Archive for the ‘Research Journal’ Category

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 =””>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!

Progress Report-2: Bad News

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Sadly, I must detail the mistakes I made during this week, yet at least I can share useful tips and procedure about asking your professor to write recommendations/anything at all. My breach in not only good procedure but also bare minimum courtesy warrants this post.
So rather than talk about stress and things imploding on themselves, allow me to present…

How to Get Recommendation/Help from Your Professor

I would like to tell you that I only make the right moves, however this week is evidence to the contrary. I am a pro at over committing and not considering deadlines as firm lines. Furthermore, rather than plunge headlong into my project and inform my professor of what I needed, I waited until all of the pieces were together. On paper that sounds like a great idea, but when time is of the essence–that is to say, you don’t have time to wait–you cannot afford to just sit back until everything falls into place. I have a confession to make, I waited until nearly the last minute to inform my professor that I needed a statement about my project for a grant proposal. While I deserve to be locked away in academic prison, I was given a message to spread and allowed to walk away with my head still nicely attached to my shoulders.

The Academic Prison...for those who don't take time to be provided by Time Pearce

1. Always work in hard copies

Dropping into your professor’s office and casually discussing some letter or favor you need is not a firm and sealed deal, particularly when you leave out the array of fine details you need. “Hey, I am working on a grant that is due next Friday can you help me out?” Is vague and not helpful. Where are the details? Do you expect your advisor to remember a single sentence that is made in passing without you putting forth the effort of a follow up email? That should be a negative! If you mention it in passing, be sure to also send an email or better yet print out a sheet of paper with your request. A piece of paper on a desk that you have personally handed over is worth more than a passing comment or a quick email. All of us receive contact from friends, colleagues and family, filling whatever social network, email service or whatever one uses. Be smart turn in a paper, shake a hand, sit down for a minute with your advisor. Most of them don’t bite.

2. Attach any relevant information to your request

If you ask your professor to help out with writing part of a grant proposal or recommendation, be sure to address what you are doing. Are there specific things the professor needs to raise while writing? If there are additional requirements or details where can they be found? “Hi I am applying to X, can you write a letter for me xthx!” Does not give the level of detail of, “I am applying for x school/program/thing, and here are links to the school’s site so you can see what they are looking for in the letter.” Just because your advisor has written grad letters before or is really tight with you, does not translate to her doing extra leg work that you should be doing. The writer’s job is to write the letter or statement, not dig around the internet, make phone calls or send emails to figure out what the hell you are doing. That’s your job. Don’t be lazy about it.

3. Provide more useful information on your work

This week while drafting both my history proposal and grant proposal, I waited to hear back from different librarians and allowed myself to fall behind on writing many of the critical documents. Besides the underlining issue of just starting on time or *gasp* early, the student (or requestee) should offer a brief sketch of what they are working on as well as what they attend to write. “Grant letter now plz!” Is not so helpful. But a conversation with your advisor about what you need as well as giving them an outline of what you plan to write allows the professor/writer enough information to write his letter to resonate with your material. Had my professor not already been somewhat familiar with my thesis project perhaps I would not have escaped with a yes to my request for a rationale statement. The bottom line is, regardless of what stage you are at, offer at least something for the professor to work off of.

4. Pay attention to time!

Of all the failures I had, timing was the biggest. The solution to this problem links nicely with #3, but first let me explain a little further. There is no excuse for asking a professor to do anything for you, even if you give a week’s full notice. Everyone is busy, and if someone were to give you seven days notice to do something that requires time and effort, you would be pissed right? People (sweeping statement ahoy) make plans well in advance, so do not just assume that your professor does nothing but sit in his office waiting to help you out. Professors are often more than willing to help, but like most people, they have busy schedules and balance any number of activities. Late notice is a deal breaker. Not only does it make you look bad, ill-prepared, but chances are your advisor will have to turn down your request. That’s just how it is. You cannot really blame the professor for not being able to make time. If you don’t give at least TWO WEEKS NOTICE, forget about whatever you are requesting. Plan ahead as much as you need. Now, I realize that sometimes a proposal does not come together until the last minute. Well might I refer to #3, turn in whatever information you have and whatever you plan to do. This way you have accomplished a few things: you are able to give proper notice, you will turn in any relevant material that you eventually will write, and you will look far more professional giving both proper time and material. Win-Win yes?

5. Make the process as easy as possible

Don’t forget that your professor’s job is to write the letter, not worry about where it is going to or how it will get there. When asking a professor to write a letter of recommendation or anything that needs sending, be sure to supply an addressed and stamped envelope. Some professors have nifty university official envelopes, but that is a minor detail you can ask about when asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. The take away message for this is, don’t make the person helping you have to jump through bureaucratic or logistical hoops. A professor is more likely to write a good recommendation when your leg work/homework are all taken care of. Maybe you can be cool and create a nice packet of information with all of the proper supplies! Regardless, your goal should be to be professional, while also making your professor’s job as straightforward and hassle free as possible.

6. Did you catch #4?

As soon as you know that you need anything from a professor, make that the top of your priority list. Don’t even wait a day. Send out a cursory email if you have to, but do not delay. An email about the assignment and a request for a meeting where you will drop off any relevant material is absolutely awesome. A good word from a professor can make your project shine in ways that you would individually be hopeless to achieve. You might say your project is important, but a Ph.D stating that your project deserves funding or that you make a suitable candidate for a certain program goes a long way.

In other news this week I have completed my history proposal first draft as well as turned in the majority of my grant proposal. Yes, if you have not guessed it, I broke all of the above guidelines. But many thanks for Dr. Fernsebner teaching me correct procedure as well as sparing my life. I am now a disciple of proper timing and planning.

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.

Getting on the Right Track

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Over this semester, I have faced the challenge of fending off multiple projects and keeping up with all of my readings. To think that grad school, if I even manage to get in, will be all this times ten is a little disheartening, but I think an issue I am having here is more how I am managing my time. Further, I have the “Oh if only…” syndrome. I am reminded of Eats, Shoots and Leaves when the author discusses a school teacher who complains about not understanding punctuation but has no interest in fixing her problem. I go on and on about not sleeping well, having tons of readings and feeling lost in my projects. What am I doing about it? Have I devised a scheme to handle the workload? No, I have complained. With all of the work I have it is important to come up with some sort of schedule and slowly work away at my readings.

This is a big reversal from my shotgun approach at homework. Sure, I am a hard worker, but I tend to just do what I can, when I can. One night at the library a fellow student suggested I start micro-managing my time by setting up a set amount of hours I am willing to work on something. It’s odd because I don’t like to just work on a project here and there, I do it until I am done. Ha! You caught the problem with that idea. When you have four projects you can’t just do things with a scatter-shot method, and big projects require a lot of hours for completion. On top of the projects I already have, I also have a few books that need to be read per week. The bottom line is, I don’t have time to do a whole lot at once.

I started writing a research journal in a ratty old composition notebook that I never used. Dan Cohen had tweeted an article about a man who kept project journals in notebooks for years, which I am all about the hard copy, but I have wondered if having a research journal that everyone can see, with set deadlines, would hold me more accountable to the day-to-day research. The head instructor of CET in Harbin noted that language development (insert projects) are not about cramming right before you need it, but rather they require every day doing a concerted effort, busy but not nearly as frantic.

I want to write great (not necessarily perfect) material. Maybe a good place to start is scheduling dedicated time blocks for certain projects. Hmm…

If anyone has any project suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment!