Until recently, I only watched TV and movies in order to decompress. There’s nothing quite like lying in bed after a long day, lulled to sleep by my favorite Netflix show. Requiring minimal effort, movies acted as a brief escape from my reading- and writing-heavy coursework.
Like many Princeton students, though, I sometimes felt guilty choosing to watch TV over, say, finishing my readings for precept the next morning. But a few weeks ago, my professor introduced me to an invaluable resource called Kanopy. Completely free for all Princeton students and faculty, this site provides over 30,000 films for streaming on any device. But Kanopy isn’t just another Netflix or Hulu: it’s specifically designed for use in research institutions.
This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Rafi shares his interview.
Jonathon Catlin is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History, focusing on intellectual responses to the Holocaust. Before beginning at Princeton, he earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago in Jewish Studies and Fundamentals: Issues and Texts and his M.A. in philosophy from KU Leuven in Belgium. A few days ago, I sat down with him in Chancellor Green café to hear about his research journey and some of what he’s learned along the way.
How did you arrive at your current research topic?
I was a junior in high school and, for whatever reason, I decided to take a course called “The Holocaust in History, Literature, and Film” at Harvard Summer School. Why I chose it I don’t know, but the rest is history. Holocaust representation and its intersections with philosophy, religion, literature, film — all in a sort of historical context — is essentially what I’ve been working on for about eight years now, bouncing around multiple disciplines.
My dissertation is hopefully going to be on the concept of catastrophe in modern European thought – a project I’ve been working on since my first year of undergrad. I guess the newest thing for me about coming to Princeton is that I’m in a history department now, which is just totally different than the interdisciplinary humanities focus that I was used to.
The blank page at the very beginning of the writing process is one of the most difficult stages for me. I struggle with how to get started and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of me.
To avoid this blank page, I open a Word Document called “Notes” early on in the research process. As I sort through the ever-accumulating pile of books and articles on my desk, I copy the relevant quotes into the document, followed by the author’s name and the page number. Typically, only a fraction of these quotes actually make it into the paper, so it can be hard to know when to stop. The metric I’ve figured out is: when the notes document is double the length of the assignment, I know it’s time to begin drafting the paper.
As I write, this document becomes my primary resource for information and direct quotes. Because it’s consolidated in one file, it’s easily navigable and searchable. Sometimes, I reorganize the quotes into sections to guide my paragraph structure and overall argument.
In the past, this system has worked well for me. But in the past few weeks, two of my teachers have modeled an exciting new approach to organizing research materials: visual mapping. Continue reading Visualizing Your Argument
The Princeton University Library system features over six million unique titles. So when you discover a book not already in the system, you know you’ve found a niche topic.
This semester, I’m taking a course called “Modern India: History and Political Theory” taught by Visiting Professor Sunil Khilnani. In the course, we examine primary sources from the major actors in the Indian nationalist movement.
Interested in indigenous politics in India, I asked Professor Khilnani if I could write my midterm paper on the Adivasi (Indian tribal societies) role in Independence – even though we haven’t addressed this topic in class. He suggested I focus on Jaipal Singh, a major twentieth-century Adivasi activist, and sent me a list of primary and secondary sources to consider. Specifically, he recommended using the recently published collection of Singh’s speeches and writings, Adivasidom. Continue reading Recommend a Purchase: The Princeton Wish List
Until recently, I hadn’t reflected on the fact that what we read for class is carefully curated. As we all know, our professors dedicate immense amounts of time to selecting and refining the list of readings for our courses. Ideally, these readings reflect the essential sources on a particular subject. However, as with any selection process, the developing syllabus is filtered through certain ideological and methodological biases, not to mention the practical constraints of the course.
In my experience, professors tend to be transparent with their students about this curatorial process. In class, we often discuss why certain scholars were selected over others, and receive recommendations for further reading. Yet, I don’t often reflect on these selected works of scholarship in the context of their authors’ personal intellectual evolution.
When selecting secondary sources, professors typically choose a scholar’s most established works and arguments. With such limited time to cover material, our semesters only have space for “greatest hits.” These works tend to articulate coherent ideas, argue something new and critically important, and reflect a consistent methodology. Often, they’re masterpieces of scholarship.
According to its website, Princeton offers courses in about twenty modern languages. Sounds pretty comprehensive – until you consider that the world has literally thousands of distinct living languages.
As I start preparing for my independent work next year, I’m thinking a lot about language ability, especially as it relates to primary source access. For non-Anglophone historical research, facility in the region’s language/s is essential to original scholarship. Personally, I’m interested in Eastern European Jewish history. The good news: I only really need one language to study primary sources from this period. The bad news: it’s not one of the twenty offered on campus.
Firestone is my favorite Princeton resource – but it has its limits, especially when it comes to primary source material (see my previous post). If I can’t access a source through Firestone, my next step is generally the New York Public Library system. NYPL offers not only a beautiful place to study, but also a wide range of primary source material in their public collections.
I recently spent a day at the Schwarzman building on 42nd and 5th in order to access a microfilm copy of a Yiddish periodical published by Holocaust survivors in 1946. This was my first time researching at the NYPL and working with microfilm (the small reels of film used to store documents in pre-digitization libraries) – so I learned a lot in my few hours there.
Borrow Direct is my favorite feature of the Princeton library system. If you’re ever hunting for a book and it’s not available at Princeton, the Borrow Direct program allows you to order the book free of charge from another university library. A few days after your order, you receive an email that your book has arrived, and you pick it up from the front desk – where it is wrapped in paper and marked with your name. It’s like Hannukah, but all the time.
The joy of Borrow Direct isn’t limited to campus. Over the summer, when I needed to do research at Brown University’s library, the Borrow Direct system gave me unlimited access to the library there and enabled me to check out books with nothing more than my PUID. I was even allowed to reserve a carrel for the entire summer — which I did.
Don’t tell your mom I told you this, but the Funding Fairy isn’t real. And it took me until this week to realize it.
Since before even arriving on campus, I’ve heard story after story of Princeton’s generosity: the fully-funded research project, the all-expenses-paid trip to Cuba, the paid summer fellowship. Dazzled by these stories, I pictured the University as a Funding Fairy with a magic wand (or a pushover parent in a toy store – ready to pull out their wallet whenever I pointed at something I wanted). Unfortunately, however, this Funding Fairy is not real; funding is not awarded nearly as liberally as I imagined.
Earlier this week, I decided I wanted to spend winter break translating Yiddish poetry in archives in New York City. I’ve been itching to study Yiddish for months, but, because Princeton doesn’t offer a Yiddish program (yet), I’ve had to limit my Yiddish projects to vacations. Shortly after thinking of my poetry translation idea, I shot an email to the Lewis Center for the Arts asking for a small bit of funding for the project. A few hours later, I received the response: “We don’t have winter funding.” And like a child discovering the coin under her pillow was no fairy gift, I realized securing funding is more complicated than just asking for it. And I’m actually grateful for that.
Like many people my age, I am an uncertified, yet impressively efficient sleuth. Give me a name and some time, and I should be able to pull up at least two sources of information on any given person.
We know the process well: start with Google, aim for Facebook, and click on everything in between: Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, news media, public tax records, etc. – not to mention the terrifying wonders of Tigerbook.