Friday, April 20, 2018

Embracing Academic Conferencing

When you present at an academic conference, scope out your room before your session starts.

Many of you have likely attended an academic conference during your graduate program, and several of you are probably planning on presenting at one in the near future.  Conferences are of course major components of academic life but also common in research and/or knowledge-based fields.  The unstoppable conference phenomenon naturally gives rise to plenty of guidelines for presenters and speculations on past, present, and future uses for conferences.  For a recent overview of such concerns, see this short but informative 2013 article that ran in The Guardian.  Conference etiquette, or seeming lack of it, is another topic of interest to conference goers, as noted in this 2015 piece that appeared in Chronicle Vitae featuring an interview with Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of famed etiquette guru Emily Post.

In contrast to such general-interest articles, this post offers some conferencing food for thought specifically targeted to you, the NIU thesis or dissertation writer.  Photos and most anecdotes come from my experiences this past week presenting and attending the 54th Allerton English Articulation Conference in Monticello, Illinois.


In addition to obvious preparation musts such as practicing your planned speech (at least three times) and identifying sessions to attend before and after you present, double-check your travel arrangements with the goal of arriving at the venue at least an hour earlier than registration time.
Ordered rows in the gardens at Allerton.
Beware: routes to conference sites may not be so orderly.
Commonsense advice, yes, but nevertheless worth repeating.  You may have fairly clear directions, but expect to run into complications during the actual journey and plan accordingly.  Case in point: the drive down to the venue in Monticello (not my first trip there—I also presented at Allerton four years ago) took longer than planned because I got lost.  My memories of the route off the interstate were fuzzy, my printed directions turned out to be slightly out of date, and access to directions via phone or GPS device is wonky in this rural area.  A related anecdote: last April I presented at a conference in San Diego.  Accomplishing the first trolley ride from hotel to venue there also took a bit longer than expected.  Once on the scene I found myself relearning how waiting to cross busy streets can add minutes to your walking time and that trolleys don’t always arrive or depart exactly when scheduled.


The small but adequate Butternut Room at Allerton.
Room size naturally affects your speaking approach. 
After registering and donning your name tag, wander and mingle but also check out the room you’ll be presenting in.  A common bit of advice is to test equipment you may need such as computer, OHP, screen, or microphone.  The earlier you can do this, the better.  Ideally, you should visit your room well in advance of your session so that you can also get a feel for its size and layout in relation to your talk.  A large space naturally requires a different speaking approach than a small one does.  If you can scope out the room while it’s empty, stand at the front or at the lectern.  Practice parts of your presentation.  If chairs or tables are movable (and if your session is the next one), consider ways you can rearrange the speaking and/or audience areas to suit your needs but especially those of your expected attendees.  Also consider lighting.  Depending on the sun’s position during the time of your session, window shades might need to be adjusted.  Before the presentation at Allerton this past week, my speaking partner and I went through all these steps.  As a result, our presentation ran smoothly and featured engaged participation from attendees.


Food line at Allerton.
Surely you’ve heard plenty about practical approaches to delivering a presentation.  Let me add a reminder that your planned speech, though very important, is still a minuscule moment within the overall time you’ll spend sharing your ideas at a conference.  Before and after your session and during other sessions, you’ll have numerous chances to speak with others about your work.  At Allerton, I met and chatted with several attendees during lunch; I met and conversed with several others between various sessions, during walks in the gardens, and over dinner.  In so doing, I naturally discussed aspects of my joint presentation but also my dissertation, teaching, and career plans.  Remembering that presenting at a conference means more than just speaking formally for a short time can actually help you when it’s your time to stand and deliver.  Share main ideas in your planned speech.  Expect to elaborate on these and other ideas during Q & A and during other interactions throughout the event.

How did the presentation go?  Were the follow-up discussions and later sessions constructive and helpful?  Was it all worth it?  You’ll have various answers to these questions immediately after your session and as the conference moves to a close.  But you can expect a different set of answers in the days and months that follow.  These later reflections will be most useful to you in the long run.  Expect to reevaluate your studies, your stance on issues important in your field, and your ongoing thesis or dissertation project during and after your next academic conference.  If you can, spend some time outside the venue during and after the event to foster these healthy reflections and to add to the overall experience.  Allerton is especially rewarding in this regard.  But no matter where your conference is held, there is always much to explore within but also beyond the center.

Path to the Walled Garden at Allerton.
Heed your long-view reflections after an academic conference.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Graduate Degree: A Prelude to Knowledge Work

Investigating, analyzing, evaluating, creating, contextualizing, self-directing: skills like these are integral to the writing of a thesis or dissertation but also characteristic of the broad occupational domain called knowledge work.  To thesis and dissertation writers at any stage of their projects, below we offer thoughts on how you’re already developing—and can continue to develop—skills that are crucial for success in knowledge-oriented fields.

Tallies and Time Clocks?

Knowledge work is generally hard to quantify or measure.  Ironically, though, those who engage in such work across fields of academia tend to be fairly obsessed with counting and measuring.  Most carefully keep or monitor totals of papers presented, articles published, grants awarded, committees served on, and classes taught per year.  When you arrange your CV and the several accompanying documents needed for an academic job search, your field’s particular obsessions with such performance-related numbers boldly reassert themselves.  Other academic endeavors are sometimes summed up in terms of hours spent per week in classrooms, offices, labs, meetings, field investigations, grading sessions, or writing stints.

Yet the efforts that go into various kinds of academic production are not always easy to break down into regular time chunks.  Realistically, much academic work can keep the worker occupied from early morning to late at night, during parts of weekends, and during stretches of semester breaks.  (Let me briefly add that plenty in and outside academia do seem interested in figuring out the number of hours per week academics actually work—or in debating how many hours per week they should work.  A couple of recent reports (see here and here) suggest that such investigations and debates are complex and sometimes testy.  We avoid these issues in this post.)

Your Project: Training in Key Knowledge-Work Skills

A lot of what you do while completing your thesis or dissertation is obviously solid preparation for a future career in knowledge-centered domains.  As outlined and nicely detailed by the Careers & Employment Division at the University of Manchester, those aiming for a career in academia need to develop at least five skills for success.  Good news: as soon as you embark on your project, you’re immersed in an experience that can help you hone each of them.

Networking: As you develop relationships with members of your committee, each member can introduce you to others to help build your professional network.  In addition, while researching and writing, you can further extend your network by attending and/or presenting parts of your project at conferences.  Last year around this time, I traveled to a national conference to present a paper based on research for one of my dissertation chapters and attended multiple panels in areas central and peripheral to my academic interests.  The experience led to new contacts and eventually a request to submit a piece to a scholarly society’s publication.  Next month, I’ll travel to a regional conference to deliver a presentation with an NIU colleague and attend several discussion sessions.  You’re likely taking advantage of similar networking opportunities.  If not, seek them out.

Time Management: You’re already a knowledge worker and thus already weighing priorities and setting many deadlines of your own.  In previous posts on this blog, we’ve covered approaches to managing time during writing sessions, balancing your project with family matters, and maintaining your focus and enthusiasm by mixing work with recreational activities.  Consider such scheduling practices as sound preparation for the self-directed knowledge work of your post-degree career.

Resilience: While writing a thesis or dissertation, setbacks inevitably occur.  Data may need to be reanalyzed.  Ideas and approaches may need revamping.  Feedback on your progress from committee members—or from attendees at academic conferences—can be encouraging but also humbling.  As you get closer to the project’s completion, you’ll likely start looking for your postgraduate job.  Academic job hunting is especially fraught with pressures, rejections, and disappointments.  But lows like these that you experience throughout your project build your patience and resilience for similar wrinkles you’ll face down the road.

Presentation Skills: As a knowledge worker, you need to be able to present ideas clearly, in a variety of settings, among colleagues but also among people unfamiliar with intricacies of your work.  Each time you revise a section of your long document, you add useful material to your expanding pool of well-articulated expressions of your findings.  And you shouldn’t just aim to present them at your defense—another reason to plan to present at conferences while completing your project.  If you’re teaching, consider ways to integrate insights from your developing work in the classroom.

Project Management: At the NIU Thesis Office, we stress the value of being proactive in managing your thesis or dissertation project.  In a previous post, we featured a review of a useful book that describes the project-management approach to the dissertation.  Ultimately, you’re the manager of your project—under supervision of your director, of course.  The management experiences you gain now will certainly inform many aspects of your future knowledge-oriented employment.

Final Thoughts

Happy investigating, analyzing, evaluating, self-directing, and writing to all.  And good luck to those of you defending over the next few weeks!

Friday, March 9, 2018

Why All These Books?: The Explosion of the Dissertation Self-Help Market

Let's talk about Self-Help books. And let's face it -- most are bad. But some, the practical ones, or maybe the ones that use a metaphor that just sweeps you off your feet, can be good, if used wisely, and taken with several grains of salt.

What's Wrong with Self-Help?
Historically, categories of self-help fall into a few repeating areas: Success, Health, Optimism. Think of the "How to be Rich" books, or "How to Get Friends" books. You've seen them or heard of them, maybe even taken a peek inside? And the health books? WOW. There is a whole section for those in the bookstore.

In the 1970s, as America moved forward from the Civil Rights Movement, and then Vietnam, the feelgood book became more of a thing than ever. And then it became a huge publishing industry. It tapped into people's insecurities, their struggles with body image, and their dissatisfaction with life. For some, self-help really helped. For others, it left them as isolated as before, and out a few dollars...or more. I remember digging in my mom's bookshelf when I was a kid in the '80s, and finding books with titles like Real Women Send Flowers. The most striking one I remember? A slim motivational handbook entitled F*** Yes! My mother grew stronger and stronger as we grew up, but I don't think it was because she spent $10 on F*** Yes!

In the 1990s, the pitfalls of self-help were becoming evident. The market was flooded with The Art of the Deal, 10 Days to Self-Esteem, and other well known but probably useless books. Counselors, psychologists, and other began to notice that self-help was replacing folk wisdom, making people actually feel more helpless, making them blame outside things for their own failures, and offering glib and disingenuous advice (especially the success books). In 1993, Wendy Kaminer published I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, an intelligent indictment of the entire self-help philosophy, and she marked the decline of the decades-long fad as the 21st century approached.

Though the industry of self-help did not collapse, it has been replaced in part by self-care methods like meditation, one-on-one counseling (owing to reduced stigma), and time honored traditions like group yoga. We are not afraid to let others help us anymore. So no need to read about it in private!

The Dissertation Self-Help Book

So where has the self-help book found a new lease on life? In the form of the dissertation self-help book.

Don't jump!!!
The dissertation self-help book has exploded over the last twenty years or so. Familiar metaphors from 20th century self-help, such as survival, demystification, baby-steps, a journey, grace the covers of these books. Familiar models of coping and solution fill their insides: 12-step programs, "invisible rules" that just need to be uncovered, methods to diminish the importance of the problem (I have a book called It's *JUST* a Dissertation!), romanticization of the reader's situation and magical thinking.

It's true that there are helpful pieces of advice in these books. But oh dear, the metaphors... Can we stop talking about the dissertation as if it's not a real thing?

Well... for some of us the dissertation takes a million years to write, so it really does feel like a journey. Or like any number of the romantic and fearsome metaphors on those book covers! But there is a real problem with the self-help model: It focuses on recovery. Any recovery approach itself has problems, but to suggest that a dissertation is something that needs to be survived or overcome is to suggest that the dissertation is a malady or even an addiction. Ill advised it may be! But it is not an illness in need of a cure. It is a project in need of planning, management, and other practical solutions. (See "Practical Dissertation Help Books" below)

Someone needs to write the I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional of dissertation help books. I'm Not Writing My Dissertation, You're Not Writing Your Dissertation.  It's good to have some inspirational books around. And it's helpful to envision yourself on a journey or a quest or whatever floats your boat (yet another diss metaphor...). But how do we read about dissertations with care and a critical eye?

This article on the dissertation book culture is a helpful read:

The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing

Practical Dissertation Help Books

BUT WAIT! After all our nay-saying, there is hope. We do recommend some of these books to our students. And other universities do too. I'm just on about the self-help so you know there's no magic "cure" for your dissertation. But what there is are some good books with practical advice:

Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach
(We recommend this to everyone!)

The Craft of Research

Proposals that Work

Here are some more books you might want to explore, curated by the University of Michigan graduate school. But don't forget your shaker of salt.

Recommended Books on Dissertation Writing

One final and important suggestion: Taking a page from this millennium's change from self-help to self-care and group help, maybe don't look for all the answers in a book? Talk to other dissertation writers often, take care of yourself and your body, and seek help from professionals if you need to. You are the first person who can help yourself write this dissertation. The words and research have to be yours, but you don't have to handle the "journey" alone.

Explore this map and other fun stuff at

Friday, February 23, 2018

Explain Your Project. You Have Three Minutes.


You’ve probably heard of the elevator speech: a short summary of an idea that you can pitch to someone (a prospective business partner, for example) while waiting for and then sharing an elevator.  You may even have crafted (or thought of crafting) a variation on the elevator speech for your thesis or dissertation project.  But have you worked out just how long this short speech should be?  Length is part of the official name for an increasingly popular speech contest that challenges grad-student participants to craft such a presentation: Three Minute Thesis (3MT®).  Details behind the 3MT speech are well worth exploring.

Hatched in a Shower?

A decade ago, experiencing a severe drought, people in Queensland, Australia adopted several ways to conserve water, including limiting showers to three minutes.  During those parched days, it seems that Alan Lawson, an emeritus professor and graduate school dean, was glancing at a three-minute egg timer attached to his bathroom wall when he suddenly found inspiration for the Three Minute Thesis.  This account of the humble beginnings of 3MT, now an international academic speech competition, doesn’t stray too far from historical information provided by the University of Queensland, the birthplace of 3MT.  Contests are now held in 62 countries outside Australia.  The contest in a nutshell: grad-student contestants must present their projects in three minutes.  If a contestant chooses to use visual support, it must take the form of a single, non-animated PowerPoint slide, displayed when the contestant starts speaking.  (No other visuals or props permitted). Currently 237 universities in the U.S. participate, including the University of Kentucky, which shares several informative videos derived from their past 3MT events.  Currently there are only three institutions participating in Illinois: UIC, ISU, and SUIC.  Last year’s contest at SUIC was the first one ever held there.

Competition Aside...
Competing is a primary goal in a 3MT event.  Ultimately, however, becoming a 3MT winner is beside the point.  Preparing such a speech is its own reward, valuable now and in the near and distant future.  How so?  Think of all those times over the past few months (or more) when you’ve found yourself explaining the project you’ve been working on to colleagues, friends, and family members.  Wouldn’t it be great to rattle all that off smoothly in three minutes (or less)?  Or picture your upcoming defense, an event that will be open to the public.  At the start, you’re going to need to summarize and rationalize your project to your committee members, your outside reader (if defending a dissertation), and other attendees in a meaningful and concise manner.  You’ll most likely have more than three minutes to do this, but why not practice so that you can capture your project’s essence in such a short amount of time?  Further, when you go on the job search and eventually become a finalist candidate, you’ll need to be ready to give a three-minute, one-minute, or 30-second summary of your project, depending on circumstances during interviews, presentations, and/or informal meetings at your prospective place of employment.  Why not pull together the longest of these short summaries now?  If you can explain your argument cogently and completely in three minutes (or less), you keenly demonstrate expertise in your field, familiarity with your areas of specialty, and a firm grasp of your project’s place in scholarship.  That is, you constructively crystallize the significance of your thesis or dissertation research.

Drafting and Organization
When you set out to create an effective three-minute thesis speech, consult the guidelines and judging criteria that Queensland provides.  As emphasized in those materials, a successful presentation centers on listeners’ needs: it starts off by creating a bridge to their interests, avoids jargon, summarizes important research outcomes, and ends by inspiring a desire to know more about the topic or to take some kind of action.  To meet these goals, arrange your presentation so that it answers the following questions:

     * Why is your research important to your listeners?
     * What brief examples best illustrate your project’s outcomes?
     * After hearing about your project, what should listeners do next?

An effective visual-support slide supports your message clearly, simply, and concisely.

Stand on Shoulders 

A famous speaker once responded to a request for a formal speech by saying, essentially: “If you want me to talk for three hours, I’m ready today.  If you want me to talk for only three minutes, I’ll need two weeks to prepare.”  Mark Twain is commonly associated with this quotation.  Words to the same effect (with variations) have also been attributed to several other celebrated orators: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers...and on and on.  In short, plenty of sharp wits are popularly linked to an important communication principle, which the 3MT contest underscores: expressing big ideas compactly requires careful thought and planning.  As you progress toward completing your program, follow the footsteps of accomplished speakers.  Give yourself ample time to prepare a good—and short—presentation of your thesis or dissertation.

Images: CC0 and Public Domain

Friday, February 9, 2018

Spring 2018 Programs at the Thesis Office

We are excited to announce a new season of workshops and presentations at the NIU Thesis Office! Each semester we offer programs to help you with everything from proposal development to final editing, and everything in between. Check out our current offerings...

Informative Presentations
We offer several presentations geared to specific audiences, and also a submission process presentation that is essential for ANY student who is nearing completion of their thesis or dissertation.

Saturday, Feb 17:  Writing a Dissertation in Education
Designed for students enrolled in 799 in the College of Education or similar program. We will walk you through general dissertation requirements, discuss frequent dissertation issues in Education and Public Service, and we will have plenty of time for discussion and Q&A. This class meets 9am to 2pm in Naperville for the convenience of working teachers and administrators.

Tuesday, Feb 20: Thesis Essentials (For master's thesis writers)
This is the "411" presentation on getting a thesis done. Whether you don't know where to begin, or you are planning your defense, there is probably a thing or two you don't know about how the Graduate School handles theses. This is not a writer's workshop, but a nuts and bolts, project management approach to ensuring you check off all the boxes. We will meet in Adams Hall room 103, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Wednesday, Feb 21: Dissertation Essentials (for dissertation writers at ANY stage!)
This is the "411" presentation on getting a dissertation done.  This is not a writer's workshop, but a nuts and bolts, project management approach to ensuring you check off all the boxes.  You can attend this session in ANY stage of the dissertation writing process! We will meet in Adams Hall room 103 at 2pm, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Tuesday, Feb 27: Writing a Thesis in Engineering
This presentation covers the ins and outs of the very specific task that is the engineering thesis. ASME documentation as well as general thesis guidelines will be covered. We will meet in Adams Hall room 103 at 2pm, and we will have plenty of time for Q&A.

Wednesday, Feb 28: Demystifying the Submission Process
Carolyn Law, director of the Thesis Office and the arbiter of thesis readiness, will demystify the secrets and confusion surrounding the thesis and dissertation submission process! Pull back the curtain and prepare to become prepared. This special session meets in Wirtz Hall room 104, from 5-7pm.

Hands-On Workshops
Each semester we offer a workshop or two based on the needs of thesis writers. This term, it's the return of the infamous "T/F/P" workshop as we like to call it.

Tables, Figures, Pagination
Come get one-on-one help with wrangling those documents! There will be some instruction and presentation at this workshop, and you will also have ample time to work on your thesis with the help of staff members and peers. Common problems like disappearing page numbers, messy figures and tables, staying within margins, and other issues will be fought and conquered!

Informal Brown Bags
Since we don't want to do all the talking (we're here to help YOU), we host several informal Brown Bag sessions each semester. These are a great way to meet other people who are on this unique journey and facing our unique struggles. Come tell us what you're on about! (And what you'd like us to help with more.)

March 7 Writing the Proposal
Bring your lunch and talk with us about your proposal ideas and frustrations! This session will be hosted by Robyn Byrd, doctoral candidate in English literature, who defended her dissertation proposal this last October. So she knows the process and remembers the ABD journey!

March 21 Breaking through Writer's Block (and other obstacles)
Join us with your brown bag (or styrofoam container) to discuss the many kinds of writer's obstacles we all face, and some possible solutions. Hosted by Carolyn Law, professional editor and Thesis Office director, who knows the fear of the blank page!

Meet-Ups for Writers
Finally, don't forget, we have a writer's meet-up we call "Write Place, Write Time,"on the second Thursday of every month. This three hour block is a stellar opportunity to make an unbreakable date with your self.  We reserve the doctoral study room on the fourth floor of Founders, and we work quietly together. There is no agenda at Write Place, except to write.  Our next meeting is on March 8.

We hope you join us for one or more of these events this season! Find them all on the University events calendar, or on our Workshops page

Friday, January 26, 2018

Interview with a Freelance Editor

Producing a thesis or dissertation is one thing.  But then after the writing’s done comes the crucial final phase of combining, editing, and proofreading front matter, chapters, tables, references, indexes, and such so that the whole document meets the Graduate School’s formatting requirements—no small chore.  As you head toward (or envision) that final lap, perhaps you’ve considered getting help from an editor.  Here in the Thesis Office we maintain a list of freelance editors who are familiar with NIU’s document formatting rules and offer various editing, formatting, and transcribing services for a fee.  These experts see a lot of research-based writing and can thus share plenty of useful insights on the process of getting your big document in proper shape.   

In this post, we offer some words of reflection, wisdom, and advice from one of the veterans among this group.  She recently visited our office and sat down to share her experiences working with thesis and dissertation writers at NIU.  Our interview covered a range of topics, including her early years of editing (back when clients came to her with printouts and/or files on 3 1/2-inch floppy disks), changes in her work methods over the past decade as documents became almost completely electronic, and the various fields in which her clients have written their papers.  Below is a summary of a few other matters we discussed.     

Red Marks, Red Shoes

It was near the end of the last century when friends and colleagues in DeKalb encouraged Susan Richter, an English literature major, to offer her editing services to thesis and dissertation writers at NIU.  Carolyn Law, our Thesis Office director, told her the work would be “fun.”  Has that prediction turned out to be true?  Overall, Susan’s answers add up to a firm yes.  

“I’m really a bean counter at heart,” she offered at the start of our interview, in reference to the intricacies of arranging and formatting a document in order to avoid a final editor’s red marks.  “Putting everything in the proper order, checking references to make sure they have the volume, issue, and page numbers, making sure everything is following the rules: I enjoy that.”  Though she sometimes finds the content of a thesis or dissertation to be intriguing, Susan insists that what the paper is about is less important to her than the editing of it.  “When people ask me what I do, I tell them, ‘I read but I don’t pay attention.’”  She mentioned that she remembers a few topics from documents she’s edited over the years—teaching methods, management approaches, and engineering solutions come to mind—but doesn’t recall much detail.  She said: “I don’t try to retain any of it because unless it’s something that really interests me, it doesn’t get to stay in my short-term memory.”  In emphasizing her enthusiasm for editing, she also offered a few words worth passing on to writers who may be reaching that final submission stage: “I enjoy making things look the way they’re supposed to look and follow the rules.  If that’s not something you enjoy, you’re going to have problems.  You’re going to have lots of red from Carolyn.” 

Memories about a document’s content may not linger, but anecdotes from her experiences working with grad students readily come to mind.  For example, years ago she would often meet new clients in person.  “It was interesting with the international students,” Susan recalls.  “I would usually meet them over at the student center.  And the first couple of times I said, ‘I’m a white female,’ you know, ‘I’m…’—whatever my age was at the time.  They thought I looked young.  I didn’t look as old as they thought I should.  So I started wearing red shoes.  I would say, ‘I’m 5’3” and have dark hair and will have on red shoes.’”  Thus, students looking for their editor in a crowd would scan below people’s knees, searching for foot coverings matching the color of an editor’s pen.  And does she still have those shoes?  “I do, just in case!”

Words of Experience 

Susan also shared insider views on what writers who seek a freelance editor’s assistance can get right or get wrong.  Highlights worth noting:

  • Determine the particular editing or formatting problems you need help with.  Susan likes it when clients are “honest about what they have” up front.
  • Give your editor ample lead time before deadlines.  “Most clients contact me ahead of time and seem to be working through the process like responsible adults,” she said.
  • Remember that your editor feels deadline pressure, too.  As Susan puts it: “If clients say they’ll send something to me Monday morning and they don’t send it to me until Wednesday night, then a Friday deadline is going to be a little hard to meet.”
  • Check your in-text citations and references extra carefully for accuracy and completeness.  Susan reports that they’re never correct.  She says, “People will say, ‘Oh, no, I used a program.  It’ll be fine.’  They will not be fine.  That has never happened.  Twenty years—never.”  Susan will often assist a client by adding missing information in citations and/or references, but she notes that the writer is ultimately responsible for these things.

Sympathy and Advice

Over the years, Susan has also developed a great deal of sympathy for soon-to-be-finished students at this stressful stage in their careers.  “When people would come over to the house to pick up their three copies and their original, or just their original if they needed it, I kept Kleenex by the door.”  Why Kleenex?  “Because they would just burst into tears—men and women—when I would give their finished document to them.  It was done, and it was delivered, and they would be talking and normal and then just start crying.  And so I know it’s a stressful time.  What I hope is that I can relieve some of that stress.”

Near the end of our talk, we asked if she has any words of advice on how to accomplish the thesis or dissertation wisely.  Her answer provides food for thought for writers of all stripes, not just those who may be thinking of sending their document to an editor for hire:  “Focus on the project and the writing.  Nobody can do everything equally well.  The actual formatting, the mechanical part that I work on, has pretty limited value.  Don’t let that end part be a bad memory or a problem.  Make your research worthwhile for somebody to look up and quote.  That’s the whole purpose—to contribute to the body of knowledge.  Do that.  And if editing and formatting has you overly stressed, consider hiring somebody else to make your document look pretty.”  

Friday, January 12, 2018

This is Part Two of a two-part series on Temple Grandin and the importance of "different" minds  Last month we talked about how to succeed in higher education in spite of mental disabilities (and how to excel because of them!). 

This month we discuss what kinds of contributions different minds like Grandin's (who is autistic) can bring to higher education and to university research. Today she is a renowned professor of Animal Science, but Grandin unexpectedly stumbled upon her talent for working with animals when her poor high school behavior landed her at a special school, one where kids of all abilities were put to work as ranchers. Years later, combining hands-on ranching experience with hard-won knowledge, Grandin earned a Ph. D. in Animal Science. Not your typical academic path!

So what is unique about the contributions of someone like Temple Grandin to scientific research? Her hands-on approach, necessitated by her autism, stuck with her as she began her career as a scientist and author. For instance, she expects her students to think in concrete particulars, rather than abstract theories about animals. Animals don't care about your theories about them. They only have behaviors, not theories -- and behaviors we can observe and respond to. Grandin believes that her autism, which enables her to be present in the moment, helps her to connect with animals and to see why they behave the way they do. Her "walking in their path" approach to working with cattle in particular has resulted in significant discoveries that have changed the way slaughter houses and ranches contain and move livestock.

Grandin's research and developments enrich her classroom teaching, because she brings outside knowledge and novel approaches in front of students who are studied in textbook theories and laboratory work, but not necessarily experienced in field work or real world problems addressed by science. So Grandin's inability to be an ivory tower academic, a pure scholar, is really a valuable trait -- she can't do anything but tell it like it is, and show students how to do concrete things.

The concreteness of Grandin's work also allows for many collaborative opportunities. With projects in the field (sometimes a literal field!), many minds are needed to do the work, interpret the results, and write up the reports. Most of Grandin's peer-reviewed articles are based on collaborative work, or are co-authored. She relies on the writing abilities of others and on their abstract minds, but they rely on her for the nitty gritty details of experiments and inventions that solve real problems with animals, from pigs, to dogs, to cows, of course. Increased collaboration is one of the important ways that contemporary research is changing.

While Grandin's work is exceptionally groundbreaking, many more minds like hers, and other "different" minds as well, are invaluable to academic research, applied research, and classroom teaching. The university is adapting, and will continue to adapt, to the next generation of knowledge workers. They will have autism, ADD, mental health issues, and various learning disabilities, but they will be prepared for academic work -- all because education is finally capable of reaching many young people who could not be reached, even a decade ago. It could be the overactive mind of someone who can't focus, the empathy of someone who has lived a lifetime with depression, or the transposed figures seen by a student with dyscalculia that lead to new approaches in history, social science, and math. And these thinkers, working together with their neuro-typical peers to pick up all the pieces, may be the key to developing novel solutions for the practical problems of the 21st Century.