“Rethinking the Seminar Paper” Roundtable at MLA

Customarily, graduate seminars end with seminar papers, 20-30 page research papers that aim to present an original argument that engages with the texts or topics of the course. But what if seminars didn’t end with the seminar paper? “Rethinking the Seminar Paper, ” hosted by the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession, addresses the purpose, forms, and effectiveness of the seminar paper and also imagines alternatives to the standard seminar paper. It will take place on Friday, January 10 from 8:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. in Chicago H of the Chicago Marriott.

The usual seminar paper certainly tests and practices skills that will be useful to a graduate student throughout her career and particularly in writing the dissertation: conducting research, engaging with critics, supporting an argument, articulating the stakes of that argument, and editing and organizing one’s writing. Graduate students often adapt seminar papers into conference presentations or revise them for journal submission. My first publication was an expanded and much edited version of a seminar paper.

But with lessening time to degree, an increasing pressure on graduate students to publish before they graduate, and a field-wide reassessment of graduate study and the dissertation, the feasibility and usefulness of the seminar paper should certainly be reconsidered as well. Does the seminar paper prepare graduate students to write the dissertation? Should it? Does the seminar paper help students get jobs? Should it? Should the seminar paper produce tangible results or should it exist for its own sake, as a realm of low-stakes practice and experimentation? Is it unreasonable to ask students to write as many as three seminar papers at the end of each semester, or does such a task force students to learn to write well and quickly?

Our roundtable features six speakers who will rethink the seminar paper from a variety of angles including alternative assignments, its place in the alt-ac career path, and its advantages and disadvantages. Our speakers are Jonathan P. Eburne, A. Robin Hoffman, Judith A. Roof, Atia Sattar, Liana Silva-Ford, and Sidonie Ann Smith.

We look forward to a friendly and energetic exchange of ideas and assignments, so whether you are a graduate student who writes seminar papers or a faculty member who assigns them, we would love to hear your input and questions.

Free job counseling at the annual convention

CSGSP member Shane Peterson has written a helpful guide to using the free job counseling at the MLA convention.

The lack of feedback one receives while “on the market” can be frustrating. Ever wonder what the committees are thinking when they look at your documents? I know I did. Here’s your chance to find out!

The Basics: Bring a copy of your cover letter and/or CV for review by an experienced departmental administrator. Make an appointment in advance at the Job Information Center (located in the Imperial Ballroom, level B2, of the Fairmont). Appointments last 25 minutes and will take place on January 10 and 11 from 10:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. And best of all: it’s completely free of charge!

My Experience: During my first job search, I remember wondering whether I was doing something wrong. The longer I waited for interview requests, the more I began to second-guess myself and my application materials. I had received detailed feedback from faculty members and students in my graduate program and read plenty of books and articles on the subject, but were we all overlooking something? Or were other candidates a “better fit” or simply further along in their dissertations or professional careers? For me, the free job advice session provided at least three benefits:

1. Fresh pair of eyes: Having someone who doesn’t already know you look at your CV and cover letter can be enlightening. The advice session helped me be more specific in my cover letter and work on framing my dissertation in a more widely accessible manner.
2. Networking: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to meet a senior professional in your field and enjoy their undivided attention. I chose to meet with a faculty member in a neighboring field to simulate how modern language departments and/or specialists in other fields might react to my application materials. In the end, I made a contact and discovered that we had two professional connections already.
3. Peace of mind: It’s nice to hear “really, your documents look fine” from someone outside your home department and institution. And if there is a problem, it’s better to catch it now when there’s nothing at stake! For me, the reassurance that my letter and CV were generally in good shape was the best part of the job advice session.

And don’t forget: You don’t have to be on the market to use this free service. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone the year before my first job search. It’s never too early to start thinking about how to communicate your academic persona in an effective manner.

Chicago recommendations

CSGSP member Ryan Calabretta-Sajder has put together a list of some Chicago area recommendations for food and entertainment.

• Pizzeria Uno & Due (classic deep dish pizza)
• Giordano’s Pizza (classic deep dish pizza)
• Ed Debevic’s (Chicago hot spot; waitresses are purposely rude to customers)
• EATALY (Italian market and restaurant; pricy but nice to see)
• Weber Grill
• Rock Bottom Brewery
• Café’ Iberico (Spanish tapas)
• Spacca Napoli Pizzeria (true neapolitan pizza)
• Greek Islands (Greek Town restaurant)
• Pegasus (Greek Town restaurant)
• Acropolis (restaurant but also Greek caffè with pastries and cookies)
• Fogo de Chao (Brazilian)
• Texas de Brazil (Brazilian)
• Brazzaz (Brazilian)
• Rosebud Prime and Carmine’s (Italian American; steak; more pricy)
• Osteria Via Stato (Italian)
• Italian Village (Italian; classic restaurant in Chicago)
• Piccolo Sogno (Italian)
• AVEC (French)
• Al’s Beef (Italian beef, sausage, hot dogs)
• McCormick & Schmicks (two locations; happy hour is very reasonable!)

Bars & Clubs:
• Excaliber (dance club)
• Soundbar (dance club)
• 9 Muses (Greek Town)
• Bizantium (Greek Town)
• The Red Head Piano Bar
• House of Blues – Sunday Gospel Brunch (need reservations)

• Navy Pier (Shakespeare Theatre, IMAX Theatre, ice skating)
• Geoffrey Ballet
• Lyric Opera House
• Chicago Opera House
• Skate in Millennium Park
• Original Marshall Fields & Co. (Now Macy’s with the Walnut Room on State St.)
• Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower)
• John Hancock (second tallest building in Chicago; can have a drink at the signature room restaurant/bar instead of paying the fee of the observatory)

• Art Institute of Chicago (Michigan Ave)
• Field Museum (History Museum)
• Planetarium
• Oceanarium & Shed aquarium
• Museum of Science and Industry (Hyde Park near Univ of Chicago)
• Frank Lloyd Wright Homes and a Church (Oak Park; available by public transportation)
• Loyola University Art Museum (Downtown Campus)

Business cards for graduate students

Although exchanging contact information has become easier in recent years thanks to smart phones, business cards have never gone out of fashion. It’s a good idea to exchange cards after an interesting exchange or conversation at a conference–it might feel a little awkward at first, but it’s a good habit to establish early on as you grow your network of contacts.

As graduate students, we don’t have the benefits of university provided cards, so here are some suggestions for printing cards at a reasonable price.

MOO products provide a great balance between design and practicality. You can pick a regular size business card, or, even better, a minicard. This minicard has just enough space for your name, degree information, email, phone number, and a brief list of your interests without feeling too crowded. Either card can be personalized with photos and/or logos, and you can also select a package of “ready made” cards. You can even pick and choose different cards from different “ready made” packages if you want. MOO charges $19.99 for 100 mini cards and $21.99 for 50 business cards. You can also purchase different card holders (including one that attaches to a keychain for easy access).

Another option for a more traditional business card is Vistaprint. Some of the pre-made designs are a little cheesy, so customizing your own from scratch is probably your best option. The base level pricing is 250 cards for $19.99, but upgrading to nicer paper or other types of customization (such as raised print or making the card double-sided) will quickly increase your costs.

Zazzle is another option. As with Vistaprint, some of the premade cards may not interest you, but they have customizable options as well. Many designs are uploaded by members who have stores on Zazzle. The starting cost is $22.95 per pack of 100, and nicer paper and other customizations will increase your costs.

One last word of advice: make a permanent email address (Gmail or iCloud are both good options) that consists of your first and last name to print on your cards. You will need a  professional email address to give out that will not expire when you’re finished with your graduate program, since many schools do not provide alumni email accounts. Backstreetboys1995@yahoo.com will catch people’s attention…in a bad way.

Tips for first-time graduate student attendees

The first time you attend the annual MLA convention can be a bit overwhelming — I attended for the first time in 2013 as a second year Ph.D. student. The CSGSP recommends trying to attend the convention at least once before the year you go on the job market. Even if you aren’t presenting, consider attending in your final year of coursework or the year you take your comprehensive exams. Having a basic familiarity with the general format and feel of the convention can help you feel less anxious during the year you attend for interviews (we all know interviews are stressful enough!). Consider organizing a trip with other Ph.D. students with whom you can share hotel and transportation costs. Responding to CFPs for our committee’s two guaranteed sessions each year can be a great way to get your foot in the door.

The CSGSP has some suggestions for first-time attendees who are not interviewing at the convention:

  • Don’t burn yourself out. The first thing you must realize is that it’s impossible to attend all of the hundreds of amazing sessions. It’s equally impossible to spend all day, every day, attending session after session from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pace yourself, eat regular meals, stay hydrated, and don’t forget to get some fresh air.
  •  Support your friends and colleagues. Are other members of your department, former professors, and friends presenting at the convention? Be sure to attend their panels. No one likes presenting to only a handful of people in the audience and seeing a familiar face can put presenters at ease.
  • Check out panels both in and out of your field. Some sessions will be an exceptional gathering of key scholars in your field, but also don’t be afraid to check out panels in fields you are less familiar with.
  • Attend panels relevant to graduate students. Each year, the CSGSP puts together a handy list of sessions of particular interest for graduate students (posted here).
  • Dress the part. Even if you’re not presenting, you’ll still want to dress business casual. Wear appropriate and comfortable shoes though, because you’ll be doing a LOT of walking.
  • Visit the graduate student lounge. Often. Not only is the lounge a place where you can sneak away from the hustle and bustle of the main convention areas, but it’s also a space where you can meet CSGSP members and other graduate students. They’re your future colleagues, so take advantage of networking opportunities. The lounge usually has refreshments and small snacks too.
  • Consider business cards. There are several websites where you can create small, inexpensive business cards to bring with you. They allows for quick and easy exchanges of contact info.
  • Attend the presidential address. The president often addresses pressing concerns facing the future of English and foreign language departments and presents information on what the MLA is doing to respond to them.
  • Explore the city. The annual convention is held in wonderful cities such as Boston, Chicago, and, in 2015, Vancouver, Canada. Block out some time for sightseeing, wandering, shopping, or trying some fantastic restaurants.
  • Most importantly, have fun! The convention is a fantastic time. You will hear inspiring scholarship, meet wonderful new people, and come away inspired.