Collaborative writing with Google docs

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In my last post, I discussed the benefits of doing collaborative research in grad school. With the brilliance that is Google docs, team writing is a smoother process than ever. I know that some have been using Google docs for years, for both collaborative writing and their own personal work, whereas there are many who have yet to try out the feature. (If you fit in the former category, some of what I’ll review here is pretty basic, but I encourage you to read through and comment to add any functions or perks that I’ve missed here.)

How I use Google docs & my favorite features:

  1. Writing text: Obviously, a main function of Google docs is that you can write within a window just the same way you could within a word processor. You can change the text style, size, color, and more similarly to a word processor. It has less features – fewer font options and no text boxes, for example – but offers many of the basic functions you need. I use the word count tool a lot! 
  2. Exporting: When you need to finish something off in Word (or put it in a .doc format to send off somewhere) you can easily export the document as a Word file, or even a PDF or RTF file. 
  3. Collaborative writing: The main advantage Google docs has over a word processor is the facilitation of collaborative writing. As you type, others who are viewing the document (or “in the document) can see what you are writing in real time, and vice versa. I can immediately edit a word someone else has written, we can cut and paste each other’s writing – it’s all real time. Which is connected to the awesome feature for group projects of – 
  4. Everyone is immediately updated: When you open the document, everyone who has permissions to it all have the same, most up-to-date version. No more sending around docs and keeping track by having “GrantAppVersion02Edit34.” Work on it in Google docs until everyone is done and then download it in whichever file format you need. 
  5. Chat function: Within the document, if another writer is also viewing at the same time, you can chat with your collaborator about the project (or anything else, for that matter). It’s helpful for discussing the plan of attack, setting a schedule, etc. all while you are working on it. It also helps save valuable in-person meeting time. (Edited to add this item post-publication – I forgot in my haste to get this posted!)
  6. Flexibility: With a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentations, you can create a doc for pretty much anything you need. I’ve got docs for essays, group projects, as well as lecture notes, reading exam lists, and Christmas present budget for last year. 

Clearly, I’m enamored by Google docs, but I don’t think it’s perfect. I find the “filing” system a bit clunky – like Gmail, you can tag things, but creation and maintenance of the folders is not so easy. The apps for your smart phone aren’t perfect and make it difficult to edit a doc on the go (if you think that’s what you will mainly use it for. That’s not a primary need of mine, so this isn’t a big problem for me, but others tend to prefer something like the Evernote app over the Google doc app). Finally, when you download a doc as a Word file, the formatting does not export as cleanly as I’d like – I tend to spend 15 minutes tidying up the spacing, adjusting the rules, and formatting the font to make it the professional document I need it to be.

    Regardless, Google docs is still a great new(ish) tool for PhD students. How do you use Google docs? Any cool ways to use them that I haven’t mentioned, or additional concerns I haven’t thought of? 

    Using Mendeley to Manage Readings and Citations

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    It seems that half of the battle in a PhD program is not doing the work, but knowing how to accomplish it. Sure, I can read through five journal article PDFs for a class, but what’s the best way of going about reading/annotating/synthesizing and coming up with discussion points for class? I found myself asking this question early on in the semester and was quickly pointed to Mendeley by a couple of my fellow CRDMers. And how quickly I’ve come to appreciate this cool platform for how well it manages my readings! I thought I would share how I use Mendeley, because if there are other graduate students out there like me, sometimes you just don’t know these programs are out there to use, and they sure make your life a lot easier once you find them. I know that I’m also not using Mendeley to its fullest advantage, so if there’s another neat function that I don’t mention, please point me to it.

    I use Mendeley to read journal article PDFs, to annotate readings for class, and to organize all of the files and notes that I accumulate throughout the semester. I’ve downloaded the desktop software application, which serves as a database for all of the files. When I have a new reading for a week, I save the PDF on my computer and then upload it into Mendeley. When I open the file in Mendeley, I can highlight lines in the reading, insert notes in the margins that look like Post-It notes, and search the text for key terms. My favorite features is probably the Post-Its: the graphic for it is really cool, and they appear both in the side bar with my notes and in a little bubble in the PDF to show me where I’ve inserted them.

    Sample file in Mendeley desktop with Post-It notes

    I can also use Mendeley to manage my research sources as I continue to work on my seminar projects. It will generate a bibliography for me from the bibliographic information of the PDFs, saving me much time down the road. (Although, I must admit, that I like doing my bib by manually entering the citations, as inefficient as that is!)

    Something I wish I could change about Mendeley is the default opening screen: it opens to an  “All Documents” folder, which lists all of my PDFs. To me, seeing all these files is overwhelming; I’d like to archive them in files like you can with your Inbox so that only my current readings are displayed. You can currently label PDFs so that they appear in a certain folder, but they continue to appear in “All Documents.” Anyone know if this is possible to change? Or am I stuck with it like this?

    The Mendeley website also has capabilities for sharing sources with others who are researching similar topics or who want to swap readings. I also found out via a Twitter user that I can use the website to upload PDFs of my students’ essays that I’ve graded by inserting Post-It comments and share them with their respective authors – something I’m definitely open to trying. Ideally, I’d be able to export the file from the Mendeley desktop and email it back to them, but I’ve been told that is not yet possible. (Note to the Mendeley people: can you make this happen? Signed, an Appreciative Instructor.) There’s also a social component to the Mendeley site where you can search other Mendeley users to see what other people are reading and researching. Overall, this is a must-have tool for graduate students and academics.

    So – what am I missing? How else can I use this software to expedite my research process? Tell me more!

    What they don’t tell you about graduate school…

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    . . . are things that can be difficult to find out on your own. Luckily for my fellow first-years and me, the more-experienced CRDMers are more than forthcoming about things they didn’t tell us at orientation. I am trying to listen to them as much as possible to avoid any unexpected issues or to help me learn coping mechanisms before fatigue or frustration set in. You know, like your doctor says – let’s be proactive and not reactive.

    So what am I learning that they don’t tell you?

    1. You’re a PhD student – you can ask for anything. Believe it or not, not everything about graduate school makes it the worst experience of your life. In the words of a wise professor, part of being a graduate student means that faculty work closely with you and want to help you succeed professionally. Want to have a workshop on the academic job search? Ask a faculty member. Need advice on sending an article out for publication? Ask a faculty member. It is rewarding for a faculty member to engage intellectually with bright graduate students, so don’t be afraid to reach out to them.
    2. You must be your own advocate. While faculty or admin may be generally aware of your research interests, if you want to do a project with them, you must initiate it. Or if you want to teach a different course than ENG 101 next year, you’ve got to step up and show your qualifications and interest. Opportunities won’t fall into your lap (unless you’re really, really lucky), so you’ve got to get out there and make them happen. 
    3. Conference travel is expensive! It’s vital that you keep up with your field by submitting papers to, presenting at, and attending conferences. Conference in San Francisco? Cool! I’ve never been there. But – long flight, expensive city for hotel and food. There’s not a lot of travel money in departments anymore, and as a graduate student, you may have a few opportunities for travel grants, but they definitely do not cover even the entire cost for one conference.

    Reading Strategies for Graduate Students

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    I must confess. When I was applying last year to the PhD program and talking with current students, I blew off their comments that “there’s more reading than you can handle.” I thought – my only job will be school. I don’t have a full-time job, so I will be able to focus all on school. In case you can’t see where this is going – boy, was I WRONG! Needless to say, completing the reading for three courses each week takes a lot of time and energy and competes with spending time with my family, upkeep of my house, maintaining sanity by working out, and a barely existent social life. As I mentioned in an earlier post about priorities, I want to think seriously about reading strategies and how graduate students can not only get all of the reading done, but get something out of it also. Here’s what I’ve got thus far.

    The Three C’s of Reading: Completion, Comprehension, and Critique


    • Read during any chunk of time that you have available. Don’t just set aside several hours at a time to tackle your book list. Take advantage of a spare 20-30 minutes you have between classes or on the bus, whatever it may be. Resist the urge to check Facebook, Twitter, etc. and the pages that you can get through will add up quickly. 
    • Read sitting upright. This might sound really silly, but it all has to do with where you are reading. If I sat in the Lazyboy to read and put the footrest up, my body was on enough of an angle that I would start to doze off after only 15 minutes of reading. As soon as I moved to the couch, which sits more upright with the footrest out, it made a big difference. I could sit and read all morning without getting tired at all. Same goes for reading in bed: don’t do it. You mix your brain signals up and end up having trouble falling asleep at night or not being able to stay awake to read. Find a spot that becomes your reading spot and stick with it. You’ll train your mind to focus on what you’re doing when you’re sitting there and become more productive. 


    • Takes notes. (Duh!) Lots of notes. This means writing in your books and having a pen available when you are reading. I like to write down key words that summarize/explain a paragraph, and note key ideas at the bottom of a page. This helps a lot for class discussion – when I flip pages, I can easily remember what the section/chapter is about from my notes instead of having to re-read a paragraph. This is also connected to the idea to…
    • Develop your own shorthand. Book margins are small, so there’s not a lot of room to write. This is where your own personal abbreviations come in handy. You can get more ideas into a small space. For example, I will put a star in the margin beside the author’s main claim(s) for the chapters so that I can easily locate them amidst my other notes. I also like to abbreviate “-tion” words with a raised small “n” with a line under it – something my calculus teacher did in college to abbreviate the word “function.” Genius! It not only saves time, but also allows me to put more summarizing/critiquing thoughts on the page.
    • Write down your thoughts after chapters. At the end of each chapter, I like to go to my computer and type down the key ideas that I gleaned from the reading. This allows me to materialize my thoughts and forces me to immediately summarize what I know as a result of reading the chapter. If I’m reading an article, this means that I summarize at the end of large sections. 


    • Connect scholars to one another as you read. Scholarship is an ongoing conversation, and likely if you are reading for one class, many of the writers are essentially having a dialogue with each other. Think about what else you’ve read on the topic and what other scholars might have to say about what you are reading now. This is great food for discussion in class and shows that you can synthesize ideas (and remember things from week to week!).
    • Question what you read. How do these people know what they know? What is the writer’s methodology? Theoretical thrust? Of course, you always want to learn new ideas/findings/theories from a reading, but you also want to objectively question how the writer arrived at these conclusions. 

    Of course, these are my personal reading strategies and not something I got out of a textbook or from a Suite101 webpage (ha!). They may not work for everyone, which is why I have a burning question – what do YOU do to accomplish your reading lists, to not only complete the readings, but to comprehend, to critique, and to positively participate in your seminars?