Tips on Surviving Coursework

Leave a comment

Co-written by Sarita Mizin and Dashielle Horn

Coursework is the cornerstone of beginning graduate studies. It is usually the first thing we commit to when deciding to pursue anM.A. or Ph.D.. To continue the conversation already started by Jimmy on our blog ( ), we would like to offer some tips for handling the rigors of the graduate classroom.

In your classes:

  1. Get organized: Much of what you read you will encounter again down the line, whether in subsequent classes, reading groups, or your own research. Your life will be immeasurably easier if you take careful notes and establish a reliable and consistent way to organize and save them. This goes double for theory and criticism—take notes on the main argument and especially important support/passages. Believe me, I didn’t do this very reliably, and I so so so wish I did.
  2. Work your own way. Everybody reads and writes in different ways and at different tempos. Do not compare your work habits to others. DON’T do it. Take care of yourself and think deeply about what you feel you are getting out of the work you put into your courses. It’s not about competing- but reading and producing scholarship that is meaningful to you.
  3. Read Thoughtfully. Yes- there is a lot of reading. Secret: The reading will not always get done. But it is important to read carefully and thoughtfully even when you cannot read completely. This will help you know what texts you might want to revisit later and appreciate without a paper deadline looming on the horizon.
  4. Listen with kindness. Class discussions can get heated- with differing opinions being thrown about around a table at lightning speed- and you might feel the temptation to shout- or laugh. But first of all listen to what others say and frame your own ideas in response to your comrades-in-coursework. Many might feel the need to prove something- many will be insecure- but this does not mean that what they are saying does not have meaning. Coursework is a collaborative learning experience- and the more you share and consider what others have said- even if you disagree with them- the more you will get out of it. So listen with kindness and understanding- and if you cannot think of a specific way of connecting your own thoughts to those that have shared before you- speak your mind, and ask those who have spoken if they might be able to see a connection you are missing.
  5. SPEAK! It is difficult to find courage in a room full of strangers. But- this is your education and your opportunity. Be fearless- but if you cannot- share your fears with your classroom community and you might find yourselves overcoming them together.

And finally- know there is much more to graduate school than coursework alone!

In your graduate life:

  1. Be a part of the departmental community. Your fellow grad students will be a fantastic support network. Even beyond your cohort, it’s also helpful to establish relationships with older grad students. They’ve been through everything you’re doing now, and have great advice. My first year was 1000% less stressful thanks to guidance from people like Emily and David. I still bounce ideas off them, and ask for advice on things like the dissertation proposal. These are your colleagues, so bond!
  2. Connect with the faculty. You may not get the chance to take a class from a particular professor in your field your first year, so take every chance you can to get to know him or her, particularly in a scholarly context. Down the line, you may want to work with them in an independent study or on your thesis, so developing these relationships early is crucial.
  3. Take advantage of reading groups and lectures. Because we are a small department, the courses offered each semester are somewhat limited. Reading groups help fill in the gaps. If you want to bone up on your theory, join Sarita’s Theory Reading Group (Thursdays at noon). If you’re interested in Gothic literature, join Laura’s Gothic Reading Group (Fridays at 4). Etc. Or if you want to study a particular thing and 3-4 other people want to as well, start your own reading group! Nineteenth-century literature of unicorns? A bit niche, but why not! Similarly, the speakers that Lehigh attracts are often tremendously interesting. Whether brought by the Humanities Center, the Friends of the Library, Africana Studies, or American Studies (and I list only a few for the sake of brevity), we get fantastic lectures. Last year, a number of us met a theoretical rockstar in what I lovingly call “Spivak Week.” Yes, Gayatri Spivak shook my hand, joked about my name, and said things like “if you’re not a feminist, you’re not doing scholarship right” (I paraphrase. See Sarita’s upcoming Spivak retrospective for more gems!) One of the advantages to attending an affluent private school is that we attract major names- Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt, and Spivak are just the start. Similarly, if there’s a scholar you want to bring to campus, you can do that! It takes some legwork, but you can arrange for them to come to give a lecture!


    Avoid this by spending time doing something for yourself. Work-life balance! It’s a thing!

  4. Remember- you are a graduate student- but you are also many other things. Graduate school is something you do- but not necessarily the way you define yourself. Balance your coursework and teaching duties with having a life you can call your own outside of the department- talk to strangers who aren’t graduate students- take care of your health by playing a sport or joining fitness classes on or off campus- speak to people outside of your department- these are all options, but most of all- be sure that you have something else in your life that you can love- even if it’s just going for walks on sunny days, or getting lost in a poem that hasn’t been assigned to you.

To others out of coursework: add your tips below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s