Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Graduate School Best Practices: First Year in Review

With my first year of graduate school over and my second year fully started, I felt that a reflective piece about my first year would help serve both me and current/incoming students. It is cliché , but I learned just as much about myself as a person than content as a scholar. Below I have outlined a list of the best practices that I think would serve graduate students well to keep in mind. Most of them are obvious, organizational skills, but they truly helped me, and maybe they can serve as guidelines for others.

Best practices:

  • experiment with citation, note-taking, and to-do list tools
    • Not everyone works in the same way, so the "standard" or most popular tool may not mesh perfectly with your style. Compromise being mainstream and explore all of the options. Read blogs, gather information, and experiment before completely adopting a tool. Once you find it, stick with it, make sure it is updated and you can have access to it when needed.
  • find your "zone" location where you can really get down to work
    • I found that I was more productive in the office at my cubicle than anywhere else. When I really had deadlines to meet, I would only go there and stay there. I would bring snacks and drinks with me and stay there as long as I needed to be there. When my work was not as pressing or I was getting ahead, I let myself work from home, and be distracted every so often. These clear distinctions between work and home helped me stay on track.
  • plan ahead (at least 6 months)
    • This may seem a bit like an Emma-ism, because I am a planner, obsessed with making lists, placing things on my calendar, and working ahead. But, I think that this statement still has merit for all graduate students, simply because the 5 years (as I know from this first year) will go by quickly. Begin to plan out where you want to be, what you want your C.V. to look like, and how you can get there. Considering that conference deadlines are usually 6 months out, the publication process takes years in some cases (my senior thesis was published this April after 1 year), and students go on the job market as early as their fourth year, you cannot plan ahead enough. I recommend placing important events (such as conference deadlines and dates) on your calendar tool as soon as you know them to keep them in mind.
  • prioritize (be specific)
    • Continuing from the planning ahead idea, in order to do so, you must be able to keep organized and prioritize successfully. I keep a "pipeline" on my whiteboard at my desk which shows the stages that my current projects are in. This is a good template for making sure that there is progress and projects in the works. My pipeline has 6 categories (some more quantitative people have more for data collection): Ideas, Background research, Writing, Finalizing, Under Review, In Press. I also have a separate off-shoot under finalizing where I have "conference ready" papers. This is a poor "to-do" list, however, because it only lists large projects. Instead, I recommend making lists of specific, detailed next steps for the projects, prioritized by deadlines. I enjoy variety, so I like to mix up the order of the steps between projects to say engaged. For example, instead of "perform content analysis for Mormon project", I would write, "write code sheet", "find coders", and "perform LexisNexis search". Not only does this break the project up into more manageable sized chunks, but it also feels great to check off many things from your list!
  • find your balance
    • One of the most difficult parts of graduate school so far has been balancing how much I would like to do and how much I am physically capable of doing. I have dozens of projects in the "ideas" column that will probably never get to the "background research" stage, but that is okay. No one can fulfill every project idea (that's what tenure is for, I've heard) and it will probably only lead to sub-par papers anyway. Instead, keep track of ideas, reach out to colleagues and partners, and balance your time between the most fruitful project ideas and classwork, teaching, research assistant work.
  • be social, find your hangout spot
    • Your peers in your year (cohort as USC calls them) are your best allies. They are in the same boat, taking many of the same classes, dealing with the same requirements and school/program nuances, so they can relate to you better than anyone else. Be open to socializing outside of the office, make time to relax, get to know your colleagues, and have fun! Not only will you be calmer, more relaxed, and have a better quality of life, but you may also be lucky enough to realize that your particular cohort rocks out loud:
Case in Point: USC Anneberg '16

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Time of Transition

The summer is officially over; I flew into Los Angeles yesterday and spent my time moving. I apologize for a missing blog post this week because of my travels, but the blog will continue on a weekly basis during the school year starting next week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Media Res: Polarization of Climate Change

This week, I'm curating a post on In Media Res as a part of the political polarization theme week. My post discusses the clear split between Democrats and Republicans in the debate about mitigating climate change.

Here is the link to the entire post and video clip. Read, comment, and enjoy!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Politics of Food and Consumption

Consumption and food are not new contributors to political identities, but one may imagine it is so considering the multitude of coverage surrounding the Chick Fil-A "eat-ins" and political denouncements. The old adage, "you are what you eat" echoes common academic themes of consumption outlining important characteristics of someone. Eating is something that people do consistently, and even the absence of eating communicates political, social, and personal values.

As a vegetarian, I have had my entire life of experience defending my choice of following a specific dietary habit. Refusing meat, questioning waiters at restaurants, and scrutinizing ingredients lists are often activities that I have to defend or justify as outside of the norm. People are vegetarians for multiple reasons, often attributing actions to animal rights, environmental concerns, allergies, and religious restrictions. For me, my vegetarianism is a product of tradition and family, being raised a vegetarian since birth and eating and cooking in the vegetarian lifestyle is an important part of my family life. For any reason, removing certain parts of a diet begs the question of explanation (and sometimes inclusion of certain foods, such as cultural foods). These questions would not be necessary unless one's choice in consumption were meaningful or symbolic.

This relationship has risen to great importance and attention in the media with the recent discussion of Chick Fil-A's support of traditional marriage groups and anti-homosexual groups. The politics of the organization has encouraged politicians, celebrities, and the general public to associate their products with their ideologies. Similar reactions have plagued organizations that participate in child-labor, unfair business practices, or are unfair to their employees. Boycotting has been around since the creation of the United States, when people refused to purchase items that were unfairly taxed. What, then, is the issue with Chick Fil-A boycotts and the discussion at hand?

I don't necessarily think that there is anything inherently "wrong" about the Chick Fil-A argument. I would rather media attention be focused on the rights of the LGBTQ community or contextualize these discussions within the larger battle for universal rights and marriage equality. Instead, news reports are often solely focused on the actions of individuals and the organization as opposed to the cause that is driving the discussion. When the news reports become overwhelmed with free speech and balancing the scales by allowing both sides their viewpoints, the actions of Rahm Emanuel and Tom Menino are undermined and discredited.

The most important part of these demonstrations is the power of the individual. Through simple actions such as spending money, kissing, and eating, bodies act as rhetorical tools for the creation and expression of identity. Even if I did consume meat, I would have been happy to participate in the Chick Fil-A boycott, using my consumption, or lack thereof, to complement my political and personal values. Although I admit I was skeptical of the ban at first and questioned its fairness, I am now proud of my alma mater, Northeastern University, for banning Chick Fil-A's establishment in our student center. Banning Chik Fil-A represents the importance of the LGBTQ community on Northeastern's campus, which recently approved general neutral housing, preferred name and pronoun identification, and multiple student groups and training groups for inclusiveness on campus.

Instead of allowing for the power of consumption to force the Chick Fil-A to leave, Northeastern used its political power to avoid the issue altogether. The issue, then, becomes when people are willing to consume, purchase, and use their bodies as supporters of hate, bigotry, and exclusion and are defended as heroes of free speech. In that world, our world, change will be slow and riddled with obstacles. Recognizing the power of consumption and encouraging people to eat consciously may be part of the solution towards equality and empowering businesses as political entities.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hegemony, Choice, and Struggle: Taylor Cotter

This article has received much coverage and critique over the past month, but I wish to add my opinions on the matter of struggle, privilege, and hegemony.

It is not lost on me that this critique of Taylor Cotter's article is hypocritical as she is almost my complete double: Northeastern graduate, female, white, employed, and journalism/communication focused. In spite of these similarities, I would like to dissect Taylor's article and view it as a communication scholar would: in terms of issues of power. The ideas in her article, "A Struggle of Not Struggling" have been met with much contention, minimal but loud support, and debate over her intentions. The article is short so I recommend reading it, but to summarize, the main point of the article is that, for Taylor, having been successful has kept her from experiencing life from a different perspective: the struggling, freelancing journalist. Overall, she imagines what a different life might have been had she not been successful, or, as she describes, if she had fallen on the other side of the statistics.

In part, I can empathize with a general life feeling of uncertainty of making the right choice, wondering about making different decisions, or planning for the worst case scenario. These are natural feelings of anxiety, worry, and preparation that most people experience. The difference, then, is what the topic of anxiety is and what the side the grass is greener on. For Taylor, she pines for the less green side of the fence, the struggle and character-building that comes from falling on the other side of the statistics. Though Taylor could easily change her situation and decide that she wanted to leave her job and move to New York to live her dream lifestyle, she does not. In keeping the job and complaining about it, she denies herself the dreams she pines for, and further insults others who might not have been as fortunate.

The key issue for me is choice. At the end of the day, Taylor chose her life and could easily change her decision. "I chose the path of a full-time job and an adult life. I gave up on the adventures, on freedom, on youth. " Her pining for the other side mistakenly equates a part-time job, living at home, and financially struggling with adventure, freedom, and youth. There is nothing inherently adult about having a job and there is nothing inherently youthful about having adventures. Condemning oneself to a boring, full time job is simply that: a mistake has been made and one has the opportunity to change it. Those who are not as lucky are not necessarily in a different situation, but are trapped, cannot choose. Working a part-time job, living at home, and eating ramen may seem a glamorous, enviable life to one in a higher, more entitled position. To those for which it is daily life, a necessity to survive, the glamor fades quickly.

I may not know what it means to be anything but a privileged, Caucasian, heterosexual, and middle-class ciswoman, but I would not pretend to know anything else. I would not claim to look through the lens of others, understand others, or envy others (at least not intentionally). I, therefore, see the hypocrisy in writing this article and critiquing Taylor, not knowing her full story. But from the article, the only easy-accessible evidence in which she is explicit about her situation, I feel that a character-evaluation and full opinion can be made. The underlying narrative of the greener grass always being on the other side is undermined by hegemonic, pompous overtones.

Hegemony and power are important concepts in communication, especially in gender and cultural studies, where issues of power define all relationships and communication. Whether one believes in the Marx or Foucault brand of hegemony and power, one could argue that Taylor is a representative of the top or ruling class because of her self-reported situation (e.g., in terms of economy, race, opportunity, and social status). Marx would argue that power is held in the top and oppresses those beneath whereas Foucault argued that power is found in every level of society. The power of Marx is oppressive and top-down, but Foucault's power is flexible and multi-directional. Those in the top have the choice to abandon their post, the factory owner could leave power and become employed at the factory, Taylor could quit and pursue a different life. Those in the bottom, however, have no such independent, personal choice, the factory worker cannot simply become the owner, part-time workers cannot simply obtain a full time, well-paying job. The different positions are inherently issues of freedom, choice, and independence. While Taylor "often laments" her life were not different, she does not take the action to change it that others have no power to do. Instead, her lamentations of the path not taken appear as navel-gazing whining of an unnecessary quarter-life crisis. Nothing is permanent about her life, nothing is permanent about anyone's life when one has power. When one lacks power, however, they would not write such an article, for there would have been no choice to be made and thus no opportunity for regret.

Why this article offends, upsets, and bothers people is because by pining for the "other" life, Taylor denies her privilege as a benefit, insults those who have no choice, and embarrass those in her same position that must now justify and defend the hegemonic claims to entitlement by those who are so ungrateful. This is not a question of wishing better decisions had been made, regretting mistakes, or pondering other avenues. This article puts under scrutiny the very definitions of sacrifice, success, hegemony, power, and personal freedom. When choice is stripped from you, you are not free, a fact that Taylor takes for granted.