Making Digital Sense of the Lit Review

Image courtesy of

Although the desktop on my laptop sometimes resembles a crazy quilt, most of the time articles and files are clearly labeled, dated, and neatly filed into folders.  I’ve learned the hard way that the extra few minutes spent in organization pays off in efficiency down the road as the folders fill, especially with research articles for the dissertation literature review.  Making the switch from printing, highlighting, and annotating hard copies has come slowly; however, creating a digital version of “file cards” (the “making sense” part of the literature review) has been much easier.

There’s a lot of information to extract and record in any comprehensive research review:  for instance, the citation, type of study, subjects, sample and population, instruments, results, and the reviewers’ own notes as well as salient quotes. Categories can vary, of course, depending upon the needs of each dissertation writer.

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Contestants, hands on your buzzers!

Trivial Pursuit

Image cc license from Flickr user: sparetomato (

Research has demonstrated that short breaks can increase overall productivity.  Next time you take a break, instead of playing Angry Birds, try Sporcle. Sometimes, playing ten rounds of Angry Birds feels relaxing, but at other times, it can seem too mindless and not fulfilling.  Using Sporcle, one could instead spend five minutes matching countries and flags, identifying elements of the periodic table from their symbols, and determining which lines of dialogue come from Space Balls and which come from Star Wars, which can feel like time well (or better) spent.

Sporcle has the appropriate tagline “Mentally Stimulating Diversions”, which seems very appropriate. Use of Sporcle will not bring you any closer to finishing that paper or blog post you’re supposed to be writing or knocking items off your lengthy to-do list.  However, when combined with self-control, it can provide a few much-needed minutes of entertainment that won’t leave you feeling as though you’ve killed brain cells unnecessarily. You didn’t waste time, you tested your general or subject-specific knowledge and improved the likelihood that you, too, will have what it takes to more successfully compete in pub quizzes.

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To Be or Not to Be… Involved in Campus Community

Courtesy of Flickr User: nyealumniadvisor

Courtesy of Flickr User: nyealumniadvisor

My calendar is a mess.  I have recently been trying to get myself organized and into a routine for this 2011-2012 academic year, and it has been challenging.  I have taken on a leadership role on campus, I have a Graduate Assistantship to pay for my education, I am adjuncting, and there’s something else…. oh, that’s right, COMPS!

That being said,I have been thinking a lot about service, leadership, and the role that my non-academic opportunities have played in shaping both my personal and professional life.  So often in graduate school, we get swept up in the grind of the academia that we lose sight of the world outside our library, lab, or apartment.  For my Master’s degree, that was certainly the case.  But here in the PhD program, when I most likely should be of singular focus, I have found that such on-campus participation has enriched my experience (and my research) in new and unexpected ways.

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Fall Rituals: A “New” Year

The New Year is significant in many cultures.  When I lived in Colombia a whole set of rituals accompanied “El Año Nuevo”, including wearing yellow underwear for good luck and walking your suitcase around the block on New Year’s Eve to ensure travel opportunities in the coming year.

Here in North America, the new year is the turn of the calendar year, a time when we traditionally make (and shortly thereafter break) resolutions.  In China, the New Year occurs in late January/early February and traditionally marks a time of celebration, reconciliation, and hope.   Perhaps because I have spent most of my life in schools,  first as a student and then as an educator, my “new year” really begins in September.

I’m not one for resolutions really.  But there’s something about September that invites introspection.  What do I want to accomplish this school year?  That one’s easy – finish the dissertation.  With the cooler weather, it will soon be time to store the bike and kayak.  How will my fitness goals change?   How about work/life balance?  There’s one that eluded me for most of my working life.

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Superman and Gutenburg

Original caption: "singapore biennale 2008. bachelor - the dual body. ki bong rhee, korea. a book floating in water, illuminated by blue light. the book will neither rise to the surface nor sink due to the currents of the water."

Image cc license from Flickr user Andreas Schlegel:

While going for a walk the other day, my husband said he’d been pondering something recently. Wouldn’t it be nice, he asked, to have the ability to imprint your thoughts onto an object that will persist throughout space and time, rendering yourself and your words immortal, after a fashion? He had a particular object in mind and wanted me to guess what it might be.  My first guess wasn’t correct: as it turns out, despite being a Superman fan, he wasn’t thinking of the crystals that Jor-El used to convey history of Krypton and countless other universes as well as loads of other useful information for his son Kal-El. As that had seemed the most logical answer, I didn’t actually have a second guess.

My husband explained that it was really quite simple. It was a variation of a device that had been developed in Holy Roman Empire, in Europe, and China, in Asia. He was specifically thinking of printing and the printing press. While one might argue about which culture was the first to keep written records or the timing of the transition from oral to written records having greatest authority, it’s difficult to argue with printing as an effective means of compiling, storing, and preserving words and images in a way that will last a substantial period of time.

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Fall Rituals: Back to School

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Aisles of school supplies, shoes sales, and seven-thirty am school buses on the streets – all September signs of that most familiar fall ritual – back to school for kids of all ages.  My youngest nephew turned five this summer, so, armed with a new Spiderman backpack, he started Kindergarten this week.  The 22 thousand students in the Bethlehem Area School District started school last Tuesday.  Lehigh’s campus, so quiet and sleepy all summer, is suddenly alive with a wave of undergraduates, almost five thousand of them.  As for Lehigh’s graduate students, over two thousand of us, well there’s really no “back to school” for us – grad school never really stops.   Courses may end; exams may be taken, passed or not, even retaken; deadlines may be set, extended, or shifted; but the dissertation has a life and a timeline all its own, more dependent upon the motivation, enthusiasm, and sheer persistence of the author than on arbitrary dates.

So, as much as I’m tempted to get juicy new highlighters, fresh notebooks, and a spiffy new book bag, there’s really no need.  The old will do just fine, as I try to put the dissertation process back on track after a summer of teaching, researching and writing curriculum, vacationing and moving.  Don’t get me wrong, I have great advisors, a wonderful support system, and a shelf full of books on how to “do” dissertation work.  The sage advice in the latter runs the gamut from how to structure the work itself to how to manage and motivate yourself in the process.

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Things That Fold

Recent discussions with a dear friend about the joys of road trips have centered on equipment one needs to have along.  Yes, of course one’s bicycle.  But how about a folding kayak along in case a cool lake or stream beckons off some blue highway?  Do they work I wonder?  More to the point do they leak? Is there a Consumer Reports evaluation of kayaks that fold?  Days later I notice, in one of those charming, tiny ads in the back of a New Yorker, a description of a folding bike.  Hmm, I work with a professor who swears by the one he brought in Shanghai.  The ad in the New Yorker is for the British Folding Bike, which sounds kind of posh, but does it work?  Somehow things that fold seem a bit suspect, promising more than they can deliver?  Nonetheless it’s charming to think about having something, small and portable, that is capable of blooming into something as useful and liberating as a bicycle or a kayak.

So I am off on a “things that fold” amble.  I always liked the phrase “above the fold,” connoting the importance of a newspaper article that the editor runs “above the fold.”  In our Internet charged world of fragmented news perhaps “above the fold” has lost some of its cache.  Newspaper layout, requiring editorial savvy, is upturned on the web.

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