Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part Two

(Tuesday Post Category–Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Last Tuesday I wrote Part 1 of “Using Rage to Stay Motivated,” a Special Request post for Allen.  He asked how to stay motivated while writing his thesis.  Staying motivated through the long years of work on a thesis or doctoral dissertation is one of the greatest challenges of the academic career.  I always think of the thesis writing stage as in some ways the nadir of the process, because you feel at your most vulnerable—is what I’m writing good enough?  Will it even be accepted and passed by my committee? You may have many challenges later in your academic career, but rarely will you be operating from such a position of fear.

Last week I wrote about using personal rage to stay motivated.  For many of us, rage about our topics gets us up in the mornings and keeps us awake late at nights.  It inspires.  It energizes.  It motivates.  And that’s a good thing.  If you’re angry about your topic (global warming, cancer, racism, homophobia), use that rage, harness it, channel it and be powerful.  Yes, in academia you have to translate rage into scholarly prose.  You can’t say “I’m outraged” directly.  But believe me, your message comes through loud and clear.

But what about those who do not have personally enraging topics?  What if your thesis topic seems neutral, and benign?  Two things.  First off, not to beat a dead horse, but do take a moment to ask yourself—why are you really, REALLY writing this dissertation?  What do you want to prove?  Is there a voice in your head that you’re in a battle with?  In many academic cases, there is, but it’s unacknowledged.  Academics are, as I said last week, a timid lot, generally afraid of high emotion.  Make sure you’re giving your emotions their due.  You might actually be really angry about something—and far better you KNOW and acknowledge that, then keep it repressed and have it come out in all of the multitude of self-defeating, self-sabotaging ways that angry young academics have to stifle their own voices, creativity and careers.

But let’s assume you did that, and you really aren’t angry about your topic per se, or about any individual connected to your topic.  There is still a way to use rage to stay motivated.  This is scholarly rage.

Basically, every piece of scholarly work is a hero’s journey.  You are the hero.  The topic is the field of battle.  The dragon is ignorance/misinformation/poor scholarship.  And your enemies?  The scholars who have misled the populace with their false dogmas.

You must save the day.  You must uphold the standard of truth.  It falls on your trembling shoulders to right the wrongs of the false scholars and rescue the populace from the dragon of ignorance.

Create the scene–in words, in pictures, in diagrams–of this battlefield.  Who are the scholars who have not properly accounted for xxx?  Who are the scholars who have neglected xxx?  Why did they do so?  What were the stakes?  Above all, what was their agenda?   And what knowledge, what advances, have failed to materialize because the populace has uncritically accepted their views?

Now, how will you save the day?

How have you seen the previously unseen, recognized the previously unrecognized, given visibility to the previously neglected?  Why are you doing so?  What are the stakes?  What is your agenda?

If you really care about your topic— and most of you do or you wouldn’t be engaged in this madness called a doctoral dissertation— this battle is already raging in your head.  You just may not have identified it as such.  Your power, though, your motivation, lies in bringing it into the open.  Be angry that scholars haven’t seen what you see!  Be angry that it has fallen to you to reveal the truth about this subject!  Be angry that others will resist your claims!  Be angry that your advisor doesn’t “get it.”

And then channel that anger into writing.  Write more.  Write better.  If people say to you, “I still don’t get it,” don’t just passive aggressively claim they’ve “missed the point.”  Explain your point better!  Go back to the drawing board!  It’s proof you’re not there yet!  It’s your job to make sure people get it.  Do the work.  Get it done.

We wouldn’t be doing this thing called scholarship if we didn’t believe the stakes are critical.  Now get in there and fight for them.


How to Write an Email to a Potential Ph.D. Advisor/Professor

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  Please see our  Grad School Application Guidance Package, plus some individualized services, below the post***

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to write an email to contact a professor to serve as a potential Ph.D. or graduate school advisor.  This can be a minefield.  Yet the email inquiry to a potential advisor is one of the most important steps in your entire graduate school process, in that it is your chance to make a first impression on the person who will dictate many elements of your life for the next five to ten years.

I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a [junior] and will be graduating next May.  I have a [4.0 GPA] and experience in our college’s [summer program in xxx/internship program in xxx/Honors College/etc.].

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.  My specific project will likely focus on xxxx, and I am particularly interested in exploring the question of xxxxx.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  If you are, would you willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans?  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,



Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!

***Please note that I no longer respond to comments/questions to this post!  However we offer individualized assistance and coaching with your graduate applications dilemmas, applications, and decisions***




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Here’s What Goes in Your Tenure Portfolio–A Special Request Post

(Thursday Post Category—Here’s How You Get Tenure)

This is a Special Request Post for Joan.  She wishes to know how to create a tenure portfolio.

While every tenure process differs slightly by campus, and you should confirm all expectations with your department chair in your first year and annually afterward, by and large your tenure dossier consists of 7 elements:

1.  Your c.v. in correct tenure format

2. Your publications

3. Your teaching portfolio

4. Your tenure statement

5. Grants and awards

6. Evidence of service

7. Your external review letters


These documents will be reviewed by your tenure committee, and department head.  The department head will transform the portfolio of materials into a lengthy tenure report on your case, which, with your external letters and some substantiating materials about teaching, will advance to the associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  Ultimately your successful tenure will be approved by the Provost (or equivalent).  Here is what each of these elements includes:

Your C.V. in Correct Format

Most institutions require a tenure c.v. to adhere to very strict guidelines.  One of the elements of this is the marking of every publication as “peer-reviewed” “invited” “highly selective” etc., as well as strictly clarifying if the publication is published, in press, accepted, in revise and resubmit stage, or merely submitted.   The c.v. format is meant to prevent “padding” and “obfuscation.”

Your Publications

All articles, books, book reviews, encyclopedia entries, and other items written by you.  Whether your institution considers online writing such as blogs relevant to tenure is something you must discuss well in advance with your Head/Chair.  This will also include reviews of your major works, as in reviews of your book in major journals.  Some institutions may require evidence of citation of your work.

Your Teaching Portfolio

Your teaching statement/teaching philosophy, your student evaluations, all of your syllabi, some major assignments or projects from your classes, peer reviews of your teaching by colleagues, examples of teaching skill development through your campus’s Teaching Effectiveness Center (will have a different name on every campus).  Will also include a list of your graduate student advisees and their status, and the committees on which you are a member.  Also special intiatives and teaching to undergraduates, such as independent studies.

Your Tenure Statement

This is your own reflection on your research, teaching, and service, past, present and future.  There are usually word limits and formatting requirements.  Disregard these at your peril.  It is typically approximately 5 pages long, single-spaced, and if at a typical R1, devotes 60% of its length to research, 30% to teaching, and 10% to service. Your percentages should reflect the norms of your institution and position, and so may weight teaching and service more heavily. (We will discuss the elements of an effective tenure statement in another post).  It must primarily encapsulate your research accomplishments, contributions, and trajectory from past to future (a substantial second, post-tenure project is a key–but often overlooked–element of this statement) in language that can be comprehended by an interdisciplinary higher level committee from across the campus—ie, that can very well include faculty from biology, physics, English, cinema studies, economics, agricultural sciences, anthropology and French, all on one committee.  In short, this piece of writing must make the case for your brilliance and productivity without using any field-specific jargon.

Grants and Awards

Evidence of monetary grants you received both large and small.  This may include the proposals you wrote to apply successfully for the grants and the letters awarding you the grants.  Both small on-campus grants and large multi-year grants should be included. Also includes non-monetary awards you received, such as best journal article in xx field by a junior scholar (this would also be in the Publications file), outstanding teacher awards, best undergraduate mentor award, etc.

Evidence of Service

Letters documenting your service on any department and campus committees and collectivities, such gender and equity committee, curriculum committee, faculty senate, search committees, tenure committees, etc. Also includes evidence of service to your discipline, such as manuscript reviews for refereed journals, grant proposal reviews, etc.  Also includes outreach initiatives you might have pursued to the community, local schools and organizations, and media coverage of your research, etc.

Your External Review Letters

These are the 5-6 letters obtained by the department head/chair from illustrious senior scholars in your field/s. These individuals will have read a selection of your publications, and your tenure statement, over the previous summer, and will compose a lengthy single-spaced letter evaluating your work, its quantity, its pace, its import and originality, its impact on the field, and its likelihood to make you a leader in the field in the coming years.  They will be asked, specifically “Would this candidate receive tenure at your institution,” which can make for some interesting language when the letter writers are Ivy League and are thinking “no” but have to write “yes.” The biggest risk is usually slightly less then completely effusive language, as even a phrase that even implies a question will be scrutinized intensively by the tenure committee, department head, associate dean, dean, college committee, and campus committee.  However, the department head, in their larger statement of support for tenure, provides the summary and context of the letters and can often minimize any damage.  Letter writers fully understand the stakes of tenure review.  The norm is that anyone who is not fully supportive will not agree to write a letter in the first place.  Few, few scholars make it their business to sabotage a junior colleague’s career and life. Of course it does happen, but rarely, very rarely.


Effective and organized departments will require you to create a dossier in your first year in the form of a binder or a box of files, and expect you to add these documents to it on a monthly or semester-ly basis.

Disorganized departments will find the secretary frantically calling to ask why your dossier isn’t ready when your tenure committee is scheduling its first meeting and the chair/head is on the verge of sending out her requests for letters to external reviewers.

Protect yourself, and keep good files.  Keep every scrap of paper that crosses your desk thanking you for sitting on x committee, or congratulating you for winning that $250 for your media literacy initiative.  Collect copies of not just your major publications, but the book reviews that you write, and every small publication that you produce, as well as published reviews of your work.  Ana Salter has a great ProfHacker post that discusses the digital aspects of this.

DO NOT TRUST YOUR MEMORY.  In year 5 you will have forgotten the 3 independent studies with undergraduates you (foolishly) agreed to do in your first term.  You will have forgotten that you served as an external reviewer for a minor  journal in your field.  You will have forgotten that you served on the grievance committee in  your 2nd and 3rd year, mostly because the committee never once convened.

You are your own advocate. Noone else has your back.  The responsibility for protecting yourself and your tenure case lies with you. Besides productivity, organization is your best friend.

Do you have any questions about all of this?  Please put them in comments below, and I will answer each and every one.



Using Rage to Stay Motivated, Part 1–A Special Request Post

This is a post originally published in July 2011.


[This post, parts one and two, is for Allen.  Allen asks for advice on staying motivated as he completes his thesis.

I have been thinking about this since he asked.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only write about what has kept me motivated in my writing.  There are many excellent sources for writing advice, which cover writing methods and ways to get through writer’s block and “the slump.” These are often useful.  One piece of such advice was certainly valid for my own dissertation and book experience:  write every day, even if only 100 words.

But, this advice is about writing, not about motivation.  And about motivation, well, I only know what worked for me.


Rage motivated me.  It motivated me all the way through my dissertation, and it motivated me all the way through my book. Losing connection to my rage (scholarly rage—I was overflowing with other kinds!) played a large role in my ceasing to write and publish.  Getting back in touch with my rage has fueled the writing of this blog.

So how is rage a motivator?

Two ways.  The first is personal, the second is scholarly.

Today, in Part One, I will discuss Personal Rage, and its connection to academic motivation.  Next Tuesday, in Part Two, I will discuss Scholarly Rage.

Those of you who read my bio know that I did not apply or win funding to graduate school to study Japanese women who picked up white guys on the beach.  No, I had a “proper” research subject.  But things changed almost as soon as I arrived at the University of Hawai’i, moved in to the East West Center,  met the Japanese man who would eventually become my ex-husband, and took up surfing.

As the white girlfriend/fiance/wife of a Japanese man, in Hawai’i in the early 1990s, I was something of a joke.  At that time, Asian men were the universal laughingstocks of the American sexual hierarchy.  Where Asian women were reaching a height of fetishized glory as the ideal partners of white men, Asian men were objects of mockery. Things have changed a lot in the intervening years, and now the sight of a white female-Asian male couple is not that jarring.  But it is hard to overstate the dismissive looks and rude comments that my then-husband and I received in those years, on a campus and in an environment that was absolutely dominated by Asian female-white male couples.

Simultaneously, in the course of my surfing at sunset, I had discovered the pick-up scene in Waikiki between Japanese women tourists and local (mostly) white guys.  I started doing interviews and fieldwork, wrote a seminar paper on it, and began to understand it as the tip of a much larger iceberg of discourses of desire (as I called them) produced by Japanese women, in Japanese, about a white male fetishized imaginary.  I was intrigued, and decided to make it the topic of my Masters thesis, which developed into a doctoral dissertation on the white man as fetish object in Japan.  Over the next several years I interviewed a large number of Japanese women and white men in Hawai’i and Japan on what I called the interracial erotic imaginary.

And thus, the origin of my rage.  My status as a white woman married to a Japanese man was under constant attack, both directly and indirectly, in my research.  The narratives of my Japanese female and white male subjects were fairly simple at their root:  the Japanese women I interviewed held that it was “obvious” that white men were “better” than Japanese men.  And the white men held that it was “obvious” that Japanese women were “better” than white women.  They didn’t just state these truths, they took these truths to be self-evident, organized their lives around them, lived exclusively among others who shared them, and never considered the possibility of any contradiction.

The upshot of this was that both I and my then-husband were overtly, unapologetically dissed, at every turn, in my dissertation research.  This would make a body angry.

Rage got me out of bed in the morning.  Rage kept me in front of the computer.   Rage illuminated, shall we say, my relationship with my advisor, a Japanese women whose husband was white.

I’m not saying this is healthy, by the way. I had to go into therapy to deal with my rage, ultimately.  But I sure was motivated.  I got that thing DONE.  I got it funded.  I got it published.  I got it presented.  I was on a fucking mission.  I’ve never been so motivated.  I was so motivated I, the ultimate night owl, got up every morning at 5 AM, as an assistant professor, to fit in 2 hours of writing time on my book before my new baby woke up.

So, aside from a possibly interesting story, what is the takeaway message here?

I’ll tell you a truth rarely acknowledged in academic circles.  Rage fuels a LOT of research.

Granted, most people aren’t being systematically insulted by their own ethnographic informants.

But people who work on the environment?  on cancer?  on sustainable energy? on extinctions? on threatened languages?  on the fraying social fabric?  on the decaying school system? on neoliberal capital?  on war crimes?  on violence against women?  on homophobia?

Rage.  It is rage that fuels this work.  A righteous rage.  A good rage.

Academics are generally a timid lot, and tend to fear and reject intense emotion.  Your rage might frighten your advisor, and you might have to keep it quiet.  My rage profoundly offended my advisor, to the extent that by the end she sought to negate my work as “polemic” (it wasn’t) and prevent me from being awarded my Ph.D.

You can’t generally speak or write overtly from the place of rage as long as you write in academic genres.  It has to be sublimated to some degree.  That’s just the way it is in academia.  I do not ascribe to the belief that that means the academic system is completely oppressive.  It’s just academic. Academic inquiry strives to attain perspective and a certain degree of generalizability. It is not meant to be polemic.  That is a different genre.  Analysis requires a certain distance and coolness to be analytical.

But that can be a white heat.  A calm at the center of the storm.  You don’t have to write, “I am angry!” to allow your anger to expose lies, injustices, and truths.  Your emotions, your rage, are the source of your power.   If you channel them, they produce earth-shattering results.

So allow your rage, if you feel it about your subject of study, to motivate you. Don’t suppress it. Just channel it. Learn when and where and how to express it. Of course it’s frustrating when others don’t share your rage. But let that frustration fuel you further, to try and persuade them. Or failing that, to expose them! Just always be the manager of your rage, so that it serves you, rather than you serving it.

Now, I am aware that many in academia are working on projects that really aren’t motivated by a personal rage per se.  And that’s fine.  In Part Two, I will discuss the second way that rage can keep you motivated, even when your project itself is calmly benign.

But before I sign off, I’d like to ask—do you have any stories of rage fueling your research and writing? Did you ever feel like your rage got you into trouble in your academic career?  I would love to hear your experiences.




Getting Schooled for My Sexism

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in the Academy)

When I was a brand new assistant professor, the chair of my department put me in charge of the department’s speaker series.

This was actually a good thing.  Being in charge of conceptualizing and executing an innovative speaker series, and inviting senior scholars from around the country to our university, was invaluable opportunity to extend my own professional reach in the field, and around the campus.

I got to be on a first-name basis with many senior scholars in my discipline, and I learned how to find the on-campus funding for things I wanted to do.

But that doesn’t mean it all went smoothly.  I was barely out of my Ph.D. and had no idea how to interact as a colleague with the illustrious scholars I invited.

One lesson stands out.  I was on about my third guest (the schedule was about one per month).  She was a Berkeley senior professor of archaeology,  well known to my archaeology colleagues, and highly influential in the field.  Meeting her at the department on the morning of her talk, I told her that I’d arranged a “pizza lunch” for her to meet with the graduate students in the department.

She looked at me quizzically.  “Do you arrange a pizza lunch with graduate students for all of your visitors?” she asked.  I stopped, and thought.  “No, you’re the first one.”  “Am I your first female visitor?” she continued.  “Yeees,” I said, sensing danger.  “Yes,” she replied, “I thought as much.”  She continued, not unkindly, “Let me give you a little heads up.  I’ll do the pizza lunch, no problem. It’s not a bad thing. But I want you to be aware.  Aware that women scholars are routinely asked to do things like this — meet the grad students, be accessible, be a role model, do a little “extra” teaching — wherever they go.  And male scholars are not.  Be aware that you simply *assumed* I’d be ok with this kind of thing and scheduled it without checking first.  Be aware that you did not make that assumption with the male scholars you invited.”

I gulped.  Blushed.  Stammered.  She was a famous scholar, a terrific person, and an honored guest.  And I’d fucked up.

She looked at me kindly. “It’s ok,” she said. “I understand.  I know you didn’t *intend* that.  But you did it.  Just be aware.”

I’d been SCHOOLED.  Schooled in my own internalized sexism.  And I was a young feminist scholar.  Shit.

I never forgot what she said.  I was aware.  I made a point to start noticing what women and men were expected to do in the academy, and what that meant for their time, their reputation, their stature.

I started noticing how women were assumed to be available, to be nurturing, to take time, to take on service tasks.  I noticed that women had trouble saying no, and ended up shouldering an enormous burden of the responsibility for keeping the graduate students “cared for” and the department running.  While men blithely cruised in and out, keeping their office doors closed, “too busy” to be bothered.

I’ve tried to mentor women undergraduates, grad students, and junior faculty to recognize and resist the call of “doing more” and “pitching in” and “helping out.”  I’ve tried to teach them the virtues of selfishness. But I wonder….  does the message get through?  Or do they just have to be schooled themselves, like me, the hard way?

It’s Your Fault. Or, Who Gets Turned Down for Tenure?

(Thursday Post Category:  Here’s How You Get Tenure)

For this week’s “Tenure” post, I was planning to write a post called “Playing the Percentages,” about knowing your department’s  expectations for your time and effort breakdown as an assistant professor.  The typical percentage at a research institution is  60%  research, 30%teaching, and 10%service.  You are evaluated by those expectations at your third year review and tenure.  Fall short of these percentages, or–god forbid–have them flipped around in your work, and you are in real danger of losing your job.

I will write that post… next week.

For this week, I’m changing course, and introducing a truly fantastic column by David D. Perlmutter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that just came out this past Monday.

It’s in the Managing Your Career Column, and it’s titled, “It’s Your Fault.”

This is academic truth-telling at it’s best.

He takes up the question of the disgruntled assistant professor (is there any other kind?), and the tendency of this species to feel persecuted, misunderstood, and oppressed.

He asks a simple question:  if your students and colleagues are complaining that you’re arrogant, or condescending, or difficult to deal with, is it because

a) they are too small-minded and ignorant to grasp your brilliance.

b) they are intimdated by your clear superiority.

c) you are arrogant, condescending, and difficult to deal with.

Very likely, friends, the answer is c.

Hard to take, but true.

There are few people on earth as simultaneously arrogant and insecure as a new assistant professor.  You’ve won the lottery of the tenure-track position, so clearly you’re a genius.  And, you’re under 24/7 scrutiny by students, colleagues, administrators, and secretarial staff for the next 6 years, so clearly you’re a neurotic wreck.  It can make for some….shall we say… interesting interpersonal challenges.

As Perlmutter writes, it’s entirely possible that you:

*have not paid your dues but act like you have

* are overly suspicious

*are acting selfishly

*complain too much

*are a jerk

If you’re an assistant professor, check yourself against Perlmutter’s list.  And then seek out the wise counsel of a GOOD and trustworthy mentor, one of those who, as he writes, “are not relentless cheerleaders but rather truth-tellers—even when their candor hurts.”  Ask:  “was I jerk at the faculty meeting?”  “Should I have handled that student differently?” “Am I paranoid?” And really listen to the answer.

Students and colleagues are not always as dumb as they look, even if they wouldn’t win in a Heidegger quote-off, or have a jaded familiarity with Agamben’s concept of bare life.

Your character matters in your tenure case.  People have to WANT to have you as a colleague.  Be a team player.  Work for the greater good.  Your department will like you better, and so will you.

“So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities”

This video makes all other posts on graduate school obsolete. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop posting, though.

(Thanks to Leaving Academia blog

How-To(sday): How to Write a Paper or Conference Proposal Abstract

(Tuesday Post Category: Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Tuesdays I will occasionally feature “How-To(sday)” posts,  short  guides to certain genres of academic writing.  I’m happy to take requests for these. Just email me at

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.


The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.


Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. “).


Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.


For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and ask the Professor for help if you need it.


What is Assertiveness, for Women?

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in Academia)

I get so frustrated when I see the female students and colleagues I work with sabotage themselves and undermine their own authority and effectiveness because of an inability to be assertive. What is assertiveness, you ask? The definition of assertiveness for women in academia includes the confidence to state opinions clearly and firmly, to back them up in the face of disagreement, to make strong and steady eye contact, to use emphatic hand gestures, to display calm and confident body language while speaking and listening.

Women I work with as students AND as colleagues routinely display the opposite of assertiveness–instead of confidence, they express insecurity, instead of calm, they display anxiety, instead of eye contact they look to the side, instead of emphatic hand gestures they play with their hair and fiddle with their clothes, instead of calm and confident body language, they droop their shoulders, slouch in their chairs, tie themselves into cross-legged, cross-armed knots until they occupy half the space to which they’re entitled.

The small woman


Why does this happen? Women are trained from birth to self-effacement and deference. Women defer to men, in professional settings, across the board. I would have believed that in 21st century America this was no longer the case… until I started observing the speaking patterns and body language of the young women in the university setting, and beyond that, my tenured colleagues in my departments.

If you are a woman and want to test this supposition, I offer this assertiveness training exercise. The next time you are in conversation with a man, in a professional setting, and both of you start speaking at the identical moment, will yourself to NOT give in, to keep speaking, until he stops, and your voice prevails.

I’d wager money you can’t do it. If you can, you’re going to be surprised at the effort of will it takes. At how unnatural it feels. At how aggressive it seems.

The diminished woman


Because women defer to men in professional settings the vast majority of the time. They default to smiling and nodding. They default to agreeing. They default to ego-soothing (“just following up on what YOU said….”). They default to cooing little supportive noises (“mm hmmm, mm hmmm”). They default to that odd upward lilt, an epidemic among younger Americans, that transforms every statement into an insecure sounding question that trails off into uncertain silence. They default to the big eyed, tilted head listening pose that you might recognize from your puppy. They default to silence in the place of direct confrontation.   (Doubt my word on this? Read this amazing post on women in the workplace by body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, recently published on the Washington Post website.)

Women don’t exhibit these behaviors because they’re incompetent or stupid. On the contrary, these are the behaviors that little girls learn in their families and that work for them in countless environments growing up. And these behaviors transmogrify in the domestic sphere as women grow older. Women don’t necessarily defer to their husbands and domestic partners in the same way.

But in the professional world, where influence and power derive from individual authority, expertise, and confidence…. women’s learned domestic behaviors of agreement, soothing, indirection, and non-confrontation fail them badly.

The insecure woman


Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized  manner that is so filled with caveats and apologies, that it muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

For many years I’ve led a workshop, Yes You Can: Women and Success in Academia. We review the patterns of speech and body language I talk about here. And then in the second half, we do role playing. My attendees dread the role playing. But about 3 minutes into it, they start to grasp just how deeply embedded are the unconscious speech and body practices that have consistently undermined their verbal assertiveness, expressions of authority and entitlement, and physical command of space. By the time they have each struggled painfully to get through the following three sentences, with no prevarication, excuses, second-guessing, or caveats, “I WILL APPLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL IN XXX. I WILL SPECIALIZE IN XX. I PLAN TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL XXX,” they grasp just how deeply and profoundly they have been denying their own voices.

We follow that up with many other professional scenarios, including disagreeing while maintaining steady eye contact and a steady voice, and the art of the firm handshake. By the end, attendees are always a combination of dazed, dismayed, inspired, outraged, shocked, amused, and totally fired up to test their new skills out on the first guy they meet. They report back incredible results.

If you’re a woman who struggles to make herself heard, you’re not alone. If you write to me, Karen, at, I will send you a Top Ten Tip sheet from my Yes You Can Workshop. Get in touch. We should talk.

Hooray for Elite White Men! External Reviewers for Tenure

(Thursday Post Category: How to Get Tenure)

Today let’s talk about your external reviewers for tenure.

First, since this blog is new, my credentials. In my 15 years as a faculty member at two major research institutions, I worked on 6 tenure cases. On one, I served as the chair of the tenure committee, on the other five, I was, as Department Head, the ultimate person in charge of them.

All of the tenure cases I handled as Department Head were successful.

You probably don’t know this, but the Department Head highly influences the outcome of a tenure case. Yes, of course the candidate’s record is the ultimate criterion. Did you publish enough? Did you refrain from actually harming any students? Did you impress enough people in your field to get those all-important external reviewer letters that claim that yes, you are indeed the long-awaited Messiah of your discipline?

But, in the end, those cardboard boxes in the secretary’s office full of your giant (we hope), unwieldy, many-faceted record of publications, service, conference talks, external reviews, teaching evaluations, advising, and awards, which first went through digestion by your tenure committee, must now be further condensed into one, single, even more easily digestible, 5-10 page statement by the Department Head, before it is sent on to the Dean, the College Tenure and Promotion Committee, The Campus Tenure and Promotion Committee, and finally the Provost. (please note—this chain of command differs slightly on every campus).

And that letter can look pretty different depending on who’s writing it. “Cynthia has published some articles in refereed journals.” Versus, “Dr. Jones has published 5 articles in leading refereed journals in her field, including the top ranked journal in her sub-discipline, with her most recent article winning an award from the Society for Feminist Astronomy.” Get it? Your Department Head can make or break the tenure case, unfortunately sometimes without even realizing it.

I wanted my junior faculty to get tenure, and I worked hard with them from their first years in the department to strategize the dossier they would ultimately submit.

If you’re an assistant professor looking ahead at tenure, you hope your Department Head does the same for you. If she hasn’t so far, schedule an appointment and see if you can light the fire.

Anyway, besides haranguing my junior faculty to PUBLISH, GODDAMMIT and BE SELFISH (topics of later posts), I mainly worked with them on making sure they were accumulating a stable of external reviewers who would write those crucial, terrifying, all-important, make-or-break external evaluation letters.

For anyone who doesn’t know, external evaluation letters are lengthy, detailed letters by famous and influential people in the candidate’s field. They are solicited by the Department Head the spring before the year of tenure evaluation. Ie, usually spring of the 5th year. There usually need to be 5 to 6 letters in a tenure file as it moves forward, and the names come from a list that is generated, usually, in part by the candidate herself, and in part by the faculty of the department. The Head collects a list of approximately 10 names, and works down through them until she has collected 5 to 6 who aren’t on sabbatical, or ill, or too busy, and who actually agree to do the review. The major parts of the dossier are then sent out to these individuals–say, the book and/or a stack of articles, the candidate’s research statement, maybe a grant application or two…. In any case, a pretty big stack of reading.

The reviewers spend the summer reading this stuff, and then write a 4-5 page letter evaluating it, and making a recommendation—is he a leader in the field? Is his productivity what you would expect in the time frame post Ph.D.? Would this candidate get tenure at their institution?

The external evaluation letters are the crap-shoot of the tenure process. Not only the candidate, but the Department Head sweats bullets. You just don’t know. Is the reviewer a nut job? Do they understand the stakes? Do they grasp that the slightest BREATH of doubt can undermine an entire tenure case? If they are, god forbid, foreign, will they be willing to grit their teeth and write the preposterous hagiographical superlatives required in the American tenure letter genre?

And above all, are THEY, the external reviewers, GOOD ENOUGH? You can get all the superlatives you want, but if they come from associate professors from podunk regional campuses, they’ll sink a tenure case just as fast as a bad letter.

The fact is, your external reviewers have to be the BEST people from the BEST schools. And who might that be, you ask?

Elite White Males. From Elite Institutions.

You want White Male Full Professors from Ivy League and equivalent institutions.

Yes, you heard it here first. Make sure by the time you get to your 5th year in the job, you have in your pocket, by virtue of steadfast and committed conference activity and prolific publication and networking, a collection of elite white male full professors (NOT associate) at elite institutions.

In the cases I handled, only one out of the six external reviewers could be at the Associate rank.

And if I sent a list of reviewers up the food chain that contained even one from what was considered an insufficiently illustrious institution, the list was sent back.

Of course not ALL of your reviewers have to be male. But I’ll tell you the truth, if you send up a file with all women, or mostly women, in MOST fields, I’m sorry to say it, it will not be perceived as the strongest file. Sexist. Outrageous. But true.

Because, the fact is, women are perceived as less rigorous.  More (gag) ‘motherly.’  Less critical.

By all means reject this reasoning.  And fume.  And shake your fist.  But if it’s your tenure case–YOUR TENURE CASE– take no, absolutely no, chances.  Conduct your feminist agitation broadly and widely.  But in your tenure case, check and double-check the gender breakdown of your stable of potential external letter  writers.

Granted, this may differ in some fields. Dance, perhaps. Women’s Studies. Even in some parts of a field like Anthropology it can be hard to find enough men! But in most fields, you need to do it.

It’s tricky, because they can’t be what’s called “Too Close” to you. They can’t be a former teacher or advisor, they can’t be a former colleague, and you can’t have co-published with them.

They have to be at what’s called “Arm’s Length.” You can have been on conference panels with them. You can be in an edited collection with them. They can be on the editorial board of a journal you published in. But they can’t be the Editor.

It’s damn hard to come up with 6 such people, but you need to do it. So get out there, and start sucking up to Elite White Men.