The Exam List Challenge

This year it was difficult for me to explain to friends and family what I was up to.  My shorthand was, “I’m studying.”  But preparing for doctoral qualifying exams seems like a lot more than just “studying.”  It was a challenge in time management, information synthesis, and really a wake-up call to the amount of literature that exists in a given field.  Most days I felt overwhelmed.  A good number of days I felt incredibly isolated and alone.  It isn’t fun, but when it is done it is incredibly rewarding.  I successfully finished the process last week!

Every program approaches the comprehensive exam process differently.  In my department, we are tested on all of our respective fields in the same two-hour timeframe.  We have to answer questions orally in front of our committee with on-the-spot questions.  The qualifying exam process is not a uniform one, and I suggest studying to fit the “performance” you must complete to pass the exam.  That said, for those scrambling to find good study strategies to absorb a copious amount of information (or, at the end of it all, to have a good archive-base to tap into at a later date) I wanted to share the five methods that *successfully* made me feel prepared for my exam.

  1. One book: one index card

An alumna of my program gave me this idea, and this was by far the most helpful study strategy I had in my back pocket.  It was a lot of work in the moment, and I ended up changing the strategy slightly in the middle of my first semester of reading.  But now I have almost 100 cards that represent about half of the books I read for my exam period.  If I did this strategy over again, I would commit to making sure each and every book I read had a card.  My timing (and exhaustion) prevented me from doing this, but the books that got one were the ones I remembered the best.

At first, I wrote very short summaries on each index card for each book, but I found that I was still getting caught up in the details of the texts.  In one meeting with my main advisor, I became frustrated when I learned that the information I was remembering wasn’t the information he wanted me to take away from the text.  He assured me that this was part of the process, and encouraged me to think about why I wanted to do the project I was doing, and ask the same question of the author I was reading in the 2-3 hour moment.  “What is the ‘bee in their bonnet’?  Why are they writing this in the first place? ” he asked me.

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So, my cards became a little more point-oriented.  I wrote a “Bee in Bonnet” – which was really just the thesis statement of a given book – and provided three to five “points” made in the text that helped support or answer this bee.  This process immediately clicked for me.  When reviewing, I was not only able to describe a main point of a book but some bare-bones evidence that were detailed but streamlined so I didn’t get caught up in the tiny points of the text.  This strategy also helped me read more efficiently.  I looked for the evidence that best supported an author’s argument, and if I had trouble finding it, I knew this was something I could critique about the text.  With my four lists, I color coded my index cards.  If I had enough room on the back of the card, I would sometimes write an author or two of relevance who was cited and also on my list.  This helped illustrate who was in conversation with whom on my list.

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  1. One book: one Tweet

At the very beginning of my studying, I thought that I needed to be super succinct with my understanding of the books.  After writing extensive notes while reading, I tried to limit the point of each book to 140 characters on my Twitter page with the hastag: #examlistchallenge.

Pros: The Twitter archive with this hashtag is helpful to pull up time and again.  I took pictures of the title pages of the books for reference.  I was able to distill the main points into a very tiny bite.  And, at times, fellow #twitterstorians saw my Tweets and engaged with them – letting me know which books their favorites were through likes and retweets.  It was fun, and it gave me a presence on the academic Twitter network flagging to others “hey, she is working on comps!”

Cons: The very tiny bites were at times too tiny.  I wasn’t able to remember what I tweeted as well as what I wrote down on the index cards, and this may have to do with kinesthetic or visual memory preferences on my part.  I also sometimes took way too long thinking through ag, tech, sci, and med emojis rather than the actual arguments in the books.

  1. Monthly write-ups for each list

With my committee, I was actually *required* to provide write-ups based on the books I read over a two to four week period.  When I initially compiled my lists, I created different sections to organize the lists thematically or chronologically, depending on the desires of my advisor for each list.  The way my department approaches the oral exam period is that it is a year-long endeavor.  The “courses” we complete over the year are actually independent studies with our committee based on the theme of each list.  I met with each advisor throughout the year and “checked in” for one hour each month, going over my thoughts on what I had read to the point of our meeting.  The list I made was basically my syllabus, and each meeting required some discussion about my write-up on a theme or set of themes for my list.

If you do not meet with your committee regularly, I feel these write-ups are incredibly useful for starting to synthesize how many books can be in conversation with one another in a given field.  These write-ups became the basis for my other study strategies as I continued to pare down ideas and books that correlated with these ideas.  I also started to write questions and comments related to my dissertation in these write-ups, which I have since been using for proposals and grant applications.

  1. One write-up: one to two index cards

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You are probably wondering what is up with these index cards.  I even had a colleague come up to me while I was studying and explain that the last time she used index cards was for a biology exam in her undergraduate years.  But trust me, the actual making of index cards coupled with their transport-friendly size saved my butt for this exam.

After writing the synthetic (or, semi-synthetic) monthly write-ups, I condensed my thoughts even further onto a notecard in a “map” format.  What does this mean?  I basically provided a script for myself that locked in the main points of a particular theme and the books I read that helped support these points.   These were the most helpful study tools I made in my longer study process.  My last two days were spent mulling over these purple cards, thinking about the various ways my fields overlapped one another and the ways they diverged.  Because I only had two hours to talk about four different fields, these cards helped me remember the books that were most important to *me* when thinking through the ideas held in my lists: historiographically, historically, and methodologically.

  1. The study buddy

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This may be a no-brainer, but aside from the “map” cards I made, my study buddies made this exam process so much more bearable if not semi-enjoyable.  For the month before our exams, a colleague and I would meet at a local coffee shop off campus and ask practice questions about our books and about our respective dissertations.  We exchanged lists and (attempted) to personify our committee members.  We both found that as we talked, we surprised ourselves with what we remembered in our year of reading.  We were able to self-reflect on which ideas, books, or themes we felt most uncomfortable talking about, and these were the areas we would spend more time studying on our own time.

 

The most important thing to know, regardless of your study method, is that you are not alone in this process.  Though it is arguably an exercise of learning and processing information by yourself, always know that there are faculty, student, and online networks you can tap into to make the process worthwhile.

Writing Reflections: Cutting Back the Forest

This week, I had the pleasure to contribute to Nursing Clio‘s “Bites of History” section.  For those unaware, Nursing Clio is a collaborative academic blog that has gained a great bit of traction in the academic world.  It is a site for innovative academic writing and for bite-sized (pun totally intended) blog posts engaged with current events/culture using historical primary source material.  I learn so much from posts on Nursing Clio.  Those who manage the site also have a great commitment to accessible writing, which makes it a great source for budding historians (my undergrads love this site!).

One important caveat to good, accessible academic writing is knowing when and where to end a conversation.  As I was writing “Milk: A History of Tasting What Cows Eat,” I had to make some very difficult decisions on what to include and what to cut.  Why is this so hard for academics to do?  Because many of us are managing many different kinds of information at once, often forgetting that the debates and conversations held in the ivory tower do not always translate to a general audience (or sometimes, even, to the larger discipline)!  We get stuck in the details of our own interests and the interests of the people we want to readily speak to.  It’s hard to zoom out and see the forest instead of the moss on the trees – as one of my advisors so eloquently put it.

 

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Taking a birds-eye view is tough!  I’d rather get to the nitty gritty of this rock, mildew, or the people in those houses.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger (Albuquerque 2015).

 

For the past few months, I’ve been sitting in coffee shops reading and studying for my comprehensive exams.  This is why the personal blog has been so neglected.  My brain is not only filled with more information than I can handle, but I’m constantly having to consider and re-consider what my dissertation is and who it will be speaking to.  I find myself constantly caught in the weeds of the details of my agriculture history literature, not to mention the mass of data I’ve already collected to start writing the first few chapters of my dissertation.  How the heck am I to write a succinct blog entry when I’m reading through four lists of different historical and anthropological material?  What makes it all connect, and how do I make these connections in a brief, but clear, way?

The advisor who asked me to consider my forest suggested I pitch to Nursing Clio‘s call for histories of nutrition.  As a historian of animal nutrition, I had so many ideas and I didn’t know where to start.  I knew I wanted to speak to historians of medicine and agriculture historians, but I also wanted to consider environmental historians, historians of technology, and food scholars.  This was way too ambitious, and I knew I couldn’t write explicitly, “as these scholars have suggested, and you, and I’m also talking to you, and you, and you, and you, and you!”  I wasn’t going to make an interesting argument AND sing a rendition of La Vie Boheme in 1,000 words or less.  So I went simple and started with a movie scene many people were familiar with from Napoleon Dynamite.

The movie, in all of its awkward tendencies, heightened the awkwardness with the decision to make Napoleon and his friend, Pedro, members of their high school FFA program.  When the movie was released, I couldn’t quite make sense of this decision.  My hometown was not only familiar with FFA but very supportive of the program.  My parents were in FFA.  I almost joined FFA (a story for another time).  But for those unfamiliar with the organization, this narrative decision made the outcast characters in the film pushed even more to their high school’s periphery.  So I decided to bring the FFA milk tasting scene from this film back into context using history and current events.  Thus, my Nursing Clio article was born.

I could have expanded on the subject of milk tasting in many different ways, but I’m happy I stayed with the history of tasting contests, how tasting “tests” continue today, and how tastes may be perceived differently with the advent of animal-free milk.  You’ll have to read the post for the details!  As a complimentary writing reflection, however, I want to reveal three other points I wanted to engage with but that didn’t make the cut for accessibility/organization/clarity purposes.  I hope this illustrates how purposeful writing is and can be, particularly when trying to craft something for a wider audience.

  1. My hometown and personal FFA/4-H background.

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This was an alternate way to speak to the wider audience.  I had to make the decision to either use my personal story to get readers engaged, or to use a more popular source like the film clip.  As my first post with Nursing Clio, I decided to go the popular route.  This helped me form a catchy introduction, and stay focused with the purpose of the piece.  Personal reflections, though helpful, can sometimes get the “TMI” mark rather than the “ICYMI” on Twitter.

2. Feeding cows (or, uh, giraffes?) Skittles is a big deal right now.

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The great Skittles debate has gained some traction in the news.  But, I felt I talked about animal feed in enough detail for the purposes of the post. I mean, my whole dissertation is about animal feed!  I actually made the decision to use the room in my post to speak briefly about animal-free milk instead of this.  This is because I have been making efforts to use my academic work to speak to environmentally conscious food consumers, including vegans.  The questions I pose at the end of the post are, in ways, meant to be an open-ended reflection for this group.  If I talked about Skittles, I wouldn’t have had time to talk about animal-free milk.  Too many ideas, not enough room!

3.  The science of animal-free milk may impact the formula v. breastfeeding debates.

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Nursing Clio has a commitment to discussions on the history of gender and sexuality.  I really wanted to speak to this more directly in the post but decided the subtleties would be enough.  With cows as female animals and men (problematically) dominating the science of milk for so long… the gendered labor and gendered animals backdrops are there.  But, I could have gone into this formula/breastfeeding topic in a few ways.  Some of my primary sources noted that women (really, secretaries) at the extension schools preferred “silage milk,” and one historical interpretation for this inclusion in the scientific reports may be because milk, in general, was being marketed most to mothers for feeding children.  This seemed like an unnecessary tangent for me to get into, so it was cut.

Human milk is also being tested to make synthetic breast milk, and they are using similar processes developed by the bovine-focused Muufri/Perfect Day.  But these tests are still “beta,” as human milk proteins are much more complex than bovine ones.  Getting into the weeds of this feminist/reproduction angle, I had to ask myself what the purpose of my particular post would be: connections between human and animal milk?  Animal welfare? Milk tasting?  I decided to focus my writing on this idea that tasting milk has historically meant tasting a particular feeding decision/relationship.  This doesn’t have the simplest history, but a quick snapshot, I believed, could get readers thinking… at the very least about the Napoleon Dynamite clip being part of a longer history.  Readers could get to some of these other topics I wanted to talk about on their own with some digging.  Perhaps they could even be the subject of future articles.

 

What is your writing process, and does it change with the genre?  When have you made the decision to cut out ideas in your writing for the purposes of clarity?  Would love to hear your thoughts!

Why Academics Should Tweet More

Don’t judge me if I’m looking at my phone during an interesting lecture.  Nine times out of ten, I’m not responding to a text or flipping through my emails.  Usually when I’m on my phone, I’m live tweeting – and I wish more academics (and farmers, and companies for that matter) would tweet more.

This past month I have been immersed in a sea of academic get-togethers. I participated in an oral history workshop and two different conferences, and all had developed a hashtag for tweeters to tweet and follow conversations.  These were three truly amazing events, and for me to take the time to tweet them and live tweet some of their take-aways helped me remember the content of the talks a whole lot better.  My tweets are now archived on my Twitter page, giving me an opportunity to look back on the important moments I thought were worth tweeting.  The entire process provides an extra dimension to my overall note-taking experience.

 

I only started tweeting when I started this blog, courtesy of a friend’s suggestion.  I’m really glad I took the time to start playing around with the website and app, finding not only people to follow from my discipline and the groups of people I conduct research with, but also finding conversations between handfuls of individuals having genuine discussions in 140 characters or less.

If you are already a tweeter, I don’t need to persuade you of the benefits of tweeting in x, y, or z discipline or for x, y, or z reason.  But for those of you still hesitant to jump on the bandwagon, I’d like to outline some additional perks to academic tweeting and the possibilities that could come with regular tweeting from intellectual and professional communities.

  1. Note-taking archive

Everyone processes information in different ways, and I appreciate this fact.  Some people can sit in a lecture, listen to the lecturer, and *presto-pesto* the information is transferred into their brain.  For me to process the same lecture, I have to take extensive notes.  I then have to transcribe these notes, and read them over again to really get at what was relayed to me from the speaker.  As I mentioned, Twitter provides an extra dimension of writing notes for me with the added pressure of a public audience.  Considering how my brain works (and I assume other brains out there), this process actually allows the information to become instantly more meaningful for me to absorb: writing a note first by hand to make sure it is brief enough, then writing it in my screen (sometimes with emojis), and then publishing it for others to see.  It may sound like this takes *more* time, but in the long run actually takes *less* time for me to remember the information. Plus, as I mentioned before, everything is archived.  And this happens not only within my own Twitter page, but through the hashtags I use.  I can go back over themes in “#dairy” or “#aghist” or “#histsci” using the hashtags – seeing not only what I have written but what others have written under these key terms and topics.

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It’s nice to get “likes” and “retweets,” but sometimes tweeting is just another form of taking notes.

 

  1. Practice for precise and succinct writing

“If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”  One of my past instructors, Richard Parmentier, would press this quote on us before assigning his notoriously short assignments.  I haven’t forgotten the power of time or the power of brevity.  Writing long, complicated ideas in clear, short ways is a skill I think everyone can benefit from mastering.  Twitter is one way to practice getting good ideas out there in brief, quick, eye-catching ways but *quickly*.  I’m learning to use my words carefully, and to swap out long, jargon-y words for shorter ones in my tweets.  The 140 character limit also forces me to be creative with pictorial representations, using the emoji inventory on my phone, images from the actual lecture/event, or even popular animated files from Google’s archive to better illustrate the arguments and stories I hear.

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  1. Getting to know others and their research

Probably one of the greatest benefits of Twitter is the follow function.  Many great scholars and professionals are already on Twitter, and are constantly tweeting articles, reviews of books and journals, and even musings about their classroom and conference experiences.  I love following conversations when they blossom, particularly as people reply to a tweet that moves them.  Twitter is a great space to witness the thinking processes of individuals (if they Tweet frequent enough), as well as the many different interests we can have as an intellectual collective.  I also follow all of the major local, national, and international news sources on Twitter, and feel like I can access different kinds of information all in one forum.  Some would argue Facebook serves the same function, but the brevity of the Tweet makes this information seem more variable.

 

  1. Tweeting one conference theme while following another… in the same weekend!

This was something that happened to me while I was attending the Agricultural History Society Conference.  The conference was over the same weekend as the Three Societies meeting (HSS, BSHS, CSHPS), the Society for the History of Technology meeting (SHOT), and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS) – but I could get a glimpse into the material of each meeting following their respective hashtags.  It was actually quite a wonderful forum, and with applications like Hootsuite you can follow multiple hashtags at a time (meaning, I could follow tweets from all four of the meetings at the same time).  This only works if fellow attendees tweet what they’re experiencing, which is why I advocate for more academic tweeters to allow for larger information sharing.  Conferences also often have more than one panel happening at the same time, but through Twitter I could often catch tweets from a fellow tweeter in a panel I could not attend and still get a sense of the important content relayed at the meeting.

  1. Live tweet forums

I love live tweet forums, and this is something I don’t see many academics doing just yet.  I have to give a hand to the farmers, scholars, and interested consumers who participate in #AgChat every Tuesday night on Twitter, as they introduced me to the wonders of the live tweet forum.  Every Tuesday at 8pm, those interested in the topic can follow the #AgChat hashtag and participate by answering a series of questions from the assigned moderator that week.  Some really great conversations can come from these spaces.  The idea of dozens of individuals talking to one another from cyberspace across the country at one time on a public forum is really amazing to me – and a great space for people to advocate (or “agvocate,” as this forum so boasts) publically for the subjects they are passionate about.  I think this space is one where academics can think more about the applicability of their research.  The live tweet forum could pose as an opportunity for an academic to invite representatives from the companies, institutions, or public bases their research actively addresses or affects.  It occupies a space somewhere in-between cyber-ethnographic venture and town hall meeting, which can be very engaging and helpful for those involved.  It takes time and a good rapport to successfully develop these spaces, but they are already happening!  We just need to take the time to participate within them.

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Are you a big tweeter?  Do you have ideas for forums or hashtags that could start new public conversations – bringing in new participants (academic and otherwise)?  For example, I’m hoping to try and incorporate tweeting into my classroom discussions with undergraduates.  Or, do you use Twitter for different reasons (#GameofThrones won’t be relevant again until next season…)?  Comment below!

 

Some other websites/resources on Twitter in academia:

https://www.getacclaim.com/blog/25-interesting-observations-about-how-academics-use-twitter/

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/weird-and-wonderful-world-academic-twitter

http://savageminds.org/2013/05/08/the-academic-benefits-of-twitter/

 

 

Where’s the beef? (or, where have the food blogs gone?)

One-woman blogs are difficult to maintain.  I started this blog primarily to share some fun ideas about food and farming and as an outlet to work on my writing.  If you are a follower and have been wondering where the heck I’ve been, I’ve found different writing outlets and different spaces to share work since April.  Apologies to my WordPress!

What are these spaces?  Well, one of them has been with the Penn Program for the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) – a really wonderful scholarly collective that acts as an outlet for building public awareness about environmental topics.  I believe I’ve mentioned in former blogs that the concept of the “environment” is tricky, as most seemingly concrete words are.  But this group does an amazing job organizing conferences, lectures, and workshops as spaces for thinking about the stakes of this term as we encounter real problems that will affect our biological futures (namely things like climate change, pollution, and water source management).  I was invited to contribute two blog posts to their Fellows Blog series titled, “Agriculture, Sustainability, and the Environment: Are We Doing It Right?,” organized by PPEH Fellow Fatima Zahra.  I’m all for blog sharing and sending traffic to different websites, so here are the links and some short abstracts about my write-ups:

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My favorite image from the “Companion Species” blog post.  Source: National Geographic, 2015.

COMPANION SPECIES CLIMATE CHANGE AND OUR FOOD ANIMAL FUTURES

In this post I focus on Haraway’s term “companion species” as I dive into some technoscientific solutions the food animal industry has been working on to reduce methane gas emissions.  Microbe-management makes an appearance!

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Food System map from Nourish Life, 2015.  I could talk about this map, what is there and what is missing from it for days!

RE-FRAMING OUR CLIMATE CONVERSATIONS: TAKING A “BIRD’S EYE VIEW” OF OUR COMPLEX HUMAN FOOD SYSTEMS

This essay was a follow-up to the former, thinking more about emissions and how our larger food systems (not just food animals) affect the environment.  I try to distill parts of the larger system and demonstrate that there are many different ways what we eat can affect the environment.  Local food movements and the socio-cultural stakes of small/large, slow/fast food production and processing are questioned in this overview. 

It is a lot of fun contributing to other sites and for colleagues interested in the same subjects.  The blog as a whole is fantastic, and I highly recommend following it, as well as the Twitter and Facebook of the program!  I was also invited to speak at Philly Nerd Nite about microbes and food, and gave a quick, general presentation on the topic based on one of my prior blog posts.  I got a lot of questions about cheese, as expected, but overall Michael Pollan spoiled my “big reveal.”  His Cooked series is just exploding on Netflix (in a really good way).

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I recommend Cooked for some interesting tid-bits about food systems and food ideologies.  A word of caution, nostalgia is pretty heavy in most of the episodes which only leads to more questions about the future of our food systems.

In addition to writing and talking in other public spaces, I’ve also been busy preparing conference presentations for the summer and applying for summer research funding.  I’m finalizing these works, which gives me more time to reflect upon them in this blog forum.  So, expect some more regular posts over the summer!  I recently received the GAPSA-Provost Fellowship for Interdisciplinary Innovation, an award that helps fund work that talks across disciplines.  I’m happy to say my work speaks across quite a few academic spaces, including veterinary medicine, agricultural sciences, history, anthropology, art history, and even business/economics.  Some of my research/travels will make up future posts in the coming months, and I will write primarily about what it is like to do interdisciplinary research and the challenges I may (psh, will!) encounter in my ethnographic and archival work.  So for those of you still in the dark about what I do and why it matters, I hope these future entries will prove to be enlightening.  Stay tuned!