Mel’s first year in grad school, a retrospective

May 4, 2012 – 12:49 pm

I’m writing this post for Robin, my advisor, who wanted an update on what I’ve done during my first year in grad school and where I want to go from here. I’ll do it in four sections:

  1. Classes I took (your first year at grad school, classes make up a huge portion of your life.)
  2. Projects I did
  3. Things I’ve learned about myself
  4. What’s happening next

Classes I took, what I learned from them, and what I made

  • Form Follows Data (Art) – I learned how to “think like an artist,” making artifacts for exhibition rather than functionality. My major piece was Absence Makes The Heart, a yarn graph of a long-distance relationship.
  • Inquiry (Engineering edu) – I learned how to do a lit review by making my first (terrible) lit review on open source and education. I can’t yet make good lit reviews but I know what direction I need to move in to get there.
  • Seminar (Engineering edu) – I learned who the professors in my department were and what they worked on research-wise. I didn’t make anything.
  • History & Philosophy of engineering edu – I learned that the transdisciplinary thinking that’s so familiar to me is really hard for other people, and filled my bibliographic coffers with artifacts (papers, etc) that help express these thoughts to others. I made graphic novels.
  • German for Reading Knowledge II – I confirmed my suspicions that I do amazingly well in language classes that don’t require me to hear, and translated an article on Sugar on a Stick. (I’m working on getting permission to post my translation online.)
  • Art and Design Research Methods (Art) – I was thrust into conversations with people (artists and designers) with a very different way of thinking, and had space to develop Radically Transparent Research.
  • Theories of engineering thinking and development (Engineering edu) – I learned how to use a bibliography manager (zotero) to remember a firehose of reading; I was already a fast reader, but had never needed to remember my material long-term before.I wrote an essay on cognitive apprenticeships in open communities, which I still feel is a half-baked first release — but a first release nonetheless.
  • Content, Assessment, and Pedagogy (Engineering edu) -  I learned how lucky I’ve been to have so many excellent teachers that I thought “good” course design (as explained in this class) was the only way courses could be. I learned how to reverse-engineer good classes in more detail (I’d started learning course design formally at an Olin summer workshop 2 summers ago, and this class at Purdue built atop that knowledge nicely). I created an academic blogging workshop that will run for the first time this summer.
  • Open Access (independent study with Amy Van Epps) – I learned that academic publishing and copyright don’t make sense, drafted Olin’s open access policy with Dee Magnoni, and presented it to Olin faculty; it’s currently being looked over by Olin’s legal counsel, at which point the faculty will formally vote on it.

Projects I did

  • I did some work with Eucalyptus around building their open source community; it’s great to be able to watch (and contribute to) their journey from an academic research project to a true open source company.
  • I started working on the Programmabilities project for UNICEF exploring how disabled youth can participate in open communities as part of their education; I’ll be finishing that paper for them this summer.
  • I left my job at Red Hat in December, but am still involved with Teaching Open Source (conferences and papers and panels, oh my!) and the POSSE workshop for professors interested in designing their courses to include open community participation. Sebastian Dziallas and I are doing a small study looking at the experiences of POSSE alumni to understand what teachers go through when transforming their teaching practices.
  • I started working on the Changemakers (former codename: Project Puppy) project with the Xroads research group and Linda Vanasupa from Cal Poly. My main contribution so far has been the evolving practice of radically transparent research.

Things I’ve learned about myself

  • Coming to get my PhD was the right decision. Academia is a rich and wonderful environment that works well for me, and I’ll rapidly grow in skill and facility in this new sort of universe — but I will also never quite be content within it, or within any particular discipline within it. It will become one of my homes, but never my only one.
  • My reading skills need upgrading. I read fast, but I don’t retain well, so I’m working on using tools and note-taking/finding processes to shore me up with a cyborg memory (seriously, I’m going to think of these things as the cyborg portion of my brain). I’m still a weak hunter in the jungle of scholarly information, and need to build my lit-review muscles.
  • I am a writer now, and need to develop my process for writing long things. My strategy of “write it all in a long marathon immediately before the deadline” is no longer a viable option. Planning, note-taking, outlining, revising… the more I develop the discipline to stick to a long-term process for writing, the better my writing (and thinking) will be.
  • I need to have at least one part of my life where I am making things with people. I can do individual reading and writing, but I can’t subsist only on that; I need to build things in community, or something in me goes adrift.
  • My coping strategies for deafness and ADHD need to evolve. I’ve never really needed help with coping with my “disabilities” before, but now I’m doing harder and harder things, and they’re showing up as limiting factors. I’m glad for this – one of my hopes in coming to grad school was to hit a place where people wouldn’t let me get away with things like covering up bullshit with enthusiasm, and the fact that I’m slamming against a wall right now means that I’m winning. I found my weak spots; they’re desperately exposed right now, and it hurts like hell, so I will be forced to evolve.

What’s happening next

  • I’m doing my 6 summer credits as follows: advanced qualitative research methods (3 cr), modern dance 101 (2 cr), and teaching my blogging workshop (1 cr) while writing a paper for UNICEF and learning German (since I’ll be getting hearing aids and might actually be able to hear people speaking it now). I’m doing this all during Maymester, effectively frontloading on “things that’ll pay the bills,” then going off to do awesome research project things for the rest of summer. Oh, and hiking across England without luggage; that’s going to be my vacation. It will be fun!
  • I plan on taking my readiness assessment (the equivalent of quals) in the late fall. Consequently, my fall courseload will be the lightest it can be, 9 credits. I’m taking a statistics class on the R programming language (3 cr) and a course on hearing aids as one of my “engineering” requirements (2 cr), which leaves 4 credits unspoken for at the moment. I’m on track to finish my required classes by spring 2013, assuming I passed everything this term.
  • I have a fellowship for this coming school year (2012-2013), but need to look for funding after that – so that’s a big item on my to-do list.
  • I’m experimenting with hearing aids and ADHD medication this summer to see if I can come up with better ways of incorporating them into my life.
  • And right now, I’m going home to take a nap.
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  1. 2 Responses to “Mel’s first year in grad school, a retrospective”

  2. Hi Mel! Glad to hear you are up to amazing stuff as always. Miss hearing from you (or just hanging out in general) but hope you are having tons of fun.

    Alex

    By Alex on May 8, 2012

  3. Mel – Thanks for posting your reflection on your first year in ENE. Great to learn you’re seeing many connections. Yes, the PhD is about the research and I look forward to seeing your work as it emerges. Karl

    By Karl Smith on May 13, 2012

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