Tag Archives: Research

Get and Give All You Can: Advice for New Graduate Students

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009It’s that time of year — new graduate students are setting foot on campuses across the nation hoping to gain knowledge and have new experiences that will help them progress in their careers.  As a professor and adviser, I get really excited about new graduate students.  They are usually wide-eyed, excited, and eager to get started.  However, after a semester, I often sense their frustration with the academy.  So, I thought I’d offer a bit of advice for getting (and giving) the most out of your graduate experience.

1.   Keep an open mind.  Don’t let the students who have been around for a few years color your experience.  Make your experience your own experience and enjoy it.  This is one of the most wonderful times in your life — oh to be able to just think!

2.  Get to know the faculty members in your program.  Make appointments with them a few months into the semester.  This is especially important if you are enrolled in a master’s program and you want to enroll in Ph.D. programs in the future.  Most master’s programs are short and you need to get yourself on the radar screen of faculty members right away so that they are willing to write letters of recommendation for you.  Getting to know faculty members and having good intellectual conversations and debates will stimulate your thinking.

3.  Ask faculty members if you can help them conduct research and write articles.  You can do this in one of three ways: serve as a research assistant for a faculty member and learn the ways of writing and research in an apprentice-like way; ask to be a partner in a current research project (making sure to negotiate co-authorship if there are publications involved); or bring one of your own ideas to a faculty member and ask them to partner with you and serve as a co-author (with your name as first author).  One of the best ways of learning in graduate school is through collaboration around ideas.

4.  If you truly enjoy a class that you are taking and you do well when grades are given at the end of the semester, ask the professor if you can serve as a teaching assistant (paid or unpaid) for the class the next time it’s offered.  As a teaching assistant, you can gain experience grading, facilitating class discussions, lecturing, and designing a syllabus. 

5.  Most universities have many different cultural events, speakers, and organizational activities.  Frequent these.  The relationships that you establish across disciplines can be wonderfully beneficial and long lasting.  In addition, interacting with people outside your program or discipline keeps you on your toes and intellectually stimulated.

6.  Read, read, read.  Although there is typically more reading assigned than can possibly be digested in graduate school, do it or as much of it as you can!  Being well read is essential in life, especially if you plan on being a professor.  In addition, reading makes for better writing.  Study the way people write, keep track of smart phrases and uses of language and pull them out later when you are writing.  Read all kinds of things — fiction, magazines, newspapers, journals, blogs — reading non-academic works keeps you in touch with the rest of the world and stimulates creative thinking.

7.  Attend conferences even if it means rooming with lots of other students.  Sometimes graduate students make the mistake of only operating within their own institutions or only listening to the perspectives of their program’s faculty members — don’t do that!  Get out there and gain many different perspectives.

8.  Get in the habit of writing every day.  There is a great deal of research that shows that if you write every day, you will be a better writer, a more productive writer, and that writing will come more easily to you.  Writing becomes natural instead of feeling forced.  Even an hour a day can keep you motivated.

9. Stay focused on ideas and not academic politics.  Asa Hilliard, my wonderful mentor, gave me the best advice when I was a new faculty member.  He said, “live for ideas not academic politics” — such sound advice.  I have faltered a few times, but once my head clears, I let the politics go and get back to the work.  The work is what is important to making change and making a difference in the lives of others.

10.  Make sure that you give as much as you get.  Find something about which you feel immense passion and give as much as you can to whatever it is.  The only way to sustain an academic career, or any career for that matter, is to pursue something that makes you want to get up each day and go at it. 

Good luck new students!

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).


Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

I have a good friend who is the most brilliant individual I know.  He has a mind that most of us would kill for — at least most academics would.  He is well-read, possessing a deep, almost stunning, knowledge of diverse subjects.  He thinks in innovative and refreshing ways.  He also has the “proper” educational background to succeed as a professor.  In fact, given what is often valued in society, he could go just about anywhere with his three Ivy League degrees.  What is the problem you might ask?  He lacks discipline!  He is fascinated by everything, yet easily bored.

I typically feel confident in my intellect.  However, I did have a professor in graduate school once tell me, “Marybeth, you may not be the smartest person, but you work harder than anyone I know.”  Of course, he was probably right no matter how much the comment stung.  He had a point now that I think about it.  One can be wonderfully, almost beautifully intelligent, but it doesn’t amount to much unless you are disciplined. 

Often students and faculty members will ask me — “How on earth can you be so productive?”  The secret is discipline.  As an academic, you must find time to write and I have learned over the course of my career that you need to compartmentalize your days.  There is always something to do — ideas to explore — and your work will spill over into every aspect of your life if you let it. 

Work expands (read that in a book once and firmly believe it).  So, what do I do?  I write every day but Saturday.  During the week, I usually begin at 9 a.m. and write (and do research) until roughly 2 p.m.  I schedule all meetings and teaching after 2 p.m. unless absolutely necessary. On Sundays, I write in the evenings after my daughter goes to sleep.  I’m not saying everyone needs to do this — but you need a routine, you need discipline.

Why this writing schedule and why this discipline?  As I explained to another  good friend the other day, most academics have a mission that they work toward fulfilling — they live life for a bigger reason than themselves.  I am one of these folks.  I don’t live merely for material possessions, but instead I thrive on the exploration of ideas and the solving of problems.  I consider research a mystery and writing the pathway to solving a mystery.  I am not a dreamer but a doer!  Without this kind of passion and discipline, intellect will get you and more importantly, society nowhere. 

I tell my doctoral students, as well as those masters and undergraduate students interested in a faculty career, that crafting a workable routine that is rooted in discipline will help them succeed.  Having a sense of discipline also means knowing when to say “no” — this is especially important for women and people of color who tend to be asked more than others to do service-related work in the academy.  Having discipline also means learning how much time to spend on teaching and advising.  These areas are probably my favorite part of my job, but I realized long ago that being productive in terms of publications gives you a stronger voice in the academy — a voice that leads to more freedom in the classroom and a greater ability to take care of and advocate for your students.

Lastly, discipline means knowing what you are good at and focusing on that area.  Too often academics try to be good at everything — becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  We forget that as professors we have a lifetime ahead of us to explore new ideas.  Focusing on a few ideas at a time — becoming an expert in one or two areas — works to our advantage.  Plus, no one likes a “know it all”!

So back to my friend mentioned at the beginning of this post.  I am working diligently to help him increase his level of discipline.  I’m modeling good behavior.  Hoping that the issue is nurture not nature at play because “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

Ain’t I A Professor?

Ain’t I a professor?
Living an Authentic Academic Life as a Black Intellectual

By Robin Hughes

newlastword-robin_hughesIn the last couple of months, I have mulled over an audience participant’s comment, which occurred during a national conference. To put it mildly, it has been quite bothersome. The comment/question was directed towards me. I took it as what seemed to be a passive aggressive assault on a paper that I had presented. During that presentation, I noted that it was a waste of time engaging in what some professors refer to as “playing the game”. I went on to state that other colloquialisms need to be reconceptualized as well. I stated that as scholars, we should not play games. We should care less, instead of being careful. We should consider tipping the boat over, instead of not rocking the boat, and that we should blow up the bridge instead of not burning any. My point being that these colloquialisms have influenced academic life, research, writing, and service to such an extent that it continues to mimic and perpetuate the same “mainstream and meaningless” jargon with little variation or voice from marginalized or underrepresented individuals. The audience member went on to state that he really wanted to learn about what he should be doing to keep his job. He asked what he should be doing in his present job. “ I want my job,” he lamented, in an almost sing-songy sort of voice. He laughed as if he had some great secret that he wanted to share with the rest of the peons. “He, he, he, I just want to get along…and plus, you cannot possibly be taken seriously or make it without some game playing.” In other words, ‘you gotta do what you gotta do in order to fit in.’ I took it to mean, ‘if you must publish in certain in places, then so be it. If you must write in a certain way, then so be it. Shut up until spoken to, otherwise your word is just mud.’ I play that day over and over again.

I had to ask myself, do I play games as a professor, and if I do, what do they look like? I have come to the conclusion, for now anyway, I guess in a sense some political maneuvering might be necessary—I think. However, I still refuse to endorse the boot licker, which he, the inquirer, clearly wanted me to support. So, following several months of mulling, I must conclude that playing the game, as he described, is still an indignant game. Now, instead I ask, why should I or anyone for that matter have to play games? Now, I am not saying that there are not certain things that you must do while a professor, but my contract, and interpretation of the promotion and tenure document, which I have now read several times, still does not list boot-licking as a criteria for personal and academic growth. I ask, ain’t I a professor? Ain’t we professors?

Now there are certain things that are expected of a faculty member in order to live in an academic space. However, I also know that one can live in an academic place and maintain one’s integrity. I would argue that the real question becomes somewhat close to the very question with regards to women that Sojourner Truth asked. I ponder, ain’t I a professor, and what does being a professor mean? In order to live in an academic place must your life be predicated by others who dictate exactly what you should be doing, writing, saying, thinking, publishing, teaching? I cannot help but refer to chapters one and four of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and think that this very notion sounds vaguely and grotesquely reminiscent of Freiere’s philosophies—a little Pedagogy of the Oppress’ish to me. However, many of us are inclined to follow those perceived rules of engagement. We make like Nike, and just do it. I would argue again that we do “it” because it is too risky to do otherwise. We all fear being pulled over for thinking, engaging and just plain old writing while black?

Think about requirements for tenure? Be prepared for folks to tell you exactly where you should write, submit to tier one journals only, and how you should write, use certain theoretical frames and write in a jargony fashion and you will be assured of tenure. I wake up some early mornings from the same frightmare that goes something like this: A full professor in sunglasses, driving a 1960’s model car with flashing red lights, pulls me over and says, “Keep your hands on the wheel and let me see your license to profess.” He hands me a citation. I am quickly reminded that I better keep to the rules of the academic police lest I getpulled over for writing while Black (WWB).

A student actually informed me that she was told to write stuffy in order to get published in certain journals and wanted me to help edit to make the piece stuffier. I cringed. I also said, no. I asked her what she meant by stuffy. You know, she replied, scholarly. I imagine that stuffiness to sound a little like Professor Henry Higgins forcing Eliza Doolittle to talk like civilized “folks” in the 1950’s scene from My Fair Lady. The result now, however, is even more comical and utterly ridiculous in many instances. Stuffiness might sound like, if you could imagine, a new-aged Cruella Deville, the dog napper from the Disney movie, a fiendish and “stuffy” accent coached by Professor Henry Higgens. Followed by of chorus, a long song and dance number to the tune of “The Rain in Spain” lies mainly in the plain, yadda, yadda, yadda……. I can’t help but ask, what is the purpose of higher education? I am under the assumption that at its crux is that of affecting change. However, some of our very students, the ones with whom we are to train, think that one purpose is to serve as a repository for garbally, gookish, gunky educational crud? I suddenly hear the annyoing voice of Steve Urkel, did we, faculty, do that? When in fact we know that the purpose of higher education, and education in general, is supposed to be much more. Admittedly, I, too, must be brought back to earth after seeing one’s name in lights (a hit on a CV). That is really not the goal. I often seek refuge in the writings of other scholars, those who assist me in the sanity and humanity of it all. One such scholar, Cornel West, writes:

“The academic system of rewards and status prestige and influence, put a premium on those few black scholars who imitate the dominant paradigm . And if one is fortunate enough to be a spook who sits by the door, eavesdrops on the conversation among the prominent and prestigious, and reproduces their jargon in relation to black subject matter, one’s academic career is set.”

It is clear from West’s writings as well, that assimilationist intellectualism and garbally, gookish gunk are not the intention of living an academic life. Much like W.E.B. Dubois advances with the idea of the talented tenth and the double conscious, he presents educators with the very real concept of living an authentic intellectual life. We, academicians, have just seemed to get it all confused. We get authentic scholarship and intellectualism sort of confused with reproducing the status quo, intellectual work which typically does not push the envelope and only scratches the surface of bigger social problems. Some how, the notion of living with a double-conscious and the talented tenth have become associated with Black bourgeois’ preoccupation with mainstream run of the mill, academic, good old folks network affirmation. This affirmation makes us too hungry for status to be angry (Cornell West) or to be cognizant that we have not only sold out to black heritage, but just sold to getting ours—whatever the ours maybe—White male affirmation so it seems. This affirmation clouds our thinking, and ability to live an authentic academic life.

W.E.B. Dubois’ philosophy of the talented tenth spoke to notions of exceptional people who would help to uplift Black America. He talked about folks like Ben Banneker, Phyllis Wheatley, and Sojourner Truth; men and women who strove to uplift their people. Somewhere along the line, however, many of us misinterpreted Dubois intention. A man who spent his last few years out of the public eye and in exile for his strong views, he was not talking about assimilating one tenth of the population of Black folks so that they could drive a Black man’s wish (BMW), wear tweed jackets, and walk the “forever fall campus” (a term by Diana Natalicio, president of University of Texas El Paso). His intentions were well spelled out, keeping strong ties to Black culture, performing service to Black communities, and working to uplift Black folks. In the talented tenth, he described living an authentic life as an American—yet remaining authentically Black and American in a racist world, and how those two things play out or if they can play out.

I still ask myself, can there be a happy marriage between the two—in the academy. I think so. But how does this happy marriage play out in the academy? How does one remain authentic, writing and professing while black? Can you live in certain spaces comfortably and remain authentic?

Yes, and I would argue that it begins the minute that future academicians set foot on the door step of the ivory tower–during the interview. I tell folks that you better know what you are saying yes to, before you sign on the dotted line. Because once you have made your promise to do and be a certain type of person, then that is who folks expect to see in the office come Monday morning. You cannot be Angela Davis in the morning and fill-in-the-blank, right-winged, identity-confused Black scholar in the evening. You have to know which face you are going to wash every morning, and living a double, assimilationist life might become a little confusing. Besides, once you have gone pseudo-Black, it’s hard to go back. But, my dear audience member would more than likely ask me, how many folks do you know who have been successful at not playing the game? I can name a few—a lot.

There are many scholars in the field who remain authentic, and have enjoyed fruitful careers. Think about the folks with whom you know and respect in the field. Think about what they write about, and ask what got them there. What got them through? What are they doing? Who respects their scholarship? Who respects them? There are a host of usual suspects who write from a critical framework, an Afrocentric framework who have been able to live an authentic academic life. Although I am quick to name full professors and associate professors, those who we consider to be pretty well-protected; there are others. There are junior professors whom we respect for “getting there” as their authentic selves, for daring to take a stance, to ruffle some feathers. There has been an influx of newly minted assistant professors, who at the time of writing of this article, convened several edgy presentations, and who dare to introduce Critical Race Theory to conference audiences, and traditional publishing houses, and to those who may never have the opportunity to indulge in such experiences (or who have ignored the writings and thus the experience). There has been a critical appearance of junior professors to the academy, who are speaking up about how they should write, to what audience, unique theoretical frames, teaching styles, content and authenticity and where they live academically. This is the talented tenth to which DuBois spoke. The talented tenth, who at times appears to be the talented 99% (actually I think everyone is talented—not all authentic though), is beginning to walk through the doors of the ivory tower, letting everyone know not only where they will publish, and to whom, but how they will teach and what. And , most importantly, how and where they will live in this academic space and the importance of an intellectual life and authenticity.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs in the school of education at Indiana University, Indianapolis.

In the World of HBCUs, Research Must Inform Practice

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

Quite often students and others ask me why I do research — What’s the purpose?  Does it make change?  Am I doing research to fill journals and books that very few people read?  The answer for me and most of my faculty colleagues is “No”!  Most of us became faculty members because we wanted to shape and influence the minds of young people.  And, we wanted to use our writing and research skills as well as our voices to make positive and systemic change in the world.  I personally seek to understand and make change in the world of HBCUs.  Fortunately, there are quite a few scholars conducting research related to HBCUs.  I thought I’d use this week’s blog entry to highlight some of these individuals and their work.  I hope that those of you who work at HBCUs and are interested in the future of HBCUs will take a look at the work of these scholars.  Their work, by and large, shows the positive impact that HBCUs have in the nation — providing much needed empirical evidence that policymakers, the media and the public crave.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, here is an interesting article:

Renee Akbar & Michele Sims, “Surviving Katrina and Keeping our Eyes on the Prize: The Strength of Legacy and Tradition in New Orleans’s HBCU Teacher Preparation Programs,” Urban Education, (July 2008), vol. 43, no.4.

And in this world of changing technology, this article might be helpful:

Brigitta Brunner & Lori Boyer, “Internet Presence and Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Protecting Their Images on the World Wide Web,” Public Relations Review, (March 2008), vol. 34, no. 1.

To explore the role of HBCUs in preparing the leaders of corporate America, see:

Robert Boyd, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Black Business Elite,” Sociological Perspectives, (Winter 2007), vol. 50, no. 4.

For an up-to-date examination of graduation outcomes at HBCUs:

Valerie Rawlston Wilson, “The Effect of Attending an HBCU on Persistence and Graduation Outcomes of African American College Students,” Review of Black Political Economy, (Fall 2007), vol. 34, no. 1/2.

To explore issues of gender and student engagement, check out:

Shaun Harper, Robert Carini, Brian Bridges, & John Hayek, “Gender Differences in Student Engagement Among African American Undergraduates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Journal of College Student Development, (2004), vol. 45, no. 3. 

For those practitioners in the area of student affairs administration, see:

Joan Hirt, Terrell Strayhorn, Catherine Amelink, and Belinda Bennett, “The Nature of Student Affairs Work at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Journal of College Student Development, (2006), vol. 47, no. 6.

If you are interested in the impact of an HBCU education on African American males, see:

Robert Palmer & Marybeth Gasman, ” ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’: The Role of Social Capital in Promoting Academic Success for African American Men at a Black College,” Journal of College Student Development, (January/February, 2008), vol. 49, no. 1.

And lastly, this article provides a rigorous examination of HBCUs’ impact on the labor market:

Terrell Strayhorn, “Influences on Labor Market Outcomes of African American College Graduates: A National Study,” The Journal of Higher Education, (January/February, 2008, vol. 79, no.1.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).