A day in the life, summer edition

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Now that the semester is over, all of my friends and family outside of academia say to me, “Wow, you must be so glad the semester is over, now you get vacation again until August!” (Or some other refrain along those lines.) And again I am reminded of how fundamentally misunderstood my job as an academic, and everyone else’s job who is an academic, is. People think that as a PhD student, I take a few classes, maybe teach one if I’m lucky – and that’s it. We need to do a better job of telling people all that our jobs entail! A lot of folks participated in the #DayofHigherEd last month (and I did too, writing a blog post for it). Hence this second version: “A day in the life – summer edition.”

Here’s what I did yesterday, Tuesday, May 15:

7:30am: Up, coffee, checking emails – nearly all work related. One related to my HOA board that I serve as secretary for that needed to be addressed ASAP.

8:00am: Read How we became posthuman by Katherine Hayles, a book on my digital media theory reading list.

10:00am: Break from reading to look at web project I’m working on with others and presenting at the upcoming Genre 2012 conference. I work on a collaborative project management doc and sending necessary emails and files to various members.

11:00am: Back to reading How we became posthuman.

12:00pm: Lunch, put in a load of laundry, feed the dog, and do the dishes.

1:00pm: Review plan for workshop presentation that I’m giving for the Computers and Writing conference this Thursday. Put finishing touches on our Prezi and make sure that I have all of my parts in order.

2:00pm: Take notes on book I read this weekend for my reading list, Where wizards stay up late: The origins of the internet.

3:00pm: Put together list of goals for the summertime and sketch out approximate deadlines for each item. Things on my list include:

  • Follow strict reading schedule to finish all exam reading by Sept. 1. (This is my number 1 priority.)
  • Give workshop at Computers and Writing on Thursday afternoon. 
  • Finish joint manuscript currently working on by June 8. Need to prep for writing meeting we have this Friday. 
  • Prep questions for Summer I class that I’ll be studying with partner in scholarly crime.
  • Finish hybrid composition course technology study – get all data in one place and backed up; set writing schedule with collaborator; identify target journal for manuscript. 
  • Continue to work on web project that our research team is presenting at Genre 2012 at the end of June. I’ve been assigned the role of task management along with my research duties for the site. 
  • Continue to think about dissertation prospectus and chip away at taking notes for that while I read and formulate a more thorough research description. 
  • Work as RA for Campus Writing and Speaking Program research project throughout summer. Major task at the moment is data analysis from the courses we studied this spring, along with a grant report. Also have to prepare for two other conferences after Computers and Writing and then, hopefully, get a manuscript written. 
  • Compile Enculturation special issue from Computers and Writing conference. This will be an ongoing project with Enculturation editors and reviewers until the issue is published in October.
  • Prep for a new class that I’ll be teaching next year.
    (As you can see, this is a huge list of ongoing projects. To complicate matters, every single joint project is undertaken with a different set of collaborators – that’s a lot of people to keep up with and coordinate schedules with.)

4:00pm: Get ready to leave for meeting at with Computers and Writing workshop team.

4:30-5:30pm: Happy hour meeting with C&W workshop team. Final discussion of plans for Thursday and a bit of fun chat, too.

5:30pm: Leave for tennis lessons across the other side of the city.

6:00pm: Tennis lesson.

7:00pm: Pick up sushi for dinner on my way home. No time for food prep tonight. Walk the dog before eating.

8:30pm: Respond to emails for a variety of things – workshop on Thursday, HOA, research grant, Computers and Writing conference, etc.

9:00pm: Unwind with husband (finally!).

10:30pm: Squeeze in a bit more reading of How we became posthuman. I find this book quite dense, and it’s taking me a while to get through it.

11:00pm: Bed. Coach Sunday kicked my butt at tennis tonight, and I have a full day planned for tomorrow!

So, friends and family, there you have it – sure it’s “summer” (aka. I’m not taking classes), but every day, I have a full plate of reading for exams, conducting research, writing manuscripts, and dealing with other tasks related to my job – conferences, workshops, etc. etc.

What does your summer schedule look like? Share it! I think it’s really important to make our work more visible so that people better understand the work that academics do – we might be fighting for our jobs, our funding, etc. in the future if we aren’t better prepared to talk about the value that our work brings.

A neophyte navigates the publishing process

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With my first journal article out with Ashley R. Kelly in Environmental Communication, I wanted to write about the experience of navigating the publishing process as a young scholar. Perhaps sharing my experience might help other young scholars as they work through the process.

Our path to publishing this particular article began last January, 2011, with the announcement of the Duke Energy and Progress Energy merger in the Carolinas and our decision to pursue a joint project on the merger. We conducted research on the online public reaction to the merger for a CRDM seminar class during the spring semester and concluded the semester by presenting part of the paper at a local conference, Environments, Risks, and Digital Media symposium, at NC State. At ERDM, we were on a panel with four other scholars who were also discussing issues related to nuclear energy. At that point in mid-April, the disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan was a timely topic, and the other presenters (as well as we) discussed issues related to the Japanese nuclear accident.

The faculty member taking the lead for our panel, Bill Kinsella, at NCSU, thought that our panel was very cohesive and that it addressed an issue of relevance to the scholarly community. So, he contacted the journal’s editor to pitch a themed section of the journal for an upcoming issue featuring each of our talks in a manuscript form. The editor was interested and suggested we submit – great! At that point it was late April, and collectively, we aimed for a mid-summer submission, hoping to have the issue published in time for the one year anniversary of the accident.

Ashley and I spent many hours furiously revising our project to better reflect the discussion of the panel as a whole and to refine the arguments that we were making. At that point, we had received feedback from our seminar instructor, audience members at the conference, and Bill, as he was overseeing the submission of the whole package to EC. We primarily worked in Google docs, though as we got into later stages of writing and a couple sets of feedback from Bill, we switched over to Word documents with track changes. (I will still always prefer Google docs for collaborative writing.) We polished up our essay, and Bill put the entire package together, submitting it sometime mid summer. And then we waited.

And waited. That’s the toughest part! The first reviewer responded, generally in favor of the themed section, but with concerns for one of the papers that was ultimately cut and for revisions of the others – both of which we anticipated in advance. Unfortunately, the second reviewer never responded to our essays, ultimately delaying the process until the end of the year with still no answer at our end. Finally, the editor took it upon himself to make a decision, consulted with Bill on the revisions needed to make the submission a successful one, and returned the package to each of the authors for revisions on our respective manuscripts. This time – we had to cut the manuscript by nearly 2,000 words – no small feat for any author, when you generally want the information to be in there if you put it there in the first place! We turned to another colleague, who gave insightful and critical comments on our manuscript to help us see that we indeed had more to say than we were letting come out and helped us to be more assertive in our scholarship. While our collective group missed the deadline for submitting the final package in time for a March 2012 Fukushima anniversary issue, the package was ultimately submitted and accepted for publication, in the June 2012 issue.

Our path to getting our project in print was by no means a linear trajectory, and at times the wait was difficult. In the end, we were about 12 months from submission of manuscript to publication date – not unusual by publishing standards, and certainly faster than might happen with other journals. I learned a few important lessons about publishing as I move forward:

  1. When you think your manuscript is done, it is not. There are always more revisions to do, more words to ruthlessly edit for concision, or another piece of literature that would make sense to include. At some point, you have to say you’ve done enough to get it out for review and concede that you can still make key changes at the revision stage. Our essay is nearly unrecognizable from initial submission to the version we turned in for final publishing proofs. 
  2. Waiting sucks, but use the time wisely. It is especially hard to wait when the project is under review. But we took that time to work on other manuscripts, but also to get the word out as much as possible about the project that we had submitted (just not saying we had submitted it). We presented other data sets from the project at various conferences, gave poster presentations, and even visited Progress Energy. We got a lot of mileage out of the one project and learned a lot about being efficiently productive as a scholar from this research. 
  3. Asking others to review your manuscript is crucial. Our manuscript would not have been publishable without the assistance of at least four other people beyond Ashley and I. Each person who gave us feedback brought a different perspective and impacted our manuscript in various ways, but ultimately, they all made our drafts better and getting published possible. Seek out people beyond your close circle and take a chance on sending your manuscript to someone in your field outside of your institution or graduate program. You might be surprised at how generous a lot of people are with their time and ideas. 

Of course, I have by no means conquered this system, but this is my one idiosyncratic experience with scholarly publishing. While I would have absolutely preferred to publish in an open access journal, as just one person on a panel I was not able to make that choice for my work. However, I am very pleased with the fit of our article and entire section with the journal Environmental Communication. Our article is the first one that discusses Twitter and environmental comm issues at length and thus, I think, makes a significant contribution to the field.

Now, what’s next?!

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!!

Why all grad students should do collaborative research

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This spring, I undertook two collaborative research projects with a colleague of mine in the CRDM program, Ashley R. Kelly. It was the first time I had ever done a seminar paper collaboratively (other projects, certainly, but never the largest one for the course). While at first I was not quite sure how we would manage it, once we got started things really took off and I never once wondered about project management. Overall, I have to say that I really enjoyed the two collaborative projects that we did and would absolutely recommend doing that for at least one of your courses if you are pursuing your PhD.

First, why I loved it: it may be that my research partner was fabulously on the ball, but we were both highly motivated to do well and to both hold up our end of the deal to contribute as much as we could to the project. Having a research partner held me accountable to all of the progress (and occasionally, lack of progress) that I was making. It made me think about the projects more often; gave me frequent deadlines throughout the semester to meet, and alleviated the last-minute crunch that everyone faces at the end of the semester. We toiled diligently through February and March, making the end of April much more pleasant than normal. Of course, you’ve got to choose a collaborator wisely: don’t pick the student who consistently procrastinates! You don’t want to resent your partner for not completing tasks in a timely manner. We also had an unofficial “open-door” policy for talking about our projects: we did not hesitate to speak up, disagree, or call each other on something we didn’t like/see as valuable for the project. These conversations were professional – not personal judgments of our own ability – so they were productive and did not create any resentment between us. I think this is extremely important for teamwork!

Now, why I think all PhD students should do this at least once while in school: collaborative writing is more and more prominent in academia and better mimics some of the group tasks you’ll have to do once you are faculty member. It seems now that any time I get an alert from a journal I’m following, six out of the seven articles in a new issue are co-authored pieces. Web projects are also highly collaborative; case in point, the project I’m working as a research assistant for this summer. It’s great professional training in a lower-stakes setting that also allows you to develop connections with those whose research interests align with yours; I know many faculty who still co-write articles or books with those they wrote with in grad school, even though they are now at different institutions. It could also allow you to supplement any of your own weaknesses and learn something new from someone who has perhaps more experience with a certain methodology or theoretical background, helping fill in scholarly gaps you might have.

Overall, collaborative research was a great experience for me this spring, and Ashley and I are continuing on some projects collaboratively, some of which I hope to share with you in the coming months. Next up: how Google docs (and spreadsheets, and presentations) can make your joint research and writing project a success.

Have you ever completed a collaborative project? What advice can you add to the ideas I’ve got here?