The Official Blog of UChicago's PATHS Program

Author: lshearing

Recap: Conferencing 101 Workshops

Session 1. “Networks, Social Connections, and Social Capital”

On Wednesday, November 28, graduate students and postdocs joined Professor Kate Cagney (Sociology) for a discussion on the values of building and maintaining social connections and networks. Through theories of social capital and illustrative data from local and national research projects examining varied forms of human connectedness, Cagney had us convinced that social connections really do matter and that they can have positive impacts on our mental and physical health, our happiness, and our careers.

This presentation set solid foundations for session 2 in the Conferencing 101 short course that took place on Tuesday, December 4: “What Do You Work On?” Starting Conversation at Conferences led by Michael O’Toole (UChicago Grad.) Conversations at academic conferences help build important professional and personal relationships. You never know—you may be one (conference) conversation away from a job interview, from making a new friend, or a possible scholarly collaboration.

Session 2. “What Do You Work On?”: Starting Conversations at Conferences Tuesday, December 4, 2018.

Many of us can relate to feeling nervous at the prospect of starting conversations with other scholars at academic conferences. Will I come across as interesting and make a good first impression? Will I be able to talk about my work in a coherent way? To help alleviate some of these fears, we welcomed Michael O’Toole (Assistant Director, GRADTalk) to lead an interactive workshop on the topic. Networking at conferences, O’Toole explained, needn’t be anxiety-inducing, especially if you spend a little time pre-planning. For example, before arriving at a conference, think about a handful of individuals with whom you’d like to connect. Can you introduce yourself over email before the conference or even arrange a short meeting? Can you follow up afterwards? For those more spontaneous encounters, prepare brief “elevator pitch” descriptions of your research. To do this, you might think about constructing a list of general research interests, followed by one, two, and three-sentence synopses that encapsulate your research. Avoid opening a conversation with a five-minute soliloquy of your dissertation abstract. As successful conference encounters might open further avenues of dialogue, listen attentively and ask questions about your new contact’s research. The most successful and long-lasting conference connections are those that are made on mutually beneficial grounds. Instead of thinking “what can I get from this encounter?”, you might instead ask “how might this connection enrich the scholarly lives of us both?” To access the workshop handout, click here.
Recap: Session 3. How to Deliver a Compelling Conference Presentation. 
 Thursday, December 6, 2018. 

English Ph.D. and current Humanities Teaching Fellow Michael Dango led a workshop on best practices for conference presentations. From formatting and content to visual aids and delivery, Dango described (and demonstrated) to participants how to make the most of their presentation time. Some key takeaways:

On format: We tend to present faster during the real thing when reading from a paper (because we read faster under pressure) and slower if presenting from notes (because we’re more likely to get stuck on a tangent or improvising). If reading, originally budget 2 minutes per double spaced page, and still try to provide room for improvisation or thinking off the cuff.

On content: In the body of your presentation, provide transitions frequently and explicitly. Go light on references to other critics but be generous in your offerings of context and synopsis.  Think of your entire paper’s goal not only as communicating your argument, but also as generating good questions from your audience. 

On visual aids: If you’re making a slideshow, consider using it less to communicate and more to structure. Slides can be used to signpost and remind people where you are in your presentation, rather than being full of bullet points and small text.  

On delivery: Your tone will set the tone of your audience’s response. If you’re eager to criticize other scholars, your audience will likely be prepared to do the same to you. If you’re more casual, your audience will be more casual in their questions. No need to tell lots of jokes, but if you can, try to convey how excited you are to be “chatting” or “thinking out loud” with your audience, about some topic or text.  

Recap: “From Humanities Ph.D. to Independent High School Teacher”

On Friday November 2, PATHS welcomed UChicago alums Brady Smith (English) and Fran Spaltro (Classics) to share their experiences teaching at independent high schools. Facilitated by Professor Zachary Samalin (English), the discussion highlighted the rewards, challenges, and practicalities of pursuing a career as a teacher in secondary education.

Based in New York City, Brady Smith teaches writing at Avenues: The World School in the High-Intensity Practice Thinking Program (HIP). HIP is a unique pedagogical approach that helps students develop and exercise heightened skills in critical thinking. Before Avenues, Smith gained teaching experience as a Humanities Teaching Fellow, and mentoring experience as a College Housing Resident Assistant, both here at UChicago. Over the course of the discussion, Smith explained some of the similarities and differences working with undergraduates and secondary school students. In some ways, many of his current duties are similar: curriculum planning, course design, and mentorship. Yet the scope of these tasks differ quite significantly. Regarding mentorship, Smith conveyed that his current position requires significantly more time with students both inside and outside of the classroom—goodbye academic solitude! Most satisfying, however, is getting to work with the same students over multiple years, seeing how they develop both as scholars and as young adults. Whereas undergraduates (especially at UChicago) are generally self-motivated and understand how to work independently, high school students require assistance to cultivate these skills. In terms of training, Smith explained that high schools are keen for their teachers to continue refining their pedagogical practices thus offering ample opportunities for professional development. 

Fran Spaltro teaches Latin and Greek at the UChicago Laboratory Schools and co-chairs the World Languages Department. A class session with teenagers, Spaltro stated, is quite different from one with undergraduates. A lot of this is to do with pacing. Ideally, teachers at the secondary education level should always be thinking up new, inventive ways to engage teenagers with short attention spans. 

Spaltro explained that a successful high school teacher knows how to “take the temperature of the classroom” and has the ability to keep a session moving by mixing up activity types and transitioning smoothly between them. Regarding pedagogical satisfaction, both Smith and Spaltro spoke of abundant “magic” teaching moments—moments when students came up with outrageously wonderful and perceptive insights.  
What, then, could interested graduate students be doing to prepare for this career path? Smith and Spaltro gave much valuable advice: 

  • Observe as many high school classes as you can. See how different teachers command the classroom space and engage with teenagers.
  • Talk with teachers! Arrange informational interviews! See if you can obtain guest lecture spots in their classes. 
  • Apply to be a substitute teacher. 
  • Don’t assume a Ph.D. is an open door to a career in secondary education. High school experience really is favorable. HUGE numbers of Ph.D. holders are applying for these jobs already—this job market, like the academic job market, is also highly saturated. 
  • In your cover letter, application materials, and interview, have a story to tell. Why do you really want to teach at a high school? 

Recap: Showcasing Graduate Student Work at Humanities Day

On Saturday October 20, 2018, members of the university community and public gathered on campus for presentations and performances from esteemed faculty and graduate students of UChicago’s Division of the Humanities. Humanities Day—an annual event established in 1980—continues to present an incredible breadth of subject matter with a unified message: that humanistic scholarship matters and has the potential to impact the world in positive, powerful ways. 

While the vast majority of panels were faculty-led, one afternoon session consisted entirely of graduate student work. Entitled “Animal Cognition in Antiquity,” this panel featured presentations from three students in the Department of Classics: Amber Ace, Jordan Johansen, and Rik Peters. With broad-ranging topics ranging from Aristotle, “wonder,” and fish (Peters) to animal morality (Ace) to dancing elephants (Johansen), each scholar showcased their compelling research in an accessible fashion. 

A useful skill (and CV/Resume builder) for scholars to develop is the presentation of complex research to general audiences. Keep an eye out for the 2019 Humanities Day call for participation in the Spring—you, too, can be involved. 


Recap: Career Conversation with Alumna Amanda Norton (Germanics ’10)

On Friday, October 12, alumna Amanda Norton sat down with graduate students to share the story of how she went from a Germanics Ph.D. into a successful career in university communications. After scanning the job postings at the University of Chicago, she applied for a college advisor job, which turned out to be her gateway into commmunications positions elsewhere in the UChicago system. In the college advisor role, she did as much writing as she could, and eventually applied to work in the Dean’s Office of the Medical Center as a “Strategist Planner.” Sounds vague, right? Norton explained the day-to-day behind this title, which included a lot of challenging, interesting, time-sensitive ghost-writing. Sometimes she would go sit in someone’s office and listen to them talk for 15 minutes, and then go write up a document based on what she’d heard. After the Medical Center, Norton worked at the UChicago Crime Lab when it was just starting out (now UChicago Urban Labs). Now she works in the Development Office of the Northwestern Business School and has so far enjoyed getting to know a different university system.

Some concrete takeaways:

1. Your UChicago Humanities Ph.D. prepares you to be a valuable communications professional because:

  • you are a highly skilled writer, and have acquired skills in stylistic mimicry, i.e. you know how to adapt your writing for particular occasions and audiences 
  • you write well because you have learned how to think through complex things well
  • you have proven yourself to be a self-starter with the capacity for commitment and attention to detail
  • you are very comfortable with revision 

2. Some perks of a job in university communications: 

  • you get to learn new things all the time, so it’s a great career if you are curious  
  • day-job parameters means you time for other intellectual/sideproject interests 
  • you can be more productive when you’re doing other people’s writing, so there are more concrete milestones (i.e. you finish things regularly!) 

3. Parting advice on how to positively navigate this career shift: 

  • Focus on the positive thing you are working towards (so, no bitterness about what you are leaving behind) 
  • Redesign your CV as a resume
  • Start a LinkedIn profile and make the most of social media connections in general
  • Leverage your people and planning skills (developed through teaching and university organizing of workshops, conferences, etc.)


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