Your Friend, PowerPoint

I went to a presentation over the weekend. There were probably 80 people there, with a well known, internationally published photographer. As you might guess, the photographer’s presentation center around his photographs. No problem there, right? WRONG!
You see, this guy was great with a camera.  He had traveled the world taking amazing photographs. He understood the science of making light do wonderful things on his camera’s sensor. Yet somehow, he had never mastered the art of making a presentation. Once he got to the slides with pictures, he was fine (except for the fact there was WAY too much light in the room, but he couldn’t help that). But with his title and information slides, he used a multicolored script font on a black background. In other words, broke every rule in the book.

Yes, I realize he is an artist and must express himself creatively.  But expression doesn’t mean anything if no one can see it. And information is useless unless it can be effectively shared. I was taught by a bunch of seriously old school professors.  They wanted my slides to look basically like an old transparency. White background, black text. No shading whatsoever. Or, as my thesis advisor told me, “None of that cutesy crap.”

I’m not quite that bad. But there are some ways to make a presentation more readable. If you are on a projection screen, use a light background with dark lettering. If there is stray light in the room, it will not have as much of an effect. Now, if you are showing your presentation on a laptop screen or will be hooked up to a large LCD screen, dark background does look better.

Make your text large enough to be viewed from the back of the room. The screen should be appropriately sized, but you don’t want to get too small. Your fonts needs to be sans serif in capitol case. In other words, DO NOT SCREAM AT THE AUDIENCE.  It is more difficult to read.

You also do not want to crowd too much text on the screen at once. If you have to break a table across two slides, do it. I didn’t one time, in a *cough* rather important presentation and got burned for it.  I mean, this is perfectly readable, right?

I had thought far enough ahead to have my charts also in hard copy, so I was able to hand them out so my thesis committee could actually see the numbers. I got lucky that time. I never want that to be faced with that again.

Well, that’s the basics. Use easy to read fonts which are large enough to see and form a good contrast on the screen which may be in a bright room. Do not cram too much information on one slide.  I read recently that most academics don’t realize that PowerPoint slides are not transparencies; the slides are free. Use as many as necessary. In that spirit, I will continue this discussion in another post, later this week.

There is more to Education than Academics

Such a sacrilegious, isn’t it? But, it is also true. Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “Never let your schooling interfere with your education” but all too often people think they are the same thing. I was lucky enough to attend a liberal arts university for both undergrad and graduate school.  As such, we weren’t really given an option, at least on the surface.  

Yet, somewhere in the midst of them trying to convince us we needed to study things other than our limited topic, it actually clicked.  My family had an influence on it as well, but when all the influences combined, I became convinced that a graduate degree wasn’t enough to make someone a useful part of society.  Only so much can be taught in the classroom. There’s an academic education and there is a cultural education. It takes both to make well educated individual.

Luckily for you, you already spend great deal of time on a university campus.  That means more than likely, you can begin obtaining this education without too much trouble or expense.  This past weekend, just in Milledgeville, we had performances by two symphonies and a choral ensemble.  Add in a not-prohibitive afternoon trip to Athens (about 2 hours) and you could have also attended a chamber music concert. Total cost, even if you had attended all four, was only $10, not counting the gas to drive to Athens.  

I only attended one, but it was the highlight of my weekend.  Being able to sit and watch the results of the hard work of the musicians and how they use their skill to work together with amazing results.  While I do not know of a single academic who would dare collaborate with thirty or more researchers, it is inspiring to see that it CAN be done, at least in some fields.  

So, pull up your school calendar.  If there are other schools within easy driving distance, check those as well. Attend a cultural or fine arts event.  It is well worth it, and is a nice break from the research.

Grad students are just a bit dumb…

How’s that for an attention grabbing title? But, it’s true.  I know it was for me, and I’ve seen it happen many other times.  Let’s face it, the average grad student was always top of his or her class, heads and shoulders academically above anyone one else in the course. You may have had to actually work for maybe two or three grades your entire educational career. Now, you’re faced with the smallest course load, and yet the most work you’ve ever seen. How does one deal with this sudden onslaught of responsibilities? It’s easy. You go back and learn all the stuff you skipped over in undergrad.

When I was writing a paper as an undergrad, I sat down and started typing.  Ten to fifteen pages later, I looked up, realized I had met the requirement, and started putting in the citations. Then, like Mr. Hotshot I thought I was would go back to Facebook or whatever other non-academic activity was on deck for that evening. I never outlined, did a formal lit review, or thought about it overnight. As I said, I was a bit dumb.

Enter my major paper. Well, to start with, we had to turn in an outline. Er, okay.  I’d never done one of those before, but I guess I can write the paper, and go back and write the outline afterwards, right? Nope, tired that. My outline wasn’t approved; I’d wasted that time. Honestly, looking back my paper was probably bouncing around enough that the professor could tell what I had done.  Now, on the other side of the desk, it’s amazing how obvious stuff like that is most of the time.

Anyway, I had to re-learn how to write.  There are plenty of resources out there for this, but for now, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights. First, why are you writing this paper? If your answer is, “Because Prof said we had to” start over. You cannot write a clear, coherent, and graduate quality paper without a defined purpose. Why is what you are writing important? What information are you trying to convey?

Once you have a clear target, you have to decide how you’re going to get there. This step is more commonly known as an outline.  List each of the major points you are going to need to address. Put them in some semblance of an order. This was part that I HATED.  It is okay to change it as you go, but write it down anyway.  It gives you a basic framework to get started.  The more you write, you may need to add or rearrange points, or even combine or eliminate something.  That’s okay.  It’s a process.

This is grad school.  Part of the assignment is to look at things from different perspectives and expand your mind.  To do that, you are going to have to read. You cannot get by writing something down and finding a few citations that agree with your points and just throw them into the final paper right before you turn it in. Literature reviews are never easy, and are always time consuming.  For this reason, I’m going to do a separate post on them in the near future.

NOW, you are ready to write.  But don’t make the mistake of just writing.  Write it, print it, and take your own red pen (everyone should own one, the power that flows through it is amazing) to it and tear it apart.  Finish it the night before it’s due, and then revisit it in the morning. Get someone in your peer group to read over it. The point is not for them to rewrite it for you, but circling where you used “wear” instead of “where” is another thing completely.

Your goal is no longer to get by.  If you are in a thesis-track, everything you do is building up to that grand achievement.  Even non-thesis tracks have some sort of internship paper or capstone project.  Make sure every paper you turn in is something of which you can be proud.  It’s not easy, but it’s not supposed to be.  You are building a body of work that you will eventually use to present yourself to potential employees and in some cases, the judge of history.  Dumb or not when you start grad school, make sure by the time you graduate, you leave a proud legacy that can be displayed through the years.

We few, we happy few – Part 2

My last post dealt with working together with your fellow students.  But, that’s not enough to get you through a graduate program.  Networking is important in every aspect of professional life, and this includes during your education.

You need to start developing a system of mentors as early as possible. One of mine was a professor of mine when I was still in junior college.  I’d stay after class to talk to him, and through these conversations I discovered that he’d just completed the MPA program at Georgia College and was teaching at GMC until he started working on his PhD (sound familiar?).  We fell out of touch for a few years, then reconnected when he came back to GCSU to visit when I had transfered there. Will (see picture below), in addition to my undergrad advisor and my thesis chair, have walked me through seemingly insurmountable research questions and tasks.  I’ve asked their advice on everything, from research methods and suggested topics for papers to advice during the eventual job search.

Do not neglect attending conferences at every possible opportunity. This is how you meet contacts in your field of study.  There will always be someone there with whom you have something in common beyond academics.  For example, some of my friends I’ve met through conferences I actually started talking to concerning the music at the conference dinner.  We swapped contact information, and stayed in touch afterwards.  Contacts like this can, like your cohort, take a look at drafts, provide advice on topics to research, and sometimes (if you’re lucky) coauthor papers with you. With today’s technology, this collaboration is more easy than ever. Cloud computing allows two (or more) individuals to edit the same document, and see changes in real time.  Some of them even allow a separate chat window on the same screen so you can discuss changes as they are made.

Finally, don’t forget that, if everything works well, you are “stuck” with these friends throughout your program. Make sure you do some fun things together too, and not just always academic. Some of the most memorable times I have were when we’d just stop working for a couple of hours and everyone would walk the few blocks to downtown and go to The Brick.  Or, when things were too hectic for that, order some pizza and everyone get together in the conference room. Those are the times that make grad school something you’ll never forget.

Most of my "cohort." We graduated undergrad together, and then we graduated with our MPA degrees together. From L to R: Mike, Justin, Cathy (who wasn't graduating, but still was one of us), Haly, and Me.
Four generations of Graduate Assistants covering nearly a decade. L to R, Will, Mike (who graduated with me), Dr. Digby (whose retirement we were celebrating), Adam, Gary, Claire (who is now an instructor in the department), and me.
And here is the next generation. This was taken at the Greenway after I graduated. L to R: Jeanette, Mathis, Tiffany, Justin, and Jessica.


We few, we happy few – Part I

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Some readers may recognize this line from Shakespeare’s Henry V. But to me, it has a more special meaning. This is one of the passages, along with many others, my friends and I used to quote to each other for motivations before big exams, or on particularly late nights in The Bunker writing. We were by no means the type to sit around singing sonnets, but there is something that is powerfully motivating about epic poetry. There is something even more motivating about the reassurance than you are not alone in your work.

Turabian (2007, 22-23) talks about the isolation of research and the need for a writing support group. This is a brilliant idea. The guide points out that, even with different research interests, these peer groups can help with brainstorming, proofreading, and even letting off steam. But, they can be a lot more than that.

I was very lucky. With me going for my MPA in the same department where I had just received my undergrad, I was not alone. There were a group of us that had known each other as undergrads that all started the program together and had basically the same classes. Though the program doesn’t have a formal program, I call this group my cohort. We were all graduate assistants, two of us in the same department. Since we had an office (the aforementioned Bunker), we were the gathering place.

Let me point out, these groups are not to do each others work. That defeats the entire point of education. Instead, it was for the purpose of mutual aid and support. We would all be sitting in the office, sometimes writing the same assignment for the same class, but we where still four students, with four backgrounds. As such, we always wrote four very different papers. What I mean by aid and support is being able to answer the questions “How do we format this?” or “Y’all did catch that the assignment is continued on the back of that page, right?”

Something that we did do together was summarize our texts. In undergrad, we were able to read the chapter, read the terms, and be fine. Not so at the next level, where a deeper knowledge of the material is required. Something we did, that worked amazingly well, was divide and conqueror the readings. We all still read everything, but we (within our group) assigned different chapters to different members. This means, instead of having to do outlines and terms for the entire book, we’d only have to do the in-depth summaries of 2-3 chapters. We’d then share these outlines with each other, in exchange from the ones from the others. It was a great time-saver to be sure.

There were some other things we did, but that’s for Part II.

Shakespeare, William, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, act 4, scene 3
Turabian, Kate L.. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.