Continuing the series of student tips that I started here, today we’re going to be talking about research projects. You might need to turn in a research paper or presentation as part of your grade. While as a former university instructor I’ve seen plenty of students struggle to articulate their argument, I want to re-assure you that you’re not alone. It’s part of the process and I still see it as editor when we receive submissions for Fantastika Journal (and – indeed – in my own work!). You can’t – and shouldn’t – approach your research with a pre-planned argument. Even if you’re studying in the humanities, you should start with a hypothesis to test. But the hypothesis should be meaningful.
One of the main problem I’ve seen is when students/researchers struggle to distinguish their topic statement from a thesis statement. What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example from my own life. This November I (through Fantastika Journal) will be hosting a digital symposium on LGBTQIA+ narratives. The topic is important of course, but I also want to make sure that we’re making significant contributions to this discussion. So I’ve struggled for ages to come up with my own paper ideas. If you were following along with fantastikapress on twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen that there are hundreds of LGBTQIA+ Fantastika graphics (the symposium’s focusing on graphic forms). So, for the humanities, a topic can be any combo of theme plus text. “Non-binary identities in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman“. “Transphobia in Futurama’s ‘Bend Her’ episode” “Censorship in the dubbed Sailor Moon”. These are all examples of topics. When someone asks you what you’re research is about, you can respond with “I’m looking at non-binary identities in Sandman“. But if someone asks you what are you arguing, you should not make the same statement: “I am arguing that there are depictions of non-binary characters in Sandman.” Of course there is. That’s not an argument. Most informed people (in this case, readers of the graphic novels), will not argue with this statement. As I’ve mentioned when I outlined the thought process for my own PhD proposal, even if an educated person does object to the statement (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. Don’t set out to pick a fight as your central objective.
So how can we turn a topic statement (‘I’m looking at LGBTQIA+ in Sandman”) into a thesis statement?
One of the ways to do this is to ask yourself “so what?” What are you hoping to achieve by researching this topic? What does your research tell us about LGBTQIA+ or Sandman? Be sure to consider the audience carefully when you ask this question. Let’s say you answer the ‘so what?’ question with the following: “It’s important to bring attention to these representations.” Agreed. But who’s your target audience for your research? Are you making this argument to other students and instructors? Or is your research directed to the industry (writers and creators), or maybe to audiences of these works? Think carefully about what information and pre-conceived notions your audience has and how your new research will fit into this. If your target audience is inclined to agree with you, then you haven’t answered the ‘so what’ successfully.
If you’re a postgraduate student, you may also want to consider your audience in terms of different specialities, especially if you’re planning on submitting an article for publication. If you’re setting out to research LGBTQIA+ narratives in Sandman your “so what” answer will depend on the topic of the journal. Is it a Fantasy-specific journal? A journal dedicated to graphic novels? The top journal in English literature? A journal dedicated to LGBTQIA+? Consider how your research will add substantially to that field. A paper that looks at the impact of Sandman for a Fantasy journal will be entirely different from one that focuses on graphics novels. Your topic stays the same (non-binary in Sandman) but you must adapt your argument and hypothesis to answer the ‘so what?’ pertinent to each field.
As I said above, don’t worry if you don’t have an argument when you begin your research. It’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) to start with “I’ve noticed x and I find it interesting.” But keep in mind that it’s just a place to start your research. Don’t stop there. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ until you’ve found an answer that contributes meaningfully to the field and doesn’t just make white noise.
Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion of tackling the research process with a look at abstract-writing. Until then, take care!
First consider the title and abstract/summary. Don’t download and try to read everything that’s on the topic. For instance you may be looking for research to write an English Literature essay on George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and find a lot of information about the historical inspirations for the series. Unless you were looking specifically for historical influences, that research is not likely to help you. Yes, you’ve found a critical article or book on your topic, but it’s not a piece of research that is likely to help you meet your objectives.
Whether you’re using a database or google, a full-length book or an article, you should look up information about the author and their credentials. Usually this should be supplied for you in the form of an author bionote. Why is this information important? Well first, you want to see what’s their academic background. As a fantasy literature scholar I tend to come across articles written from all areas and specialities – history, sociology, psychology, education, etc. Even if the article is written by a literature scholar, that doesn’t guarantee that contemporary fantasy is their area of speciality. Their primary area of focus may be something like medieval literature or children’s literature. By understanding their background, you can grasp some understanding of their research foundation. For example, a medieval literature scholar, might have a good grasp of historical knowledge (both in terms of actual facts as well as critical theories and methodologies in that field) but may be unaware of current literary criticism on fantasy. By understanding their foundation, you can evaluate the application of their work to your own research along with possible strengths and weaknesses of their work. Also consider the journal itself or, if it’s a book, the publisher and whether the book is part of a series. What’s their remit? I.e what is their area and speciality?
If you’re using the internet or you’ve picked up a book at a local bookstore instead of a university library, take a moment to consider the intended audience. (This goes for EVERYTHING you read and not just when you’re in research mode. Think critically.) Be aware that the website or book is aimed at the general public and not at an academic audience. That isn’t to say that the information published in these works are incorrect, but approach them with the understanding that their methodology or underlying assumptions may not be thoroughly vetted and backed by published peer-reviewed research. For example, there are a lot of parenting books out there written by popular bloggers. They may have done some “research” themselves in the form of reading other parenting books or maybe even peer-reviewed articles. But they are unlikely to have the sort of training where they can critically examine this research and evaluate their methodologies and assumptions. So look up author credentials and see if they’re speaking as a reputable researcher in the field. Don’t assume that a published book means the author and their work was thoroughly vetted by the publisher. The author might be someone who can guarantee to the publisher that their book will sell because they already have a wide audience; They could be a public figure or even just someone who can show some decent social media following.
If the author IS esteemed then the next step is to evaluate the appropriateness of the work in your field. Popular non-fiction is a tricky case. For instance, while I used the scientific theories in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time as a critical tool to investigate Fantasy literature in my first monograph, it’s probably not a book that a theoretical physicist should be basing their work on; you should find the original peer-reviewed research as it’s applicable to your field.
Once you’ve thoroughly vetted the academic rigour of the author and publisher, the next step is to take a good look at the date of publication. If it’s an older print, then new evidence might have been published since then that refutes or challenges the article. In some cases, the author themselves might have built on and expanded the work (or retracted it!) and you should certainly be aware of these as well.
Finally, after vetting the publisher, the author, and the date of publication, we’ve reached the part where we’re sitting down to read the article or book itself. But wait! This doesn’t mean we can turn off our critical lens. You should now evaluate the author’s methodology. Are the steps they’ve taken to reach their conclusions appropriate? Are there any gaps that they fail to acknowledge? If they have acknowledged these gaps, is their justification for why they’ve left the gap in place reasonable? I.e did they properly consider these gaps and the choices they made for their methodology, or did they put it in as an afterthought once the research was already undertaken (in these cases, they’re probably responding to peer review feedback). You can still go ahead and utilise the piece in your own research. But acknowledge their gaps.
Vetting your sources doesn’t necessarily mean you’re don’t use them at all. Instead, it means you should carefully consider their weaknesses. This consideration should be part of your research notes. I.e not necessarily part of your research paper itself. But if the piece of research becomes an essential foundation to your own work, then your paper should absolutely identify these weaknesses. Make sure to keep the tone professional (i.e. no personal attacks or harsh judgment). You should also include how you’re avoiding the same pitfalls in your own work or offer your own justifications. A note of caution here: don’t go overboard with spending so much time (word count) defending your methodology that you don’t have enough space for the rest of the paper. If you’re using an outline, roughly identify how big each section should be before you start your first draft. You might spend hours or days critically examining these sources only for it to end up as 1 or 2 sentences in your work. I’m sorry to inform you but that’s what the research process looks like. 🤷🏽♀️
It’s been about 10 years since I’ve tackled a new project (I.e where I know absolutely nothing about it) and hitting up databases makes me feel like a lost and confused first year undergrad student again. So today we’re going to continue the student life blog which I started here with a crash course in how to start researching a paper.
You might’ve seen around the web amusing tweets or memes chiding anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers that their 20 minute of googling the internet or watching a youtube video doesn’t count as “research”. I’m also aware that a lot of university students will ignore that advice and go to google as their first step in the hopes that someone else on the internet has the answer magically prepared for them. If you know what you’re doing and are properly vetting this sources (which we’ll talk about tomorrow) then it’s okay to use the internet for research. As well, as I said when discussing seminar prep, it’s perfectly acceptable to use google or wikipedia to identify key points of a topic; you’re not using it as research in this case – so don’t cite in in your paper! – instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate key phrases and ideas. Once you’ve made a list of words and phrases, you can then hopefully approach your library and database searches with a more focused approach.
The first step though is identifying what database to use. Your university library webpage is likely to have done some of this work for you, so have a look if they’ve divided up databases or search engines by areas or fields of study. If they haven’t, ask your instructor for suggestions. Universities may also have subject-specific librarians; if you’re looking to access a newly released book or journal issue, they may decide to order one for the library; or if you are struggling to find an out-of-print one, they might have further resources they can offer you (for instance, arranging interlibrary loans or providing information about nearby special archives). I also recommend that you take advantage of any tutorials or workshops that your department or university library might have arranged. From the organiser’s side, I can assure you that we are absolutely ecstatic when students take advantage of these services, as we’ve put work into arranging them and we genuinely want to help students with their questions and concerns. Even if you’re a postgraduate/graduate student, you might want to pop into these services again – sometimes universities allow their masters and PhD students access to more services than they do their undergraduates, so it’s worth figuring out what are all your options. And if you’re studying at a new university make sure you’re aware of any differences between procedures and regulations. You don’t want to end up wracking up a massive overdue fine because the rules are different.
When using any search engine, try to narrow down your focus so that you’re not getting 10,000 results back. Some engines have an “advanced search” options and take advantage of that when you can. Alternatively, you can use Boolean operators:
+ or AND
finds results that include both terms and not just one or the other
Example: Surrealism AND Paintings
| or OR
to find either word when they mean roughly the same thing.
Example: Seashore OR Seaside.
– or NOT
when you want to omit results.
Example: Fantasy NOT Football
will make sure your search of fantasy fiction doesn’t come back with “fantasy football”
to find exact phrases.
Example: “fantasy football”
operates different from AND as it makes sure the two words will be found together
Use Brackets if you need to include more than one of these signs/operators.
Example: (oil OR water) AND painting
means you want to find either oil or water paintings.
As well, the following are more specific to google:
to search within number ranges.
Example: 1990..2021 to
find results from that year range
for limiting type of search to location, website, or filetype.
Example: Cyborg Manifesto filetype:pdf
to find a pdf copy of The Cyborg Manifesto.
Example 2: abortion laws location:Texas
to limit to your search to news articles originating from Texas (rather than being about Texas)
As an independent researcher, I completely understand that not everyone has access to a library. Maybe you access is limited if you’re not on campus or you’re doing preliminary research for a proposal for postgrad/grad school and don’t have library access yet. First see what databases are available to the general public; some sites offer a handful of free articles a month if you create a private account. Google Books and Google Scholar might also have excerpts, and the latter is a database too. Once you have access to a datebase to help you find the title of a piece, then there are a few options for acquiring that article even without university access. If you’re a postgraduate/graduate student, see if your former university offers alumni access to the library. Also don’t rule out public libraries. They may be able to acquire interlibrary loans from the university. As well, investigate if there’s a programme that offers a regional library card rather than city library card. With a regional card, you may be able to acquire material from across the state/province/country and this may include universities in your area. And download the Libby app so you can combine ebooks and audiobooks from all these libraries in one place. Finally, if you absolutely cannot acquire a copy of the article you’re looking for, see if you can google the author; if they’re currently a student or staff member at a university, their contact details should be on the university website and you can email THEM directly to ask for a copy. In most cases, people don’t get paid for the article they’ve published (money goes to the publisher not author), so they might be willing to help you as it’s not a financial loss to them.
If you ARE using google for research, then try your best to vett the website to make sure it’s reputable. Do they have copyright information? Can you find details of the publisher and do they look authentic? If you’re using a library database rather than google, then you may still want to have a quick look at the publisher or journal. How long have they been established? Or if the article you are looking at is more than a few years old, are they still operating? If so, what are their peer review policies? (You can check out their submission guidelines to find this info.) This becomes more important if you are in graduate/postgraduate school especially if are considering publishing work yourself. As well, you will want to get a good understanding of the journals and book publishers in your field so that you can check them regularly for new publications. You may also be able to get a free copy of the book for yourself if you contact a subject-appropriate journal and ask to review the book. You will have to write up a 1000 to 2000 word critical review of the book, but you get a free (and likely expensively-priced) book in return.
The benefits of flash cards is that they’re versatile. You can make them out of everything from proper full-sized index cards, to apps (yes there are apps for this!), or even torn scraps of paper. I used to keep little sandwich bags full of torn up pieces of paper. They’re also convenient. They’re not the same weight as a heavy, lar textbook that you need to carry around everywhere. Which means you can slip them out while you’re waiting for class to start or on the bus.
The age old question ever since they decided to give people grades for their education: how best to study? There are of course countless ways to study for an exam situation and we’ll talk about one of them today: Flash Cards. Flash Cards are for EVERYONE, for any field of study, and for all ages.
But how best to use flash cards? There are multiple ways to go about this but first and foremost, don’t wait until the week before exams to prepare flash cards. For one, you’ll end up spending too much time on creation and not enough time actually using them. But also, as we talked about with note-taking, you want to review the information almost immediately after you learn it so that you can start processing that short-term memory into long-term memory. So if you’re re-writing your notes, you might want to consider creating flash cards at the same time or in lieu of re-writing in a notebook. Once you’ve done that, you should review your flashcards regularly, at least once a week. This means you’ve started studying as soon as semester starts and you’re not cramming in information right before the exam.
Whenever possible, your flash cards should have two sides: One side as a prompt – or word or a concept – and the other side with the related information. This way you can test yourself by reading the face card as a prompt and supplying the answer before your turn it over to check your response. Ideally, you should be able to use both sides as a prompt. For example, if you’re taking a language class, let’s say Spanish, and you’re making flashcards based on vocabulary. When you test yourself with your flashcards, can you look at the Spanish word and recognize the English translation? How about vice versa? Can you also look at the English word and supply the Spanish translation? If you’re unable to supply the answer using either side as a prompt, then you still haven’t mastered the concept.
When you’re reviewing your flashcards, divide them into two piles: cards that you know the answer to quickly and easily, and cards that you struggle with. This latter pile is the one you should focus on with *studying*. BUT don’t discard or ignore the cards from the first pile. Remember to review them occasionally to make sure you haven’t forgotten the information. If you have, move them back into your study pile. (If you’re using an app, find one that has a feature where you can decide to ignore or disable a flashcard temporarily.)
I’m of the opinion that flashcards can be used in every field and for any age group. They’re more likely used in fact-heavy fields, where you need to memorize information for multiple choice or fill in the blank like the bones of a body. But take a moment to consider what sort of test questions you will have and how you can utilise flashcards to help you. Things like conceptual knowledge and terminology (like what the heck is the difference between negative reinforcement and positive punishment? How do you conjugate a verb?). Maybe you need to remember equations and formulas. Or do you struggle remembering key names and dates? If so Maybe, think about what names and dates appear in your notes.Maybe you need to memorize the name of a painting plus the painter and date (put name of painting on one side, and date and painter on other). I always struggled with names; I still remember – 18 years later – writing a history exam with an essay response and completely forgetting the name of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. So I used a completely different first name EVERYTIME I wrote down Archduke, from Phillipe to Fitzgerald. Learning from that lesson, when I switched majors to literature, I made sure to study the names of all the characters in the novel or play.
While these examples focus more on short and simple facts, you can also use flash cards for big concepts. So you know the name of a painting and painter, but what next? What’s important about the painting? Or your on top of Spanish vocabulary but you’re still not sure how to conjugate a verb. Think about how to use flash cards irregardless of your field of study or type of exam questions. Even if you’re expected to answer essay questions think about what knowledge you need to memorize in order to get a good grade and turn that into a flash card to help you study. Think about this early, as you review your notes, so you can start creating and carrying around flash cards well in advance of your exam. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re not up all night desperately cramming.
As I promised in yesterday’s blog, today we’re talking outlines, and how to use them effectively. While sitting down and writing one sentence and then the next may seem a logical approach to tackling a project, processing information doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. As we discussed with concept mapping, your brain might be jumping all over the place with ideas. So if you’re staring at a blank page and you’re not sure where to start, OR if you have a completed draft but you’re not sure if your work is coherent and logical to follow, you may want to consider creating an outline.
If you’re staring at a blank page, try concept or mind mapping first. It’s okay if your map is chaotic and all over the place. We’ll look at this as draft 1 of mapping. From there, take out a different coloured pen and number your map, or if you’re using an app, move the bubbles around. Identify the major concepts or ideas and identify a linear order. Identify your key components and sub-components in a 1, 2, 3 format. These should be simple statements that you can then expand or add details to. And voila! You no longer have a blank page. You have an outline that you can build off of.
Note that some instructors might require you to have an outline. If you’re submitting a science paper, you might have to use a specific format: introduction, hypothesis, methodology, data, analysis, conclusion. Technically, this format is an outline. If you’re in the humanities, your instructor might require you to submit a similar outline as an assignment before preparing a larger research project. However, unless it’s required by your instructor or you’re about to engage in a larger project (which we’ll discuss tomorrow), an outline isn’t strictly necessary. You haven’t failed or done something wrong because you haven’t used an outline. An outline should be used as an aid if you’re stuck – something to get you to the next step – and not something to focus on and worry about. So don’t stress if your outline isn’t neat and tidy, or if you end up moving away from it altogether. You don’t need to stick to your outline like you’ve taken a blood oath. You can revise your outline as you need to or ignore it completely if the ideas are just flowing out of you and looking at your outline will halt that process. Return to it if you get stuck again.
Although most people consider using outlines at the start of a project, it can also be useful at later stages. You should review your initial outline to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial point. As well, you can also make a new outline to confirm that your thoughts and ideas follow a logical process. Sit down with your project and identify the key points in each section or paragraph. Write this down on a separate sheet of paper. This is your new outline. Take a good look at it and see if, without needing any extra details, someone can follow your outline in a logical progression. If you’ve identified your objectives and audience before you started the project, go back to these and make sure your outline addresses all of these points (or sit down and identify your objectives now and make sure you’re tackled them all). You can also ask a friend or study group to look over the outline. (This approach cuts down work for your friends if they only have to look at a page or two instead of the entire project.)
If you discover with your new outline that your ideas are hard to follow, it’s okay to swamp around ideas and move them until they fall into place. This is completely fine and normal. Re-drafting is good because you’re making your work better. It’s not a failure if you need to restructure your work. Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion of using outlines for the re-drafting process, focusing on students who need to create a large piece of work (such as a dissertation). Until then, take care of yourselves.
Earlier this week we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, taking some time to clarify your objectives might be one way to address this issue (concept or mind mapping might be another, which we talk about here). What are you hoping to accomplish with your project? If your instructor gave you prompts (a selection of questions or ideas to chose from) then look carefully at the word choices and phrasing. Whether or not you’ve been provided with prompts, you may want to consider any of the following as either components of your project or the main focus.
For instance, prompts like “identify” or “define” require succinct and concrete answers. Don’t waffle. However, unless you’re in an exam situation or answering short questions in an assignment, it’s unlikely that prompts like “define” will be the main focus question for a larger project. But you may need to consider it as a central objective in the beginning stages of your project. Similarly, prompts like “outline” and “summarise” require you to focus on the main points and not on little details. Like “identify” and “define”, it might be useful to consider it as a central objective at the beginning of your project.
A prompt like “illustrates” requires specific examples. This may require and/or inform further “analysis,” where you take your raw data and form a narrative, looking how the data interconnects and drawing conclusions. Likewise, prompts such as “evaluate” or “assess” also requires analysis of data, but here you are required to take a position and make an informed judgment. Don’t forget to consider strengths and weaknesses of your position. Show awareness that you’ve considered counter-arguments and gaps and offer rebuttals and explanations. If this is a large project, you may need to identify and define your limitations, scope, or perimeters, i.e identify for your audience the specifics variables you are examining (in humanities this might mean a specific text or artist), and acknowledge what your study must leave out (the gaps).
While we’re on the topic, don’t forget to identify your audiences. Your instructor might ask you to address a specific audience; for example, the assignment might be to write a blog piece or design a pamphlet geared at a general audience. But if the audience isn’t defined then you can assume that your assignment will be primarily looked at by your instructor. That said, I recommend taking an approach where your classmates are the primary audience. This will allow you to gauge how much information and background knowledge you need to supply. For example, if you’re taking a class on biology and your project is on a specific organism, you likely won’t have to go back to the basics of defining the taxonomic ranks of kindom, phylum, class, order etc in order to identify and situate your chosen species within these ranks. By centering your peers as the primary audience, you can make some assumptions on what your audience might already know. While this can certainly include a brief review of the concepts discussed in class, it should not be a regurgitation of the entire lesson plan.
While I’ve thrown around a number of terms and prompts, there are a great many out there that I have skipped over. I hesitate from trying to list them all as I’m guaranteed to miss some. As well, I’ve limited my discussion of these terms as I am using them only as examples. There may be more nuances to how to approach the assignment depending on how the prompt or instructions are phrased. So if you’re struggling to get started, dissecting the question or assignment instructions may be a good place to start.
A couple of final notes: as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you’re unsure what’s required, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor – either in class or in office hours. If after you dissect the assignment and/or do some concept or mind mapping and you’re still struggling to get started, make an appointment with your instructor or drop in during office hours. If you can, email them in advance and briefly outline your struggles. This will allow them time to prep and consider the best way to help you.
DON’T put off asking for help until the burden of anxiety builds up to unbearable levels. Trying to fix the problem early will allow you more time to actually work on the fix. As well, the longer you put off asking for help, the harder it is to ask. However, I want to emphasise that it’s NEVER too late to ask for help if your struggling with an assignment or with understanding a concept. Instructors that want to see students succeed will find ways for you to make-up work if they are aware of your anxieties. Your undergraduate or postgraduate coordinator is also a good person to talk to. Hopefully this blog series will help anyone struggling to navigate university. But if anxiety is a major concern, as I talked about here don’t forget to take advantage of resources that may be available to you.
Tomorrow we talk about outlines. Until then, good luck, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Note that your bullet journal will work just fine for this activity. But, if you find yourself needing a larger canvas, hit up a noffice supply store and see if you can find some cheap easel/chart pads of paper. There are also apps and software out there that do the same (and you may already have some if you explore the features of your Office or iWork programmes). But DON’T waste time trying to find the perfect programme instead of sitting down to do your assignment. It’s a perfect procrastination tool and you don’t need the distraction right now. Instead, if you really want a software or app, make a note to yourself to find one when you’ve set aside time specifically for that chore. I use the Scrapple Software myself (from the same creators as Scrivener) as I tend to drag and move my concepts bubbles around, which a digital format facilitates better than handwritten. But I also rely on good old pen and paper (my bullet journal) for my smaller assignments or if I want to think through ideas as they occur to me instead of when I’ve scheduled time to work on a specific project.
You may already be familiar with concept mapping via its sibling mind mapping. To be honest, I use the terms interchangeably myself, but there are differences between the two and if you’re looking for an app to help you with your mapping, knowing the difference might help. Mind map focuses on one idea or concept as it’s central point, with other concepts radiating from it. If you’ve ever fiddled with graphic settings while preparing a presentation, you’re probably familiar with mind maps. While there are a number of types, I feel that, generally, they can be divided into two categories: radial display and linear display.
As you can see in the examples, while the radial model has a the central concept in the middle, with associated ideas organised around it, the linear model is hierarchical, with one point leading to the next. The linear model is probably better if you need to figure out how to structure a paper (i.e which idea to introduce first, and then second, and third). However, my mind refuses to think in a linear way and tends to jump around from idea to idea like a puppy. So I often start with radial models, and then turn them into linear models when I get to an outline stage (which we’ll discuss later).
Concept mapping differs from mind mapping in that you have several concepts instead of one focused concept. Where the bubbles in mind map usually have a 1 to 1 connection (one shape connecting to another shape in a one-directional/hierarchical way), concept mapping have lines and relationships all over the place, connecting together in multiple ways and in multiple directions. As you can see from my example below, this method is less organised than a mind map, but is extremely useful in collecting your thoughts. It’s my first step in beginning to impose some sense of order on the chaos in my mind.
If you’re struggling to get started on a project, concept mapping and mind Mapping are useful ways to set your mind the task of mulling over ideas. Don’t feel that you need to go straight from mapping to drafting your project. If it does inspire and excite you enough to start right away, then great! But it’s also perfectly fine to mull it over and sleep on it in order to come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow. In fact, I recommend starting to think about your project as soon as the instructor releases the assignment details. Do NOT wait until the week of (or the day before!) to consider what your project is going to be on. Your brain needs time to incorporate all the concepts you’re learning and process it, before you can produce an acceptable piece for assessment. So grab your bullet journal and start jotting down ideas as soon as they come to you!
So you’ve gone to all of your lecturers and took notes like a diligent student. Now what? You’re sitting down at your desk to tackle your essay or research project, and you’re not sure where to start.
If you google “writer’s block,” you will probably discover pages of suggestions to address this problem. But, there are a number of scenarios which might have you staring at your screen or notebook in terror and we can’t find the right solution if we can’t diagnose the cause. So first, do a mental health check. If you’re in a depressed state, then you’re unlikely to have the energy or motivation to tackle work. While I talk generally about mental health here, I want to add advice I’ve seen floating around from Tumbler “redheadhatchet”: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I apply this advice almost daily to all sorts of scenarios. Consider my “exercise regime”; if I manage to do just one sit-up a day, that’s better than not doing anything. This is also the advice offered by the “Fabulous” App, which helps people establish healthy habits. Build on that one small habit a day (we’ll stick to exercise and the one sit-up example here, but it can apply to any habit). Start with one sit-up and move up to more. If one day, you don’t have the energy to do the 20 that you’ve worked up to, that’s okay. Do the one. Doing even one sit-up means you haven’t broken your streak of exercising every day. Doing one is enough. It’s better than not doing one at all.
Extending this advice to the university: Turning in a half-written assignment or a poorly-written one is better than not turning in one at all. (And, as my colleague Helga reminded me today, instructors also need to be aware of these hidden struggles that are students are facing; instead of condemning the holes, acknowledg the strength of the material that IS present and offer constructive advice for how to address and expand on the gaps). This is also the advice I would give for addressing anxiety (which might be combined with depression, but we’ll deal with it as separate entities for this discussion). Maybe you’re anxious because you’re scared of failing or because you want your work to be perfect. Unless you’re an prodigy – the university-assignment-writing equivalent of Beethoven – every mark you make on the page is NOT going to be perfect. I’ve heard rumours that Terry Pratchett operated like that; thought and thought and thought until he had the perfect sentence to write on the page. But we can’t all be on the same level as Sir Terry Pratchett. So go ahead and mark up your fresh new notebook with chicken scratch hand-writing. This is part of the process.
If you’ve done an assessment of your mental health and have determined that it’s fine (or manageable), then the next step is to determine what stage you’re stuck at: Is the problem that you don’t have any idea at all, or you have loads of idea and you’re not sure what to focus on? (Check out Concept Map as one of the tools to address this type of problem. Identifying your objectives is another.) Or do you have some semblance of focus, but you’re not sure what order to present them in? Or maybe the problem is you simply don’t know how to start; i.e. what the first sentence should be?
You can probably start to grasp why determining the cause of your blank page syndrome would be the first step in finding a solution. This is true in general about anything you’re procrastinating about or avoiding. Sit down with your bullet journal and dig deep into thinking about root cause. In my day job as a Quality Assurance Manager, we do root cause investigations routinely to determine what resulted in a part having flaws. There are a number of tools you can employ for root cause analysis. One of these is to keep asking yourself “why” (also called the Five Whys).
I’m late to work.
Why? I slept in.
Why? I forgot to set my alarm clock.
Why? I was so tired yesterday evening that it slipped my mind.
Why? My toddler was teething and kept us up late.
There’s not much further we can go with that unless we want to question the “whys” of evolution on the subject of teething pains. So we’ve identified the root cause and for there we can apply solutions to address it specifically, rather than investing it a new techy alarm clock that does a song and dance and shoots lasers at you. The alarm clock wasn’t the problem in this scenario.
Tomorrow we’ll dive deeper into the tools we can use to address the varying causes of blank page syndrome. As you progress through university, you’ll find that the fear of the blank page will have a number of causes, so keep track of a number of tools and techniques and what works best for you in each scenario. So until tomorrow, take care!
**Note that different countries use different terminology. In Canada and US, a grad student is someone pursuing further education after completing their undergraduate studies. In UK, a graduate is someone who has completed their undergraduate studies, full stop. So, in UK, a postgrad is someone who has gone beyond being a graduate. I’m more familiar with UK terminology, but if you’re not clear on the specific jargon I’m using throughout this University 411/811 blog series (which I started here), please comment and ask so I can edit the blog for other readers as well.
32 drafts. I don’t know why I decided to sit down and count my drafts. And by ‘drafts’ I mean some form of submission or completedness – i.e. I sent it to someone else to look at or I said to myself “I’m done for now. I’ll focus on my other chapters and come back to it.” So ‘drafts’ doesn’t even count the number of tweaks and changes I’ve made daily while I worked to achieve that draft. And I’m also not talking full manuscript here. I’m talking about one chapter. THEE chapter. The one that put me on this path.
Chapter 1 of The Shape of Fantasy from start to finish – from the initial kernel of an idea taken from a short undergraduate paper to published chapter in an award-nominated book – was a process that took 12 years and 32 drafts. The chapter plays an integral part of my life. But the profound impact it had on me probably doesn’t come across in the dry academic chapter description:
Chapter 1 – The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: Interrogating the Destiny of the Hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001)
Prophecy or the idea of the ‘Hero of Destiny’ are essential motifs in Heroic Epic Fantasy fiction. This chapter argues that while prophecy may drive characters and events in a narrative, the hero’s free will is not limited. Drawing from a tradition of Stoic philosophy, chapter one explores that, while the shape of the hero’s nature is pre-determined by a metaphysical entity, it remains up to the hero’s free will to determine whether to fulfil the functions of their design. This analysis utilises Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001), the first stand-alone novel of the Chalion universe (2001-present), as a case study. Using the novel as a model of Heroic Epic Fantasy, chapter one demonstrates that in a narrative with prophecy and fate, the hero interacts with these devices through an assertion of free will.
The TL:DR version: in chapter 1 I look at fate and free will in epic fantasy.
I’m trying to determine if it’s coincidental or not that a chapter about fate ultimately determined the path I took in life. At some point in my undergraduate studies I became fascinated with the concept of fate. Being a thoroughly unreligious person, I instead fell into a deep dark hole of tarot cards, astrology, numerology, and all the other pseudoscience paraphernalia. I’m almost too ashamed to admit just how much money I poured into astrology books. (Although I don’t regret my tarot card collection because the art work is awesome and tarot is fun when approached with the right sense and humour, i.e as a tool for introspection).
It wasn’t until 2007, in an undergraduate Classics modules on Greek Literature, that I started exploring the rich histories and nuanced philosophical debates of fate versus free will at an academic level. Taken from a context of Greek theology, my final paper for the class compared King Croseus in Herodotus’ Histories with Phaedra in Euripedes’ Hippolatus and considered whether their falls were fated. Did the Greek Gods plan for these characters to fall? Or was fate outside of the control of the Gods as well? Does even Zeus have to follow its dictates? Or do humankind have some measure of control in their lives?
These were all questions asked but never fully answered in my undergraduate paper. But for the rest of my undergraduate career, I kept coming back to the question of fate and free will. (If you remember in my discussion of how to prepare for seminars and lectures I talked about identifying things that interest you; fate and free will was big for me). Later, in a Roman Literature class I was introduced to the phrase:
ducunt voluntem fata nolentem trahunt
Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. While the English translation adds “the” and “and” to the sentence, these words aren’t strictly required in Latin. As well, in English word order is important. (For example, subject verb object. I like books: subject, verb, object.) But in Latin, instead of word order the spelling ending of each word indicates its function in a sentence. Thus, in Latin the phrase is perfectly balanced:
Leads. Willing. Fate. Unwilling. Drags.
5 words with “fate” in the middle sandwiched between 2 possible choices: “willing” and “unwilling”. That phrase became everything to me. It combined fate and free will together in this beautiful perfect sentence.
This concept sat in my head gestating for years. And finally, three quarters of the way through my MA studies, I had my eureka moment. The eureka moment wasn’t a “I figured out the answers” moment. Instead, the eureka moment was a moment of “I’ve identified a gap and a possible method of addressing it.” If you’re considering postgrad/grad school, focus on that. Find a gap. A gap that you’re passionate about. A gap that makes you ask “WHY HASN’T ANYONE LOOKED AT THIS??”
Now, before you get excited, Stop. First ask yourself if the gap has an obvious answer, or if you’re attempting to answer it with something most people won’t object to. Your thesis shouldn’t set out to argue things like “the world is round.” Yes, I realize that, in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, there will always be someone that refutes obvious statements like that, but most educated people won’t object to that statement so it’s not an argument for a research project. Even if an educated person does object (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. DON’T set out to pick a fight with just one person/publication. That may work for a small section of an article, but NOT for the entirety of your dissertation. Also don’t argue for the value of something: “We should be looking at x.” That can be where your start exploring what research questions to ask. But WHAT should we look about with x? “We should be looking at climate change and taking it seriously.” Yes. Agreed. Not going to argue that. But now what? What exactly are we looking at and how?
Do some preliminary research. First make sure there IS a gap. If you find someone else has addressed the gap, that’s okay too! Remember the second part of my bolded statement? “And a possibly methodology for addressing it?”. Does your proposed methodology give you a different insight into the gap? Something new and different from what’s already out there?
During my MA in Comparative Literature I was fortunate enough to take a module on Popular Literature and Culture. I was doubly fortunate to have an instructor who let us use any popular culture text for a final paper. I decided I wanted to do a paper on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I loved the trilogy of course, but part of my decision was pure spite; we had studied the first novel for an English Literature class in Children’s Literature and the instructor danced around talking about agnosticism/atheism instead of tackling it head on because he did not want to “open up that can of worms” when I broached the topic in class. (15 years later and I still remember his exact response, so yes, that is a direct quote.) So here was my step towards finding a gap, with an instructor that didn’t want to talk about religion/anti-religion in Pullman’s trilogy. Of course, when I sat down to do the research I quickly realized how WRONG I was. This wasn’t a gap at all. There is a ton of material out there on religion and Pullman.
But while reading these articles and chapters I noticed another interesting trend: a struggle to successfully marry fate and free will together. That is, most of these literary critics saw the concepts in opposition to each other, as mutually exclusive terms. Why did no one see the beautiful marriage of fate and free will? Maybe it was because they didn’t know about Seneca and stoic philosophy? I quickly noticed this opposition of fate/free will applied to Fantasy criticism in general (in what little of it that was available in 2011). Given that Epic Fantasy is rooted in Epic Literature, this baffled me. Hasn’t anyone looked at the theology and philosophy of classic and contemporary epic literature and noted the connections between them?
This idea launched my PhD proposal. It set me on a path to Lancaster University, a journey that included moving from Canada to UK, from my parent’s house where I lived my entire life to my own flat in a city and country where I knew no one. I went on to make some amazing friendships as well as meeting the man I would eventually marry.
Despite all that, while the gap I had identified launched my academic career and my personal life, it was NOT the research question I ended up answering or the methodology I ended up using for the entirety of my research project. My PhD dissertation, followed by my monograph, became so much BIGGER than that. My initial research question and methodology is still there for chapter 1. I examined the question of fate and free will using a comparative methodology that took Roman philosophy and applied it to a contemporary fantasy text. When I started my PhD, I have envisaged a dissertation that either: 1. answered the question of fate and free will using a number of different methodologies and perspectives, or 2. used the comparative methodology of comparing Greco-Roman philosophy and literature to contemporary epic fantasy literature in order to identify and see more connections. If you take a look at my chapter descriptions for The Shape of Fantasy, I did neither. My project shifted entirely from what I envisaged in 2011 when I planned my research proposal. And that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re unsure at any stage about your research. I know sometimes it feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You’re learning. If your research has not changed the slightest from proposal stage to submission stage, if your ideas are exactly the same at the end of your PhD as they were at the start, then have you learned anything? That’s the point of all this, right? To learn something new.
32 drafts. From start to finish, it took me 32 drafts to write just 1/10th of my book. So, whether it takes you 10 drafts or 100, don’t stop. Keep going. A new draft means you’re learning.
Today we’re going to start discussing how to tackle the dreaded blank page. Until then, take care!
Continuing the student life blog series which I began here, today we’re going to talk about healthy habits, applicable to all walks of life and not just university students. This is especially true for people who are juggling multiple responsibilities (along with education or training having multiple paid or volunteer jobs as well as families and other relationships) and/or if you’re feeling pressure to succeed (maybe you need to maintain grades for a scholarship or you’re in a competitive programme). I’m not going to tell you to forget about those priorities. But I am going to tell you to take some time to breathe. If you simply can’t afford to sacrifice your time to make and maintain friendships like we talked about in yesterday’s post, still remember to take care of yourself first. Eat right – or at least eat something. Toss some dried food snacks into your backpack as you never know when you’ll be hungry. Don’t skip breakfast and preferably avoid the fast food line. Your brain needs FUEL so don’t try to run on empty. Since I’m usually on the go every morning, I’ve been relying on shakes. You don’t need a fancy 20 speed blender; The cheapest blender on the market will do the job. You can vary up the shakes with different frozen fruits (if you’re on a budget buy in season and freeze a load), add some protein if you can (if you have nut allergies try yogurt if you’re not lactose intolerant), and make it up the night before to save time.
Don’t forget other parts of hygiene. The obvious – shower, clean clothes etc – and the not so obvious such as sleep hygiene and vision hygiene. Sleep hygiene is probably a laugh with most university students. But if you’re not going to sleep at a decent time every night, at least avoid blue light before bed. This will help prevent insomnia. The goal here isn’t just quantity (number of hours slept) but to get quality sleep. Have a good sleep environment: dark room, cool, and quiet or with a sound machine. Don’t work IN bed. Ideally don’t work in your bedroom at all, but dorm rooms seem to ignore that so try to stick to your desk (or find a library or study hall) and avoid the bed itself.
Surprsingly blue light filters only help with sleep hygine, and doesn’t effect vision hygiene at all. Vision hygiene is a concept I learned just this week from my son’s optometrist. She said that studies have shown that environmental factors are a bigger influence for poor vision than genetics and that the more educated you are, the higher the chances of getting glasses. This is because we focus so intently for long periods of time so we strain our eyes. If you already have glasses, there’s also a high chance that your vision will get worse throughout your university career. The good news is that this is an environmental factor that is preventable if we practice good vision hygiene. The doctor suggested the 20-20-20 rule: if you’re focusing intently, every 20 minutes look up and focus on something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. So get up and stretch your legs and look out the window or get a cup of tea. Interestingly this 20 min rule also matches up with an interesting factoid I learned in psychology class 15 years ago: we’re more likely to retain information from our first 10 minutes of studying and our last 10 minutes of studying. While I have no idea if this study has since been debunked, taking a break every 20 minutes can’t be a bad thing. But make sure to keep it a short break. Don’t go bingewatch an episode of your favourite Netflix show every 20 minutes. (…. I, of course, have done this myself more than once. So do what I say and not what I do.)
Making friendships is also a part of healthy mental hygiene, of course, as is physical exercise. But I also recognize that some students are in extremely stressful situations due to any number of external factors and simply don’t have the time for these necessities. If you’re really feeling overwhelmed, Please seek help. Your campus might provide mental health services themselves or even provide a few therapy or counselling sessions as part of your tuition. Check out what’s available. If you don’t know where to find this info, student or information services should point you in the right direction. Your city might also have a toll free help line which provide 1) someone to talk to, as well as 2) further information on services and programmes available in your area. If you’re lucky enough to study in a country with public health care, you can also talk to a doctor about anxiety and depression. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re asking for medication, but instead they should be able to refer you to the right service. (You may need a doctor’s referral to get an appointment in a free/public health programme.) But also don’t rule out medication entirely. Forget any stigma and look at it as an emergency flotation device: something to help you tread water until you can figure out how to swim. That’s the goal at the end of the day: just keep swimming. And remember to breathe.