Writing Advice From Neil Gaiman and Bruce Campbell, Written on My Old Powerbook G4, 2005


In 2005, I had the pleasure of meeting Neil Gaiman and Bruce Campbell during their separate book tours (Anansi Boys for Gaiman and If Chins Could Kill for Campbell). I asked each of these great people for advice on writing, which they committed to the front of my old 12″ Powerbook G4.

Campbell wrote, “Get Busy.”

Gaiman wrote, “Finish Things.”

Words that apply to all endeavors.

Words that drive me in mine.

Fall 2013 ENGL1101, The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni

The end is just the beginning.
The end is just the beginning.

During today’s class, I will present a final lecture titled, “The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni.” There’s a lot of things that I wish I had known when I was an undergraduate at Tech. On reflection and through experience, I gained insights that I wanted to make available to my current Georgia Tech students. I am making the PowerPoint file and my notes available below.

Download the lecture’s PowerPoint presentation here: ellis-jason-final-lecture2.

Notes to accompany “The Concluding Lecture: Advice from a Georgia Tech Alum to Future Alumni” follow below:

During today’s lecture, I wanted to talk about one big idea that’s been implicit in the readings and discussions that we’ve shared regarding the brain. That idea is: “Who you are today is not who you will be tomorrow.” What I mean by that is our biology, experiences, thoughts, and choices shape who we are and who we become each moment of our lives. Sometimes these changes can be small and sometimes these changes can be large.

Another way to think about this is that we are like patterns. Our lives, thoughts, and memories are patterns that form, reform, and change based on a number of variables. Some of those variables, like cats, are outside of our control. These things include our genes, disabilities, economic situation, and past. While there’s a lot about our lives and pattern that we cannot control, there’s also a lot of things about our pattern that we can control. These are the conscious choices and decisions that we make in life.

In this lecture, I would like to talk about those choices that I think are particularly important to Georgia Tech undergraduates but that are often pushed aside, ignored, or forgotten in the forward rush to a degree. Choosing to focus on these important things will lead, I believe, to a more robust, meaningful, and enriched undergraduate experience that will prepare you for success in the next stage of your life.

Learn: Feed your curiosity. Gain as much knowledge in your field and others as possible. Form connections between the many things that you learn. Be interdisciplinary in your thinking and learning. Pass on what you have learned to others–in doing so, you will gain a deeper mastery of what you have learned.

Connect: Form connections with faculty at Tech. Seek out mentors to guide you in your progress. Your advisors and mentors will become your colleagues one day when you enter the field as a graduate of Tech and professional. Learn from your mentors and advisors.

Explore: Explore the spaces you inhabit and work. Explore your major and connected disciplines. Explore how you can connect your major to other disciplines. Open doors and find out what’s going on (as long as you won’t be breaking laws or entering a dangerous space). Exploration is another kind of learning.

Travel: Visiting other places is a special kind of exploration and learning. However, it is also a kind of education that you cannot receive in the normal classroom setting. You will learn new perspectives from those you live around. You will gain new insights from the history, economy, and politics of the places you live. My strongest regret was not taking advantage of the study abroad programs at Georgia Tech. There are many, many study abroad programs here–find out about them and take advantage of them.

Meet: Go out and meet people! Meet famous people. Meet smart people. Meet people in your community. Meet other students at Tech. Meet people in the Atlanta area. Superficial connections are not what you want. The important thing is to expand your network of friends and colleagues and form meaningful relationships with those people. Talk with people. Learn from others.

Help: Make the effort to help others. Help your classmates. Help people in your communities. Help your family and friends. If you contribute to building stronger communities through outreach and doing good deeds, you will build a stronger community that will in turn help you in the long term.

Make: Create things. They can be digital, physical, or abstract. The important thing is to never rest. You should always be engaged making things–professionally or for personal enjoyment. The things that you make will in turn make you through the experience of creating.

Do Good Work: Make things that you are proud of. Put the time and effort into making things that you can stand behind. This is hard to do sometimes in classes, but you should think about how to turn assignments to meet your needs as well as the needs of the class’ outcomes. This means think about how you can create things that will earn the grade you want while also serving your uses outside of the class–such as adding a new document to your professional portfolio or using an assignment as an excuse to learn a new skill or software.

Reflect: Above all else, reflect on your life, on the things you do, and on your successes and failures. Learn from the choices that you’ve made before so that you can make better and stronger and more effective decisions in the future. Reflect on all aspects of your life–not just on your writing or major-specific work. Reflect in writing–public or private–for the maximum effect on your thinking and brain wiring. Make your reflections a part of your daily practices. It takes time and energy, but the results over time to improving your likelihood for success is tremendous!

Graduate: Certainly, keep your eye on the prize. It might take you four years, five years, or even longer. No matter how long it might take you or how winding your path might be to graduation, be tenacious in your progress to completion. In the words of Commander Taggart from Galaxy Quest (1999), “never give up–never surrender.” If you find that you need to take time away from school, there’s no reason not to return later. I did that and I believe that I am the better for it. The experience that I gained during those years away from Tech were tremendously useful to me. Anyways, if I can do it, I know that you can, too.

Review of Donald E. Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, Recommended for Graduate Students, Postdocs, and Junior Faculty

Hall, Donald E. The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2002. Print.

I picked up Donald E. Hall’s The Academic Self from the Georgia Tech Library after completing my teaching assignment for Spring 2013–eleven years after the book had been published. Specifically, I was looking for books and articles to help me grapple with the challenges of this stage of my professional life as a postdoctoral fellow: teaching a 3-3 load, performing service duties, researching, writing,  receiving rejections (and the far less often acceptance), and applying for permanent positions. In the following, I summarize Hall’s arguments, provide some commentary, and close with a contextualized recommendation.

Hall states in the introduction that the goal of The Academic Self is, “encourage its readership to engage critically their professional self-identities, processes, values, and definitions of success” (Hall xv). I found this book to be particularly useful for thinking through my professional self-identity. As I was taught by Brian Huot at Kent State University to be a reflective practitioner in my teaching and pedagogy, Hall argues for something akin to this in terms of Anthony Giddens’ “the reflexive construction of self-identity” (qtd. in Hall 3). Hall truncates this to be “self-reflexivity,” or the recognition that who we are is an unfolding and emergent project. I use this blog as part of my processes of self-reflection–thinking through my research and teaching while striving to improve both through conscious planning and effort.

However, unlike the past where the self was static and enforced by external forces, modernity (and postmodernity–a term Hall, like Giddens, disagrees with) has ushered in an era where the self is constructed by the individual reflectively. From his viewpoint, the self is a text that changes and can be changed by the individual with a greater deal of agency than perhaps possible in the past (he acknowledges his privileged position earlier in the book, but it bears repeating that this level of agency certainly is not equally distributed).

In the first chapter, titled “Self,” Hall writes, “Living in the late-modern age, in a social milieu already thoroughly pervaded by forms of self-reflexivity, and trained as critical readers, we academics in particular have the capacity and the professional skills to live with a critical (self-) consciousness, to reflect critically upon self-reflexivity, and to use always our professional talents to integrate our theories and our practices” (Hall 5). If we consider ourselves, the profession, and our institutions as texts to be read, we can apply our training to better understanding these texts and devise ways of making positive change to these texts.

He identifies what he sees as two extremes that “continue to plague academic existence: that of Casaubonic paralysis and Carlylean workaholism” (Hall 8). In the former, academics can be caught in a ignorant paranoia like Casaubon of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872), or in the latter, academics can follow Thomas Carlyle’s call to work and avoid the “symptom” of “self-contemplation” (qtd. in Hall 6).

In the chapter titled “Profession,” Hall calls for us to apply our training to reflective analysis and problem solving of our professional selves and our relationship to the ever changing state of the profession itself. He questions to what extent the work of professionalism (seminars, workshops, etc.) are descriptive or prescriptive. “The ideal of intellectual work” varies from person to person, but it is an important choice that we each must make in defining who we are within the profession.

He reminds us that, “much of the pleasure of planning, processing, and time management lies not in their end products–publication or project completion–it is derived from the nourishment –intellectual, communal, and professional–provided by the processes themselves” (Hall 46). He builds his approach to process on his personal experiences: “Unlike some, I know well when my work day is over. Part of the textuality of process is its beginning, middle, and most importantly, its end” (Hall 46).

His talking points on process are perhaps the most practical advice that he provides in the book. In planning, he advises:

  1. begin from the unmovable to the tentative in your scheduling, know yourself–plan according to your habits and work on those aspects of your planning that need adjustment, and stick to your well planned schedule to yield the personal time that you might be lacking now without such a plan
  2. break goals and deliverables into their constituent parts [or building blocks (my Lego analogy) or code (my programming analogy)]
  3. monitor your progress and see daily/smaller goals as ends in themselves rather than simply means to a greater end
  4. take ownership of your goals, schedule, and commitments to others [this is something that I carry forward from my Mindspring days: Core Values and Beliefs: Do not drop the ball.]
  5. deal with and learn from setbacks–life, bad reviews, rejections, etc. [this is easier said than done, and the external effects of bad reviews goes beyond its effect on the writer]
  6. let change happen to our goals and research as our workplace, interests, and circumstances change
  7. taking ownership of our work in these ways can help protect us from and strengthen us against burnout

Hall goes on to suggest ten steps for professional invigoration to help folks suffering from a stalled career or burnout. However, these ten pieces of advice are equally applicable to graduate students, postdocs, and beginning faculty: join your field’s national organization, read widely in your field, set precise goals, maintain a daily writing schedule [my most difficult challenge], present conference papers, write shorter artifacts to support your research [reviews or my case, this blog], know the process and timeline of manuscript publishing, foster relationships with publishers and editors, politely disengage from poor or dysfunctional professional relationship/praise and value positive relationships, and find support in your local networks.

The final chapter, “Collegiality, Community, and Change,” reminds us, “always t put and keep our own house in order” (Hall 70). He suggests strategies counter to what he calls “the destructive ethos of ‘free agency’ that seems to pervade the academy today–the mindset that institutional affiliations are always only temporary and that individuals owe little to their departments or institutions beyond the very short term” (Hall 70). On professional attitudes, he encourages a focus on the local (institution) before national (beyond the institution), the current job as potentially your last job–treat it with that respect, meet institutional expectations, collegial respect of others, and learning the history of our institution/school/department from everyone with whom we work.

Perhaps most notably, he writes, “If we measure our success through the articulation and meeting of our own goals, as I suggest throughout this book, we can achieve them without begrudging others their own successes. However, if we need to succeed primarily in comparison to others, then we are deciding to enter a dynamic of competition that has numerous pernicious consequences, personal and inter-personal” (Hall 74-75). As I have written about on Dynamic Subspace before, it was the overwhelming in-your-faceness of others’ successes on social media like Facebook that distracted me from my own work. Seeing so many diverse projects, publications, and other accomplishments made me question my own works-in-progress before they had time to properly incubate and grow. For all of social media’s useful and positive aspects for maintaining and growing networks of interpersonal relationships, I had the most trouble resisting the self-doubt that the Facebook News Feed generated for me.

Finally, he encourages dynamic and invested change in departments and institutions. However, as junior faculty, it is important to research and weigh the possible repercussions for working to make change. Hall is not arguing against change by those without tenure, but he is warning us to proceed cautiously and knowledgeably due to a number factors: potential sources of resistance, jeopardizing our jobs, etc.

Hall’s “Postscript” reinforces the overarching idea of ownership by calling on the reader to live with “intensity,” an idea that inspired Hall from Walter Pater’s 1868 The Renaissance: “burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame” (qtd. in Hall 89). Hall’s intensity is one self-motivated, well-planned, dynamically agile, and passionately executed.

Hall’s The Academic Self is a very short read that is well worth the brief time that it will take to read. It offers some solid advice woven with the same theoretically infused self-reflexivity that he encourages. It practices what it preaches. The main thing to remember is that the book is eleven years old. When it was published, the field of English studies was experiencing an employment downturn (albeit one not as pronounced as in recent years). Michael Berube’s “Presidential Address 2013–How We Got Here” (PMLA 128.3 May 2013: 530-541), among many other places–this issue just arrived in the mail today, so I was reading it between chapters of Hall’s book, picks up some of the other challenges that graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty have to contend with in the larger spheres of the profession and society. The other advice that Hall provides on personal ownership and collegiality, I believe, remains useful and inspirational. In addition to reading Hall’s book, you should check out his bibliography for further important reading in this vein.

My 900th Post is For My Students, CLEAR Advice for Future Success

With it being the last day of the semester and this being my 900th post on dynamicsubspace.net, I thought that I would offer my writing students some real-world advice that I believe will help them succeed in their endeavors regardless of their future trajectories.

Let’s be clear about something important: The job situation is very bad right now. It might even be worse for upcoming BA and BS students, because there is a substantial rise in the number of undergraduate degree holders. The supply exceeds the demand for degree holders in many fields. Furthermore, many businesses are retaining senior staff while letting go new-hires. This is a new trend, which is certainly good for those persons with experience and seniority, but it is certainly a new hurdle for young folks beginning their careers.

It is with a clear idea in mind of my own experience that I devised this interconnected set of strategies to help you achieve your professional and personal goals: CLEAR, or challenge, learnendeavor, and reinvent.

Challenge: You have to challenge yourself if you want to learn, grow, and develop as an individual. This means that you have to purposefully put yourself into new situations, try new things, and change the way you might normally do things. If you always follow the easy path, you will lack new experiences, which science has shown will add new connections to the pathways in your brain. Pushing the boundaries of what you thought you were capable of will result occasionally in frustration and failure. However, those frustrations and failures will eventually lead to contentment and success. How will it do that? Even when you are frustrated or you don’t succeed at something you thought would work out, you are gaining from the experience of doing those things. Additionally, if you reflect on those experiences in a critically productive way, you will learn new approaches for the next time that you try any given task. Finally, you might consider yourself one of the lucky few who finds education or work easy. What is stopping you from challenging yourself–getting outside of your comfort zone–and becoming even greater than you already are? This is the power of challenging yourself. You can control your own growth if you choose to do so.

Learn: In all the ways that you challenge yourself, you have an opportunity to learn. You can learn from your mistakes as well as the mistakes of others. You can learn from the advice that your teachers, family, and friends offer to you. However, you must assume a critical stance to any learning that you do. Never take things at face value. When you encounter something that offers a lesson or knowledge, why not question its validity? Why not test it in some way? Why not compare it to what other folks are saying? As Kent State students, I also want to stress how you can challenge yourself to learn through the resources that we have available here. First, no great business person, lawyer, nurse, doctor, or other professional achieved their success solely in a classroom. The classroom builds a framework for your professionalization and future work, but it only introduces you to the major themes and ideas in a given discourse. It is up to you to get into the library and read books, magazines, and journals that relate to your interests. It is up to you to use the Internet as a resource for finding out what cutting edge things are taking place right now in your field of study. Combined with your own reading and your classroom experiences, why not also talk to your professors? Ask for extra help on your assignments or exams, but also ask if you can talk with your professors about the things that you read outside of class. Drop a professor an email to make an appointment to talk about an idea or new research that you found challenging. Professors have office hours to help students, and I can think of no greater way to help a student than by discussing concepts that can’t be covered during lecture. Also, these kinds of meetings can help you with your future work by building relationships with other professionals in your field. You will need to ask for recommendation letters one day, and you really want your recommendations to come from professors who actually know who you are rather than just knowing what score you received on a paper or exam.

Endeavor: It is clear that in order to challenge yourself and to learn new things you have to endeavor, or “try hard to do or achieve something.” You more than likely will not achieve the level of success that you might want in life if you are not actively endeavoring to achieve that success. To get a great payback, you have to be willing to put in what may seem initially like a greater amount of time and effort than you expect to get back. This is one problem that we all must overcome in an increasingly technologized and convenient world: We find many goods at the store amazingly cheap. There are places on every corner to get high calorie foods for very little money. Even the university has streamlined itself to make taking courses and planning courses easier for students and their busy lives split between family, friends, work, and extracurricular activities. It is important that you do not become complacent as a result of what might be considered the easy parts of life. In order to challenge yourself to grow and develop, you have to endeavor to do that. You have to push yourself to do more than you want to do or more than you think that you can do. In order to learn, you have to try hard to learn. Merely reading a book won’t automatically give you the knowledge contained within it. You have to endeavor to understand that knowledge. You have to endeavor to find connections between what you are reading and what you already know. And most importantly, you have to endeavor to figure out questions about what you have read so that you will know what to learn more about in the future. On top of this endeavoring to learn, you must also work hard to establish yourself in your field. You need to build relationships (as opposed to merely ‘networking’) with your professors and your friends who share your interests. Go to conferences even if you are not yet ready to present a paper or your research. Find out how your profession operates beyond the job-sphere by joining message forums and email lists. Regularly read the journals of your profession, and perhaps more importantly, join a professional organization as soon as possible. Connected to this kind of professionalism is the importance of getting involved. If you want to make a name for yourself, it will take time and energy before you see a return on that investment. It may take a considerable amount of time and energy, but you mustn’t get discouraged. Hang in there, and others will begin to notice your drive and ambition. Initially, you will have to volunteer to help with research or special projects, but once you are known to be a competent and invested professional, you will be sought out to contribute your expertise. One caveat to this last point: Maintain a commitment to yourself as you endeavor to build your career. You do not have to take on everything or do it all for others. Manage your time and projects that you believe will make a contribution to your field as well as develop your professional standing. It is okay to say ‘no’ when you already have many commitments or when you do not believe that something will benefit your own goals.

Reinvent: The last aspect of a CLEAR approach to success has to do with reinvention. In the past, it was perfectly acceptable and assumed that a person would get specialized training for a singular job or professional career. Unfortunately, job uncertainty and a volatile job market has changed the rules for job preparation significantly. My advice to you is to maintain a concentration of study, but I would avoid professional tunnel vision. You should be mindful of how your field of study relates to other fields. Also, you can maintain an interest in another field of study through your elective courses, a minor, double major, and extra work (either through a job or internship). Widening your experience service two important purposes. First, you make yourself more attractive to a potential employer by demonstrating that you are a job candidate with expertise in more than one area and even more so if you have expertise in complementary disciplines. Second, you can reinvent yourself and your career objectives if you have more than one field of study. This means that if your first choice for a career doesn’t materialize or you get laid off, you will have another potential career path to fall back on. Certainly you can obtain widely divergent degrees or minors, but I would suggest that building strong interdisciplinary connections or complementarity is enormously useful. Let’s say you are a nursing major who gets laid off from your new nursing job. Instead of only doing nursing at Kent State, you also chose to study business or law. With business, you position yourself as a knowledgeable future nurse who may find other employment opportunities in doctor or hospital administration. Also, you could find employment at a medical supplier or other support area in the medical supply chain. Alternatively, with law, you may find work with a law office that handles Social Security, Medicare, or disability claims. Also, you could help your doctor or hospital with similar claims by understanding the medical and legal side of these areas. Furthermore, you could take a completely different path than nursing by pursuing business management or becoming an entrepreneur.  You could go on to pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. Essentially, you have set yourself up for more future potential careers by the choices that you make now. Those choices do not provide an immediate return, but they do give you more options in the not-too-distant future. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself if the need arises. It can be an awfully scary proposition to do something that wasn’t your original career goal, but it is possible and it can be significantly rewarding.

CLEAR Beginnings: First and foremost, you need to get your education done. Your education at Kent State or any other higher education institution is not an entitlement. Showing up for class and performing the very bare minimum requirements will not guarantee you a good grade or future success. Now is the time to seize every opportunity for your personal growth by following my CLEAR advice. It will be difficult, but the rewards might far exceed what your future might be otherwise. Unfortunately, CLEAR cannot guarantee success either, but it will give you a better chance of success than not challenging yourself, not learning more than the minimum, not endeavoring to achieve more, and not giving yourself career latitude by reinventing yourself. I give you this advice, because I do want you all to succeed in your lives and your work. I built these rules for myself a long time ago when I was floundering in my life and educational work. It was only after I picked myself up and brushed off the dust from a rough beginning to my undergraduate career that I realized that I needed to find a better path for myself and that I needed to give that new path all of my personal resources. I had to dig myself out of a hole that I had created for myself through bad grades, but I found it very self-satisfying to begin climbing a mountain after I got myself out of that hole. Many of you are at the very beginning of your life and career paths, so I hope that you are not already in the hole, so to speak. Instead, I want to hear from you in a few years about your experience climbing a mountain to success through your own efforts. Perhaps CLEAR will give you a beginning push on your climb, but you are all very resourceful, so I suspect that you will develop your own methods and tools to help you scale your individual mountain. Be patient and tenacious on your climb, and one day you may reach the summit and breath the clean air of self-satisfying success.