Taking on a new year

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I hope you all enjoyed some nice time over a holiday break. Personally, my favorite time over the school break (and one of my favorite weeks of the whole year) is the first week of January, when the business of holiday get-togethers has subsided, and I have one week of blissful quiet in which I can start the year off right by taking care of myself, taking time to think, read fiction, and organize the house for the coming year. I love the first week for all of the promise it holds for the coming year and the bit of time I have to enjoy some nice and quiet time.

But as it always must, that will end tomorrow with the beginning of the semester. Back to the routine, resuming my posts as Assistant Director of the First Year Writing Program and the Campus Writing and Speaking Program. I’m working on a new website for the CWSP, a project that I’m excited about and that will keep me busy this spring. The CWSP team is also continuing our research project, which we have found out that we will be presenting in a workshop format at Computers and Writing in Raleigh this coming May! Come and check out our workshop, titled, “Screencap Your Feedback: Using Screen Capture Technology to Provide Audio-Visual Feedback to Writers.”

Course-wise, this spring is all about preparing for the final legs of my degree: exam and dissertation preparation. I’m taking my final class (I thought the day would never come!) along with directed readings and research. One of my exam lists is in solid draft form, but I must get moving more seriously on the other two. With my goal of taking exams in early October, there’s no time to waste.

Travel-related happenings this spring semester:

  • Attending the Carolina Rhetoric Conference at Clemson University with Ashley to present our latest research on the Duke Energy-Progress Energy merger. Hope to see you in Clemson in February! 
  • Attending CCCC in March with a crew from CRDM and presenting on a panel with fellow CRDMers about establishing a sense of community in hybrid writing courses. With the bit of chatter that is re-emerging on listservs about hybrid courses, I hope our panel will be a timely topic. I also hope to see you in St. Louis this spring! 
Before I turn in, I must get back to reading 1Q84, the latest novel from Haruki Murakami, which I started over break. Each year, I *try* to read just one of the top ten novels of the year, and this is the book I chose for 2011. (Though I’m wondering why I chose the nearly 1,000 page one to read on Kindle… it takes forever!) It is a strange but compelling book. I’m enjoying reading fiction, the one time per year that I do read fiction.  
Happy New Year to all, and best wishes to those heading back to school tomorrow! 

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?

Writing Program Administration

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This semester, I’m balancing two theory-heavy courses with a more practical course: Writing Program Administration! And yes, I’m really enjoying the class such that I’ll tag an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence. Taught by two of the field’s best, Dr. Chris Anson and Dr. Susan-Miller-Cochran, the course focuses on both theoretical and practical issues of WPA. Our work combines readings, class discussion, listening to Drs. Anson & Miller-Cochran’s experiences, and the best part, an in-depth study of a writing program. For the study, we work closely with a WPA from another school, sending a weekly question set based on that week’s topics and readings. We then write weekly reports about the program based on what our WPA tells us, what we can get from the school’s website, and our readings, reflecting about how that all comes together.

For my WPA study, I’m looking at a small, private, liberal arts school without an official “writing program” structure. It’s a great juxtaposition for NC State, a large state school with an immense first-year writing program within the English department. My WPA has been great to correspond with, and we’ve got a great system going for communicating with one another. Immediately after our class for the week (on Tuesdays), I start on next week’s readings and review what I already have on that topic before sending questions that will allow me to write a report for the next week’s topic. I send the questions by Thursday, which gives the WPA the chance to both reflect on and answer the questions on her own time. I usually get my responses by Monday morning, leaving me plenty of time to read, reflect, and write a report by Tuesday.

At first, I was really nervous about contacting a faculty member that I’ve never spoken with, met in person, or will likely ever have contact with again after this semester. However, the WPA put me at ease and has shown such genuine kindness in answering my questions – generally two parts each, and I try to keep it to only four q’s per email – with short essays! I’m very encouraged by the WPA’s generosity with his/her time: as a graduate student, it seems that faculty are always so busy with their work and that email is not a high priority. Obviously, there are faculty who value collaborating with graduate students and want to help them develop projects that they are mutually interested in.

I also hope that my weekly reports will help the WPA; at the end of the semester, I will amalgamate my weekly reports into a final program report, perhaps with a few friendly suggestions, that I will send to the WPA (hence why I am not going to name the school that I am profiling; this information is private to the school and I am privileged to be given it). The school is currently undergoing re-accreditation and the WPA is conducting an internal assessment of the writing initiative, so the time spent reflecting on the questions I send also has some value for the WPA in the assessment process.

Overall, I see great value in this kind of class for graduate students. Part of being a professional in the field – a faculty member – is administration. No one ever just teaches and researches; whether it be committee work, taking the role of assistant director of a program, or even greater responsibility within a department or the university, every one does administrative work as a part of their career. Graduate students are always primed to research (through coursework) and teach (through workshops and actual teaching assignments), so why wouldn’t we want to be educated in the other main part of our professional responsibilities, too? Some may argue that giving grad students administrative responsibilities is exploitative, or that exposing them to the inner workings of the school (and thus politics, budget issues, etc.) isn’t right. However, I disagree: we’ve got to learn about all the parts of our future professional responsibilities if we are going to be competitive candidates in an increasingly dire (desperate?) market for PhDs. Anyone disagree with me? Have an unfortunate experience with administrative responsibilities while doing their PhD? I’d be glad to hear from you.