Posts Tagged ‘hist485’

Fail or Succeed, Keep Moving

Friday, February 4th, 2011

This week marked a high point in my research project. I received a grant from my university to visit theHarvard Yenching Library. I’ve set my dates and contacted all the right people. Now all I have to do is wait. Now of course, waiting is not an option. Deadlines don’t wait for people. While this post details some victories with the grant, the pressing matter of writing a literature review ought take precedence.

Last week I detailed the appropriate process for asking professors to write recommendation letters. Having successfully obtained the grant, let me touch on how to properly respond to receiving a grant. I can’t emphasize this enough, Thank the people that help you! Obtaining grants or getting into grad school is not a solo gig. Often the word your professor put in or even the advice friends and readers give you has just as much value as the original work you’ve done. It’s important to never forget that academia and all of your projects are not solely from your own efforts. As a personal shout-out, thank you Susan Fernsebner and Allyson Grace for looking over my materials, giving me advice, and (in the case of Prof. Fernsebner) writing a rationale statement. A small grant may not seem like a big deal, showing thankfulness in the small things is still crucial to developing good relationships with your peers and mentors. Also, a victory dance is always critical after something major has gone right.

Work Through Hardships and Successes

Despite my impressive victory dance (not shown on video), I cannot kick back and call it a day with the grant. While people talk a lot about preserving through hardships, it seems far too easy to slack off when you’ve hit a successful run. A tortoise and the hare connection seems appropriate here, but I will call it obvious and skip it for now. The truth is a major success gives a researcher (i.e. me) justification to take it easy. “Well look how hard I’ve been working…” Taking a break seems reasonable, but deadlines don’t take a break, neither should your project. Even when you have hit a major milestone, the true discipline comes with consistency. Is your research going poorly? Keeping pushing through it. Have you made some impressive progress? Great, go have a beer or ice cream (I’m all down with ice cream) and continue working. I’ve noticed that on days where I have worked particularly hard, I feel pretty okay with not doing anything the next day, but before you know it the day after that you don’t really feel like it either. All of the sudden a week has passed and whoops that deadline which was a week and a half ago is now tomorrow afternoon. Hope you have coffee. What’s worse, you will finish the paper, it might even look good, and think that you deserve a pat on the back for finishing it “under tight constraints.”

The above situation is all wrong.

What we really need to do is keep a reality check about what is the end goal of your project. Evaluate what your successes are. Finishing a part of your assignment doesn’t deserve some chill break, your goal isn’t just to finish a part of the research. You get to relax when everything is done. I am not anti-breaks, but I am extremely pro-schedule. If you plan on taking a break have it planned out rather than just take a break whenever you want. I am prone to being lazy, if there is no particular deadline, who really cares if I get the thing done a week in advance or the night before? While the answer for most of us might be “no one.” The fact is that as a good researcher you are missing the point of your project. Taking the time to do the work is a key part of the research. Rushing a project by not allotting enough time is an amateur’s mistake. Over this weekend I hope to do a bit of reading about procrastination as well as more tips for writing analytically. While I have now been a proud history major since Spring of 2009, the writing process is still a struggle of teasing out ideas and clearly communicating them.

Literature Review: WTF?

Also known as a historiography, the literature review requires the writer to look into secondary sources concerning her project. Most of my professors have told me that students frequently have trouble writing the literature review (lit review). Evaluating secondary sources (read scholarly) and how the questions about your topic have changed over the years presents students with a host of problems. We don’t write in this sort of genre too frequently. I recall Professor Moon (history/American studies) defining a lit review as, “the literature review is a review…of the literature.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that. However, the researcher has to take some time to categorize his sources, understand their arguments and find intelligent ways of evaluating what he finds. The UMW history =”http://www.umw.edu/cas/history/history_department_resourc/historiography/literature_review_guidelin.php”>resource page offers some great tips about the lit review.

While some history students might not have any trouble finding the secondary sources necessary for constructing their lit review, I have had major troubles. My topic, Chinese script reform, has very little scholarly research but a wealth of primary documents. There are a few great monographs on the topic, but not a whole lot of scholarly debate. This is not necessarily a bad sign, but I cannot settle to do a lit review over a small swath of books. The UMW site recommends at least ten sources, but even that seems a little small. Luckily, I have come across some journal articles, which are particularly excellent fodder for secondary sources. I find the process of writing lit reviews to be very enlightening, because it offers insights into the main questions about your topic. What ground has been covered? Who has said what? Where are the main points of contention? Why? Gardner Campbell often explained writing as a constant conversation, especially as we were reading the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. In order to effectively participate in the conversation, you should know what people have been talking about and what the main questions are. Not only does this keep you from reinventing the wheel, it also pushes you to consider new questions or evaluate the lines of arguments thus far. What’s been effective? I am still getting everything together for the lit review, but let’s see how it goes! The due date is on February 14th, and while the due date creeps closer everyday, I am going to kick back for an evening (it’s a scheduled kick back mind you!!)

Stay Smooth:

1.14 HIST485 Report

Friday, January 14th, 2011

What is this?

Over the next 16 weeks I will be doing a weekly blog post about my history thesis. Each post should include things such as book reviews, notes on scheduling, talking over assignments as well as initial drafts. As I’ve talked about in other posts, the history thesis is a huge project that really only has a few due dates to track. Lack of consistent due dates causes me to go into pro-procrastination mode, so I figured weekly blog posts will keep me honest about my progress. Further, it’s a great way for my adviser…or anyone interested in my project to keep up to date. Writing every week should help me constantly think about the project as well as note when I am lagging behind. Dr. Fernsebner said that larger projects tend to move at a “snail’s pace.” The researcher often can’t see the type of project she is making. So who knows maybe writing out what I do every week will make a great progress report.

The First Progress Report

As this is the first week, I spent the majority of my time trying to get organized with paper work, know when the due dates are, and settle into a new semester. Even though it’s the first week, the history department at UMW encourages students to dig into their projects over breaks before the semester even starts. I have to admit that the little bit of legwork this winter gave me a lot of material with which to start. Dr. McClurken (current chair of the department) had a meeting with us to discuss the syllabus. It’s a serious project that requires major effort.

Thinking Thesis Topic

Saying what one’s topic is can be the hardest part about the project. It requires pegging some ideas down, not too mention solidifying just what you have decided to research. In the simplest way, I will be researching Chinese script reform during the 1950s and 70s. Initially I wanted to focus on just the 1950s but found the actual record of reformation extends further back then that. At the moment, I am reading English sources that outline the history of language reform. That history includes discussions of state language versus a choice to have multiple languages, romanization systems and character simplification. These conversations find their beginning in Chinese nationalist thinking at the fall of the Qing dynasty. Looking at all of these issues is more the stuff of a dissertation, not a senior thesis, but it is important to have a grasp of everything that is happening around these issues. Who are the people debating? Why do they take the stances they do? How does the rhetoric shift over the decades?

I have already read John DeFrancis’ book Chinese Nationalism and Language Reform which is an older book written in the 50s concerning what we would now consider the early phase of the language reform. It is my hope to effectively bring in a wide range of knowledge to a more specific set of sources. What good does it do to only read one set of documents without knowing the circumstances from which they came? While such talk is near blasphemy for certain schools of thought (literary studies?), for historians context can be key. I have found a specific publishing company called the Publisher for Character Reformation (文字改革出版社)which appears to be a government mouthpiece for the issue starting in the mid 1950s. My current objective is to track down the series of documents that publisher has produced concerning Chinese script reformation. Thus far, I am still unsure who would be considered some of the power players for/against reformation in this period. I at least already have a set of documents that I retrieved from the University of Virginia’s Alderman library. While I do not have too many documents thus far, I have enough to begin understanding some of the key vocabulary (all of these documents are in Chinese) about character reformation and policy making. I am still formulating questions and wondering if investigating a little bit about Chinese mass education at the time would also prove beneficial.

I have spent this past week contacting both the C.V. Starr Library and Harvard’s Yen-ching Library to get some ideas about my project as well as track down other resources. Admittedly, this process was not very easy as I had issues introducing myself “cold” over an email. I often felt awkward presenting flimsy credentials “senior at the University of Mary Washington” to librarians that have worked with doctoral students and professors. Despite my reservations, I have already heard back from two librarians and expanded my bibliography and my pool of questions for research. My ultimate goal is to go and visit one of those libraries’ archives. Suggestion for future projects, research a little more before sending out an email. I noticed that my “clear” project topic was less than crystal to the librarians who could not see into my mind. The initial difficulty forced me to clarify my project as well as dig into archives for sources that I could show others. Saying “I am researching Character reformation in the 50s,” sounds far less professional than “I am interested in studying Chinese script reform (including simplication as well as romanization schemes) during the Republican Era and early PRC. I have x books thus far and would like to focus on xyz readings. Would you have suggestions for further materials?” You have to give to get. The more you know about your project, the more you can talk about it, the better librarians can help you. I lost a little bit of my “musing” tone, but I cannot drive home hard enough how important understanding your topic is. I hope to have more information about the separate libraries and their collections for another blog post.

Other News

I am extremely interested in starting a history thesis group. I already started a doodle schedule and based it around to a few classmates. The group would be another method of breaking the monotony of solo research. The process does not have to be as lonely as many of us make it. While we are expected to do our own leg work, I find nothing wrong with meeting together and discussing what everyone is doing. I hope to encourage active discussion of our topics. Much like my work with the librarians thus far, if someone forces you to talk about your project, eventually you will be able to clearly articulate what you are doing. The first few times may be awkward or uncertain, but I am 100% certain this exercise could be beneficial to anyone participating. I hope to turn the group into a sort of space where we can exchange ideas about each others projects. What is your topic? Who are the big players? What sort of primary sources are you using? What are the debates about the event? Further, it gives everyone the opportunity to play the expert in the group. The students that have expressed interest in the group so far have a wide variety of intellectual backgrounds, even the China theses only overlap but so much. I hope for this to be a regular practice. Why make research a fully solo project? It’s our responsibility as scholars to work together to produce knowledge, challenge ideas and hone the writing craft. As due dates come up, I would like to exchange papers and elicit people’s opinions about writing style and mechanics. One step at a time for sure.