Theory Diarrhea: When crisis mode takes over

Thanksgiving is 3 days away.  You’ve been up since yesterday afternoon practicing for Mock Trial and the 14th draft of your senior thesis is due today at 6:10.  You just went to a discussion section where only 4 people showed up because most people only made it to page 617 of Middlemarch (about half of the assigned reading).  The fire alarm just went off in the middle of a meeting with your advisor and everyone evacuated before she could tell you whether to take Vertebrate Biology or Gendered Controversies.

This is about that time in the semester where you feel overwhelmed and deflated, both by the sheer amount of work you have to do and the level of analysis required of you.   It’s hard, if not impossible, to prevent this anxiety from affecting the way you work.  You start writing papers about readings you just couldn’t get to, disguising uncertainty with jargon and unnecessarily complicated sentences.  (If your papers are sounding anything like those on The Postmodernism Generator*… it may be time to take a step back.)

The only antidote to what I will call “theory diarrhea” — a slew of quasi-meaningful, qualified sentences hallmarked by disconnected allusions to canonical theories/ists — is a frank, casual conversation about your ideas.  By talking to someone about what you are trying to say, you ask yourself questions that force you to root your analysis in, well — reality.  What do you really mean when you use the phrase, “subject experience”?  What is the relationship between sexuality and consumerism, and where do you actually see that connection happening in the text?  How does Foucault’s biopower theory apply to you as a twenty-something student in New York City, at Barnard, in 2012?  The truth of the matter is that if you don’t know what you mean (and, consequentially, why it is meaningful), your professor probably won’t, either.

What you may find in this process is something you can carry throughout your life: the authority of not knowing.  No one wants to read a paper full of answers.  A paper is more likely to engage with a “multifaceted, consequential idea” (to quote Wendy Schor-Haim, Associate Director of the Writing Program) if your analysis grows from a question that cannot be easily answered.  This doesn’t mean you should approach a paper without having read the text at all — unfortunately, there is really no way around that part.  But knowing that you don’t have to have it all figured out not only takes the intellectual pressure off, but changes your relationship to the text, or whatever it is you are writing about.  Revealing how you, as a student, engage with the course material makes the whole thinking process more exploratory, giving you access to a more creative mode of thinking.

So make things easier on yourself.  Think about what you know, ask questions to deal with what you don’t know, and work from there.

*Before you start using essays created by The Post-Modernism Generator as secondary sources, please read the disclaimer: “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link.”

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Personal and Professional Voice

As most seniors will probably tell you, right now is a stressful and challenging time in our academic and professional careers. Family and friends continue to ask us the pestering and nerve-wracking question of what we are planning on doing with the rest of our lives…or at least after graduation. Many seniors are currently going through interviews, be it for graduate school or full-time positions, in which one of the most difficult challenges is to come across as a competent and qualified potential coworker but also a friendly personality that would get along well with others in the office/group/organization.

As a Speaking Fellow, I have run workshops in which students want to practice interview-type questions and to work on speaking in professional situations. I recently helped coach a friend one-on-one during her interview preparation, and I have noticed both in my personal experiences and in working with others that figuring out how to best incorporate your personality in your “professional” voice is a major challenge. So here are some handy tips that I’ve found are useful for some of the people I’ve worked with to create an effective combination of the two:

  1. If it helps you to write notes on how you would answer questions, that’s great! But a way to make sure that your language stays natural (and that you sound comfortable) even when you do rehearse certain anticipated questions is to speak your answer instead of writing it. Outline a structure for the main points that you want to hit, but make sure your actual answer is in your own, natural spoken language!
  2. Take out words that you stumble over/words that are difficult to pronounce or seem to throw you off your natural flow. In our “professional” voice, we are often tempted to use big words and fancy language. If you are in a technical interview you definitely want to practice that terminology, but in most behavioral questions that you get you will sound most comfortable and natural when you use words that are normal for you. Uncomfortable words also tend to throw us off of our natural pace. If there is a word that has tough sounds to pronounce or is difficult to annunciate, use a synonym. For example, I try to avoid using the word “specifically” in interviews because it slows down the flow of what I’m saying, and so I use “particularly” instead.
  3. Brainstorm and practice transitions—that is where you will be able to connect ideas and avoid sounding stilted. It is really common for people to use fillers—particularly the word “um”—in between thoughts. Words like “moreover” and “additionally” can also be an awkward way to transition in a conversation. One effective way to transition is to transition through topics/categories. For instance, if you are talking about summer work experience and then are moving to talk about club leadership experience, a possible transition could be “on campus” or “during the school year, I am involved with XYZ.”

Preparing for speaking in professional situations, whether it is in a formal interview or a just conversation with a professor, is challenging! Practice is the best way to prepare, and one-on-one sessions with Speaking Fellows are a great resource for all students because they offer a setting to practice and experiment out loud and with someone who can offer helpful feedback.

Gender Binary and Language

Definition of MASCULINE — a : maleb : having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man

Definition of FEMININE — female: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women<feminine beauty> <a feminine perspective>

A couple of friends of mine got into an interesting conversation over fall break. “I want to have four boys, and raise them to be masculine, strong, and independent in their interactions with women,” he said. “I think it’s problematic that you said masculine, because that’s a social construct that basically says men should behave in a way that perpetuates inequalities based on gender,” she replied.

Tony Porter would agree with my female friend in her definition of the masculine. An educator and social activist, Mr. Porter has spent the better part of his life working for the institution he co-founded: A Call to Men, a leading national men’s organization addressing domestic and sexual violence prevention and the promotion of healthy manhood.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Porter in action twice during his annual visits to Columbia to speak to the Consent is Sexy NSOP facilitators. (He is an AMAZING public speaker.) Both times, his message was clear: in order to make the world a better place for both men and women, we have to redefine how we raise our sons. We have to challenge men to reconsider their long-held beliefs about women. We have to step away from traditional masculinity.

As the oldest child of 5 (2 younger brothers and 2 younger sisters), that’s a message I can completely get behind. Our perception and use of language through the lens of gender molds the way children behave, react, and treat each other – something I’ve witnessed first-hand growing up and helping to raise my younger siblings. It shapes classroom discussions and practically directs professional and personal environments. At its worst, it educates and reinforces certain negative stereotypes about the ‘separate spheres’ of masculinity and femininity, which divide character traits and qualities that can and should be applicable to both sexes.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind, it was with great pleasure that I delved into Alanis Morissette On Why America Must Embrace the Feminine in the Daily Beast. As I read through the article, however, I became more and more confused by the message it was sending. We must “embrace the feminine” by… keeping art programs alive? Compensating teachers well? Being more vulnerable in relationships, more transparent in our businesses, etc. etc…? And how would ’embracing the feminine’ render us “wholeness-ists, rather than patriarch-ists or feminists/matriarchists?”

Ms. Morissette, a very influential singer/songwriter in contemporary music, makes some valid points. The feminine has traditionally been snuffed out because of masculinity’s dominance in society. As Tony Porter so vividly illustrated in his TED talk, men have been smothering certain ‘feminine’ aspects of their nature for quite some time: things like sensitivity and vulnerability. Women have also striven to adopt ‘masculine’ traits to get ahead in life, most obviously in male-dominated professional areas. However, Ms. Morissette loses me when she comes to her resolution: how is teaching and art feminine? How is being a better partner and a more transparent businessperson feminine?

There are traditionally male- and female- dominated areas of work. However, by defining these different professions as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ and then embracing those definitions, we alienate women in ‘masculine’ roles and men in ‘feminine roles’ as well as stigmatize those professions for male and female pre-professionals. More generally, assigning specific attributes (emotional, intellectual, or physical) to either gender binary has created a problem in the past – so why do we still do so?

By continuing down this path of trying to ‘adopt’ so-called feminine traits, we risk widening the gap between and cementing those spheres of masculinity and femininity rather than dissolving them. Ms. Morissette is right: human characteristics are a continuum. By trying to break down and classify that continuum we alienate each gender’s access to the whole spectrum. Sensitive men and aggressive women exist, and it’s high time we let those adjectives speak for themselves – NOT for the gender of the person they are describing.

This starts with actively listening to how we speak and interact as individuals. It means re-attributing ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits to ‘human’ traits and embracing the GOOD traits in everyone – male, female, gay, lesbian, straight, or transgender. It means paying attention to our language in the classroom, our descriptions of our friends, our casual conversation, our resumes, our children, everything. It comes down to how we speak.

For Tony Porter, that meant speaking to his son like he speaks to his daughter, and visa versa. For Alanis Morissette, that meant creating an album that shook the foundations of traditional patriarchy. For me, it just means talking to everyone the same way. I’m strong, compassionate, competitive, and accepting; I am more than a woman and more than a man. I’m human.