Natascha Chtena's blog

Some (Mostly) Easy Ways to Become a “Greener” Scholar


Natascha Chtena is a Doctoral Candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena and read more about her work on her website.



Many of us want to reduce our footprint on the planet, and there are lots of ways to do so. Yet our scholarly and work practices aren’t the first ones we turn to when looking to green up our lives. That may partly be due to academic culture, which doesn’t particularly encourage self-reflection when it comes to sustainability and green practices. While important conversations about diversity and social justice are taking place on campuses across the nation, environmental concerns have, by and large, fallen through the cracks. Think about it: When was the last time someone in your department encouraged you to think about your work decisions and find opportunities to reduce your climate impact?


Luckily, many green practices are not only friendly on the environment but your budget too, not to mention that they are easy to implement as well. Early on, you might have to compile a mental checklist of all the small things you can do in your day-to-day work life to lighten your carbon footprint, although soon enough, they will become habit and you will start seeing opportunities to reduce your footprint on the planet at every turn!


To get you started greening up your work life, here are some eco-friendly tips:


Green up your commute

To minimize carbon emissions, bike or walk to school when possible. Carpooling and public transportation drastically reduce CO2 emissions by spreading them out over many riders. But there are also ways to reduce your carbon footprint from driving, as the COTAP points out. For instance, speeding and unnecessary acceleration reduce mileage by up to 33%, while properly inflated tires improve your gas mileage by up to 3%. It also helps to use the correct grade of motor oil, and to keep your engine tuned, because some maintenance fixes, like fixing faulty oxygen sensors, can increase fuel efficiency by up to 40%. Avoiding traffic also reduces CO2 emissions. In fact, according to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, US workers spend an average of 47 hours per year stuck in traffic, which adds up to 3.7 billion hours and 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year. And, last but not least, optimize! Have all your appointments on a day or two, don’t drive in for a single errand and offer virtual meetings to people who don’t fit neatly into your schedule.


Assess research travel (if you have a choice)

For some, a particular research topic or question dictates the location of their field site. Others are part of larger teams and don’t have a say in where the project takes them. If it is up to you, consider the nature of your project and frequency of travel it necessitates. Moving to India for six months is one thing but flying back and forth between Boston and San Francisco every few weeks is a different story. Consider if a local site can yield equally strong, if not stronger, data. If your research involves a lot of individual interviews, you might want to prioritize and conduct some of them in person and some virtually.


Assess conference travel

This is tough one because attending and presenting at conferences is a big part of the Ph.D. process. You really can’t afford not to go to the top conferences in your field, especially when you’re not an established scholar and can use all the networking you can get. But I see some colleagues wear conference travel like a badge of honor – without thinking for a moment about the impact these trips are having on the environment. If you’re planning on flying to more than 3 or 4 conferences over the next year, pause for a moment and consider whether you could drop any of them or replace it with a local event. If that sounds impossible, check out the #flyingless movement that scholars from around the world are joining. Or if you’re organizing a conference, try to incorporate virtual participation!


Keep an eye on paper

One of the easiest things you can do to reduce waste is to watch your paper usage. Print double-sided and only print what absolutely needs to be printed. If you’re teaching, post handouts and other materials online rather than distributing hard copies and allow virtual submission.


Turn off the lights

If you work in an office or lab, only use the lights you need. If you teach, make sure to turn off all lights when you leave the room. In our school I often see lights burning in unused classrooms – it’s a small thing that can easily make a big difference.


Enable your power save mode

Notebook computers are some of the worst energy vampires and many of us spend the majority of our day glued to them. TreeHugger recommends enabling your power management, so that your computer shuts down when you’re not using it. If you’re using a whole desktop setup, consider plugging several devices into a single power strip and then turning it off when you leave for the day. Electronics such as printers and scanners that are only used occasionally can be unplugged until they're needed.


Green up your lunch

Many of us pack our own lunch because it’s just cheaper, healthier and tastier than the old cafeteria food. We also tend to carry our reusable coffee mugs, water bottles, fruit infusers, etc. So, to a certain extent, our lunch habits are greener than those of many office workers who regularly order takeout that comes wrapped in mountains of plastic. But something we think less about are the utensils, napkins and other ‘peripheral’ equipment we use when we eat. Reusable utensils, napkins and straws are worth checking out if you want to cut back on wasteful disposables (Amazon has a host of options like this one, this one and this one). Eating local, cutting back on meat, and eating more seasonal fruits and vegetables also makes a big difference.


Keep your bibliophilic itch in check

Some graduate students (myself included) buy way more books than they need or will ever read. Everything isn’t available at the library and sometimes you simply can’t wait for a book to be recalled. Consider, however, that every time you buy a new book you will add 2.7 kg of CO2 to your carbon footprint. Even if you buy a book used, there are still shipping emissions to consider. So before you click purchase on Amazon, check whether you can borrow a book from a colleague, advisor, or friend.


Obviously there’s always more you can do, but the most important thing is to start somewhere!


What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint at work? Let us know in the comments below!

[Image provided by Flickr user Chris Potter and used under a Creative Commons license]

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Some (Mostly) Easy Ways <br>to Become a “Greener” Scholar

Simple Self-Love for Grad Students


Natascha Chtena is a doctoral candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.



“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha


In academia, we're not good at taking care of ourselves, most of us. We’re control freaks, perfectionists, type As. We recognize our needs but feel guilty that we have them. So we ignore them. We go and go and give and give until we crash or burn out or become bitter.


Stop and really think about how you treat yourself: Are you kind and loving? Do you forgive yourself for mistakes? Do you encourage yourself? Do you get enough sleep?


Academia doesn’t encourage these sorts of questions. It, by and large, refuses to acknowledge that we simply can't be in it for the long haul if we're constantly on the verge of physical and emotional burnout. And a PhD (and academic career) certainly is for the long haul.


In such a fast-paced culture, how can we become better at taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally and spiritually? We often hear things like “eat real food,” “exercise regularly” and “get enough sleep,” but I think there’s more to it than that.


Practice self-compassion.


Self-compassion is distinctly different from self-esteem, self-pity, or self-indulgence. According to Kristin Neff, it is extending compassion towards yourself when you’re feeling inadequate, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. As grad students, I think, we know these feelings all too well.


Academia is a culture that does not encourage self-compassion, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of negative self-talk and criticism. We tend to over-identify with our work and consequently take criticism of our work as criticism of who we are. We beat ourselves up about that thing we did or said in front of our colleagues or students that made us feel bad, embarrassed, or ashamed. We refuse to let go.


Become mindful of how you talk to yourself. Become aware of statements such as “I shouldn’t have said/done that,” “I’ll never be as good as her,” “I’ll never get a decent job,” and “I should just drop out.” Every time you catch yourself making a negative comment about yourself, stop the thought and replace it with a positive one, such as “I am as good as everyone else here” or “I’ve already achieved so much, I can do this.” Look into self-compassion mantras and daily affirmations. Write yourself love notes and hide them around the house.


And perhaps most importantly, learn to forgive, forget, and let go. If we can’t overcome shame and forgive ourselves for the things we have done in the past, the things that we are and those that we’ll never be, we’ll never lead a full life. And, I’m guessing that not even a MacArthur Genius Grant can make up for that.


Keep a list of your successes.


How often have you looked around, comparing yourself with friends or coworkers, all of whom seem smarter, or better at grad school than you? Wondering if you're just wasting your time or no matter how hard you try? Grad school is so filled with rejection (think failed grants, unpublished papers etc.) that it’s easy to forget or lose sight of your achievements; and it’s not until you step back and work out how much you’ve done or someone else says “wow, this is amazing!” that you can really think about your big moments.


Make a list of your achievements, professional and personal, and add to it regularly. Keep it on your desktop, your fridge, you nightstand, you choose. On dark days, when you feel hopeless or stuck, refer to it. Pat yourself on the back and be proud of what you have achieved as a person and as a scholar. And when your work is going poorly – or you think that it is! – use it to remind yourself that you have more to give as a person than a dissertation.


Calm your mind.


As scholars, our brain is our most precious possession; we rely on it to bring food on the table, moreso perhaps than other professions. But its health and well-being is not something we actively care for until that brain starts screaming at us.


Depression, memory and concentration problems, insomnia, profound fatigue, irritability, severe anxiety, and a feeling of being emotionally drained are common among grad students and they’re all symptoms of an overactive mind and the inability to switch off from work. Once these symptoms develop into chronic conditions, they can have a profound impact on productivity, not to mention that they can make life just really unpleasant to live.


To avoid mental burnout, take time out to calm your mind every day. Practice conscious breathing, yoga, stretching, meditation (the app Calm is a great place to start), or walking. Take 15 minutes to sit in silence on the couch or your favorite armchair with a glass of wine or tea and just connect with your body and mind (no TV allowed). Do whatever it takes to protect your mind.


Learn to say ‘NO.’


‘No’ isn't a dirty word. No matter what your advisor says (or implies), saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a bad scholar, or person. There are only so many hours in each day. What’s the point in doing a project that isn’t related to your goals, or doesn’t make a positive difference in the world or someone's life? Learn to decide what is worth your time. It’s not about being selfish, it’s about it's about putting yourself first, and valuing your own time, health and well-being. What could be more self-loving than that?


That can be easier said than done, especially if you’re the chronic people-pleasing type. But there are tons of great articles online to warm you up - for example this and this and this - not to mention that it gets easier the more you do it!


Clearly, what we can do in the name of self-love and self-care is a privilege of our socioeconomic status and geography. Being able to have a conversation about it in the first place, is a privilege too. And it’s important to recognize that, and be humbled by it. But it shouldn’t stop us from having that conversation or bringing our attention to being as good to ourselves as we are to others.


How do you practice self love? Let us know in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Xavier Vergés and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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Teaching Tips For an UDL-Friendly Classroom


Natascha Chtena is a doctoral candidate in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.



Over the past few years, I’ve taken TA training courses in a number of departments across campus (four, to be exact) and while their approach varied slightly depending on the discipline, they had one thing in common: they prepared me to teach the average student. But what I realized soon enough, was that there was no such thing as the “average” student.


Our classrooms are highly diverse in terms of student background, personality, cognitive style, ability and interest. For many students I encounter, English is not their first language. Some have disabilities (oftentimes, invisible) that affect their abilities to see, hear, pay attention to, or participate in activities the same ways as their peers. Some are visual learners, others are auditory learners, and some are hands-on learners. And each student has preferred ways of expressing their knowledge (mine, for instance, is through writing).


What we are told during our TA training is that we “must accommodate” students with documented disabilities, which usually translates to extra time on a test or the use of a computer. We are also taught to be “mindful” of cultural, religious and other differences. But creating a truly inclusive classroom takes so much more than that.


Adapting the curriculum to the needs, capabilities and interests of ALL learners, instead of adjusting it as needed, is a good place to start. The former approach, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), banishes the notion of designing instruction for the average student and aims to provide a greater variety of options for how learners are taught information, how they express their knowledge and how they are engaged and motivated to learn more.


So, how can one use UDL to create an inclusive classroom for diverse learners?



- Provide handouts ahead of time, in accessible electronic format. For more information on creating accessible documents, see here.

- If your teaching is lecture-based, provide students with guided notes. Guided notes are handouts that outline lectures, audiovisual presentations, or readings, but leave blank space for students to fill in key concepts, facts, definitions, etc. For information on how to create guided notes see here.




- Create slides with a solid background (e.g., white text on black background) and use a sans serif font, such as Arial or Verdana (they are the easiest to read) with a minimum size of 24 points. Bear in mind that not all built-in designs offered in PowerPoint have ‘accessible’ color contrast or other design elements (I learned this the hard way!). See here for more information.

- Read key information presented on slides, blackboard etc. aloud to ensure effective communication to all, including those with visual impairments, auditory learners and students sitting behind any obstruction.

- Make a conscious effort to speak slowly so that ESL (English as Second Language) students can understand you.

- Face class when speaking to allow students with hearing impairments to read your lips. This will also encourage engagement and interaction with all students.

- Avoid common oppressive words such as “crazy”, “lame”, “handicapped”, ”brain damaged,” etc., as they can be extremely painful for people with disabilities. Instead, speak in a way that puts the person before the disability. See here and here for examples of People First Language.

- Reinforce key points using a variety of formats (e.g. verbally, graphically, or through demonstration) and explain why they are important.

- Use open-ended questions to check for comprehension. Before calling on someone allow students enough time to formulate a response either by pausing for a count of ten, having students record their responses on a piece of paper or electronic device, or having them share responses with their neighbor.

- Find out what your university’s policy is for recording of lectures and consider allowing students to record the class. This can be particularly useful for ESL students who struggle to keep up during the lecture.

- If using videos, make sure they are captioned or contain a text transcript available for students with impaired hearing and those lacking listening comprehension.


Classroom Activities

- Throughout the course, provide multiple means for student participation and engagement. For example, encourage classroom discussion through the use of small group activities, role-play, debates, think-pair-share, case studies, one-minute papers, or other activities that give students more than one way to interact in class.

- When possible, offer students opportunities to make decisions about their learning. For example, you could give them a choice between multiple essay prompts for an assignment, or give them the option of working solo or in groups to complete an in-class exercise.



- If you’re lucky enough to be designing your own course, use a variety of assessment methods (e.g. papers, learning journals, presentations, tests, quizzes, oral exams) throughout the semester to allow/encourage multiple ways of demonstrating learning.

- Alternatively, consider providing students with the opportunity to complete an assignment in various formats (i.e., a paper, podcast, class presentation etc.).


Additional Support

- Take the time to regularly check in with students with disabilities on a one-on-one basis to discuss their progress and answer questions they may have.

- Personally follow-up with students who seem to be struggling and encourage them to seek support through your school’s counseling office, writing center, etc. Struggling students are oftentimes not aware of campus resources available to them, particularly if their previous experiences have been in a different education system (e.g., homeschooled, international, and so on).


Clearly, these are only a handful of suggestions for making your classroom more UDL-friendly and they are shaped by my experience teaching in the humanities and social sciences. Do you have any suggestions for making your classroom UDL-friendly? Let us know in the comments below!


[Image provided by Flickr user Dimitri B. and used under a Creative Commons license]

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Make Things With Your Hands


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.




When was the last time that you made something with your hands, like a cake, a painting or a scarf? Do you remember how it felt to create something, finish it, look at it and enjoy it? Even if your creation was far from perfect, it likely felt very, very good.


Everyone I know who spends a good amount of time time creating with their hands – be it cooking, growing vegetables, building, knitting or any sort of working with raw materials really – describes making as “therapy” and as essential to their well-being. Research also shows that making things with your hands is great for decreasing stress, relieving anxiety and improving mental health.


In addition, research confirms that making things with your hands is a large part of finding your flow, and flow is highly correlated with happiness. Unfortunately, our modern world makes it very hard to find that rhythm where we can, free of distraction, just focus on the task at hand – where we can just turn off our minds (and phones) and be present in the moment.


For those of us in academia it’s a double challenge: it’s not just that as a society we spend more and more time invested in online experiences, but also that we as scholars don’t get to see the tangible results of our work.


Of course we write papers and we occasionally even publish them in very fancy journals, but they never really feel finished in the same way a herb garden or strawberry pie does – there’s always something missing, something you didn’t quite finish, something you could have done better. That little confidence-booster you get from seeing how “crafty” you are isn’t really part of the deal.


For us, more perhaps than for other types of workers, the physicality of DIY projects and the clear specificity of what they require of us, can be rejuvenating, essential even.


So how does one become a maker? A little hint: it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process, a slow one and very personal too.


If you’re into the idea but feeling overwhelmed, here’s a little advice to get you going:


Don’t confuse handicraft with chores.


Making, as wide a spectrum as it can encompass, isn’t about routine chores or tasks. It’s about the love of the craft – the pure joy of creating something from zero.


There’s a difference between rushing home after a day in the lab to throw together a quick dinner before you faint, and savoring the experience of baking the best banana pie you can possibly bring into existence. The same goes for making your own home repairs to save money versus making your own home décor crafts to add personal accents to your place.


And, obviously, if you hate cooking, then chopping veggies is unlikely to send you into flow!


Pick something relevant.


If you just pick an activity because it sounds cool in theory, you likely won’t be able to stick with it very long. Instead, take a look at your life and think about parts you’d like to improve. Are there things you enjoy but can’t afford readymade? Are there products you’re using that aren’t quite meeting your needs? Things you’d like to improve?


For instance, I met someone at a party recently who started brewing their own beer because they were after a flavor they couldn’t find in stores. Similarly, I have a friend who uses her handmade jewelry as a personal trademark and sells them for some extra cash. Another friend, to whom living an environmentally friendly life is very important, makes her own natural cleaning products.


Personally, I’m always looking for excuses to spend more time in the kitchen, though I tend to focus on things I can’t afford or can’t tolerate readymade. For example, I love soaking in my bathtub and bath bombs are one of my favorite things to use when I’m overwhelmed or stressed. However, good, natural bath bombs can be very expensive and, unless I make my own, I can’t enjoy them regularly. I’m also a big fan of pickled anything, but have trouble tolerating the spices most pickled veggies come with, so making them from scratch is my only option. I also like pickled snacks that are hard to find in stores in the first place, such as pickled papaya and pickled strawberries (yuuumm).


Keep it simple.


Making your own furniture sure sounds fulfilling and all, but it’s also massively time consuming and difficult to try out without making a huge investment in tools (unless you’re lucky to live near a makerspace with woodwork equipment, of course). Likewise, winemaking from grapes is something you probably can’t pull off if you live in the city but alternative wines, like elderflower or walnut, are easy to make without any fancy equipment and they add a nice touch to social gatherings.


Generally speaking, baking, brewing, gardening, DIY body-care, home crafts and accessories are a good (i.e. realistic) starting point for most of us. So start small, and once you get the hang of it, slowly start making bigger and more elaborate things.


For instance, I got started by brewing my plain kombucha, then I added a second fermentation where I started infusing the brew with herbs and fruits, and then I slowly moved on to other fermented drinks and vegetables. I also didn’t just throw out all my commercial body care products, but took one step at a time, starting with tooth paste, then trying deodorant, then bath bombs etc.


The most important thing is to just get started: Try it once, take it slow and don’t be intimidated! I think there’s a part of us that is wired to make, so once you get your feet wet, you'll find it easy, natural even, to wade further in.


Personally, the more I make the more I crave making, and it’s become such a big part of my work-life balance. It provides a major relief from the immateriality of knowledge work, and it fulfills my need to create and share things that I have put my love and time in.



Further resources:


25 Essentials That Are Better And Cheaper To Make At Home

The Lost Art of Scratch Cooking

101 DIY Projects How To Make Your Home Better Place For Living

39 Coolest Kids Toys You Can Make Yourself

40+ Epic DIY Gadgets To Build For Geeks

17 incredible DIY gadget projects

Pinterest (my favorite)


What do you make with your hands? Let us know in the comments below!


[Image from Flickr user Jim Linwood and used under Creative Commons license]

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Invisible No More


Natascha Chtena is a Ph.D. student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.


A while ago, a struggling student (let’s call her Jane) walked into my office to discuss her performance in my German class. Jane was a shy student who rarely participated in class discussion, and her performance on the quizzes and midterm was below average. As I usually do with underachieving students, I asked Jane some questions about her goals, program and current commitments.

We were talking about her study habits, when Jane brought up dyslexia. She only mentioned it offhandedly, and wasn’t making excuses or apologies. I was surprised to hear about it, to say the least, as neither she nor the school’s disability counselor had gotten in touch with me to inform me of her condition and to request accommodations. When I asked her whether she was registered with our school’s disability office, she said that indeed she was. When I further asked her why she hadn’t asked for special accommodation, she said that she “didn’t want to be a problem,” and went on to give me examples of faculty who had questioned her sincerity or refused to take her seriously when asking for an accommodation.

Her feeling was, Jane said, that “many professors are more willing to accommodate students with ‘tangible’ disabilities,” such as those who are blind, deaf or use a wheelchair. Students with invisible conditions like learning disabilities, clinical depression or ADHD were often “put on the pile of ‘boutique disabilities,’” i.e. outright dismissed or begrudgingly accommodated.

There may be several students in your classroom like Jane. Like Jane, some of them will not share their condition with you or request special accommodation, either because of previous negative experiences or because they fear being seen as “lesser” or stigmatized as “pathological.” Some may be unaware that they have a disability in the first place or may be unaware that their condition qualifies as a disability. Most people I know don’t think of chronic illness, brain injury, neurological disorders, mental illness, or oxygen impairment as a “disability.”

The fact that invisible disabilities are in fact “invisible” poses a challenge for us TAs. If a student doesn’t reach out to us, an entire semester can go by without us noticing or providing the tools that student needs to succeed. So in a way, we are failing the students who need us most, even without intending or realizing it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “invisible disabilities” aren’t obscure, rare or merely currently “en vogue.” In fact, they are the most common type of disability among college students. Since students whose disabilities are invisible far outweigh those with visible ones, if our goal is to create a truly inclusive classroom, we must do a better job of  understanding 1) who those students are, 2) what obstacles they face and, ultimately, 3) how we can support them to achieve their full potential.

Here are a few steps you can take to create a safe and welcoming environment for students with invisible disabilities:

1. Educate yourself. If you’ve never heard of the term “invisible disabilities” or are only marginally familiar with it, do some background reading to get an idea of what constitutes an invisible disability and what living with such a condition may look like. You may also want to contact your school’s disability office to inquire about campus resources for students with invisible disabilities, and potential training opportunities for instructors working with them. It’s also a good idea to talk to a disability counselor about the legally correct and ethically appropriate ways to work with such a student. If you’re thinking about going one step further, I recommend looking at research done by the Society for Disability Studies, which examines disability as a category of identity rather than purely as a medical construct.

2. Let them know you are invested in their success and committed to supporting them. Dedicate a few minutes on the first day of class to addressing students with disabilities (visible and invisible), and let them know that you are there to accommodate them to your fullest ability. Don’t just read the standard disability statement you copy and pasted on your syllabus, but use the knowledge from your research (see point 1) to ensure that they are feeling seen and welcomed. If you too have an invisible disability, consider coming-out to them. In my own experience I have found that students who feel accepted and/or understood are far more willing to request appropriate accommodations and to engage fully in classes compared to when they feel overlooked.

3. Be discreet, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many students feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about their disabilities and avoid talking about them. Students with invisible disabilities sometimes even more so, because the severity of their condition and/or their sincerity is often questioned. Some students may choose not to disclose the exact nature of their disability and/or may have their disability counselor contact you requesting an accommodation instead of doing it directly. While I do believe that student privacy is important, I also think it’s useful to know the nature of their disability and how it interferes with their work. Often these students need more support than a laptop or extra time on a test and that’s something disability offices usually don’t encourage. The only way we can provide that support is through direct and honest conversation with students. I wouldn’t encourage pushing students to disclose information they don’t feel comfortable sharing, but I would suggest explaining to them that a better understanding of their disability can help you improve their learning experience and, possibly, their performance.

4. Believe them. Sometimes we have our own ideas about how a person with disability should look like or what they should be able to accomplish for their condition to be “real” or “significant.” Don’t make judgment about what a student may be able to do based on how they look and don’t add to their stress by questioning their accommodation request. Appearances can be highly deceptive, especially among people with invisible disabilities. For some of them just staying upright can be a fight all day, everyday.

5.  Ask for their input. Part of offering an inclusive learning experience is meeting the needs of the individual learner, and there is no one who understands a condition and the challenges it poses better than the person affected directly by it. Without wanting to underestimate the value or significance of disability offices, I have found that they tend to have a rather specific idea of what constitutes an accommodation, which often isn’t enough or appropriate for a given student. Ask students which aspects of your course are working for them and which aren’t, and ask for recommendations on how you can better meet their learning needs. Their feedback will likely be eye-opening and make you reconsider the way you conduct lessons and deliver content.

There has been so much talk about campus diversity recently, but, so far, students with disabilities have been largely left out of that conversation. Invisible disabilities, meanwhile, are completely overlooked, much to the detriment of many students. I believe as instructors we have the responsibility of bringing these students out of the shadows, supporting them and even advocating for them, at least until they feel comfortable enough to advocate for themselves.

Additional Resources

Here at GradHacker we’ve thought and written a lot about disability over time, both from a student and educator perspective. If you’re looking for additional resources on how to make your classroom more accessible for students will all types of disabilities, check out Liz’s post on inclusive instruction.

If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of invisible disability specifically, you can check out Brianne’s post on navigating grad school with learning disabilities and ADHD Leslie’s post on navigating chronic illness.

Are invisible disabilities discussed at your school? What can we do as educators to support students with such conditions?

[Image by Flickr user ramos alejandro and used under Creative Commons.]

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Paleo on a Grad School Budget And Schedule


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.




Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The statements made here are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please consult with your doctor or primary care physician before starting any new diet.



When most people hear “Paleo” they think low-carb, CrossFit and/or diet evangelism. And surely, there are those people who wear Paleo on their sleeve like a badge of honor (as if shopping grass-fed and organic makes them a better person somehow). But that’s only a small part of the story. At its core, Paleo is a diet that’s premised on the idea of food as medicine and focused on whole, local ingredients that are devoid of preservatives, pesticides, chemicals, artificial colors and taste enhancers. If you eliminate all processed foods, you’re already 80% there. In addition, the Paleo diet excludes dairy, legumes and grains (you can read up on the science behind this elimination here).


With strong ties to the functional medicine movement, for many Paleo isn’t really a “diet” as much as a lifestyle change for health reasons. In fact, different versions of what has come to be known as the “Paleo diet” are nowadays recommended by doctors for various chronic conditions – such as allergies, autoimmune disorders, asthma and rare diseases – and include additional lifestyle changes like sleep hygiene, exercise and stress reduction. I started following a modified version of Paleo - called the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) - after I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition, only to find out that engaging in whole-food, nutrient dense cooking with high quality ingredients can be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Spending 2-3 hours a day planning, prepping, cooking and cleaning isn’t very realistic when you have dissertation to write, neither is Whole Foods your friend when you work near the minimum wage.


It took a lot of time, money and frustration to figure out how to get healthier without breaking the bank, so I wanted to share a few tips for anyone who may be struggling like I did not so long ago. Since there are many great resources out there about budget-friendly shopping and cooking (incl. Katie’s very cool post), this post will focus specifically on Paleo-specific challenges.


  • Keep it simple: As Mickey Trescott points out, many who initially switch over to Paleo spend a lot of money and energy trying to recreate their well-loved recipes, such as pancakes, mac’ n’ cheese, breakfast cereal or pizza. But these “paleo-fied” recipes often call for specialty ingredients (maple syrup, tapioca starch, cassava flour etc.) that are some of the priciest on the market – and the results are mostly disappointing anyway. Soups and stews are easy to throw together, they’re easy to transport in an insulated food jar and they don’t get gross if they sit in the fridge a few days. If you own a slow cooker you can also have them cook while you’re at uni or just working at your desk – super convenient! Meat patties (with herbs!) and roasted vegetables are some other versatile staples of the Paleo diet, you can prep them both in advance and they go well with leafy greens, which are a good source of fiber and antioxidants. If you need more ideas, this list with beginner recipes is a great place to start.


  • Remember that meat is more than lean, organic, grass-fed steak: There’s a lot of misinformation out there about how to “do” Paleo and so many folks who switch over rely too heavily on lean, grass-fed beef cuts that cost a fortune. But there are many alternatives to filet mignon, including ground meat, which is generally cheaper than whole cuts, especially if pre-packaged. Usually, fatty, tough (shanks, oxtail, shoulder etc.) and bone-in cuts will also be cheaper than lean, soft and boneless ones. Buying whole animals is another budget-friendly option – if you don’t have freezer space for a whole cow you can start with a whole chicken, which will keep you fed for several days (or check out this article on “cowpooling” – yes, that’s a thing). Organ meats (whether beef or chicken) are another Paleo staple, they’re much cheaper, and more nutritious that muscle meats and they are highly recommended for those with chronic and autoimmune conditions. If you can’t stomach the idea of feasting on brains and gizzards, check out this article about sneaking offal into your diet. Finally, eggs (if you can have them) are another fantastic source of protein, they’re super easy to prepare and a great alternative if you’re struggling with the ethics of meat-eating.


  • For Omega-3 fatty acids, think beyond wild-caught salmon: Don’t get me wrong, I love a nice salmon filet, I just can’t afford them all the time. Canned is a budget-friendly alternative to fresh, frozen or smoked but it can get boring pretty fast. Actually, salmon isn’t even the food with the highest Omega-3 level out there – that would be salmon roe, with 3.5 times the amount found in salmon. Now, while fish eggs can cost you an arm and a leg at high-end stores like Whole Foods, you can get inexpensive and high-quality roe at ethnic grocery stores, especially Asian markets (sold as “sushi quality”). Another great source of Omega-3 are canned wild-caught anchovies and sardines and they’re much cheaper than big fish filets (salmon, tuna etc.). Sardines mashed with avocado and lemon juice is one of my favorite quick lunches/ snacks, while minced anchovies are a miracle flavor-booster in dressings, sauces and stews. I also like to boost my Omega-3 (and fat-soluble vitamin) intake with fermented cod-liver oil, which is the only supplement I take daily (if you’re not big on supplements you can review some of the benefits listed here). It’s pricey but one bottle lasts me about 3 months.


  • Get creative with bone broth: Homemade bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse and a staple among nutrient dense diets (whether that’s AIP, the Wahls Protocol, the Loving Diet, or “traditional” Paleo), but cheap grass-fed beef bones aren’t always easy to come by in big cities, especially now that broth has become so fashionable. For instance in West LA,  my options are Whole Foods (which sells organic bones for about $7 a pound) and overpriced farmers markets. I occasionally order grass-fed bones from US Wellness Meats (which sells them for about $2.20 – $5.20 a pound), but that’s something I can’t afford everyday either. I do however make fish head stock a lot from heads I buy at my local fish market (heads are mostly just thrown out so I can usually get about 10 of them for $5 – you might even be able to get them for free). I also reuse bones a lot (more on that below). If you have a good butcher and live near a good farm and have access to high quality (organic, grass-fed), affordable bones take advantage of it. If not, think about the other types of bones you may be able to source locally.


  • Reduce waste, repurpose and reuse: We live in such a wasteful culture, and that shapes the way we treat food. Less than a century ago, people knew how to use every single part of an animal: they’d render their own cooking fat from pork, lamb, beef and duck, make chicken soup using chicken heads, feet and necks, and feast on lamb heads (a delicacy in Norway, Morocco and Greece). Nowadays more than 40% of our food is thrown out. That’s not just morally questionable, it’s a waste of money and resources. The most obvious way to avoid this, is to plan ahead (not my thing but you may want to consider meal plans) and to use fresh produce wisely. Another thing I do is buy cuts with bones and whole chickens, so I can reuse the bones to make bone broth. Sounds gross? It works! I keep a bag in my freezer, where I store all the bones and when I have a good portion, I’ll throw them all into a pot to make some broth. Since I started making my own broths, I also started saving vegetable parts (tops, leaves etc.) that I used to throw away. Similarly, fruit that is about to go bad I will turn into jams, chutneys or gelatin gummies (grass-fed gelatin powder isn’t cheap, but it’s great for the gut and a little goes a long way).


  • Keep in mind that DIY is your best friend and your greatest enemy: Paleo is big on preparing food from scratch (to save money and avoid sneaky ingredients) and experts will often recommend making “specialty foods” at home: nut milks, kombucha, bone broth, kefirs, salad dressings, pates, fermented vegetables, condiments, snacks/ chips etc. While you can save money this way and while I personally love spending time in the kitchen, I don’t think that’s realistic for the majority of grad students. Making all your food from scratch can easily turn into a full-time job, so make sure to prioritize: What are the two specialty foods you consume the most? For most of my friends it’s nut milks and salad dressings; for me it’s bone broth and kombucha, and so that’s what I make regularly. I’ve also found that it’s relatively easy to find affordable, high-quality fermented vegetables and liver pates at places like Trader Joe’s and (even) Whole Foods, so I don’t feel as pressured to make my own.


  • Get the right tools: If you’re serious about eating and living this way, you’ll want to invest in some good kitchen equipment. And while equipping a kitchen isn’t cheap, ultimately, with the right tools, you just save so much time it’s totally worth it. A good place to look for kitchen tools are consignment and thrift stores (especially for utensils, storage containers, blenders and pots/pans), while Amazon often has high-quality slow and pressure cookers on sale. Don’t know where to start? Check out this and this list with Paleo kitchen essentials. Personally, my can’t-do-without tools are my slow cooker (for broth, soups, stews, chilis and roasts), blender/food processor (for soups, smoothies, sauces and mousses), baking/roasting sheet (for veggies, mainly), glass containers (for food prep and for storing leftovers), and cast-iron skillet (for stir fries, frittatas and just about everything else).



Managing a chronic illness in grad school is already a huge challenge without the added stress of food sourcing, cost and preparation time. If you’re unsure about taking the leap to Paleo, or you’re just getting started and are feeling overwhelmed, I hope you will find this post useful in at least getting you pointed in the right direction.



Additional resources:


Dr. Terry Wahls’ TEDx talk “Minding your mitochondria” (talking about how she used diet to beat progressive multiple sclerosis)

Danielle Walker’s How To Do The Paleo Diet

The Paleo Mom’s How To Get Started

The Wicked Spatula’s 23 Paleo Items You Have To Buy At Trader Joes

Against All Grain‘s Costco Paleo Shopping List

The Paleo Leap’s Paleo For Vegetarians? (if you like the premise of Paleo but not the part about eating animals)




[Image by Flickr user Andy Roberts and used under Creative Commons license]

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Surviving and Thriving During Quals


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.


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There are many resources online about how to prepare for quals (I really like this one), and here on GradHacker we’ve also featured posts on note-taking, prepping for the written exam and surviving the oral comprehensive. Yet there’s rarely a conversation about how to manage the extreme physical (and mental) stress of exam-taking, which for me - and many of my grad school friends - was the biggest challenge.


When I took my master’s comprehensive exam a couple of years ago, I wasn’t very kind to my body, failing to nourish it properly after a hard day’s work. I thought that taking care of myself was a luxury I simply couldn’t afford. I slept an average of 4 hours a night and I didn’t exercise, while my diet consisted predominantly of Hot Pockets, instant ramen and Red Bull.


Although I did pass my exams, I felt pretty bad physically and mentally for about a month after. So when time came for my PhD qualifying exams, I knew I had to take a different approach. In my program, quals are structured as take-home research papers, which meant no memorizing (yay!) but also no structured “away time.” This meant that I’d have to put in the extra effort to create some boundaries for quals, and make sure I’d be giving my body the opportunity to refuel during this crazy time.


Below are some methods I learned through trial and error that made all the difference this second time around, and that can help you improve the qualifying exam experience:


Organize your workspace:


Before quals, invest some time making your workspace as comfortable and inviting as possible. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in that space over the next few days (or weeks, depending on your program) and you really want it to work for you, not against you.


That “deep cleaning” you’ve been meaning to do forever? Now it’s time to do it! Remove clutter from your desk. Take a hard look at what you really need within reach and remove the things that could be potential distractions. You may also wanna add a desk plant or two, to purify the air and reduce stress. Also, make sure that lighting is as good as it can be, since cheap artificial light can lead to headaches and increased stress-levels. If you don’t know where to start, check out this article on optimizing office lighting.


Oh, and if you haven’t already read Katie’s awesome post on workspace ergonomics, please do.


Plan your meals in advance:


Food is such a big part of the human condition and yet we tend to forget how truly important it is - especially when we’re under stress! Food nutrients have also been directly linked to brain function, although many still dismiss such findings as hippie-dippie, new-age nonsense. It’s not just that whole-foods, nutrient-dense diets improve cognitive performance, however, but also that junk food impairs it (after just one week, in fact).


Since you can’t really perform at the top of your game if you’re eating crap, it is worth the time (and money) to invest in food preparation. I don’t like reheated freezer meals but I also couldn’t afford to spend 1-2 hours in the kitchen every day so I made a compromise by prepping as much in advance as possible. I made a meal plan for the week (incl. breakfast and snacks), which I stuck on my freezer, buying all ingredients in advance. I washed and chopped up veggies, which I stored in glass containers in the fridge, and I stocked up on brain foods: healthy fats, blueberries, beets, dark chocolate and garlic. I prepared a large batch of bone broth, which I could quickly transform into a soup by adding leafy greens, garlic and some nutritional yeast (yum!). Knowing I’d be craving fast food sooner or later, I also made sure I had healthy snacks in my pantry: roasted seaweed, energy bombs, high-quality potato chips, chocolate-coated goji berries and toasted coconut chips. Yes, some of these treats are pricey but comps are a beast to tackle and I think the extra splurge is worth it at test time.


Allow yourself time to decompress:


As I mentioned earlier, there’s a significant psychological component to quals that is often overlooked. No matter how they are administered, your qualifying exams are likely going to be one of the most stressful events of your graduate career. So however tempted you are, don’t stay up until 1:00 a.m. finishing off that paragraph or perfecting that footnote (burnout is just around the corner). Go for a run, meditate, do some yoga, dance to your favorite tunes or go for walk around your block (walking apparently increases creative output by 60%!) – whatever it is that helps you wind down and replenish, do it.


Personally when I’m overwhelmed I like going to the movies by myself. I find it very hard to switch off after I’ve been wired up for hours writing and the movie theater really helps me let go. This is a big time investment, obviously, and I only did it once, in the middle of quals – but I did it and it helped. The other nights I either did some yoga or soaked in my bathtub with essential oils (I really like Eden’s Garden Relaxation Synergy Blend). Also, quick lunch breaks and coffee runs with friends helped keep me sane and centered when everything else seemed to be crumbling around me.


Remember to stay hydrated:


That’s something my mum always used to say when I was taking exams in school and, back then, I thought it was so silly. But it turns out that even slight dehydration impacts brain function, mood and energy. When I’m really busy I always forget to drink my 2 liters a day, so I have to use reminders. During quals I put yellow stickies on my fridge and bathroom mirror, to remind myself to drink my water. I also kept a bunch of Trader Joe’s unpasteurized coconut water on hand, because it’s delicious (so much better than Vita Coco, Zico etc.) AND loaded with potassium, which helps with brain fog.



Last and most importantly, be kind to yourself and make time (even if it’s just 15 minutes) every day to do at least one thing you enjoy. And don’t forget to reward yourself after the ordeal is over! Take a weekend trip, book a massage, go out to nice restaurant or binge-watch Netflix. Do whatever needs to be done for you to start recovering.


Do you have any tips on thriving during exams you can share? Post them in the comments below!


[Image by Flickr user Nouf Al Otaibi and used under Creative Commons license]

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5 Great Reads About Graduate Life and Work


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.



A while ago, a friend of mine started working on an oral history podcast documenting the experiences of graduate students at different stages in their PhD. One of the project’s goals is to articulate struggle and survival in grad school without ironing out all the imperfections or making up the stories of linear progress and transformation that we’re all - more or less - guilty of perpetuating.


When the first segment was released earlier this year, I was blown away by how brutally honest and beautifully true those featured accounts of graduate life were. But I also realized how rare it is that we hear stories like that: raw rather than glorified accounts of struggle, perseverance and tenacity in grad school.


Maybe it’s my training as an anthropologist, but I find that oftentimes firsthand accounts and oral histories hold more wisdom than many self-help and how-to books. And yet, biographies of graduate life (and academic life more broadly) – whether books, podcasts or movies – remain scarce.


So after listening to my friend’s podcast, I set out to find other testimonials of graduate and early academic life and slowly fell upon a number of written works that I found at once comforting and instructive, realistic and inspiring, infuriating and necessary. Luckily, around that time I was also taking a course about academic life and work, which exposed me to some wonderful books about academia, some of which I’ve included in this list (I do encourage you to check out the full syllabus, however):


Mothers in Academia

by Mari Castañeda and Kirsten Isgro


There are many great resources about the perils of juggling motherhood and academia out there, including the well-known and well-loved Mama PhD: Mothers Write about Motherhood and Academic Life. The reason I’ve opted to highlight Mothers in Academia specifically, is for its diversity of voices and writing styles, and because I think the collection does a great job of illustrating how race, ethnicity, age, class, sexuality and ability are intertwined into the lived experience of motherhood in academia. There are also a number of contributions by doctoral candidates that I think many will find relevant (I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Summer R. Cunningham). I should, however, mention that the collection strongly represents the humanities and social sciences as well as higher ed administration, leaving out the physical and natural sciences. If you’re in the “hard” sciences, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out is a nice (and witty) alternative, though its focus isn’t academia but science more broadly.


This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class

by C.L. Dews


Whether or not you’re from a working-class background, this is a fantastic read. It features 24 essays by faculty and graduate students from working-class families who gracefully expose the middle-class bias in academic settings. Some of the stories are deeply emotional, others more polemical, situating academic work in a socioeconomic context, but all of them share an anguish over living in two irreconcilable worlds. If you’re interested in the experiences of working-class women in particular, I also enjoyed the anthology Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, which is organized around four themes: belonging, individual experiences, teaching and language/cultural politics. I really wish everyone in academia would read at least some of these essays, especially those of us who are very teaching-oriented and who work with diverse groups of students.


Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year

by James M. Lang


This doesn’t touch much on graduate life, but if you’re thinking about the tenure track this is a must-read. Life on the Tenure Track is a memoir of Lang’s first year as an Assistant Professor of English at Assumption College, a Catholic liberal arts college in Massachusetts. From his experience as a “newbie” at faculty meetings and bonding with new colleagues to his honest discussion of departmental politics and the frustrations of student advising, Lang really delves into the nitty-gritty of academia here. He’s an elegant writer and his prose is witty but poised, while his attitude is that of a caring mentor trying to coach you to avoid some of the confusion, frustration and pain he experienced along the way. This is by far my favorite book about the workings of academia and his advice (albeit indirect) about people management and social etiquette is both delightful and urgent.


Exposure: A sociologist explores, sex, society and adult entertainment

by Chauntelle Tibbals


This one’s an odd one, perhaps. Yes, it is partly about the adult industry, but it is also about the challenges and perils of pursuing a controversial (and to some perhaps offensive) research topic. As a PhD student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, Chauntelle Tibbals set out to study porn, or, as she fancily puts it, "the sociocultural significance of adult entertainment as it relates to law, media, and gender," and was shunned by her advisor, her department and her colleagues as a result. Rendered invisible and marginalized as a scholar, Tibbals worked multiple jobs to fund her degree, while pursuing a full-time course load and dissertation research without any guidance (though she did eventually switch advisors), to emerge ultimately as an adult industry expert. Unlike the title suggests, Exposure does not just expose (pun intended) our society’s hypocrisy in regards to porn but also that of academia in regards to groundbreaking research. It is also a lesson in writing about one’s research free of scientific jargon (take a look at those footnotes, seriously), which is invaluable whether you’re interested in porn or not.


Journeys Through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts Of Fieldwork

by Annette Lareau and Jeffrey Schultz


While not as eloquent or elegant as Clifford Geertz’s “Balinese Cockfight”, this collection is gold for the budding ethnographer and qualitative social researcher (sorry quantitative folks).

Whether you’re just getting started on your project and you’re feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of ethnography or you’re “just” interested in the discrepancy between narratives of linear progress - which have traditionally dominated ethnographic monographs - and the messy realities of fieldwork, this is book is for you. It’s a collection of real-life experiences of fieldwork, written by a number of well-known scholars (incl. Alma Gottlieb, Philip Graham, William F. Whyte and Jay MacLeod), who write about being beginners in some way. Most of them reflect on their dissertation projects and show how they learned to do research while doing it; how they struggled defining their research questions, working with uncooperative interviewees, organizing their data, managing friendships in the field etc. Sure, there are plenty of textbooks out there that address those issues but there’s something about the types of narratives that show rather than tell, which can’t be matched by dry, prescriptive research manuals.


I have not included here anthologies purely about teaching, mainly because I felt that they are more common and easier to come by, but if that’s something that interests you, you may want to check out Moments of Clarity: Anthology of Stories from Faculty Who Teach For Success. I have also avoided memoirs that span entire academic careers in an attempt to keep this post focused on graduate and early academic life, but Eagleton’s The Gatekeeper: A Memoir or Kermode’s Not Entitled: A Memoir are good places to start if you’re interested.


What are your favorite books about graduate life and work? Please share your recommendations in the comment section below!



[Image by Flickr User Kate Ter Haar and used under Creative Commons license]

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Using Music in the Foreign Language Classroom


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.




One of the challenges I face teaching a daily language class is finding novel and creative ways to maintain student interest throughout my lessons. One of my favorite teaching “tricks” is using music to motivate learning, improve concentration, create a sense of community and help my students absorb material.


Music is a wonderful tool to integrate into your teaching repertoire, especially if you are a foreign language teacher. It has a way of capturing everything about a culture, its people and their language and it can inspire interest in a subject matter when other methods have failed. Not to mention that students love it and benefit from it intellectually and emotionally (even when they find your music taste questionable).


Fortunately, it’s not too hard to integrate music into the foreign language classroom, and the following are some effective ways to integrate music into your teaching:


Use it to build community. Music is a way to share yourself as a teacher, and to offer your students a (little) peek into your soul, as well as an opportunity to learn about and from your students. Our music taste reveals how we think. It’s an expression of who we are on an emotional, social and cognitive level. But it’s also a way to connect to other people in a way that a lot of other means of communication (and teaching) cannot.


Use it to teach vocabulary. Arguably one of the most effective ways of using music in the foreign language classroom is through direct music activities. Yet when I’m teaching a Level 1 beginners class, it’s impossible to use music as a writing prompt or to analyze poetry, because students don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to engage in complex tasks. One of my favorite activities for starters, however, is “fill in the blank.” For this activity, I provide students with the lyrics to a song after having removed certain vocab and replaced it with blanks. Then students listen to the song as they try to fill in the missing word. This is an easy and fun way to expose students to the target language and can be an effective memorization alternative to physical and online flashcards.


Use it to offer insights into a culture’s worldview and history. Language, culture and history are intertwined but oftentimes it’s difficult to offer meaningful insights into a language and its culture, while also striving to ensure the required grammar/vocab/structure for the day has been covered (and trust me, at my university, it’s a lot). I’ve found that music provides an excellent ground for raising historical, cultural and/or societal issues without overshadowing the linguistic component. The key is to not be too ambitious (unless of course you are teaching a language AND culture class) and to set realistic goals: one song one major point! I usually keep it to seven minutes max, which includes a song, a very short “lecture” and some time for student questions at the end.


Use it to change the mood. We often do drilling exercises in class to practice new structures and/or reinforce the content learnt. But drilling can be boring and tedious, causing the classroom mood to become lethargic and…darker. I have found that background music can dramatically reverse this effect and help students concentrate (you might have to experiment a bit with the volume). Another good strategy is to start the class by playing music, especially if you’re teaching an early morning class, where even the best-intentioned can be thwarted by fatigue. This can boost students’ mood and increase their interest in what is being taught.


Use it for home assignments. Student exposure to foreign music doesn’t have to be limited to classroom time. I once did a very fun project in one of my intermediate classes where I asked students to compile a short (German) playlist that describes their personality, explaining what it is about each song that speaks to them and/or that they identify with. To help them find songs, I provided a larger playlist to draw from (although they didn’t have to use it if they didn’t want to). We were learning personality traits at the time and students absolutely loved it, not to mention that many of them built a vocab that extended beyond what was covered in their textbook.


Use it (to boost creativity and) for extra credit. Throughout the quarter I offer my students multiple extra credit options but among my favorite are the ones that involve music. Some of the best bonding experiences in my classroom have taken place when a student performed a song for the rest of the class. In my more advanced classes I have even had students compose and write their own song (in German of course). Performing in a foreign language is not everyone’s cup of tea (hence it’s only one of the extra credit options), but it’s regularly contributed to creative outbursts and one of a kind bonding among students.


Be the performer. I haven’t done this as a teacher but I have been on the receiving end as a student and it was beautiful experience. When I was learning Turkish, our teacher brought her bağlama to class one day and she asked us to “help” her with the lyrics to a song she had been working on. To this day, I don’t know how how “genuine” her quest for help was, but it got us excited and engaged on a freezing and rather depressing London night.


In the end what it boils down to, I believe, is effective planning. One of the potential pitfalls of using music in any classroom, is making it all about fun and not much else. I’ve walked into a number of (undergraduate) classes at my school where the instructor is playing some song at the beginning of class or during a “break” without engaging with it or explaining it and it always feels like such a missed opportunity. Music can make magic happen, for sure, but I think the results are best when it’s aligned with a with a specific teaching goal.



How do you use music in your classroom? Please share in the comments section below.

[Image from Flickr user Miguel Santiago and used under Creative Commons license]

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Reading For Pleasure In Grad School


Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.



Oftentimes, grad students complain about how little time they have to read non-academic books like novels and popular non-fiction. And they’re right – finding time for pleasure reading can be a challenge in grad school. Just getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly and maintaining a social life are often enough of a challenge without finding time to pleasure read added to the mix.


But it’s not impossible and small changes really can go a long way. If you miss reading for pleasure and can’t get yourself to read a long book here are a few things to consider:


  • Start small. If it’s been a while since you read a book cover to cover, start small. Pick up something that energizes and inspires you: a motivational book, a self-help book, some short stories or a poetry collection.

  • Be kind to yourself. Reading for pleasure should be just that, for pleasure. This isn’t about honing your expertise, complexifying your argument or impressing your profs. That pile of books you know you should be reading that you keep stacked next to your bed is irrelevant here. This isn’t about your research (at least not directly) and it’s not about other people either; there’s no one watching, no one judging. So go ahead, read what you crave and what you think will make you feel better!

  • Try audiobooks. Audiobooks are a fantastic option for your commute (especially if you drive or get nauseous reading on the bus) and for those days when your eyes are just too tired to read print. I used to download my audiobooks from iTunes but this past summer I got hooked on Audible. Audible lets you download two books for free if you sign-up for their 30-day free trial and they also have a huge repository of older and/or obscure titles that they offer at no cost. At $14.95/ month for one audiobook (and $22.95 for two), Audible is not cheap by any means, but I like the incentive of the subscription to keep going.

  • Ban distractions from your bedroom. Unless I’m having one of those nights when I just wanna binge-watch bad TV, electronics are banned from my bedroom after 9:30PM. Only by turning my bedroom into a stress-free zone can I find the concentration (and willpower) to read before bed. I try to keep at least a few different books handy on my nightstand; this way I can always choose according to my mood and energy levels. And sometimes that just means reading Harry Potter for the gazillionth time ;)

  • Re-read a book you already love. Sometimes the best vacation for your brain is that which takes you to a safe, familiar place. When you re-read a loved book you read it faster and you already know what happens so if you have to put it away for a few weeks, you won't lose the plot. Most important, pleasure is guaranteed (no wasting time on a stinker of a book)!

  • Schedule “reading time” in your calendar. I’ve made a habit of scheduling reading time in my calendar the same way I do appointments and fitness classes. It’s the first step toward “making time” for something that can feel so self-indulgent and, well, peripheral. The time that works best for me is early in the morning and late in the evening (it’s the best way to start and end a day!) but if you’re unsure just try out different times.

  • Stop reading online news articles. A couple of years ago the Guardian ran an article arguing that online news is bad for our health. While this may sound a tad extreme, the points Rolf Dobelli makes in that piece are actually quite strong (go see for yourself). Dobelli argues, amongst other, that news pieces just feed us “small bits of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking.” And at the end of the day, if you want to find time for reading, you need to take time away from something else.

  • Use a reading tracker. You can use different websites to track your reading process throughout the year; my personal favorite is Shelfari, but there are tons of others, including Goodreads, Delicious Library and LibraryThing. While the aesthetic and user interfaces are different, the features across websites are roughly the same: you can see your reading stats, keep track of the books you wanna read later on, add reviews and notes and see what your friends are reading. Most of these sites also make recommendations based on the books you’ve read and enjoyed.


Ultimately, finding the time to read for pleasure starts with an acknowledgement that something is amiss and a decision to change one's habits. When you decide to spend (more) time doing something, you must also choose what you will no longer do. While “time hacks” like audiobooks are wonderful, they certainly can't change the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day. So before you get started on your “making time to read” project, consider what you are willing to forfeit.


Do you read for pleasure? How do you find the time? Add your tricks and suggestions to the comments below!

[Image by David Goehring and used under Creative Commons Licensing.]

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