Friday, January 20, 2012

A History of Science postcard form Berlin.

On a recent visit to the Pergamon Museum here in Berlin, where I am living this spring, I snapped this photo of an astrolabe I saw in the Islamic collections:

I'm sure to have more History of Science tidbits to post about over the course of the next several months: there's a lot of Wissenschaftsgeschichte to see and do here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hazards of the Job, #1094A

From the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 1960:

R.F. Legget and T.D. Northwood of the National Research Council of Canada report that attending conferences is "one of the occupational hazards of scientific and engineering work in North America." Meetings like these tend to be very loud, presenting serious dangers to ears. Often, discussions cannot be fitted into business sessions, which forces delegates to "attend social functions where, in principle at least, more extensive discussions can take place." More chatter, more hurty ears.

Concerned about the volume of these conferences and associated sessions, Legget and Northwood sought to "determine whether the noise might constitute a health hazard for diplomats, bartenders, and other habitual party-goers."

In order to get an accurate measurements of the peak noise levels, the researchers are proposing to hold "a series of carefully planned experimental parties."


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Writing Groups

Image credit: AAAS
Amrys's recent post has inspired me to share my thoughts about the value of being part of a dissertator group (or any writing group, whatever stage you're at).

While the humor of the cartoon on the left is admittedly dark, I think it is so popular among dissertators in part because it actually offers an image of hope. We all fall off the proverbial writing wagon periodically. But have faith! The panic and despair of steps 3 & 4 do eventually give way to productivity.

Still, this image is misleading in one major way. The figure is alone. In my experience, the key factor in moving as quickly as possible through the inevitable steps 2-4 has been being part of a dissertator group.

Writing groups aren't just for the dissertation, of course. Back at Montana State, doing my MA, I was lucky to be part of a small, closeknit cohort. While we didn't meet formally as a writing group, we shared many, many drafts (and draughts--talking shop over beers was critical to honing my major arguments). That group kept me challenged and motivated through the entire MA process. Since beginning my PhD, I haven't had the same constancy––I've been part of several very different kinds of dissertator groups, and have gone through periods being without one. But hopefully telling you about my experience will motivate you to get a group if you don't already have one.

Dissertator groups come in different flavors. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Some involve members from all stages of the writing process. Others include people who are all at about the same point along the way. When I began to write my proposal, I joined a group in our department. For me, the most helpful part of that group was the fact that we were all at different stages. I got to hear what lay down the road for me and learn from more advanced grad students' experiences. Plus, the existence of people who were almost finished (!) proved that it really could be done: dissertations do get written! The downside there, though, was that successful, finished dissertators stop being dissertators––that can make it hard to sustain a group! So, "that" departmental dissertator group was really multiple groups, changing in membership and blinking in and out of existence. The groups I'm in now involve grad students at about the same stage and have been much more consistent in membership and stable over time. Of course, there is a chance that this sort of group can feel like a case of the blind leading the blind. But at their best, they provide a sense of solidarity that is immensely valuable. You are in it together. Others are facing the same questions and challenges that you are.

Some writing groups have members that share particular research interests, while others are more diverse. Right now I am a member of two different groups, one with a couple of history of science/environmental history folks, one with several "regular ol'" historians. (I don't necessarily recommend overbooking yourself like this, though I love both groups!) Although the range of individual topics is quite wide in both groups, it has been an enlightening exercise to pitch my work to such different audiences. In general, with a narrower group, you get somewhat more specific, on-target feedback about the content of your work. In a broader group, you will be constantly forced to answer that "so what" question.

Whatever the makeup of the group, it should probably include 3-5 dedicated people. With too many members, there's a risk that some will feel less committed and attendance can drop off. There are always exceptions, though. My "historians" group is exceptionally large, with 6 consistent members. What is most important is commitment. You must be committed to showing up, to sharing your work regularly, to giving a good reading of others' work, and to offering both support and accountability.

So, how do you start a group? Just ask around. Who in the department is at the same stage as you? Whose work, in or out of the department, do you find interesting? Maybe you have a friend in another department who has a suggestion. I think the Writing Center also has a general dissertation group, though I have no experience with it personally (do you?). I've had luck with simply asking friends or being asked. If any of you know of other avenues, though, please share! Also, check out Joan Bolker's advice.

As you get a group together, lay down some ground-rules. Decide how often will you meet––once a week, once a month? Will everyone share a small piece of writing at each meeting, or will one person sign up at a time? How will you balance being supportive with holding group members accountable for being productive? What you decide is less important than––once again––being seriously committed to the group.

What if you can't get a group started? When I've found myself without a group, I have still made sure to share my writing with various people on a one-on-one basis. (In fact, I still supplement my groups with on-on-one sharing.) As painful as it can be to share things that aren't "done" yet, talking to other people can help get you motivated, spark new ideas, and help remind you why you were excited about your project in the first place. And as much as you might feel reluctant to share, it's better (for your work and for your confidence) to share with a fellow grad student early on than to have your advisors' eyes be the first ones on it. Sharing is not just for when you have a complete first draft of a chapter and are starting to revise, it can also be for when you are stuck on a problem and need a new perspective. And you never know; sharing with one person may eventually lead to starting up a group.

Writing can be a lonely process. Particularly as a dissertator, it can be hard to know if you're on the right track. Holding yourself to a routine and personal deadlines is a constant struggle. With a good writing group, though, you don't have to do it all on your own.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Writing the dissertation from afar.

Because graduate school is only one part of our multifaceted lives, we often find ourselves doing things we didn't expect to do over the course of our Ph.D. training — things that make it desirable for one reason or another to move away from our home institution, postpone our work, or otherwise revise how we think about our work and our degree. Sometimes this is family stuff, sometimes it is personal, sometimes it is just the good and the difficult of life, which keeps going even if we often feel like we're in a grad-school bubble. And then we have decisions to make: where to be, how to keep moving forward, how to stay motivated when life is full of so many other things.

As someone who has done most of her post-prelims work away from Madison, I thought it might be good to say a few things about the rewards, challenges, and pitfalls of writing the dissertation from afar. I've done this for joyful reasons — falling in love, getting married, wanting to live in the same city, that kind of thing — but it's definitely an ongoing challenge, one I think about every day (while also missing Madison). The nice thing is that the self-directed nature of the dissertation makes these choices possible; the difficult thing is that it is really, really hard to keep on task when you are far away from your intellectual home. Fortunately, there are a lot of things that have made this a workable proposition for me.

The first is the amazing UW Libraries. They have an amazing program called Distance Services, which allows patrons who live outside of Dane County to request books online and receive the loans in the mail. They even include a prepaid return envelope, so when you're done, you simply slip the book back in and pop it in the mailbox. I've praised this service before on my own blog, but it is so fantastic that I can't say enough about it. Combined with electronic article delivery (another excellent UW Libraries service), Distance Services makes it possible for me to take advantage of the UW's world-class collections even though I don't live in Wisconsin. It has been both a lifeline and a life-saver for me as I have been writing.

The second reason I have been able to mostly stay on track with my work while being away from Madison is the support I have received from professors, committee members, and fellow students at the UW. Whether this has been regular telephone meetings to touch base, a Skype-based dissertator group to keep me writing my own stuff and reading others', or just a "hey there!" email that reminds me that I'm not alone — these contacts have kept my spirits up or restored them when I've been feeling discouraged. I feel so lucky to be surrounded (if not physically) by so many great and supportive friends, colleagues, and faculty.

Another group of people I have relied upon deserves special mention: the support staff who have kept me on track with all the administrative stuff that's so easy to forget when you're not on campus — things like registering for HistSci 990 (the "I'm writing my dissertation now" class) and making sure I have all my information up-to-date. These folks — including our own Department Administrator, Eileen Ward, and the Fellowship Coordinators like Mary Butler Ravneburg at Bascom Hall — have been super accessible by phone and email, have been willing to make phone calls on my behalf and do legwork for me when something has gone awry or when I have had questions, and have even telephoned me when I'm about to miss a deadline. Their work is so often invisible and unsung, but it's what keeps this place running, and they have my gratitude.

Now the hard parts. Being away from one's intellectual home while one is engaged in the most challenging part of the phone Ph.D. process — actually writing that gosh-darned dissertation — is really, really, really difficult. Way harder than you think it will be. It's lonely (even lonelier than it usually is), and the matter of remaining motivated, on-task, and upbeat when no one is there keeping an eye on you, and when you don't really have a firm schedule, and when you don't have talks to go to or meetings to attend or the general campus stuff to structure your days, can be very tough indeed. (Basically, it has all the problems of writing the dissertation without being away — the problems are just compounded and intensified.)

Having been away from the UW on and off for a few years now, depending on my funding, I have come up with some strategies for writing your dissertation from afar. I'm hoping this will open up a wider forum for these issues, as I know I'm not the only person to have done this, and I'm sure there are many of us out here who would like to be able to swap stories and share ideas for how to keep on task.
  1. Write every day. This is the cardinal rule for the dissertation, whether you're away from your home institution or not, and it's in some ways the hardest one to follow. I know I've had a terrible time getting into a really solid writing routine, though part of that has had to do with my constant moving over the past year, which makes the writing really hard (see below). But writing every day, during the time when your brain is most active and alert, even if you only have one idea or write only one paragraph, is really the key to keeping the momentum going, the gears turning, and the pages coming.
  2. Develop a routine. This is one thing that's been difficult for me, as I've been moving around a lot this year, and moving takes a lot of time and energy. Every time I get into the swing of a routine, it has suddenly been time to change my location, forcing me to carve out a new groove for myself. Having five months in the same place, as I do right now, feels like a luxury, and I am ready to take advantage of it.
  3. Find a place to write. Again, this has been a challenge for me, as I do not work well at home (too many distractions), but I have been fortunate in securing an office during my brief stint at Cornell this summer, and this spring at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Even if your place is just the coffeeshop around the corner, the library, or even a set-aside corner of your apartment that you don't use for other activities, having a spot that is dedicated to writing really helps.
  4. Take breaks. While it's important to keep your focus on your output, "writing" is actually a whole cluster of activities — including thinking, sleeping, notetaking, daydreaming, talking, story-crafting, and reading — that ultimately result in coherent words on the page. I've found that going for walks is really helpful to my thinking. Sometimes it's best for me to go on them alone, other times I like to have a walking-and-talking companion, but I almost always return from any kind of walk feeling very glad that I took it.
  5. Nurture your support system. Having people to discuss writing and ideas with (not to mention to kvetch, complain, and commiserate with) is really, really important. Assembling a writing group that meets regularly is also a great way to impose deadlines on yourself and on one another in ways that no one else will do for you when you're at this stage. With VoIP and videoconferencing technology like Skype and Google Voice, you can even carry on a dissertator group with members all over the world, as long as you have a decent internet connection. This also helps you not become a huge annoyance to anyone you happen to be living with, or who is otherwise forced to come into contact with you regularly while you are going through the throes of writing. These people are just as important as your intellectual cohort, and you should be nice to them, for they will sometimes make you dinner or bring you a cup of tea or offer a welcome break from writing when you really need it.
  6. Focus on the dissertation, not what comes after. If you're on the job market, like me, applications and cover letters and research statements and all that can be a huge drain on time that really could be spent writing. I have tried to streamline this process by getting a good set of documents together for different purposes and different kinds of jobs (using a dossier service like Interfolio has been a big help) so that when a deadline approaches, I don't have to do too much scurrying around to get all my materials together and sent. What I keep reminding myself: no one will hire you if the dissertation isn't done, so writing is more important than applying.
I have colleagues who also swear by things like programs that temporarily disable your internet connection — and it's definitely important to have a software setup that supports rather than hinders your writing (a topic for another post!) — but these are the elements that have proven essential for me. I'd love to hear more about how others who are writing (whether in Madison or elsewhere) are negotiating the challenges of this stage. (Also see Megan's earlier post on writing the dissertation.)

For now, though, it's time for me to take a walk.