Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Middle Tennessee State U. -- An Appreciation

With my big move to the U of A in Tucson just over a week away, the MTSU nostalgia's starting to hit me pretty hard. It's odd -- I don't get particularly attached to places, and I don't have much "school spirit" for any of the institutions I've attended, at least with the exception of Lycoming College, where I spent three semesters immediately after high school. Still, I've been reminiscing how fortunate I've been in the opportunities given me by MTSU's doctoral program, and how little confidence I had in that program when I first arrived.

When I was applying to graduate programs in late 2011, I found MTSU entirely by accident -- unsure of where to go for a program that emphasized fantasy and science fiction, I browsed The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts looking for professors, and I found one that taught at MTSU, which I had never heard of before. Looking through their faculty page, I saw several professors had similar interests to me, so I instantly dubbed it my backup school. The knock against MTSU was that it had virtually no academic reputation, mostly because, as I later learned, its doctoral program had been in existence less than a decade. A couple other things also raised my suspicions. It had a cheap applications fee, which is awesome but also reeks of desperation,*** and it didn't even require a writing sample from prospectives PhDs. That was a red flag if anything else. Still, I applied anyway. At that time in my life, even a bad doctoral program was better than none, and that quickly turned out to be the right decision -- I lost my job at a bookstore when it shut down a few months later.

Five years later, I realize how many opportunities MTSU has really provided. So, the following list will be a list of awesome things it does. I'll leave off my great good fortune in finding David Lavery, my dissertation director, since that's not something any institution can plan for. (I.e., you can bring in famous and well-published faculty, but finding someone talented at helping his/her students succeed is more a shot in the dark.)

So, here are the program-specific things that, in my view, really helped build my academic skills and c.v.:

  • Rigorous and up-do-date pedagogical training.

  • One interview question I got this year was, "Who are the composition theorists who've influenced you?" The only reason I had an answer to that question was because of MTSU's mandatory course in rhet/comp theory. Sure, I grumbled when I took that class -- oh, how I grumbled, if only silently. Still, job ad after job ad asked about your pedagogical training, and that course helped me tailor my cover letters appropriately.

    The training went well beyond that one course, though. As beginning GTAs, we worked a full year in the writing center, and I learned what a wonderful thing writing centers actually are. Then, depending on good evaluations and so forth, we got to teach several different courses: two freshman composition courses, ENGL 1010 and 1020, and our sophomore-level Introduction of Literature course. Not many programs permit its graduate students to teach literature, but we got that extra experience. 

  • Dissertation Writing Fellowship

  • A full year's of funding for doing nothing but write one's dissertation is, needless to say, vastly important. These are competitive, so not all our grad students get one, and many schools offer something similar, but this fellowship was absolutely huge for enabling me to develop my ideas without distraction. And it also allowed me the leisure to publish a few peer-reviewed articles, which vastly increased my odds on the job market.

  • Scientia et Humanitas

  • Now, I dare say that very, very few other schools have something like Scientia et HumanitasScientia's awesome for two reasons. First, it gives graduate and undergraduate students a valuable introduction to academic writing and the peer review process. Second, for the staff members, it radically hones their academic skills. I served Scientia in every capacity possible, including editor in chief, and it did more for my writing and my critical evaluation than any course or set of courses I ever took in my graduate career.

  • Departmental Awards

  • One way to make your c.v. stand out among other recent doctoral graduates is to have awards and other marks of distinction. MTSU's program offered several: teaching awards, tutoring awards, writing awards, and merit awards. I was a bit shocked at how few of my peers actively sought out these things, but that betters my chances, I suppose. These awards also permitted us to earn more money directly for our academic writing than we probably ever would for rest of our careers!

  • Service Opportunities

  • An under appreciated aspect of c.v.-building. MTSU stressed this (in direct contrast to my MA institution), so I added several lines to my c.v. that way.

  • Conferences

  • I never went to a conference as a MA student because they terrified me (and my only interest was in studying anyway). And my first conference was only during my first semester at MTSU, meaning that I got accepted before I realized how much my program actually pushed them. On one hand, they liked to emphasize conferences because raises student professionalism without costing the department anything (funding is acquired through the College of Graduate Studies). On the other hand, though, their encouragement motivated to attend way more conferences than I otherwise would have. So, kudos to them for that.

Now, as something else that goes without saying, just because a doctoral program offers certain opportunities, that doesn't mean that all its students know about them, care about them, or have either the motivation or the talent to take advantage of them. Personally, I think I managed to squeeze the absolute maximum usefulness out of my program. There's a few other things I could have taken advantage of, but there's only so much time in the day, and I tried to be constantly proactive about my career. And there were several things that I just picked up on my own -- writing reviews, for instance, or joining professional societies.  But, as I reflect over the last five years, I realize that things could not have turned out much better than they did.


***Several years later, I learned that MTSU has a really high acceptance rate. Although we have rejected applications to our MA and doctoral programs in the past, we receive a very low number of applications in general, which means that some years there's a legitimate worry that we might have more assistantships to give than applicants to give them to.

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