Doctoral Student Priorities

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A little over a week into my program, and my head is full of student obligations, professional obligations, teaching obligations, personal obligations… too many obligations, not enough Meagan. Typical PhD paradox – what do you tackle when there’s not enough time to do it all?

This has really gotten me thinking about priorities. What comes first? I was initially thinking coursework… duh. But conversations with fellow CRDMers have me re-thinking this. If my ultimate goal is to earn a position as a scholar in my field, teaching somewhere, shouldn’t I focus on professional duties, such as presenting at conferences and getting published? That’s not to say that books can go unread and seminar papers unwritten, but there’s definitely a need to balance the two.

Added to this are those twenty-two little faces staring at me each day we’re in class, students who expect me to be on top of my game, teach them something interesting, and grade things in a reasonable period of time. At least, that’s what I expect of my professors, so I shouldn’t give any less to my students. Though Carolyn Miller, a professor in my program, muddied the waters for me this week when she said in class something to the effect, “Teaching is a distraction. It will eat up as much time as you let it and then some.” This was echoed by David Rieder, another CRDM prof, at our orientation, who remarked that I should always remember why am I here in the first place – that I love to learn and do research. Obviously, I’m conscientious and always want to bring my best to the classroom, but it’s true: teaching and all of its accompanying responsibilities will take all of my day and then some if I let it.

Mixed in the middle is the obligation that was reiterated over and over by our faculty – write, write, write. Hence this blog. It’s harder to write than I realized – and I know I still haven’t gotten to academic material, but that’s coming as we’re now waist-deep in rhetorical theory, communications history, and visual content analysis – especially because it requires carving out at least a half hour for these personal posts, likely more for academic material that I could be dedicating to reading. It’s true what every other PhD student has ever told me, but I never truly believed until now that I’m living it – there’s more reading than you can handle.

I’m thinking of writing a post that discusses reading strategies for tackling large block of reading that will help me focus my attention where it’s most needed. I may consult my academic idol, CRM, and other faculty for some much-needed advice and report back with hopefully some new ideas and a fresh take on accomplishing my reading lists.

In terms of ordering priorities… I’m not sure that I’ll always place coursework over getting published or vice-versa but that I’ll advocate being highly scheduled and highly disciplined when it comes to following my schedule. So, when I have a Wednesday to read a book, I get it done – then I can grade on Thursday without feeling like I’m shortchanging my studies. Or watch TV with my husband on Friday night, because I got everything done on Friday that I needed to do. Speaking of that… better go finish that reading!!

Go Pack!!

Project Brainstorming: Visual Content Analysis

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This semester, my elective course is COM 798: Visual Content Analysis. The CRDM PhD requires a minimum of two research methods courses, and this one will satisfy the quantitative methods requirement. I’m carrying over a qualitative methods course from my Master’s degree, Rhetorical Criticism, with Dr. Carolyn Miller, though I expect to take another qualitative while I’m here to beef up my skills for my dissertation. Besides – the projects for those courses can accomplish some part of my dissertation writing, so why not take them and get valuable feedback?

Our first meeting for VCA is this evening, for which I’ve already read the introductory chapters of three methods textbooks. Even though we haven’t even had a class meeting yet, I’m already thinking about my semester project that I will do. The sooner I start thinking about it, the better – every project that I do now can contribute to my dissertation later on, and I’d hate to waste a project on something that can’t aid in some way/shape/form, even if it’s just acquiring necessary background information on a subject. But what to study?

I’m really interested now in environmental issues and see these issues as pressing for our society for a long time to come. Many people do not understand how quickly we need to start changing our wasteful habits, consumption patterns, and addiction to oil, among many other things, if we want to survive on the Earth for many generations to come. I’ve been thinking for this project about analyzing campaign materials for environmental organizations to see what type of information is being disseminated, how these orgs. are doing it, what specific visual content is used, and how well written text and visuals work together to solidify the message. Obviously, I can’t look at all those issues in one semester’s project, so I’ll have to work on narrowing my ideas and choose the research question that can best be answered by the type of analysis that I am doing.

Visual content analysis, being quantitative in nature, works best when the researcher has a large number of artifacts to analyze and is looking primarily at the content of the images (hence the name) – and not an underlying meaning or interpretation of the message being sent. Features of the images are rendered into codes, and the codes are counted and tallied for analysis of frequency, presence or lack of presence, and co-existence, to name a few options. Right away I think that accumulating images from several different environmental organizations is feasible because this method lends itself to working with a large body of evidence. Narrowing it down to what type of messages – for instance, deforestation, oil, wildlife, water conservation – and selecting an appropriate sampling method are issues to consider before finalizing the topic. Audience consideration is a must, and at this point, I’m leaning toward materials targeted at skeptics/people who have yet to take action to help the environment. The rhetorical strategies will be more obvious and impactful, I think, than those targeted at those who are currently involved/invested in the issue. Also, I should note that I’ll acquire all of the materials from the Internet, so it’s possible to look at messages from organizations not only on their own websites, but also advertisements and social media campaigns, as those sources might have a greater audience than the main websites themselves. The latter sources may also be a better way at seeing how groups target those who have yet to take action, as presumably those who regularly visit the websites of the groups are more involved or aware and are not going to those sites to decide whether or not to take action (unless maybe directed from an ad or Twitter update? I can see this becoming an issue for me already). 

So, for some examples… The Nature Conservancy has several campaigns going on right now that could serve as good material for study. They have an extensive web site, and I’ve seen their ads around the web. Also up for consideration: TreeHugger (almost exclusively a web site, though), The Sierra Club, The World Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace, Earthfirst, United States Environmental Protection Agency… there are so many organizations dedicated to the cause. I think I’d like to narrow my focus to some of the bigger groups, as they presumably have more resources to dedicate to awareness and promotional materials. I also think that I will focus on groups who have an American audience – maybe not exclusively, but a majority, to narrow my project into something more manageable and, hopefully, generalizable.

So – what campaigns are you familiar with that may be worth studying? Any groups that I’ve missed in my short list that are worth looking at? What campaigns have the most interesting materials to study?

Earning Your PhD is like Designing a House

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One of the projects that I completed during my Master’s degree was a prolonged study of metaphoric criticism. It goes without saying now that I have a heightened awareness of metaphors and how ubiquitous they are in our communication. The project opened (metaphor) my eyes to how much we rely on images and seemingly unrelated words to describe what we are talking about. Even the title of this blog is a metaphor (and not a great one, but short and memorable enough to work). So why am I thinking about metaphors tonight?

This afternoon I attended orientation for the CRDM with the nine other incoming students for the class of 2010. We heard from program faculty and current students, each providing their own advice for being successful both as a PhD student and future academic professional. The usual spiels – try to read a bit of everything, write a TON (yay for blogging!), make sure to have fun, read more than you write, etc. etc. And all of them reiterated – “this works for me, though it may not work for you.” So that got me thinking… what might work for me? I think I’ll take a different approach to viewing and tackling the work ahead of me.

Outside of research and course work, my greatest passion is interior design. Over the past two years that we have lived in Raleigh, I’ve slowly been transforming this cookie-cutter townhouse into a home that exudes our personalities while serving as a comfy base that we truly enjoy returning to at the end of the day. Each room serves a different purpose, contains various and sundry pieces, and has taken a while to compose (and none are yet complete). Together, they have become our home; however, it is perpetually a work in progress. Our art is forever rotating, I will one day find the perfect duvet cover, there are always more stylish curtains, the dining room chairs would look better if reupholstered, and I’m dying for new countertops. The bones are good. But it’s still a work in progress, one piece (or two) at a time.

And metaphorically, my PhD is my next house to design. Like when we moved here two years ago, I have a blank canvas. It’s solid structurally – I’m confident in my Master’s coursework, I’m self-motivated with strong time management skills and a support system to boot. Now – for the work that takes me from merely a student to an academic professional, future professor, expert in the field. I’ve got rooms to work on: determining my focus in the field, networking, establishing an online presence, solidifying my teaching persona, finding my confident and capable writing voice. All rooms that together build the home. None that can be completed hastily or carelessly. Each serving an important role in my life.

And thus, I may have to forgo my literal home design as I work on this metaphorical house design for a while. Well, four years. And maybe by then, we’ll be moving.

Another School Year Begins

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And so another summer has slipped away and the new school year looms ahead of me. This year is big – the beginning of my PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State. Even though I’ve been at NCSU for the past two years working on Master’s degree (in English – concentration in Rhetoric and Composition), I’m still getting the “new school butterflies.”

I’m a nervous person by nature. The week before my wedding this summer, I could hardly sleep – I’d wake up at 3:30am, remembering that I hadn’t packed the marriage license, get up to write it on my to-do list, only to stay awake because I’d alarmed myself with all of the other tasks that I hadn’t written down yet either. But I have to remind myself: we pulled the day off without a hitch, got married, and treated our friends and family to a wonderful night that we’re still receiving compliments on. Shameless self-motivation for a moment: I made an amazing wedding happen, living in another country from my family. I CAN DO ANYTHING! And I most certainly can be successful in the CRDM.

I know a large part of being successful in graduate work is in the writing. This blog is my attempt not only to chronicle my experiences while working on my Phd, but an outlet for ideas and rough drafts of portions of essays – all in all, a way to improve my writing and embrace my writing voice.

If you are starting your PhD too, or working on it currently, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a link to your blog, and I’d be glad to follow your experiences too. One other thing I know about graduate school is that you don’t do it alone. It’s crucial to have a support network that can be empathetic and motivating.

Go Pack!!