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Featured Members Tracy Hodges, Katherine Wright – Learning from others on the road to the professoriate

Tracey Hodges and Katherine L. Wright
Tracey Hodges (L) and Katherine Wright (R)

TAA’s featured member profiles generally feature veteran textbook and academic authors and industry experts. In this issue we are delighted to feature two recent doctoral-recipients-turned-assistant-professors.

Tracey S. Hodges is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi where she teaches graduate and undergraduate literacy courses. In addition, Tracey conducts research focusing on writing strategies, instruction with text structures, and content area literacy.

Katherine L. Wright is an Assistant Professor at Boise State University in the Department of Literacy, Language & Culture. Her research interests include reading and writing motivation, second language content-area literacy, writing-to-learn, and scientific literacy development.

Tracey and Katherine received their doctorate degrees from Texas A&M University in summer 2015 and summer 2016, respectively.

Here Tracey and Katherine share insights on their writing practices, lessons learned, and their experiences chasing rabbits and becoming the rabbit to be chased.

TAA: The chasing rabbits metaphor is a concept that both of you refer to regarding your academic writing development processes. Can you explain what you are referring to and why that metaphor rings true?

Tracey Hodges: “‘Chasing rabbits’ is actually a term Katherine came up with. Often, we would chat about how to make it through graduate school, and one of the common ideas we discussed was about finding mentors and following what they do. Our logic was that if these people could be successful and maintain a healthy balance, we should follow suit. When I first started graduate school, I did this unconsciously by befriending the more senior doctoral students. After I met Katherine, she provided the name!

Initially, I found myself looking for an all-encompassing mentor ‘rabbit’. I wanted to find the person who did it all—enjoyed free time, published and conducted research consistently, and managed all the other parts of academia. Quickly, I discovered this ‘person’ was more of an idea. Instead, I found mentors who each had a unique way of managing everything, but were humble in saying that they didn’t successfully do it all. One of my first mentors, a more senior graduate student, helped me figure out how to read articles with a system and take notes on my observations. Through another senior graduate student, I saw how to prioritize family and friends while still getting my work done. As I followed numerous examples, I started to figure out small pieces of the larger puzzle that I could bring to my own life and personality. Over time, this morphed into my own approach for academia. My hope is that each person I mentor in the future can benefit from these experiences.”

Katherine Landau Wright: “The ‘chasing the rabbit’ metaphor came from when I was training to run a half marathon about six years ago. I had never been a distance runner and struggled to find a maintainable pace. So I would meet up with a local running group once a week, find someone who was just a little faster than me, and just keep them in my view for the whole run. They were my rabbit—I wasn’t trying to pass them, just learn from them.

When I started graduate school I had a similar experience in that there were so many things I could get involved in, and everything seemed urgent and important. I’m very much a people-pleaser, so I wanted to say yes to everything. But I quickly realized that if I did not establish a maintainable pace, I was going to burn out. That’s when Tracey came into the picture. Tracey was about a year ahead of me, and seemed to have found a rigorous but maintainable pace for her writing and research. So she became my first rabbit and role model.

Like most graduate students, I was still feeling quite a bit of “impostor syndrome”. I was a solidly average student for most of my educational career, and have always had to work very hard to keep up with my peers. I had this idea that if I looked around me for models to follow, I would do a better job at ‘tricking’ everyone into believing I was worthy of being in academia! So I watched both graduate students and faculty members and asked questions to learn not just what they were doing, but how they were doing it. I tried to mirror them as best I could, and looking back now I realize I wasn’t tricking anyone, I was really doing what I needed to be a successful academic!”

TAA: What are the two most important lessons that you learned from chasing your rabbits?

TH: “As I worked through graduate school, I found some idiosyncrasies about myself that I wanted to understand better. Dr. Pat Goodson, one of my mentors, presented me with the idea of tracking my writing time. Now that I am an assistant professor, I track five categories: research, teaching, service, writing, and personal. Through this self-study, I can figure out what my best working times are and how long tasks take to complete. I use this data to plan out my weeks and make more informed choices, which prevents me from overloading myself. In tracking myself, I learned that I don’t write much or often on Thursdays or in the month of June. As a result, I plan meetings and non-writing activities for Thursdays and vacations for June. Surprisingly, when I share this approach with new colleagues, they want to try it too!

A second lesson I have learned is that accountability is a must! Throughout graduate school, my faculty advisor created accountability groups for doctoral students she was mentoring. We met weekly to discuss our goals, accomplishments, and struggles. By being in this group, I was more prepared to tackle what was thrown at me and I had a support system that could keep me in check. Some weeks, I was not using my time most effectively and they helped me work through that, or if I was overloaded, they made me take tasks off my plate. Now, as an assistant professor, I have continued this trend by creating collaborations with other junior faculty. We meet weekly to discuss goals and even have writing sessions. The support lets me know I have a team helping me succeed, and people who are counting on me for guidance and support. It’s humbling and motivating.”

KLW: “One of the first lessons I had to learn was to not be afraid to ask questions. The expectations for graduate students are really high, and at first I think I was afraid to expose what I didn’t know. I discovered that most people are more than willing to listen to your concerns and help find solutions to problems. Furthermore, since academia is so highly competitive, I think it is nice to take some time once in a while to let someone know you see how successful they have been and ask for tips and strategies.

The second big lesson I have learned goes back to that idea of impostor syndrome. The more questions I asked the less I felt I had to pretend to have more expertise than I did. While this was scary at times because it did make me more vulnerable, I began to feel that I deserved to be where I was. Amazingly, once I stopped trying to be something I wasn’t, the impostor syndrome feelings of inadequacy went away!”

TAA: Are there rabbits that you shouldn’t chase, but that you still learn from?

KLW: “I really do try to learn something from everyone, even if they are people I do not want to be like. For instance, I worked with one professor who is incredibly productive and successful, but I also realized this individual struggled to make time for life outside of the university. Just because I don’t want to mirror this person’s trajectory exactly doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the areas where they are most successful. Everyone has areas of strength and areas for growth, and ideally I can pick up little tips and ideas from different people and continue to improve myself in multiple facets of my life.”

TH: “Some of the best lessons I have learned come from the people I saw struggle. There have been projects I worked on that proved to be more time-consuming and stressful than their outcomes suggested they would be, and I have worked with people who were unreliable or not dedicated to projects. But, I do not see any mentor or task I chased as being invaluable. Through each of these experiences, I found new skills. I also learned compassion that has allowed me to be more patient and understanding in difficult situations.”

TAA: What inspired you to transition to become both mentee and mentor?

KLW: “I remember my very first week in graduate school I was sitting in a coffee shop with Chyllis Scott (another TAA member) who was in her last year of the program. I was asking her a stream of what I thought was silly questions: How do I order text books? What kind of research can I do? What do you mean you have a writing schedule? The list went on and on. I felt bad for taking her time and kept apologizing. She told me not to worry, because someone had been there for her, and that I would pay it forward in a few years. At the time it seemed impossible that I would ever be knowledgeable enough to provide that kind of support to someone else, yet last year I found myself sitting with two newer graduate students answering the same types of questions.

I know I did not get to this point on my own—I had help and support every step along the way. I can say ‘thank you’ a million times, but I believe that paying it forward by supporting others is the most authentic way I can honor those who have been (and continue to be!) my mentors.”

TH: “I have been lucky to be surrounded by amazing mentors, but I also realize that there is more than luck involved. As Katherine said, the idea of ‘paying it forward’ was a given and expectation in our mentoring process, thanks to mentors such as Erin McTigue, Dominique Chlup, and Pat Goodson. It’s all about creating an environment that allows people to grow and supports them no matter what. I can say I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the few years I’ve been in academia, but I’ve never felt less than or deterred by them. Because of this environment, I don’t think twice about asking questions. I feel I can be me and do what I need to do to be successful. That is truly the most rewarding and priceless value of wonderful mentors. Now, I keep this idea going by trying to provide this same environment to my graduate students, and even undergraduate students, I mentor. We meet weekly to discuss goals and achievements, and I encourage them to make mistakes, ask questions, and pave their own path to success.”

TAA: What are your favorite TAA benefits?

TH: “I think the annual conference is worth its weight in gold! When June rolls around and I attend the conference, I feel so much support and get inspiration. For the past three years (the years I’ve gone to the conference), July has been my most productive writing month of the year. That can’t be a coincidence!”

KLW: “I’m not sure if this counts as an official benefit, but I love the community that comes with being a part of the TAA family! I’ve really enjoyed going to the annual conference and meeting people outside of my academic-bubble who have different perspectives on writing and the writing process.”