Spring Break: Digi-Dissertation Edition

Blog post by Christy Potroff

For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my Texts & Contexts course. I don’t have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It’s a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.

An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?

A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire, Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond. The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn’t critique one another’s writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e. read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan). Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.

The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member’s goals. Here’s our group’s template:

Untitled1

Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with eachother’s goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.

At the end of each day, I would set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.

Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them. What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group’s institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don’t know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.

Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it’s not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you’ll use your time and hold one another accountable.

2014-2015 HASTAC Scholars: Call for Applications

Deadline for applications: August 25, 2014
Announcement of Award: September 3, 2014

Are you a graduate student engaged with innovative projects and research at the intersection of digital media and learning, 21st-century education, and technology in the arts, humanities and sciences? Would you like join an international conversation about the digital humanities? If so, you are invited to apply for the opportunity to become a 2014-2015 HASTAC scholar. As a Scholar, you will represent Fordham University at HASTAC’s prestigious, online community. Two successful candidates will each receive a $300 honorarium from the office of the Dean of GSAS.

HASTAC (pronounced “haystack”), which stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, is an interdisciplinary, international network of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, as well as librarians, archivists, museum curators, publishers, and IT specialists. Members of the HASTAC community blog, host forums, organize events, and discuss new ideas, projects, and technologies that reconceive teaching, learning, research, writing and structuring knowledge. For more information about HASTAC Scholars and to see their discussion forums, please see the HASTAC Scholars website and also this page.

Successful candidates will:

  • Remain in good standing with the university.
  • Give one workshop centered on integrating digital tools into the classroom or research. The workshop will be open to the campus community and given by April 2015.
  • Be an active participant in the Fordham Graduate Student Digital Humanities Group by leading or planning one or more events related to the digital humanities, including workshops, speakers, and/or reading groups.
  • Frequently engage, according to your interests and abilities, in the discussions taking place on the HASTAC website, as well as related events taking place during the year.
  • Between September and May, contribute no fewer than two posts per semester to the HASTAC Scholars blog and to the Fordham GSDH (These may be cross-posted.)
  • Report your activities at least twice a semester to a faculty mentor to be assigned to you.

Applications will be evaluated based on the scholar’s activities in the areas of digital humanities research, pedagogy and technology, and service to the community. Highly motivated students with limited exposure to the digital humanities are encouraged to apply. This opportunity is an excellent way to learn more about digital media and practices.

To make the application, please answer the following the questions:

  • Why do you want to become a HASTAC Scholar?
  • How will being a HASTAC Scholar support your current work at work Fordham? Please speak to this question in terms of both your teaching and research, noting your experience with digital humanities research and pedagogy.
  • What strengths and experience can you contribute to the HASTAC community?

Your application must include a brief recommendation from a faculty member who can speak to your scholarship and ability to collaborate with others, both in person and online.

Send applications and recommendations as Word Documents to Dr. Elizabeth Cornell, cornellgoldw_at_fordham. edu, with “YOURLASTNAME-HASTAC APP” as the subject line. Applications are due no later than 5:00 PM, August 25, 2014. Members of Fordham’s faculty Digital Humanities Working Group will review applications and two scholars will be announced no later than September 3. Selected scholars should make an application at the HASTAC website by September 10. Details for that procedure will follow if you are selected.