Paul Kei Matsuda

Reading and Learning Strategies

Just after writing my earlier post "How to Read Everything?" I found this article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Close the Book. Recall. Write It Down.
The best way to study for an exam? Don't just reread chapters and review notes — put everything away and then try to write down, or describe out loud, what you know. That's the conclusion of two papers recently published in psychology journals. "After you've read something once, you've gotten what you're going to get out of it," one professor says, "and then you need to go out and start applying the information."

Well, writing specialists have long been talking about the benefits of writing to read. Putting the knowledge to active use is the best way to understand and remember it.

For me, writing an article, in which I not only tell but transform knowledge (Bereiter and Scardamalia), helps me read better and learn more. I'm also focused on accomplishing a rhetorical goal (see Cumming's recent work on goal theory) or object (Engeström), rather than on learning itself. (See how I'm putting my knowledge to active use?)

Those late-night conversations (over beer) with Dwight Atkinson is also helpful, because we challenge each other and stimulate further thinking.

By the way, when I was in junior high school, I had a personal policy of not cramming for exams (including language exams). If I understand the material, I reasoned, I should be able to do well on those exams. I was somewhat naive because I didn't know that knowing something and doing well on the exams are somewhat different things because of other factors, such as the familiarity with the genre. But I did intuitively understand something about test validity.

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How to Read Everything?

The phrase "read everything" seems to have become my mantra in advising graduate students and scholars. I mentioned this when I was visiting National Chiao Tung Unviersity in Taiwan a few weeks ago, and more than a few people said they were going to start reading everything in their email message to me or even on Facebook!

Today, I just received a comment from Joe in response to my earlier blog entry on reading everything:

I've just come across this wonderful blog. Thank you so much for your valuabale advice.

People have been advicing graduate students (especially M.A. students) to read a lot. However, hardly do they talk about how to read. I have found myself struggling with reading for graduate school and so have my friends. Would you mind sharing your thoughts or your strategies on this? Do you take notes for
everything you read? Thank you, Dr. Matsuda.

Some of my answers can be found in other related blog entries (a list of related entries as well as other pieces of advice for graduate students can be found here) and in "Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student" (2003). But I don't think I've had the chance to talk about taking notes.

The answer is: I don't.

Most of the books and journals in my personal library are clean--I could sell them on ebay or Amazon anytime, though I rarely sell my books because I consider them to be important tools of my trade.

I've always found underlining or highlighting texts to be more distracting than helpful. (My suspicion was confirmed in the introductory psychology course I took during my first year in college, where the professor mentioned a study showing that underlining is not an effective strategy for studying.) I also don't like how those marks left on the pages actually constrain my reading the next time I read the same text--they distract me away from grasping the meaning in larger contexts and particularly in the context of my current thoughts. For that reason, I don't like buying books second hand or borrowing books from the library. Sadly, some people underline books from the library!

When I was a master's student, I used to buy lost of sticky tabs at Staples and put them by the line that seemed important. The idea was that I would be able to take them off when I was done, though I almost never did. (Some of my books from those days still have yellow tabs sticking out.)

I thought the sticky notes would help me find places that I needed to refer to during class discussion or when I cite the source. What I learned after a few years was that: 1) I put too many tabs that they became meaningless; 2) even when I didn't put too many of them, they made me feel as though I had to talk about all of them during the discussion or in citing that source; and 3) too often, what I ended up citing was in places other than those that were marked with the sticky tabs.

I have also tried to take notes on separate sheets. It was useful when I was preparing for comprehensive exams, but I also noticed that I seldom looked at them again unless there were specific and immediate reasons for taking notes. I tend to lose my notes in the pile of stuff in my (cluttered) offices. Some of the notes have survived because I filed them away with the articles I read, but I stopped doing this because the same filing strategy wouldn't work for books. (I find it important to develop a thinking system to be consistent so my distributed cognitition does not become disturbed cognition.)

Even if I don't lose them, I often can't reconstruct what I meant--not only because of my terrible handwriting but also because the notes are always already out of context and outdated. So I stopped taking notes and started to rely on my memory.

I don't regret having gone through these stages of trying different strategies because they probably facilitated the development of my reading strategies and the understanding of the contents. But at some point in my professional development, I took the leap of faith--I learned to trust my own intuition. I felt that it actually helped me read faster, read more, and understand the important points better. And those ideas would come back to me when I need them because I've already rehearsed the conversations as I was reading them. That is, I felt my knowledge became more contextualized.

Some people ask if I have what's called a photographic memory.

The answer is: I don't.

But I do tend to remember books by their color, and the visual design of the text. I often remember which part of the page I found the idea (e.g., top left corner of the page, about half way through the book).

Some people might wonder how I could do this with academic publications, which are visually not as distinct as, say, magazine articles or web pages. Well, I thought the same thing about houses in Arizona--they all looked the same when I moved here, but now I can appreciate individual differences among various neighborhoods and individual houses.

I've also learned not to worry about sticking to the same text in the reading process--I read regular texts like hypertexts. (People in the field of computers and composition seemed to be busy theorizing the notion of hypertext in the early 1990s, but even back then, I found the concept to be straight forward and intuitive.)

Sometimes I start thinking about a related topic as I read. If that happens, I often put down what I'm reading and start looking for other related reading materials. They may be something I've read before or sources that are mentioned in the text I'm reading. Or I may follow my hunch and go to a text that might have something related, and I often do find something interesting, which is really exciting. It's like a mental game--I have a lot of fun doing this.

I can still keep track of who said what because I try to get to know them personally. As I read, I form ideas about each author. I also try to meet them at conferences and get to know them so I know where they are coming from. Academic reading and writing to me are really like joining a conversation with a group of people I care about.

For similar reasons, I usually don't take notes when I listen to presentations. I used to take notes to ask questions, but I stopped doing that as well. After hearing countless conference presentations, I know the genre inside out, and that helps me understand where the speaker is going. (I can also tell when the speaker is not going anywhere.) If I am the respondent, I may take notes, but mostly to outline my responses (if I have to respond, that is). They are not "records" of what I write; instead, they are part of my distributed cognition.

At CCCC this year, for example, I served as a respondent for a panel with Suresh Canagarajah, Bruce Horner, Min Lu, Catherine Prendergast, and John Trimbur. I used a small notepad (courtesy of the convention hotel) to create an outline of my response as I was listening. I started doing something similar at a TESOL academic session on writing (organized by Chris Tardy and featuring Lourdes Ortega, Meg Gebhardt, Youngjoo Yi, Ilona Leki, and Miyuki Sasaki). But in the middle of the session, I decided that it wasn't working, so I took out my laptop and start creating PowerPoint slides, which became my formal response.

I also don't take notes during meetings--I remember things better if I'm engaged. When I served as the chair of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing, I always asked someone I trust (e.g., Jessie Moore at Elon University and Angela Dadak at American University) to take the minutes. If I do take notes, it's usually to help organize the meeting.

If there are things that I need to follow up on, I would sometimes write them down, but if I don't act on them right after the meeting, they get lost. These days, I just email those tasks to myself (or ask others to email me) so I would actually follow up on them.

My strategy, then, has been to just read, read and read, and keep adding them to my mental intertextual map. Or sometimes they get integrated into my thinking directly as I get stimulated and start developing my own ideas. I don't even write down my own ideas, either, because if it's a really good idea (and one of my criteria for a good idea is that it responds to the particular rhetorical situation), it would come back in the context of my immediate thoughts when appropriate. If not, then the idea is going to be out of place, which is what I often see in manuscripts that I read.

I used to keep a clipboard by my bed so I can write down my ideas anytime, but I gave up on that as well. If I can't remember it when I needed it, I figure, it wasn't a good idea to begin with. If it really made sense, I would have the same thought again.

Of course this leisurely approach to reading (and thinking) requires a lot of time, but that's what my profession is about--I'm in the business of acquiring and making knowledge. If I have to know everything about my field, I might as well enjoy it. It may seem impossible, but it does get easier as my content and formal schema develop.

The key is not to wait until I have to read something for my projects. When I read as I write, my reading process becomes much more focused and purposeful. That's good, but that's different from "reading everything." Rather, it is the result of reading everything; I feel I can be more focused partly because I have already developed a strong intertextual network in my mind. I often know exactly what information I need and where I can find it.

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Advice to Graduate Students

In response to my advice to beginning Ph.D. students, George Braine from Chinese University of Hong Kong sent me two of his advice to graduate students who are beginning their Ph.D. studies. Here they are:

1. Time Management: Graduate students often underestimate the amount of time they will have to spend on conducting and writing-up their research. Learning to say "No" to people who exploit your time is probably the most important aspect of time management.

2. As part of a larger study, I surveyed and interviewed around 30 doctoral students from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering at Hong Kong universities to find out what led to their success or failure. The single most important factor for success was a sound working relationship with the thesis supervisor. Even the smartest students failed when this relationship broke down.

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The Problem of Multiple Identities, Part II

The problem of multiple identity is also multifaceted. If it's hard for people to imagine belonging to more than one discipline, it also seems hard for some people to understand that a researcher doesn’t have to be bound to a single mode of inquiry or a methodology.

In the last few months, I have had conversations with a few graduate students (who haven't taken my research methods course, of course) who made remarks that seemed to imply that I didn’t specialize in empirical research.

Well, yes, if it means that I don't do empirical research exclusively. But if that means I don't do empirical research, I don't know what to say. Perhaps I'm better known for my historical and philosophical inquiry, but I have published a fair share of empirical studies as well (e.g., Matsuda, 1999, 2001, 2002, Matsuda & Matsuda, 2001; Matsuda & Tardy, 2008; Tardy & Matsuda, 2009), using a range of methodological tools—from interviews and surveys as well as discourse analysis.

As a student of Janice Lauer who has always insisted that her students be proficient in multiple modes of inquiry--including philosophical, historical, empirical (qualitative and quantitative), and rhetorical (and to this list I would add narrative)--I'm not comfortable with the assumption that it's OK for people to stick to a single mode of inquiry.

Like Tony Silva, I firmly believe that all researchers in my fields should familiarize themselves with various theoretical and methodological tools and incorporate those that would best address the research question at hand. I thought I made that clear in the introduction to Second Language Writing Research (Matsuda & Silva, 2005) but I guess not everyone reads everything—sigh.

I do realize that many people have their favorite modes of inquiry and methodological tools that they rely on. It's also natural that people are drawn to certain research questions that lend themselves to the mode of inquiry one is most familiar with.

But as researchers, we need to develop a rich repertoire of theoretical and methodological tools if not to use them all then to understand and, if necessary, critique contributions by other researchers.

As Dwight Atkinson says in his chapter in Second Language Writing Research, “do try.”

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The Problem of Multiple Identities

The problem of multiple identities in academia has been an important driving force behind my work. (It all boils down to the issue of identity and power, it seems.)

Over the last 15 years, I have been fighting the pervasive perception in some of my fields (i.e., applied linguistics, composition and rhetoric) about multidisciplinarity--that it's not possible to be a full-fledged member of more than one discipline. Back when I was in graduate school, if I said I was specializing in second language writing, people in rhetoric and composition often thought I was really a second language specialist who happens to be coming to CCCC; some people in applied linguistics also thought that I was an "L1" compositionist who happens to be coming to applied linguistics conferences. (This has not been much of an issue in TESOL for some reason—perhaps because L2 writing was already well-established there?)

It didn't seem to occur to many of them that I was actually starting out in both fields at the same time.

This is one of those tacit cultural assumptions in academia that is hard to challenge because people don't seem to realize that they have those assumptions nor are they able to articulate what their own assumptions are or why they came to those conclusions. It may be because some people in those fields are not used to working in multiple disciplines that the notion of being multidisciplinary was unimaginable. (People who cross those disciplinary boundaries often seem to keep quiet about their other disciplinary identities). It may also be related to the institutional practices that require people to identify their "tenure home" and to align their professional activities with the job description when they got hired. Whatever the case may be, challenging unarticulated assumptions is one of the hardest things to do intellectually.

This was one of the most intriguing and disturbing dissonances that I decided to make fighting monodisciplinarity one of my professional missions. How did I do that?

  • I went to all the major conferences—AAAL, CCCC and TESOL—on a regular basis. I have tried not to miss any except when the schedule overlapped or when there was a family situation that required my attention.
  • I got myself elected or appointed to various committees, such as the Executive Committee and Nominating Committee, and to other leadership positions.
  • I published my work in journals in multiple fields and subfields. My goal was to establish a tenurable record in each discipline so I didn’t have to worry about tenure requirements—I didn’t want to shift my attention away from what I considered to be the most important research issue or problem.
  • I articulated the unarticulated assumption. I explicitly pointed out the problem of monodisciplinarity through my research and placed them in high profile journals to change the perception in both fields.
  • I helped make L2 writing an integral part of composition studies by institutionalizing the cause.
  • I took positions in departments where my multidisciplinary expertise would be valued.
  • I refused to choose one discipline or another as my primary discipline and insisted that I belonged to both.

After more than a decade of hard work, the world seems to be a better place—at least to people who specialize in second language writing. But sometimes I still get remarks—even from close friends who know my work well—that seem to imply that I’m more X than Y or that I should choose one over the other.

Old habits die hard, I guess.

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Finishing a Big Project in a Semester

Finishing a master's thesis or applied project is a challenge partly because students often haven't developed strategies for working on big projects--and they have to do it in a semester!

Here are a few pieces of advise I just shared with a group of master's students who are working with me to complete their applied projects (sort of like a mini-thesis):

Do start early and keep at it. It would be so much easier to front load it because—are you ready for this?—you will certainly find yourself doing more revisions than you are probably expecting. But don’t be intimidated—with the feedback from me and encouragements from your peers, you’ll be able to do it. Just don’t give up.

Here are some strategies that have worked for many people:

  • Post a project calendar on your wall so you can see how much time you have left at any given time.
  • Create a project-specific to-do list. (I have a clipboard at my desk just for this purpose.)
  • Set up a few applied project office hours each day just to work on the project. You can (and will need to) work extra hours if you feel like, but commit at least a few hours every day. The key is to make the office hours long enough so you can build momentum but not to make it so unrealistically long that you can’t keep it.
  • Set up a folder on your Google Docs account ( and upload the latest draft at the end of each day. (Name the file something like “ap_2009_01_16.” This would be an excellent way of keeping a back up. When you are ready, you can share your latest version with me and with others in this group.

If you have any questions or concerns, or if you get stuck, feel free to email me or call me on my cell phone any time. Don’t worry that I might be too busy; if that’s the case, you just won’t hear from me ;-) Seriously, I’ll try to respond as promptly as possible—even though my responses may be brief at times.

And don’t worry that I might be disappointed if you emailed me to let me know that you were stuck. I’m here to help. What would really disappoint me would be if you didn’t contact me when you needed help.

This might be helpful to others who are working on big projects for the first time. There are many other strategies, of course. The key is to try different strategies and find out what works best for you.

Obviously, some parts of this is applicable only to my current students. If you are not one of my students, for example, please don't email me or call me on my cell phone when you are stuck with your project. ;-)

Hopefully, you have your own advisor who can play this role for you.

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Recurring Questions about Professionalization

This is the time of the year when people are thinking about applying to graduate programs, adjusting to graduate school, and applying for academic jobs. I have been mentioning a few of my blog entries that have to do with professionalization, so I thought it might be useful to highlight some of them here.

Finding a suitable graduate program

Writing a statement of purpose for graduate program application

Applying to the Master's Program in TESOL at ASU

Requesting letters of recommendation

Advice for new graduate students

Read everything

Read everything again

Read widely

Academic job search

Requesting someone to be a reference for a job application

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You Are What Conferences You Attend

An academic's identity is shaped in part by what conferences she or he attends. This is true especially for graduate students and junior scholars who are just beginning to discover and construct their own disciplinary alignments.

When I was a graduate student, I attended AAAL, CCCC and TESOL on a regular basis. I also attended local affiliates and special topic conferences being held in the area. But how can a graduate student afford to attend all these conferences? Attending multiple conferences can be especially hard for graduate students who are working in interdisciplinary fields. Well, I wasn't particularly rich--my spouse and I were both on TA stipends--but I was able to find ways to finance my trips.

Here are some strategies:

  • Apply for internal travel funding. Check with the graduate student organization and the graduate program in your department to see if they have any travel funding for graduate students who are presenting a paper. The graduate school at your institution may also have some travel funding.
  • Apply for external travel funding. Some professional organizations (e.g., AAAL, CCCC, TESOL) have travel grants and awards for graduate students. Many local TESOL affiliates also offer travel grants for attending the international TESOL conference.
  • Apply for graduate student awards. I applied for many awards for graduate students that provided some additional funding. It also helped enhance my profile and boost my confidence.
  • Look for volunteer opportunities. Some conferences, such as AAAL, provide graduate students with opportunities to volunteer for a few hours in exchange for registration discount or waiver. The volunteer work itself is a good way of getting to know the organization and other members.
  • Split the cost with someone else. Share a hotel room with other graduate students from your program or other programs. Plan to arrive at the airport at the same time with other people you know so you can share a cab. Making these arrangements becomes easier as you develop your professional network by attending more conferences.
  • Find inexpensive hotels in the area. Many cities have public transportation options that make commuting to the conference realistic. I personally didn't use this strategy too much, though, because I wanted to be in the middle of action. I tended to stay at the headqarter hotel (or ones that were close to them), which tends to be more expensive. I go to conferences to meet people, not just to attend sessions.
  • Find a grocery or convenience store and get water, cookies, energy bars, and other inexpensive and quick breakfast and lunch items. At conferences, it's usually more important to be able to go to dinners with people you meet, but sometimes you end up going to really expensive restaurants (depending on who you hang out with), so it's important to find ways to reduce the cost for breakfast and lunch.
  • Go to publisher's exhibits where coffee and snacks may be available.
  • Go to events and receptions where food is served. For example, CCCC invites first-time attendees to a breakfast where pastries and coffee are served.
  • Forget expensive vacation plans. You get to travel to a lot of different cities by attending conferences. Plan your vacations around them, if necessary.
  • Attend local and regional conferences. Attending small conferences could be more rewarding than people may realize because it provides opportunities to meet people in the field in a more relaxed and intimate setting.

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Recommendation Letter Revisited

I've made a small change to the list of documents a job candidate might consider providing to their would-be recommendation letter writers. Specifically, I've added the following:

  • A brief sketch of when and how you met the writer of the recommendation letter, what courses you have taken with that person, and any other special projects you have worked on with/for that person (if it's not already clear from the CV).
This is important even if you think you have been working closely with that person because memories fade. Maybe I'm beginning to realize this because, as I grow older, my memory is beginning to fail me (sigh). But even when I have--or think I have--a vivid recollection of the first encounter, sometimes it turns out not to be the real first encounter. Cognition is a funny thing.

The last thing you want on the job market is a recommendation letter that indicates that the person doesn't really know you.

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I Miss Being a Grad Student

“I don’t believe it,” is the response I have come to expect from my graduate students whenever I tell them that I miss being a graduate students because I had more time on my hands as well as more intellectual freedom. They don’t quite say it, but the gasp and the look of disbelief are quite conspicuous.

Yes, professors are busy people, despite what many folks seem to think.

As I wrote at the end of “Coming to Voice: Publishing as a Graduate Student” (2003):

Now that I have a tenure-track job, however, I have come to think of being a graduate student as a somewhat privileged status. At Purdue, I was only teaching three courses per year. I had no obligation to administer programs, serve on academic committees or mentor graduate students, although I did so voluntarily. Most important of all, l had more freedom in choosing which conversation to join and in which form, whereas I now feel some pressure to focus on certain types of publications, such as monographs and articles in prestigious journals. Some of my professional colleagues have also told me about the pressure they felt about the need to develop a coherent professional profile that was in sync with their teaching. My professional identity will no doubt be influenced by the ever-so-unclear requirements for tenure and promotion. But will I be able to continue thinking like a professional whose goal is to contribute to the field regardless of how it will be evaluated? Will I start thinking like a junior faculty member who will publish for tenure and promotion—for the sake of having published? Or will I be able to find a happy medium? The biggest challenge I faced as a graduate student continues to confront me.
I wrote this in my first year on tenure-track at Miami University, but even after having gone through the tenure process twice—once at UNH and again when I moved to ASU with tenure—it still rings true.

I’ve managed to focus on what I think is important for the field and for second language writers, but I do sometimes think about things like the impact factor when I choose the journal to send my manuscript to, which many institutions now use as a way of evaluating faculty contributions. The impact factor is not the best measure of the relative value of a journal, but it is one way of measuring the impact that a journal has on the field. (I must say, though, that using the impact factor to compare across different disciplines--or even within subfields--is meaningless. To do that, we need an index that accounts for the size of the field, among many other things.)

I’ve also been struggling with the balance between what I want to do and what I’m asked to do (which is not altogether different from what I want to do because I can say—and have said—no). It’s nice to be invited to write on a particular topic, which helps me to expand the scope of my work, but sometimes it takes time away from those exciting new projects that I’ve been wanting to work on.

A few days ago, Abby Knoblauch, one of my collaborators and a former student of mine, sent me an email to let me know how she is doing on her new job as an Assistant Professor of English at Kansas State University. I was happy to hear from her especially because things seems to be going well for her—she surrounded by nice and supportive colleagues. What struck me the most, however, was her comment that she didn’t realize how busy being a professor really would be.
Suddenly graduate school seemed to be full of these grand expanses of free time. I know that's not true—or at least not how it felt—but yikes am I busy. I mean, clearly you know this, but it's all new to me.
On top of the heavier teaching load and committee work as well as the never-ending expectation to produce scholarly work, she is inundated with email and campus mail from various people, which takes up a lot of time to sort through.

I assured her that the workload will only increase as she moves up in rank, but that it is possible to learn to cope with it.

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A friend of mine--a rising star in rhetoric and composition--told me recently that he has received a request for permission to reprint his article, which is quite an honor. He was wondering if there were any issues he should be aware of.

Here is my response (with a few minor changes):

Congratulations on having your article reprinted.

The answer depends on who owns the copyrights. If you signed a copyright release when you had your article published with the journal, then this is a courtesy request. You can say no and I’m sure the editor would honor that, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to have your article reprinted. The original publisher has the final say in whether to grant permission (and charge a fee).

If you kept your copyrights (or more precisely, part of the copyrights) concerning the right to reprint (which is unusual in humanities journals), then it would be your decision alone (though I would also have the editor contact the publisher just to be safe).

Normally, reprint authors in our fields don’t get any royalty, but it wouldn't hurt to ask to have a copy of the book sent to you. If you wish to make any minor changes to the article (typos, copy editor’s edits you didn’t like), you can also ask about it at this point. I wouldn’t make any major revisions at this point, though.

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Advice for Master’s in TESOL Applicants

Here is my advice to people who are thinking about applying to the Master’s Program in TESOL at ASU. The information provided here is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of other MTESOL faculty members, the Department or ASU.

Statement of Purpose. To me, this is the most important document. Here are some of the questions that I ask as I read through these documents:

  • Why do you wish to pursue a master’s degree in TESOL? To begin your career as an English language teacher? To become a more effective teacher in your current teaching context? To expose yourself to the most up-to-date ideas about the English language, language learning, and language teaching? To gain the credential to teach in intensive language programs or college-level ESL courses? To prepare yourself for a research career in TESOL (by continuing onto a Ph.D. program)?
  • What experience have you had in the field of TESOL? Have you taken a course? Have you taught English? Have you reflected on your own language learning experience? It’s OK not to have any experience at all—everyone has to start somewhere, and Master’s Program in TESOL provides an excellent starting point.
  • What do you hope to learn through your studies? Although Master’s Program in TESOL is a general preparation for professionals in TESOL, it helps to have a sense of what you hope to learn in the program, which helps you determine the best plan of study and identify appropriate faculty mentors.
  • Why are you interested in this particular program? It is the wide variety of courses that are offered by the program? Is it the opportunity to gain teaching experience through the internship program? Is it the reputation of the faculty members or graduates of the program? Did a graduate of this program recommend it to you? If so, what did they say that made you want to apply to this program?
  • Do you have a faculty member whose work you are interested? If so, you can mention the person as one of the reasons for applying to this particular program—it shows that you’ve done your homework. But don’t just drop names—listing everyone is not as effective as mentioning one or two people and explaining how their work has inspired you and relates to your professional development and career objectives.
  • What do you plan to do when you complete the program? Do you plan to teach in the United States or abroad? Do you plan to continue onto a Ph.D. program in TESOL or a related field? Are you thinking about starting a language school of your own? A graduate degree is always a means to an end. Have a clear idea about where you are headed. It’s OK to change your mind after you enter the program—you will be introduced to the whole world of TESOL during your studies, and you may discover new possibilities you’ve never considered.
Recommendation Letters. Ask someone who is in the field of TESOL and who knows you and your work very well. Although a letter from a well-known person in the field could help, a weak, dashed-off letter from the same person could actually hurt the case. It is more important to have strong letters that detail your academic strengths, personality traits, your relationships with mentors and classmates, and your interest in and commitment to the profession. (See Recommendation Letters.)

TOEFL or IELTS Score. Advanced proficiency in spoken and written English is essential for your success as a student and future English teacher. If you are an international student, the current requirement is a TOEFL score of 600 PBT, 250 CBT or 100 iBT, or an IELTS score of 6.5. If you don’t have the scores, ASU offers an excellent, multi-level English language program in the American English and Culture Program (AECP), where you can work on your English proficiency while preparing your application.

Official Transcripts. Be sure that your overall GPA is 3.0 on a 4 point scale (i.e., B average) or above. It would help if you have taken courses related to applied linguistics, linguistics or language teaching, but it’s neither required nor necessary.

Department of English Application. Fill it out completely and neatly. Type the form—hand-written applications can be a turn-off.

Graduate Application (online). Be sure to complete both Department of English and Graduate Application.

Best of luck with your application process!

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References for a Job

I've written on the topic of requesting a recommendation letter, but what about asking someone to be a reference (i.e., listing that person on your CV or resume)?

Of course it depends on the situation, but the same general principles of requesting a recommendation letter also apply.

  • Don't assume that the person can (or is willing to) serve as your reference. Ask for their permission to have their names included--before you include the name on your resume or CV.
  • Ask for the preferred contact information. Some people may wish to receive those phone calls at home while others may not like to be bothered at home. Others may prefer email over phone.
  • Provide some information about the job. Who is the employer? What's the nature of the job? (Summer job? Permanent job? Internship?) Is there a job description? In what ways do you think you qualify for the job?
  • Provide the timelines. When is the application deadline? When will they be scheduling the interviews? When does the job start? This type of information will help your prospective reference to anticipate when they might receive the call.

It would help if you could provide the documents that you would normally provide when you ask for a recommendation letter.

You would want the person to say that you are well organized and considerate, and has strong communication skills (among many other things). If so, it would help if you could demonstrate those skills when you make the request.

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Memorable Encounters

I just came back from AAAL in Washington, D.C., and CCCC in New Orleans. Both conferences were productive and stimulating in many ways.

At AAAL, Miyuki Sasaki, Aya Matsuda and I presented our interview-based phenomenological research on multi-competent academic writers. The collaborative process was interesting because we all brought different methodological and theoretical perspectives. But things came together nicely, and many people gave us positive comments. AAAL also featured a “graduate student night,” where experienced members of the field shared insights into the academic job search process. It was really well attended, and I enjoyed working with a group of graduate students who asked great questions about various issues in academic job search.

At CCCC, I attended the Executive Committee meeting and other related meetings. In addition, I gave two presentations. One of them was a discussion session on second language writing, organized by Jonathan Hall. Other presenters included Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, Jay Jordan, and Deirdre Pettipiece. The other presentation was part of a panel on the internationalization of composition that I organized. It included Chris Anson, Min-Zhan Lu, Joan Mullin, Xiaoye You, and Deb Holdstein. Both of the sessions were well attended, and I (and other presenters) received a lot of positive feedback.

One of the most stimulating aspects of the conference experience is the opportunity to interact with graduate students from various institutions. Each year, I talk with many graduate students who are interested in my research or who are interested in working with me in the Ph.D. program. Others are seeking insights that might help in their development as a teacher, researcher, and a member of the profession. During this conference season, too, I spoke with many graduate students about various issues in the field as well as issues related to their professionalization.

I don’t have the time to go into details of all of the interactions, but I’d like to share some thoughts about what makes some of those encounters particularly memorable. Although it’s impossible to remember everyone, I do try. I recognize many of the people I meet at conferences the next time I see them (which seems to surprise some of them). And there are specific things people do that make them particularly memorable.

First, I tend to remember people I encounter frequently (duh!). They attend many of the same sessions and meetings that I go to. They come to business meetings, award ceremonies, receptions. They introduce themselves and say “hi” when I see them again in the hallway. Or they at least make eye contacts and smile.

When they introduce themselves, they say their names and institutions clearly. Some of them even hold up the nametag as they say their names. They always wear nametags (even during dinners and receptions), which is helpful when I’m not sure if I remember their names. Some of them also give me business cards or handouts from their presentations. They also have websites where I can learn more about them and see their photos.

They talk about specific pieces of my work, how they encountered those pieces, what they thought of them, and how they are using them in their own work. They mention their advisors who know me, and in some cases, their advisors talk to me about those students.

They also talk about their own work. If they are presenting or have presented, they can describe the session in a sentence or two and, when asked, provide a succinct summary in ways that are relevant to the context of the conversation. I often can’t attend their sessions because of various meetings, but I do try.

They ask questions. They ask about my work and about own professional development experience and strategies. They may have specific questions about their own teaching, research or professional development situations. They usually provide enough contexts about their own experience and their current situation so I can understand their questions and provide most appropriate and relevant answers. Some questions are personal, but I don’t mind as long as they can explain the relevance of the question to their own professional development.

They often send me a follow-up email message about the encounter—it helps especially if they briefly mention in the email how we met and what we talked about. Some of them send me pictures we took together (which I really appreciate). Some even send me their pictures to help me remember what they look like. They may also have a link to their own professional website, where I can see their faces and learn more about their background and current projects.

Some of them also ask me to be their Facebook or Mixi friends.

And they come to the same conference regularly and present something whenever they can so I can attend their sessions and learn more about them and their work.

I look forward to seeing many of you at next year’s CCCC, AAAL and TESOL--and at the Symposium on Second Language Writing!

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Disciplinary Multicompetence

As I was thinking about future hiring plans for our linguistics program (broadly defined to include applied linguistics and TESOL), I stumbled upon a document at the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) website that provided job interview tips to job skeekers in linguistics.

The tips are rather generic, but they can be helpful for people who don't have mentors who can provide much help with their job search. But what struck me the most is the introductory paragraph:

At present academic jobs are scarce and they are likely to remain scarce for the remainder of the decade. On top of this, some people think that linguistics has been hit particularly hard. Getting even one job offer these days is an achievement. Do not allow academic elitism to deter you from taking a job that you feel fairly good about, or to make you dissatisfied with such a job. (You can increase your chances of getting job offers if you have done significant work within more than one subfield, within related disciplines, in more applied areas of linguistics and/or in an internship in a non-academic setting).
In the current institutional and intellectual climate, it's becoming increasingly important to have more than one subfield, developing multiple specializations in several related disciplines, and having some real application.

At the same time, most fields, if they are making any progress, are becoming increasingly complex and specialized, and it's often difficult to find people who are well-prepared and genuinely committed to multiple subfields or disciplines, or to "applied fields."

In a sense, I have made a career out of being an interdisciplinary researcher who insists on being a bona fide member of multiple disciplines. Even as a graduate student, I regularly presented at conferences in multiple areas, and I've published in multiple fields and subareas.

When I was on the job market, having all of these qualities were certainly helpful--I was able to find many positions that fit my areas of expertise in applied linguistics, TESOL, and rhetoric/composition, and to receive job offers in all of those fields. And I've actually held positions that involve working with graduate students in all three fields. (In fact, my current job entails all three of them.)

It's not always been easy because disciplines have a way of defining their members not only by what they are but also by what they are not. When I was just starting out, it was challenging because if I said I specialized in second language writing, writing specialists tended to see me as a second language person, and second language specialists tended see me as a writing person.

As a result, educating people that second language writing is both (and more) became one of my major research and professional priorities. Now that second language writing is a well-recognized (and coveted) subfield of both rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL, I don't feel the need to explain or justify what I do or who I am.

Interdisciplinarity is also not easy because of the increasing tendency for specialization that make it increasingly difficult for people to keep up with multiple fields. Some of the things I do to keep myself up-to-date include:
  • accepting requests to review manuscripts and proposals on a wide range of topics in various fields
  • teaching graduate courses on various topics
  • buying all the books that are related to my subfields--even when I don't have the time to read them (Yes, I did that even when I was a graduate student.)
  • attending conference presentations on topics I am interested in but not familiar with
  • conducting research in various disciplinary contexts (It's writing-to-learn principles in action.)
  • reviewing the tables of contents of major journals periodically and reading interesting articles that are not directly related to my own research
Even with all the difficulties, I hope current and future graduate students will make conscientious effort to develop multiple specializations and actually be a committed member of multiple fields--instead of making a multidisciplinary gesture as a way of getting a job (and end up feeling like a misfit for the rest of their careers).

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Steve Simpson's Publication

The chapter on mentoring that Steve Simpson and I wrote together just came out:

Simpson, S., & Matsuda, P. K. (2008). Mentoring as a long-term relationship: Situated learning in a doctoral program. In C. P. Casanave & X. Li (Eds.), Learning the literacy practices of graduate school: Insiders' reflections on academic enculturation (pp. 90-104). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

It provides an overview of my approach to mentoring as well as Steve's perspective on how it worked for him during the first few years of doctoral studies.

It's been fun working with you on this project, Steve!

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Chronicle Careers: 1/8/2008: Taking Time for R&R

Chronicle Careers: 1/8/2008: Taking Time for R&R

Here is a useful tip about what to do when your manuscript receives a "revise and resubmit" from a peer-reviewed journal.

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Carnegie Foundation Creates New 'Owner's Manual' for Doctoral Programs -

Here is some news about a publication that looks seriously at the need for improving the preparation of future researchers in doctoral programs. (I personally think the Chronicle headline misses the point, though.)

According to the Chronicle article, the report (rightly, I think) criticizes the (historical) master-apprentice model that relies on accidental match of personalities. (The model of apprenticeship being discussed here seems to be the historical apprenticeship, rather than apprenticeship in situated learning.) It uses the term mentoring instead:

The study recommends that doctoral programs adopt new structures that allow students to have several intellectual mentors and come to think of mentorship as less an accident of interpersonal chemistry and as more a set of techniques that can be learned, assessed, and rewarded.

Some of these efforts are already in place, as we will see in Chris Casanave and Xiaoming Li's forth coming book. But it's true that it has depended more on individual initiatives rather than institutionalized practices. The good news is that ASU is being mentioned as one of the model institutions for encouraging successful mentoring at the doctoral level.

The challenge, of course, is to institutionalize these practices without falling into the trap of believing that successful mentoring relationships can be mass-produced. As Steve Simpson and I tried to articulate in our chapter on mentoring (to appear in Casanave and Li), this is something mentors and mentees have to work out as they develop their relationships.

What worries me about this report, as represented by the Chronicle article, is that it seems to reduce mentoring into a set of skills that can be prescribed to anyone. Well, it's not that simple.

While I agree that part of the problem is the heavy reliance on "accidental match of personalities," prescribing techniques seems limited as a solution. For mentoring to really work, both mentors and mentees need to recognize the need to make concerted and ongoing efforts to develop a productive relationship. And that, IMHO, takes much more than just "a set of techniques."

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Academic Job Search

Academic job search for Ph.D. candidates in my fields (applied linguistics, rhetoric and composition, TESOL) usually begins in the fall of the final year of dissertation when you have at least one or two chapters written and approved by your committee chair.

When you go on the job market for your first tenure-track job, do an all-out search (i.e., applying for all the positions you wouldn't mind taking) rather than a limited search (i.e., applying for selected positions).

In most cases, it would be wise not to start a job search just to "test the water." Whether you are applying for a few positions or many, it will be a half-time job. Unless you already have a lot of publications under your belt, the time is better spent focusing on writing for publication. If you go on the market prmaturely, you are likely to waste your and your advisor's time (as well as the search committees' time). Even if you get an offer, the demand of the new position might make it extremely difficult to finish your dissertation, and you may waste your precious time you should be spending for earning your tenure.

In late September, MLA (Modern Lanugage Association of America) publishes the larges job list of the year (aka the October List), listing many tenure-track positions. A majority of tenure-track positions have early to mid-November deadlines, though it's beginning to change. Many rhetoric and composition search committees set earlier deadlines, trying to grab the best candidate before anyone else.

Job ads are also circulated through The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as relevant websites and mailing lists in the field.

After the initial screening, the first round of job interviews for entry-level positions often take place at MLA, which is usually scheduled at the last few days of the calendar year. Interviews for linguistics jobs often take place at LSA (Linguistic Society of America), which is usually scheduled right after MLA.

Increasingly, institutions are using phone interviews in November or December instead of having interviews at conferences.

Some of the documents you will need to prepare include:

  • Job application letters
  • Curriculum vitae (aka CV, vita)
  • Dossier, including: Three letters of recommendation
  • Undergraduate and graduate transcripts
  • Writing samples (published articles and book chapters, dissertation chapters, manuscripts under consideration, etc.)
  • Teaching portfolio, which might include: Teaching philosophy statements, descriptions and rationale for courses taught, sample syllabi, and teaching evaluation.

You may not use all of these for the initial application, but once you make the first cut, you will find that different hiring committees ask for different sets of materials. Even if you don't use all of them, the process of developing these documents will help you prepare for the interviews.

If you are planning to apply for positions that involve graduate-level teaching, you might want to develop your "ideal" syllabi for some of the core courses (e.g., composition theory, research methods) and a course in the area of your specialization.

For more information about the job search process in English, see:

Showalter, English, Howard Figler, Lori G. Kletzer, Jack H. Schuster, Seth R. Katz. The MLA Guide to the Job Search: A Handbook for Departments and for PhDs and PhD Candidates in English and Foreign Languages. New York: MLA, 1996.

This is a helpful guide, except there is a passage that seems to encourages English departments to discriminate against nonnative English speakers.

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Letters of Recommendation

Part of your dissertation committee members' job is to write letters of recommendation for you. Do not hesitate to ask. But your request for recommendation do need to be courteous, informative and--yes--early. Make your request at least two or three weeks in advance.

To make it easier to develop a strong and specific recommendation letter, provide the following information/documents:

  • A description of the job, grant, or award you are applying for (If you are applying for multiple jobs, provide a representative job announcement or a description of the kinds of jobs you are looking for.)
  • A copy of your application letter and/or application form. (If you are applying for multiple jobs, provide a representative sample.)
  • A copy of your most recent curriculum vitae (CV). (If you are applying for positions outside higher education, provide a copy of your resume.)
  • Any additional material about your research, teaching or service (e.g., major publications, teaching portfolio, teaching philosophy statement).
  • A sentence or two about what aspect of your work you want emphasized in the letter (but try not to sound demanding in your request).
  • A brief sketch of when and how you met the writer of the recommendation letter, what courses you have taken with that person, and any other special projects you have worked on with/for htat person (if it's not already clear from the CV). New!
  • The address to which the letter should be sent; if it's an online dossier service (e.g., Interfolio), then provide instructions (or links to the instructions page).
  • An SASE, if applicable (for campus mail, provide a large, self-addressed envelope).
  • A waiver form provided by the dossier service (if applicable; see below).
  • The date by which you need the letter. (This is important.)

In some cases, your committee members might say "no" to your request. Don't take it personally--the person is probably doing a favor by not writing anything less than a strong letter.

In addition to your committee members, consider asking other people who have an intimate knowledge of a certain aspect of your work as a student, teacher, or researcher. But don't ask someone to write this important letter just because the person is a well-known figure and you happen to know this person's email or have had a few drinks with that person. That doesn't count as "intimate knowledge" in this case.

Asking someone who has worked with you on a professional committee is good, especially if the person can attest to your work ethic and dedication to the field; but it may not help unless you have other people writing strong letters focusing on your intellectual capacity and your potential as a productive teacher and/or researcher.

What about that big figure who has said good things about your presentation at a conference or have read and commented on your manuscripts? I still wouldn't count on the person to write a strong letter based on those brief encounters. You really have to establish close working relationships with several faculty members and perhaps other people in the field.

Recommendation letters are not worth anything if the applicant does not waive the right to see them. If you are planning to apply for multiple positions, establish a credentials file (aka. dossier). Some institutions provide their own dossier services for graduate students; others outsource. Some of my former students have used a service called Interfolio with good results. (No, I'm not being paid to endorse this service.)

Your dossier might include three letters of recommendation and undergraduate/graduate transcripts from all post-secondary institutions you have attended.

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Applying to a Graduate Program

Many prospective graduate students are beginning to think about which programs to apply to and how to prepare the application materials. Since a few peoeple have asked already, I'm going to share a few thoughts.

I've already discussed how to find a suitable graduate program for you, so I'm going to focus here on how to write a strong statement of aims and purpose (aka. statement of purpose or personal statement).

First, read the guidelines carefully. If it says one-page, stick to one-page. Single or double spaced? If it doesn't specify, I'd go for a single-space document with block paragraphs with a blank line between paragraphs (just like this "document"). It's a lot easier to read than a double-spaced document. Use a font that's easy to read rather than those that look nice but slow down the reading process.

A strong opening statement that grabs the reader's interest is important, but don't get too fancy. In my experience, what appeals to the admission committee is not the style of writing (although the lack of style could work against you) but the substance: that you are an intelligent person who is devoted to the field; that you have a clear sense of purpose; that you know enough about the field and are eager to learn much, much more; that you have done the homework to find out about the strengths of the program you are applying to; that you have the determination to complete the course of study; that you are a pleasant person to work with (or rather, that you are not an unpleasant person to work with).

These are not to be stated explicitly. Instead, they have to come through to the readers as you state your sense of purpose in pursuing a Ph.D. degree.

In other words, voice--as I defined in Matsuda (2001) and Matsuda and Tardy (2007)--is crucial in this type of academic writing; it is inseparable from the substance.

It's also important to have a sense of what you wish to do when you complete the course of study and why you think the program you are applying to can prepare you for that professional goal. Is it the scope of the program? Is it the particular set of courses that are available? Is it a specific faculty member (or faculty members) who has the theoretical and methodological expertise that you are interested in acquiring?

In the process of preparing the document, you will (I hope) find out a lot about the program you are applying to, which will help you develop a realistic sense of what you can expect from the program. I also hope you will learn more about your own reasons for pursuing a graduate degree and how much you really want to study in that program. The opportunity to examine the match between you and the program of your dream might be the second most important function of the statement of aims and purpose.

The most important function, of course, is to get yourself admitted to the program.

Good luck to you all!

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GSID Summer Intensive Seminar

Last week, I taught a three-day summer intensive seminar for students in the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. At the request of my host, Professor Toru Kinosita, The seminar focused on qualitative research on second language with a postmodern twist.

Planning for this seminar was an interesting experience because I didn't know much about the students until a few days before the seminar started. The only thing I knew for sure was that few of them had any prior experience or exposure to qualitative research or second language writing, much less postmodernism. I hope I succeded in showing them that the assumptions of quantitative and qualitative studies are not necessarily mutually exclusive and that both of them are but ways of establishing strong support for a larger claim--which is in the realm of informal reasoning or, to use Perelman's term, the realm of rhetoric.

The seminar was useful to me because it helped me renew my understanding that graduate programs need to provide their students with more than just the knowledge of either qualitative or quantitative methods--or even both. In order to successfuly present their research findings and to turn them into viable knowledge in the field, researchers need a broad-based knowledge of various methodological approaches as well as various philosophical assumptions underlying what it is that we do as researchers.

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Advice for New Ph.D. Students

An annonymous reader asks: "Do you have any (general) advice for incoming Comp/Rhet PhD students? I want to read this post!"

Here are a few things I can think of:

1. Read a lot. I've said this many times, and I'll say it again. Being a graduate student--no matter how you may feel at the moment--is a luxury. You may not have a whole lot of money, but you have plenty of time. (Relatively speaking, of course.) If you think you are already too busy as a doctoral student, wait until you get a tenure-track position. (But then again, you may not get to that point if you don't read a lot now.)

2. Start developing your own professional library. Your investment will start paying off as soon as you begin to write your first seminar paper. You will probably notice the benefits most strongly when you take the preliminary/comprehensive exam, but it will also continue to be helpful throughout your career. When I was a grad student, my professional library included all the books on my primary field of interest (i.e., second language writing) as well as most of those books that I found remotely interesting or those that were cited or mentioned frequently. Reference books (e.g., encyclopedia, bibliographies, MLA and APA manuals) would also help. Start early because you won't have the time (or money) to buy all the books you need when you get your first tenure-track position (if you get to that point, that is).

3. Have a "room of one's own." Create a space where you can focus on your projects. Even if you live in a small apartment, try to devote a desk to your professional work. Set it up so you have all the resources--including books, articles, a computer, a printer, notepads, pens, sticky notes, etc.--available at your fingertip. Stock up on office supplies so you don't have to put your writing on hold when you run out of notepads. A moment of interruption could kill the momentum!

4. Develop a network of people who share similar interests or concerns. Starting a reading group is one way of accomplishing this. Creating or joining an email discussion list is another. Going to a conference regularly is yet another.

5. Get to know the faculty members in your program. Taking classes is not the only way of getting to know them. When they are giving presentations locally or at conferences, go to their sessions and ask questions (but try not to monopolize them). Take them out for a cup of coffee or a glass of beer or wine or whatever they fancy--within your graduate student budget. Find out what they find interesting (and what they find boring), what they know (and don't know), what kind of methodological approaches they like (or dislike), and how they interact with you, with other students, and with other faculty members. Knowing the faculty members and the interpersonal dynamics among them would be especially important when you choose your dissertation/exam chair and committee members. (And when you choose your dissertation committee members, always consult your chair.) Keep in mind that your default advisor (if there is one) doesn't have to be your dissertation chair.

6. Be open to a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches in your field. Although sometimes it's important to trust your gut feelings and follow your intuition, you don't always fall in love with the right topic or methodology at first. Try to develop a large repertoire before deciding on your dissertation topic.

7. Have fun. If you feel like you are sacrificing something else when you read and write in your field, entering a Ph.D. program may not be the right career decision. If you have that much discipline to complete the degree requirements without really enjoying the process, you might consider choosing from many other career options out there that don't require a Ph.D. and that you might actually enjoy.

Hope this helps. Good luck to you all!

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Recommended: A Guide to Professional Development (2006)

Here is a book that I recommend to everyone who is pursuing or is thinking about pursuing graduate studies in English:

Moore, Cindy, and Hildy Miller. A Guide to Professional Development for Graduate Students in English. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. (ISBN: 978-0-8141-1923-5)

This brief and highly readable book is remarkably succinct and thorough, providing helpful advice on many different aspects of professional developments for both masters' and doctoral students in various disciplines within English studies, including composition and rhetoric, creative writing, linguistics and literature (in alphabetical order). I actually read the whole thing in one sitting.

It's worth noting that the authors have included the discussion of ESL/TESOL as an important consideration for composition and rhetoric specialists. Yet, there are other issues that I wished the authors paid more attention to. For example, major professional conferences such as American Association for Applied Linguistics and Linguistic Society of America are not mentioned. Nor does it mention CCCC very much partly because it's now considered a conference within the umbrella of NCTE (although it still maintains a separate membership list).

I was also disappointed not to see any mention of issues related to nonnative English speakers in the profession or foreign nationals, but I guess a majority of mentors in English studies are yet to become familiar with this growing area of research and professional development.

Of course a short book like this can't include everything or fully prepare anyone for all aspects of professional development, but it does provide a good roadmap. Readers would then have to take the trip to see for themselves--accompanied by their travel companions (spouses, friends, peers and mentors)--what it's like to be there to enjoy the long journey into the practices of their chosen disciplines.

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The Pipeline to Publication

Here is a useful suggestion published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Chronicle Careers: 12/5/2006: The Pipeline to Publication

I have been doing fewer and fewer "proposed" conference presentations because I'm too busy with other kinds of presentations and committee work, but I still do one or two proposed presentations each year.

The call for papers and conference proposal serve as one of the motivating forces to develop new projects and to refine my research ideas.

If it's an empirical research, I often present the whole study in one presentation, although it's possible to develop multiple presentations focusing on different aspects of the study, especially for bigger projects. I might also develop separate presentations focusing on the theory part of the study or the exploration of the critical issues that led up to the study.

In the presentation, I try to focus on two or three major findings and implications. Other than that, I try to limit my presentation to the most essential information--why the project is important to the field (which include a mention of a few key sources), essential features of the method, main findings and a few supporting evidence from the study, and a quick discussion of implications. Anything I didn't discuss can be dealt with during the discussion at the end.

When I present my theoretical and historical work, I try not to present everything because of the time limitation. I might do an overall sketch of the main argument with a focus on the implications, or I would take a segment of the project and discuss its implications. For this reason, the resulting theoretical/historical articles are usually syntheses of bits and pieces of arguments that I present in different presentations.

In any case, I try to make my presentation argument-driven, using data to provide examples to support or illustrate my claims.

And I don't necessarily develop all the arguments at once. I develop different parts of a project here and there depending on the most pertinent issues in the field and the audience. Some of the ideas that I am using for a book chapter I am writing came from two separate presentations I did this year, but one of the main arguments--my primary agenda for the project--evolved from a discussion I had after my TESOL session in the late 1990s and a conversation I had with a colleague at a recent conference.

It's helpful to get feedback from the audience, but it's the conversation I have with people afterwards--during the questions as well as conversations I have with people in the hallway, coffee shops, book exhibits, etc., that really helps me see what the issues are, how I might conceive of my audience, and what I want to communicate to them in a public forum.

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Choosing a Ph.D. Program

It's that time of the year again. I've been talking to various people who are interested in applying to Ph.D. programs. Here are some pieces of advice I keep giving out to help them choose an appropriate program for them.

1. Find out whether doctoral-level work is really for you. The doctorate is, first and foremost, a research degree that prepares people to become knowledge producers. It's not a glorified teacher certification program. (Teaching is an important part of professional preparation especially in my fields, but teaching proficiency or potential is a pre-requisite; training teachers is not the primary purpose of Ph.D. programs.)

2. Learn about the field you are getting into. It is important for a Ph.D. applicant to have a solid understanding of what the field is all about, what kind of research people have done and are currently doing, and what applications (if any) there may be. Familiarize yourself with some of the key ideas, terms and names in the field. Read widely and read a lot. (A master's degree in the same field is not always required, but even with a relevant degree, if you can't demonstrate a broad understanding of the field, getting accepted into a good program can be difficult.)

3. Know what your interests are. At least in the U.S. context, it's not always necessary for a beginning Ph.D. students to have a clear research program at the beginning of doctoral studies. A broad understanding and interest in the field as a whole and in a few areas of specialization would do.

Am I ever going to get to the question of how to choose a program? I know, I know. Be patient. It's not a quick and easy decision like picking the right avocado for making guacamole tonight. If you don't do your homework, you are going to regret it--big time.

4. Read more in the subfield in which you are particularly interested. In this process, you will familiarize yourself with key topics, issues and methodological approaches in association with particular names of authors who publish actively and are cited often. If you have a sense of who's who in the field, you are ready to look at specific programs.

5. Make a list of people whose work you find interesting--their topics, methodological approaches, and their arguments. Leave out people whose work you find incomprehensible or incompatible with your own orientation.

6. Go on line and find out where they teach. By now, you should be able to do this without looking up the information--from your reading of many of their recent publications. Find out whether they teach in doctoral programs and, if so, what kind of courses they teach, in what department, what other faculty members are teaching in the same program, what kind of courses are offered, what and how their graduate students seem to be doing in terms of presentations, publications, dissertation projects, and job placement.

7. Try to get to know these people. You might contact them by email. Be very polite, tactful, and to the point. If possible, state briefly why you are contacting that particular person. Don't ask any questions that can be answered by looking at the program/graduate school web site or by asking administrative assistants for the graduate program. Ask those questions that cannot be answered by anybody else. If possible, arrange a campus visit and meetings with faculty members and graduate students.

8. Try to get to know their students. When you go to conferences (if you don't, then start going to conferences in the field), go to sessions presented by faculty and students from that institution. (If you can't find anyone from the institution at major conferences in the field, then you know what to do--move the institution to the bottom of the list.) Tell them that you are interested in applying to their program and ask them to share their insights about the program, faculty members, financial support, and life in the program, at the university and in the area.

9. If a writing sample is required (as it usually is), choose one that demonstrates your broad understanding of the field and your analytical and research skills as well as the quality of writing. Remember: good writing is not complicated writing. Use keywords in the field, but don't use big words unnecessarily just to impress the admissions committee--they will easily see through it.

10. The statement of purpose or the "personal statement" should focus on your professonal aspirations, not the details of your personal lives. Admissions committee memebers couldn't care less about the close relationship you had with your dog when you were in elementary school--unless you are applying to a doctoral program in, say, animal psychology. The conventions and expectations may vary from program to program, but in general, include: why you are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in the field (and perhaps what you hope to do in the future), what subfields you are interested in and, most important, why you are interested in the particular program (faculty, courses, quality of graduate student publications, etc.). You don't have to sell yourself too much--this is not a job application. Being a good student and colleague who will successfully and promptly complete the degree and become an active member of the field is sufficient.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Related blog entries:
PhDing (freshcomp)
App season (Collin vs. Blog)

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Read Widely

Nels Highberg's comment and his related blog entry has inspired me to clarify my advice and to articulate its corollary: Read widely.

I try to keep up with the literature in both rhetoric/composition and applied linguistics/TESOL, both of which are highly interdisciplinary, drawing on various areas of humanities and social sciences. I often find myself having to go into many other fields to fully understand my own fields. And I happen to believe that borrowing ideas from other disciplines requires a deep understanding of the intellectual and historical contexts in which those ideas were developed--so I know what the idea can and cannot do as well as what my borrowing might do to my field and the field it came from.

Naturally, my reading list continues to snowball.

It's certainly impossible to have read everything in all of these (and many more) areas of knowledge. So, my advice, "read everything," is not an imperative to have read everything--a state no one will ever achieve. Rather, it's a call to begin and continue reading deeply and widely.

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"Read Everything" Again

My blog entry on reading everything seems to have generated some interesting discussion. I like what Derek Mueller says:

This paradox is the ongoing challenge, no? Read everything; to read everything is impossible. Still, one must. But cannot. Etc. The outlying factors bear down and raise related questions: write everything? How much to read before writing? While writing? How much to write while reading?
It is indeed paradoxical, especially because the professional literature keeps expanding. Nevertheless, it is important to "collect" everything, as Collin Brooke suggests, and to develop a mental map of the field that continues to evolve with the researcher's knowledge of the field.

Derek also poses an important question--when do we stop reading and start writing (or do we stop reading)? Of course the reading process never stops. As I write, I discover what I know as well as what I don't know or don't remember well, or inconsistencies in my thinking, prompting me to go back to various texts. (I sound like my dear friend Don Murray when I say this.)

When I was an MA student, I approached the process of reading to write as "information crunching"--and I had the image of defragmenting hard-drives in mind. I would type up relevant passages into the document, break them up into smaller clusters, rearrange them to fit the evolving organization of my own writing, and then paraphrase or summarize what I can, leaving the rest of the original texts as direct quotes.

After having read (and written) quite bit in the field (though still not enough), I began to experience what Jeff Rice describes:
At some point in my career, I found myself able to perform a pretty amazing (to me) feat when writing. I was able to pull out of my memory not details, but positions, ideas, arguments, stances from my past reading. That build-up is important. Out of it, I can write, and I can join the conversations.
My writing process changed quite a bit while I was working on my Ph.D. at Purdue. I would now just read, read, and read (though increasingly, I find myself drawing mostly on what I remember having read) and then, when I feel I have a good sense of the topic and my overall argument--the vision, if you will--for the entire article, I start drafting without looking at anything. I can often cite sources from memory, though I try to verify them later for accuracy. Then, as I read through my own writing numerous times, I keep adding more sources, this time checking the original sources for exact wording and page numbers.

I also feel that reading the professional literature has become much easier. I know what to read carefully (and several times) and what to skim through quickly because I can often predict where I might find certain arguments or pieces of information because of my genre knowledge. Sometimes I can even predict what the text is going to say before reading it based on my knowledge of what's been said and done; in those cases, reading is a matter of confirming my predictions and noting any discrepancies.

All of this may seem overwhelming to those who are only beginning to read--ahem--everything, but it'll come with practice. But it probably doesn't happen to those whose reading experience has not reached a critical mass.

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Read Everything

One of the stock pieces of advice that I give gradaute students is to "read everything." Of course it's impossible to read everything that has ever been written, but I do expect researchers to have read everything--literally everything--on subtopics within the field on which they are writing.

When I start a new project, I usually begin by collecting all the books and articles that have anything to do with that topic. I prefer to buy those books--especially those that are often cited in one of my own fields--rather than check them out from the library or through the ILL. I need to have all my intellectual tools at my disposal. That has always been my preference--even when I was a poor graduate student. Building a good professional library is an important investment.

I scan through them to explore the intertextuality--which sources get mentioned more frequently and how. I then collect more sources if I don't have them handy. Without this process, it wouldn't be possible to come up with viable research questions or to know what questions or concerns reviewers and readers might have.

Reading everything is especially important at the beginning of a researcher's career. One of the problem of novice researchers trying to read selectively is that they are not likely to have developed appropriate criteria for choosing what is important and what is not. The discernment in reading scholarly books and articles can come only from an extensive knowledge of the field, which is, after all, a synthesis of the diverse bodies of knowledge held by everyone who identifies herself or himself as a member of the field.

A novice researcher who doesn't try to read everything is like someone watching Star Wars Episode III without having watched the other five episodes. The main plot and some of the details might still be entertaining, but the person's appreciation of the film is necessarily limited by the lack of background knowledge and intertextual awareness.

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I tend to get a lot of email messages from graduate students from other institutions and other countries. In general, I enjoy corresponding with them, and I try to help them as much as possible by sharing my opinion, providing feedback on their research design, suggesting a few sources, and sharing some of my own work.

Many of the people who send me those requests are really professional, polite and pleasant. Before they ask for help, they tell me who they are, who their advisors are, in which programs and at institutions they are studying, which one of my articles has influenced their work, etc. They also tell me a bit about their work--enough for me to understand what they are trying to do, what they have read, at what stage of the prorject they are at, and what they are struggling with.

But other messages are not as informative. Perhaps they are trying not to waste my time by telling me all about themselves before asking me a question. (Too much information can actually get overwhelming.) But sometimes its not clear whether they have read anything on the topic, what they are trying to do, why they are interested in it, and why they have decided to contact me of all people (other than having my email address handy). I try to respond even in those cases, but those correspondences often end up taking a lot more time because I have to probe for details to understand what kind of suggestions would be most helpful. I've also had a few situations where the student had already done what I would have suggested.

Other researchers in my field also get this kind of email. Some of them try to respond as much as possible; others simply delete them. Others respond only if the initial message is courteous and professional. Based on my experience and what I have heard from other people, here are a few things that would help get the best response:

  • Do your homework. Make sure you have done everything you can on your own before asking for help from an outside expert.
  • Consult your advisor first about the question--she or he may have the information you need or at least know where best to find it. They should also be able to tell you if your request is a reasonable one.
  • Introduce yourself--explain who you are, which program you are in and at what stage, who your advisor is, etc.
  • Explain why you are contacting the person and not someone else.
  • Briefly explain your project. Thinks of it as a mini-proposal--a statement of rationale, a brief summary of your mental mapping of the works related to the topic, a statement of the gap in the professional literature you are trying to address, the research design (if it's an empirical research), and possible contributions to the field. Without this kind of information, it's often not possible to give a sound and specific advice.
  • Focus only on the information that can't be obtained elsewhere or from anyone else.
  • Keep the question or request specific and to a minimum, and make it easy to answer.
  • Understand that researchers are busy with their own work and, in many cases, their own students. Being courteous and showing some appreciation (at least a thank you note) is the least you can do. I also like it when people send me the result of their work that I helped with. A line in the acknowledgements is also nice, too.

The information about the advisor may seem trivial, but I ask anyways because I don't want to give the kind of help that the advisor may find inappropriate (that is, I don't want to contribute to an act of academic dishonesty). Some people hesitate to give me that information, perhaps thinking that I wouldn't know the advisor anyway (although I often do know something about them) or fearing that it would embarrass the advisor (but if that's true, they should not be contacting me).

Occasionally, these correspondences turn into long-term professional relationships--even friendships. But those relationships usually start with a well-written and considerate messages as well as thoughtful follow-ups. Writing does matter, I guess.

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Preparing a professional-quality presentation is not something that comes naturally to many people; for many, it takes years of practice before they can develop effective presentations.

I've been to many presentations where presenters ramble on--without realizing they are rambling on. They are, of course, presenting something important (at least to themselves), but to the audience, it's not easy to see why the speaker is talking about it or where the speaker is going with it. "Get to the point" is often not strong enough as an advice; its more like "start with the point and work backwards." (There are exceptions, of course, such as when the point is going to be controversial.)

In most cases, I think, the problem is that the speaker doesn't frame the argument well with metadiscourse--overviews, transitions, summary, explicit statements of points and subpoints, etc. The common advice to "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" may be too simplistic (it almost sounds ridiculous), but it does seem to be addressing my concern: Before performing a discursive act, the speaker needs to establish what issue or problem is going to be addressed and how. The so-called deductive organization (a misnomer, I realize)--here is my point, here is why--is often useful for this purpose.

Good speakers who can keep the attention of the audience may be able to get away with some digression or unfolding story telling, but when the structure of the implicit argument is not well-constructed, the disappointment at the end is considerable. I hate having to spend a lot of my intellectual energy trying to keep up with the seemingly disconnected ideas only to discover that it is not just seemingly disconnected. A jigsaw puzzle is satisfying only if it can be completed.

Another major problem with poor presentations is the length. People talk too much. Way too much. When poor speakers are given 20 minutes to speak, they often try to fill the time with too much information. (Or perhaps they are "poor speakers" because they do that.) 20 minutes is about 8 pages of script. If it's 15 minutes, 6 pages would be the maximum. When it comes to oral presentations, less is more. As long as the overall structure of the argument is clear, most of the details can be omitted; if it's important, I'd say put it in a handout so the audience can refer to it later. (But don't put everything on the overhead or PowerPoint--it should be kept simple and readable.) If it's important, the audience can ask a question at the end.

When I have something really interesting but not directly related to my main point, I often allude to it or make a brief comment about it and tell the audience that I'd be happy to talk about it during Q&A. (But of course I'm assuming that the speakers know what they are talking about and can think on their feet--otherwise the Q&A session can be a real pain both for the speaker and the audience.)

When I started presenting at conferences as a graduate student, I had scripts prepared. I wrote them specifically to be read aloud--written in short sentences with cues for pauses, emphases, new transparency, etc.). I even scripted and practiced jokes.

After a few presentations, I began to experiment with different styles of presentation. I tried speaking from notecards and handouts. I also experimented with outlines on the overhead transparencies. (Back then, I used Word to create my transparencies.) In a few cases, I prepared two different styles of presentation and practiced both to see which one worked better for the purpose and the material at hand.

All this hard work has not been wasted. On several occasions, I've had to come up with an outline for a whole 20-minute presentation on the spot because of the problem with technology. When something like that happens, I usually create a rough outline on a piece of paper and speak from it.

After gaining some experience with various styles of presentation, I settled for the PowerPoint outline presentations. Joy Reid was a major influence in this development. When she came to Indiana TESOL as a keynote speaker, she brought a whole bunch of transparencies. She was putting them on screen, but her talk seemed to be coming from her head, not the transparencies. She was my hero. (She still is.) I wanted to learn to do what she seemed to do so effortlessly. I wanted to learn to talk as if I was just talking.

One thing I often did in the early years was to practice many times in front of my spouse (who can actually understand and critique my presentations), using the timer on the microwave oven to time my presentation. She was always willing to listen, but if I started revising in the middle of my mock presentation with her, she would tell me to come back when I was really ready. That actually helped me develop my presentation skills.

After years of practice, I have developed a good sense of time during my presentation. I prepare most of my presentations in the form of PowerPoint slides, and I can make my presentation shorter or longer depending on the situation--within reason, of course. Sometimes the previous speaker goes over time. Sometimes the conference organizer forgets to tell me that there is a short ceremony before my talk. I no longer preactice before my presentation (other than going over the PowerPoint slides couple times to make sure it makes sense). But right before each presentation, I quickly divide the time I have for my presentation by the number of PowerPoint slides I have prepared to figure out about how much details to provide for each slide.

I also try to make my presentation on the shorter side so I can elaborate on things that the audence shows some interest. I also make sure to save ample time for Q&A, which is usually the the best part of my presentation. At least that's what I enjoy the most about presenting my work in fron of people--to engage in conversations.

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Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

Lately, I have been thinking (again) about the importance of breadth and depth of knowledge for doctoral students and, more important, what I can do to help them in this regard.

In the seminar on composition theory--where I emphasize doing theory rather than merely knowing or critiquing theory--I have mentioned on several occasions the importance of having the ability to construct and analyze arguments on the one hand and the broad knowledge of the topic on the other hand.

This sounds pretty basic, but these are the two most important things in philosophical inquiry, in which theory is developed discursively. If the argument is strong (not in the sense of forceful but in the sense of informal logic, where argument is evaluated on the strong-weak continuum), and if the argument accounts for a large body of existing knowledge, the bar is raised for those who seek to critique it. Likewise, those who can analyze arguments well and know more about the subject (or other related subjects) have an edge.

I can help my doctoral students with the analytical skills by focusing on theories of argument (the effectiveness of which is debatable, I realize) and by giving them ample practice in constructing arguments (through presentations and writing assignments) as well as critiquing arguments in the field (through reading assignments and discussion). But what about the breadth and depth of knowledge? The field of composition studies is quickly expanding and becoming more fragmented, and in many cases it is impossible to even give them a comprehensive reading list of publications related to the topic of the course. And if I assign too many readings, the quality of the reading experience may go down, and there is not enough time to discuss each of the readings in sufficient detail.

This semester, I have tried to solve this problem by assigning a presentation and a bibliographic essay about a topic in composition theory in the middle of the semester. The idea is to get students to practice defining a knowledge domain and tracing how different theories interact with one another while, in the process, helping them learn (incidentally) how to identify relevant sources and to read critically but quickly. I also encouraged students to think of it as a practice for the doctoral exam. All of them took it seriously and did a pretty good job--they are ambitious students.

If they got a sense of how much more there is to know about any given topic, I would consider that a small success.

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Last update: January 6, 2008