What I learned this semester, part 1

I learned a lot this semester. It’s not quite over yet, but I thought it might be a good idea to reflect on it before December turned into January and I was right back in the thick of things again. I want to be organized, so I’m going to use the finely-tuned method of numbering. As the title of this post suggests, this is the first of at least two posts about what I learned this semester.

1. Discussion is the best way to learn. Both of my classes this semester contained a strong discussion/critique component, and both classes pushed me to conceptualize material in new ways because of these discussions. Not only do various people have different ways of approaching material, but they also glean different insights and have different critical frameworks. In practice, this means that reading a book by myself and not discussing it leads to a much less thorough understanding than reading a book and discussing it with others. This is also true in my research-based class, where my own work was read and critiqued by my professor and classmates. They picked out things in my writing that I said poorly, did not fully explain, or needed to clarify, in a way I never would have been capable of seeing my own work. They pushed me to think deeply about the impact of my thesis and connect it with broader themes in American history. In short, their critical feedback and discussion made my paper much, much better than it would have been on its own.

2. Discussion can be painful. Even though #1 above is true, this doesn’t mean the process was always comfortable or enjoyable. When I received the first round of feedback on my paper, in seminar, and listened to my classmates and professor intelligently dismantle key parts of my painstaking labor, it hurt. As I mentioned in another blog post, I couldn’t really look at the paper for the better part of a week after that day in class. But after “getting back up on the horse,” so to speak, I found that their comments and criticism had the potential to take my work beyond normal “schoolwork” and into the realm of “scholarship.” That was (and is) an exciting possibility. The same is true for my colloquium. I have taken positions in that class which reflected my ignorance or perhaps my naiivete. Some of these positions have been firmly challenged by my classmates, causing me to rethink my ideas about history and historical actors. This process can be incredibly unpleasant at times, leading me to come home from this class feeling totally disenchanted and embarrased for my grade-school views. A few days later I try to think through the issues again and find that I have either internalized the critiques or created a decently rational defense for my original position. Either way this is a positive thing, and could only happen through the discussion process.

3. Using available resources is crucial. One of my favorite things about being a graduate student is the fantastic level of institutional support I receive. I’m not talking about money, but rather the dedication of people all over the university to make sure my endeavors are successful. Case in point: the library. I met with the “History Librarian” in the early stages of my paper to talk about sources and go over the library’s holdings. Not only was this guy (Elliot Brandow) a great source of information about the library, but he was genuinely committed to the success of my project. He helped me get setup with the microfilm machine (which I might talk about in another post – I spent many, many hours in front of it) even though it wasn’t his area of the library, and kept his eye out for sources even after our meeting was over. In a different vein, Boston College also provides an entire house for graduate students, including several study rooms, free coffee, and some recreation activities. I studied there quite often and availed myself of the pool table with other grad students. 

Stay tuned for part two of this post, coming soon. 


2 thoughts on “What I learned this semester, part 1

  1. Had you gone on to graduate school right out of college, do you think you would be this insightful about your own work, and would the impact have been the same?

  2. That’s a good question. On the one hand, I think I’m probably more able to reflect honestly on my work than I used to be. On the other hand, I’m not as malleable as I used to be – which means that I might not internalize the stuff that I’m learning quite as completely.

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