“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of required of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! 🙂

Application Advice: Letters of Rec

This advice is specifically for philosophy undergrad seniors or BA/MA-holders who are applying to Philosophy PhD programs. Maybe it’ll also apply to other people in other situations in other fields. [Insert the usual disclaimer to take what I say with a grain of salt, every situation is different, etc.]

How to ask:

  • Ask early! At least a month in advance, but probably more. Professors can get pretty busy around application season, so you want to make sure you get your request in early, giving them plenty of time to work on it.
  • I recommend asking via email first, and then offering to meet in person later on if necessary. In the email, explain what you’re applying for and say when you will need the letter by. Include a brief statement about why you think this professor in particular would be a good letter writer for you. Finish the email by saying that you’ll give them all the necessary information (including application materials) if they agree to write you a letter.
  • A sample email:

Hi Professor!

I am applying to PhD programs in philosophy this upcoming cycle, and if you’re willing, I would love for you to be one of my letter writers. I took classes ____, ____, and ____ with you and enjoyed them immensely. From this I hope that you have a pretty good understanding of my academic abilities. (For reference, attached is a paper I have written for one of your classes that I am particularly proud of.)

If you feel you are able to write me a strong letter, I can email my application materials to you to aid in your writing: a draft of my writing sample, personal statement, statement of purpose, and CV. Additionally, if you would like to meet in person to discuss this further, I am available at ____.

(Also, please feel free to say no. Given how competitive admissions are, I would only want you to write me a letter if you feel you can write me a good one. Otherwise I am happy to find someone else.)

Thanks for your consideration! Sincerely, …

Who to ask:

  • Ask a professor you can depend on! From experience, I can say that nothing sucks more than your letter writing falling through on their agreement and dealing with the stress of missing letters from your application.
  • As much as possible, you probably want to ask people in the philosophy department and you probably want to ask people who are professors (as opposed to adjuncts or grad students). Also if possible, try to have at least one letter writer whose area of research is similar to or the same as your stated area of interest. Admissions committees take into account who is writing your letter – not just what it says!
  • Only ask professors who you have a good, strong relationship with, and who can speak positively to your philosophical abilities. This sounds like an obvious one, but it’s particularly important to keep this in mind when considering how many letters you should submit. Most places require three but accept up to five. Three strong letters is better than three strong and one mediocre one.

What to do after you’ve secured your letter writers:

  • Send along those application materials you promised. You want to give them some leads for what to write about, and also make sure that what they say about you is in line with what you say about yourself in the other parts of your application.
  • Send them gentle reminders one month, two weeks, one week, and each day up to three days before the letter is due. Sometimes professors get busy, and it’s ultimately your responsibility to make sure all parts of your application are submitted on time.
  • In the case that your letter writers fail to submit their letter on time (God forbid, but it happens), email the DGS of the school you’re applying to letting them know of your situation. Most places (at least in my experience) grant a short grace period/extension for professors to get their letters in. (You’ll still have to submit the rest of your application materials on time, though.)
  • After all letters have been submitted, write a sincere thank you note to each of your professors. Letters of rec are one of the most important aspects of your application, and hopefully they put a lot of thought and effort into writing them for you. (I recommend a handwritten note instead of an email – it’s way more meaningful!) Bonus: This keeps you on good terms with them if you ever need to ask them for a letter again in the future.
  • Several months later once admissions decisions have rolled in, make sure to let your professors know what happened! They played a central role in your application process and they should know the outcome.

Hope this was helpful! Best of luck to everyone 🙂

1 Down, 5 To Go. (Revisited)

After I turned in my last term paper of the school year I made a promise to myself: No reading philosophy. No writing philosophy. One week.

Now that I’ve had a chance to step back a bit and recover from the hell that is term paper season, here’s a more positive reflection of my first year of grad school.

First and foremost I want to express how incredibly lucky and thankful I am to find myself among such a spectacular group of grad students. More so than simply being intelligent, passionate, and talented (and believe me – they are), they’re incredibly kind and caring.

During my first few weeks I received messages from several women in the department asking me out for coffee or breakfast just to get to know me one-on-one and ask about how I was adjusting. One of the senior students (who has just graduated this spring) reached out to have lunch with me and chat just because we had similar areas of interest. She then sent me her dissertation bibliography as recommended reading. When I expressed to one of my colleagues that I was struggling and had just started taking antidepressants he was incredibly open to sharing his own experiences with them and offered his time if I ever needed someone to talk to. The women in my cohort were a constant source of encouragement and warmth. There are countless other times I can point to where I felt like people went out of their way to reach out to me and make sure I was doing okay, and for that I’m forever grateful.

I am also incredibly grateful to have had such a fantastic first-year mentor. I know from talking with other graduate students (both in my own department and in others) that sometimes professors aren’t always the best mentors, so I braced myself for that just in case. But my mentor went above and beyond: he reached out to meet with me several times over the school year just to check in, offered thoughtful advice on both academic and personal matters (for example, the two-body problem), helped me with a fellowship application by reading over my personal essays (twice), and never took more than a day to answer my emails – whatever they were about.

Aside from all the support I received from my colleagues and mentors, one thing I have really welcomed as a graduate student is the new capacity I have to make change and carry out projects I’m passionate about.

I serve as a chapter representative for MAP (Minorities and Philosophy) and am one of the primary organizers of a workshop aimed at diversifying the philosophy graduate student body. Getting to play such a huge role in MAP and this workshop means so much to me as a minority in the field and certainly something I would not have been able to do as an undergrad. I love the newfound influence and power I have as a graduate student and I fully intend to use it to further goals which I think are worthwhile.

Lastly, as difficult and trying as my first year has been, I am now only more sure that this is what I want to do. Being immersed in the university environment, surrounded by fellow academics, making a living by studying what I love… This is the life I want. Over and over again I’ve made huge sacrifices – childhood dreams of becoming a lawyer, relationships, proximity to my friends and family – in pursuit of a PhD in Philosophy and a place in academia. I used to wonder if I was making a big mistake throwing so much away. Now, after a year of doing this, I know I made the right decision. I will always choose this. Cheesy as it sounds, this is where I belong. This is what I’m meant to do.

1 Down, 5 To Go.

Yesterday I submitted my final term paper for the semester, which means my first year of grad school has officially come to a close.

I’m not really quite sure what to say. I wish I could say that I’ve become right at home in my new department, dove headfirst into all my classes, impressed all my professors with insightful comments during class, and produced work I was proud of. But in all honestly, none of that is true. When I look back on this year, what stands out the most is all the bad stuff.

I’ve struggled to find people in my department who I can form close relationships with. There are a handful of people I’m comfortable hanging out with, asking advice from, and even talking about my personal problems with, but they don’t feel like close, natural friendships. I still feel like I can’t completely drop the “friendly and professional” act.

As far as classes go, there were three that I genuinely enjoyed. I couldn’t get into any of the rest. I skipped the readings, often didn’t contribute to discussions, and really had to rack my brain just to find something to write about when term paper season came around. There were a few moments where I was proud of the work I turned in, but more often than not it was me struggling to meet the length requirements and breathing a sigh of relief when it was over with.

I’ve been told the first year of grad school is one of the hardest, and the reason they push us so hard is because it forces our skills to develop significantly in a short period of time, but to be honest I just…don’t really feel like I’ve improved all that much. Oftentimes I just feel way out of my league and like I still need to prove (both to myself and to my colleagues) that I deserve my spot in this program.

I know some part of this can be chalked up to the stress involved with moving clear across the country to a brand new place and leaving all my friends and family behind, and some more is just impostor syndrome, but a very real chunk of it is just…me genuinely not doing so great.

Don’t get me wrong – my first year didn’t go terribly. I passed all my classes, got involved in outreach and projects I’m passionate about, and met some amazing people. But I know I can do better. I refuse to believe that grad school is always going to feel this shitty.