlier in graduate school, I didn’t think of this as a problem, or at least a particularly thorny one. It’s easy to assume that a dissertation is long enough and that there is enough time to write it that you can cover everything. This turns out not to be true. Writing a dissertation chapter does depend on a far broader range of research than preliminary papers. But it also requires even more difficult decisions about what to include or exclude and how to present material in a way that will engage your readers.
This week the House of Representatives passed their version of a tax reform bill. As reflected on page 11 of the Ways and Means Committee’s summary of the bill, this legislation would eliminate qualified tuition reductions for all graduate students. This measure and others have drawn harsh criticism from across the academic community and beyond. As of now, the Senate version of the bill – which may or may not pass – does not contain this provision.
This is little comfort to graduate students, including myself.
While Republicans have touted the benefits of cutting taxes for Americans, taxing graduate students’ tuition waivers has the potential to drastically increase our tax burdens. Higher ed finances and tax law are, of course, complicated. However, the basic issues are simple.
As part of the funding packages most graduate students receive, our universities essentially pay themselves tuition on our behalf. Yes, that’s weird, and I won’t pretend to understand all the accounting reasons behind it. (One important factor is that universities need to factor in tuition for graduate students when applying for grants to support research projects.) Regardless of the reasons, the effect is that graduate students are at the center of some very big transactions (since tuition is so high) that, from our perspective, happen only on paper: I never see a dime of the part of my funding that comes in the form of tuition waiver.
The tuition waiver is only one part of my funding package. Another part is my stipend – money that the university pays me so I can pay rent, buy groceries, etc. A salary by another name. This is taxable income, as well it should be. But I don’t get taxed on the money I don’t see.
How the legislation passed by the House would affect graduate students would vary by individual case and depend, of course, various other things in the tax code. But again, the underlying math is simple. Instead of just being taxed on the ~$25,000 I receive via my stipend and TA wages, I would be taxed on that amount plus the value of my tuition waiver: conservatively, a total of at least $70,000. Basically, I’d be taxed as if I were making about three times as much as I actually am. I’ll let you think about how that kind of change in your tax bill would affect your personal finances. (Remember to bump up your tax bracket along the way.)
There a lot of confusing things about graduate school finances. Some might wonder how anyone can live on so little. Others no doubt find it odd that our universities pay tuition for us, let alone give us a stipend on top of that. These are, after all, benefits that our colleagues in other types of post-graduate education, like law school and medical school, do not receive. Couldn’t graduate students in STEM, the humanities, and social sciences do without these perks? Or at least suffer paying drastically higher taxes on them?
These questions boil down to a much simpler one: Should pursuing a PhD be a viable option for people who aren’t independently wealthy? In the absence of tuition remissions, stipends, and reasonable tax rates, getting a PhD is a profoundly terrible idea financially. In fairness, it already is, at very least in terms of comparing a stipend to what someone qualified for a PhD program could be earning over seven or ten years in their 20’s and 30’s. Not to mention the issue of the increasing number of people who have earned PhD’s who are working for poverty-level wages as contingent faculty.
Despite these serious challenges, it is possible, at least under certain conditions, to make getting a PhD work financially. But we’re not far from the cliff, and some of us are already sliding off the edge. Taking thousands of dollars in income away from us through taxes on money that we don’t receive will take financial feasibility off the table for thousands of people like me who have put off taken-for-granted aspects of middle-class life in order to increase our knowledge about the world. As I’ve said, the logic and the basic math is simple. Anyone who spends more than a second thinking through this and still votes for this bill is casting a vote to say that people like me shouldn’t exist.
227 legislators did just that.
And that’s what is especially taxing about being a graduate student right now. No matter what, getting a PhD is going to be difficult intellectually, personally, and financially. No one is going to fundamentally change that, least of all politicians. But that does not preclude recognizing the value of training people to expand our knowledge in specific fields and not putting up illogical obstacles to doing so.
Instead, we are witnessing a collective disregard for the value of learning. Some will argue that higher ed devalues itself by training students in fields of expertise that are overly narrow or irrelevant. To be sure, we always need to do more to explain the value of our work both within and beyond the academy. But even work that is highly relevant to contemporary problems often finds itself shunted aside. As I’ve written before, it is preposterous that a country that sees itself as a global leader would shirk even modest funding for training people in less commonly taught languages. For myself, becoming an expert in the history of a city with a population of seven million people that is nevertheless practically unheard of among Americans and being trained to teach the last millennium’s worth of history of the world’s most populous country may be many things, but overly narrow is not one of them.
The current tax legislation extends this disregard across academic disciplines. Experts-in-training who would teach about the languages, histories, political systems, and social conventions of the other seven billion people who live on the planet, who would discover the cure for cancer, who would research the principles behind technologies that would provide more affordable and sustainable energy, and so on – none of us is spared. When it comes to higher ed, we need more than a debate about taxation. We need people to go on record about whether or not they think PhD training is worthwhile. With their penny-wise, knowledge-poor tax policy, our representatives have done just that. Will you?