University of Hard Knocks Issue Zero: Nails On A Chalkboard

University of Hard Knocks Issue Zero: Nails On A Chalkboard

Welcome to the University of Hard Knocks , an email newsletter about higher ed that I tried and failed to name with the help of an ancient name generator website.  I'm writing this first installment directly into the CMS because I am hoping that the adrenaline rush will get me to finally send out this thing. I am basically like Tom Cruise doing his own stunts, but for newsletters about higher ed.

My name is Jim McGrath, and I've been working in higher ed for just around twenty years. I am currently a part-time instructional designer at Salem State University and I occasionally teach courses alongside that work (most recently some online asynchronous courses in public history for Arizona State University). I have a doctorate in English from Northeastern University and I spent five years as a postdoctoral research associate at Brown University's John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities (RIP to the JNBC as of July 1 2023!), where I taught courses attended by graduate students and undergraduates (and one summer course for high school students!). My website has lots more context and info on courses I've taught, digital projects I've worked on, writing I've published, etc.

I've been at SSU since the summer of 2020 in a contractor role (ie the pay is good but the job is precarious and does not provide benefits or job security beyond our current contract). I enjoy a lot of what I do at SSU and my experiences there obviously inform the way I think about teaching and higher ed, but I'll just note that the opinions expressed here do not represent the views of my employer.

I've numbered this first installment "Issue Zero" because it's kind of an overview of why I am writing this thing and why you might want to read this thing. But it is also selfishly a moment where I can actually take a step back and think for real about why I am writing this thing and why someone might want to sign up or just lurk online without signing up (either option works for me).

I guess the short explanation, delineated in bullet point format, is:

  • I like thinking about and writing about my ongoing experiences in higher ed and I am still there but no longer trust Twitter / I don't really think I'm reaching that many folks on Mastodon / I am bugging people for a Bluesky invite but one has yet to materialize
  • I do like to blog but I want a space that is more for "ripped from the headlines" thoughts on higher ed and honestly a bit more disposable / think-out-loud, and I think giving myself arbitrary deadlines will motivate me to write more in other spaces too
  • I am generally bummed by what is happening to spaces where I previously learned about higher ed stuff and I hope that the "what I've been reading elements of this newsletter will at least get stuff on the radar of other people (and motivate me to seek out stuff to read)
  • As someone who does not currently have a permanent job in higher ed (see above), I want to get my perspectives and expertise out there in a more visible way as I think about my future in higher ed (and whether I think there is a future for me in higher ed)
  • Seriously though, if you want to talk to me about paid gigs (especially permanent employment opportunities in the Greater Boston / Providence areas, email me: jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail[dotcom]

I started working in higher ed back in 2003, when I was barely 21 and barely older than the undergraduates I was being paid to teach as part of my graduate student stipend duties. I had been fortunate (though it didn't seem that way at the time!) to teach for a few months before heading off to grad school, as part of a summer reading enrichment program that set up shop at various schools and colleges across New York and New Jersey. So I knew what lesson plans were (they were provided for us at this program) and I had already been introduced to metacognitive teaching strategies (because parents attended the class sessions for our younger students so they could learn how to encourage their kids to read at home).

I was also fortunate to go to grad school at a time where students entering MA programs could still get stipends for teaching; if I had been born a few years later or had decided to wait a few years to go to grad school, I probably would not have been able to afford pursuing the degree. I was barely able to afford it then! And sometimes I do feel like the Peter Parker living in the multiverse where he decided to go six figures in debt instead of becoming a superhero, but then I remember that Peter Parker also has student loans and is one unhappy mf when he is not shooting webs at goblins.

I don't think many folks are shocked anymore when they learn that folks who teach college often don't get a lot of training or come to the job with a lot of teaching experience. For example, I've met a few tenure-track instructors in recent years who hadn't taught their own classes before getting those gigs. And part of the reason some of folks got those gigs was because they prioritized research and publishing over teaching! This newsletter may come in handy for some of those folks, but it's definitely written from the perspective of someone who has spent more time teaching than working on monographs or peer-reviewed articles, and I imagine it might resonate with that audience a bit more too.

Part of the reason that folks are no longer shocked about the current state of higher ed is due to blogs and social media networks like Twitter. There are downsides to the discourse modes prevalent in both spaces due to social capital and the hypercommodification of the web and Twitter being a cesspool of transphobia and misinformation (among many other things), but I am hoping to extract some of the positive takeaways from my time in those spaces and model some of the generosity and transparency and thoughtfulness I've seen online.

In terms of topics, I will likely skew a bit towards my own pedagogical leanings and interests. I am particularly interested in digital pedagogy and campus digital literacies (administrative, faculty, student, staff, etc.). I care a lot about academic labor. I have most recently taught courses in public history and public humanities and I will likely do so again in the near future. I enjoy thinking about project development and project management in the context of courses and beyond. I am interested in collaboration in academic spaces and the challenges that often face collaborators in those spaces. I like to poke at perceptions of faculty "support" in university contexts and what it might mean to revise that language and its attendant ideas of academic labor in favor of methodologies and forms of institutional support that share (and acknowledge) authority in more generative and creative ways. I dislike academic jargon despite being the person who also wrote that last convoluted sentence. My hypocrisy knows no bounds, apparently.

In terms of format, we'll see how things go. I will be trying to share links to recent reads on a regular basis, and they will at times be accompanied by hot takes and monologues and jokes. In terms of frequency, I'm aiming for at least one weekly installment, but I might write more (or less!) depending on the week and the paid work that I have to prioritize. I will likely turn comments off the newsletter site, but if you're not a jerk you can feel free to email me or find me on Twitter (for now) if you want to talk more about anything. I also reserve the right to turn this thing into whatever I want it to be and to transform that thing into another thing.

For now, here's a quick plug for Teaching Public History! Edited by Julia Brock and Evan Faulkenbury, this book collects reflections on specific public history courses from a wide range of practitioners. I have a chapter in here titled "Digital Restorative Justice in the Public History Classroom: Data Literacy and Archival Literacy in Mapping Violence." It's about a course I co-taught with Monica Muñoz Martinez and TA Edwin Rodrigues  for Brown University's Ethnic Studies concentration in the Spring of 2020. The book came out in May via UNC Press and should be available for purchase or borrowing at a wide range of places, but if you'd like a preprint copy of my chapter because you can't find it elsewhere, send me an email!



Actually, here's one more thing. As terrible as the title of this newsletter is, it could have been so much worse! Here are some of the rejected name candidates and some context on why they did not cut the digital mustard:

  • McSchool (my last name is McGrath but also McDonald's exists)
  • Jim and The Lesson Plans (like Jem and The Holograms but worse)
  • Taking Back September (I still kind of like this one but I would feel like a poser because I was already too cool for emo when that all first got underway)
  • Haven’t Taught A Clue (I like this one but also it kind of makes it seem like a newsletter you don’t want to read tbh)
  • Learn The Candle At Both Ends (I actually typed this one in the text box where Tinyletter asks you to put the title of your newsletter but then I deleted it)
  • Fifty Grades Of Grey (didn’t want to give people the wrong idea of what I’d be talking about here!)
  • God Is Read (this one scared me actually)
  • You’re Gonna Read A Bigger Boat (unclear why they didn’t swap “Boat” out for “Book” but I am no Peter Benchley)
  • Some Like It Taught (I like this one but I think it's taken, sadly)


Thanks for reading! For now you can still get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath or via Mastodon (seriously can someone get me a Bluesky invite? thank youuuu), or you can email me at jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail[dotcom]