Advice to a 40-odder on re-entering school

When I let it be known around the office back in 2006 that I was interested in going back to school, and that I'd targeted UNC's SILS, an acquaintance introduced me to a friend of hers who had just gotten her MSLS degree from there. I think we talked in January or February and I was amazed at the impromptu compactness and pointedness of the excellent advice she gave me. It was a great example of how, when you make your intentions specific and known, life opens its hand and leads you where you want to go. Anyway, here's the advice she gave me, with a few tips and embellishments from me.

  • Read the professor's bios and see what their backgrounds are. Focus on the ones whose interests match yours. One of them could be your advisor after you enter BUT--start talking to your fellow students after you arrive and get their advice on potential advisors as well.
  • Avoid applying for the fall semester. Apply in January instead--the application pool is smaller and there's less competition.
  • One of the things that made me an attractive candidate was not just my work experience, but also that I wouldn't require a scholarship.
  • Information Science is wide open and encompasses a broad field. Even if you don't know exactly where you'll land in SILS, you should be able to find a place in it.
  • Feel free to call the office and ask to set up a visit. The staff is very friendly and they often conduct tours of the building and surrounding area to prospects.
  • The GRE is a formality if the admissions committee thinks you'll contribute to the program. (That didn't make the GRE any more pleasurable!)
  • This was the best advice: she suggested taking some SILS classes, even online classes, as a continuing ed student via the Friday Center. The courses are cheaper than if you're in a degree program, and provide some familiarity with the school and professors (though adjuncts often teach the online courses). I took two classes this way and those hours transferred in very easily after I was accepted.
  • I scheduled my first cont-ed class during a summer session. This allowed me to get familiar with campus and the bus schedules at a more relaxed pace than I could have done during the general crush and chaos of the fall or spring semester. And no long line waiting to get an ID card!
  • Be aware that the Friday Center and the Graduate School are two separate entities. If you fill out the North Carolina residency form for one, you also have to fill one out for the other. An instance of the bureaucracy being set up for the bureaucracy's convenience rather than the student's. (And no, no one tells you this. You either have to find out on your own or read some big dumb blogger passing on his hard-won wisdom.)

Related post: Studying for the GRE

To suggest that people disconnect from a glorious stream of free speech, live news, and entertainment — all in the name of increased productivity — is a bit like saying that you should start timing your bathroom breaks in an effort to get them all under the 30 second mark, or that foreplay and dessert menus should both be banned.

Hallway conversations

Rachael in the elevator: "So, Mike, are you going to do a doctorate?" Dr. Tibbo as she was leaving her office: "So, Mike, has Carolyn talked to you about joining the doctoral program?"

NEVER wear white socks with dress shoes. It’s akin to “finishing” too early on your honeymoon night. Which means you should be ashamed.

Links Harvest: novels, narrative, BAE

  1. Narrative and novels as models for social relations and as simulations of economic approaches.
  2. First in a series of BBC4 radio programs on what the novelist's imagination can offer sociological research on place. Settings: the rural idyll, the city, and the suburb.
  3. "Once you've restricted yourself to information that turns up in Google searches, you begin having a very distorted view of the world...A book is not 150 successive blog entries, just like a novel isn't 150 character sketches, descriptions, and scraps of dialog. " A narrative, even in a computer book, helps to order experience.  Computer book author Charles Petzold on the grim economics and reality of book authorship.
  4. Grim? Grim. Writer and editor Susie Bright explains why she's stopped editing the Best American Erotica Series, laments the collapse of the short-story market (no readers=no markets), and predicts  what could happen next. (Her blog is NSFW, if you need to know that sort of thing.) One of many money quotes: "Book reading is not in vogue any longer, it's eccentric. No one would even bother to have an obscenity fight over text, because so few people would be in 'danger' of reading it."

Digital History Hacks

William Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario, runs a great blog, “Digital History Hacks: Methodology for the infinite archive.” I first ran across his blog last year via a couple of his research-related posts, the kind of “how to succeed at grad school” material that I continue to scarf up. One, on knowing when to stop doing research, offered great advice from one of his advisors: “Your research is done when it stops making a difference to your interpretation.”

Another post recommended just writing down the direct quotes and avoiding paraphrasing. He diagnoses his students’ note-taking problems as simply not using enough sources (but, again, know when it’s time to stop looking).

But what really fires Turkel up is using technology to grapple with history and I find his ideas and opinions invigorating. Similar to how historians want to get their hands on old documents, Turkel wants to use today’s digital tools to examine historical evidence.

His About page says, “In my blog I discuss the kinds of techniques that are appropriate for an archive that has near-zero transaction costs, is constantly changing and effectively infinite. ” Given that one of the themes of my education includes providing curated homes for digital materials, I’m curious as to his attack on the subject of dealing with digital records as historical documents and historical documents transformed into digital records. I also think his embrace of technology–especially programming–within a humanities-oriented discipline provokes some interesting ideas on how technology could be used or promoted within the academy.

He has a definite zest for the tech side and encourages digital historians to embrace programming as a tool that’s as creative and useful and ubiquitous as email or RSS feeds have become. He has co-authored an e-book and web site called The Programming Historian that introduces the tools and basic knowledge needed to create simple programs in Python and JavaScript. The goal isn’t necessarily to become a programmer, but to introduce to historians and other scholars in the humanities a new set of tools they can use to further their research and scholarship. Instead of scouring SourceForge for a unique one-off utility, says Turkel, create your own. The intellectual experience alone is enough to grow your capacity for looking at problems in a different way and, I would say, builds your confidence for attacking bigger and more unusual problems.

Turkel provides a great example of what he’s talking about in his series of posts titled “A Naive Bayesian in the Old Bailey,” a step-by-step account of the tools and approaches he used to perform data mining on over 200,000 XML files of digitized records from the Old Bailey. His final post sums up the experience, his decisions, and the value such an endeavor can provide.

Turkel’s vigorous advocacy of learning basic programming and tech tools reminds me of this post from the blog “Getting Things Done in Academia,” where Physiological Ecologist Carlos Martinez del Rio suggests that science grad students pick up two tools, with at least one being a programming language. This enables the eventual scientist to add to their own toolkits, encourages logical thinking, and enables a flexibility and enhanced ground speed when it comes to research.

This is not an attitude that I’ve seen in many of the courses I’ve taken so far at SILS, I think. There is certainly a zeal for programming and technology that arises naturally from the students themselves; they’re so fluent with the web and a zillion different web apps and sites, that they can imagine a solution to a problem in their minds and see PHP, CSS, JavaScript, and so on, as building blocks–or perhaps, a latticework–that will eventually solve the puzzle. And I know the faculty encourages the students to explore. No one is holding them back.

But, to be fair, it’s more likely that that attitude really isn’t germane to the primarily introductory classes I’ve been taking for the last 4 semesters. I’ve only recently settled on a focus area that will help me choose courses and a line of study for the next 4 semesters. Most of the technology I’ve played with so far–such as the Protege ontology editor–has served as a fine introduction to what’s out there, but there’s no time to practice mastery.

The master’s program’s primary goal is mainly to introduce us to a body of literature and a field of study; soak us in the basic ideas and concepts; and raise our awareness of the issues and problems that exist. If you want to go deeper and more technical, that’s fine, you can do that, and your master’s project offers an opportunity to develop a skill if you want it. But SILS occupies an unusual position in the campus course offerings. UNC’s computer science department doesn’t offer some basic courses, so SILS feels it needs to offer them; for example, courses on web databases and XML. It’s acknowledged that the standards of these courses are not up to those taught by the regular faculty. Still, these courses offer a safe place to practice and make mistakes, and that’s valuable. And, as one professor told me, if you’re smart, you’ll be able to pick up what you need and get out of it what you want. The important thing is to just start, wallow around for a while, and see what emerges.

The last word goes to Turkel, who says here that historians, more so than other practitioners in other disciplines, are uniquely positioned to pick up the basics of programming, in a passage I find rather inspiring, and not just for students:

Historians have a secret advantage when it comes to learning technical material like programming: we are already used to doing close readings of documents that are confusing, ambiguous, incomplete or inconsistent. We all sit down to our primary sources with the sense that we will understand them, even if we’re going to be confused for a while. This approach allows us to eventually produce learned books about subjects far from our own experience or training.

I believe in eating my own dogfood, and wouldn’t subject my students to anything I wouldn’t take on myself. As my own research and teaching moves more toward desktop fabrication, I’ve been reading a lot about materials science, structural engineering, machining, CNC and other subjects for which I have absolutely no preparation. It’s pretty confusing, of course, but each day it all seems a little more clear. I’ve also been making a lot of mistakes as I try to make things. As humanists, I don’t think we can do better than to follow Terence’s adage that nothing human should be alien to us. It is possible to learn anything, if you’re willing to begin in the middle.

You will have to understand that the logic of success is radically different from the logic of vocation. The logic of what our society means by “success” supposedly leads you ever upward to any higher-paying job that can be done sitting down. The logic of vocation holds that there is an indispensable justice, to yourself and to others, in doing well the work that you are “called” or prepared by your talents to do.

And so you must refuse to accept the common delusion that a career is an adequate context for a life. The logic of success insinuates that self-enlargement is your only responsibility, and that any job, any career will be satisfying if you succeed in it.

But I can tell you, on the authority of much evidence, that a lot of people highly successful by that logic are painfully dissatisfied. I can tell you further that you cannot live in a career, and that satisfaction can come only from your life. To give satisfaction, your life will have to be lived in a family, a neighborhood, a community, an ecosystem, a watershed, a place, meeting your responsibilities to all those things to which you belong.