Friday, December 16, 2016

Time Management for the Worst Procrastinators

Photo by Emilie Ogez on Flickr
Time management is not something I am good at.  I'm good at staring out the window, doodling plans and lists, and doing every other project except the one I need to finish by May 2018. I get a lot done (a doctoral student and a mother has to), but it isn't easy.  And it doesn't often happen through careful planning, but through sheer will!

So as I worked through grad school, my early teaching career, and now the beginning of the dissertation... I realized I need to get my act together. Just like writing a paper without an outline stopped working, so did living a day without an outline. But no loose planning in a bullet journal or motivational mantra on a bulletin board could help this daydreaming procrastinator. Any wiggle room would ruin me. So, desperate for a method, I focused on the smallest unit of time that could be put to excellent work, coupled with a proven system for fighting the distraction of other projects -- the Pomodoro.

What is it?

What the heck is a Pomodoro? It's a tomato. But more on that later.

The Pomodoro work method is based upon research that shows we can most successfully work in something like 25 minute bursts.  This is enough time to get into a groove without wearing out our eyes or our carpal tunnels, and it's enough time to produce a substantial work chunk, say, to grade three long papers or to write a page. It's also a short enough time that we can completely ignore everyone else in the universe and they'll be just fine until we get back from our little Pomodoro planet. Close tabs, log out, hide phone -- blast off!

Photo by Luca Mascaro on Flickr
So why not make it half an hour? Because that 5 minutes at the end gives you a chance to look up from the screen (recommended by doctors, brain doctors, and opticians alike), and move around a bit.  Then you dive back into another 25 minutes or work. Four of these productivity bursts makes for almost two hours of work, only slightly (and restoratively) interrupted.  Four timer sessions = a "Pomodoro."  Say it out loud: "I just did a Pomodoro!"  Get up and take a long break.  Exercise, pet the cat, feed your starving kids, whatever. You earned it!  Then, you can choose to do more Pomodoros or call it.

The method is named as such because the original timer, designed by Francesco Cirillo, is shaped like a tomato. Imagine one of those egg timers that looks like an egg. Now it's a tomato. Tada!

Pomodoro praxis

I began the method with a stack of grading last spring, and it worked like a charm. It is absolutely flawless for clerical tasks like grading, organizing notes and sources, making tables, etc.  Although, I had to practice and get comfortable with it before I could really write in a flow state a la Pomodoro. You may have to work with it awhile until you can do real "knowledge work" on a timer.  But now that is an easy habit for me.

As important as the timer is the minimization of distraction. CLOSE THE TABS!  Nothing bad will happen.  Some online timers can even do it for you.  Half the point of this thing is work-life balance. This is the part where you have to let life slide -- it's only 25 minutes.

I do not use the actual physical tomato, but I may start.  Instead I use one of many online timers specifically geared towards the technique.  You can of course use any timer that goes to at least 25 minutes (but for obvious reasons, don't use your phone!).

I have used some great Pomodoros online. There are dozens if you search:

Tomato Timer
A super simple platform with start and stop key commands (or mouse buttons) and no frills. My favorite.

A tricked out timer that lets you create an account and track projects and time spent.

The Real Pomodoro Tomato Timer
The "real deal" tomato is available from many sellers, but some are mightily over-priced. I think I will get mine from The Animal Rescue Site, so my $12.95 feeds a dog or some other fuzzy guy

One more thing about TIME

Ok, I am a mother, a grad student, a teacher, a "life-partner" if you will, and a gigging musician. I know a thing or two about not having enough time (one of those things will require another blog post). So let me tell you something that we hear all the time in this office, and that I have had to turn into a Pomodoro-complementary mantra:

You do not find time.  You MAKE time.

There is no extra time anywhere waiting to be found. And if you happen to stumble upon some, you will not even realize you have found it because you will be caught up in it, looking at the TV or just resting with your loved ones.

Extra time has to be made. The only way to do this is to shorten the length of time spent doing other tasks (i.e. non-dissertation tasks and clerical dissertation tasks) so that you grow the time you have to think and write and be healthy and whole. Get efficient. Make extra time for yourself and your family, and for your knowledge work.

So, some parting questions for you:

What work can you let slide in the name of making time?  Instead of thinking of it as letting something slide, can you think of it as producing something precious -- the time you need?  

What work could you do more efficiently or delegate to a partner or child?

What unproductive time-suckers can you give up completely? We all need some. But maybe you could make time by reducing them?

What could you work on being less perfectionist about? Good tasks are done tasks! (And a good dissertation is a done dissertation.)

More on all this in a later post.  Happy tomato-timing and time-making!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Stop Reading and Start Writing: Good Advice?

The Passion of Creation, 1892, by Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945).

This entry is dedicated to those of you working on the dissertation proposal as well as to those who’ve cleared that hurdle.  At bottom it also calls out to thesis and dissertation writers in STEM and related fields.

Slouching towards Proposal’s End

It was rough, putting my dissertation proposal together.  Winter merged into early spring as I ran ideas past my director and formed my committee, taught two sections of English 203, and completed an internship on campus.  All the while I was steadily tracking down books and articles and even a few dissertations related to my research, reading them extensively and intensively, rereading notes and papers from courses I took last year and several years before that, compiling a colossal bibliography, staring into space, making notes and plans in my head and on paper and screen, thinking ideas aloud during long walks and bike rides, and trying to explain what my dissertation would be like to colleagues, friends, and family members whose quizzical grimaces, doubting frowns, and muffled guffaws in response to my ramblings linger on in bittersweet memories of that drawn-out span of time.  The best part of it, of course, was when the actual writing happened.  Once I finally entered the “zone” and was drafting and revising my proposal in earnest, things moved ever more smoothly and swiftly.
Sound familiar?  Most likely you can offer up an account like the one above about your progress on your proposal (or, for that matter, your progress on just about any major writing project).  Plenty of similar accounts on the proposal can be found on relevant blogs like The Thesis Whisperer (a particularly popular blog, which we here at Project Thesis recommend).  Such accounts tend to convey the idea that accomplishing the proposal is like completing the dissertation in miniature. It’s a big project but not as big as the main event.  It’s simply another engagement with the writing process. Many predictably advise that in order to complete it you must eventually do two very important and rather obvious things: stop reading and start writing.  But, in the cold light of second thought, to what extent is that bit of advice helpful?
Stop reading?  

It’ll never happen.  No matter how many times others tell you to stop reading and start writing, no matter how many times you say this to yourself, those words and the message behind them won’t dissuade you from naturally turning from your writing, at some point, to read something else. Perhaps it’s a secondary source like another research article that may shed more light on your project.  Perhaps it’s a book chapter you read two months ago that now seems to deserve another look.  Perhaps it’s a primary source, a text or study you’re analyzing and have read countless times before but now feel compelled to return to once more.  Turning to readings such as these when you need to be writing is often branded taboo.  Consider, however, that in some cases this judgment may a bit too drastic.  Recall the writer in the picture at the top of this page.  He’s clearly engaged in the writing process but isn’t putting words down.  He appears to be working out an idea in his head.  What should he do next?  Continue thinking with his eyes closed?  Draft whatever comes to mind?  Why not turn to some of the notes or books by his side?

Reading through a Writing Delay

Sometimes during the writing process writers get stuck in the drafting or revising stages and need to find a way back in.  Temporarily revisiting the pre-writing stage at such times can be a constructive move.  Among the various strategies for pre-writing, there is certainly a place for reading or rereading old or new sources.  Yet when you do turn to reading or rereading such materials to reactivate the writing you need to do, heed these tips:

Set suitable reading parameters
For example, if you’re proposing a dissertation on popular songs during the American Civil War,
clearly you should stick to sources within the boundaries of this topic area and avoid irrelevant
readings about, say, Modern Art.

Read and write in tandem
Reading broadly and deeply is a fundamental component of your project, but, naturally, you do need to write in order to complete it.  However, instead of thinking you should be either reading or writing, accept that, as you progress, both reading and writing can overlap.

No matter what your field is, embracing reading while working through each stage of the writing process is an idea worth considering.  Certainly, however, the nature and scope of the reading involved will vary from one field to the next.

A Call to Writers in STEM and Related Fields

Incidentally, if you happen to be working on a thesis or dissertation in the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, or related fields, we’d be interested in hearing from you about your experiences with your project proposal (or hearing about your project as a whole).  What important differences in process or approach do you notice between your own work and what you read about here (and elsewhere)?  We invite you to drop ideas in the comment box below.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Review: Writing the Doctoral Dissertation

At the beginning of any dissertation journey, both the journey and its destination seem hazy and amorphous. As the years of coursework rolled by, I had felt as if the diss was a huge, distant thing on the horizon that was painfully, slowly coming into view. It started to take a shape, and it became more and more real as I could see it looming there. But when I found myself close up, at the end of coursework, at the top of the field exam climb, I realized it wasn't a thing at the top of that mountain. I looked out across another chasm instead, with no clearer image of what the diss really was than before all my hard work.

Enough of that! I won't deny that this poetic sort of thinking about dissertating can be helpful, and is my usual mode as an English major. But especially as a disorganized English major, and as anyone in any discipline who has ever had trouble seeing the clear shape and scope of a project, I needed help thinking practically. I needed help making a plan. There are so many good books on the market, but many of them are titled in metaphorical language, some inspiring, some terrifying: Survival Guide! One of the books in our office has a cover image of a stormy sea with a flimsy lifesaver floating on it.  No thanks.  My dissertation is not the Titanic.

In Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach, the dissertation is not characterized as a "quest" or a "trial by fire" or anything other than what it is. It's a writing project! The book turns the diss into a procedure, like any other.  A procedure with linear steps (some cyclical ones too), with deadlines, and with clear goals. Gone are the musings about "demystifying" the "journey" or some other useless crap that a person in the throes of drafting could have thought of themselves.  If what you need is a clear, disinterested voice, untinged by commiseration or by condescension, to say to you "DO EXACTLY THIS"... then this is the book you should read.

Also, this book is fairly new, like of-this-decade new.  Its authors know about current trends in scholarship in various fields, alternative sorts of dissertations, and contemporary expectations for research in an age of globally accessible information and project collaborations.

In my youth I was always the straight-through writer, never an outliner. In grad school I began to see the purpose of having a structure and some goal-points in mind before beginning a project. But I never put that to use beyond the twenty or so pages required for my term papers.  Assorted piles of papers with color coded post-it notes were enough semi-organization to get me through. But now, as I face this new ~200 page project (journey, chasm, abyss, whatever you want to call it), this book has me obsessed with the checklist, the calendar, the breakdown, and even the "budget" of the dissertation.  In a very good way.

Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach (by Gordon B. Davis, Clyde A. Parker, and Detmar W. StraubBarron's, 2012) is available online and in the NIU bookstore.  Here is a summary from one of the contributors:

At $12.99 it will be one of your best grad school investments (or maybe a close second to the coffee pot).

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Nontraditional Dissertation and You

Opening panels of Nick Sousanis's dissertation.

By tradition, the dissertation is a text-centered project rooted in conventions established long, long ago during the early days of print. Perhaps you agree it's high time to overturn the old ways. Perhaps you're ready to see academia break free from the shackles of tradition and embrace dissertations that depart from the monograph or that combine text with images and other media.        

The Nontraditional Dissertation

Actually, contemporary dissertators have already started clearing such nontraditional paths, and coverage of these developments makes for some interesting reading. In an entry last June, our blog touched on stories of pioneers of various sorts who have approached the dissertation in novel ways; the first story is amusing but also alarming (detailing how politicians and other officials in Russia have been buying dissertations on the black market!), whereas the second is intriguing and rather inspiring (documenting dissertations that take the form of interactive digital texts or even comic books). The advent of the comic-book dissertation was further detailed (with plenty of eye-catching graphics) in this 2014 article by Sydni Dunn at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Dunn devotes much of her piece to Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening, a dissertation in comic form that Sousanis produced at Columbia University and subsequently turned into a book, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. Sousanis is now a professor at San Francisco State; you can read more about his work on comics as educational tools on his detailed website. Finally, you can find an abundance of relevant articles and media clips on the website of the #Alt-Academy, a place for humanities scholars to share their experiences at producing unorthodox dissertations and embarking on nontraditional academic careers.

Where Do You Fit In? 

Regardless of your field, you may wish to pursue a nontraditional dissertation. When I initially heard that term, the first thing that came to my mind was some kind of creative piece that involves more than just written text, something like Sousanis’s comic-book dissertation or a performance-based project one might produce in fields such as dance, theater, or film. But there is certainly room for nontraditional approaches in other fields such as education, engineering, or health and human sciences. In fields like these, research and post-degree goals may fit in nicely with a project comprised of stand-alone articles, reports, or digital materials (instead of a unified set of dissertation chapters).

If you're contemplating a nontraditional route for your dissertation (or thesis), here are three main points to consider as you make your plans.

1. Acceptability. How enthusiastically will your committee members accept the idea? You obviously need to get approval from your director and other readers as you prepare your project's proposal. At this stage, you'll most certainly need to inform them of any plans you may have for out-of-the ordinary methods or innovative presentations of results.

2. Marketability. How will a nontraditional project enhance your short-term and long-range career prospects? 

3. Flexibility. How willing and able are you to make changes to your nontraditional document, your methods of displaying it, or to the way it mixes textual innovations with conventional formatting requirements? Note that certain features in complex multimodal files may not display effectively on platforms like ProQuest (or the file may exceed the size limit).   

And, by the way, if you're already working on a nontraditional project (or if you've completed one), we'd be thrilled if you told us a little about your experiences in the comments section below!

Nontraditional in Form: Your ETD 

Of course, compared to a traditional dissertation or thesis from the distant or even more recent past, the document you eventually complete will be inherently nontraditional: no matter how conventional or non-digital it is in execution (whether you develop it from handwritten drafts, lab experiments, fieldwork, studio sessions, or performances), you must convert the report of your defended piece (conventional, innovative, or somewhere in between) into a PDF file that can be read and distributed electronically. Remember that we provide step-by-step guidelines for submitting your file as an electronic thesis/dissertation (ETD) on our webpage. Good luck with all your work as you progress to that final stage!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Building Your Tribe (Again and Again)

If you're an average-aged grad student or older, you're a full fledged grown-up by now, whether you like it or not. Like me, you've probably realized that making friends as an adult is not like making friends as a young person. When we lose the easy friendships of our high school tribe, our college tribe, or even our bar-going, concert-going, or [insert any 20-something activity here] buddies, the road to a graduate degree can get lonesome. The sobriety of adulthood and of the graduate journey are two strikes against us as friend material.

What I've realized is that adults, especially in our line of work, need friends with common interests and similar goals. The exuberance of youthful friendships and the energy of their bodies and minds (and their staggering amount of free time) makes friendships of all kinds enjoyable and sustainable.  We can still have our old friendships. But as graduate students, we have a specific goal shared by a small percentage of the population. Not only that, our most passionate interests are only interesting to an even smaller, infinitesimal percentage of the population. It seems like we need to bust out the Venn Diagrams to figure out which of the people we know should still put up with us as friends!

The First Tribe: Get One!

When I say we need similar people in our lives, I don't mean vaguely similar. Like "We are both success oriented and outgoing!" similar. I mean SIMILAR. Like, "We both study the genome of a rare species of Bolivian rat!" similar. ...I'm kidding. But students in your department who share the same journey are the first place to look for camaraderie, if you are newly doing the grad thing. Attend lectures, talk to people after class, join a group, go out for drinks. At first it will be awkward. But we're all old enough not to care about being "cool"! So try really hard just to soak it all up. Be observant, and don't be competitive.  You are all in the same leaky boat.

In the English Department at NIU, we had a broad core of classes, no matter our focus, and I met many like-minded people. Among the TAs in particular, our shared experience of teaching composition to freshmen created a strong bond. (Working on campus and being a part of the department is priceless.) The coursework experience, and the combined experience of the first few years of teaching with people I also studied with, won me a new tribe. I can only hope that coursework and GA work is such a social boon for all early career grad students.

End of Coursework, End of Social Life?

That tribe disappears, all too soon. The MA students were gone in two years. I miss some of them a lot. PhD students who entered ahead of me, core members of my tribe, are off dissertating, locked away from social interruptions. Some have finished and moved far away.  I stopped driving to campus for the drink nights that used to be so easy to attend when they were right after class. Today, I have the solid support of my office, and the vague support of my family who have no idea what I'm doing. But I haven't much in the way of comrades. I feel like I'm writing all alone.

All I can say is don't let that happen. The involvement will diminish, but the time spent together is still important. At the stage of the thesis or dissertation we need so much more than commiseration and shop talk. We need support, strategies, hope, and human connection. We spend so much time with our research and our laptops. It's odd, really. But you know who won't think it's odd? The other people who do it.

Facebook groups (friend everyone!) are a great way to plan events and stay in touch, even when you hardly see each other in person anymore. Part of the reason I dropped out of the tribe was lack of transportation.  Well, I've got a new car! Writing this post has given me the urge to get back on social media and find some real-life social activities to do.

Other Ways to Connect

I know I just said you need grad student friends. But there are other kinds of specifically like-minded friends! That's my main thesis here --  we are not the best friend material right now.  So we should seek friendship that is as supportive as possible of our unique situations.

I have a social life outside of school, almost solely because I'm in rock bands. This is another way that I surround myself with people of very specific interests. Do you play? If not, you're probably not someone I see very often. It sounds bad, but we only have so much time, and we need to fill it with the right kinds of stimulation.  So in addition to your efforts on campus, finding a hobby and focusing on it can round out your social life better than aimless bar-going or online dating. Most of us can't turn our brains off, right?  So find something that stimulates a different part of it.  Art, geo-caching, gaming, hiking, whatever. A specific thing to share.

Someday We'll Be Normal (Sort of)

Someday we will finish our theses and dissertations. We can nurse neglected friendships, balance our lives out, and maybe even start eating real food again! I'm not arguing at all that high-achievers have no use for broader social circles and diversity among their friends. I'm just saying that right now, you need grad school friends. And the best way to find the ones who will help you along your journey is to simply look around at your fellow travelers.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Thesis and the Dissertation: Peas in a Pod

We call the document for the master’s degree a “thesis,” and the longer one for the doctorate a “dissertation,” and perhaps you wonder why.

Well, many thoughts on the nature of theses and dissertations have been buzzing through our office lately. Over the past four weeks, we held our fall slate of presentations, workshops, and brown-bag sessions for students working on one or the other kind of document. Several of our programs cover important details behind the Graduate School’s document-formatting requirements. When we look through these requirements closely, it becomes clear that they’re nearly identical for either a thesis or dissertation.

So, then, if the format looks nearly identical, what distinguishes the thesis from the dissertation? A glance at the histories of the two words makes for an interesting way to highlight some differences and similarities between these two important writing projects.

"How do I put it?"

Thesis writers, do you sometimes find yourself wondering how to put your ideas in writing while working on your project? If so, you're not only human (nearly all writers, at some point, wrestle with how to put thoughts on paper or screen) but also hinting at some of the history behind the word "thesis." Like many terms in academia, the words “thesis” and “dissertation” come to us from Greek through Latin. "Thesis" originally derives from the Indo-European root *dhe-, which had the meaning of ‘to set’ or ‘to put.’ The root later formed the central element in the Greek verb tithenai, meaning ‘to place, put, or set,’ as well as the noun thesis. In Latin, thesis referred to the unstressed and later the stressed syllables in a line of poetry. (Stress for thesis writers today is usually of a different nature!) In the English of the late 1500s, “thesis” began to refer to a statement to be proved through logic—in other words, a thesis statement. By the next century, the word’s meaning broadened to include what we in the twenty-first century think of when we speak of a master’s thesis--the formal document presented for the master’s degree.

Scholars at a lecture. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1736
"Contrary to what others have said, I argue that…"

Dissertators, when you explain your project, do you sometimes linger around that point where you need to arrange your thoughts to emphasize how your work stands apart from previous scholarship? Such efforts invoke something of the original spirit of the word "dissertation." It's rooted in the Latin verbs dissertare ‘to debate, argue, examine, harangue’ and disserere, a combination of dis- ‘apart’ and serere ‘to arrange.’ The etymology zeroes in on the general task doctoral candidates must carry out today: arrange an argument based on original evidence as well as on an examination of the surrounding scholarly debate, write it out clearly and convincingly at length, share it with the world, and live to tell about it. (Long sentence, longer ordeal!) The word began to refer to such a thing in the 1650s, around the same time "thesis" began to refer to a similar piece. According to the OED, the meaning of "dissertation" began to be restricted to the monograph produced for the doctorate in the 1930s.

Peas in a Pod

Thus, once established in academic circles, the terms "thesis" and "dissertation,” along with the documents they refer to, grew up alongside each other. No wonder, then, that their format requirements overlap and that we sometimes speak of these two types of documents in the same breath. But in addition to the etymological and historical hints at what these documents do, universities usually separate the two by degree and kind. The thesis is shorter and is a kind of knowledge display. The dissertation is longer and is a kind of original research and significant new contribution to a field.

Of course, the Graduate School also offers clear and succinct definitions for a thesis and a dissertation. Check them early and often. And you can always turn to us if you seek further information or guidance. We’re happy to help!

In case you missed one of our fall programs, note that we’ll be offering presentations, workshops, and brown bags once again at the start of the spring semester. In the meantime, we’re available through email, phone, or walk-in. And remember that our writing group for thesis and dissertation writers, Write Place/Write Time, meets on the second Thursday of every month from 6 to 9 p.m. in Founders Memorial Library (4th Floor East). Look for us there this coming Thursday, October 13. Happy writing!   

Source for the above images: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Proper Document Formatting: Your Readers Want It!

Since our undergrad years we have been told to use seemingly arbitrary formatting conventions for many of the academic assignments we've turned in.  There are lab report formats, literature review formats, citation styles such as APA, MLA, and a hundred others. As an English student, I learned MLA, scoffed at what I thought was APA's fixation on dates and enshrining of other people's research, and never looked back.

But now that I teach writing, and sometimes research writing, I've had to learn how format and style is dependent on discipline.  My students use what suits them. APA makes much more sense for many of the sciences.  I, a literature student, could write many pages on a hundred year old piece of scholarship, as long as I knew what else has been said about it in 2016.  But a science student or psych student has no use for moldy old papers, beyond understanding the history of their discipline. Dates matter, and I'm glad we don't take medicine produced with ancient methods or visit hospitals built upon century-old research!  (APA helps make sure of it.)  Just as I'm glad that engineers even have their own way of documenting things (ASME, and others) that respects the research of others, so that when someone uses their findings, our bridges stay up and our cars drive straight. (I'm showing my humanities understanding of how things work now, haha!)  So, there really are reasons for these things.

But even though I know about the plenitude of research styles and the uses for them now, I see even more clearly that all the formatting of these styles, on the page, is definitely arbitrary.

So why the heck do we format?  

What's the point? I'll tell you. Because it is a convention that is absolutely necessary to keep your reader from pulling their hair out and losing their eyesight!  (Especially now that you are writing a hundred or even hundreds of pages for someone else's review). Students, especially my freshman writers, sometimes balk at this arbitrariness. But I kind of revel in it.  (After all, even language itself is arbitrary. And so are apostrophes.). Arbitrary strictness, when it comes to documents, is far and wide preferable to willy-nilly personal formatting quirks (at best), or incoherent methods of document organization that impede meaning (at worst).

Here at the Thesis Office, we understand that many quirks about your document have to do with whether you are a biologist, or an art therapist, or a computer scientist, or a linguist, or... you get the idea. We see the marks of your discipline on the page, and we can even help you make sure you are making those marks correctly (citations, references, tables, etc.) before your committee even sees the thing.  Please, come see us!  But in addition to those formatting requirements handed down from your discipline gods, the Thesis gods have a few more.  And this is where you might really need our help.  Again, you're asking EGADS! WHY?  Because someone has to read your paper, that's why. And hopefully for your sake, many someones will read your paper. Format, and every other kind of orthography, that is, the way things look on a page, is about making yourself easy to read. Your document will go into a repository with thousands of other documents, and if it looks different, it will look funny.  And it may even look confusing. The reader has to know: Where do I find the list of tables? How is the front matter arranged and numbered? What corner are the page numbers in? What level of heading am I reading, like is this an important section or a sub-thought?  Can I put this in a binder and be sure the holes aren't going to punch right through the data sets? Etc. Standardized formatting means readers know what they're getting, and can use it easily.  Nothing we ask you to do will compromise the goals of the formatting of your discipline. But it might drive you crazy anyway.  Seriously, come see us.

A reader's experience

I have a first grader, and I commend the teacher who can read thirty little papers in thirty handwriting styles and in thirty invented spelling styles, all written in everyone's favorite crayon color. I salute you! As a teacher of philosophy and freshman English, I don't have it so bad. But I see so many papers. A few hundred every term.

While it is certainly nice to have everything typed on white paper, I also ask my students to use certain formatting, and invariably they don't take it very seriously until about mid-term.  I get papers in the default Microsoft Word font, I get papers in fonts that look very much like Times New Roman but are not Times New Roman ("TNR 12pt!" I write, in screaming teacher commentary at the top of their paper, right next to "TITLE!" because for some strange reason they don't title their work...)  I read the piles of papers, and the idiosyncrasies drive me mad. The font called Cambria makes me want to scream. OMG CAMBRIA UGH! The attempted use of 2.25 spacing to pad their papers (instead of a double-space) just makes me laugh. 1.5" margins make me put my head down on the table and take a break.  While some of these things are because of students trying to trick me (I know grad students don't do that!), some are them are out of pure carelessness.  They are not bucking against convention. They are being undisciplined and causing problems for their reader.  The students with the best grades?  The ones with good formatting.  Not because I grade them on their perfect margins!  But because they are people who pay attention to detail, and that comes out in both the content of their papers and in the presentation.  While the Thesis office won't have much to say about your content, your committee will. The presentation of it is important.

So when Carolyn at the Thesis Office finally reads your work, we don't want to hear her head thud to the table in the next room, or hear her scream "AAAACK 1.5 inch MARGINSSS!" from down the hall. We'll all want to know who did it.

You have worked so hard on this thesis.  Do it an honor and do your future readers the honor of formatting it like a pro!  Because once you pass this last "test," you are a pro.  Conventions are annoying, they take up time and brain-space, and no one can tell us exactly why they are the way they are.  But they are still important, just as important as the conventions of using a period to end a sentence or quotation marks to set off a quote. If we value our research and its products, we should do everything we can to participate in the community by keeping our reviewers', committee's, and future readers' eyes on the page and their heads off the table.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Right Place to Write?

Mark Twain finishing a chapter?

NIU’s thesis and dissertation writing group, Write Place/Write Time, met yesterday from 6 to 9 p.m. for our first fall meet-up. Four of us convened in our clean, well-lighted place—reserved every second Thursday—next to the Fourth Floor East windows in Founders Memorial Library. After greeting and chatting briefly, we each got down to business: composing in a quiet environment largely removed from everyday distractions. A great experience!

Writing alongside others working on projects similar to your own has many benefits: structure, support, accountability, and a spirit of healthy competition (in the positive sense suggested by the Latin roots of compete: com- ‘together’ + petere ‘to strive’). In previous posts, this blog has featured excellent overviews of Write Place/Write Time and its benefits in the context of one dissertator's routine and schedule (May 20, 2016, and December 4, 2015). Here I’d like to add a bit more on the topic of the places where successful writing happens through sharing of a few pieces of literary trivia.

Other Writers, Other Places

Virginia Woolf once famously said, to be able to write one needs money and a room of one’s own (in reference to women writing fiction in Shakespeare’s day). As any grad student can tell you, she was right about the money part.  But what about that other part? Is a room of one’s own the optimal setting for good writing?

Georges Simenon--
I think he's the guy at the desk.

Settings you can’t call your own may very well feature all manner of unhelpful distractions. Perhaps that’s why Belgian novelist Georges Simenon strongly favored working in a room just for him. Creator of hundreds of detective novels, Simenon was “perhaps the most widely published author of the 20th century,” according to his official website. Simenon would reportedly complete a novel in about eleven days of isolated, non-stop writing. He would take breaks to eat and sleep, but during these writing stints he would speak to no one, take no phone calls, and never leave his room (Salgado 66). No word on whether he ever considered grad school.

Writing in your own space may help foster constructive writing methods. In his later years, as pictured above, Mark Twain apparently preferred to write in his bedroom while still in bed. Twain isn’t the only successful author who developed a fancy for horizontal composing. The approach has been taken up more recently by DeKalb High School graduate, novelist, and Stanford professor Richard Powers.

Richard Powers: Standing up at Stanford.
In a 2003 interview in The Paris Review, Powers related that his dream “has always been to suspend myself in space when I write, and lying horizontal in bed is the closest to doing that.” Perhaps this method is worth exploring.

Just as memorable and worth considering is Ernest Hemingway’s habit of writing in his bedroom while standing up. A fascinating portrait of Hemingway’s work habits appears in this 1958 interview in The Paris Review.

Summing Up: Write Place/Write Time

Ernest Hemingway thinking on his feet.

Certainly all writers need some sort of combination of place and time in order to get their writing done. May the above anecdotes and reading links refresh some of your ideas about writing, help you rethink places where your best writing happens, and inspire you to get back to it.

And remember: a room of our own is available every second Thursday in the library. We hope to see you there. Until then, happy writing!

                             Work Cited
Salgado, Gamini.  “The Novelist at Work.”  Novels and Novelists: A Guide to the World of Fiction.   Ed. Martin Seymour-Smith.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1980.  Print.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The History of the Dissertation in Academia

Since I am in the beginning stages of writing a dissertation, I began to wonder... WHY???  And I'm sure you all wonder this at some point.  I looked into the history of the dissertation and didn't find much of interest, until I came upon an old, stale article (does anybody remember 1998?) by Gary Olson and Julie Drew.  It's an interesting read, despite its staleness -- because of its mission.  The authors' need to go into the history of the dissertation is driven by their urge to protect the scholarly and professional status of the dissertation -- to keep universities and faculty alike from downgrading these documents, which are no longer necessarily published or even publishable, to grey literature, second-rate student exercises in a discipline. If that's all it is, then why do it, right?  Academia is so bad we might as well all go ABD!

The History

But wait -- we are working in an enterprise with a short but significant life.  Here is a brief look:

The dissertation is a relatively new rite of passage in the history of academia. When medieval and Renaissance scholars took academic titles, they didn't dissertate to get there. And when some of the most highly educated scholars and writers of the Early Modern Period finished their schooling, they didn't take the title "Doctor". (Unless maybe they were a Doctor of Physick and liked attaching leeches to people!)

The dissertation has its origins in 18th and 19th century Europe, particularly in Germany. Herr Doktors were the first scholars to have to not only write but publish a dissertation in order to have their degree conferred. This guaranteed that the junior scholars, in whom the senior scholars had invested so much time, would produce new knowledge, a contribution. The first American University to grant PhD's followed this format, and by 1861 our own Yale had produced the first three American Doctors of Philosophy, who had all published short but sweet dissertations (Olson 57). (One was six pages long!)

James Morris Whiton,
first American Ph.D.
It was this migration of the dissertation to America, combined with what one of my professors calls "the reading machine" (i.e. capitalism-fueled publishing and the consumption of such), that led to the establishment of the university press (Olson 58).  We had to find a way to print all those books!

Then, with PhDs increasing every year, it eventually became impractical to publish the "diss," (that's what we call it in the biz...), and the requirement to publish fell off by the 1930s (Olson 58).  Since then, we have moved to microfilm, a single bound copy in the library, and eventually, all electronic dissertations that have probably never been printed on paper in their final form. (Unless the proud new Doctor pays about fifty bucks to get a vanity-bound personal copy).  So, what was once a scholar's first real book, a first real contribution to the field, became more like a hoop to jump through.  A big, flaming hoop.

What do we do?

So how do we reclaim our diss? How do we make the diss a scholarly foray into a real academic conversation, rather than a closed-course driving test? Is it about attitude?  Maybe it's about our advisors and their attitude toward the project (Olson suggests as much). Maybe the answer is to think of the diss as something in between a first solo flight and a final flight simulation test. But the difference between those things is huge. The difference between those things can cost us a job. How do we describe our flying to a potential employer, if we don't even believe that we've ever really left the ground?

Well, I don't really know yet. I'll tell you when I figure it out. But no matter how I feel about the result, you can bet I'm going to order one of those fifty dollar cloth-bound copies for my tiny office.

Work Cited

Olson, Gary A., and Julie Drew. "(Re) Reeinvisioning Dissertation in English Studies." College English, 61.1 (1998): 56-66.

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Fond Hello from Your New Bloggers

Hello thesis and dissertation writers!

Clare and Mike are onto bigger and better things (like finishing their dissertations), and they have passed the torch to us, another two dissertation writers from the NIU English Department.

We will continue to maintain and grow this blog where you can turn to find helpful (and correct!) advice, current news, and even educative tales of personal struggle to help you through this seemingly never-ending stage of your career.

So, to introduce ourselves...

Hi, I'm Robyn

My name is Robyn Byrd, and I am starting my fourth year of PhD-ing at NIU.  I am just beginning the dissertation process this Fall. And I really mean "just beginning." I am working on my still-nebulous, still-too-broad prospectus, pulling together my committee, and going through all those early stage troubles of what it even means to write a thing like this! I study philology (like linguistics, but for written words), so I read funny dead languages like Old Norse. There will be Vikings in my dissertation. And beyond that...I have a long way to go.

But since I work at the thesis office, I'll be okay.  And so will you! I can help you with everything from big existential thesis questions to document formatting. I'm kind of an instant expert.

My professional life outside the Thesis Office includes adjunct work at Aurora University, where I teach a lot of philosophy and a little bit of grammar since earning my master's degree at NIU in 2013.

The fun stuff: At home I have two kids, a little girl and a semi-large boy, who love ponies and cars (guess which is which).  I love bicycles and ride them far, I play music on the flute and sing in a rock band or two, and I thoroughly appreciate my boyfriend who puts up with me talking about inflectional morphology and Nietzschean aphorisms until 1 am.

Hello there!  I’m Fred

I'm Fred Stark, the other new assistant in the Thesis and Dissertation Office.

I’m a PhD candidate in English at NIU, and throughout this academic year I’ll be working on completing my dissertation, which deals with representations of language and cultural contact in American maritime fiction between 1830 and 1915. To put that another way: I’m comparing characters and communicative situations in the early novels of Herman Melville to those in selected works of sea fiction by other authors from this period, up to and including major sea novels by Jack London. Not so many Vikings in my dissertation, but plenty of sea drifters, an assortment of whalers, and here and there a few pirates.

I come to all this after several years of English teaching, the last four in the First-Year Composition Program at NIU and, prior to that, a few universities overseas. When I’m not working on academic stuff, I try to enjoy the outdoors as much as I can. I’ve done a lot of hiking and trekking over the years, and since coming to NIU I have made it to several geographic high points in the Midwest, including the Illinois high point a bit east of Galena. No, I didn’t walk all the way there from DeKalb!

This fall, in addition to assisting writers like you, I’ll be spending a fair amount of time in Founders Memorial Library.  I’ll be completing some of my dissertation research in Rare Books and Special Collections, chasing down stories of high-seas adventure in its vast holdings of nineteenth-century dime novels. I’ll also be on the Fourth Floor every month for our grad-student-sponsored writing group, Write Place/Write Time.

Be sure to check back in the coming weeks for more information on our writing group and other topics of interest. Happy writing!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Clare Foland Farewell

I'd like to inform you that it's time for a change of hands in the Thesis Office. Mike’s and my assistantships are coming to an end, and two new GA's will introduce themselves to you in a couple weeks.

I know I can speak for Mike in saying that we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here. We worked hard to implement a service-oriented focus in the Office, as we were tasked to do by Carolyn Law, who has envisioned such changes for a long time but never had a staff to help.

The new GA's will undoubtedly come up with new ideas, but I'd like to leave you with a couple lessons I've learned, which may serve as simple reminders.

First, in my consultations with students, I have continually needed to refer to the Thesis or Dissertation Format Guidelines found on our website. Even working here, I sometimes forget certain formatting requirements, so I cannot stress enough to those who are just beginning their thesis or dissertation writing, and even to those who are winding down, to constantly refer to the appropriate guidelines and use the tools we have provided online. The more that you format your document correctly from the start, the easier your final preparation will be, even though you will still likely have some finishing touch changes to make.

Also, I have learned that formatting documents in Word can be frustrating (lol-you knew that). Here, all I can say is try not to let the frustration get to you. I know that's not much help, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to remind that you are not alone in these issues.

My greatest lesson involves advice we repeatedly give: just write. Write down any and all of your thoughts for a chapter or section, no matter how inelegant, unformed, disorganized, or badly phrased—get those ideas on paper. This has been the only way I have made progress, and I am now about half way through my dissertation draft. When I started here, I only had my proposal written. I actually then rewrote/re-framed my proposal to reign in, and restart, my thoughts before diving into a chapter. Next, upon advice from Carolyn Law, I “dared to be adequate”; that is, I literally slapped some drivel onto paper. (And I learned this new word, “drivel”!) Yet, as I worked along on that first chapter, it slowly started to shape up. I am continuing this practice, and it is the only method that works for me.

I have enjoyed meeting students from many disciplines and hearing about your progress, your studies, and your challenges. I feel privileged to have met and worked with a whole bunch of thoughtful people who care deeply about their projects, even knowing what they give up to get these theses and dissertations written. I wish you all the best in completing your work.

So, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ll leave you with the following saying: Keep Calm and Write On!

See you on Facebook, at Founders, and at the Write Place, Write Time sessions.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Re-reading Your Dissertation

I read my primary texts; I collected and annotated my secondary sources; I composed an outline; I reflected on my subject matter; I procrastinated; I became frustrated with myself for procrastinating, which only bred more procrastination; I wrote my dissertation one chapter at a time; I met with my committee to discuss my chapters; I grew frustrated and despondent after meeting with my committee, which contributed to additional procrastination; I reflected on my own academic abilities to finish my dissertation (a.k.a procrastination); I revised my chapters, again and again and again; finally, I heard the following magic words: This work is defensible.

It has been a long journey, and it has been tiring. My graduate school experience started out as a part-time experiment: I took two evening classes, spent my days reading my homework assignments out loud to my kids while coaxing them to take a nap, sat in the basement and wrote papers late into the wee hours of the night, and somehow managed to eke out passing grades. The next thing I knew I was a full-time student, teaching the occasional undergraduate class, and padding my resume with conference presentations. Now, as I approach the finish line, I recall one last piece of advice, previously alluded to in an earlier blog post: Re-read your dissertation before your defense.

Your response may be, "What? Why? Don't be silly. I've been writing the thing long enough that I know it backwards and forwards."

You may know your thesis and your supporting arguments like the back of your hand, but that does not mean that you have perfect recall of the contents. During the defense, you will be asked for specific page references concerning such-and-such argument or some secondary source. Why did you decide not to include some specific piece of research? a committee member may ask. If your response is, "But I did," then they will want to know precisely where it is cited in the body of your work. The thing that most worries me is a committee member reading aloud a passage from my text and I have no memory of writing those words. In fact, while I have been revising my dissertation, I stumbled across passages that I do not even remember writing - most likely, because I wrote the chapter long ago.

Once your committee has made the decision that your thesis or dissertation is ready to be defended, you will be expected to put together some sort of presentation -- Speak to your committee and/or members of your department about what all is involved in such a presentation as requirements may differ from department to department. While you are putting together this presentation, my advice is: re-read your thesis or dissertation. You are not proofreading the work one last time, therefore do not read it as though you are the author. Read it as though you are the target audience; read it with fresh eyes; read it in order to familiarize yourself with the content; read it as you would a piece of secondary research that contributes to your field of expertise; read it one last time as you make marginalia that will help you prepare for the defense.

When you are done re-reading it, give yourself a pat on the back. After all, you wrote it. That was the hardest part.

Write Place, Write Time -- August session

Due to abbreviated library hours between the summer and fall 2016 semesters, the August 11, 2016 session of Write Place, Write Time has been cancelled.

The writing group will reconvene on September 8, 2016. The meeting place and time will remain the same: Founder's Library, 4th floor, dissertation room, 6 to 9pm. See you then.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Have You Seen Lynda?

Image result for free image for , that is!

*As of last November, NIU provides all students, staff, and faculty with this service. You can read DoIT’s introductory write up here.
Today’s blog post intends to “introduce” you to, in case you haven’t tried this tool.

Basically, is pretty cool. Here’s how it works.

You log in with your student or employee ID and its corresponding password. You get to either through NIU’s A-Z link or by typing in your browser’s address bar.

This site contains many video tutorials. Most are mini-courses, taking an hour to several hours to complete, but each course is broken up into minutes-sized segments. You do not need to view an entire course. Each course includes a transcript and exercise files, should you wish to practice a specific task. And keeps track of your viewing history and place.

I suggest that you start by hovering over the library button on the top banner next to the name, and browse the larger categories of Business, Design, Education and Elearning, Photography, Video, Web, etc. Each of these categories breaks down into specific topics and applicable software tutorials. If you click on the library button, you will get an A – Z listing of the larger categories’ subtopics and the number of tutorials available for each.

Within the subtopics, you can select specific applicable software tutorials or a specific author to see all of his/her videos. You also choose a skill level from Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, and Appropriate for all.

How can help with a thesis or dissertation?

Well, it can’t—not directly. However, most of us are preparing our documents in Word. 
The Thesis Office receives a lot of formatting questions for Word, but we find that students have different versions of Word running through different operating systems on computers that are purchased from all over the world; these often have unusual default settings. Add Word’s styles and hidden formatting into that mix, and sometimes, it’s hard to untangle what is going on in a document.

Also, is available twenty-four hours; while we try to respond to any inquiry quickly, we can’t always help you right when you’d like. 

So we want to direct you to the 59 Word Processing courses containing 2647 video tutorials on  

Don’t be overwhelmed with those numbers; you can search for specific tutorials on any issue. For instance, I searched: “inserting page breaks in Word 2013,” and though I received two thousand results, I could see quickly that the top five were most applicable. You may want to look through some of the various courses’ tables of contents just to get ideas about how to phrase your searches too.

There is more to; I’ve only begun to explore the site. Our office will provide you with updates as we discover any helpful tips.

Have fun exploring, and feel free to post a reply on this blog post or on Facebook if you have found or find anything helpful there.We'd love to hear from you.