How to Get Work Done Without Even Trying: Passive Brainstorming for Essays and Final Assigments

In addition to this lovely position as a blogger for PCUR, I am also a Learning Consultant at McGraw. (*shameless plug*: Learning Consultations at McGraw are individual hour sessions with a student (like me!) where you come up with strategies on how to best handle your studies at Princeton). Last year, a couple consultants volunteered for the inaugural episode of McGraw’s podcast, “Making Learning Audible,” where we talked about finding balance between work and relaxation over winter break. During winter break in my first year at Princeton, I put a lot of pressure on myself to study intensively for exams but ended up just overwhelming myself and doing nothing. Any attempt to actively work on my essays to reach my high standard of getting super ahead on my Dean’s Date papers was met with instant exhaustion.

Get this level of electric brainstorming activity done without even thinking about it!

However, I said in the podcast: “For my sophomore winter break, I learned from that, and all I wanted was just a good place to start when I got back. I did not put a lot of pressure on myself. I let all the work that I had to do be kind of passive and if something came to mind that I really liked I would jot it down and get back to it”.

In this post, I’ll unpack what I meant by “passive work.” Active brainstorming, in my experience, is choosing to set aside time to sit down and build an essay or open-ended question on an exam from scratch. So, what does it look like to stretch out this brainstorm period so when you sit down to write, the paragraphs basically form themselves? Here are some tips on how I’ve been able to cut down on brainstorming time and get down to business:

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Tips to Succeed in Writing Seminar

Students engaging in a discussion.

Writing seminar is a unifying challenge for all first-years at Princeton.

If you are currently overwhelmed by the terms “motive”, “scholarly conversation”, and “literary sources”, you are probably tired of hearing “just get through it” when asking others for advice on how to navigate writing sem.

Although writing sem will probably challenge you more than any type of writing you did in high school, managing the coursework does not have to be overwhelming. Here are a few tips that helped me reduce the stress of writing seminar and gain the most from my experience:

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The Conference that Will Prepare You for Your Final Paper in Writing Seminar

Writing seminar is a demanding and rigorous rite of passage at Princeton. The packed schedule, along with the constant writing and peer editing, makes it seem like you’re taking two courses instead of one.

The Mary W. George Freshman Research Conference is a great resource for current and future writing seminar students.

But for all you first years, I promise (as a *hopefully wiser* sophomore) that there’s a lot that you can get out of this one course that Princeton requires all first years to take. Although writing seminar is a trying class, it really is the basis of writing for all your future classes at Princeton. (I know, I know, I sound like your writing seminar professor. I’m sorry!)

I still remember the dread I felt when I first heard about the R3, or revised essay #3. For the R1 and R2, the argument was, to a certain degree, provided by the professor. The R3 asked me to develop “an original argument,” and the possibilities for the research topic seemed endless. I had no idea where to start. How was I going to write this?

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Flexibility of Research: What to Do When You Feel like You’ve Hit a Dead End

Research can be a truly thrilling experience–interesting data, new findings, surprising collections. However, research can also be incredibly frustrating, namely when you feel like your work isn’t going anywhere.

If you’ve ever been really excited about a topic, done a load of research, and still found that you aren’t making forward progress, this post is for you. I’m talking about hitting tough obstacles in your research–walls you can’t seem to get over–reaching what seems like a dead end.

I’ve been there before (oh more times than I would like to admit), and what I’ve found is that normally, this frustrating lack of a solution is not an indicator that your research is ‘wrong’ or isn’t worthwhile. In fact, it might actually mean that there is another question buried in your topic that needs to be addressed primarily. Continue reading Flexibility of Research: What to Do When You Feel like You’ve Hit a Dead End

GEO/WRI 201: The Best Course on Scientific Research and Writing Offered at Princeton

“Any science major should consider this course…it is basically independent work guided by two top notch professors and supported by an entire seminar class.” – Anonymous Student Review

Every undergraduate studying the natural sciences at Princeton undertakes significant independent research projects in their Junior and Senior years. GEO/WRI 201: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing is a unique course designed specifically to teach students how to write an independent scientific paper. If you are a Sophomore or Junior looking to attain the concrete skills and confidence to tackle independent research, there is no better class to take.

In 201, you will learn how to design, research, write, and present original scientific research, all through the lens of measuring changing landscapes using satellite and drone-derived aerial imagery. Under the mentorship of Adam Maloof (GEO) and Amanda Irwin Wilkins (WRI), and with the support of your peers, you will: develop an original, well motivated scientific question; design effective field methods to test a specific hypothesis; quantitatively analyze data and imagery; and learn how to effectively communicate the results in a scientific paper and slideshow presentation. The highlight of the class is a nine day field trip across Utah, where students work collaboratively to implement their own field methods, piloting drones and collecting climatological data.

Will Atkinson ‘18 misses a beautiful sunset over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah while taking notes on a geology lecture given by professor Adam Maloof during the class field trip. (Fall break, 2016)

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In Between the Lines: A Guide to Reading Critically

 

A good example of how I mark up my readings as I go

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.

  1. 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

How to Ace Your Final Draft

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.

  1. If your first draft wasn't great, you have an opportunity to reinvent your old ideas!
    If your first draft wasn’t great, you have an opportunity to reinvent your old ideas!

    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.

  1. 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.

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Swamped With Sources? Tips for Synthesis

paperstack-292x300
Accurate representation of me drowning in sources

After looking at the midterm essay prompt for my French class, I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of readings I would have to review and analyze. Dozens of articles, books, and excerpts loomed on the syllabus, and I had no idea where to begin. I often run into this problem. Synthesis is a meaningful combination of several sources, and can be difficult to do when everything seems important. The pressure to come up with a unifying and relevant thesis makes these initial stages of finding information even more stressful. Having experienced this struggle several times, I’ve come up with a few ways to organize sources that will hopefully be useful in the writing process!

Writing begins with a research question. That question might come from a given prompt, or from a personal interest. Either way, it provides a loose focus that will help eliminate irrelevant information when you’re reviewing and searching for sources. To speed up this process, make sure that if you’re reviewing sources you’ve already read in the semester, you’re just reviewing and not re-reading! You’ve already done the brunt of the work: simply skim through the readings to select ideas and passages that relate to your research question. Also, don’t feel pressured to use every source you’ve skimmed. Ultimately sources should function to bolster your own conclusions, so instead of crowding your paper with them, further analyze the ones most relevant to your research focus.

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Write something, write something awful, write everything

Unfortunately, writing isn't just the process of typing, or stamping words on paper. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?
Unfortunately, writing isn’t just stamping words on paper like this printing press does. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing.

I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.

But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.

Write something

If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.

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Presenting Like a Pro: Three Tips for the Freshmen Research Conference and Princeton Research Day

Often, the second half of the semester calls for students to present their research findings in class, or in front of professors/advisers evaluating independent work. Presentations are a different kind of assignment than, say, fifteen-page research papers — and they require a different set of skills. At this time last year, I found myself facing a new and unexpected presentation project: My fall writing seminar professor had asked me to revisit my final research paper and present it at the Quin Morton ‘36 Conference.

Engaging your audience during a presentation can seem like a daunting task, but with some thoughtful preparation, you’ll be sure to command their attention.

Now called the Mary W. George Freshmen Research Conference, this event is an opportunity for freshmen to share their writing seminar research with a wider audience through ten-minute presentations. I encountered many challenges while breaking down my paper—a feminist perspective on evaluations of sexuality in films— into slides and bullet points. However, I also learned a lot about presentations through the process. While this year’s participants are gearing up for the conference in early April, students presenting at Princeton Research Day are in the midst of similar preparation. In light of these upcoming events, and since many students will have to present their research as spring semester comes to a close, I have decided to offer some advice on research presentations. Below I throw in my two (three) cents on the topic.

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