The University 411: A Crash Course in Research Part 2: Evaluating Your Sources

Yesterday we talked about how to find research sources. Today we’re going to discuss evaluating the strength and value of the research you’ve found.

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.

A snippet from The Shape of Fantasy of my own interpretation of Hawking’s Future Light Cone

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. 🤷🏽‍♀️

The University 811: Using Outlines for Proposals and Redraftin

As I talked about in yesterday’s post, if you’re about to engage in a large project (such as a dissertation), outlines can be incredibly useful. You might already have an outline, although you might not consider it as one. If you’ve started thinking about your work in sections or chapters, you’ve technically started drafting an outline. The longer or bigger the project, the more outline drafts you will have, before you even start the project itself. I’m about to start my next big research project (a book) and I am currently on my 10th draft of the outline. As your outline might need to be reviewed and approved by another person before you even start (maybe your supervisor or the college/department that you’re applying to), you will have to revise your outline according to their feedback. That doesn’t mean you can’t move away from your outline later. Instead, your outline shows that you have some grasp of what you intend to do and can start your project immediately. You won’t be wasting crucial time trying to figure out first steps. In my case, my outline needs to be approved by the editors/publishers who are looking at my book proposal as well as the funding body for the fellowship I’m applying for. If you’re asking people to invest time and/or money into you, then you need to demonstrate that you can follow their guidance in order to create a strong product.

Draft 10 of the outline of my next book presented in outline view from Scrivener

But outlines aren’t only useful at the start of a project. If you’re engaged in a larger project, it can also be incredibly useful while revising your work. If you’ve ever received feedback that “your ideas are good, but your presentation needs re-structuring,” that means you need an outline; the person reviewing your work couldn’t follow the logical order of your thoughts. In this case, sit down with a new sheet of paper or a new document and go through your existing project. Identify the major point of each section without including any details. Just the key ideas, written up in short, simple sentences or phrases. If you have sections, then this can be just the key idea of each section, or maybe 3-4 ideas in each section. (I’m just throwing around numbers here; it depends entirely on the size of your project.)

In any case, the key ideas that you’ve extracted is your new outline. Looking at your new outline, make sure that every point leads the next logical point. Are there areas where you jump from one point to a completely different point without any connection? Are there ideas that you should move up front, in order to understand the rest of your project better? Honestly, I think almost every single editor, reviewer, or supervisor that has looked at my work had told me at some point “this needs to be moved up higher, Chuckie!” as I seem to write back to front. So it’s perfectly okay if your work needs a major overhaul. Keep in mind that, while it’s impossible to move EVERY single idea up to the front, you should gesture or foreshadow them; make a statement like “defined below,” or “see section x” or “we will come back to this in our discussion of x”. As well, your introduction or abstract (and every project regardless of the field should have one) should have a mini-outline, where you identify what you will be doing. Finally, make sure you’ve addressed all your objectives for each section and that this comes across in your new outline. If it’s not obvious from your outline of key pints and is instead buried in the details, then you might need to put more work into addressing your objectives.

If you’re getting close to submitting your dissertation – or are post-submission and are now preparing for publication, you might want to consider an outline taken at a paragraph level. Each paragraph should start with a sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. Ideally, if you look at just your first sentence of each paragraph, you should be able to identify if your thoughts are following a logical order. (See my example below.) Again, Scrivener is fantastic for this. You can split up the document paragraph by paragraph easily using the highlighted selection (the first sentence) with each split.

Screenshot of Scrivener

You can then go to outline view and drag and drop the paragraphs around if they seem out of place. A simple compile function will reintegrate all the paragraphs back into one document. (You should then go through and make sure that if you moved paragraphs, you’ve smoothed any awkward transitions.) Here in the example below, I’ve taken apart the introduction of my draft for chapter 5. Right away, I could see that a point is missing, that I’ve made a jump or buried a point that should be presented as its own paragraph/topic. I’ll go back and re-examine those paragraphs to see if I should split a large paragraph into two or if I need another new paragraph entirely. The objective of this exercise is by taking the first sentence of each paragraph, I’ve formed a mini-paragraph, one that’s comprehensible even without extraneous detail.

Outline of Draft Chapter 5 (i.e. just the first sentence of each paragraph)

Of course, there are other ways to ensure that your project follows a logical format. You don’t have to go to the sentence/paragraph-level that I have done. And if you have any tips or advice for how to (re)-structure your work, please do share! I’d love to hear more ideas for how you restructure and revise later stages of work.

The University 411: On the Use and Abuse of Outlines

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.

A handwritten outline of one of my job applications. Outlines are useful everywhere.

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.

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page by Identifying Your Objective

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.

The University 411: Tackling The Blank Page with Concept Mapping

Yesterday 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, concept mapping (and its various iterations) might be a way to tackle the problem (identifying your objective is another). Go through all of your notes with a separate sheet of paper, and write down your main ideas, observations, and supporting points. You’re not re-writing notes here (as I recommended in an earlier post regarding note-taking); instead you’re reorganising your notes in a visual manner to establish connections and relationships.

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.

Radial Model
Linear Model

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.

Chuckie’s Concept Map for a Chapter on Performance/Performativity in Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

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!

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page

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).

Example:

  • 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.

The “Root Cause” of my Sleep Issues

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!

So You’re Considering (Post)Grad School?: A look back at a research proposal, and 12 years and 32 drafts later

**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 blog series, 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.

The Curse of Chalion     225

"No, don't waste the wine!" Cazaril protested, as Umegat reached for the jug. "I've seen it demonstrated before."
Umegat grinned, and desisted. "But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from  his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods many not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act. They can see in through the minds of animals, sometimes, with effort. Plants ... require much foresight. Or"--Umegat turned his cup upright again, and lifted the jug--"sometimes, a man may open himself to them, and let them pour through him into the world." He filled his cup. "A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He--or she--freely gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible."
Excerpt from Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion p. 225
(the sermon of the cup scene)

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

Seneca

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.

The University 811: Invest Time and Money in a Scrivener Programme (or Equivalent)

As promised in yesterday’s post regarding reading practices, today we’ll be talking about organizing your research through a programme like Scrivener. I’m calling this section University 811 to differentiate from University 411. My 411 blogs are applicable to all levels of students, whereas 811 (in Canada, a phone number for health services) will be targeted more towards researchers (masters, PhDs, postdocs, and beyond). If you’ve every done or about to engage in a literature review or have files and files of documents stored all so you can write one sentence in your article or chapter, this post is for you.

Note that I’m not a paid advertiser for Scrivener and there are tons of other similar apps or software out there (Dabble, Living Writer, Ulysses, to name a few). But I think these alternatives are geared more towards creative writing (novels, screenplays, etc) than non-fiction research. (And if you’ve used any of these platforms for creative writing, please drop me a line; I’m not completely sold yet on Scrivener for my fiction writing.) If you google “Scrivner alternatives” you will find plenty of other bloggers who discuss the pros and cons of these programmes. But as I’m familiar with Scrivener, that’s what we’ll be talking about today. It has a 30 day free trial based on usage. That means if you use it on 30 separate days spread out over years, you’re still covered by the free trial. At the moment it costs $67 CAD (or $57 if you have verified university affiliation as student or staff). They just released another update for Windows in 2021 – BUT, if you purchased version 1 after November 2017, then updating to the new version is completely FREE. If you purchased it before 2017, then you still get a 49% discount on the upgrade. (Mac upgrades are separate and I know absolutely nothing about it. Sorry!) While the price point might make you hesitate, I think they take good care of their new and existing customers. You can investigate cheaper options like Dabble but the cheaper price point means less features and I’m not entirely sure what gets cut. Admittingly, the other con with Scrivener is that it has a steep learning curve to figure out all of their features. But I highly recommend checking out their tutorial during one of your free trial days. And you can always go back to the tutorial as you need it.

Scrivener is another system that I wished I discovered during my PhD. It would’ve made things SO much easier. If you’re already well into your research, you can import your existing research files fairly easily, but I recommend you do small chunks at a time rather than crashing the system with 5000 documents. There are two main folder systems in Scrivener: drafts for writing and research for your notes. The research section lets you upload all different types of files such as powerpoints, pdfs, jpgs, etc but can also includes movie and audio files. So you should be able to organize ALL of your research in the same place and access it quickly.

View of Binder with fies in draft and research portions
View of Binder with files in draft and research portions

For each of my research files, I write a summary of each critical text in the “synopsis” or index card feature of my notes. I break down my notes for a book by chapters rather than having one document for the whole book. This way I can review the summary without having to flip through the book itself and the contents of my entire bookcase. You can colour code the cards with labels (I haven’t yet as I’m not entirely sure how to best use this feature but I’ve added both “label” and “status” in the example below so you can see how that works). As well, you can customize the presentation of the card itself. Actually, you can customize the look of the entire software at an insane level, so be careful not to get lost with fiddling with settings as a way to procrastinate from work. Once you twiddle with these options, you can view the cards in a handy corkboard view at multiple levels (folder or various subfolders) and you also have the option to drag and drop cards (when set to free style mode):

Corkboard View of My Notes from Cecire’s Re-Enchanted (2019)

While these features are helpful, the reason I personally love Scrivener is the tagging feature. I’ve tagged all of my notes with primary and secondary authors. This means I tag, not only the author of the text I’m reading, but also any fiction or non-fiction author that they cite.

A Selection of My Keywords
A Selection of My Keywords

This way if I want to search my research for all the critics that reference, let’s say, Ursula Le Guin, I just hit the keyword search button to find them. It’s also worth nothing that the search feature is fairly extensive and not limited to just a keyword search:

Screenshot of Search Window
Screenshot of Search Window

More importantly, I also tag my research notes with references to my planned article or chapter. Let’s say I’m sitting down to write my first draft for chapter 5. I do a search for that tag and it pulls up all the notes that I’ve made for the chapter. I can then save this search as a smart “collection” which updates automatically. This is the part of Scrivener which has become so essential for my research process: keyword tags means I don’t have to comb through all my files and pages of notes to see where I’ve made comments indicating I should include a specific piece of research in chapter 5.

I also use a combination of comments (much like comments in Microsoft Word), highlights, annotations, internal and external bookmarks, and project notes. We’ll be discussing these features more when I talk about first drafts (check back this time next week). But it’s a powerhouse tool and I highly recommend it for anyone who has gathered a lot of research and need a way to organize and access it efficiently.

The University 411: Seminar Prep and Reading Journals for ALL Readers, Writers, Students

Hello all! Today we’re going to talk about reading journals. It’s a great tool for your seminar or lecture prep, but also useful for any reader (i.e outside of school). I can’t express how much I regret not keeping one until much later in life as I’ve been an avid reader since I figured out my ABCs. Have you ever thought back on a book that you really enjoyed, but can’t remember anything about it? You want to read it again, but only vaguely recall the scene or premise and can’t remember the title, author, or even character names to help you with a google search. Now imagine you had a reading journal where you wrote down this basic info!

For myself, I only started a reading journal last year after I became a mum. I wanted to read the newly released book 4 of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Usually, I’d re-read the entire series in preparation for a new book release. But throw in work, parenting, and the fact that I’m a fantasy researcher (i.e should be reading new books instead of re-reading my favourite mammoth series), I simply don’t have time to re-read 1000 page works every time a new book is released. So I am repeatedly kicking myself that I hadn’t kept a reading journal until now, especially as one of our university assignments in year 3 was to keep a reading journal; but the professor never explained the purpose of a journal, and so I saw it purely as a necessarily evil to get good grades and never considered it as a useful tool in itself. There are a number of reasons why a reading journal can be useful, in any field or discipline (in school), or if you’re a casual or avid reader (outside of school). I’ll try to cover the main advantages, but if you use your reading journal differently, please drop me a line in the comments!

First, a reading journal is a good way to log a list of your reading. Yes, Goodreads or equivalent can do this for you to. But you might also want to consider adding articles or other research to your reading log along with a 1-2 sentence summary. There’s been a number of times when I’ve re-read an article because I couldn’t remember if I had read it before or not. At the very least, consider keeping a log in your Bullet Journal (which we talked about last time). Include basic information in this log – Author, Title, and Initial Date of Publication (and a short summary if you’re not planning on keeping a full journal). For your reading journal, you may also want to consider recording the publisher and year of the edition published. Note that your paperback edition might be published at a later date than the original publication. If you’re citing the text in a paper, you will need to reference both dates. As well, making note of the edition might be important if you’re reviewing your reading journal years later. I say this because while I was editing my Shape of Fantasy manuscript, I realized that I had taken quotes from 3 different editions of Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt – a US print, a UK print, and a Canadian ebook. The manuscript from start to finish took 8 years and I had moved back and forth between Canada and UK during this time. (It’s also worth noting that my ebook license purchased in Canada was invalid in UK, so if you’re planning to move out of country and think you’ve been clever with purchasing ebooks so you don’t have to worry about moving physical books, BE CAREFUL. Once you enter credit card info for your new country into your ebook reader, books purchased in your home country might become inaccessible.) With all that moving around, and with 3 different copies of the text to work from, I had a heck of a time confirming the edition of each and every page reference (i.e was this page in reference to my US print or UK print or neither?). As well, I soon found out that there were very small changes between the US and UK print; something as simple as “Rand said” was changed to “said Rand.” (WHY??? I have no idea why the editions differed). So take my experiences as a warning and log the edition information; thank yourself later.

Once you’ve logged the basics, next you want to focus on summarizing the piece. If it’s a length novel or a densely packed article, your summary can be pretty substantial. But I figure re-reading a 10 page summary is much quicker than re-reading a 1000 page book. For novels, I include character names and major plot points. Since I usually read fantasy, I also note down important world-building information. This is especially true for incomplete series, as I’m not entirely sure whether the piece of information will become useful. (For example, with works like George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, you might want to include information that you think foreshadows events or provides clues to unanswered plot questions.) While I keep a reading journal for my fiction reads, for non-fiction, I’ve switched to Scrivener, as it has a handy index card feature. (If you’re at a stage in your education or career where you need to make and keep lots of detailed notes for research, I highly recommend Scrivener and talk about it here.)

Except from my Reading Journal for Sanderson’s Steelheart

Next, you want to identify essential information. This bit is tricky, because what’s essential is highly subjective. If you’re using a reading journal as prep before class, then first I want you to take out your syllabus. Seriously. And a highlighter (either a physical one or use the highlighter on your ebook/pdf copy). Now go through your syllabus and highlight important concepts. Does your instructor provide objectives or key themes? HIGHLIGHT THAT. If you can’t find the information, take a look at the course description on your department’s website, or the table of contents in your required reading list, or the titles/labels of each lecture or seminar. What concepts jump out at you? Write them down in a handy list. (This is would be a good list to put in your bullet journal.) It’s also okay to take a quick look at google or wikipedia to skim through the key points of a topic or text. You’re NOT using wikipedia as research here (so don’t cite it in a paper); instead you’re using it as preliminary research to investigate the key themes and concepts of a work before you start reading. This will let you read the work as a more informed reader, with you eyes open for things you should be looking out for.

The next part is trickier to identify, especially if you’re a new student. What essential information is important FOR YOU? Why are you taking this course? What attracted you to signing up for the class? Take some time to reflect on this (yet another BUJO page. We seem to be wracking them up). These ideas are things that you might end up developing for an essay or project. For example, I remember one semester where I wrote all five final exams around the theme of gender. I had taken completely different courses (Children’s lit, Shakespeare, Roman mythology, etc), but feminist ideas was what appealed to me at the time and so it’s what I took note of. You want to take note of things that interest you while you read the work. Maybe quotes leap out at you or a particular phrase or definition. If you’re an aspiring writer, you might want to note technique or things that give you inspiration for your own work. Other things you want to take note of in your reading journal are things that confused you; make note if it so that you can bring it up in class or study group to discuss or to investigate further on your own. If you’re keeping the journal as prep work for class, think about things that YOU want to talk about in class; things that interest and excite you, or questions that you have. If you’re keeping the journal for pleasure, then the same still goes. A reading journal is exactly like any journal, only one focused on your reading content.

Since we’re talking about prep for class, I want to end on a note of caution. You do NOT have to read EVERYTHING on the recommended reading list. And, even if you instructor states that it’s required and not just recommended, I would still approach a heavy reading load with caution. Some instructors are just assholes. So if you’re meant to be reading 6 novels a week for just one of your modules, FAKE it. Focus on just one of the texts so that you can contribute to some part of the conversation, and do a quick internet investigation of the other 5 so that you know basic points and can identify points of comparison with the text you’re focusing on. While 6 books a week might be an exaggeration (the most I’ve had as a student was 3 novels a week for one of my senior-level undergraduate seminars), the point is that you shouldn’t be killing yourself to reach some unattainable model of perfection set by an instructor who thinks your university experience should break you. DO make note on it with student feedback/course evaluations. Even if you’re tenured professor doesn’t care to look at them (as The Chair so brilliantly depicted), the department should. That being said, I can’t guarantee that trying to keep a healthy work/life balance won’t come back to bite you. Usually (in the humanities) if your final exam is formatted as a series of essay questions, these will be presented as broad questions which lets you select any of the texts/topics/figures covered in class (provided that you didn’t utilize the text/topic repeatedly for each essay question). Alternatively, if the topic is pre-selected by the question, these are still usually written in a way that gives you a lot of choice. (For example, you might have a choice of 20 questions, with 1 or 2 works identified in each.) But I remember one experience where the professor told us the that the final exam will be essay questions with a comparison of 4 books for each essay, and then presented each question with the 4 works pre-selected. This meant that, rather than focusing on texts that we connected to, we needed to have detailed knowledge of each and every one. Unfortunately, sitting down to write my final was the wrong time to figure this out. While I had read every book, I hadn’t bothered to study all of them. A brief perusal through a reading journal (if I had had one) might have at least helped me avoid a failing grade. If you can, get some information about the lecturer from other students early in the semester (remember to step outside your bubble); that should hopefully give you some idea of what to expect for assessment and you can revise your approach accordingly. If you know in advance whether your finals will be testing for detailed knowledge of ALL the material instead of focused knowledge on your areas of interest, then you can figure out in advance the size of your work load and how best to tackle it (we’ll talk more about this on Friday). *Fingers Crossed* that you have instructors who genuinely want to see you succeed rather than setting you up to fail. And good luck!

The Problem of Placing the “Original” Draft onto a Pedestal

Every once in awhile I see a tweet or post pop up on my dashboard about how J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was rejected by nearly every major publisher. The message of the post always seems aimed at the foolishness of the industry, and how they missed out on publishing a successful author. To a struggling author, this message might give them hope, a “don’t stop trying” attitude. But, as an editor and author (albeit in the academic world), I can’t help but wonder whether her published work (or proposal letter) bears any relation to her original submission. In a society that values hard work, we also seem keen to hide the number of edits and revisions any art must go through before it reaches publication potential – or before it can even be deemed to be worthy of consideration.

In recent days, I’ve seen discussion of the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker‘s so-called “original script” floating around on the internet. If this gives people some sense of reassurance that the studio hasn’t killed their childhood, then so be it. (I’ve already discussed in my last 3 posts why I think the movie was awesome, so I won’t get into it here.) But the point I want to draw attention to is the idea that the “original” script is authentic. For people who are extremely unhappy with the final product, they can hold on to this notion of the original script because it’s supposedly what the writers or director “really” wanted. This idea seems to leave out all the hard work of editing, and that, in fact, the final product is what the artist had aimed for all along. True, the artist might not be happy with the result themselves, but the first draft is like a hunk of unrefined clay, waiting to be moulded into something better.

The editing process is long and arduous, and anyone that dismisses it as an afterthought seems to lack a basic understanding of how publication and production works. This last December, 8 years after I formed the initial concept, I finally published my article on the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle that I had sitting in my draft folder. In that time I obtained an MA, a PhD, got married, and had a kid. Nearly every year I sat down to re-draft the article all over again, completely revising the focus and perimeters of the paper. I can’t count the number of different forms its gone through – or the number of times it’s been peer reviewed. (In complete honesty, I used one of the earlier drafts to interview potential editors for Fantastika Journal. So if you’ve interviewed with me for the journal, yup, that was my rough work.)

The major problem with this draft (in my opinion anyway) was that there was two disjointed halves, a part A and a part B. This two part structure developed as a result of trying to expand a conference piece into a publishable item. While very few people picked up on the two disparate structure, many of the reviewers pinpointed that the article didn’t follow the argument I had proposed in my introduction.

I use this example, because it’s one that I see over and over again as a journal editor: conference papers that have been redrafted for article submission rarely fit the argument outlined in the introduction (or indeed, in the conference abstract), as, through the course of writing and research, the central argument will shift from the initial proposal. And really, if your article doesn’t change in the slightest after you’ve done all of your reading and research, then I’d question your research process. If you didn’t learn and adjust your ideas in the course of research, then I’m not sure what you might’ve gained from your reading.

To return to Rowling, based on the original synopsis, as an editor I would’ve rejected the work too! I’m not sure if the synopsis was a part of her elevator pitch (the “would you be interested in this sort of work” email), or part of a book proposal which was invited by a publisher who accepted the elevator pitch. But in any case, the first two paragraphs of the synopsis reads:

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin because his parents died in a car-crash — or so he has been told. The Dursleys don’t like Harry asking questions; in fact, they don’t seem to like anything about him, especially the very odd things that keep happening around him (which Harry himself can’t explain).

The Dursleys’ greatest fear is that Harry will discover the truth about himself, so when letters start arriving for him near his eleventh birthday, he isn’t allowed to read them. However, the Dursleys aren’t dealing with an ordinary postman, and at midnight on Harry’s birthday the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid breaks down the door to make sure Harry gets to read his post at last. Ignoring the horrified Dursleys, Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard, and the letter he gives Harry explains that he is expected at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in a month’s time.

It takes two paragraphs to get to the fact that Harry is a wizard; an idea that is absolutely crucial to the plot of the first novel and the series itself. Yes, while Harry being a wizard isn’t revealed to Harry in the first part of the book, the audience knows it from the start, and once Harry discovers his identity, the rest of the plot doesn’t focus too much on this identity crisis. But, from the way this synopsis reads, it would appear that the book focuses on this hidden identity. His identity as wizard is discussed in a mysterious way (“odd things”; “truth about himself”). The reveal itself is delivered in a bland, boring way, “Hagrid informs Harry that he is a wizard.” And, to be honest, the whole language reads, kinda… dull. You can read the full synopsis here and judge for yourself. In fairness to Rowling, the synopsis is much longer than the brief introduction I’ve presented here, and she does go into the actual plot in more detail as she continues. BUT, publishers receives thousands of book proposals. You NEED to be able to sell them on the idea in the first few sentences. If you can’t entice the publisher to read past the first statement, then it’s a clear demonstration that you’re abilities as a writer aren’t at publishing quality. And, ask yourself honestly, if you had picked up this synopsis (on the back of a book at a bookstore etc), would you be enticed to read the whole story?

So go thank your editor today. Or, if you’re a reader and not a writer, give a big shout-out to the editors of your favourite books. They put a lot of hard work in helping the author finesse their writing and ideas into the amazing product you hold as gospel today.