Sister, Sister: Inspiration from One Feminist to Another

Every now and then, I fall into a void of zero inspiration and zero motivation to write. And then I read Geek It Out. Started by one of my dearest friends Alicen, a sophomore at Scripps College, Geek It Out is a blog for feminism, self-reflection, and adventure. While she doesn’t focus, as Fellow Voices does, specifically on writing and reading she is quite the eloquent observer. She has the ability to articulate everyday injustices or discomforts and open up the conversation in hope of solutions.

Well, now, doesn’t this just seem like propaganda? Perhaps. But Alicen’s blog is an inspiration for me, and that’s something that every writer needs. If I want to write a good lab report, I often look at science articles and old lab reports so that I can model my formatting, my phrasing, my style after them. If I want to write a decent blog post, I look at Alicen. We have been sharing writing, both academic and online, together for years, and having that second opinion, that second reader, that second writer for perspective is refreshing, encouraging, and comforting.

Whether or not you consider yourself to be a feminist—although Barnard has a funny way of producing feminists—or even a writer—Barnard makes a lot of writers too—I encourage you to find your inspiration in Alicen, in Fellow Voices, or in your own favorite writer. A friend, a family member, a  fellow. Sharing writing is all part of the process, and that’s what the Writing Fellows have always been here to do: share writing and share the process.

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Because Everyone’s Gotta Learn

Recently I read an essay in the Harvard Crimson in which the author criticized a request by a professor that she change the way she speaks in class if she wanted to be taken seriously. By asking her to change her speech– to speak up, reduce her tendency to raise her tone at the end of sentences, and use less filler words such as “like” and “you know”– the author felt her professor was asking her to “masculinize” her speech.

Plenty of men have many of damaging speech tendency that the author describes as “feminine” speech traits. Gendering speech has its place but speaking clearly, concisely, and powerfully is not the characteristic of any specific gender. Concise and clear transmission of thoughts through speech is logical, not masculine or feminine. It is a rarely a trait people are raised with and it must be learned by all.

It takes time and self awareness. Taylor Mali says it best.

To read the complete Harvard Crimson article visit the Crimson web page at http://www.thecrimson.com/column/the-red-line/article/2013/4/23/harvard-lean-in/

“Why merge?” My Barnard Experience

After reading Lanbo Zhang’s provocative op-ed “Why not merge?” I felt it was important to voice one perspective of a Barnard student, since he was lacking that element.

On Monday, Barnard President Debora Spar announced the intention to demolish and rebuild Lehman Hall, so as to build sufficient space after some period of time in excess of 20 or 30 years.

Lehman Library, formally known as Lehman Social Sciences Library, is located in SIPA. Wollman Library, more commonly called Barnard Library, is located in Lehman Hall, right in front of Lehman lawn. I can see how that may be confusing to some, but it’s something I learned right away as a first-year.

Now, as a senior, I study in Wollman more often. The space is humble and quiet, and I actually enjoy studying there. The atmosphere is not tinged with the same stress I feel whenever I study in Butler. Wollman is, for me, a peaceful alternative; an underrated getaway during my studies.

Barnard’s finances have been in shambles for a while. This is undeniable and yet, surprising, given the fact that most Barnard students enjoy their time here. Barnard continually impresses me with its will to survive, and there’s no doubt in my mind my alma mater will pull through.

Moreover, the independent-undergraduate-school-alongside-Columbia-existence is one that is inherently unique. Meaningless rhetoric and labels aside, in 20 or 30 years Barnard will still offer its students a college experience that is substantially and noticeably different from one at Columbia College. It does right now.

Irrespective of mission statements or the almost-merger that took place 30 years ago, Barnard is a small liberal arts college in New York which resides next to Columbia, the big research university that shades us under its many branches. I can’t pretend to know the Columbia College experience, but I can share my Barnard one.

While different degree and major requirements exist, the classes that fulfill those requirements can be the same, or they can be different. As a pre-med student, I’ve had the option to take the requirements at either Columbia or Barnard. While the course material is not substantively different, I’ve felt more of a support system in the science classes I’ve taken at Barnard versus Columbia.

The overwhelming pressure and competition I feel as a pre-med student in Barnard Biology or Chemistry was muted by the fact that I knew most of the women in my class; there was a communal sense of wanting to achieve and also wanting to help others do the same.  Perhaps if I knew more students in my Columbia Physics or Calculus classes, I would have felt the same way.

I understand the difference between the Columbia Core Curriculum and Barnard’s Nine Ways of Knowing. I see the benefits of both; requiring students to take the same classes allows for all students to share the same basic knowledge and a sense of unity, while allowing flexibility in requirements creates a program that caters to the individual student’s academic interests.

And still, it is entirely possible that two students, one registered at Columbia, another registered at Barnard, can graduate with similar degrees, having taken many of the same courses. All I know is that comparing my GER classes with those of my fellow Barnard ‘13ers always creates good discussion. Actively engaging in my education, questioning the merits of that education, and analyzing the different ‘ways of knowing’ is a process that every Barnard student goes through at some point during her time here.

Having used the advising, health, career, and other support services at Barnard, but none at Columbia, I can’t make comparisons or denote tangible differences, but I can again share my experiences. When I go to Health Services, Fabiola, the Receptionist and Administrative Assistant, greets me by name, and we catch up as I sign up for an appointment. I wave to Won Kang, the Senior Associate Director of the Career Development program, whenever I see him on campus – he always has a smile on his face.  My first-year advisor went to the same high school as I did; my current advisor signs off on his emails with “Cheers,” and always says hello to me when I pass him in the halls. These small familiarities define Barnard, and have certainly impacted my experience: that makes all the difference.

The social life during my time here has been an interesting one as I have close friends on both sides of Broadway. It’s always funny when students across the street assume I am a Columbia student until I inform them otherwise – Barnard students somehow always know. My social life is made up of openness and honesty: intellectual friction of the highest quality combined with the camaraderie and casual conversation that creates friendships.

My outlook on life is constantly being called into question by my friends, seriously or for fun, whether we’re at the Heights talking about relationships or in Sulzberger lounge discussing the implication of marriage. This process of questioning how I think and why is a central part of my experience at Barnard, where professors, faculty, and guest speakers are probing our outlooks all the time.

Women-only dorms could be seen as significant, and for some students, it makes all the difference for their experience here. For others like me, it doesn’t matter much, but I do view it as a pillar of the Barnard experience simply because it is important to some of my friends. Barnard and Columbia share the same haunts, but the dynamic within a Barnard seminar versus a Columbia seminar is radically different because of the approach to teaching; everyone at both colleges should take a class across the street at some point in their college careers.

The biggest difference between Barnard and Columbia is Barnard students having to constantly justify our existence as students and as an institution. The constant questioning of our value and worth is reminiscent of the female experience, and comes as a result of the separate history of the two schools.

There is no ignorance in asking why I chose Barnard; however, there is ignorance in failing to try to understand my reasons. There is ignorance in making me validate my choices when they have no effect on anyone else. And as a Latina, I’m no stranger to the ignorance which will manifest itself different ways for the rest of my life, but Barnard has helped me prepare to combat it.

Barnard’s dire finances and Columbia’s desire to expand are two issues that make a merger mutually beneficial. But before that happens, Barnard needs to seriously consider what they would be losing aside from the administrative overlap that currently exists. The decision to attend Barnard was a personal choice that more and more women are making every application cycle.

I can readily say that attending Barnard has made me a socially conscious, well-balanced, confident woman ready to graduate and take on the world – I would not be the same person I am today had I attended a different school. The experiences I’ve had here are not exclusive to Barnard, but they’re every reason I’ve enjoyed my time here and they’re what make Barnard special to me. I hope everyone at Barnard and Columbia feels this way about their college experience.

 

In Search of the Illusive Summer Internship

Summer is, ideally, a time when stress is replaced by sunshine and homework is replaced by swimming, visiting friends, barbeques, and fireworks. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean that the time leading up to it is the same way.

I have found the pre-summer period thus far to be a relatively dizzying cocktail of internship applications, grant proposals, and job interviews. Deciding what you want to do during the summer months can be challenging, but the real difficulty lies in getting what you want.

Creating a professional-looking resume and cover letter are important parts of applying to any job or internship. The Barnard Career Development has open office hours during which you can have a trained peer advisor look over your resume or cover letter before you send it out. If you’re new to the job search or particularly grammar-challenged like myself, having someone trained in the art of job acquisition look over your work is a good idea. On the Career Development website you can also find tips sheets and sample resumes and cover letters if your too cozy at home and don’t feel like going all the way to Elliot to go to office hours for advice (however if you live in Elliot you really have no excuse. You can go in your pajamas).

It can feel a little awkward to sell yourself in a letter, but YOU GOTTA DO IT if you’re serious about getting the job/internship/grant. A great first step is to do a little googling (yes, it’s a word) of the organization you are applying too, then brainstorm a list of reasons why are you are interested in the position and why are you are a strong candidate. If you’re having trouble, ask a friend who knows you well to help identify your strongest qualities and how they might relate to the work the organization is doing.

If all goes well, the next hurdle to tackle is the job interview (if you haven’t heard back from the organization weeks after sending in your application don’t be shy about following up! Email them to make sure they received your application. Its better to know you’ve been rejected and to redirect your search, then to lose time waiting on organization that rejected you but never let you know– unfortunately that is common practice. This way you cut your losses. Remember rejections are part of the lifecycle of applications, if you never got rejections there would be no need for applications.)

Now back to the interview. No more proof reading, no more editing­– it’s just you and the organization you applied to.

First, practice is key. Ask friends to ask you sample questions. Why do you think you would be a good fit for this position? What interests you about the position/organization you applied to? What do you hope to do with the knowledge you would gain in this position? You never know exactly what an interviewer is going to ask you but thinking through why you are where you are, where you want to go, and how this relates to the job/internship/grant is necessary if you want to be able to discuss your interest in the position. You can then draw on this foundation of reasoning to answer almost any question you might be asked. Remember that all the rules of good public speaking also apply to an interview. Make eye contact. Don’t fiddle with your hair or your clothing. Speak clearly and concisely, eliminating unneeded filler works such as “like,” “um,” or “ya know.” They’ll sneak up on you so if you practice with friends ask them to help you by pointing out where you use filler words.

Second, take your time. Do not be afraid to pause and think if an interviewer asks you a challenging question. It is better to take your time to formulate a coherent answer than to immediately answer with a sub-par response. Interviewers ask challenging questions because they want to know how you think– it’s expected that thinking through a thoughtful answer might take sometime.

Third, ask questions. Get to know your interviewer, and show that you are a creative thinker. Questions should display your knowledge of the organization or the organization’s area of focus. For a good list of questions to ask an interviewer, and more general interview tips check out Barnard Career Development’s sections on interviews.

If all of this doesn’t feel like enough, sign up for a one-on-one session with a Speaking Fellow! Helping students prepare for interviews is part of what we do, so take advantage of the resources around you.  In the final stages of your summer job, internship, or grant search, do your reading, dress to impress, and relax. Be yourself, because in the end they are hiring you and what you have to offer– out of all the people in the world you are the only expert on that.

 

What to Do with Feedback

The number one critique I receive from professors on essays or response papers most commonly involves words such as unfocused or unclear. I know I’m not alone in this. Regardless of how you process, finding focus is the most tedious part of the writing process, and consequently, it comes along with the greatest margin for nonfocus. Though it is easy to put such comments down because, well, you already know that focus and clarity are the goals, your professor likely had a good reason—beyond that of reminding you of your own standards—for indicating that something may have been off. But what? What do you do when you’re positive you have found focus, but your feedback indicates that perhaps your focus wasn’t clear enough? You ask yourself, does my professor mean I didn’t find focus as I originally thought I did, or does this mean the way in which I expressed my focused idea wasn’t clear enough? What do professors mean by such words anyways? Are clear and focused synonymous?

If you continue to pose questions like those above, you will likely give yourself a headache. However, you can avoid dizzying yourself in this attempt to literally translate the words unclear and unfocused. While the most logical solution is to have a conversation with your professor, if this isn’t an option—or if, after meeting with your professor, you still can’t seem to figure out what he or she meant by unclear or unfocused—you do have one last resource: yourself.

I have found that the most helpful first step in interpreting feedback is to re-familiarize myself with my paper. In doing so, I put my professor’s feedback aside. As Stanley Fish writes in his essay, “Is There a Text in this Class,” words only have meaning if they are “embedded in a context,” and without this context—in this case, that of your paper—words have “an infinite plurality of meanings.” In short, if you try to extract meaning from your professor’s words without first refreshing yourself on the content of your paper, you may land on a variety of definitions of unclear and unfocused that your professor could have technically intended. So the key in figuring out what, exactly, your professor may have meant by these words is to re-walk yourself through your paper, keeping focus and clarity at the back of your head as you read. Did the distinct ideas in every paragraph clearly support a focused thesis? Was the context of your argument clear? Were the purposes of each quote or each paragraph clear? Did the words in each sentence logically fit together in a way that was clear?

As easy as it may be to dismiss the words unclear and unfocused as ambiguous, I fully believe that the exercise I proposed above is valuable—and in some ways, even more valuable than interpreting more explicit feedback that excludes these words. Though we all know (again) that clarity and focus are the goals, this practice of interpreting focus and clarity in terms of your own argument will force you to catalog several definitions of focus and clarity that you can then consult as you write in the future. Because it’s your writing process, the only way to improve is to understand your writing on your own terms.

You may now be asking, then what’s the point of feedback? On the most basic level, the words that professors use in feedback are signs that something was or was not smooth in the progression of your argument. Generally, all professors can do as they provide you with feedback is speak to their own reading experiences with your work. If your professor is lost in a sentence, he or she may very well indicate so by using the words unclear or unfocused without necessarily understanding why. Ultimately, he or she will never be able to correct your own clear and focused argument because, well, it’s your argument. So here’s my final suggestion: don’t dwell on feedback, but don’t ignore it either. Perceive your professor’s comments as signals for you to return to your own writing. If your professor sensed that something was off, but he or she wasn’t explicit, sit down with your paper again. Figure out what you were saying and think about how you said it. You understand your process best, and so you are your best reader.