Tag Archives: writing

Week 5, or How to Successfully Defend A Master’s Thesis

Yes, it’s true, I did defend my thesis on Wednesday and I’m still riding on the high of being free from that enormous weight.

As I’ve got this step behind me, I want to reflect a little bit on the process. My program required me to write a portfolio, with the understanding that the essays will build off of those written for seminars over the course of the year. I used an essay that I wrote for my Popular Culture and Power class during my first semester, and the essay I wrote for my Harlem Renaissance class for the other. At the end of the year, my first step was to get organized…

STEP 1: Get organized! Make yourself a schedule!
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At the start of the summer, I was required to create and submit a writing plan to my advisor and the Dean. While this was primarily a formality so that I would be allowed to hold a part time job at Michaels, having this as a set of guidelines was really helpful.

I admittedly did not follow this schedule exactly, but I followed it well enough to get a first draft in on August 1 as planned and a defense by the end of September. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was to be firm with your goals, but flexible about how and when you get there.

 

STEP 2: Make sure to do your research!

I already wrote about the joys of archival research, so be sure to check that out, as well as the lovely piece that was written about me from the VCU end.

STEP 3: Just write! 

Write, unfiltered, as much as you can, every day if possible. I also wrote about that struggle over the summer as well in another blog post.

STEP 4: Editing, editing…and more editing.

IMG_4348After I wrote my first draft and submitted it to my advisor the first time, she gave me a nice little letter with general comments, as well as a physical copy of my paper with marginalia. It took me a little while to wade through all of her comments, but after I did, I compiled a list of all the edits as a check list with notes on how to address each point. (For example, she might suggest that I need to add historical evidence, and I would write in which books or articles had the evidence she was looking for. Occasionally, I’d write a sentence or two addressing the issue on the page. Or rewrite an entire section on the back of a page…)

This process was particularly stressful because I waited until school started to really get into this. So I did an insane amount of content edits in about two weeks. For two weeks, I carried my binder of notes and drafts and edits around with me until I felt like crazy Joe Gould, writing and rewriting his oral history. I was agitated and stressed out for two solid weeks, and in the days leading up to my second submission, I had every last one of my family and friends praying for me.

But fortunately, my second submission was defensible! I got my advisor my second draft Monday morning of the 11th and by the 12th, she’d e-mailed me saying my draft was good, that she’d go ahead and e-mail my committee to set up a date at the end of September, that I would have yet another annotated draft in my mailbox and that after finishing those edits, I should e-mail out my portfolio (my third draft) to my committee by the 15th. (Can I just take a second to emphasize what a SUPERHERO my advisor is???)

STEP 5: Schedule and prepare for your defense.

My advisor handled this part, primarily because I think she thought we’d be able to get the ball moving faster if she plead on my behalf. I had to get my defense done by the end of September and while I wanted to be done, the fast turn around had less to do with me and more to do with satisfying administration.

Because of this, I didn’t have any control over when I actually defended. They gave me a date and a time, and that was it. I gave myself a week break from looking at my thesis because honestly, I was burnt out from thinking about it. Then, I started trying to prepare.

My defense, as I understood it, was not a formal thing. It would mostly be a conversation. My advisor suggested however, that I write a short statement to introduce my work. I tried very hard to write it, but it only happened the night before the big day, and in the end of it was just a series of bullet points– cute anecdotes about being a precocious child in love with comics and a hotheaded teenager using comics to prove a point in English class. I talked about how I came to Black Panther comics and Incognegro, what I was trying to accomplish and where I wanted to go with my work.  I practiced it in my car driving from Suffolk to Williamsburg and to my dog, who had no idea what was happening but looked at me encouragingly.

STEP 6: DEFEND!

Even knowing that the defense was informal, that my committee members were awesome, that my advisor would not set me up for failure, I was still nervous going in. I put on my James Baldwin sweatshirt and prayed for the confidence of Angela Davis, the candor of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the presence of mind of Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, DuBois and literally every Black figure I’ve ever been inspired by as I walked up to the building.

We had it in the library in the American Studies building. I chatted with my advisor until everyone appeared, and soon after that, my advisor welcomed everyone and gave me the floor for my introduction. I did it and then the questions started. One of my committee members set me at ease by saying that all of his questions should be framed by the fact that he thought my portfolio was great and it was a really fun read. He got the ball rolling by asking me to talk about the parts that I enjoyed writing and did well in my portfolio and which could have used more work– and as I described how fun it was to go do archival research and learning about the historical presence of Black Panther, I finally understood what everyone was trying to tell me. I was the expert on this. I knew this stuff. This was my wheelhouse and I loved it. It showed in my work. It showed in my face as I lit up talking about my paper. So it went on like that for an hour and a half, fielding questions about intellectual property, time-traveling frogs, and Christopher Priest. They complimented sections of my close readings and pointed out one important section of an image that I completely missed (thankfully it didn’t destroy my argument and I can go back and add it as a footnote.) They gave me suggestions and helped me think through where I could go with my ideas. I took lots of notes, and then at last, it was over.

They asked me to step out of the room for a few minutes and when the door opened again, my advisor came to get me, smiling widely and giving me thumbs up. “They loved it!” she told me, and I walked back into the room to congratulations and hugs. I chatted with them for a little while longer, got myself a celebratory hazelnut latte, and called my parents with the news as I walked to class.

STEP 7: CELEBRATE AND GIVE THANKS!

IMG_4389 I spent the hours after my successful defense buying myself ingredients to make stew, having Red Lobster with my parents and writing a blog post about my gratitude for everyone who helped me get to this point.

The celebration lasted a couple of days. I was taken out for dinner, ice cream and coffee by friends and family. My friend got me a hilariously appropriate congratulatory Superman card, on which she had crossed out the “birthday” with Sharpie and added “defense” instead. I got calls from friends and texts from advisors and mentors and I could not have been happier.

STEP 8: Attend to the final administrative touches.

Now, even though the hard part is over, I still have administrative touches to go through. My committee each gave me drafts with comments and line edits, though one member assured me it would be a day or two of edits at the most. I still have to submit it to an online system for the College, which could result in formatting edits, plus forms of all kinds which will allow it to go on JSTOR and I have to get it bound for the American Studies department once those edits happen.

My advisor suggested I get these done sooner than later, so I’ll probably take this up again over Fall Break. I applied to get my diploma in January, so I do need to make sure all of these logistic matters are in order so nothing stands between me and degree number 2.

It’s been a wild ride but the worst is over thankfully. Now, I can move on to the next step– I’ll admit, I’m already thinking about comps lists.

As my mom would say, “Keep it movin’.”

Week 4.5, or Gratitude

I’m coming to you with a midweek update to let y’all know your favorite Black Girl Doing Graduate School has successfully passed her Master’s Thesis Defense, which means that I’ve leveled up from Ravynn, MA/PhD student to Ravynn, PhD student.

Ravynn Stringfield, M.A….That’s a nice feeling.

I’ll be back to my regular schedule on Sunday with a comprehensive guide to successfully completing a Master’s Portfolio, but until then, I wanted to briefly give some shout outs to some people who have helped pull me through to this point.

Thank you to…

  • God. First and foremost. My relationship with God has gotten so much more intimate since I started grad school, real talk.
  • My amazing parents who love me, support me, encourage me, and push me. I would be nothing without my parents.
  • My fantastic advisor, Lynn, who really stuck it out with me when it got tough and who gives some of the best pep talks and critical feedback in the world.
  • My thesis committee for a fun and productive defense that I will take with me as I go forward in my journey in PhDLand. (Thanks also for just taking time out of your schedule for me, I know how busy y’all are.)
  • Cindy Jackson at VCU Libraries for helping me with my research!
  • MY CREWWWW, Kelsey, Micah and Leah, y’all are the realest, I love y’all. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten by without being to talk to y’all on the regular. Micah, you helped inspire my project and helped me think through it in its early stages. Kelsey, you push me and I push you because no one else is looking out for Black women but Black women! I would have never gotten here without your support. Leah, thank you for listening to me whine about how hard school is pretty much every day and for ALWAYS, and I mean, ALWAYS rooting for me. Protip to everyone: Get you a Leah.
  • Professor Harold, for always believing in me and having high standards for me. They’re not impossible, you know I can reach them and I know I can always ask for your help getting there.
  • Dana, you don’t know how valuable it has been to have a Black woman ahead of me in grad school to turn to when the going gets rough. Seeing that you have gotten where I want to be, encourages me to keeping moving forward. Thank you for lifting as you climb.
  • My William & Mary grad school peers: Ari, Chris, Hyunyoung, Felicia, Zarah, Adrienne, Shana, James, Travis, and Jaymi for encouraging me, whether it be bringing me books, talking comics, having Black (woman) moments with me, or simply hanging out and making me smile, y’all have all helped me get here, and I am so grateful.
  • My Outreach moms, Dean Gregory and Ms. Cathy, and my big sister, Alexis, for always reminding me that I always have a home with them, for believing in me and for just being family to me.
  • My family and friends, more generally, who have checked up on me as I’ve ventured along my grad school journey.
  • You, dear reader, whoever you may be. It’s been wonderful having this outlet to come home to every week. So thanks for reading, it encourages me to keep going.

I will more than likely forget someone immediately after I post this, but for now, consider this a working list.

Thanks everyone for helping me (and boy, did I need help) to get through this.

Intermission, ft. Note taking: Tools and techniques

I was chatting with a friend yesterday (hi, Micah) when I had the idea to write a post about my favorite note taking tools since arriving in graduate school. The idea came about as Micah was asking for advice for starting her thesis, so I told her what every professor and grad student I’ve ever met told me: write everything down.

It seems basic, but truly, the Academy is a world where you spin out your most intricate ideas. An idea you had on the bourgeoisie 20 years ago might be just what you need to round out that pesky paper you’ve been fighting on protest music for the last 14 months. If you have a system of documenting your ideas, you can go back to them at any time.

So, first things first, it’s worth thinking about whether you’ll do your note taking analog or digital— handwritten or digitally.

STRATEGY: HANDWRITTEN NOTES

Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I go nowhere without a physical book, (several) pens, and at least one notebook or planner. The process of writing things down with pen and paper is one of the most calming experiences I know, so naturally I use this method for note taking in class and for my readings. My thought process is that if I’m going to hand write everything, I may as well make it pretty, so I splurge on my journals and pens for the semester.

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TOOL OF THE TRADE

Up until this summer, I’ve stood firm on my love for Moleskine journals. I started using them in my second year of college and never turned back. Because I had a pretty established and functional note taking routine from undergrad, I didn’t change very much. I love the polished look of a hard back Moleskine– I label them and stick them on my bookshelf at the end of the semester like they were any other book I purchased. I’ve never run out of pages, I seem to just make it to the end of the semester in them, which brings me to another strategy…

STRATEGY: USE ONE JOURNAL FOR YOUR ENTIRE SEMESTER OF CLASSES

Okay, I definitely see how this one could be controversial. When we think about school, we’re trained to think about buying a separate binder and notebook for every subject. It helps us focus and dedicate our energy to one thing at a time, but one thing I noticed as I took more rigorous classes at UVA was that I tended to take fewer notes. The more rigorous the class, the more they tend to be built around ideas and themes, rather than a list of facts that you learn by rote memorization, especially in the humanities. I used to take 4 or 5 pages of notes per class in undergrad, whereas now, I’m lucky if I fill an entire page in my journal during one class in grad school at times. Fewer notes and a less pressing need to write down everything means you’re less likely to fill an entire notebook for each class, so I consolidate.

TIP: SO WHAT ARE YOU TAKING NOTES ON THEN?

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I think everyone will make the mistake of reading more than you need to and taking more notes that you need to until you finally get into the rhythm of what types of notes and information you’re looking for that will be useful for you.

In class: When discussing a book or an article in class, particularly if it will be relevant to me or my work at some point, I always make sure to write anything down that will put me closer to figuring out what the main project or argument of the book/article is. I write down particularly compelling arguments that my classmates put forth, important clarifications that my professors make on the book’s arguments, and anything on the author’s biases that would have impacted how and why they wrote their project. Unfamiliar terms are always nice to jot down, as well as any questions you asked that you got a particularly good answer to. I also like to write down any random thoughts that come to me while I’m thinking about the books, because often the ideas that get batted around the table like a high speed Wimbledon match are the ones that become paper topics down the line.

While reading: Take good notes on the introduction, paying special attention to the main argument and any key terms the author may introduce, then make sure you get the gist of the chapters that follow. Make it your goal to see if the author convincingly, persuasively and adequately argues their main idea in their chapters, noting passages or points that add to their argument or detract from it.

TRICK: SO HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE ALL YOUR CLASSES IN ONE NOTEBOOK?

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There is, my friends, a glorious wonderful thing called bulletjournaling. Essentially it’s a DIY planner/to do list/diary hybrid. It’s made for people who are extraordinarily type A but also enjoy adding a little creativity to their day-to-day life, especially when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. (So, me…) For my grad school bullet journal, I lean most heavily on the planner/to-do list aspect of the journal. I begin my journal with a calendar of the months of the semester, and go ahead and plug in any important dates based on the syllabi I receive. From there, I just go week by week. I start by creating a spread like you see above: on the left, I write down all of the readings I’m supposed to do for each class. At the bottom of the page, I do a tentative reading schedule, where I break down the big books into chapters, and space out my readings so I’m not overwhelmed and trying to read 3 articles before class. On the right, I like to keep an overview of my week, plug in classes, appointments, meetings, so I can see what time I might have free during the week to finish any of the assignments that didn’t get done in the designated time.

Tip: I know this seems almost a little too structured, but there’s a lot of flexibility built into this system. When I give myself three academic tasks to finish during the course of the day, I never say when during the day I’ll do it. It doesn’t matter whether I do it at 6 AM or 11 PM at night, as long as I get it done at some point during the day, it’s productive time well spent.

Tip: I also never berate myself for not doing everything on my to do list. Some days I don’t feel like doing what I listed, so I pick to do items from other days. Sometimes I get really into a book and read the whole thing instead of breaking it up over a couple days, but then I don’t do the other items on my list. Somedays, I’m not up to doing much so I do all the easy tasks and some days I don’t feel like doing anything at all. Be firm in your decision to manage your time, but flexible in ways you manage it.

During the week, I just take notes for my classes as I go. The one big seminar a week per class structure lends itself well to organizing– you have notes from class in the same order pretty much every week. Then as I’m nearing the end of the semester, I might color code my notes for even easier access by either assigning each class and schedule page a different post it note color and marking them all like that, or I might use the same strategy with just a regular marker.

For all this organizing and color coding, it’s worth having a few types of pens/markers at your disposal…

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

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Who doesn’t have a pen preference? For me, my preference often changes based on what type of paper I’m writing on. (Seriously, pens write differently on various types of paper.)

For the first few years of my Moleskine usage, nothing looked better in my journals that Staedtler black fineliners. I still very much enjoy using them today, but I find I enjoy writing with Pilot Precise v5 pens. The pilot pen is totally different– it has free flowing ink which doesn’t dry almost immediately like the Staedtlers and it’s a little more difficult to grip, but I find they don’t run out as fast as the Staedtlers. The first two weeks of use with the Staedtlers are perfect– until the felt tip starts to bend out of shape or fray or run out of ink. I would consistently go through two or three packs of those a semester, while I’ve used the same two or three pilot pens for the same length of time. The Pilots aren’t perfect but I also haven’t found a brand I like more than them at the moment.

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If you want to add some bolder black lines for headings, I highly recommend Pentel sign pens. They make great lines that don’t smudge and they’re also good if you’re interested in learning calligraphy or basic lettering to jazz up your notebook. (see example below)

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Tip: Don’t get too invested in making it beautiful. What you really need is something that is functional and practical for you. My journals are excessively pretty because it’s relaxing for me. I enjoy spicing up my otherwise dreary notes with color. Plus it helps me focus when I’m in class– it absolutely feels like it would be distracting, but the concentrating on what I want to write and how I want to write it, helps me absorb and retain information, and I’m more likely to be focused on the conversation, because I’m thinking about what I’ll add next.

LONG STORY SHORT…

Note taking is a lot about finding what works for you. I just happen to really enjoy the process of taking notes and have found my note taking strategies to be effective for me, and have been for quite some time.

Also, just because I prefer handwritten notes, doesn’t mean I always use them. For example, for articles or short excerpts of essays, I like to download them to NotesPlus and highlight important parts, do marginalia and write summaries on the document itself. This helps me keep track of all the articles I’ve ever read, since they’re all in one place without having to print out a bunch of loose pages.

I know plenty of people who swear by digital notes only, using Evernote or OneNote to keep track of the semester’s notes. Some people like having all of their notes digitally but prefer to hand write things, so an option is to get a notetaking app like NotesPlus for your device of choice and invest in a good stylus, and take handwritten notes on your device. Some people print all their articles, put them in a binder and sticky note the crap out of them.

Most people told me you’ll play around with a few different note taking techniques before you figure out what your preferred method is, saying that you definitely won’t take notes like you did before.

That may or may not be true.

I found that I take notes more or less the same way I did when I was undergrad, with a few adjustments, and that seems to have been working very well for me. Still, never be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. You’d be surprised to see what works!


I tried to keep the more confusing aspects of bullet journal designing out of this post, but if anyone’s interested in how I do that, leave comments below! Relatedly, if you’re interested in how to build a finals writing and reading schedule schedule, make sure you leave comments!