Blog Post

She Said/She Said: Grad Student Collaboration and Conquering Fear

Two HASTAC Scholars talk about the fear involved in putting yourself out there for the world to see

Deanna Stover (DS): I’ve been a HASTAC Scholar for, to put it kindly, over a year. And I have yet to publish anything on the blog. I’ve drafted numerous posts and then . . . just stopped. I have things to say, but fear got in the way. Public scholarship is difficult. It’s scary to put yourself out there.

Michaela Baca (MB): I’ve been a HASTAC Scholar for nearly a year, and I also have not published anything on the blog. Deanna was actually the person who told me about HASTAC in the first place and I was so excited to join, but after I did, I just froze up. 

But what were we afraid of?

DS: When I was first accepted as a HASTAC Scholar, I was so excited about the opportunity to share my ideas and work with others. But then I realized, oh my, I have to talk to people I don’t know. I have a hard enough time on Twitter, overthinking things I’ve posted in the past, worried about how it will affect me on the job market. To put a blog out or to try to coordinate with people from other institutions felt overwhelming. And then, once a certain amount of time had passed, I felt like I wasn’t really a HASTAC Scholar. I even took it off my CV for some applications since I hadn’t published anything. Shame set in, and I felt like I’d wasted so much of my time being afraid that now I was stuck. 

MB: It’s funny: I’m basically the opposite of Deanna. My personality is pretty direct, and I don’t mind public speaking or talking to people. I felt like HASTAC was a perfect place for me because of it. 

DS: She is direct. Michaela has really helped push me to get over my own fears when it comes to HASTAC. Sometimes you need to find a motivation partner. 

MB: But now it’s been nearly a year and here I am, uncharacteristically silent (though definitely opinionated). I’ve got things to say, so why am I not saying them? Part of it, I think, is that last year I took my preliminary exams, and the resulting admission to candidacy led straight to Imposter Syndrome. I’d never felt that particular sensation before, and I can’t say I liked it. But, I was so down about my own ideas and research passions, I ended up feeling like anything I had to say about sharing my knowledge with others was completely worthless.

DS: I definitely agree with Michaela. While her ideas certainly aren’t worthless—and mine aren’t either—graduate school can make you feel like they are. Writing for a public platform can exaggerate those feelings of inadequacy, especially when you’re out of course work and feeling really, well, alone in your research and teaching. Our program does a great job of encouraging us and we have an excellent HASTAC mentor, but at the end of the day, it’s still a really lonely experience. 

MB: Yes, and sometimes the loneliness makes it feel like teaching is private. And that privacy means that no one ever has to see what happens in our individual classrooms unless we have a planned evaluation. Then we all put on the show of the perfect teacher and demonstrate the best class ever. Somehow that day becomes more important than all the other days, imperfect as they may be. But honestly, all those other days lead to the one perfect day, so maybe we should celebrate our work more than we do. Even so, the vulnerability of putting my own thoughts about teaching onto a public platform was a constant reminder of how inexperienced I am in relation to so many other people. I’ve taught classes before, so what do I actually have to contribute to conversations about teaching? I’ve realized that being new to something doesn’t necessarily mean that my voice isn’t important.

DS: Has this affected your life as a graduate student beyond your teaching?

MB: Yes! In addition to teaching for my department, I work in our University Writing Center, and through it, I have read a lot about learning, teaching, and collaborating. One thing that has stuck with me is the idea of the “expert” and the “novice.” In my experience, many of my university-level classes have been taught by (duh) experts. And I’ve always felt like a total novice next to these amazingly intelligent people. When I’m teaching, I often feel like a novice charading as an expert, but I’m learning that because I haven’t forgotten the feeling of being new at something, of being over my head, I can connect with my students and create assignments that are meaningful to them and give them transferable skills. That isn’t to say that I’m 100% amazing and successful, but part of trying new things and taking risks is figuring out how to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and that is the most empowering skill that I have developed as a teacher so far.

DS: The other source of my fear derives from the question: what should I really be focusing on right now? When I first told my advisor about HASTAC, she was supportive but asked me about how it would impact my work on my dissertation. I’m currently a sixth-year PhD student and, ideally, I should have been done by now. I decided to apply anyway because I wanted people to hear more about my teaching. Although I’ve only been teaching/grading for six years, I have come up with several creative assignments that students have enjoyed, but then I realized, what if people don’t like my ideas? What if they’re not scholarly enough? Imposter syndrome set in. Who am I to talk about teaching or technology when I’m still figuring it all out?

MB: How did you find a way out of that bind?

DS: You! But, of course, then came the balancing act. How do I do this and my dissertation? I realized what my advisor’s question had been: a warning that I might be splitting myself in too many directions. She was right; I wasn’t prepared to try to write for HASTAC and myself. But I was right too. HASTAC is important, and I realized once you were accepted, that us working together might help solve both problems: I could get over my fear of writing for the world all alone, and I could find a way to balance the workload through collaboration. Since I already knew you, some of the fear subsided. But we wanted to share what it felt like to be afraid and paralyzed in case other people, both HASTAC Scholars and the general public, feel the same kind of fear about public scholarship and writing for an audience that feels a little more real than articles or dissertations that appeal to a slightly smaller set of people.  

MB: I like the idea of collaboration for so many reasons. I’m a huge advocate of writing not being an isolated practice; the more people I involve in my own writing, the more feedback I get. Sometimes I get stuck and I have to talk it out with someone. Sometimes I need to work and can’t muster the motivation on my own, and just having someone sitting next to me working helps me get stuff done. However, our discipline largely turns its nose up at collaborative writing projects. We’re a single author kind of discipline (notice that I was just talking about collaborating on my own, single-authored ideas). Working at the Writing Center has helped me see that this isn’t necessarily a common, or even a best, practice. 

DS: I’ve collaborated in the past on a digital edition for Scholarly Editing, and it was a really life-altering experience. I didn’t have to write alone?! I think so much of the humanities has traditionally been very isolated, especially with the emphasis on monographs, but I also think that’s changing with the rise of DH. Digital skills are collaborative. The two of us have also collaborated before. We worked together to create an exhibit for Frankenreads with Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University. My class created a physical poster exhibit with a class from Visualization and Michaela’s class created digital posters and placards for the exhibit. Having worked together in the past, I knew we would be a good fit and that some of the problems that can come along with collaboration weren’t going to hinder us.

MB: The Frankenreads exhibit was a stressful but fun experience for us. (Look in this space in the future for a reflection on this project!) . That experience helped us discover that we were the kinds of friends who could work together through the inevitable obstacles of collaboration and create something that we were proud of. That was an assignment/event that neither of us could have pulled off alone.

DS: I guess the takeaway from this is that you don’t have to do it alone. So much of HASTAC is collaborative already, but I really advise new HASTAC Scholars to take advantage of that

MB: So much yes, Deanna! Collaboratively writing a blog post may not be everyone’s way of getting comfortable being uncomfortable, but it helped us conquer our fears of becoming a contributing part of the HASTAC community. 

DS: So, get ready. Michaela and I will have more collaborative posts to come!


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