Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Exams-Part II

Monday's post addressed the month leading up to, and then the first leg of the exam process. Today's post covers the second leg and the month following the completion of your exams.

In between writtens and orals

Meet with each of your committee members to discuss your written performance and to get an idea for direction in which your oral exams might go.

Reread your written answers with an eye toward obvious weaknesses, references to texts/authors you didn't really develop in the answer. Think more about these moments.

Try Try Try to think of yourself as going into a discussion in which you're no longer a "student" in the sense you've been used to since you were 5 years old. Engage in a dialogue that just so happens to be based on questions your committee asks you.

Taking the orals

This part of the process is hugely different dependent on your committee. What I can offer that will probably apply across the board is to narrate your thought process at any time you're feeling stuck. So, for example, if a committee member asks you an especially tough question that you can't answer immediately, don't freeze up and try to think of an answer. Instead, narrate to your committee why the question is tough and this will lead you toward forming an answer. For instance, you might say, "this is an especially tough question because it asks us to think about postmodernism and poststructuralism as essentially the same thing, when I don't think they really are. So, in order to answer I need to begin by offering what I see as the difference between these two things"

The one thing to keep in mind as you set out on such narrations is to NOT lose sight of the initial question! Write it down! Most committees are cool with that.

After the orals


It'll probably take you about a month to recover physically, emotionally, psychologically, maybe even economically if you celebrate a little too hard (smile)!

...then start to think about the knowledge base you're building and how it's going to help you move into the prospectus phase in which you'll be forecasting a project the scope of which you've most likely never undertaken before but are now equipped to tackle!!

[programming note: due to the craziness of the semester, we'll be going to weekly posts starting next week]

[second programming note: this week's posts were written in response to a couple friends who wanted to see some advice on comprehensive exams. If there's any specific content you'd like to see on Constructing the Academy, please don't hesitate to contact us or to use the comment field to get in touch!!]

Monday, August 29, 2011

Exams-Part I

This time last year I was a little over a month out from taking my comprehensive written exams and about two months out from my oral exams. On this side of that experience I've been able to encourage friends who are getting ready to conquer their exams this year, and a number of them have suggested an all-exams post. we go (please note that the following advice is based on personal experience, not any kind of aggregated data or something more official):

The final month

In the month or so leading up to your exams hopefully you'll be pretty close to done with reading the texts on your lists. If not, it's time to make sure you're at the very least familiar with the basics of all of the unread texts (don't stop reading). If you are finished reading, it's time to begin trying to make explicit connections across texts.

Run back through your lists and think about the major themes, formal characteristics, etc. of each text. The key here is to keep this revisiting analysis to a few key phrases, or maybe a sentence or two at the most. For example: Doctorow's Ragtime gives me the chance to talk about historiographic metafiction (which I can't do without talking about Linda Hutcheon's work on postmodernism), race in American fiction (here I can channel Gates, Morrison), the theme of patriotism, etc. As you come up with these phrases/sentences, also think about what other texts on your lists connect well with this text. So in this example, what other texts rewrite history, deal with race as a major theme, or complicate nationalism?

MAKE CONNECTIONS! SYNTHESIS! Do you have basic arguments about the texts that stand out to you most? Remember, you're not going to be able to write about everything on your lists! So, while you want to have a basic series of phrases or sentences that would help you talk about any text at a moment's notice, there are probably 15 or so books that have stood out to you and that you've thought more deeply about. Good, but make sure you have something to say about them beyond merely noting their major themes/contributions.

MEET WITH FRIENDS AND TALK TALK TALK SHARE SHARE SHARE! Ask each other questions and try to answer each other's questions. This was absolutely invaluable to me!

Taking the exams

1. Don't freak out when you get in the room. You're going in there to do one thing, there's only one thing to do, and you're going to do it!

2. Take a deep breath and read all your questions very very very very very very very carefully. My friend Jacob suggests underlining particularly important words/phrases such as "in three texts from three different centuries."

3. Go ahead and decide which questions you will answer.

4. Plan out all of your answers before you start writing your the first answer.

5. Opinions here differ: I say take on the easiest question first to build momentum, confidence, and so as not to get bogged down and spend the bulk of your time on one answer. Others might disagree with me and say take on the toughest question first. This is just my opinion.

6. Remember to craft an ANSWER to the question. I struggled with this on one of my secondary examination areas. My answers to the actual questions were implicit in my textual analyses, but I never really articulated a direct and clear answer to the question as it was posed on the exam.

[Look for Part II on Wednesday. It'll cover the time in between written and oral exams, taking the oral exam, and the aftermath of oral exams]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Notes, Quotes, and Short-Term Memory

Today’s post addresses a subject that most of us (I imagine) have dealt with at some point in our education: taking notes.
Before you tune out, I think it’s important to state that taking notes for a single essay is a different undertaking from taking notes for a long-term project such as a dissertation. In this vein, I want to offer some lessons that I’ve learned over the years during my graduate training regarding this monster of a task.

First, find a note taking style that works for you. Ok, so what? That’s obvious right? Well, no actually. While I will offer several tips for taking notes that have worked for me, they are only tips and you have to modify, modify, modify according to your needs.

That brings me to the second tip. When I was in working on my Masters degree in 2005-2007, I began to develop methods for taking notes that helped me retain the information better than in my undergraduate years. First, I would print articles I intended to read and place them in a binder-usually at least a 2-3inch binder with the plastic covers. Next, I would cut lengthwise—yes cut—those 4 X 6” cards into three equal pieces, using a three-hole puncher to punch two whole in the cards. Each of these cards provides a divider between the hundreds of possible articles in a binder—I modified this idea from a professor of mine in undergrad.

As you read, you can highlight the tops of article tabs with different colors based on their importance for returning and using quotes. Finally, don’t forget to create a key and leave it in the binder AND to make a TOC (Table of Contents) for the front sleeve. I would later import the highlights and notes into a Word document.

Sounds detailed right? Well, let’s face it, 1) if you’re in grad school you’re probably a nerd already and 2) you need a system that works for you. My third tip modifies the second. Now, I no longer print any articles (save the trees and my back). I am fortunate enough to have an iPad (anniversary gift) and I use it and the application GoodReader to read all my electronic documents.

Good Reader

GoodReader allows you to do just about anything with PDFs including notes, lines, squiggles, filing into folders, syncing, etc. This has been invaluable for lessening what I carry around and providing easier reading and note taking all in one place.

The final tip is one that I learned a couple years ago while teaching an Intermediate Writing course. I had placed students into groups and each group had to develop a technology presentation. One group decided to discuss the Notebook layout in MS Word. I deal with tech all the time, but even this was new to me since I rarely played around with the different “View” options in MS Word. Go ahead, try it. Open up Word and click on “View” in the top menu, and then choose notebook layout. Voila!

Now you have tabs and colors, markers, clickable squares and lots more. I use this now whenever I taking notes and doing lots of reading for large projects. I just copy and paste quotes into the doc and place them where I need them. The tabs provide multiple sections and pages without multiple documents: genius!

If you already knew about this, then share it with others. It’s seriously helpful, after all, our short-term memory is short and we need ways to organize and keep track of information. That’s it for now. I hope I have overwhelmed anyone. Enjoy note taking and drop me a comment if you like the posts.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Semester is Upon Us!

Before I get to today's post, I'm excited to announce that Constructing the Academy will kick off the fall 2011 semester next Monday, 8/22 with another post from Toby Coley!

As for today's post, I want to encourage everyone out there in grad school land to get excited about the start of a new semester. There's a healthy amount of whining and complaining that goes with the whole advanced degree lifestyle. We cry about students, about professors, about poor communication, about whether or not someone else seems to "get it," about any number legit problems like the terrible compensation and unbelievable amount of work that most folks between college and the tenure track are enduring.

But I'm kind of tired of stuff like The Grad Student Rap, in which intelligent and innovative people bemoan the fields they've chosen to get into because of how horrible the job market is and because of the sometimes-ridiculous hoops of graduate school. It seems that if such an exercise is at all productive, then perhaps it is as a warning to the rest of us to come to terms with our fields before we go all in!

It's true that grad school can be a racket at times, but my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. If you're the kind of person who cares enough to read or follow a blog like this, then you probably love the work of academia, and I hope you'll continue to find here some helpful shared experiences and strategies that might come in handy as you make the most of building your place in the academy!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Fundamental Disconnect

Here's an important and fundamental disconnect that novice writers often struggle with, and that more experienced writers often forget about:

We write, not to show that we know stuff, but to communicate an idea.

Some may take exception to my particular phrasing, "to communicate an idea," but I'm willing to stand by this phrase. Student writers trip over this disconnect all the time. As students they're used to taking tests and quizzes to show that they know stuff, to prove that they've done work. So it's not that unreasonable for them to approach writing in the same way. After all, their papers are usually perceived as just one set of percentages in the breakdown of their overall grades. They approach their writing thinking that the goal of the paper is to show the professor that they have knowledge.

As an aspiring academic somewhere between grad student writer and seasoned professional writer, I have to keep this distinction before me at all times. I have to think consciously about the fact that when I write, I'm not trying to show people that I know a lot about a given text. Who cares? I'm communicating something of significance about the text to my audience. Just as importantly, perhaps, I'm conveying my passion for the text!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Changing Spaces

The spring 2011 semester was crazy as we added a new member to our family! This amazing process was nearly 2 years in the making and required me to take two international trips, one during the second week of class and one just before spring break. Upon returning and beginning to adjust to life with a kid, I quickly realized that my writing space was going to have to change.

We have only two rooms, so naturally, the "office" is now a nursery. It quickly became apparent that working in the nursery was going to be impractical, and so for the first time in my entire life, I've been doing the bulk of my work in the university library. I've written every paper, project, article at the same desk since my freshman year in college, and so I was initially freaking out. How would I work without all my normal materials at my fingertips? I can't carry my whole desk with me to the library.

What I discovered is that with all of the ways my writing process has changed as a result of following Jonathan's, Thomas's, and Tanya's blogs, writing up at the library as opposed to my desk at home is not such a big change. I'm never writing an entire article. I'm never writing an entire conference paper or dissertation chapter. I've grown as a writer to where I'm disciplined enough to tackle one aspect of any given project per day. So I can work on my ongoing article up at the library on Monday morning because I know the precise task I need to complete to make substantial progress for that day, and that task only requires that I have my laptop, the primary text, and the notes I've taken on the secondary texts that I'm going to need for that day.

In fact, I found that working up at the library for very specific blocks of time made me more productive during that time, and way less burdened at home. Now, when I'm home I'm home, and when I'm in the library I'm at work. I may read at home, take notes, or surf the library databases/catalog, but for the most part, my work was getting done up at the library in 3 hour chunks of time over the course of 4 days a week.

Here's the basic schedule I built around my teaching and other responsibilities during the spring semester. Maybe seeing this model will help other folks see the possibilities of their schedules:

Library: 9-12
Library: 2-5

Tuesday (this is the tightest/busiest day)
Teaching/office hours: 8-1
Library: 2-5

Library: 9-12
Writing Group: 3pm

Teaching: 8-11am
Library: 2-5

Teach all day at SEBTS

So you can see, I had 5 blocks of 3 hours each devoted exclusively to my own work. That's 15 total work hours to spend not on course prep, not on service, not on students, not on anything except my own work (at the time it was an ongoing article I have since finished and my dissertation prospectus). And there are plenty of gaps in the middle of the day (2-3 hour lunch breaks) where I can spend time with my family. We walk to our local park, play at home, etc.

I did other work, like teaching prep, during my office hours on Tues. (2 hours), and at random times when the kid was asleep or my wife was otherwise occupied. It worked out. The point is that now I know I can do it with the new family addition, I have adapted over the summer and this fall looks promising!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Finished Prose

When I found myself struggling with the first chapter of my dissertation, I realized that it wasn't because I didn't know what I was doing, or that I didn't have a plan. I'm good at being prepared, well-rested, and disciplined. The problem was a new one for me: I kept catching myself laboring to write finished prose the first time through a claim.

I typically like to write my way through an idea and then go back and work with what I have. But for some reason when it came to drafting the first dissertation chapter, I kept unconsciously trying to write the first draft like it had to be the last draft. This problem proved exhausting and a little discouraging.

Finally, one day I narrated what my claims were doing to myself in my writing: "what i want to accomplish in this paragraph is 'x' so that I can show 'y' and provide my audience with context for 'z'" and so on. In this way I wrote my way into a healthier process. Something else that helped was that I happened upon an interesting anecdotal example of an idea I was discussing, and I just wrote about this example because I thought it was cool. I had that realization that, oh yeah, I'd like to write something that I myself would enjoy reading!

That realization led me back to one of my favorite essays by Anne Lamott in which she explains the concept of the "shitty first draft." I'm sure many of you are familiar with this concept, and it may or may not work for you. All I can say, is that going back to this idea of just getting a draft down on paper so that I have something to work with has fundamentally changed by dissertation writing process...and for the better!

If you're struggling with your own writing on any kind of project today, maybe stop trying to say whatever you're trying to say perfectly, and just write exactly what you would say instead. Nobody has to see what you write besides you if you don't want. Just get something down and then go back and work with your ideas as they've made themselves known to you on the page.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Following Through

Enlightened and challenged by Tanya's post on semester planning I set a series of major goals for myself for this past spring semester. Back in May, I finally sat down to look back at my semester goals and how they broke down over months, weeks, and days. I had four major goals. Here are my results:

1. write and present lecture for the residential college.
I completed this goal, and presented the lecture on March 21

2. complete dissertation prospectus and get it approved.
My committee officially signed my documents on April 20

3. revising/writing journal article and submit by April 7.
I completed the article and got it submitted by May 10

4. write and present research on DeLillo's short fiction at ALA conference.
I presented my research on 5/28 and it went very well

I was able to accomplish all of my goals, although one took me an entire month longer than what I had planned for. I feel super satisfied that I finished these four important tasks. I've done the same thing for the summer. My conference paper becomes my new article goal, and the prospectus is replaced by specific chapter goals on the dissertation.

Tanya's advice proved extremely helpful, especially when enacted alongside Thomas's theory of the happy writer and Jonathan's many explanations of writing in the a.m. and reading in the p.m., one example of which is here.

The more I put these ideas into practice and make feeble attempts at articulating my own versions of the same basic principles, the more efficient and effective my working process gets.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Strategies: Calendar Keeping

I finally started using Google Calendar in 2010 to keep track of all the crazy stuff I have to do. What's so great about any kind of electronic calendar, or any paper calendar for that matter, is that you can get all your responsibilities in front of you at the same time.

Of course, starting a Google Calendar or buying a nice shiny new planner are not difficult. Those things can actually be negative if we let the feeling of starting a calendar take the place of actually using a calendar. The tough thing is remember to put all your meetings, class schedules, writing times in the calendar. Maybe even tougher is remember to check your calendar.

These difficulties are why I've adopted Google Calendar. If there's one thing I know I'll do every day it's check my email. It's just so easy to click the little calendar link at the top, and so easy to enter and change appointments that I can no longer understand how I ever made it to any meeting without this resource.

Whatever calendar works best for you, lay it out on the desk and mark out all your unavailable times for teaching, class, meetings, and then decide when the best times are for you to write in 1-3 hour chunks, and block those out. Try to write on at least 3-5 days a week. And remember, writing time can also be reading, studying time!