Posts Tagged ‘Tips’

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:

Progress Report 3: A Quiet Week?

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Late last night I submitted the final draft of my history proposal. Turned in, wrapped up, and shipped out the paper is out of my hands. This week I focused my efforts on finding more secondary sources, digging at primary sources, and pondering my next line of attack inquiry. For me, this blog post all begins with the marked up proposal draft that I received on Sunday. So let’s begin there, shall we?

Sunday night my thesis adviser sent me a well marked up copy of my first draft. Dr. Fernsebner highlighted some key issues that weakened my proposal: tone, sources, and framing a question. These three items can make or break a proposal. A proposal is more than just another paper on the long (perhaps ever-growing) list of papers you have. Rather, the proposal acts as a road map to how you intend on completing the long and arduous task of writing your thesis. The history department’s insistence on students writing a proposal is solid, because these proposals are similar to writing for grant money. You may not have really started the project, but at least you can demonstrate your competence in the field and what you already know about your topic. Given the nature of the proposal, you will be torn between not knowing enough (i.e. sounding unsure of yourself) and needing to communicate to someone that you have a very sound grasp of the material you are researching. The flip side of this issue is that you do not want to overemphasize your certainty. In order to make this explanation clearer, I will be demonstrating both problems through the first draft of my own proposal:

  1. “I will attempt to answer how simplification became the preferred route for Chinese’s future.”
    • The main problem here is the word “attempt.” Throughout may paper I had a very tentative voice. Anyone reading it would be able to see I was trying to be as non-committal as possible.
  2. “While I certainly will find some documentation, the absence of more personal writings should not negatively impact my project.”
    • This sentence actually encapsulates both problems I mentioned, too confident yet too uncertain.
    • Saying “certainly,” according to Dr. Fernsebner, “invites contradiction on the part of the readers.”
    • Keep in mind that the key is to balance uncertainty and confidence

My initial draft suffered from my inability to see a proposal for what it is, a tentative work produced from early, preliminary research. With that in mind you should go into your proposal with a basic understanding of your topic, understanding of potential research difficulties, and a sense of where your research is going. Writing your proposal should help hone basic questions and chart your research better than just thinking about the project as you go along reading.

Moving away from tone, my second issue was sources. For history papers you have two types of sources: primary and secondary. Both of those pieces are necessary to have a potentially successful paper. As a quick aside, primary sources are documents or media produced during the time you are research or by a person of the time. Think of it as your primary contact with the event. Analyzing the event and primary sources are your secondary sources. There is always a little bit of debate about what counts as a secondary source, but for simplicity’s sake, I like to think of secondary as a document produced by scholars from a later date or people looking back on the event/person after much time has passed. Some documents straddle the line between primary and secondary, namely memoirs. Others hold both statuses, such as film, but we can ponder that some other time.

Now I have dug up a wealth of primary sources for my research on Chinese character reform, but frankly the secondary sources were rather lacking. So let me touch on what to do when there just is not that much in the way of scholarly works on your particular topic. Think about the events surrounding your topic or perhaps related themes. For the language reform there are only a handful of scholarly works that detail the reform and historical implications, but my research does not just consider the language reformation. Rather, my research seeks to link nationalism and language reform. Now, scholars have produced a great deal of works about how language can become a driving force for national identity. These works will help to bolster not only your sense of other similar historical situations but also inform you of some of the previous theories and debates. Another way to consider the importance of secondary resources is to think about a long discussion and you have shown up late. Without someone filling you in on the discussion it is likely that you will merely repeat what has already been said. Secondary sources allow you to see what ground has already been covered. What are the major issues in similar situations? What do scholars now debate about concerning your topic.

Finally, ask yourself, “what is my paper asking? What is it answering?” These questions are exceedingly simple but crucial. Just because you have sources and pretty grammar does not equal a stellar paper. The lines of inquiry fundamentally shape your project. What questions you ask will lead to what types of answers you will receive. I say that knowing how asking poor questions leads to nothing but even worse answers. When writing my paper I assumed that my questions would just come out naturally. I am studying character reform…isn’t that good enough? No, no it is not. What about it is important? How does it connect to the larger issue of nationalism within China during the honeymoon period of the People’s Republic of China? What were the main goals of the government for the language reform? How did the publishing organization for character reform influence the language movement? Who were the key players? So you see some of the questions are specific, who/where/when questions and others are broader and thematic.

To wrap up! Keep tone, sources, and questions in mind when you are taking on big projects. Hopefully here soon I will be able to post a final draft of my proposal (other drafts are too dangerous for the general audience!). Monday, January 31st I will hear from the University about my grant proposal. Will I win some financial assistance to continue my work? Or will I have to beg for cash to keep it going? Find out next time!

Money Money

Friday, June 12th, 2009

I’ve been getting used to the prices here in Taipei and also the exchange from US dollars to Taiwanese Dollars (which gets reduced to either TWD or NT). When I first got here I brought some money in foreign currency (USD) and then a hefty chunk in travelers cheques. Normally the cheques have the advantage of being used and accepted practically everywhere, but this is sort of a misnomer in my opinion. The traveler’s cheque works great for some of the more pricey digs you can visit, but most of the locals businesses here in Taipei don’t seem to take this as a legitimate form of currency. Your best bet is to go to a bank and get most of them exchanged for the local currency. I wouldn’t suggest you change the whole batch over because it is never safe to carry around large sums of money…people have a sixth sense for Americans roaming around aimlessly with cash. The advantage to a traveler’s cheque? If you happen to lose the cheque or it gets stolen, you have a receipt number that accompanies the cheques and acts as your account with whoever you got the cheques through. American Express tends to be the most popular from what I’ve heard. So, something happens and you can call in to American Express and declare the cheques stolen and get your money back. The problem with that system is that a whole market of “losing” checks has sprung around this system.

According to Lonely Planet, a very reliable traveler’s guide that serves a wide audience and has suggestions for almost every country and travel destination, travelers using debit/credit cards will have no problem in Taiwan. The fact is though that this statement should not just be accepted without checking with your personal bank. I myself cannot access my bank account with my check card. This came as a very serious and devastating realization, suddenly I was very much so disconnected to some of my major resources and funds while abroad. If you look at your card it will have some logos on it. For the states the normal ones are Visa and Plus. These two groups, Plus in particular, mean that the card has the capability to be used abroad. Plus for instance is a money network that functions globally. However, I have learned that sometimes a bank will issue a specific card that has the ability to be used abroad, or the card has to be activated to do that function. All of this is to say, don’t assume that your bank will provide you access to your funds while abroad. I didn’t bother to check out that information, because everything I read told me it would not be a problem. It never hurts to investigate for yourself. That type of behavior should be the default, check and re-check with your bank. Once you get it cleared, you can use your card just about anywhere, 7-11, higher end restaurants etc.

So how am I handling the issue? Well, I have been very thrifty since I came to Taiwan, for starters. Things here can be very cheap, depending on what you get. For instance, I went to a bakery and picked up a decent lunch meal for the equivalent of 2 USD. That’s not bad at all. But then again, I’m not the type of person that has an obsession to do touristy things. I just don’t find the guided view of a country to be enjoyable. The second thing I have done is check into using Western Union as a way of getting a hold of funds from abroad. I haven’t had to use it yet, but this seems like a highly acceptable alternative to direct access to my account. If that option works for you, then go for it, but having a card with access is always the better way to go. You simply have far more control than any other method available.

On the matter of exchanging money. Many banks charge a fee for the exchange. So it is normally recommended that you exchange large chunks rather than a series of smaller amounts. You’ll lose more money with the second method.

Alright, that’s it for my ranting! The bottom line is that you should always check and double check.

The Panda Has Mused.

First Day Crazies

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

I have definitively arrived in a foreign country where no one knows who I am. Sounds horrific to say, but it is actually very nice. I finally am in Taiwan and somewhat settled in at a hostel located near Roosevelt Road. I have to admit that I don’t have a very proficient way of starting this post. What do you talk about when you first get to a place?

Airports

Maybe, who knows, one day someone will stumble upon good old Panda Musings and require my help making their way to Formosa. If that is the case, and I shall write as if it were, then let me begin with all of the departure madness. I tend to want to spend less and therefore have to go through some inconvenience to get around. My line of reasoning: I am a young college student who has more time and less money, and if time is money than I’m filthy rich! TIP: when a flight booking website like expedia sends you tickets, you still have to go to the desk to get the real ticket. It might seem obvious to you, but I felt hunky dory waiting in line to pass through security only to find out…I had to start over. Also, I had ot wait a long while to find someone who could help me get my tickets, apparently I was an anomaly that day. So, my flight from Dulles was less than awesome. For whatever reason everyone and their grandmother wanted to get back to LA on a Monday night–which was great for me since it gave me all sorts of victims to talk to. The flight attendants packed us all into this metal canister that was about to hurl itself into the air and move across the continental US. It wasn’t all bad I got seated next to a nice family who would occasionally say hello but didn’t seem to interested in chatting for long. United Airlines, despite having a better reputation than a smaller company I normally use called Airtran, weren’t very friendly at all. Sure, it is a packed flight, but come on lighten up a little!

I rolled out of LAX completely lost and needing to find out where the International portion of the airport was hiding. This should have been fairly easy to do, but a lack of good signage makes for a very difficult time. I had assumed that the airport was just one giant complex, not knowing that I needed to hop on a bus that traveled around the port. I tried walking to the baggage claim section of the United Airlines, but an middle aged worker stopped me and redirected me to a back way to quickly reach the outside. I walked through security in the opposite direction at a lightning trot to avoid any awkward questions and reached my exit point:

The Sketch

The Sketch

As of this writing: you have to wait for Bus No. 2, you’ll see a Blue Sign that reads something like, “Airport transfer”. I bumped into a group of travelers going off to China while on the bus. I’ve noticed that I am sort of an odd man out traveling alone like this. I take a little bit of reckless pride in taking on a challenge solo, but it certainly has its disadvantages I am certain of that.

I hopped on Malaysia Air for my flight to Taipei. A young guy, recent high school grad from Utah, talked to me about his time in Taiwan, apparently his family used to live there (here). We talked about popular teenage trends, but he seemed pretty disillusioned, “Taipei is boring…” perspective is key. We board the mega plane, a huge Boeing 747, I had never been on a plane so big in my life. The flight, being 13+ hours gave me a lot of time to sleep and think. The airline provided juice, water and two meals, both of which were very tasty! Crossing over the island, I felt my heart leap as I realized a startling truth “S***, I’m in a foreign country!” However, the airport–TPE– looked just like Dulles, which can be very surprising to a new traveler. I sped through customs and the immigration process, and by sped I mean faltered like an idiot as I fumbled around with a pen to fill out paperwork. Originally, I wanted to fill it out in Chinese, acting suave and cool, but at that point it came to me that my chinese is honestly weak at best.

Alright this has already gotten way too long, but expect fun photos and talks about random things!

Oh!

Note On Hostels

Lonely planet will offer you a lot of advice about hostels, but they won’t tell you about a little place I found called the Chocolate Box Backpacker. It’s a great little living space with a very homey feel. I hung out with the staff for most of last night just enjoying the evening. We listen to Beatles music and drink tea…great times. It is located right off of Roosevelt Street near the Guting MRT station (Exit No. 3) I always get lost so if I can find it so can you! I highly recommend it, particularly if you are traveling alone and need to find some very helpful friends and fellow travelers. The fact that it is so out of the way, compared to other hostels, will help give you a more settled feel.
Alright kiddies the Panda needs to focus!