I often find that Princeton professors assume that we all know how to “read critically.” It’s a phrase often included in essay prompts, and a skill necessary to academic writing. Maybe we’re familiar with its definition: close examination of a text’s logic, arguments, style, and other content in order to better understand the author’s intent. Reading non-critically would be identifying a metaphor in a passage, whereas the critical reader would question why the author used that specific metaphor in the first place. Now that the terminology is clarified, what does critical reading look like in practice? I’ve put together a short guide on how I approach my readings to help demystify the process.
Put on your scholar hat. Critical reading starts before the first page. You should assume that the reading in front of you was the product of several choices made by the author, and that each of these choices is subject to analysis. This is a critical mindset, but importantly, not a negative one. Not taking a reading at face value doesn’t mean approaching the reading hoping to find everything that’s wrong, but rather what could be improved. Continue reading In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically
I’ve always struggled with citations: remembering where I should put commas, how to format journal names, how many authors I should list before writing et al (or was it et. al.?). Last year, my roommate caught me using my freshman year copy of A Pocket Style Manual as I complained my way through the tedious formatting of my junior paper citations.
“You don’t use Mendeley?” she asked me. “Oh, wow. Let me help you.”
After saving many tedious hours with the help of a citation manager, I’m passing my roommate’s wisdom on, by way of a 12-minute guide that can get you started using Mendeley. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll never go back!
Mendeley and Zotero, the two most popular free citation management programs, store sources and create formatted in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies. I use Mendeley, which has the benefit of allowing you to highlight and annotate PDFs within its desktop app. But I also have friends who swear by Zotero, which is better with non-PDF sources. (If you’re torn, you can check out this helpful comparison.)
“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.
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.
There are many circumstances in which you should put others’ preferences ahead of your own.
I’m going to go on record and say your senior thesis is not one of them.
As you know, your thesis is a major independent work project with your name on it. You pick the question and you conceptualize the answer. You are the star of the show. So, your thesis – or any research project with you at the helm – requires trust in your own intuition. The process is really all about you: what you know, who you know, and what you like.
Since understanding these aspects of yourself is important for your research (and your sanity), it’s worth thinking about each in detail:
How many times have you had to research a topic outside of your area of interest? Whether you are fulfilling a distribution requirement or testing out a new field, developing sound arguments in areas that are new to you can be intimidating. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips that always help me when my I’m especially unfamiliar with my research topic:
Look for a rebuttal argument: Rebuttal articles usually clarify and outline the argument you’re researching in order to argue against it. This helps clarify some of your own ideas while also giving material to complicate your own arguments. I do this early in the research process, as it helps me solidify a direction with my paper when I have a lot of general ideas. I recently used this technique while writing a paper on Evangelical
environmentalism. I struggled to develop an argument until I read a text explaining why this framework would not be economically feasible. I used this rebuttal in conjunction with articles on viable economic models of Evangelical environmentalism to help me jumpstart my argument. Without the rebuttal article, I would have had a less clear understanding of the topic and would have approached my paper with a more limited perspective. Continue reading Writing Out of Your Comfort Zone: How to Sound Like an Expert on an Unfamiliar Topic
I recently got back a midterm essay and, as it turns out, I didn’t do so well. I didn’t give myself enough time to fully flesh out my arguments, and ended up with lots of logic gaps as a result. I was pretty disappointed, but I realized that I could turn this setback into a learning opportunity. So for the final essay, I chose to develop the ideas from this paper, working through its problems and retooling arguments. With the process of rewriting in mind, I’ve compiled a few tips to help you revise drafts and papers.
Talk to your professor. This might be intuitive, but don’t revise your paper using only your professor’s notes in the margins. Ask in person what worked and what didn’t so you can get a better sense of where to go. Then continue from there.
Start thinking about your thesis. Be honest with yourself, do you agree with it? Is it logical? My thesis was a huge part of what detracted from my essay, because I didn’t properly outline my ideas or prove the argument I had made. Think about how you could tweak your main argument relative to the evidence you already have so you avoid writing an entirely new paper.
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.
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.”
Princeton’s resource network, like Firestone Library under construction, is so big and complex you could spend hours inside it but only see a small part, never knowing what you’re missing. Here are 3½ of campus’ most under-the-radar resources, and a guide to using them.
1a. Data and Statistical Services: Lab edition What: The original inspiration for this post, the DSS Lab is literally underground. A well-lit room of big-screen PC’s, the lab is run by two incredibly friendly statistical consultants who can help you download, format, reshape, or analyze data. Where: The A floor of Firestone – see this map. How: The lab consultants’ schedule is available here. Walk-in hours are available from 2-5 p.m. on weekdays through December 16. Underground tip: For brief, specific questions, send an email to the consultants at firstname.lastname@example.org.Continue reading Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources
Tortoise is an annual journal that publishes excerpts from Princeton undergraduate and graduate student research, featuring interdisciplinary work that emphasizes the writingprocess. With Tortoise’s “early action*” deadline coming up on December 16th at 5 PM, I sat down with senior editor Sahand Keshavarz Rahbar to learn what the journal is about.
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.
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. Continue reading Five Tips for Studying During an Apocalypse