Why and how, pt. 2

Continuing the thought process from this post, in talking with more and more people about my curriculum, it occurs to me that launching my program ideas is not so unlike getting a dissertation project off the ground. Here are some of the questions I asked myself then, which I am again asking myself as I develop and pitch my curriculum:

1. What is the problem that attracts your attention? As a grad student I spent a long time trying out different project ideas until I finally found some really funny and intriguingly strange texts that few people seemed to have read and even fewer bothered to write about. I just couldn’t stop thinking about them. Now the primary problem I’m tackling is how to support youth (especially those who have been involved in the foster care system) during their transition to adulthood. It took me years to find a dissertation topic—something that stoked my curiosity and sustained my attention—but just as some people are fortunate enough to stumble upon their topics early in their graduate careers, I encountered the problem of youth aging out of the system not even a month after my graduation.

2. How is your approach unique, and why is it valuable? It was relatively easy to produce unique readings of texts that are largely ignored. The larger challenge was doing it well enough that I could build a convincing case for treating these texts collectively as a significant, but largely unexplored, facet of the author’s political thought. In my current work I pitch my workshops as aimed at the “whole person.” Rather than telling people how to write resume or interview to get a job, I want to talk about the difference between a job and a career, between a career and a calling—and help them find the latter. Instead of dictating to people what they should be eating, I want young people to be able to choose for themselves what and how they eat taking into account health concerns, competing dietary advice, personal tastes, and budget constraints. More generally, in place of defining adulthood as a daunting stage in life where one must finish school and get a job in order to pay all kinds of bills, I want to get youth to think deeply about the type of people they want to become—how they want to contribute to the world, how to define their place in society and make their way there slowly but surely. Echoing the philosophy of the folks at Youth Advocacy Center, I firmly believe that all young people are potential resources, not just problems to fix.

3. How will you pitch your ideas to others? In grad school this task entailed a lot of writing and rewriting, and just a few conversations and presentations along the way. I’m finding now that it’s more important to be able to communicate my ideas orally. My mentor (yes, I have a mentor!) recently reminded me that I need to keep eye contact with the person I’m talking to because I have the habit of looking up when trying to recall information. There is definitely a sales aspect to all this that I could largely ignore in academia, where of course everyone is always trying to push ideas often in an effort to secure jobs or funding, but no one would deign to call it “selling,” even if we regularly didn’t “buy” certain arguments. I was quite shy as a grad student, but what enables me to do this without as much reservation is that I am not intellectually attached to these ideas. I know my project is a reflection of my deepest beliefs, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel as intimate as my academic work, as if the latter somehow bared my soul. I don’t think that is true today. In fact, I think my work now more fully represents who I am—not just how I think. This is also why the selling doesn’t make me feel smarmy. As the best sales people will tell you, if you really believe in what you’re selling, you’ll feel like you’re doing a service to your customers and clients.

4. Who are the people who can help you? All dissertation writers need an adviser and a few readers, and this involves talking to a lot of faculty members to see if their interests and methodologies align with yours and convincing them that your project merits their attention. As I mentioned above, my writing almost always led the way, and in fact guaranteed that professors would want to work with me. (Before I decided on my dissertation topic, I also spent a lot of time pitching vague ideas to many professors I didn’t end up working with, which seems like a waste of time, but sometimes you have to talk ideas out to see if they have any grain of promise.) What I also learned in the process is that it’s much better if you also like the temperament of your readers. There was one professor I initially asked to be my adviser, but as my project developed, I realized that I would rather have an adviser who knew less about my content area but whose quieter and gentler approach brought out better work from me.

I’m still trying to navigate around the field and build up my network, but most people I’ve met so far have been incredibly generous with their time—much more so than most university professors. I’ve already gotten some contradictory advice on all manner of things, but as with any sort of idea, you have to choose to follow the suggestions that appear to make the most sense and don’t completely derail your initial vision—unless you yourself decide that vision was flawed to begin with. What I’ve noticed is that as my ideas solidify, I can attend informational meetings with increasing confidence. It’s the difference between approaching a professor as a humble grad student and discussing your project with that same professor as a peer. No matter how new your are to the table, you can present yourself as an expert with a lot of careful thought and preparation.

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