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Part II: Dissertation Committees: Advice for Faculty

by | Posted February 12th, 2013

In part I of this two-part post, I explained the way our graduate program in R&W approaches the dissertation as a learning experience first and foremost, and as the beginning of a students’ research career (rather than the end of their graduate education). I also suggested that this meant that faculty should have a pedagogy for dissertation writing.

Approaching the dissertation experience this way puts some demands on faculty – and particularly on chairs of advisory committees – that I have rarely seen spelled out in explicit terms. I’ll offer a few below. They might be seen as a companion to Karl Stolley’s excellent advice to graduate students on the dissertation, pitched instead for my faculty colleagues. They might also be seen as contributions, a la Harris, that our field has to the evolution of graduate education in the Humanities, particularly, around the dissertation process.

For Faculty: Three Ways to Be a Good Dissertation Committee Member

1. Students will be making mistakes; help them learn from them

The Dissertation affords an opportunity to help students learn to become independent researchers and to lead research projects that involve others. As such, the committee’s orientation toward the project should be similar to any writing instructor’s orientation toward students’ composing process: help shape an interesting project, build in moments for formative feedback, intervene at moments where advice can make implicit strategies explicit, prevent catastrophy but know that dealing with failure is part of the learning process (and a big part of research).

2. Treat Early Drafts as Opportunities to See, Understand, & Advise Decision-Making

Dissertations have genre characteristics owing to the rhetorical situation – writing for the approval of a committee, for instance – and their size/scope that students will be confronting for the first time. The traditional way of helping students understand these genre features is to ask them to examine models. Sound familiar? The problem with this approach is that what become formal features in a finished text are not simply the result of following textual conventions. They are the result of making decisions about claims and evidence, about framing, about theoretical and methodological precedent. They are decisions that every dissertation writer faces in some form. But, by design, the precise circumstances each writer faces are distinct, reflecting a particular problem, a particular set of data or resources, and a particular time/place in which the inquiry unfolds. Committees need to help students make good decisions, not simply produce a recognizable dissertation. This may mean that you, the committee member, will see some ugly texts along the way. Drafts that don’t bear a resemblance to the finished, polished masterpiece we all hope results. Take these as opportunities to learn about and, if needed, intervene in the decision-making processes that accompany dissertation writing.

3. Ask the Hard Questions Now that You Expect Students Will Face Later

Dissertation committees act as a proxy for the broader field they represent. When you read and comment as a committee member, you should do so as a stand in for your colleagues whose work the dissertation interacts with, challenges, supports, etc. You help make the writers’ audience a little less distant, and a lot more available for consultation while the arguments and evidence are being assembled. You are upholding a standard, but it is not some abstract measure of quality. It is a living, evolving body of knowledge manifest in the published work of your discipline. When you offer comments to a dissertation writer, you speak for that discipline back to a future colleague who seeks to contribute knowledge but who is also still very much learning what the field, collectively, knows.

These three pieces of advice are just a start. And they echo familiar writing instruction themes: writing is a process, genres represent social activities and not merely textual forms, and knowing one’s audience is critical to making effective rhetorical decisions. But they are no less valuable as applied to advisory committee chairs or members. I would love to hear others’ thoughts and additions to this list.

From Brain Pickings: The Best in Graphic Novels

by | Posted February 12th, 2013

Storytelling takes many different forms. One particularly interesting type is graphic novels, books that combine words with pictures to convey meaning.

Black and white sketch of old man

Image via brainpickers.org

A group of 130 graphic artists teamed up to tackle some of the great works of literature—Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Wuthering Heights, to name a few—to create what 190 different classic tales would look like if illustrated as a graphic novel. Russ Kick, editor and writer, has combined these illustrations into a Graphic Canon Trilogy. You can see more of his incredible images here. Which books would you like to see depicted?

From Open Culture: Advice in Free Creative Writing “Master Class”

by | Posted February 11th, 2013

Writing, like many things, can be very difficult at times. Everyone has those moments where we seek for inspiration, guidance, something to help us move forward with our words. The Academy of Achievement (a non-profit based out of Washington, D.C.) has stepped up and created an insanely cool resource, “Creative Writing: A Master Class.”

Image of Norman Mailer

Image via rottontomatoes.com

Here, you can find a series of talks from poets and writers alike, archived through iTunes. Discussions by Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and Norman Mailer are just a few of the speakers featured through this free program. Talks vary from Pulitzer Prize winners, to poet laureates, to perhaps your favorite author. Read more about this new type of class here.

From Co.Design: How to Turn Average Events of Every Day Life into Amusing Charts and Graphs

by | Posted February 9th, 2013

Source: indexed.com

Co.Design recently interviewed Jessica Hagy about how she started her blog, Indexed. If you haven’t heard about it, Indexed is a website dedicated to the creation of charts and graphs about every day life occurrences drawn entirely on index cards.

When asked about how she came up with the idea, Hagy explained, “I’m really interested in the nuance of language and the gray areas between opposing views, and sometimes I can distill complicated issues with a graph (for purposes of clarity, or for ambiguity–depends on my mood), as opposed to a long and extensively footnoted argument […] And graphs are good for droll jokes. Since I know the punchlines, I can craft the jokes to happen along an axis.”

Source: indexed.com

Starting in 2006, Hagy came up with the idea while working as a copywriter for Victoria’s Secret and earning her MBA. Since then, her work has been featured in just about every major book on information visualization, along with publishing three books filled with her creations.

From Open Culture: Neil Gaiman Delivers Advice to Aspiring Artists

by | Posted February 8th, 2013

At the most recent Connecticut Youth Forum, Neil Gaiman was part of a panel of artists that allowed students the chance to ask questions regarding just about anything in their field of work and expertise.

When asked the question, “I want to be a director, and I’ve been told that there are enough artists in the world, and that’s not something I should pursue. Do you [agree with that]?” by a young woman, he gave her some wise advice that every aspiring writer, director, actor, etc, should listen and take heed to if they’ve ever been discouraged to follow the path they wish to take in pursuit of their dreams.

Watch the video to find out what Neil said and remember it the next time someone tells you something you can’t do.

If you’re looking for more fantastic advice from the popular fantasy writer, watch his commencement speech to the class of 2012 graduates from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Source: Open Culture

TED Talks: “Four Lessons in Creativity”

by | Posted February 8th, 2013

In November, radio host Julie Burstein did a TED Talk. TED Talks, for those of you who don’t know, are various speakers giving “talks” (or speeches) on various topics. The tagline on the website is “Great talks to stir your curiosity.” Burstein discussed four lessons she’s learned from various artists about what spurs creativity.

1)    Experience
2)    Challenge
3)    Limitation
4)    Loss

Experience: Burstein explained that for experience, we must pay attention to the world around us. We must embrace experience, which is “hard to do when we have a lighted rectangle in our pocket that takes all our focus.”

Challenge: She said that the artists she’s spoken with have said that some of their best work comes out of the parts of their lives that have been the most difficult. As hard as it is, we must embrace challenge and change in our lives.

Limitation: Richard Serra, a modern art sculptor, said he once saw a painting that moved him so much, he knew he would never be able to do what that particular artist did. When he returned home, he threw all his supplies away and said he would not be a painter. This did not, however, discourage him from giving up on art. He continued playing around with art, and soon became a sculptor with work showcased in the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York City. Burstein explained that artists speak about how pushing upon the limits of what they can and can’t do helps them find their own voice.

Loss: The last lesson – or embrace, as Burstein calls it – that we must allow ourselves to experience in order to help our creativity is loss. It is the hardest, the oldest and “the most constant of human embraces.” We must see the world and take what we hope for while facing rejection, heartbreak, war, and death, and turning that into something that we can use to help funnel our creativity.

Burstein ended the talk with something I thought resonated very well. She said, “We all wrestle with experience and challenge, limits, and loss.” Creativity is essential to all of us whether we’re scientists, parents, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or students. It doesn’t matter if we’re a writer or a painter or a sculptor or a photographer, but we can all use these lessons to help bring out whatever we need for our creativity to flourish.

Watch the TED talk below and visit ted.com/talks to view more.

From Open Culture: Classic Literary Works Get Animated

by | Posted February 7th, 2013

We all know of a famous literary adaptation that has been transformed to the screen through animation. One of my favorites is the 1977 TV movie adaptation of The Hobbit. Yet, did you know there is a ten minute animated short of The Giving Tree, narrated by Shel Silverstein himself? What about the 1999 Academy Award winning animated short film, The Old Man and the Sea, based on the Ernest Hemingway novella?

Open Culture recently did a story on the aforementioned shorts as well as several other literary animated adaptations such as several Shakespeare plays, the stop motion, 8 minute film on the Oedipus myth (using vegetables as characters), and The Family That Dwelt Apart by E.B. White.

The Digital Learner’s Bill of Rights

by | Posted February 7th, 2013

In 1776, the founders of our country created the Bill of Rights, a list of rights we have as US Citizens. This collective list of the first ten amendments include freedom of the press, protection from “unreasonable search and seizure,” and right to trial by jury. As students and educators watch education progress from learning and teaching in the classroom to learning and teaching online or through digital technology, wouldn’t it be nice to know we have rights to what and how we learn digitally? Now we do. Thanks to a group of various scholars, technologists, and entrepreneurs, we now have a draft of “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age.”

Convening in Palo Alto, California on December 14, 2012, the group met to “define, “the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally connected world of the present and beyond,”” even if tentatively. The document received both negative and positive feedback when presented. One positive was that digital learning can “broaden student access to high-quality learning;” a negative was the initial group of draftees didn’t include any “individual learners themselves.”

Online learning is becoming more and more popular (better known as MOOC or, Massive Online Open Courseware), making it possible for, as it states in the Preamble, “anyone on the planet to be a student, a teacher, and a creative collaborator at virtually no cost.” Students and educators deserve to maintain certain rights when it comes to online learning and this “Bill of Rights” hopes to define those, some of which include, “The right to privacy” and the “The right to create public knowledge.”

This Bill of Rights is not set in stone. It can be changed, as co-author Phillipp Schmidt states. “We want lots of people with lots of different groups to remix it, edit it, make it their own.”