Friday, July 29, 2011

Special Thanks and Coming Up

Thanks again to Toby Coley for two great posts this week on approaching and tackling the dissertation.

Next week will kick off with the second installment of the "Strategies" series!

Here are some of the topics for posts you'll find here in the near future: following through on goals, changing your writing space, being a happy writer, negotiating teaching and writing. But as always, I'd love to hear from you as to what kinds of problems, topics you'd like to see discussed on this blog.

The semester is approaching fast. Don't forget to take a break if you haven't already!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Choosing a Dissertation Topic (and staying with it), Part 2

As promised, here is the second installment of "Choosing a Dissertation Topic.

3. Choose an appropriate advisor (and committee).

There are at least three factors to consider when choosing a dissertation advisor: specialty, interest, and personality.

· Advisor Specialty

Whatever your dissertation topic, your advisor should have interest in it, and preferably, expertise in some aspect of the topic. In my case, I chose an expert in computers and writing who I knew to be willing to chair my dissertation. To fill out the rest of my committee, I chose a research specialist-since I was conducting qualitative research—with interests in ethics and a religion and rhetoric expert: meaning that all three of my interests were covered. Some of you may not be fortunate enough to cover each aspect of your dissertation based on faculty availability, but the key is ultimately your advisor.

· Advisor Interest

Interest is not the same as expertise. You need to ASK your would-be advisor if he or she has an interest in your topic. By interest I mean, would she enjoy reading about topic X and learning more about it? Would she encourage you to ask important questions about the topic? Would she be supportive of you and this project all the way through until the end? The answers to these questions are mostly predicated on the advisor’s responses, but you can start by considering the previous point (what is the potential advisor’s specialty and professional interests?). Mostly, when in doubt, ASK.

· Advisor Personality

Finally, your advisor’s personality is a key factor in your success. Really. Choose an advisor whom you know to be competent (that goes without saying, but I said it anyway), reliable, and timely. I knew the work ethic and response rate of my advisor, but I still could not have foreseen everything: though I ended up with the best advisor I could have hoped for. Do your research on your advisor (and committee), including their CV, publications, interactions with students, interactions with fellow colleagues (your other committee members), commenting style, and teaching style. These things matter. One of the best ways to learn about a potential advisor is to take a class (or two) with him. In the end, this person will be one of the most important factors in your success, along with those in the next recommendation.

4. Have a support network

Doesn’t everyone have a support network? Well, no. I found that a supportive group of people was integral to my survival as an academic and as an individual.

· Family

Perhaps the single most effective support structure is family. Why? They care for you no matter what and will stick by you. Wives, husbands, children, mothers and fathers, siblings, etc. all contribute—if you let them. If you keep the people that you care about involved and updated, they can offer counseling and support in a multitude of ways: including offering advise about topics.

· Colleagues

The important thing about colleagues is that they are likely going through the same experience as you and can share their own. Don’t underestimate the value of other’s experiences and venting to colleagues. Additionally, they can keep an eye out for helpful readings they might run across or signs of burnout.

· Friends

Hopefully, some of your colleagues are also friends and can provide support at various levels. A dinner with friends, game night, and just relaxing are all important along the way and these people can be great sounding boards for potential topics: they know you and your interests and are likely to ask questions you didn’t anticipate.

Finally, with these four recommendations in mind, you can decrease your chances of switching topics at some point through your dissertation. Expect doubts to creep in though. I almost switched topics a year in, but friends and family convinced me otherwise and I am GLAD I LISTENED! Be who you are, choose a topic that compliments your personality and interests. Be an expert at your interests and you are likely to find that the research and writing will be a joy to you. REMEMBER: your running a marathon, not sprinting a 100-yard dash.


Toby F. Coley completed his PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Bowling Green State University (OH) in 2011 and now teaches courses in Rhetoric and Composition, British Literature, Advanced Composition, and Advanced Rhetoric at UMHB. His research investigates the connections between writing, ethics, digital media, and religion. His publications have been featured in Rhetoric Review, Computers and Composition, Computers & Composition Online, and Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. His upcoming book, Teaching with Digital Media in Writing Studies: An Exploration of Responsibilities is due out in the fall of 2011 (Peter Lang Press).

Monday, July 25, 2011

Choosing a Dissertation Topic (and staying with it), Part 1

After getting started, it’s not uncommon for a doctoral student to switch dissertation topics—at least once. Did I switch topics? Well, no . . . but I considered it carefully. I know of many colleagues who decided that their topic, for whatever reason, wasn’t working for them and after a semester—or year, or even two (yikes!)—it was time to find something else to write about (or about which to write for you grammatical sticklers). What I want to offer (humbly I might add) is experience-based advice on how to (possibly) avoid this all too common topic switching. Based on a successful dissertation, lots of reading, talking to colleagues, and experience, I offer the following recommendations for staying on task with your original dissertation topic.

1. Find a topic you care about.

Sounds easy, right? Think again. In many ways, it seems like common sense (an elusive phrase in itself) to write about something you love—not just like. Unfortunately, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of dissertations out there that have no bearing on what the author’s really care about. Sometimes this happens because we choose a topic we think our advisor would like to read about (see #3 below). At other times, we are unsure of what we want to write on and think, “What am I interested in right now?” A valid question no doubt; however, you need to think BIGGER than your immediate interests. What topics, interests, and ideas have intrigued you enough to write a couple hundred (or less) pages about? Often, we ask our students a similar question, and the answer is dependant. Just like writing teachers—like me—have to tell our students, you do not need to know anything substantial about the topic before you write. The topic should make you ask questions and those questions are the core of research—the things that lead to developing your ideas about topic X. So . . . if I find a topic I care about, that I have questions regarding, and that I believe I could write a dissertation on, what then? This leads us to the next recommendation.

2. Think about what you would like to be known for (you will, after all, be considered the world’s foremost expert at topic X—your dissertation).

Seriously, do you want to be known for topic Y? Regardless of what you believe to be the popularity of your topic with your imagined audience, your dissertation defines your professional agenda and scholarly persona for years to come. Ok, don’t get scared. Let me tell you a story about how I decided my topic because I think it will be helpful to this point.

When I was in my second year (early, I know) of doctoral studies, I tried to get a head start on my dissertation topic by thoughtfully considering my interests. As many of you are finding out, those interests are quite varied and still forming in those early stages of graduate school. Here is what I knew for certain. First, I wanted to work in the specialty of computers and writing—specifically in digital media (my Masters thesis had been on wikis in the teaching of writing, so I had a start here). Second, I was doing research on the experiences of Christian graduate students in doctoral education in Writing Studies as another interest, which led to a published article in my third year, and I knew this topic greatly interested me. Thirdly, I was interested—by corollary—in the moral aspects of writing with digital media such as moral development in college students. So, how could I combine these interests into a dissertation topic? Just as importantly, would I want to be known in my field for research in these three areas: digital media, religion, and moral development (ethics)? The answer was a resounding yes: this is how I wanted my academic persona to be recognized. My topic, then, became digital media ethics in Writing Studies, with a focus on secular and religious higher educational institutions. I had found my topic, and I was ready to get started on the next step: finding an appropriate advisor.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Two Guest Posts

Hey everyone, this is just a quick note to let you know that Constructing the Academy will feature two guest posts from Toby Coley next week. Toby recently completed his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing at Bowling Green State University, and is now Assistant Professor of English at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas.

Toby's contribution is entitled "Choosing, and Staying with, Your Dissertation Topic," and will appear in two installments on Monday and Wednesday, respectively. So, if you're a new grad student thinking about what the dissertation process will be like, or someone entering the dissertation phase of your degree, this post is immediately relevant. If you're in the midst of or already past this stage, we'd love to hear your comments and personal experiences with choosing a topic and making it work.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writing A Lot

After having Paul Silvia's book How To Write A Lot recommended by nearly every person I follow and respect in the blogosphere, I finally read it a few weeks ago. It reaffirmed many of the things I already knew, many of the Stupid Motivational Tricks I've learned from Jonathan, and many strategies I've picked up from both Thomas and Tanya. I think for most writers, especially graduate students like myself, we know what it is we need to do...we just need to do it!

I'm always amazed at what I can accomplish if I'll just park myself in my chair and not get up or check email when I feel that impulse. Of course, there are limits. Like most of the productive scholars I consider as models, I'm not an advocate of going on writing binges.

In addition to including tips geared specifically toward grad students and dissertation writers, what I found most valuable about Silvia's book was that after poking holes in the "specious barriers" that we most commonly embrace as poor excuses for not writing, he provides a chapter on motivation. He repeatedly drives home the one thing that is common in the advice of all the writers I mention above, and that's the necessity of developing a schedule and sticking to it. But once you've got a schedule, how do you motivate yourself to be productive during your scheduled writing times?

The answer that has had the biggest and most immediate impact on my own writing process is to keep track, literally, of your daily progress. I've now developed a spreadsheet where I enter my daily word count. Some days I may produce as little as 200 words, while other days I have produced more than 1000 words! The midpoint between these two is probably pretty close to my average. But the point is that keeping track has given me a better idea of what I can do, and has truly kept me motivated.

Just the other day I was having a really tough writing day, so after allowing myself to be distracted by email and cleaning out my cubicle, I finally got myself back in the chair, set the laptop aside and wrote by hand in the notebook I use for notes. Before I knew it I had made a concrete observation about the text I'm focusing on for this portion of the chapter, and I was transitioning back to the laptop to begin writing my close reading of that passage. Without the motivation of having to enter my daily word count into my spreadsheet, I may honestly have never gotten anything onto the Word doc.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Most Important Thing

Perhaps this should have been the first post on the blog, but then again, what you'll read in this post could be the every post on this blog. From all the various professionalization books, blogs, conferences, and etc. that I've come across I can definitively say that they all say the same basic thing about academic writing:

If you want to be a productive writer who doesn't hate herself/himself most of the time, then you HAVE to develop a writing schedule!

If I were to take the time to link every blog post that makes this argument from the blogs you see in the Blogroll on the right-hand side of this page, Google and Blogger might just crash. So rest assured that I've done all the hunting and gathering for you! I'll use myself as a case study here.

I used to say things like "I'm a night person" or "I need long blocks of time" or "Once I get on a roll..." Basically, all of these sayings were excuses for not being disciplined about my writing. When I realized that I don't make any of the same excuses about the times I have to teach, or go to class, or attend dept. meetings, it was a revelation to me that I was thinking of these things as necessary parts of my professional development - while I was thinking of writing as something I had to do whenever I "found time."

That is the WRONG way to think about writing. If you're planning on becoming a working academic, one who is required to contribute to her field through publishing research,(along with other tasks), you can either write whenever you find the time and continue to be stressed, overworked, minimally productive, frustrated with yourself. OR you can develop a schedule that you stick to and which carves out time for you to write regularly.

You don't need 6 hours at a time, in fact, I would argue that 6 hours is way too long for one sitting. Probably 2-3 hours at a time is a good figure. 1 1/2 hours can be awesome, 3 hours can get too long sometimes. Are you a "night person"? Fine, don't use that as an excuse not to write. Instead, write for 2 hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night!

December 2009 was when the revelation hit me and I actually made concrete changes in my life. 2010 was my first full year living by these principles, and 2011 has been the first year when a daily writing schedule has become second nature. This summer I've been writing every morning from about 8:30am until around 11:30am, and then reading and researching after lunch. Of course, my writing time in the morning often includes reading and responding to what I read.

I follow this schedule every day. If I feel like I've run into a wall and can't write, or that I don't have anything to say, I go back to whatever primary or secondary text I'm dealing with in whatever I'm writing and read and take some informal notes in my notebook. This process almost invariably leads me back to the computer. Writing is now another regular part of my weekly and daily life. Anyone who knows anything about writing will tell you that daily writing will exponentially increase your output.

Use the comment stream here to air all your typical excuses or the excuses you hear from your friends. Let's just get 'em all out there so we can dismiss them and create writing schedules.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Share Your Links

On the right side of this page you'll find links to a few different websites that offer tips on everything from time management to the job search. The 750 Words site is especially cool if you're trying to jump-start your daily writing schedule. It provides a medium that will keep track of your word count as you write each day.

Today I'm asking you to share any cool links, websites, online resources that you've found especially helpful or practical. If you've come across a fun/motivating tool, please link it in the comments stream!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Grad Students & the Research Agenda

[This is another post that originally appeared on Unstable Euphony]

I've been thinking about Jonathan Mayhew's idea of the research agenda over the past few days, and how it might be tweaked at different stages in the academic career. Mayhew, for example, is an expert in his field, a senior scholar who has been researching, writing, publishing, and teaching Spanish poetry for quite some time. He articulates his research agenda, saying,

"My research agenda is to better the state of poetry criticism in my field (modern, contemporary Peninsular literature) by relating it to larger intellectuals trends in intellectual and cultural history; to trace the genealogy of the late modern movement in contemporary Spain; to integrate the contribution of Lorca into modern Spanish poetry in a more convincing way."

Mayhew's explanation of his research agenda is clear and concise. But what about someone like me? I'm a graduate student, a jr. scholar in my field. I know what critical conversations I'm interested in, and I'm even beginning to contribute to them, but I definitely cannot articulate my own research agenda like Mayhew can. Thankfully, Mayhew acknowledges the fact that his research agenda continues to fluctuate as he himself continues to research, write, and grow. Obviously, some consistency is absolutely necessary. For example, Mayhew's research agenda has probably never included the environmental ramifications of recycling.

As a grad student, or as a jr. scholar more generally, the research agenda can become a double-edged sword if not understood properly. Early on in an academic career, before a research agenda can be clearly defined, it would be easy to miss out on potentially productive projects for fear that they might come to seem aberrations in your research agenda. A jr. scholar might shy away from a project that could ultimately become a constitutive element of her evolving research agenda.

But beginning to develop a research agenda at an early stage can also be very helpful. It can save a younger scholar from spreading himself too thin, from chasing after every shiny thing that might appeal to her, from building a CV that demonstrates no coherent intellectual narrative. That's why I'm so glad Mayhew included the reference to how his research agenda continues to evolve, even as an experienced and successful scholar in his field of expertise.

Most importantly, the very idea of a research agenda can provide burgeoning scholars like myself with a concrete opportunity to stop and ask ourselves what we are contributing, or plan to contribute, to our chosen field of study. In trying to articulate my own research agenda this week, I developed a better big-picture understanding of what I was doing, and also had a nice "aha" moment when I realized that I am in conversation with another scholar I had previously overlooked. This kind of meta exercise should be a part of our daily lives as academics, and as jr. scholars especially.

Mayhew goes on to say more about the research agenda HERE and HERE.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Taking Breaks

In a profession that requires as much mental energy and intellectual engagement as academia, it's absolutely imperative that we give our brains serious rest and recuperation times. These breaks fall into two basic categories:

1. short breaks during each day that prevent mental fatigue so you can get good work done.

This kind of break should be a part of your regularly scheduled day. When do you teach? When do you write? When do you read? When do you go to class? When do you eat? When do you take a break? Of course, if you're not working or making the best use of your time, then you probably don't need a break. But if you're working consistently each day, you'll need a break in there.

Right now, I'm working each day from about 8-11:30am and then going home for two hours to eat lunch and see my family. Then, I get back to work from about 2-4:30pm. These times may shift a little day-to-day, but not by much. I'm writing in the morning, researching/reading in the afternoons, and hanging out during lunch. I also usually read a little in the evenings and on the weekends. That break in the middle of the day keeps my brain from burning out in the middle of my afternoon work session.

2. longer breaks every once in a while that prevent total system failure.

This kind of break should roll around a few times each year. You should try to pack up and get away from your normal writing/working/living spaces, if at all possible, and take a vacation on which you will not work at all. Ok, ok, I'll be reading during my vacation this week, but I won't be doing my day-to-do writing/research. Rest, relax, recharge. Talk with friends who are not in your dept. or program, call up your family, sleep!!! Just unplug from the academy for a short break.

While I would argue that the summer doesn't represent a "summer break" for academics, I would say that without the added responsibilities of teaching, classes, etc., it's much easier to give yourself a mental break without getting behind.

If you haven't planned a break for this summer yet, do it today!

On the other hand...if you haven't planned to work between your breaks this summer, do it this second!

What does everyone think about weekends for academics? Do you take weekends off? Do you find such an idea preposterous or impossible? Let's talk about academic weekends!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Strategies: Keeping Track

I've happened upon a cool way to keep track of my progress on the daily writing of my dissertation. But this method will work for anything. Whether you're writing poetry, prose, or working on any kind of project really, I find it helpful to be able to follow the big picture of how things are going.

I've created a gmail account exclusively for my dissertation. Each day that I work on it, I email it to this email address and write myself a short note in the body of the email. Something like: "slugfest" on a bad day, or "feeling good" on a good day. When I open that account I can see, not only how many days I've spent on the project, but I can also see how I've felt about it overall.

I've even created separate folders for the Introduction and Chapter 1. I'll do the same for the rest of the chapters and the conclusion as I make progress.

The whole thing started out of paranoia for losing the document at some crucial stage, and now it's turned into a really healthy part of the process. You can do the same for virtually any project.

[This post is the first in an ongoing series called "Strategies" that will provide quick and practical tips]