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Mentoring graduate students, Part 1

Randall F. Clemens

I love Shakespeare. No. Wait. That’s not quite right. I really love Shakespeare. 

As an undergrad student, I read most of his plays and all of his sonnets. I visited the Folger Shakespeare Library. I studied literary criticisms. I enrolled in as many Brit Lit classes as possible. And, I constantly thought about his lines and ideas.

As a first-year English teacher, I assumed everyone shared my enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t want to read the greatest play ever written? It’s Hamlet

Teenagers. That’s who. Iambic pentameter and arcane words aren’t always the best attention grabbers. Rookie mistake. I quickly learned my lesson. For Shakespeare—and most of the texts from my former district’s dusty curriculum—the keys to engagement and learning were relevance and connection. My students wanted to know why something was important and how it connected to their lives. Once we answered those questions, more often than not, my students excelled. They began teaching me new things about The Scottish Play.

My experience as a grad student and now professor has not been that different. While I love reading Durkheim, de Certeau, or Lefebvre on a Saturday night, I understood that that’s not everyone’s idea of a weekend well spent. Students have different motivations for attending grad school, and context really matters. My academic experiences as a part-time master’s student at Hopkins and full-time teacher in P.G. County diverged significantly from my experiences as a full-time Ph.D. student and part-time research assistant at USC. Similarly, my involvement probably would have been very different if I had kids.

As a professor, I always try to remember my experiences as a high school teacher. At every step, I wonder: How can I connect the content to the lives of my students, and why is it relevant? I often use backward mapping. In other words, what will students need to write an excellent dissertation or become an outstanding school leader?

Of course, all students need a foundational knowledge, even if that includes dense, obscure texts by brilliant French theorists. But, relevance should always be clear.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss some basic resources that all beginning graduate students should know and use.