Academic Advice, Writing

Why Grad Students (or Anyone) Should Blog

Blog

This blog started out as an experiment. As I said in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what it would become. A conversation starter? A forum for advice I never got? A way to carry on the blog-honored tradition of public ranting?

The truth is, it has turned into something else entirely. I started the blog the same month I started grad school. Some—including myself—wondered if blogging was the best use of a grad student’s minimal spare time. However, I can now say it has absolutely been worth it.

So here are 7 reasons why grad students (or anyone) should blog:

1. It’s the foundation of a writing habit.

Every book of writing advice I’ve read repeats the same refrain: The key to writing is to make a schedule, stick to it, and protect it like gold. Writing is less about being struck by moments of grand inspiration or “binge writing” when deadlines come near; it’s sitting down and plugging away, day after day. Whether it’s a certain number of minutes, words, or pages, productive writers set schedules. And. Just. Write.

Blogging is an experiment in finding a writing habit that works for you. Keep track of your writing in a simple notebook or Excel file. What times of the day are you at your best? What helps you stick to a schedule? What gets you off track? Do you prefer to write in short, 25 minute bursts or longer blocks of time?  If it’s the latter, is that an excuse to procrastinate until you have a mythical block of uninterrupted time (I know because it’s me). If so, can you train yourself to write in shorter blocks?

So rather than thinking “I don’t have time to start a blog,” the truth is you don’t have time not to get yourself on a writing schedule. The consistency of a blog can help with that. Once you’re on a writing schedule, you will actually get all of your academic and professional writing done much faster. Seriously, you’ll meet deadlines. You’ll even run out of projects to work on (hence the blog to keep you going). Continue reading “Why Grad Students (or Anyone) Should Blog”

Academic Advice, Writing

Writers’ Block? Just Write.

Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr
Image credit: Drew Coffman, flickr

“I realized that if I wasn’t writing, I could no longer call myself a writer.”

This quote came from an aspiring author who had recently suffered a long stretch of writers’ block (we’re talking months here). How did she cure this chronic ailment? Well… She wrote. Nothing good for a long while, according to her, but she wrote, and eventually regained her voice, as well her identity as a writer.

Writers’ block can strike out of nowhere. But what if this dreaded affliction is less of an actual condition and more of a mistaken view of the writing process? Here’s the issue: Most of us think we need to know what to write before we write it. But what if it’s the other way around? What if the very act of writing unlocks what we want to say? According to sociologist Kristin Luker,

“Someone once asked Balzac, who supported himself by writing reviews of plays, how he liked a play he had just seen. ‘How should I know?’ he is reported to have answered. ‘I haven’t written the review yet!'” Continue reading “Writers’ Block? Just Write.”

Academic Advice, Writing

Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism

newspaper 1People often talk about writing ability as if it’s one particular muscle you exercise until you’re categorically “good” at it – as if the craft of writing was a singular “it” in the first place.

But these days, writing “ability” should be pluralized – less like a single muscle and more like the various events of the Olympics. Today, there are so many venues writers use – books, blogs, magazines, social media – that being able to “code switch” between these genres is now more important than ever.

It’s a lot like dancing, actually.

save the last dance
“What’s she doing? Two-stepping?”

I never imagined I’d have cause to reference “Save the Last Dance,” but here it is: Children of the 90’s may remember watching Julia Stiles realize her ballet skills didn’t get her far  on Chicaco’s South Side dance scene. So – like every dance movie ever – she explores new styles, creates something altogether different, and blows dance world away.

It’s the same with writing. And academia may just be the ballet of the writing world – technically arduous, treasured by a minute few, but can stick out oddly in the “real world.”

That’s why, earlier this month, I attended a workshop at a local writing center on writing newspaper Op-Eds. Both journalism and academia have the same goal of sharing factual information, but stylistically, they couldn’t be more different: Journalism is known for being punchy and to the point, whereas academic writing is infamously wordy and opaque (I mean, one genre evolved around copyeditors trying to conserve space and ink, the other around seeing how many books one could fill on the same topic). Continue reading “Break Into Publishing: My Three Hours of Journalism”

Academic Advice

Year One, Done

pacman

Well there you have it. The final papers are in. The last classes are closed. And this theoretical phenomenon called a summer break has arrived (more on that later).

Four (or five? or six?) more years of this doctoral thing? Why not? But in the meantime, here are the top lessons I’ve learned in the first year of my doctoral program:

1. Admit What You Don’t Know

It’s ok not to know everything. This is true for life in general, but I was glad to find that it still holds true in a field where knowing things is the main form of capital.

So when a colleague throws out a name or obscure theory, you could still nod along like you know what they’re talking about, then dash to wikipedia later. But there’s no need. Almost everyone, academic or otherwise, loves sharing their knowledge. Just say “Oh, I haven’t read much XYZ, tell me more” and they’ll gladly give you a briefing, then totally forget about it. Continue reading “Year One, Done”

Academic Advice, Policy, Politics

Why Don’t Policymakers Read Research? Actually, They Do: An Interview

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“Why don’t policymakers read educational research?”

This is a question I hear a lot in academic circles. In fact, bemoaning this fact on Twitter led me to a fabulous conversation with Shree Chauhan—who told me that, in her experience working with policymakers, they do read educational research and want to read more, and that we in academia could make that much easier to do.

Chauhan (see full bio below) is an education entrepreneur who also manages education and health policy for a national civil rights organization. She has worked in the federal education policy arena for nearly a decade and was kind enough to answer some questions for me based on her experiences. Our conversation, summarized below, highlighted the need to bridge gaps between the worlds of academia, policy, and advocacy organizations.

1. How do we get policymakers to read academic research?

Chauhan points out that, as well all know, policymakers are busy, busy, busy, so the more concisely we can sum up our work, the better.

“In a congressional office, any staff member is dealing with 7 or 8 issues, with education being one of 10 big things that are weedy and difficult. Research is usually written using jargon-filled language that many people don’t understand. If you bring in a 40 to 50 page paper, most may not be able to consume it. So go deep with your research and know exactly what you’re doing, but be able to break it down in a page… even find a good graphic designer to actually make it visually appealing and easy to understand.”

2. What kind of research do policymakers find most convincing and useful? 

I’d assumed folks on Capitol Hill would prefer something with lots of of numbers, graphs, and data. While Chauhan affirms that numbers are important, she urges us not to forget the human side of politics as well: Continue reading “Why Don’t Policymakers Read Research? Actually, They Do: An Interview”

Academic Advice, Writing

Give it All in Writing: Love and Courage

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“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Ironically, I found this beautiful quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life in my “Things to Blog About Later” folder, which I’ve considered relabeling, “Where Good Ideas Go to Die”; Honestly, I almost never open it. And on the rare occasion I do, I’ve forgotten what had moved me about the idea in the first place or where I wanted to go with the topic. Like Dillard said, I open my safe and find ashes.

It reminds me of an old Sunday School skit where the main character finds a box of “love” and she proudly parades it around stage. Other characters, down on their luck, pass by and ask if she will share, but worried about depleting her limited supply, she apologetically declines. Continue reading “Give it All in Writing: Love and Courage”

Academic Advice, Research

The Epic “Cocktail Party”: Attending Large Conferences

Chicago Airport

Last week, 15,000 educational researchers descended on Chicago for the AERA educational research conference.

As a first timer, I’d gotten many great pointers about handling such an enormous gathering. However, having now been there myself, here are a few more tips for attending massive conferences:

1. Go very big or very small 

While the Buddhist philosophy of taking “the Middle Way” applies to most parts of life, it may not apply to big conferences. Colleagues had advised me to avoid the “big name” sessions, which are generally bursting with attendees dying to meet their academic idols. Others told me to ONLY attend such sessions, because smaller ones can be “hit and miss” in their quality.

I actually felt I got the most bang for my buck by either going HUGE or tiny. I actually found the the more medium-sized sessions–generally paper presentations grouped by themes–were still small enough to vary by quality, but still too formally structured with too large an audience to really get to interact with anyone. Continue reading “The Epic “Cocktail Party”: Attending Large Conferences”

Academic Advice, Writing

Writing What “No One” Reads

Citation Needed

“Why write what no one will ever read?”

I hear this question a lot from people outside of academia (and, let’s be real, within it as well). Academics generally write for – if I may make an understatement – a rather concentrated readership: Blood, sweat, and tears go into pages of work that may never be read outside of the “Ivory Tower.” To some, so much work for such a small readership seems like (at best) a wasted effort or (at worst) a quasi-masochistic psychosis.

But let’s face it, academics write about some pretty quirky, obscure subjects that aren’t going to get one on the NYTimes Bestseller List. But what if that quirkiness is, in fact, the whole point? As Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life:

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it’s up to you.

There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voce to this, your own astonishment… Thoreau said it another way… “Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it unearth it, and gnaw at it still.”” Continue reading “Writing What “No One” Reads”

Academic Advice, Research

New Years Resolution: Fall in Love… with Statistics

Statistics booksHere’s what my desk looked like over winter break. Why? Because it’s time to get over my love-hate-distrust-dislike relationship with statistics.

I’ve never particularly disliked math itself; there’s something comforting about having at least one endeavor in life that has an identifiable “right” answer. In fact, if you’re ever stressed about a major life decision, try reviewing high school algebra; balancing equations can be oddly – yet incredibly – therapeutic (Yes, “Nerd alert.” But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).

Statistics, however, takes all that comfort of certainty away.  

In my first statistics class, I once made the fatal flaw of statistical newbie-ism and used the word “prove” in a sentence. Before I could finish saying “The results prove that…” the professor held up his hand and said – what has since become my mantra when it comes to statistics – “We don’t PROVE anything in statistics.”

Yes, statistics is a powerful tool for exploring relationships and probabilities, but it doesn’t necessarily set out to prove things.Take vitamins for example: Continue reading “New Years Resolution: Fall in Love… with Statistics”

Academic Advice, Critical Pedagogy, Literacy, Reading, Writing

Your Final Project Word Cloud

Critical Literacy Word Cloud‘Tis the season! It’s the end of the semester and students everywhere are frantically typing up projects for classes that all seem to backload 95% of the work onto the final week.

No exception here. Just finished a big ol’ “Literature Review” – essentially our program’s first year initiation right – synthesizing 30-or-so studies on a teacher-research topic of one’s choosing.

At some way-too-late hour of the night, on a whim, I copied and pasted the entire beast into a word cloud generator, the results of which you see above. Not only was it nice to see my main topics artistically arranged on a single page, but it was also useful for editing (making me realize, for example that I had used the word “practice” far more times than was humanly tolerable – to the thesaurus!).

If you’re curious as to why the words critical and literacy look like  Godzilla and Mothra stomping toward a terrified-city-of-other-words in my word cloud, it’s because I reviewed research about using critical literacy approaches with English language learners: the idea being that “literacy” means more than just reading and writing, but is also a political act. As our society often uses literacy to “disempower those who, through Continue reading “Your Final Project Word Cloud”