Structuring Senior Year: Choosing Courses

The registrar will soon be releasing fall course offerings. Even as spring semester continues full speed ahead, many juniors are beginning to think about the coming year. Especially for A.B. seniors, who take only six classes, the questions of which to take, how many to take, and how to balance them with a thesis and post-graduation plans, all loom. Remembering how I, as a second semester junior, relied on advice from outgoing seniors, I decided to compile some of my own reflections on approaching coursework in senior year.

Three-three or four-two? For most A.B. students, senior year is the only time we take six courses, rather than eight or nine, to make more time for independent research. We may divide these courses in two ways: three each semester; or four in the first, two in the second. This decision may come down to a number of factors, including: your ability to plan ahead and pace your work, your spring extracurricular conflicts, and your research requirements (for some, scheduling lab work is an important consideration). Personally, I am so grateful for my decision to take four and then two. Especially since I have two theses — one for the Spanish and Portuguese concentration, and a thesis play for the theater certificate — I appreciate the lighter course load.

Final requirements? As you select final courses, narrowing down the choices can seem impossible. Before you make any decisions, first consult your departmental, certificate, and distribution requirements. Many departments have advising tools and calendars to help keep you on track. If you have any prerequisites left, check if these courses are only offered one semester. Senior fall, for instance, was my last opportunity to take ANT 300, a requirement for the Ethnography certificate. Having this in my schedule helped me limit my other choices.

One tool that might help with course selection is recal.io, which allows you to develop a potential class schedule. Here is the schedule I developed last year at this time for my senior fall.

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Bursting the Orange Bubble: Tips for Keeping Up With the News

We all acknowledge a need to look beyond the Orange Bubble. Particularly since the election, I’ve felt it even more necessary to keep up with the world. At the start, I found myself engrossed by news stories on Facebook, Google, and iNews. Quickly, though, I realized I was in another sort of bubble, as these are all limited by your friend networks, political leanings, and past searches. Hearing others express similar concern, I reached out to a number of friends to see what strategies they use to look outside the bubble while also balancing a busy work schedule. The following tips are some ideas I got from them.

  1. Listen to short news stories when walking places. Lots of people listen to music while walking to class. Why not plug in your headphones and listen to the news? One friend uses the NPR app to listen to 3-8 minute long stories while on the way to class: a simple means of following current events.
  1. Listen to podcasts. For longer news stories, it’s easy to download podcasts from NPR or other major news outlets. One friend told me about “Pod Save America,” maintained by former Obama speechwriters. Podcasts are ideal for lengthier activities: listen while you exercise, as you get ready in the morning, or when you’re on a long train ride.

    Of course, you could always do it the old-fashioned way and get a physical copy of the newspaper!

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Research Mythbusters: Do we work best under pressure?

 

“We can all remember a time we procrastinated and it really paid off. We hang onto that like gold.”

My ears perked up. I was driving home from the supermarket when Dr. Tim Pychyl, director of Carleton College’s Procrastination Research Group in Canada, appeared on NPR to discuss “Why We Procrastinate.” My thesis, never far from my thoughts, immediately came to mind. I listened closely as Pychyl explained procrastination: what it is, why we do it, and whether it gives us what we want.

Update on my thesis stack: 18 books in my room (and another ten in my locker in Firestone)!

Pychyl highlights a common misconception: that we work best under pressure. I know graduates who wrote the bulk of their theses in the final two weeks, justified by the notion that productivity and creativity are most accessible when facing a tight time constraint. Stress, however, according to Pschyl, doesn’t produce the best work — it just forces us to complete tasks. He discusses an experiment where students were made to text in their feelings about work throughout the school week. Earlier on, students justified their procrastination with the common myth of last-minute creativity. However, as deadlines approached, nearly all wished they had started earlier.

So why is procrastination such a common practice? Pychyl says it has to do with rewards processing. If we do well on a task that we complete last minute, that behavior is reinforced. Success remains fresh in our mind, while stress fades in our memories. It masks the fact that we might have done even better — and slept a whole lot more — had we allowed ourselves more time.

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Princeton Research Day: Spotlight on Costume Designer Julia Peiperl ’17

Princeton Research Day (PRD) is an annual celebration of the research and creative endeavors by Princeton undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. The campus-wide event serves as an opportunity for researchers to share their work with the community and includes research from the natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, the arts and humanities. In this post series, PCUR correspondents cover a range of topics relating to PRD and highlight the valuable lessons this event has to offer.

This year, PRD will be taking place on Thursday, May 11, 2017. You can learn more about participating in or attending Princeton Research Day by visiting the official PRD website here.

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The idea of research often conjures up images of scientists with microscopes and lab coats. But, for many researchers, the process looks very different. Take theater student Julia Peiperl ’17, for example. Rather than wearing the coat, she designs it.

An example of the research that went into Julia’s designs for Elektra.

“Lots of people don’t realize how much research goes into theatrical design,” she told me as we sat down to chat about her experiences at Princeton Research Day last May. Presenting on her costume designs for the Lewis Center’s February 2016 production of Sophocles’ Elektra — which she had developed in a class on Advanced Theatrical Design — she hoped to showcase the detail and research that goes into such a creative endeavor. As an actor in the play, I was excited to learn more.

As a maid in the Greek Chorus, I was lucky enough to wear one of Julia’s costumes!

 

Clothing, after all, tells worlds about a person. A costume designer may spend weeks or months researching images that suggest a time period, an archetype, or even an emotion. For Elektra, a Greek tragedy, Julia found inspiration in the image of a 1950s “brush doll” provided to her by the lead actress: brush on the bottom, doll on the top. Much like a document might inspire a historian to turn to the archives, this image led Julia to do more pictorial research, eventually settling on a time period (the 1950s) and a color scheme (pastels). After designs were presented to the show’s director, they were given to the Lewis Center Costume Shop to make a reality. This was not the end. In the coming weeks, just as a researcher continues to make changes and discoveries throughout the writing process, Julia worked with each cast member to refine the pieces and make them comfortable to wear. For my character — a maid in the two-person Greek Chorus — the director wanted me to seem “otherworldly.” Hoping to convey this through aesthetics, Julia would bring in new costume and makeup ideas, even in the few days leading up to the show.

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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Dylan shares his interview.

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When I learned that Shayla Reid ’15 was in New Jersey for her winter break, I jumped on the opportunity to interview her for this blog. She currently works as a Fellow through Princeton in Africa at Young 1ove, an organization in Gaborone, Botswana that implements health and education programming for youth. A Spanish and Portuguese concentrator at Princeton, she was one of the people who convinced me to major in the department. And now, as I began to write my own thesis, I was excited to get her insights.

Shayla, back left, shares a fun moment with coworkers from Young 1ove in Botswana

Shayla’s thesis — “Mulher como protagonista”: Women’s Experiences with Parto Humanizado in São Paulo, Brazil — dealt with childbirth in Brazil, particularly the country’s high C-section rate. Though surgical intervention is only necessary when complications arise, in Brazil nearly 60-70% of all births in public hospitals are C-sections, and upwards of 90% in private ones. Though she was interested in the cultural reasons behind the high C-section rates, she also sought more personal experiences. Thus, as a Princeton Brazil Global Fellow, she spent the summer of 2014 in São Paulo. Paired with an adviser at the local university, she began to visit women’s health groups, interviewing women to see how they navigated the health care system in order to achieve fulfilling childbirth experiences.

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Frankensteining my Thesis: Writing Without an Outline

In middle school, I remember being told that the best way to write an essay is with an outline. We would receive five-paragraph-essay worksheets, complete with a thesis statement, sub-arguments, and important supporting information. It was direct, simple, and structured.

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Remember these outlines? Things were so easy back then. And, yes, your teacher probably used Comic Sans!

In this post, I hope to advocate for a different sort of writing. Outlines are certainly helpful organizational tools. But as I delve into my thesis, I find myself taking a more free-form approach. As I have previously written, I am writing on the legacy of pioneer Brazilian art therapist Nise da Silveira. Based on two months of ethnographic research, my thesis is about how da Silveira’s image is evoked and utilized by people who continue similar work. I have lots of interesting ideas, but no single, unifying argument. While writing an outline might be useful down the road, right now it would impose a limiting structure on my thought process.

Instead, I have decided to do what my friend Lily calls “Frankensteining.” To her, writing an essay is like creating Frankenstein’s monster: you have to find all the parts before you can sew them together and create a body. Lily explains:

“I think you need to Frankenstein when you’re developing any kind of complex argument because you can’t know what you’re going to say until you start figuring it out and seeing how different insights fit together. It’s writing as a nonlinear process — you don’t brainstorm and then write. They happen at the same time.”

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Five Tips for Studying During an Apocalypse

Does your work suddenly feel trivial? Meaningless? Low-priority? How can you do your readings or work on your thesis when it feels like the world is crumbling around you? Regardless of how you feel about the elections, you might be finding it hard to concentrate on anything but politics. You are not alone. So many of us have experienced this before, caught between our simultaneous needs for self-care and academic productivity. With that in mind, I have compiled a short list of tips that might help you with your academics as you go through tough times.

1. Ask for extensions on assignments. Princeton students sometimes forget about this. I have personally asked multiple times, and have never been turned down. Professors want to receive quality work, and if you feel an assignment won’t be up to standards by the deadline, it is okay to ask for more time. Extensions are not to be abused, but they can give you the time you need to complete assignments on a less stressful schedule.

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Sometimes when I need to brighten up my day I like to buy a mocha!

2. Every little bit counts. Sometimes, you don’t have the energy to do more than a few pages of reading. That’s okay! If you can space out your work and do a little bit at a time, you will have less to catch up on later when you are in an easier state of mind.

3. Do something that puts you in a good mood. Read a novel. Get ice cream. See a play. Personally, I like to go on long walks with friends. As Vidushi wrote in a recent post, taking time for things you find enjoyable fosters healthier work habits without compromising productivity. Stepping away from your assignments will let you recharge and be better prepared to work afterwards.
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Allowing for Incompleteness in Research

Research does not provide definitive answers.

It’s a lesson I learned recently in Anthropology 300. Just as Hamlet can be interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars without ever coming to a single definitive reading of the play, research should not set up ultimate truth as a goal.

We read Glifford Geertz’s classic The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he uses his varied fieldwork experiences in Northern Africa and Southeast Asia as jumping-off points for building theory about the nature of anthropology. He pushes us to consider culture not as a laboratory specimen to be dissected and understood in set ways, but as a piece of literature with infinite interpretative possibilities.

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Geertz worked at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, pictured above, and located just beyond the Graduate College. His wife, Hildred, taught in Princeton’s Anthropology Department.

Regarding the notion of definitive answers, he writes, “I do not know how long it would be profitable to meditate on [a fieldwork] encounter…but I do know that however long I did so I would not get anywhere near to the bottom of it. Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about … Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes, the less complete it gets.”

“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.”

In other words, a researcher must learn to be satisfied with imperfection. The best you can hope for is shades and colors of truth. Ironically, the more you know, the more you realize you know very little.

This spoke to me. It’s not that I ever fooled myself into believing my research could solve everything, but I have at times felt the pressure to account for all things related to my topics.

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How to Pick a Research Topic

Struggling to pick a research topic? We’ve all been there. Starting can be one of the hardest parts of research. There’s so much pressure to have a good topic that finding one becomes difficult. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips to ease this process.

1. Consider your personal interests. If this is a JP or thesis, you will be spending between a semester and an entire year delving into your topic. Make sure you like it! Finding something that genuinely piques your interest will help keep you engaged months down the road. I am lucky to have found Brazilian art therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira, whose work — after writing a JP about her and conducting my senior thesis research abroad on her — continues to keep me curious.

As I develop my thesis research, I hope that I continue to be interested in learning more. After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!
Crossing my fingers that my thesis topic continues to intrigue! After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!

2. Read a little about something that fascinates you. Interested in learning more about Mayan basket-weaving traditions? Find a few books or articles about it and start reading! Afterward, assess your feelings. Are you intrigued to learn more, or did you get bored halfway through? Read these signs — they can help you distinguish between topics that pique your interest at first, and those that will give you the stamina to keep reading months later.

 

3. Set up a meeting with your professors. I’ve written before about how helpful it can be to tap into what your professors might think. For my thesis, I knew that I was interested in a community project in Rio that used art to foster mental health, but wasn’t sure where to start. So I set up a meeting with a professor to talk about it. He suggested I look into Nise da Silveira, and I haven’t looked back since.

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Reading Your “Script”: What Theater Can Teach You About Research

The more I do theater, the more I understand its parallels to academic research.

Recently, I attended a workshop with John Doyle, the renowned theater director and Princeton professor. He shared two details of how he begins a creative process. First, he reads the script only a few times before beginning rehearsals. Rather than getting mired in the script’s details, he likes to let ideas brew and leave space for his collaborators’ input. Second, he stresses the importance of entering rehearsals with unanswered questions — because if you already know the answers, your questions aren’t rich enough, and there’s little point in bringing people together.

Approaching my first thesis meeting, I’ve been thinking about this advice.

As I have written (both here and here), I spent this summer in Rio de Janeiro, researching the legacy of art-therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira. During that time, I conducted over 15 interviews, attended numerous workshops, and collected various books and documents. Recorded on audio files and scribbled in notebooks, these constitute — in a sense — my “script.” It is a body of research so juicy, varied, and detailed, that it tempts me to dive right in and begin working my way through problems.

Yet, as I prepare for my first meeting, the most helpful thing I can do is not read over all this material. Delving in right away, I would get lost in details before I have a sense of what interests me. For the moment, it is more valuable to step away from my “script” and reflect. To think critically about my two months in Brazil. To ponder what confused me and what seemed contradictory. To come up with questions that I cannot yet answer.

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Snapshot from the Lewis Center’s production of Elektra in February 2016. I’m the possessed-Chorus-maid on the right!

This strategy has worked for me in theater. Last year, in Elektra, I acted in the two-person Greek Chorus. Following our first read-through, we developed some big questions about the Chorus: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us otherworldly? What grounds us in the physical world?

These questions, for the most part, went unanswered. But asking them from the start gave us time to test out answers every day, playing with different kinds of movement, costume, intonation — and, of course, finding new details in the script.

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