Heather VanMouwerik's blog

My Dissertation Go Bag


Heather VanMouwerik is a PhD candidate in Russian History at UC Riverside. She is also the Managing Editor for GradHacker, a blog for Inside Higher Ed. Follow her on twitter or check out her website.

I am a pretty creative person. However, my creativity reaches superhuman levels when it comes to avoiding my dissertation. I’m too cold; I’m too hot. Neither of my desks in my apartment feel right today, nor does my kitchen table or couch. I need more light; I need less light. Whatever comes up, I know I can justify skipping out on writing because of it.

In order to ensure I actually get writing done on a regular basis, I carefully plan my work schedule in advance, block out time and utilize work timers, set up workspaces in my home that I want to be in—all things that make working on my dissertation easier to do. Sometimes this means leaving my apartment completely and working for a while out in the world, like at the library, a coffee shop, or outside somewhere. Nevertheless, my propensity to avoid writing follows me.

That is why I keep my Dissertation Go Bag by the door. Like its namesake, the emergency go bag, this backpack is ready to go at a moment’s notice and has everything in it (except my computer) I need to survive a writing session at the library or coffee shop. This means that I am always prepared to get to work, which minimizes any excuses I might create to avoid writing.

Here is a list of items that I keep in my Dissertation Go Bag, items that make it easier for me to write:

Scratch Paper: Although I do most of my writing on the computer, sometimes I need to map out an idea, create a checklist, or scratch some sentences out by hand. Keeping an inexpensive spiral notebook in my bag means I am ready for any sort of form my writing will take. Also, I keep a stack of blank 3x5 index cards. Sometimes, when I am stuck, jotting ideas on the cards and physically moving them around the table helps me visualize a difficult section.

Pencil Pouch and All the Pens: In a similar vein, I store a stationary store’s worth of pens, pencils, highlighters, and erasers in my bag.  A few weeks ago, I actually left the library because I didn’t have enough highlighters to, in my mind, properly color code my notes. Having a variety of options easily accessible means I have fewer excuses like this. Plus it justifies having a cute pencil pouch, which definitely helps me be more productive.

Extra Power Cords: Let’s say you’re in the library or have just settled into a coffee shop, you’ve set up your computer, stacked some books up, and gotten your favorite pen out—you’re ready to work! Until, that is, you realize your computer is about to die. There is nothing worse! After forgetting to bring my computer cord a couple of times, I bought a new one specifically to keep in my Go Bag. Also, I added a phone charger, too. This way I’ve always got power when I’m ready to write.

Sticky Notes in Every Size: Do I need to remember to pick up something at the grocery store on my way home from working? I have a sticky note for that. Do I need to mark a passage in a book? I have a sticky note for that, too. Do I need to add something to a cramped page of notes? Yup, I have a sticky note for that. Keeping a load of different style sticky notes in my bag means that I can be 3-dimensional in my writing, making life easier and minimizing work-curbing distractions.

Earplugs/Earphones: Despite your best intentions, writing in public requires, well, a public. From noisy children to weirdly humming lights, there is a whole array of distractions out there that you can use as an excuse to not get any work done. In my Go Bag, I have anticipated this! I have several sets of earplugs, my preferred method for tuning out the word, and a pair of earphones (that I use with my favorite white-noise app). Like the computer cord, these are extras, meaning they always stay in my bag so they are always there when I need them.

Snack, Preferably Something Chocolate: Hunger (or the illusion of hunger) is an easy excuse to end a writing session early. That’s why I make sure to keep a couple of nut-heavy granola bars, preferably ones dipped in chocolate (duh!), in my bag. They give me a hit of protein and sugar to keep my energy up, a dose of chocolate to up my endorphins, and are easy to eat quickly in the library stairwell.

Empty Water Bottle: Like with the snack, you can’t let thirst put you off working. So keeping a water bottle in your bag insures you stay productive and hydrated. Plus refilling my water bottle is one of my favorite study breaks, because it only takes five minutes and reminds me to stretch and move around a bit.

$10 Cash: Coffee doesn’t buy itself, so I keep a little bit of cash tucked into my Go Bag for caffeine-related emergencies.

A Scholarly Sweater and Typing Gloves: Sitting in one place for a few hours, especially one as cold as a library, can be profoundly uncomfortable. To protect myself, I keep a sweater in my Go Bag. But it isn’t just any sweater. Oh, no! It is the perfect writing sweater: cozy and loose fitting with extra-long sleeves. If you are prone to getting cold, I would also recommend keeping a pair of fingerless gloves in your bag. That way you can keep your hands warm and type at the same time.

What do you need to work effectively outside in public? What would your Dissertation Go Bag have in it? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user stwn and used under the Creative Commons.]

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Thursday, September 27, 2018
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Getting Through Graduate School with a Day-to-Day Job


Heather VanMouwerik is a candidate in the history department at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the Managing Editor for GradHacker, a blog for Inside Higher Ed. You can follow her @HVanMouwerik or check out her website.

About three years ago, my now-husband took his dream job and moved across the country. After spending a year separated by an entire continent, I quit my TA-ship, filed for in absentia, and moved to be with him. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.

Once I was settled in my new state, it was time to get working! However, after a few months, my savings account was running low, I was lonely and isolated, and I wasn’t making much progress on my dissertation. Honestly, I was pretty low. But after discussing it with my partner and doing a lot of thinking, I decided to get a job. Not a career, adjunct position, or anything inside academia, but an easy, clock in/clock out, workaday job. As opposed to a career (the thing I went to graduate school for, interned for, and dream about), I define a day-to-day job as something that does not require a lot of experience, something that does not require you to give it much thought on your days off. It is often fun, but also temporary.

If you are in a position where your funding has run out or a major life change requires a readjustment to your schedule, then getting this sort of job might just be the answer. Here are a few things to think about, though, before you make your decision:

Are you sure you have applied for all the grants/fellowships/awards you can?

Before moving, I applied for every grant or fellowship that I could in hopes of staying in academia. However, it just wasn’t my funding cycle. I was intense about it, too—spreadsheets, schedules, courses through Grad Division. Although I was interviewed for a couple and made it to the second or third round on a few more, nothing came through. Being so far removed geographically from my home campus (and my *cough* seniority within my program) meant these methods of funding my education dried up quickly. I didn’t have to like it, but I did need to reconcile with it.

What would the benefits be if you got a day-to-day job?

I fully recognize that I came at this question from a position of privilege. I had a TA position, which I chose to leave. This means that money was tight, but my partner and I were not starving. In addition, neither of us had any dependents to worry about. I don’t think I would have chosen to get a job if money had been the only concern; however, it wasn’t. I discovered in those first few months that I did not handle unemployment well. The hours of the day would spread out in front of me, paralyzing me with fear and loneliness. I would start each day with the best intentions, but by noon I was watching Netflix and feeling sorry for myself. I needed socialization; I needed boundaries and a schedule. For me, getting a job meant interacting with people, establishing a clear schedule, and bringing in a little extra money.

The costs?

The biggest cost for me (and most likely you) is that of time. If you get a job outside of the university, then it is going to be up to you to carve out time to work on your dissertation. This means you that will have little free time to yourself and that you will have to get vicious in defending it. I found the people posting on #phdweekend super helpful in this regard. More surprising for me was how difficult it is to exist in a work environment where being a graduate student or having an advanced degree isn’t important. Losing my identity as a graduate student was profoundly painful. I struggled to explain to my coworkers what it is actually like to be working on a Ph.D. Some days it felt like a failure—to finish, to find funding, to be an academic. But I can live with all of these costs, because they are temporary and they are actually helping me achieve my larger goal.

Have you made sure that you’ve minimized your expenses? Have you talked to your department?

If money is a large part of your decision to get a job, then it might be a good idea to first make sure that your expenses are minimized. While making the decision to get a job, I wrote up a budget and started religiously following it. Also, I had a long and honest talk with the graduate student advisor in my department. Tuition, health insurance, fees, and completion schedules—she laid everything out and helped me make the most fiscally responsible decision while also working toward my degree. I found that getting all of these nuts and bolts together first meant that I had a very clear sense of my financial situation and that I knew exactly what my goals were

Are you looking for a career or a way to pay the bills? Is part-time enough, or do you need full-time?

I now work for an independent bookstore, which is a great job! Being surrounded by books and the people who love them all day keeps me intellectually stimulated. Even more than that, it has reignited my love for pleasure reading. But it is still retail. My schedule changes from week-to-week, the work is a lot of standing and lifting and shelving and more shelving, and it isn’t my dream job. Before applying to the bookstore, I tried to get into a career. I applied to libraries, academic departments, and private schools; however, the market is tight. The rejection letters, common in those first months on the market, did nothing for my productivity or sense of isolation. So I decided to get a job quickly, one that could pay the bills and get me out of the house. I still apply for those dream jobs as they come up, just in case, but these applications are now sent from a place of stability and productivity.

What is your work/life/dissertation plan?

Before signing up for a job—be it a career or a just-for-now—be clear with yourself: When are you going to work on your dissertation? How are you going to be held accountable? What is your schedule? Now that I have been doing this for a year, I have learned a lot about myself and my productivity. I used to think that I could only work in the morning, because in graduate school I got most of my work done early, before classes. What I have discovered, though, is that it is less about the time of day and more about the habit. Instead of getting up earlier and working, I spend the morning with my partner, go to work, get a cup of coffee in town, and go to the library to work for a couple of hours. This habit, this ritual is all I need to be productive.

Although I have presented this process in a linear and straightforward way, it isn’t. I still go back-and-forth. Should I have held out for a more academic job? Do we really need to have two cars? Why couldn’t I get even one grant? Just last month, for example, I decided to drop down from full- to part-time, because I was starting to lose the thread, to forget that I was writing my dissertation first and working second. This list of questions is meant to be constantly revisited, constantly reevaluated as your personal needs and priorities change.

Have you had to take on a day-to-day job in graduate school? What helped you balance work/life/dissertation? Let us know about it in the comments!

[Image, which is in the Public Domain, is by Flickr user rob walsh.]

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018
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A Public Domain Primer for Graduate Students


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website.


For lovers of Sherlock Holmes, the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, this is a great time to be alive! There are the adventurous Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law films, the more cerebral and moody British Sherlock series (for which I have a love-hate relationship), and the American crime procedural, Elementary, with the best Watson to date. This doesn’t even begin to touch upon the more subtle variations on the character, to which a murder-mystery aficionado is exposed on a daily basis. Although Holmes’s brand of drug-addled genius is clearly engaging to the pop-culture zeitgeist, his current popularity has as much to do with a 2014 court case and the concept of the public domain as it does his modern appeal.


I am not a lawyer and this article does not constitute legal advice; however, as in my previous articles on fair use and the Creative Commons, I believe it is important for graduate students to be aware of copyright law and how it affects our work. Public domain deals with materials that, though they were at one point covered by a copyright, are now available for the public to use in whatever capacity they wish (as long as they cite, of course). No need to seek approval; no need to notify anyone. This designation can arise in a variety of ways. Usually the copyright just expires, either when the owner has long passed away or has failed to renew it, but it can also occur when the owner dedicates the item to the public (surrendering his or her claims to its use) or the item was created before copyright laws were even invented (1787).


Identifying whether or not an item is in the public domain is surprisingly difficult. Although there have been several attempts to create a more streamlined international legal code, the terms of copyright still vary wildly. A common refrain in the United States is that anything before 1923 is in the public domain; however, that is only applicable to published works. Manuscripts, for example, and other unpublished works have their own copyright laws with completely different legal restrictions. Some places adhere to a 50-year rule, which states that items enter into the public domain 50 years after the death of the author. In the United States, it is 70 years after the death of the author, but there are so many exemptions to this guideline that it cannot be relied upon.


Returning to the case of Sherlock Holmes, in 2014 Sir Arthur’s estate sued a publisher of Sherlock Holmes anthologies, claiming that, although many of the Holmes novels were clearly in the public domain, the character of Holmes was not since several of his novels were published after 1920. The court found that the character was in the public domain, but the characteristics revealed in the later novels were not. This opened up a floodgate of Sherlock Holmes-related TV, films, and other adaptations, because, as long as characteristics and backstories from those final books were avoided, he was part of the public domain and free to use.


I really wanted to share the saga of Sir Arthur’s popular character for two reasons, beyond the fact that I am a huge Holmes fan. First, it illustrates the potential pitfalls that might face a graduate student conducting research on materials seemingly in the public domain. Second, it demonstrates the potential research value and creative output in something freely available.


When considering using materials in the public domain in your dissertation, here are a few things to take into consideration:


Do IT! Did you know J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is still under copyright protection in the UK, but much of Jane Austen's oeuvre is in the public domain? Or that it is a pain to get permission to publish a single quote from a Charles Dickens novel? That government documents are largely part of the public domain regardless of when they are published? Since time and money are usually at a premium in graduate school, it might be worth doing a little research into which items are in the public domain and which are not.


Location, Location, Location. Technically speaking, nothing is part of the public domain unless it is copyright-free everywhere in the world. Nevertheless, the term tends to be used in a local context, too. Every year in the United States, National Public Domain Day (January 1) marks the inclusion of new materials into this local public domain, and it is fun to see what items become available each year. As a graduate student, you need to take into account the geographic reach of your dissertation. Where is it being published? Where will it be available? Answer these questions, and you will have a good idea what sort of copyrights you will need to address.


Know the Law Before You Begin Your Research. Although most of your research qualifies under fair use laws, it is worth considering materials in the public domain. Not only does the public domain carry far fewer restrictions, it allows you to be flexible in the future uses of your dissertation, like a book project. Most universities have a lot of resources available on the topic of copyright law, and many Graduate Divisions offer seminars or one-on-one consultations throughout the year. Although these tools are geared toward late-career graduate students, I recommend seeking them out as early as possible. To be honest, I wish more schools required students to research the legal status of their materials as a part of their dissertation proposal process. The earlier you know what will be required of your specific research, the better prepared you will be to get the permissions at the end of it.


Make a “Best Effort.” As the case with Sherlock Holmes demonstrates, the public domain is not always straightforward. Unless you are in law school to become a copyright lawyer, you are not equipped to be an expert in it. Thankfully, no one expects you to be. To stay on the right side of the law, you need to put your best effort into identifying a potential copyright holder, consult professionals at your university, and address any copyright infringements as soon as you are made aware of them. There are resources to help you make this effort, like Stanford’s excellent examination and the U.S. government’s website.


Ask, Ask, and Ask Again. In the end, it is always important to consult with your school’s graduate division on the copyright status of the materials you cite in your dissertation. They are familiar with the laws and trained to help you navigate copyright law. Follow their directions, contact them, and do your best. A little research in advance could save you a lot of stress and time in the end.


Have you found creative ways to use the public domain in your research? Let us know about it in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Bill Smith and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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Monday, October 9, 2017
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Monday, October 9, 2017

Morning Pages as Self-Care in Graduate School


Heather VanMouwerik is a candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Connect with her on Twitter or check out her website.


I am a reluctant morning person. It is not really my natural disposition, but a habit that my alarm clock has beat into me over the last thirty years. As such, I tend to start my day before the sun rises—a cup of coffee in my hand, eclectic music on the radio, and a notebook. Though I am busy with graduate school, a full-time job, volunteering, and other hobbies, this notebook and the first half-an-hour of my day are selfish and have nothing to do with any pressing commitments. Instead, this cheap, flimsy, college-ruled notebook serves only one purpose: to hold my Morning Pages.


An idea presented in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Morning Pages is a habit meant to free your mind of negative self-talk, impostor syndrome, and any other obstacles to your self-confidence. You are supposed to sit down every morning, first thing, and write three pages in your notebook—no more and no less. These pages should be filled with whatever comes to mind, though with an emphasis on what is troubling you. This includes school-related angst (bad feedback from your advisor, frustration in your research), work-related stress (annoying students, bad classes), and personal setbacks (failing to exercise, health problems, self-image issues). The goal is to gather all of the negativity in your life, concentrate it in one place, and dump it out onto the page. By clearing your mind of this garbage, you are freeing up mental space for your work, schooling, and personal fulfillment. And you are doing it before you even eat breakfast.


This isn’t my first foray into The Artist’s Way. Last year I recommended taking yourself out on a scholar date to reconnect with your inner intellectual. However, even I hesitated to employ Morning Pages, because it seemed too time consuming, counterintuitive, and potentially painful. I mean, who wants to start their day listening to their inner critic?


But, almost a year ago, my life got crazy—personally, physically, and professionally. For reasons I don’t recall now, I turned to Morning Pages as a way to cope with all of that stress, to help me create a new routine, and build healthier habits. Although I struggled with it at first, it has proven to be a valuable tool. It feels like wiping away the cobwebs from your windows. Not only is it the adult thing to do, tidying up your house, but you can actually see through the window more clearly (seriously, where do all those cobwebs come from?!?). Writing every morning does the same thing: it helps you clean up your mental cobwebs, which sheds light on the rest of your personal and professional life. Plus, it creates momentum--when you start your day writing, it is a lot easier to keep writing. And I am not alone! Morning Pages have helped people from a wide-array of professions, from scholars and TV personalities to artists and fellow GradHackers.


If you struggle with negative self-talk, lack of productivity, or just have serious writers block, maybe incorporating Morning Pages into your morning routine will provide a solution. At the very least, it will provide you with a clearer picture of your mental landscape.


Here are a few ways that I have found useful for incorporating Morning Pages into my grad school routine:


Start Gradually: For the first few weeks, it is going to take you a long time to fill three pages. This may be because you are still practicing self-censorship or because your hand can’t physically write fast enough. Either way it is a good idea to ease yourself into the practice. Write a page the first week and two pages the second and third. By the beginning of the fourth week, three pages will not seem as daunting. In fact, I’ll bet by the end of the first month you will easily generate the requisite pages in thirty minutes or less.


Or, Start Small: There is nothing in The Artist’s Way that says your notebook needs to be a standard size. So, for your first notebook, why not choose an inexpensive steno-style pad? This way you can write the three pages, but it would go a lot faster. As long as you work towards a larger notebook, challenging yourself to keep upgrading, then you are making progress towards your goal.


Never Re-Read Your Journal: This is a key component of the Morning Pages, but I think it deserves emphasis for graduate students. It is part of our training to be constantly editing our writing, paying attention to our words, and evaluating the results. This is antithetical to the intent of these pages. In fact, the goal is to eliminate completely any form of self-censorship. So you must resist the urge to reread anything that you write in your notebook. Focus on the flow, on the rhythm of writing, and not on the words themselves. Remember, just fill up the pages, the words themselves are unimportant.


Throw it in the Dumpster: Once you have filled the final page of your notebook, unceremoniously throw it in the garbage. Heck, go outside and throw it away in the dumpster so it is even farther away from you and your mind. The material you write about during your Morning Pages, the negativity and the self-doubt, do not deserve any space in your life or in your home. Even now, when it is time to throw my notebook out, I am overcome with a sense of pride. Not only did I stick to a healthy habit, but I confronted a lot of my self-doubt and silenced many of my inner critics along the way.


Really, writing Morning Pages feels a lot like confronting a monster under a child’s bed. By addressing the issues head on first thing in the morning, you can go about the rest of your day unencumbered, confident, and self-assured.


Have you experimented with Morning Pages? Or have you used another daily writing habit to similar effect? Please tell us about it in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user PaulThompsonXYZ and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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Thursday, September 28, 2017
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Organizing Grant Reimbursement Materials With Help from an Archivist


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Find her on Twitter, @HVanMouwerik, or check out her website.



Congratulations! You’ve gotten a grant to travel to a conference or to conduct research! No matter its size or function, that’s a big deal!


So, now what?


Most of these travel grants require you to pay up front for your trip, including airfare, mileage, hotel or room, library fees, visas, and food. You are only reimbursed after the trip. For poorly paid graduate students, the economic burden of this type of grant is heavy, making it potentially risky; however, it is often the only way for us to get any work done.


A lot of my research and travel over the last few years has been made possible by some sort of grant, but I have also made several costly mistakes along the way—lost receipts and frantic last-minute form submissions. These mistakes could have been avoided if I had approached my grant like an archivist.


When processing a new archival collection, archivists have to use their experience and knowledge to predict the future. They anticipate the preservation needs of the materials as well as the needs of researchers, with the goal of keeping the collection safe and accessible. In addition, archivists habitually document their work as they go, both for themselves and for the future. Not only does it make processing easier, it also generates a ton of metadata, which researchers and other archivists might find useful.


By keeping an archivist’s future-oriented perspective in mind, you can make the most of conference and travel grants while also decreasing your financial risks. In preparing for your trip, make sure that you have a very clear sense of what documents your grant requires for reimbursement, anticipate any issues that could prevent reimbursement, and document everything.


Below are a few ways you can achieve this. Although this advice is specific to travel grants, they are applicable to any situations that require out-of-pocket payment and reimbursement.


1)   Contact the grant’s administrator. Most acceptance letters include a contact person you can send questions to. Do so immediately, frequently, and kindly. There are many things that are going to come up over the course of planning your trip that you are going to need to know. I have had grants, for example, that allowed the purchase of alcohol and others that forbidden it; I have known people who have struggled to get payments for shared rooms and meals. It is best to know these policies and procedures in advance. In addition, you want to make sure that your contact person knows your name. Being engaged in the process and professional leaves a lasting impression, one that might be helpful if any problems come up.


2)   Get to know your department’s FAO (Financial Affairs Officer). Most grants are facilitated through your home department’s FAO in some way, even if the money doesn’t go through them. In my experience, most graduate students don’t even know who their FAO is, let alone how much they do to ensure students get their money. And this is a shame. I recommend getting to know them long before you receive a travel grant. Introduce yourself, say “Hi” at the department Christmas party, turn in your paperwork on time with a personalized email—anything to show you are engaged, professional, and personable.


3)   Mark important dates in your calendar. This is a point I cannot stress hard enough. Although you are thankful for the funding awarded by grant-giving institutions, remember that it is not their job to advocate for you or your money. As a graduate student with $200, $500, or $5,000 on the line, you cannot give them a reason not to reimburse you. So, make sure you follow the rules and write down all of your deadlines somewhere you will see them. I write everything in my Google Calendar, but also in my daily agenda with notes one, two, and three weeks in advance. Also, note when you expect to be repaid, so you can send a follow-up email if the funds are not forthcoming.


4)   Make reservations, documenting every step. Now that you know how much money you have to spend, it is time to start planning your trip. As you acquire tickets, reservations, rentals, and other travel-related expenses, make sure that you are saving everything. You can do this in several ways, but I recommend going “old school” by printing everything out and putting it into a folder. You are going to have to do this anyway when it is time to submit your reimbursement forms, so you might as well print everything in advance.


5)   Purchase a coupon folder and keep it with you. Yes, an envelope will serve the same function, but a segmented, accordion-style coupon folder is my grant-related travel MVP. I keep this tucked into my backpack, and I immediately put all receipts into it. This means that everything is in one place and there is no chance a random coffee receipt will go missing along the way. The sections of a coupon folder allow me to organize as I go, too, since I can file receipts by date or type—whichever the grant requires.


6)   Keep a running total. Open up a spreadsheet and make a list of your expenses with a running total of how much money you have spent versus how much you have left to spend. Not only will this keep you honest with yourself (things always add up faster than we think they will), but it will give you a way to double-check your math and to make sure that everything is accounted for.


7)   Pack white paper and tape. Most travel grants require original copies of all receipts; however, they will not accept a higgledy-piggledy stack of paper scraps. You are going to have to tape these receipts to plain white paper anyway, so you might as well do it as you go. Honestly, I don’t worry about doing this for short conference travel, but it is indispensable when I go on longer research trips. After a six-week trip, for example, I had accumulated more than 20 pages of receipts. I got in the habit of recording receipts every night before bed and taping them up.


8)   Photocopy or scan everything. Once you have completed your final reimbursement paperwork, including all of the forms and receipts, make sure that you photocopy or scan your entire packet before submitting it. Documenting like this is a good habit to get into, not least because it provides a back-up in the event that anything happens to the original.


Have you picked up any grant-related tips on your travels? Or do you have a financial cautionary tale from the road? Please, share them in the comments, because we would love to hear from you!


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

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Monday, June 5, 2017
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A Fair Use Primer for Graduate Students


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can contact her via Twitter or her website.



When I close my eyes and try to imagine what a Campbell’s Soup can looks like, I am not sure if what I see is the actual object or one of Andy Warhol’s famous works. These iconic cans, regardless of their importance to modern art and American history, are a tangle of popular culture, artistic expression, and copyright litigation, all of which knot around the concept of fair use.


Fair use is a designation within US copyright law, which recognizes that certain people under certain circumstances are allowed to use copyrighted materials without obtaining permissions or licenses in advance. Whereas Creative Commons makes materials available with minimal protections or none at all, fair use provides a few legal exemptions for copyrighted materials. There are limits to these exceptions, but they cover most forms of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.”


If Campbell’s had decided to sue Warhol for copyright infringement, his defense would have most likely been based on fair use. He may have argued that his appropriation of popular culture constituted a criticism of it and that his intentions were to create art (not cash). Although tenuous, given Warhol had to settle a later copyright dispute out of court, this example illustrates the flexibility of the doctrine of fair use.


Although we, as graduate students, frequently employ materials under this provision, I find we rarely take time to understand exactly what it entails. I have come across professors and other instructors who span the gamut on this issue. Some seem to think that anything is covered under fair use, like a copyright carte blanche to do what they want with others’ materials; others interpret the flexibility as a constant threat looming over them, so they avoid utilizing copyrighted materials at all costs.


As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Instead, I prefer to see the fair use doctrine as a safeguard against accidental plagiarism, recognition for the rights of the original author, and protection against copyright infringement.


Because each situation is slightly different and technology far outpaces legal code, the doctrine of fair use is meant to be flexible and particular to most situations. When using copyrighted material, there are four questions you need to ask yourself to determine if you are on the right side of the law. Note: none of these guidelines are meant to be taken individually. Instead, collectively, the answers should give you a general sense of whether or not your fair use claim is valid.


1. Why are you using this material? Although there is a general reprieve for educators and scholars, some materials you use may still be under copyright. If you are using the materials in your class, they need to be integral to the course content and only shared with your students. If you are using the materials in your research, then you have to ensure that it is not making any profit from the perspective of the courts. True, academic books and websites are not moneymakers, but in the outside world people commonly publish books and maintain websites to earn money. This nuance is not represented in the copyright code, so make sure you look at fair use from an outsider’s perspective.


2. What sort of material are you using? This guideline allows a court to take into account the author’s intention in creating the original item. If something was created as an artistic work or educational tool, then it is easier to claim fair use. But, if something was created specifically to earn money or to promote a business, then it is more difficult to claim it. This guideline gives weight to the idea that art is meant to inspire artists, educational resources are meant to teach, and a company’s logo is meant to sell products. The former two, when used to those ends by others, are keeping with the intent of the material, but using the latter would be more difficult to justify. Is this a fuzzy principle? Yes! Of course artists need money to survive and of course there are examples of courts siding with them on this issue; however, it is important to remember that fair use regulations take intent into account.


3. How much of the material do you intend on using? The less of something you use, the more likely you are to be able to claim fair use. A minute-long clip of a film is more likely to be fair use than the whole film, but a ten-second clip is even more likely to be fair use. The general lesson here is to use as little of something as possible.


4. Are you leaving a lasting effect on the original material? This guideline allows the courts to evaluate whether or not your use of the material is changing its market or earning potential. The best example of this would be Napster, the peer-to-peer file sharing service that was popular in the late 1990s, which was successfully sued for infringement of copyright (among other charges). Representatives of the music industry argued, in part, that file sharing occurring via Napster displaced the market for licensed music. Basically, they said that no one was buying CDs because they were downloading their music for free. On a smaller scale, this is why even educators cannot scan an entire book and make it available to students online. Books earn money through sales, and giving them to students in their entirety would substantially decrease the market for that book and potentially inspire other instructors to do the same. This guideline applies to your particular use of the material, but also the material’s market if everyone used it in the same way you did.


This is all great in the abstract, but what does it mean for you and your work? Below are a few fair use scenarios you might find yourself in:


1. Showing a Film to Your Class: Several times over the course of being an instructor, I have used class time to show a movie, like Paths of Glory. According to most film copyright licenses, this would qualify as a public performance of the film and would require me to get permission and pay before screening it. And, yes, it is problematic for my fair use claim to be showing the film in its entirety. However, this is where the educator exemption comes into play. Because the content of the films are directly related to the content of my course and my students are being evaluated on it (i.e. using it for a writing assignment, the basis for participation points, or as a question on an exam), I am demonstrably using the film for educational purposes. In addition, the library purchased the films and only my students are present at the screening, insuring that the economic interest of the film’s copyright holders remained intact.


2. Distributing PDF Documents to Your Students: Like I mentioned before, copyright law moves slower than technology, so sometimes it fails to take into account issues that new technology brings. The existence of PDFs is one example of this. Although most textbook publishers allow instructors to copy and distribute to their classes small sections (think a chapter or less) of their books under fair use, the same provision does not necessarily apply to creating PDFs and posting them online for students to access. If, for example, you posted the document on your public course website, then anyone could have access to it. This breaks several aspects of the fair use doctrine, especially the provisions for use and the larger effect on the author’s future earnings on their work. What you can do, however, is post the PDFs to a closed network, one which is exclusive to your students like Blackboard or another learning platform. I like the freedom of public websites for courses, but I always post copyrighted materials on the private learning platform. For instructors who do not have access to these private systems, you could create invite-only Google Docs or files on Dropbox to protect your fair use materials.  


3. Sources in Your Dissertation: For a lot of students, their dissertation will live on only in a handful of copies at the library. Sources that you excerpt or images that you use in it will usually qualify as fair use, and you do not need to worry about getting official permissions. However, for an increasing number of us, dissertations go on to be published by our universities online somewhere. While this is great for getting our work out to other scholars, it also means we need to pay more attention to getting the official licenses to our sources. Luckily most academic libraries, research institutions, and special collections offer fair use permissions for just such occasions. All you need to do is apply to the institution, being specific about how the materials are being used, and they confirm that your work adheres to fair use. Most US universities have very clear copyright information available alongside their guidelines for dissertation submission, so make sure your check those out. Also, as a reminder, even if you were given permission to use something under fair use in your dissertation, that same license will no longer apply when you turn your research into a book or article.


Those are just a few examples to give you a sense of the fair use exemption to copyright law. Although it is confusing, it is important to do your best to stay within the law. Not only does it set a good example for your students, but it could save you a lot of headaches in the future.


Need more guidance? Check out these helpful resources:

- Columbia University’s Fair Use Checklist

- Using Images: Copyright & Fair Use from MIT

- Reproduction for Educators from the US Copyright Office

[Image by Flickr user Ben Mason and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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Mentoring as a Graduate Student


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. Find her on Twitter or read more on her website.



Honestly, I had no intention of becoming anyone’s mentor. I was deep into the “make it work” stage of my academic career: my dissertation was stagnating, I was teaching a new course in a new discipline, my partner had gotten a job across the country, and I was having health problems.


Nevertheless, despite my being lost in the fog of graduate school, an undergraduate found me and turned me into a mentor. And I am thankful every day that she did.


Oddly enough, I was never even C’s teacher; she was never my student. I was an intern archivist, she was a student assistant, and we shared a basement workroom in the library. Chatting to keep our minds occupied while processing a collection and keep our bodies from freezing, we became good friends over a mutual interest in history, archival management, and Ryan Gosling memes.


In many ways C is like a better-prepared version of myself. She is pursuing a degree in history, loves digital humanities, and wants to work in a library or museum. Already in her fourth year, she has a clarity of purpose and knows what she wants from life—things I still sometimes struggle to put together.


Although she had the broad strokes of her academic career outlined, she was missing some of the finer details. She just needed some nuts-and-bolts type information about being a public historian. Answers to questions like:


What sort of topics make good research projects

How do you find a valuable internship?

What do you do in library school?

What jobs can a history major do?

What is the best way to write a grant proposal that will be funded?


All things in which I am expert!


There are a lot of ways that mentorship benefits undergraduates and even first-year graduate students. People with mentors, for example, are more likely to matriculate, have higher grades, and feel more included in their university, which are all markers for academic success. Mentorship in this case, however, isn’t superficial. It requires a long-term commitment with frequent meetings, emails, and check-ins—a truly active can professional interest in the success of your mentee.


In modern universities, especially in large research institutions, this sort of deep commitment is nearly impossible to give to an individual student, let alone an entire class. Being a mentor is not a job requirement and adds strain to an already tight schedule. Moreover, many of the benefits to the instructor are intangible, meaning they do not result in a new line on your CV.


Yet, I argue that it is important, especially for graduate students, to take on an undergraduate mentee or first-year graduate student. Even if it is just one; even if it is for a short period of time. Setting aside all of the benefits to undergrads and any altruistic rationales, being a mentor will improve your sense of well-being, your overall graduate school experience, and professional satisfaction.


In my experience, mentorship helps graduate students in four ways:


Fight impostor syndrome. While I helped C piece together her awesome future—from discussing possible careers to line editing an occasional statement-of-purpose—she was also helping me see my own value as a scholar. I might feel like an impostor when I am writing my dissertation or talking at conferences, but C never saw me that way. Instead, she saw me as an expert in my field (which I am), a resourceful research assistant (yup), and a fluent speaker of academic-ese (oh, yes). Working with a student one-on-one allows you to put your knowledge to good use and the rest of academia into perspective. You are no impostor, and a mentee will prove that to you.


Deepen your community. Even the most anti-social amongst us spends graduate school putting together a network of people, one which consists of professors, advisors, other scholars in our field, peers, classmates, friends, students, and helpful administrators. In fact, graduate school could not happen without this community. Every person we interact with enriches it, especially when that person is a mentee. Mentorship requires you to build a different type of relationship than any other in your network. It is informal and familiar while still being professional and, to a certain extent, hierarchical. No syllabi or grading, just coffee, advice, and dialogue.


Articulate yourself. One of the most unexpected benefits I gained from working with C was the ability to better articulate what I do. When she asked questions, I had to think about not only the answer to those questions, but also the best way to make that information accessible to her. This involved many discussions about framing arguments, for example, and selling research to grant committees. Mentorship is great practice for everything from writing a teaching philosophy to perfecting your elevator pitch, since the stakes are low and there is no search committee to impress. It is just a mentor and her mentee chatting about school, careers, and life.


Doing good while making friends. Being a mentor takes a lot of time and mental energy—a point that I do not want to understate—but the results far surpass anything you put into it. Motivation, however, to help a student in this way must come from within, since it will not appear on an evaluation or performance review. Like donating to a charity or contributing to the Creative Commons, helping C made me feel good. I was doing something worthwhile, something with long-term meaning. Likewise, it sets you up to be a fantastic graduate and undergraduate mentor in the future. Also, she became my friend, which was its own reward.


Over the summer C participated in a prestigious digital history internship on the east coast, and she is currently doing university-funded research into the exploitation of Guatemalan women by American scientists in the 1950s. Trust me, I brag about her all of the time! Although she has done all of the hard work, I can’t help but feel proud of her achievements.


From my position as a late-career graduate student, I recommend you find someone who needs some advice. Schedule an informal meeting, buy them a cup of coffee, or send them an email. If you take some time to get to know a student and teach them something outside of the classroom, then you might just be surprised what they have to teach you about being a graduate student in return.


Have you taken on a mentee? What sorts of things did you learn from the experience? Please, let us know about it in the comments!

[Image from Flickr user Ivan T, modified by Heather VanMouwerik, and used under Creative Commons License.]

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A Creative Commons Primer for Graduate Students


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D. candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter, @hvanmouwerik, or check out her website.



Summers in North Carolina were always long, boring, and hot. In order to survive the humidity, my sister and I would spend the morning at the community pool and the afternoon stuck inside. While Kristin preferred to play with her Little People, I would take over the kitchen countertop, covering it with crayons, colored paper, scissors, eight kinds of markers, two kinds of colored pencils, glitter, beads, magazines, and cool leaves I found in the yard. Then I would take a giant piece of construction paper and create these elaborate collages, displaying all of my little treasures by gluing them together.


I still love collages, but I don’t really have the time to create glitter-covered art anymore. Instead, as a graduate student in a visually uncreative field (history), I seize every opportunity to do creative work--making posters, adding pictures to my dissertation, writing lectures, and building websites. I love riffing on preexisting art, borrowing images from the internet and either using them as-is or mixing them into something new.


Images from the internet--any work of art, photograph, graph, or any digital visualization--is the property of the original creator and under copyright protection. In order to stay on the right side of law, I make sure that all of the visual materials I use as a graduate student are posted under a Creative Commons license and are properly attributed.


The Creative Commons, an organization started in 2001, was founded to promote responsible and legal use of media available on the internet. They believe, and I agree, that the internet provides a fantastic opportunity to form creative communities, display creative products, and inspire creative expression; however, this all must be done with respect to the rights of the artist or author. Yet, identifying and defining these rights, up until then, was difficult, unclear, and legally fraught. An artist or author didn’t quite understand their rights in posting an original work; a user of someone else’s original work didn’t know what they were legally able to do with it.


So, in an effort to make posting online easier and clearer, they put together the Creative Commons license, which outlines the types of rights artists and authors have over their work online. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, these licenses allow the poster to choose how much control she or he has over her or his own material.


There are four key components to Creative Commons: attribution (must cite original work), share-alike (your new work must be shared under the same license as the original work), non-commercial (the primary purpose of using the work cannot be for monetary gain), and no derivatives (you cannot alter the original work in any way). All of these licences except no derivatives allow you to alter or mix the original in any way you want, making it part of your new work. When you post a picture to Flickr, for example, you can pick between these four components, creating the license that best represents your desires. Better yet, the language of the licenses are free to copy and use. If you post a photo on your blog, for example, you can let users know exactly how they are allowed to use it by borrowing what you want from the Creative Commons.


As graduate students, we have many opportunities to benefit from materials posted under any version of the Creative Commons license. For the sake of brevity, I have limited the following examples to images; nevertheless, Creative Commons licenses can be applied to video, audio, and text-based media as well.


1) Dissertations and Seminar Papers: In my dissertation, I am making use of three schematics I found listed under an attribution-only license. This means, as long as I cite the proper source, I do not have to worry about getting permissions to use the images before I submit my dissertation for review. One less thing I need to worry about when the time comes. In addition, if I decide to post parts of my dissertation on my website, I can do so easily and legally. Images add so much to academic papers, so (if you can) think about adding some from sources with clearly articulated licenses.


2) Publications: Many academic presses are run through non-profit organizations, like institutes and public universities. This means that, even if  an image forbids commercial use, you can use it if it is under a Creative Commons license. This saves you a lot of time tracking down copyright information and money to buy the right to publish.


3) Lecture Slides: Yes, you can use just about any image in your lecture or class slides without breaking copyright law, because it is for educative purposes and doesn’t involve money. And it is highly unlikely that, even if you use an item without attribution, that you will be persecuted. However, it is always considered best practice to use images legally and with clear attribution. Also, if you start with images under a Creative Commons license, then you won’t have to worry about tracking down the copyright information if you decide to post your lecture slides online. Trust me: I have wasted hours doing this!


4) Teachable Moments: Since I teach history and English composition courses, I try to model proper citation techniques at all times. By including an attribution and mentioning the Creative Commons license on any qualifying picture or map, I am helping students understand what needs to be cited, when, and how.


5) Posters and Advertisements: Perhaps it is the stifled collage artist in me, but I love making posters and advertisements for events, talks, and courses for the department. If you don’t have an image to use in your design, materials in the Commons are a good place to turn. It is easy and could really make your poster standout on a crowded bulletin board.


6) Social Media and Website Building: We here at GradHacker use images in the Creative Commons to draw in our readers and make our posts look professional. You can use this same principle in your online writing, too. As long as you attribute, you can really make a statement online by using or remixing images available in the commons. You can put an image on a blog post, for example, or get inspiration and raw materials for a cool Twitter header.


Now that you have a better idea of what the Creative Commons license entails and why it is important, it is time for the fun stuff: finding some awesome resources! Below is a list of resources I have relied upon:


1) Flickr and Other General Pools of Images: If you just need a snapshot of an everyday item or a widely available image of a person or place, then a user-generated pool of images is going to be your best friend. Flickr, for example, is a website that allows anyone to load and share photographs. When a user loads an image, they have choose which (if any) Creative Commons license they want. Just be careful when you search on websites like this, since not all content is free to use and mix. On Flickr they make the license very clear, but it might not be that way on every site.


Some sites, as a way to get around this confusion, require all uploaded images to be completely free of any copyright. Wikimedia Commons, for example, is where Wikipedia stores its images. All material found there is free to use and mix, which is why it is my first stop when I am writing lectures.


2) The Met and Other Art-Related Museums: Although the art and the objects in a museum are not necessarily under copyright, images taken of these materials by the museum for publications or promotional use are. Any time you are on a museum’s website, for example, the collection of images are the property of the museum and cannot be used without explicit permission. This is very frustrating for those of us who rely on museums for research or lesson planning.


Nevertheless, in recent months, this seems to be changing. In a series of high-profile announcements, culminating in the Met’s entire catalogue, museums have started opening up their collections under a Creative Commons license. This makes museums one of the leading voices for increasing the availability of quality materials, making their images available to everyone from graduate students who don’t have the money to travel for research, professors building lectures, and undergrads writing research papers.


3) Google Earth/Maps and Other Map Makery: Although not strictly a part of the Creative Commons, Google has licensed images captured on Google Earth and maps made on Google Maps under very similar conditions. As long as either the Google icon is visible or you clearly cite Google in the image’s caption, then you can use the image in any non-commercial context without approval or monetary compensation.


This post is just the tip of the Creative Commons iceberg. For more information, check out the Creative Commons website, which also includes an ever-expanding list of resources.


Have you made use of materials under a Creative Commons license in your graduate school career? Or do you have a favorite Creative Commons resource? I, for one, am always looking for new resources, so please let us know about them in the comments!


[Image by Flickr user Naomi and used under Creative Commons license. I recommend taking a look at the rest of her collages, because they are beautiful!]

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The Importance of Female Friendship in Graduate School


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website.



I cannot remember the context, but sometime in high school, when I was sixteen, living in the suburbs, and hopelessly devoted (obsessed?) with the latest music, I was asked whether I prefer male or female singers. As I was answering--something about how men sang more interesting songs--it dawned on me: I was full of shit! How many female-led bands had I actually heard? When was the last time a radio station had played a song from an all-female band? How many songs by women could I name that were not about men or love? Until I could answer these questions, until I sought out bands that featured women prominently and changed to radio stations that were more inclusive, until I could understand the ridiculousness and the misogyny of the original question, I could not truly love female singers or female-led bands.


Being into female singers in the late nineties required work. I had to switch radio stations, go to random concerts, make different friends, and talk often to music shop employees. Nowadays I can more articulately explain the reasons behind the gender inequity in the music industry. But the fact remains that in order to fully appreciate the variety and mind-blowing badassness of women in music, you have to put in the leg work and seek them out.


Just like working for your music, in graduate school female friends are not necessarily easy to make or maintain, especially if you are a women in a male-dominated department. Towards the beginning of my second year as a history student in a Ph.D. program, I was overwhelmed, stressed out, lonely, and flailing about for focus and a purpose. I had a couple of great male friends, one of whom I am marrying later this year, but, since most of my professors and classmates were men, I often felt as though my problems were not all that important. And sharing these feelings just wasn’t a normal part of the history department’s culture.


Then I started teaching. For the first time, I shared an office with a group of amazing women and TA-ed alongside women who were further along in the program. Throughout the last five years, I have relied on them for validation, strength, and inspiration. It took a while for me to appreciate exactly what their friendships meant, but I know now that I would not have made it this far without them.


In general there are a lot of barriers to female friendship in graduate school yet the experience of graduate school is often very gendered. Women in graduate school, for example, are more likely to suffer from paralyzing impostor syndrome, and they are less likely to have same-gender advisors, mentors, and committee members as their male peers. In addition, their course evaluations are unfairly biased, and they are often required to “donate” more time to departmental service. I have had male students try to physically intimidate me into giving them better grades; I have been mansplained repeatedly in class. All of these challenges are difficult to deal with on a daily basis and impossible to do alone.


Female friendship, besides being uplifting in its own right, is one way to combat these gendered aspects of graduate school. It creates a community of support, albeit a small one, which helps women navigate the potential pitfalls and celebrate the many successes of graduate school. Although this post was written from my perspective as a straight woman, I believe that everyone benefits when they seek out platonic female friendship, normalizing the presence of women in academia and calling attention to its value.


In honor of the holiday, here is a Valentine's Day typography for all of the women whose love and friendship helped me through graduate school and who have made me a better woman and scholar.


Close Friends in the Department. Your friends in the department have the potential to turn into the most important friendships you will ever have. They know, for example, exactly what it is like to be an academic woman in your field. So, when you come up against a professional or personal barrier, especially when that barrier involves sexism, someone in your department, or both, they have either been there or know someone who has. I am lucky to have studied alongside two sharp, brilliant, kind, and generous women who I now call my friends. The first I met on the first day of class. As the only two female European-focused graduate students in our cohort, we took almost every class together for two years. We helped each other through the tough courses and laughed our way through the easy ones. We also cried together over negative feedback and partied together over our successes. I know I would have never made it through my master’s defense without her. The second friend I had known for a while, but, since she was a year ahead of me, we didn’t become friends until we started TA-ing together. She was generous with her teaching advice, she let me borrow her reading list when I needed one for a field exam, and she helped me prepare for my first plagiarism-related student conference. I know I can ask her for anything, and she will always be there to help me out.


Close Friends NOT in the Department. Although it is great to commiserate over shared experiences and help each other bear the workload, it is equally important to cultivate female friendships outside of your department. During my second year, I happened to take a class with a woman who, though like me was studying Russian theater, was in the dance department. Not only do we talk about our mutual academic interests, we also go to the ballet together, run through different approaches to take with our advisors, pass along grant applications, and complain about Russian bureaucracy, all while maintaining a distance from each other’s department. She inspires me by challenging my resolutely historical approach to academia, and I challenge her right back.


A Departmental Mentor. Peer-to-peer friendships are important, because they foster camaraderie and fight isolation. However, there are also benefits to friendships that transcend the hierarchy of graduate school. In particular, I recommend seeking out a female mentor who is a tenured or tenure-track professor in your department. Not only do these friendships allow you to see the department from a different perspective, female mentors can be great models for academic life and allies within the department. My mentor and I bonded over a mutual love of pedagogy and fascination with technology. Not only have we attended conferences together, we get coffee to check-in during the interims. I sometimes borrow her office when I need some quiet writing time. More importantly, she challenges me. When, for example, I was ignoring my research because I was taking on too many departmental service obligations, she called me out on it. Plus, I love geeking out with her about traveling, phone apps, and Zombies.


A Departmental Mentee. My role as a mentor to an aspiring archivist and historian was the last piece to fit into my female-friendship puzzle. An undergraduate, she shared an office with me in the library, and we would spend the many boring hours processing a collection talking about anything and everything that we could. She asked for advice on graduate school, possible careers in history, internships, and writing strategies for history papers. We discussed the good and the bad aspects of certain profs, and I would take a look at her fellowship applications. In addition, we would talk through her research projects and geek out on history together. Not only did I love seeing her evolve into an impressive scholar in her own right, I really liked being able to help her. Her success has made me so proud and given me a better understanding of my own talents and knowledge.


Galentines—or, a Community of Women. A few years ago, some women in our department, inspired by the estimable Leslie Knope, started a yearly women-only Valentine’s Day party, which celebrated a sort of girliness that is often derided in the field of history. Getting together like this, over the course of just a couple of years, facilitated a sense of camaraderie and reinforced the idea that we are all in this together. In addition to seeking out the women in your department, I also recommend seeking out women’s groups in your field’s professional organizations. If your field is relatively large, then there is most likely a professional organization totally dedicated to connecting and promoting women therein. However, even if your field is small, most of the larger organizations have smaller subgroups dedicated to women.


So, this year, I dedicate Valentine’s Day to Jennifer, Leanna, Juliette, Celeste, Lee, and all the ladies in the English and history departments at UCR! Thank you for all you have done, and I love each one of you so very much!


Have you benefited from a female friendship? Write them a Valentine’s Day note in our comments section!


[Image from Flickr user Amy Gizienski and used under the Creative Commons Licence.]

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Lowering the Stakes With Online Writing: A Case Study


Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on twitter, @HVanMouwerik, or check out her work on her website.



I have written several posts on digital literacy and pedagogy for GradHacker, many of which suggest ways to incorporate digital components into undergraduate courses. The overarching theme to all of my advice is simple: start with clearly articulated learning goals, and then find the right digital tools to achieve them. Not only does this help you focus on the learning objectives instead of being distracted by shiny new technologies, it also ensures that your students understand the value of the digital assignment and that you are not overwhelmed with troubleshooting.


So, today, I wanted to do something a little different. Instead of giving more advice along these lines, I wanted to walk you through how I approached and eventually solved a pedagogical puzzle with a digital tool. The rest of this post will walk you through how I developed a successful low-stakes online writing assignment for a beginning English Composition course, which might helpful for graduate students designing their first college course or more seasoned instructors who want to incorporate a little digital into their preexisting classes.


The Blog Project


The Problem: Undergraduates are arriving to school with little writing experience, which makes their transition into the university culture more difficult and convinces them that they are not and will never be “good” writers. The curriculum for introductory English composition courses focuses on the mechanics of formal essay writing and emphasizes imitation of scholarly style instead of developing an individual’s unique voice. This is part of the reason students find writing boring, stressful, and difficult, all understandable reasons for why they try to avoid it at all costs. Because of the significant time constraints (my university has a 10-week quarter), students leave English composition with only minor improvements in their writing. In addition, professors in other courses complain about undergraduate essays, saying they often put format (five-paragraph essays, for example) above content.


The Hypothesis: After teaching several composition courses—beginning to intermediate—I believe that students need instruction in the formalities of scholarly essay writing; however, this high-stakes writing, meaning assignments that are formal and graded with a rubric, needs to be paired with low-stakes writing—non-graded, informal, and often amusing assignments, which emphasizes experimentation and allows for failure. Over the course of the term, students are exposed to new methods of writing, new types of information, and (hopefully) new inspiration, which requires students have time and space to process. Yet, the only opportunity they have to explore these things is when they are being graded, a scary prospect for students that dampens their interest in experimentation. I propose a writing project, one that runs parallel to the formal essays, in which students are required to write almost daily in a wide array of styles. This project is considered low-stakes, because students are not graded on quality or success but on completion only. Its goal is to take away some of their writing-induced fear and help them find joy the process.


The Metrics: In designing this assignment, I decided to gauge its success or failure in two ways. First, by using an entry and exit survey, I wanted to see how many students claimed to enjoy writing and whether any students changed their minds over the course of the quarter. Second, I looked for improvement in formal essay writing scores. Although most students improve over the course of the quarter, I wondered if low-stakes writing would have an effect on the amount of improvement.


Early Failures: Once I had this model in mind, I taught English composition three quarters in a row. Unfortunately, the low-stakes writing assignments during those first two quarters were relatively unsuccessful.


In the fall, my low-stakes writing was rather old school. For each class, students typed and printed out a 250-word response to a prompt. They turned it in, and I superficially graded them (check plus/check/check minus). This proved an overwhelming amount of paper for me to evaluate each week. Also, I think, students found this to be a rather formal way of turning in an assignment meant to be informal. Overall, these writing assignments constituted only 5% of their final grade, which meant many students put little-to-no effort into them. So, based upon my rubric, this project was unsuccessful. Students only showed normal increases in formal writing scores, and the three people who reported enjoying writing at the beginning of the term fell to two by the end (a failure that still haunts me).


In the winter, I continued to require daily writing responses. This time, though, I had the students post them to blogs they set up through the university’s Blackboard system. I figured the format would be less formal and the system was private and secure, but it turned out that the Blackboard blogs were not up to the task. Not only were they fidgety when students wanted to include anything other than text, they lacked any sort of personalization—everyone’s blog looked the same, which was reflected in the uniformity of their writing. In designing the course, I upped the total weight of the assignment to 15%, which had a noticeable effect—almost all of the students submitted all of their posts. Yet, again, students only showed moderate gains in their formal writing scores, and the number of students who enjoyed writing stayed the same. In the exit survey, several students complained, because they could not see a connection between low-stakes and high-stakes writing. They felt that the daily writing interfered with the amount of time they had to focus on the graded essays.


These failures taught me three important lessons about low-stakes writing. First, low stakes does not mean low effort. Students were not benefiting from this assignment, because they saw it as being of lesser importance than the formal essays. Logically, they invested their time and energy into what mattered to them: their final grade. If low-stakes writing is to succeed, then it needs to carry substantial weight in the course’s rubric. Second, and this is where digital tools come in, I needed to find a way for students to feel more comfortable with the medium of the low-stakes writing. Preferably, they should be able to write from a variety of platforms, easily personalizing their blog and adding non-text content. Finally, I needed to be much more explicit about the connection between low- and high-stakes writing, to be clear on its pedagogical importance.


Finally, Success! In the spring quarter, I debuted a completely refurbished low-stakes writing assignment, and (spoilers!) it was successful according to every metric I had. At the beginning of the quarter, I had one student (a journalist-in-training) who enjoyed writing; at the end, I had 13. In addition, students increased their scores over the quarter more than in my first two quarters, giving me my first and second A+ paper as an English composition instructor! Although the sample size is too small to make any claims beyond the anecdotal, my metrics show significant student success.


The Project: The final iteration of the Blog Project had two components. First, each student had to set up a private Tumblr and periodically (~1-2 per week) post creative answers to the assigned prompts. Because this is a public platform, I walked them through setting up their security preferences and encouraged them to use aliases in their profile, which they shared with the class on a Google Doc. This section of the project was graded purely on whether or not the Tumblr post was completed on time.


Second, instead of a final exam or paper, the students had to write a reflective essay that evaluated their Tumblr posts in light of the readings we did in class, as if their Tumblr was written by a stranger. This metacognitive approach gave the students an opportunity to look at their work somewhat objectively, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Although the Tumblr posts were an example of low-stakes writing, this reflective essay required the students to blend together the various formal writing structures and mechanics of the high-stakes scholarly writing we studied throughout the quarter.


Having these two components accomplished two goals. First, it allowed me to justify weighing the project heavily in their final grade for the class. With 25% of their total score at stake, students took the blog posts very seriously. Second, the reflective essay clearly articulated the connection between low- and high-stakes writing, meaning students did not feel like the low-stakes writing was a waste of time.


Conclusions: In this example, the digital tool clearly took a background position to the project’s learning objectives. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I could have met these goals without the help of Tumblr itself. First, it was easy to use, since most of my students were already familiar with the site, and responsive enough to be accessed from a variety of devices (students without computers, for example, had no problem posting from their phones). Second, posting to Tumblr is much less formal than typing, printing, and turning in an assignment. This took a lot of the pressure off of students to do the assignment ‘right,’ and instead gave them the sense of freedom that low-stakes writing thrives on. Third, Tumblr is infinitely customizable. Students invested time in their site, because they could make it their own. By adding photos and changing the colors, they curated a space in which they could feel comfortable and over which they had ownership. And finally, it allowed students to continue to experiment with low-stakes writing outside of the course. Some of my students wrote multiple posts on a single prompt, taking their responses in a variety of directions; some ended up making their Tumblrs public and, to this day, post to it regularly. All of this was necessary to get my students comfortable enough to experiment, break the rules, embrace their uniqueness, and (finally!) enjoy writing.


Have you found yourself lost in a pedagogical puzzle? How did you find an answer? Please, let us know about it in the comments!

[Image provided by Flickr user Alan Levine and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Lowering the Stakes With Online Writing: <br>A Case Study


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