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Advice

Talk It Out

When I was in grade school, parent-teacher conferences often went something like this: “Amy is a smart student, but she needs to spend less time talking and more time working.” Does that sound familiar to any of you? Yeah? I thought so. And while most of us (eventually) come to see where our teachers were coming from, dialogue has a tendency to lose its precious value as we age. That old talking/working dichotomy persisted for me until I became a graduate student and a teacher. Only then did I begin to realize that part of being successful in graduate school meant that I had to 1) network with people and 2) have substantive conversations with those people. While that may sound simple, it surely was not so simple for me.

At first, dialogue seemed to be something to “work on” and “strive for.” I, like many new graduate students, was a tad shy and rather afraid to share my thoughts, terrified that I’d be labeled as a fraud. It was only a matter of time before I realized that dialogue happened all around me, in and out of seminars. And once I came around to sharing with and listening to others, I understood that ideas and experiences are useless in a bubble.

I will be the first to step forward and acknowledge that almost every large-scale epiphany I have had in the past two years has been as a result of a conversation with colleagues. These conversations range from formal (in committee meetings and at conferences) to informal (on a walk to the parking structure after class). And perhaps you’re thinking: “Well, of course we all talk to each other…” And to that I respond: Yes, you do – but do you often formally *reflect* on those conversations?

Formally reflecting on dialogue resulted in the first ideas that eventually lead to my dissertation project, some fantastic classroom exercises and assignments, and much-needed growth in my own teaching practices. It was reflection on dialogue that kept my head “in the game” in that all-too-familiar moment when it all begins to bear down and everything feels just out of reach.

A couple weeks ago, Adrienne Jankens wrote about attending conferences as a valuable opportunity to share ideas and engage in dialogue. To build on her thoughts, here are a couple reminders about what dialogue is and is not:

1) Dialogue is not a waste of time.

While there are days when I spend an hour and a half in an office discussing everything from my personal life to a frustration with research or a victory in teaching, every moment is valuable. Even when these conversations are peppered with side comments such as “I have 20 papers to grade…” or “I really need to finish that blog post for the Teaching site…” the dialogue accomplishes what I refer to as “hidden needs.” The papers are always graded and this blog clearly did not write itself. 🙂

2) Dialogue is part of our mental health

In my experience, a healthy grad student is a productive grad student. Feeling comfortable in conversation with your peers improves your state of mind. Simply knowing that someone will listen can be enough to keep the most worrisome thoughts at bay. Dialogue is helpful no matter what stage of graduate school you’re in – no matter if you’re anxious about teaching for the first time or if you’re riddled with fears about a looming Qualifying Exam.

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Let the hyperlinks throughout this thread be a meta-moment: a testament to dialogue. All of those whose previous posts I’ve linked to are colleagues with whom I am frequently in conversation with and they have all played a huge part in any success I’ve had professionally (and in some cases personally).

Cherish the time you have to “talk it out” with colleagues and friends. Sympathize, empathize, listen, vent, share, critique constructively, and laugh often. And if you want to chat, I’ll be in my office. 🙂

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