Farewell, 2020: Reflecting on This Cultural Moment

Picture of people in line, January 2020.
January 2020. In a line to pick up crates of Florida oranges.

One year ago, we were preparing to leave for Florida on a family vacation on New Year’s Day. By the time we were at Universal Studios on January 6th, I had heard a little bit about the new strain of coronavirus, but wasn’t too concerned at that point. When the semester began, my teaching assistant mentioned trying to buy masks to send home to her family in China. I casually remarked that I just couldn’t imagine that Americans would ever be willing to wear masks — that individualism would prohibit such collective active. I had no idea that we were on the cusp of a global pandemic.

By the beginning of February, the epidemic was raging in China and cases had started to appear in other countries. Stories of the quarantined cruise ships signified the virus’s potential spread. Locally, some people were, as I perceived then, irrationally worried about catching coronavirus, prompting me to write this op-ed. (Oddly enough, I’ve observed the same folks disregard the threat of COVID now). As cases spread throughout the world, I became addicted to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, an invaluable resource that has visually depicted the rise of the pandemic in-real time. Watching the numbers increase, first in Seattle, then in a scattering of other places, I wondered what was to come. I got an email from a New York Times reporter, asking about the politicization of the pandemic (even in February). This inquiry and subsequent article prompted me to really delve into what was being done and the skewed messages conveyed to the public.

COVID-19 entered my county in March. On Wednesday the 11th, MTSU President Sidney McPhee announced that all classes would resume remotely after an extended Spring Break. With this news, I advised my kids to bring home everything that they needed on that Friday, suspecting that they would be out for a bit. March 13th marked the last day of regular school, although we didn’t know it at the time.

With the shutdown, my blog became my outlet to the world. I wrote and shared so many blog posts that Facebook banned my website as spam. For me, writing these usually brief reflections has been cathartic. As our reality quickly morphed into a sweatpants existence, I needed a way to connect. At the same time, having just written a book on epidemics, I felt so many paralleled experiences to those of the past. Despite the blog format, I extensively researched all my historical entries — probably spending more time than one should for something with such little reach.

My explosion of media literacy activities stemmed from both my desire to give my kids something to do and to contribute to the wealth of materials that others were sharing last spring. Like many, my children had weeks with no school assignments and plenty of time to fill. I tried to give them something even remotely educational to help structure our day and attempt to teach them. (Note: they were often not thrilled with the theme days, essays, and other activities). Even though we were definitely privileged in our position, March and April were extremely stressful months for me. I was mostly failing at both teaching my own classes online and educating my children.

Picture of author dressed as Maria von Trapp
My kids were not amused when I woke them up dressed like Maria von Trapp on Sound of Music day.

Blogging provided me a way to express myself without the hassles of formal gatekeeping and to immediately respond to the moment, be it Trump’s outrageously dangerous claims about injecting bleach or the expectations of extending remote learning. Still, I periodically published pieces that went beyond this site, with articles on how past epidemics changed society, why the nickname “Typhoid Mary” shouldn’t be used, and on the shutdown’s disproportionate burden on mothers.

Summer brought more of a return to normalcy. I expect kids to be home then and we no longer faced the arduous list of online videos and assignments. Nice weather and the reopening of some businesses expanded our possible activities and made it feel more like vacation. I slowed down in blogging and writing to teach a class online and spend time outside with the kids. We focused on our Foss world, while keeping abreast of the turmoil of injustice.

With August came more mask mandate questions and school debates. Feeling like it was a lose-lose decision, we opted to send the kids back under the adopted protocol of required masks and distancing. I taught hybrid courses for the first time, lecturing under a mask in a ballroom-turned-classroom that seemed more appropriate for a time-share demo, rather than a college class. But, for what it was, it worked. We pushed through. The kids pushed through. Life seemed semi-normal for August through October as we anticipated that things would fall apart. And then they didn’t.

Masked up and ready for the mock trial of Mary Mallon
Picture of nearly empty ballroom lined with chairs
Last day of class in the ballroom.

November became the up-and-down month. The election and vaccine news delivered hope of a different reality, as did making it through the end of my semester. And yet, rising cases and school closings near locked us down again. Our family of four canceled plans and activities to return to just being us. No Friendsgiving or Christmas trip.

Picture of kids with four dogs in front of a Christmas tree
Fostering puppies to make Christmas at home a little more exciting.

What’s differed from the spring, however, has been this fractured picture of the true reality. News stories and charts have conveyed that Tennessee skyrocketed into a dire state for December, topping the list for new infections. And yet, a dissonance exists here. Everything is open. There’s no statewide mask mandate, just a county one with little enforcement. Aside from school, not much has been canceled. On local social media sites, people are asking about in-person church services, promoting “maskless Santa” before Christmas, and using the word pandemic in quotation marks. Obviously, the lack of public health observance is why were in this situation, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of this cause-and-effect.

We have such a split in what we know and what we’re seeing. Adding to this disconnect has been the near-absence of a unified recognition that things are bad. Aside from the numbers and the occasional story, very little media coverage has personalized the dire impact of the pandemic locally. Where are the lists of names and photos memorializing those deceased from COVID? Why don’t we have images of the COVID wards in our hospitals? And, more importantly, how is it that the leaders who endorsed and embraced the March shutdown are ignoring the actual crisis now?

I haven’t been blogging as regularly as I did in the spring, partly due to time, but also frustration. Some posts I never published because they were too heated or too intensely called out those around us. My popular articles focused on pandemic creative writing in 1918 and radio remote learning during a 1937 polio epidemic in Chicago.

Living through a pandemic is a fluid, diverse experience that shapes each person differently and at different moments. What we specifically knew in March has changed and expanded dramatically. As such, my reflective essays are very much a product of a particular moment and set of feelings, which all share uncertainty in the future and a serious concern about the pandemic. Even with the research I conducted for my book, I never could have imagined just what this would be like. I was unprepared for the large-scale denial of a disease that has killed so many people. These months have revealed both the worst in humanity and the best. I sincerely hope that 2021 brings the quick distribution of vaccines and overall, a more unifying time. Even more so, I want life to not just “return to normal,” but to become a better, more equitable version of a reality in which we can be together again, without the social distancing.

Here’s to 2021!

Getting Started Finding a Publisher: Learning From Other Authors

You have your great idea. Maybe you even have part or all of your manuscript completed. How do you get your work to the public? This post is all about the research stage — not research for your book, but about your book category and audience. A little preparation will save you a lot of time and hassle in the long run.

Start by identifying similar books to the one you want to write. To figure out parallel books as models, you first need to be able to answer a few questions about your potential book:

  • How would your potential book be categorized at a library?
  • Will your book be written for a popular audience? Or a smaller sect within a popular audience? For roughly what age group (distinguishing between children and teens vs. adults)?
  • What is the purpose of your book? To reflect on personal experiences? To offer instruction? To capture a moment in history?
  • Why are you writing this book? (“To make money” is not the best reason).

Select a few fairly recent texts that somewhat match your responses. They don’t need to directly align with your specific topic, but broadly fit the book type, audience, and purpose. Skim through these books, paying attention to their overall package. Jot down the authors and the publishers.

This next step might sound a little out there, but I recommend emailing the authors of these books. Your purpose is to find out how to get your foot in the door, not to pitch your idea. I especially encourage writers who are not making a career out of writing to do this. Briefly introduce yourself, praise the book, and ask about the publishing process. How did they get connected with the press? Did they first secure agents? What advice do they have in moving projects forward?

For academic books, you can either contact authors or use social media to ask about working with that particular press. If you belong to a professional organization, it is likely that someone in your network has experience. Were the editors good at communicating? What was the timeline? Were their books priced low enough to generate interest? Other advice they’d like to share?

You might be tempted to skip this background step, either because it may seem daunting to reach out to strangers or you don’t think you need to do it. Unless you already have a contact at the press, I strongly recommend doing your pre-contact research.

Reasons to do the background research:

  1. You want to find the right publisher for your book and within a press, the most appropriate acquisitions editor to contact. If a press only publishes anthologies and your manuscript is single-authored, it is not a fit, no matter how amazing the concept.
  2. Many acquisitions editors get bombarded with ideas. You want to breakthrough the clutter. Background work can help you get connected so you’re not just sending an unsolicited email.
  3. Knowing the process increases the likelihood of success. Just like a job interview, you want to make a good impression.
  4. You are writing a book because you care about the project. Don’t waste your time on a press that will likely fall through or charge you money to make it happen (not to be confused with self-publishing).
  5. A little guidance is good. Connecting with others who have been through this experience will help you navigate through the publishing stages.

Email at least 3-4 people with your questions. Be polite, positive, and brief. If you don’t get a response, no worries. Just focus on those who do reply. Most people want to assist others.

From these responses, you can build a spreadsheet of potential presses/editors to query. Congratulations! You are ready to tackle the book contract process.

5 Ways to Build Flexibility into Your In-Person and Online Classes

The Trial of Mary Mallon, a children’s book by Ariel Smith (shared with permission).

Sometimes offering student choices can seem daunting: more assignment guidelines to create, divided objectives, split rubrics, and different sets of expectations. However, the pay-off in engagement for you and your classes can be totally worth it. Let’s face it. Regardless of your class modality, now is the time for flexibility. Designing options for students allows them to decide if they feel more comfortable working alone or with a partner. It enables the creative student to write a song, while the writer tackles the traditional research paper. Flexibility fosters diversity and participation, breaking away from a typical class.

  1. Engagement choices

In our normal reality, I’m all for attendance policies with few exceptions. Pandemic teaching demands different expectations. Giving students choices on participation can help overall engagement and sometimes reduce your workload.
How to do it: For each synchronous discussion (in-person or on Zoom), offer an asynchronous alternative (a discussion post or short essay response). See this blog post for the detailed approach. I lay out these choices at the beginning of the semester and require students doing discussion posts to respond to each other. The in-person/Zoom group merely has to show up and discuss. Students may go back-and-forth between types of sessions without letting me know.
Making this work: Establish clear guidelines for both synchronous sessions (must be on-time) and the discussion posts/responses. NO LATE ASSIGNMENTS. I offer extra credit opportunities to offset missed points so I’m not constantly pushing back deadlines. I also make the online options slightly more time-consuming to cover the class-time missed.
Why this approach can be a good idea: With students shifting in and out of quarantine and facing additional struggles, having flexibility from week to week is very helpful. As an instructor, I really enjoy directly connecting with students. Those that choose to attend tend to be more engaged.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I wouldn’t recommend engagement options for a small seminar or a graduate-level course in which discussion makes up the majority of the class. For strictly lecture classes, this also likely wouldn’t work as well.

2. Voting for the Day’s Class Content

Students (well, humans) like to have a say in what they do. I try to build in a day in which the class gets to decide what we do. It might be to swap the scheduled topic for a different one or allowing students to vote for a particular movie or TV show.
How to do it: Decide what day works for switching up the content. Obviously, this shouldn’t be the class period in which you introduce the pivotal theory or set up something foundational. On the day that works for you (I usually pick a week or so after the midterm), decide what the options will be. Convey them to the class as students enter the room (or Zoom). Then have a class vote.
Making this work: Don’t leave the topic/example open ended. Have clear choices that satisfy your overarching objective for the course. For example, on our fictional representations of outbreaks class period in Health Com., the options were Contagion, Outbreak, House, M.D., and the Criminal Minds episode “Amplification” — all centered around the same theme. In other words, it’s not a “free day.”
Why this approach can be a good idea: Why not, as long as you structure the choices?
When this probably isn’t the best approach: I like to be a ways into the semester before I give a choice day. I imagine this approach wouldn’t work as well some disciplines (or you’d have to get really creative).

3. Topsy-Turvy Day

If you have assigned seats for in-person or set breakout rooms in Zoom, choose one day to mix it up. It’s good for students to get to know people outside of their seat neighbors or group members.
How to do it: One method is to do random seat/group assignments for the day. Draw numbers or (in a pre-pandemic time), attach seat numbers to pieces of candy. If you want to grant students more choices, have them choose their own spots for the day or sign up for breakout rooms based on interest.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It’s a break from the humdrum of class or from irritating classmates. This approach also keeps students guessing a little about what will happen in class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Delay “topsy-turvy” day for late in the semester — long enough to establish routines.

4. Student-provided Content

I don’t consume many of the same media products as my students. As such, they can come up with examples that I have never even heard of. One way to bring students into the course material is to have them supply it, suggesting readings, images, videos, or other content for the class.
How to do it: Write out expectations and criteria for the examples (i.e. format, length, what will work and what won’t, the number of discussion questions). Figure out which week’s topics could work for this assignment and list them out. After students give their top 3 preferences, assign them in pairs or groups to a particular topic/week. For their assigned week, they must find an example that demonstrates the concept and/or encourages discussion and get it instructor-approved. In class, they introduce and share the example and then ask the rest of the class 2-3 discussion questions.
Why this approach can be a good idea: It breaks up the monotony of class and helps to connect students to the class concepts and material. This approach also diversifies the examples shown in class, going beyond the instructor’s familiarity.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: During the first few weeks or for a concept that is new or especially challenging.

5. Term Project Options

I used to be much more rigid in setting up the term project. I required every student to do a research paper on a particular topic and a traditional presentation. Over the years, I have expanded the choices for students. Admittedly, this is partially due to my own fatigue of the same topics. Students are more excited about something when they choose it. In most of my classes, I now allow students to either do a research paper OR a creative project (i.e. documentaries, poems, songs, or artwork), all related to class material. While it is vital that students learn to write, there are more ways to come at class material than just a straight-forward, traditional paper.
How to make this work: Make sure you have some structure laid out for each of the options. Lay out expectations and requirements clearly. The tricky part (other than coming up with two types of projects) is how to make the components equal in weight and in their objectives. I do this by requiring a form of writing and a presentation for all students. Creative project students explain the concepts of their projects and discuss the creative process and then present their work. The research paper students also present. To really make this work, I recommend providing strong examples for the class (see below).
Why this approach is a good idea: It enables students to channel their passion and talents into their chosen format, while still requiring them to build off of an idea related to class.
When this probably isn’t the best approach: Beware of your own limits. One semester, I let every student in a 90+ class choose to either do a research paper or participate in a creative group project. It was difficult to bounce back and forth between the two types with such a large class. I’ve found that in a big lecture, it’s either a group project or no project (like I’ve done during pandemic teaching).

Creative Project Examples from this semester (across classes)

  • Ariel Smith’s children’s book on Mary Mallon (posted above).
  • Serena Vasudeva’s poem “Illuminated Manuscript
  • Chase Cimala and Andrew Pauly’s song “Divided”


Why Add Flexibility?

Keeping students engaged can be hard word. It can save you time, however, cutting down emailed excuses for missing class, complaints about group members, or questions about paper topics for which students have little interest. In offering choices, it does take a leap of faith. As we shift a little bit of control to students, we don’t always know what to expect. Clear guidelines and instructor-approved material can help structure the shared example, delivery, or project, but you just never know. And it is okay if you have a class day, example, or project that doesn’t exactly turn out. We’ve all had our teaching moments that influenced future classes. I will never forget the “Ted Bundy as a class game” presentation or the “Hitler country song” (both of which made the list of off-limit topics). Experience shapes future guidelines for assignments. It is worth trying out flexible approaches, even if they later need refinement.

On Completing the Hybrid Semester

Teaching in the Student Union Ballroom. Photo courtesy of Madeleine Luchsinger.

I just submitted final grades for all of my classes. Honestly, I didn’t think that we would make it to the end of the semester still meeting in person, but we did. I am thankful our last face-to-face gathering was before Thanksgiving and that all final exams were moved online. Because of that university decision, I didn’t have to personally determine if it was safe to convene.

We made it through without an outbreak in class or me getting sick. As a class, we navigated our learning experience with masked expressions and socially-distanced chairs placed in the Student Union Ballroom and other strange spaces. Protruding noses and open drinks replaced my usual pet peeves of texting in class. I projected as the increasingly-wet cloth stuck to my mouth. Even with these added challenges, I am still glad that I chose the web-assisted format. If nothing else, I got to connect with my students (those who showed up) once a week in a way that I personally struggle do to in a virtual environment.

I outlined my hybrid plan for my large lecture here at the beginning of the semester. I posted all lectures for my gen. ed. courses and the weekly quizzes online. Our meetings then were strictly discussion and media examples. For my seminar course (typically twice a week), I put up materials and reading responses for the hybrid portion and then used class time for lecture, discussion, and other activities.

I had underestimated just how much most of us needed the in-person meetings. My students were fairly eager to talk and interact (masked-up and distanced) with each other and with me. Across classes, our often impromptu discussions were the highlight, as students frequently linked our examples and topics to the many challenging events of 2020. “Internet week” turned into a thoughtful conversation on the challenges of distance-learning during the shutdown. In Health Com., we regularly subbed in the scheduled theme for the current COVID update. There was so much to talk about this semester that I was grateful to have an outlet in which to do so. And the masks were not really a big deal. At no point did I have an issue with students wearing masks, thank goodness.

This was not an easy semester for anyone. Most of my difficulties came from the need to be a flexible instructor. Obviously, my normal attendance policies were out. Instead, I awarded points for either attending class or writing a short reflection or post on the week’s topic. At first, I struggled to keep on top of the student emails. Between messages asking for make-ups and the email submission of the assignments themselves (in a semester with over 120 students), I felt like I was drowning in disorganization. For the big lecture, my amazing graduate teaching assistant helped me out tremendously. The solution for my other classes was to create instructions for make-up assignments and a Dropbox folder on our D2L site. This structure streamlined the process and somewhat cut-down on the emails.

It was also a change to adapt to teaching in new spaces. Two of my classes met in rooms that aren’t usually classes. While the MSTU staff did a great job getting the tech and chairs set up (and maintaining them), teaching in new rooms is always an adjustment. In one room, the light switch could only be accessed in the corner, farthest from the podium. The sound only worked in the ballroom if you toggled between multiple buttons. My seminar met in a computer lab — an awkward arrangement for a discussion class. Most of the extra features put in place to aid with teaching also added to the list of stuff to figure out.

In a semester in which everything felt hard for everyone, I found that my typical amount of reading assignments just seemed like too much. I wound up greatly reducing the reading assignments for my seminar and added in popular articles to help with the burden. In class, even though they wanted to talk, my students often seemed fatigued just at being in class. I tried to mix-up what we did to give energy to the room, especially because I couldn’t see it on their faces. I brought in dolls to talk about gender and race in advertising, let my classes vote on popular culture examples, and added in a few fun days. These activities seemed to help give us a breather to move forward. At the same time, I could feel the relief in each of my classes on the last day.

One strength of my university was its flexibility for faculty in approaching their classes. I appreciate that I could choose my format. And, knowing our student body and that some of my colleagues can’t meet in-person, I am glad that I did the hybrid. I chose not to both Zoom and teach live at the same time. I had decided in August that my focus would not be split. Recording my lectures allowed all students to see them. Having class time as discussion meant that the topic could be addressed in a response or other alternative format. I know some instructors can juggle both the Zoom and the in-person class, but this is not my preference. This flexibility also helped shift us to a virtual meeting to have a guest speaker.

In turn, I granted my students flexibility and choices. They could miss class as long as they emailed me and did the make-up assignments. All students got to choose what type of project to do, if they worked in pairs or alone, and the format of the project itself. On the last day of class, students decided whether or not to present in-person or record and post their presentations. This has been the semester of needing to be flexible and I really think it’s the only way that teaching can work right now.

Next semester, I opted for the same hybrid format. I plan to develop a better system for tracking engagement (not attendance) and making up assignments. I look forward to continuing to have a space to discuss our strange pandemic reality — provided we wear masks until things truly recover.

Where are we in the pandemic timeline? (It’s not good).

The interactive COVID-19 map, updated and published by The New York Times.

COVID cases continue to escalate and the death toll for the U.S. has exceeded a quarter of a million. Yet, as this FiveThirtyEight poll shows, over 30% of Americans are “not very” or “not at all” concerned about infection. Obviously, as we head into the holiday season, this is incredibly problematic.

The division between those who believe in science and the anti-maskers can be attributed in particular to one’s political affiliation and primary source of information. These factors are mitigated by geography, as local and state authorities set the tone for the regional public response early in the pandemic, often paralleled in local news coverage. Moreover, experience with COVID’s effects, either personally or through friends and family, also shapes the extent to which people view the disease as a threat.

We also can’t dismiss the toll of “pandemic fatigue” on public behavior, as individuals stop caring about precautions that they would have taken months ago because it feels like we’ve been doing this forever. Why are we in this spot? Unlike past outbreaks, our global access to information enabled countries around the world to learn about COVID early on and (to different extents) take action. In short, we feel like we should be past this pandemic because we’ve been in it so long. Except we haven’t.

Last spring, we pretended that the first wave had a conclusion, a denouement. It did — if you live in New York City or other places that experienced the surge and the dwindling of cases. The rest of the U.S. was really in a waiting period. In this calm before the storm, many people took the precautions needed to carry us through the pandemic. However, collectively, we acted like that was it, that we had made it through the wave. In reality, most of the U.S. has only just begun its red zone.

Let’s compare where we are to this moment in past outbreaks/epidemics/pandemics. From my study of 200 years of epidemic history, I can tell you that both small and large-scale outbreaks follow specific patterns in their construction in media messages and in public perception. For this comparison, ignore the amount of time we’ve known about COVID., focusing instead on the severity of the crisis itself.

Placed in the midst of other epidemics, we are approximately at the same timeline point as . . .

  • August 1721, Boston smallpox epidemic
  • October 1793, Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic
  • October 1918, “Spanish Flu” across U.S., “Spanish Flu”
  • Late January 1925, diphtheria in Nome, Alaska
  • September/October 1952, polio in the Midwest
  • December 1968, “Hong Kong” flu in New York and many other places

These critical points not only mark escalating cases within different outbreaks/epidemics/pandemics, they also share collective public emotions: sadness, scarcity, panic, and loss. While there are certainly variations in responses, shared characteristics define the severity of the situation. Listed above are the peaks of despair, when hospital ran short of staff, beds, and equipment. Gravediggers and coffins became in demand. Images of this moment captured rows of the ill in makeshift hospitals, stacks of wrapped bodies, and quarantine signs. Towns and local media became solely focused on the sick, dying, and deceased, seeking supplies and care providers, while banning public gatherings and funeral bell tolling. Ministers ceased holding services for fear that they were spreading disease among parishioners.

This is where we are in our COVID-19 pandemic. If you are not feeling this moment yet, it is not due to the case numbers. Rather, it is the cultural climate that is imaging a reality that is not this one. Many local news outlets have opted not to publish cause of death as COVID-19 or showcase the experiences of survivors, blocking communities from the devastation from this disease. We have convinced ourselves that we did the work last summer so we must be fine now. NOPE. Even if you are not personally seeing it, the U.S. (and most of the world) is in crisis mode.

We are at a crossroads for what will happen next. Changing the course of the pandemic needs to occur at all levels, including our individual choices. It might feel like we’ve been in this pandemic state forever. Unfortunately, though, we are deeply in the midst of the crisis — a reason to stay home, not to give up.

Guest Post: Becoming your Best Writing Self: Motivations and Goals

Dr. Tanya M. Peres
Associate Professor
Graduate Program Director
Department of Anthropology
Florida State University
tanya.peres@fsu.edu

I recently attended a session with a staff member of my university’s writing center. He led us in a reflection exercise on how we start the writing process, set writing goals, and identify growth areas to become our best writing selves. Today I am sharing a little about my writing process – maybe you will find a trick or tip to put into your process toolbox.

1. How do I get started?

Much of my writing is assignment-driven. You might think it strange that anyone other than students or journalists would have writing assignments, but here we are. Professional assignments have a pre-determined topic or theme, are part of our professional workload, have specific requirements depending on the genre and outlet, and they have a deadline. So, what are these writing assignments and how are they genre-specific?

Conference Presentations

Conference presentations are typically part of thematic research sessions.  These presentations can be either posters or podium papers, and often are on unpublished current research. Presentations are a good way to get feedback from scholars in your field.

Peer-reviewed Publications

These are the ultimate in academic writing assignments. Peer-reviewed publications are the medium used to present data and interpretations, describe a new method or theory, or synthesize existing datasets and qualitatively or quantitatively compare them.

Public Writing

Writing for readers that are not discipline specialists is a genre in and of itself. I find ideas for a story stem from information I want to share, wanting to add another level of meaning or history to a story or topic, or simply a fun fact or story that I think non-archaeologists would enjoy. Sometimes I test out ideas in conversation with friends or acquaintances. Other times, I sketch them out to pitch as an idea to an editor.

No matter what genre of writing I am working on, I try to always start with an outline. Outlines help me figure out the flow of the narrative (or story), things that are necessities to that narrative, and how to best organize the different parts. When I ignore my own best advice and just start writing sans an outline, things go off the rails quickly. I often find myself going down a research rabbit hole that is more often than not on a completely different topic, but fun to read!). Like that time in 2015 when I found a medical brief on a patient with maggots in their nose (no, really, but if you are squeamish, skip the figure).

2. How do I set writing goals?

I start with the assignment due date! If it is a grant proposal, conference paper, or a solicited manuscript (i.e., someone asked me to write something for a journal, book chapter, blog, magazine, newsletter, etc.) it will have a hard deadline. If the assignment is self-inflicted self-motivated, then I have to establish the deadline(s). The author/editor and the press editor agree upon book manuscript deadlines. If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, your advisor, committee, department, and university all have deadlines you must meet. As the good Dr. Foss says “Always meet your deadlines!”

I break the REALLY BIG THING into smaller tasks and assign them objectives (word count, additional research/references needed, etc.), then schedule when I am going to work on these parts. Most days I have an hour or less to work on any given writing project. To stay hyper-focused I close out all social media and email apps, turn my phone to vibrate only, turn it face down, and out of easy reach, and put on writing music (cool jazz is my favorite).

Sometimes I need external motivation to keep me on track. I have been a part of writing groups, writing retreats, daily writing challenges, and the last-ditch “hole-up-in-a-hotel-room-all-alone-for-a-weekend-and-get-the-thing-done” method. All were useful and successful in their own way. Peer pressure and money are sometimes what is needed to get us over a hump.

3. What are some of my writing goals?

By the end of 2020 I will submit the final manuscripts for two different books; finish writing a lengthy technical report; and continue working on the draft of a third book manuscript (to submit in Spring 2021).

What are your writing goals? What is your secret inner writer identity? Understanding our goals and motivations can help us to stay motivated and organized.

Teaching Exercise: The Google Doc Round Robin

Each group starts with a different Google doc.

I’m a big fan of drawing slips of paper for randomly-assigned group works. I also love notecards. The pandemic has forced me to find new solutions to communicating different discussion activities. Cue the Google Doc Round Robin.

Round Robin (the game, not the burger joint) involves each person contributing a little in one spot and then moving on to a new position or objective. In ping pong, this is done by hitting the ball once and then quickly moving to the right, circling the table. I applied this approach to a series of Google docs in my health communication class. We did it to explore the process of creating campaigns for a variety of different audiences. This activity could really be applied to any class topic that can be completed in stages — in-person, as long as each individual has a computer, or through a virtual platform with breakout rooms.

Prep Work for the Google docs

  1. Before class, decide how many different groups you would like to have. I opted for five clusters for my class of 17.
  2. Create the same number of Google docs. Include a distinct header and a file name for each one.
  3. Write out your scenario (or whatever you will differentiate between the groups).
  4. Number and state the objective of each stage. Copy and paste into all of the Google docs. In other words, most of the worksheet is the same, with the variable listed at the top.
  5. On our D2L site, I created a submodule for the in-class activity with online resources and links to the 5 Google docs.

Running the Activity

  1. Split the class into groups or have them form their own groups. On Zoom, you could set up break out rooms.
  2. Assign each group a different Google doc. Explain the activity, emphasizing that they should only complete one stage and stop. List out the rotation for the class.
  3. Have each group start at step 1, reading the tasks and doing necessary research. While the groups are working, you can bring up all of the Google docs on your own computer and see the class progress.
  4. After a set time (5-7 minutes), have each group stop and rotate to the next Google doc.

Doc 1–Doc 2–Doc 3–Doc 4–Doc 5–Doc 1

5. Use this format and rotation as the groups move through the docs and through the steps, building on what the groups before them have written in the docs.
6. On the last step, have the groups summarize their current Google doc, briefly presenting the ideas to the class.

With this approach, students are working both within their groups and with the whole class to complete the activity. It is also easy to monitor which groups may need help since you can access the docs at the same time. For my class, it was a nice break from our usual discussions and prompted them to work together. This activity could be modified for a variety of disciplines, keeping the concept of each group or individual contributing a little to create the whole. Of course, you may not be able to work the Rock into your scenarios.


Top 10 Pitfalls of Thesis Writing

Sometimes a change of scenery is just what you need for that tough thesis section (pictured here: writing at Toyota).

Writing your thesis or dissertation may seem like an impossible task — like someone told you to just run a marathon tomorrow or go roof the historic Victorian off the town square. But as with these monumental activities, thesis writing is best conceptualized as a series of steps for which you are prepared to do. So what are the top 10 common mistakes?

  1. Thinking too big. You shouldn’t downplay your work or undervalue yourself. That’s not what I mean. Thinking too big is believing that you must take on the world’s issues and questions for the scope and depth of your thesis. Your life’s work should not and will not be carried out in this thesis. What you are doing right now is a project, albeit a big and important one, that will lay the foundation for more research projects. It is better to have a more narrow scope and a realistic timeline that to try to tackle the world and never finish.
  2. Thinking too small. On the flip side, the thesis is a big deal and you should treat it as such. This is not the same as the 10-page paper you put off until the night before it was due. Take the time and brain space to work steadily to produce quality work. What will be your contribution to the existing field of literature?
  3. Delay, delay, delay. Excuses will not write the thesis. Working with your adviser, establish both a broad timeline that gets you from coursework to graduation and a more specific schedule for each chapter (or section of a chapter). Make every deadline, even if you are a bit unsure of yourself or the overarching magnitude of the project feels too daunting. Do not accept reasons why you didn’t get that chapter done. Just get it done.
  4. Trouble with your adviser. Let’s back up. If you are still in the planning stages and haven’t picked a thesis chair yet, I encourage you to think hard and do a little investigating before you ask (yes, ask) a professor to serve as your adviser. Have you had this person as an instructor? Do you know the potential adviser’s style? You can ask other grad students what the faculty member is like as an adviser or as a t.a. supervisor. Different professors have different ways of approaching the thesis-writing process.
    This is a big deal and marks the start of a new type of relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask (once again, yes, ask, don’t assume). Be polite, explain why you’d like to work with that person, and briefly state your timeline. Usually, professors agree. When they decline, it’s typically not personal, even if it feels that way. Maybe the faculty member is about to go on sabbatical or has recently been approved for a large grant. You just don’t know.
    If you already have an adviser, but it’s not working out, it is perfectly fine to switch thesis chairs. Have a polite conversation with your current adviser before switching. Never badmouth a faculty member to another professor or student.
  5. Getting stuck in the writer’s block quicksand. We’ve all have certain parts of our projects that feel especially tough. Throughout the thesis process, you will definitely hit obstacles in which the section or chapter just feels too hard to continue. It’s important that you don’t get hung up and miss your deadlines. When you don’t know what to write, first take a little break (workout, take a walk, shower, talk to a friend — whatever works for you). Don’t be done for the day. Just rest your brain. Sometimes doing something else is enough to push you through. If you still don’t know what to write, backtrack and read your previous words to give yourself momentum.
    For a difficult section, I recommend switching locations to a place that seems special and only work on that section. More than 12 years later, I still recall the day I reworked my theoretical framework at a coffee shop. Sometimes just focusing can get you through.
  6. Comparing yourself to others. You are writing your thesis. Period. Don’t get caught up in envying a peer’s progress or comforting yourself about missed deadlines by thinking about a person who took an extra year to finish. Like I tell my children all the time, focus on yourself. It is not fair to look at others’ accomplishments or lack thereof. You don’t know their situations and the comparison won’t make you less of a writer or more of one. As I will elaborate in the next point, grad students need to lift each other up.
  7. Going at it alone without peer support. While you shouldn’t compare yourself to others, you also shouldn’t be a lone ship in the sea of thesis writing. Cohorts are wonderful. If you have one, turn to this built-in group of people who understand what you are experiencing. At the very least, find a writing partner or group. This is not your goof-off buddy, but a person who is equally dedicated to writing when it is writing time and pleasant to chat with on your breaks. You will look forward to writing sessions more if you can share in the experience.
  8. Going at it alone without a mentor. Trying to go solo without a mentor is a mistake. Graduate students, especially Ph.D. students, should try to find a faculty mentor in addition to the adviser. If possible, this person should be outside your department or even your university. It’s good to have additional guidance on thesis committee etiquette, the job hunt, and other issues. Making this connection now will also help you as you begin your first tenure-track position.
  9. Getting distracted. Now is not the time to take on extra projects or to do more additional work than you need to pay the bills. Don’t try out for a play or sign up for unicycle class. Write every day with clear objectives, make your deadlines, and FINISH.
  10. Strike a balance. At the same time, you can’t write for 14 hours straight. It is okay to work on your thesis in 2-3 sessions per day, with breaks in-between. In fact, I recommend this approach. If you are a grad student with kids, this will be your life anyway (just make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time). You should eat food, get enough sleep, exercise, and socialize a bit. Finding a balance actually boosts productivity.

Trust me on these tips. We’ve all been there.

For more advice on graduate school, check out my new anthology: The Graduate Student Guidebook: From Orientation to Tenure Track, written by the AEJMC Board of Directors.

Supplies and tricks to make in-person learning easier for kids (and you)

First day of school

If your kids will be at school at all this year, I bet you’re wondering how you can help set yourselves up for success. With all of the uncertainty, this is a tough time. My girls have been physically back in school since August 20th. We’ve figured out a few things over the last few weeks.

School supplies that probably aren’t on the official list

  • Masks (duh, hopefully): Don’t underestimate how many you will need or what type will feel the best for the duration of the school day. Our favorite have been the Old Navy packs.
  • A lanyard or chain to hold the mask: You can get them for under $2 in the craft section.
  • Mints: If they are allowed at school, it’s nice to have a freshener under the mask.
  • Chapstick (for home): Masks can dry out your face.
  • Hand sanitizer: Hands can be sensitive to publicly distributed sanitizer. Bringing your own also saves resources.
  • Sunscreen: At least for my kids, this year has brought extra outside time.
  • A water bottle with a straw: Drinking fountains are likely closed. Straws can be slipped under masks.
  • A lunch: Hot lunch may not be offered.
  • A book: There may be extra downtime as teachers are working through the technology or helping distance learners.
  • A comfortable backpack: With protocol to reduce kids in the hallway, they may not have access to lockers. Consider getting a rolling bag if it is allowed.

Tricks for Fall 2020

  1. Have kids try out different masks and practice before school starts — tie ones, adjustable ear loops, different fabrics, etc. Letting them pick the design is a good idea.
  2. Add a disposable, wrapped-up mask that stays in the backpack as a back-up.
  3. Pack at least two cloth masks plus the disposable to plan for a dropped mask or a change after snack or lunch.
  4. Post a visible list of tasks and items to gather somewhere near the door. There are so many extras this year that it’s hard to keep track of everything. We also have a list for after-school in the hopes that dirty masks make it into the washer.
  5. Get a family calendar and use your digital calendar to help keep everyone on track.
  6. Use a white board to write out tasks and reminders for the next day, especially if activities have started up again.
  7. Build in extra time in the morning. Even two weeks in, waking up has been rough.
  8. Prepare for a few days of tired kids. Having structure for the first time in months can be exhausting.

This is obviously a weird and hard time in which no option is really ideal. As you prepare for the school year’s start, talk with your kids about how things may be different. At the same time, don’t underestimate their ability to adapt. We have had no complaints or resistance about mask-wearing or other additional rules this year. Even in this strange reality, my children are happy to be back, love their teachers, and feel engaged in learning.

Fall 2020: The Challenges of Teaching in a Jenga Semester

A typical surface for Jenga, sparking memories of the pre-pandemic classroom.

Even with the tension of the first move, rearrangements are easy early on — sliding pieces out and stacking them on top. A few more rounds bring confidence before the precarious state of the unbalanced structure seems to become too much before CRASH!

Our first week of the semester felt like the beginning of the game. Between the Zoom outage and skyrocketing university COVID cases, it was “game over” (at least temporarily) before many players had a turn. For those of us still teaching hybrid, hyflex, web-assisted or whatever you’re calling the partially online, partially in-class experience, week 2 parallels the midway point of the Jenga game.

It’s not just the cloud of potential quarantines and campus shutdowns that threatens this game though. The demands of what teaching now looks like have skewed how the game is even played. Instead of placing the Jenga tower on a flat table in the dining room, it’s as if we decided to foolishly set the blocks on a porch swing.

Jenga on the swing. Not the best idea.

Things may be relatively still or quiet for the moment, but we know that current conditions are unstable at best.

We have to factor in the additional challenges to the initial environment. Add a breeze to the rickety old swing. The technology that enables social distancing-teaching and flexible attendance also burdens us as instructors. We now have to consider whether or not the system is capturing our lectures and if our makeshift classroom spaces will adequately serve the day’s content. Wearing multiple microphones, we have become amplification marionettes and must be careful not to tangle our wires.

For good measure, let’s let two dogs out to the porch as we play.

This is not going to last long.

Or that’s what it feels like as we find ourselves needing to police the state of classroom health. Was that a sneeze? Or two? Is two too many? Should the student be excused? How do we balance the feelings of one student with the anxiety of the many?

I’m not attacking the protocol of what needed to (and needs) to happen for any in-person classes to occur, nor am I condemning these interactions. My point is to highlight the numerous obstacles shaping our teaching this semester. Just like porch-swing Jenga, we cannot demand “normal.” It’s not going to happen.

We need to redefine expectations. Instead of focusing on class as a vehicle for information delivery, we should aim for the experience itself. Why are we meeting in this way? For me, the real purpose is for us to engage with each other about the course material in (hopefully) meaningful ways. Reducing the emphasis on course objectives helps us to center on class discussion, communication, and camaraderie. All of my good moments thus far have come from student engagement, with me and with each other — the answer to why are we here and even trying this?

This is not a semester for lofty goals or an overhaul of, well, anything. We are already in the midst of that overhaul and must do our best to compensate as we teach on the fly. Much like the Jenga game, we can only take on so many challenges before the tower falls.

Who will clean it up? Will we be expected to immediately play again without changing up the situation or putting the puppies inside?

The game should be the fun part. Picking it all up (especially out of the bush), not so much.

A special thanks to Rosie and Rivet for their participation in my photo illustration.