One year of blogging

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I’ve been blogging “Meg’s Road to PhD” for a year now (well, a little over a year – my first post was August 11, 2010), and I thought it would be interesting to review some of the highlights. I have really enjoyed blogging and have found it to be a great way to find my writing voice and strengthen my “writing muscles,” if you will.

In my first 365 days of blogging –

  • 40 posts (Hmm, 40 posts in 365 days seems pretty weak – must work on this!)
  • 66 tags (Gotta maximize that SEO!)
  • Most used tags: PhD and CRDM
  • 5,355 hits (Wow! I find this incredible!)
  • Most popular post: “Using Mendeley to Manage Readings and Citations” from October 2010 (nearly 700 individual hits!
  • Most popular recent post: “Why all grad students should do collaborative research” (about 100 hits in just one month!)
  • Country with the most views: United States (nearly half of my total hits) and Canada
  • Most common search term: my blog URL, megsroadtophd.blogspot.com (I find this odd, that people still Google URLs?) and “PhD organize my readings on my computer” (Which explains the popularity of the Mendeley post!)
  • Strangest search term: “Is a PhD student a professional?” (Yes, yes we are!)
  • Most referred site: Google (no surprise there!) followed by Facebook and Twitter (good to know that my shameless self-promotion is working)

It has been neat to look back at what I’ve written and shared about my experience pursuing my PhD in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media. Some of my ideas have changed since I started, and some of my goals have been reinforced through the process. I’m looking forward to writing more about my second year. (And perhaps getting to 10,000 hits!) Anything in particular you want to hear about? Have you been blogging about your PhD experiences? Please share!

Back the grind

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And so it begins – year two of my PhD, year eight of my post-secondary career. What’s slated for this fall? Here’s what I’m up to:

I’m taking four classes this semester: one core CRDM course, Technology and Pedagogy in Communication Arts; two electives, Rhetoric of Science & Technology and Environmental Communication; and one professional development class, CRDM Colloquium.

For the first time in my graduate career, I’m not teaching this semester. Instead, I’m serving two administrative roles, with my time split between them each semester. This fall, I’m the primary Graduate Assistant Director of NCSU’s Campus Writing and Speaking Program, directed by Chris Anson and Deanna Dannels, and in the spring, I’ll be the primary Graduate Assistant Director of the First Year Writing Program, directed by Susan Miller-Cochran. I’ll be assisting each program during both semesters, but taking on a larger role for one each semester (with another graduate student filling in for each).

I’ve got to tackle several important milestones toward earning my PhD, including deciding on my doctoral exam areas, beginning to form (or completely forming) a dissertation committee, starting to create reading lists for my doctoral exams, and figuring out my Plan of Work for the Graduate School. It would be great if I could finalize a dissertation topic, too.

I’ll also be presenting some research on discussions of nuclear technology post-Fukushiima at the 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science) conference in Cleveland, November 2-5.

What are your plans for the semester? Will I be seeing you at 4S? Or missing out on your presentation at NCA? Let me know!

How an academic can have an epic summer

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Summer is winding down (not scientifically, but according to the university calendar, which at NCSU begins tomorrow!). This brings a combination of dread and groans from scholars who again feel they didn’t accomplish as much as they wanted to. I’d like to think of myself as a positive person (even though my last post used the word frustration no less than four times), so I’m going to buck this trend and explain why I had an epic summer, because remember all that was great about it will surely keep me in a cheerful mood past Labor Day.

How to have an epic summer

Do some work – but prioritize: Your list of things to accomplish that are academic-related might include 10 different things. Be realistic. It’s the summer; that will never get totally completed. Pick the three most important things and focus, focus, focus. When you’ve accomplished them, you’ll feel great. I narrowed my priorities to the most important professional development for a PhD student: getting published. I’m happy to say that an article I’ve written with Ashley R. Kelly will be published in the SIGDOC Proceedings from this year’s conference, and I should be able to discuss another publication soon, too. Achieving those two things made my summer feel enormously productive and successful. I also completed a research assistantship with Carolyn R. Miller, which expanded my knowledge of genre theory and gave me a well-rounded list of things to do.

Go away. As in, take a vacation that is truly a vacation, in which you “unplug” and don’t read anything remotely academic or try to keep up with Twitter. I was lucky enough to get to do this several times this summer, including trips to Canada and Aspen, and multiple long weekends at the beach. The trick is to have done some of my first point – productive, prioritized work – and then you can really enjoy getting away. I used to feel guilty about taking a day or an afternoon off, but realized that was not a healthy or good way to think about a much-needed break. Focusing and working diligently to achieve my main goals allowed me to soak up the time off, enjoy the Rocky Mountains for the first time, and come back re-energized and ready to tackle a new project/school year.

Hiking to American Lake in White River National Forest, Aspen, Colorado with my dear friend Julia

Read for fun. Yes, being an academic requires a lot of reading, so you wouldn’t think that reading when you’re not working would necessarily be a first choice, but I find it’s important to keep using your “reading muscles” outside of the school year. I say “reading muscle” after a discussion with a faculty member who suggested that, particularly for doctoral exams, that you need to train your “reading muscles” by starting out with small reading goals, and gradually building up to being able to read greater amounts of text each day/week. And if you stop using your reading muscles, they atrophy. Thus, reading during the summer is important, so that you do not start off the semester with a weak reading muscle. I find I was able to keep up by reading books that are unrelated to my research but are important topics for other parts of my life: healthy lifestyle, vegetarianism, and local food movements. Some of the books I read: Eating Animals by Jonathon Safran Foer; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and Peas and Thank You by Sarah Matheny.

Nothing I’ve said here is necessarily ground-breaking or novel, but it’s so easy to be so wrapped up in our work that we don’t enjoy the summer as much as we could. It’s the best season of the year, after all, and while it still requires work – which many non-academics don’t understand – the potential for flexibility in our schedule is there, and we shouldn’t forget to use that. Enjoy life!!

The difficulty in being a digital media scholar

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Like many people, I love the Internet and all things related to digital media, spend a lot of time on the internet and with technology, and as my husband would argue, am (borderline) addicted to it all. Unlike many people, however, it is my job to study/research/analyze digital media and the Internet, as a part of my research for my PhD program in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at NC State. This means, at the very least, I have a good excuse for being addicted to it (unless you are my husband, in which case, it only means that I way too frequently bring my work home with me and work wayyy too much. Which is basically the life of an academic. I guess I have some explaining to do…). But my relationship with the Internet and other technology is not so simple.

It is fun and fascinating to study this broad field, but it can also be very frustrating, difficult to make productive, and hard to keep up with. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very happy with my graduate program, and I do love what I study – but it comes with some built-in difficulties that you have to learn to manage if you’re going to make a go at it with any real consequence. Here are some of my thoughts on the field (which is probably not even the best way to put it) after my first year of PhD work:

Studying the “field” of digital media/technology/the Internet (and yes, I know these terms are not interchangeable) is frustrating because the field is so large and unwieldy, grows bigger all the time, and transcends pretty much every other field in academia. At NCSU, we study rhetoric and digital media, but that is just one angle of digital media research. It’s being done by nursing programs, who analyze use of tablet computers for improving patient care, and political science, to examine the influence of social media campaigns on elections. And those are exactly the studies that we could undertake in our program as well. So how do we distinguish ourselves in the humanities? Or should we at all? Should we market our research outside of these select fields of Communication and English?

It can also be frustrating to study rhetoric and digital media from a humanities perspective because we have no clear methodological sense for how to effectively analyze these artifacts and all of the data they can produce. To borrow a term from Steven Krause, researching the internet in particular is akin to searching in “a haystack full of needles” – there is too much information out there, and it can be challenging to sort through all of it to find some kind of meaning/finding/publishable anything. Those in the humanities have yet to articulate any meaningful considerations for methodological study of digital media thus far, though my colleague Ashley R. Kelly and I will have a paper published in this year’s ACM SIGDOC Proceedings that begins to tackle this issue.

It can also be difficult to make research into digital media/technology/the Internet productive, and by productive, I’m referring to producing work that adds to the general body of knowledge in the way that academics aim to do (generally through publishing). A key challenge here is deciding what is meaningful and what is not, and this is directly related to the dearth of methodological literature. If we cannot conceive of the important considerations for digital media study, how can we know what artifacts and data are meaningful? Or when we do know what’s meaningful, has it taken so long that the information is no longer timely and relevant to academics and the general public?

This leads me to my third frustration with studying rhetoric and digital media: it is so difficult to produce work that is relevant and timely with the way that academic publishing works. Sure, in my seminar one semester, I was right on point with my analysis of a new technology or use of social media. But by the time I can revise a draft for a journal, send it out, revise a manuscript, and have it published – it’s no longer so timely and relevant. Obviously, this issue is not unique to digital media scholars, nor is it a new one, but it’s exaggerated by the fast pace of technology and digital media advancements. But as an ongoing issue, I strongly feel that we need to address it and find ways to make our research more available in a more timely way to the public – after all, we aren’t trying to only speak to each other with our work. Or at least, we shouldn’t be. The University of South Alabama has recently established a new journal that sets out to work on this issue, The Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. Let’s support these new ventures so that we can find ways to keep our work timely and relevant as well as rigorous.

So, to recap: studying rhetoric (or insert any academic field, really) and digital media is challenging to say the least. But it is also exciting for all of the potential that is there. We just need to find ways to study it meaningfully – not just any old website or new gadget – and rigorously, as well as to make the information available when it is most relevant and not a year and a half or two years after it made news.

What do you find to be the most challenging part of studying digital media/technology/the Internet/whatever you like to call it? How do you deal with the issues I’ve mentioned here?