Archival Research in the Age of COVID-19: Requesting Document Scans from Libraries

When I first applied for departmental senior thesis funding early this spring, everyone was still uncertain about how long the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would last. It seemed departmental administrators were optimistic: funding requests could still be made for summer travel. In my application, I detailed my intent to travel to university and state archives throughout the U.S. south for a thesis examining how antebellum Mississippi Valley planters conceptualized the idea of labor. But before I even heard back about whether I was to receive support, the department updated its funding parameters to prohibit summer travel and I had to redo my application in turn. My summer plans, of course, were not the first academic casualty of the strange 2020 world; nor would they be the last. Fortunately, though, there were ways to work around my newfound limitations: all of the archives that I wanted to visit offered services for resident librarians to scan and send materials from their collection, so I updated my application to ask for funds to pay for associated fees. Here, I’ll be sharing some tips for requesting archival materials to be scanned, which I hope will be helpful to any researcher unable to travel (pandemic or not).

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How to Complete Research Assignments during Quarantine

This year, as we prepare to write our final papers in quarantine, it will be extra tough to locate the sources we need for our research. Without in-person access to campus libraries, this Dean’s Date will require some new strategies for accessing research materials. To help with this process, I’ve collected a few virtual research resources from my weeks of quarantine thesis work, as well as the beginnings of my Dean’s Date research (also check out Alec’s recent post for more tips):

Do not underestimate the library catalog. A lot of sources are available online, especially with the University’s new partnership with the HathiTrust Digital Library. Through this partnership, millions of scanned books have been made temporarily available to students—in addition to Princeton’s many existing online holdings. To see if a book is available online, just search for it in the Princeton library catalog. If you don’t see a digital edition listed, try clicking on a print edition and seeing if a scanned version is available through HathiTrust (if it is, there will be a link just below the book’s title and general information). You can also click the “Request” button under “Copies in the Library,” then “Help Me Get It” and a librarian will do their best to send you a digital copy—if it’s available—within a few days.

For one final paper this semester, I’m researching “Khush Khat,” a letter-writing program facilitated by a Bombay magazine in the 1990s. All of my sources are from the University’s online holdings: its digitized books and its digitized archives and databases.
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Write On, Write Well: Lessons From a Semester Abroad

This spring semester, I am enrolled as a visiting student at Hertford College, University of Oxford. While now I am back home on Long Island taking my Oxford courses online (just as Princeton students are Zooming into their own lectures and precepts in these strange times of COVID-19), I was able to spend about two months in Oxford. It was a truly wonderful experience; the city is beautiful, the people kind, and the academics engaging and rigorous.

The course of study at Oxford is quite different from that at Princeton. There, students do attend lectures, and sometimes seminars, but most of their academic work is conducted in preparation for tutorials. Tutorials meet most weeks each term, and consist of an hour-long meeting with a professor, either one-on-one or with one or two other students. For each tutorial, students must write an essay of around 2,000-2,500 words to discuss with their professors. Professors give the prompt in advance, and students are expected to craft a response based upon weekly reading lists. These lists are usually quite long, and students are by no means meant to read each item (this would be almost impossible; my reading lists for history courses usually had around ten prescribed primary sources, and thirty or so books and articles suggested for further reading). Rather, students must explore the different sources, be selective, and find works which are relevant to the argument they wish to make. Even though this curriculum differs notably from Princeton’s, it still taught me valuable lessons about my writing process that will help me at Princeton and beyond. Working on tutorial papers, in sum, has made me approach my writing with better time management, more confidence, and more appreciation for the craft of the essay.

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Five Tips for a Regret-Free Thesis Summer

I remember feeling blindsided by thesis talk my junior spring. I was in the middle of my second JP—I didn’t have a topic, an adviser, or any idea where to start. But I knew I needed to start my research in the summer before senior year. If I had learned anything from my JPs, it was that I would need all the time I could get to complete a research project of this scale.  

Juniors: whether you’ve already applied for thesis funding or haven’t yet thought about your thesis at all, now is the time to make a summer thesis plan. Remember: every hour you invest over the summer is an hour saved during the semester, when you’ll be back to balancing coursework, job/grad school applications, and extracurricular obligations. 

This summer, I was doing an internship in São Paulo, but I spent my evenings and weekends at a local library, reading sources for my thesis. It wasn’t fun, but I’ve thanked myself for it every day this year.

As I prepare to submit my thesis this month, I’ve thought back to my own junior spring and collected five things I wish I’d known before my thesis summer: 

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How to Pull Yourself Out of a Thesis-Writing Slump

We’ve all been there. We all know what it feels like to take a break⁠—whether it’s on purpose or by accident⁠—from a lengthy paper; it can be overwhelming when you realize that you messed up your writing process timeline. Personally, I recently took a looooong break (think: three weeks, give or take) from writing my thesis. Part of it was by accident; due to COVID-19, all Princeton students were told to move out and head back home for the remainder of the semester. The stress of packing, saying goodbye to my friends and the campus, and moving out caused my thesis to take a backseat in terms of priorities. Once I arrived home, I purposefully decided to extend my break from writing my thesis in order to unpack, get settled, and get used to online classes. One day lead to the next, and suddenly, I had spent three weeks away from my thesis.

It’s hard to hold yourself accountable about your thesis during breaks.
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Research Resources: Unsung Heroes, An Interview with Gender and Sexuality Studies Librarian Sara Howard

For this year’s Winter Seasonal Series, entitled Research Resources: Unsung Heroes, each correspondent has selected a faculty member, staff member, or peer working for a research resource on campus to interview. We hope that these interviews will provide insight into the variety of resources available on campus and supply the unique perspective of the people behind these resources. Here, Kamron shares his interview.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Sara Howard, the Gender and Sexuality Studies and Student Engagement librarian. I’ve found that I often don’t use all the available research resources to my benefit. Given that we have all recently transitioned on an online learning community, consider meeting with your librarian over Zoom!

Sara Howard is a librarian for the Princeton Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies
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Graduate School Application Process (Part I): Deciding to Apply

This semester, as I return to writing for PCUR, I will be publishing a series of posts describing my experience with the graduate school application process, applying to a variety of developmental psychology PhD programs. Throughout the process, I was fortunate enough to have guidance from my independent work adviser and other senior members of my research lab on campus. However, even with this support, I often found that the process was incredibly opaque. I spent hours searching for answers to seemingly simple questions, often never coming to a definitive conclusion. I hope to use this series of posts to shed some light on the many facets of the process. Although I can only speak to my personal experience, I hope to provide valuable information that can be helpful to students from a variety of disciplines.

The author posing with a picture book she wrote for her thesis study. She spent the summer before her senior year working in her lab full-time to collect data.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of the application process itself, the first step is deciding whether or not you want to go to graduate school in the first place. Graduate school, especially PhD programs, are long, so before you commit to spending up to 6 years in a program, it is important to make sure grad school is the right path for you.

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Interlibrary Loan and the Magic of Online (Research) Shopping

[Note: This post was written before COVID-19 reconfigured our library access. Interlibrary Loan is no longer accessible for students, but its sister program, Article Express, is still running at full speed!]

Every so often, when reading sources for my thesis, I come across a citation for a book or article I can’t find in the Princeton library catalog. Of course, given the size of Princeton’s holdings, these moments are rare—though somewhat more frequent as I’ve entered the fine-grain stages of my research project. In the past, a dead end in the library catalog was enough to convince me to give up on a source. However, the exigencies of my last month of thesis writing have pushed me to use what might just be the most magical tool in the Princeton library toolbox: Interlibrary Loan (ILL).

A detail from a 1967 event program I received through Interlibrary Loan this month. Some of the pages were still uncut when I received it!

Whereas Borrow Direct and Recap only provide access to books listed in the Princeton library catalog, Interlibrary Loan can provide access to… pretty much any source you could possibly need. ILL has two main request options: Article Express (for scans of specific articles and book chapters) and Interlibrary Loan (for larger sources, like books, audio/visual materials, and microreels).

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No Argument? Return to Your Research Question

Last semester, I fell in love with a cemetery. I had been interested in the processes of death and dying during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and hoped to write one (or more) of my final papers about the topic. A quick series of Google searches led me to Hart Island, a public cemetery where nearly a million unclaimed or indigent people are buried, including many victims of AIDS. I was fascinated. I read everything I could find about Hart Island, watched over a dozen YouTube videos, and even scheduled a visit to the cemetery with a friend.

By the time reading period came along, I had over forty pages of notes about this cemetery. But I had no idea how to write a paper about it. When I met with one of my professors to ask for help, I started to share all of the data I had collected about this site—its history, its design, its present-day controversies. After a few minutes of this, she intervened: “Great, but what’s your question?” I looked at her blankly. “Do you have a question about this site?”

Photograph of burials at Hart Island, ca. 1890.

Developing a research question is hardly a new idea. It’s emphasized in the Writing Seminar curriculum, and professors often require us to articulate questions at the early stages of our projects. But once we get buried in the work itself—collecting data, writing, meeting deadlines and assignment requirements—it can be easy to forget why we’re writing at all.

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A Few Tips for Successful Writing

Image courtesy of Amazon.com
The cover of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In this post, I suggest that consulting a style guide such as this can be a useful step toward improving your writing.

As regular readers of this blog will know, several other PCURs and I are in the throes of writing our theses. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing: what makes it effective, what strategies are successful, and what I can do to improve my own. I am by no means an expert writer, but in this post I will share a few tactics that have proven useful as I progress towards a submission-ready senior thesis. While this reflection stems from my own thesis experiences, I hope that writers of all class years and departments might find in it some principles of general applicability.

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