Thursday, March 27, 2008

Quick search tips

Particularly when exploring an area that is completely new, searching for literature can be a minor pain.  Some quick and maybe obvious tips:

1. Cross reference keyword searches in your library catalog with a search on Amazon or a similar site.  When you look up a source on Amazon, it suggests works that people who were interested in your source were also interested in.  I find this useful for two reasons - it returns potential sources without requiring you to identify the keywords most useful to your nascent search, and it offers a way of telling which potential sources are most valued.  This is useful mostly for books, of course.

2. Search the call numbers surrounding a potential source.  This will help identify thematically similar sources without having to rely on a keyword search.

3. Search article by article, issue by issue for the last ten years or so in the eight or ten journals that seem most likely to relate to your subject.  This seems labor intensive, but in reality does not take that much time if you pursue it in a workmanlike fashion.

4. Skim your most recent sources first.  Their bibliographies will both help you identify other, older sources and help you determine which older sources are most valued by your field.

No Safety Net: A Brand New Day for the PhD in Planning (For Those Who Are Awake)!

Over the summer, I was face-to-face with Dr. Ken Reardon (Cornell) at the PhD Symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia discussing my research and teaching interests. He responded, saying that it would be too bad for me if I did not gain a job teaching within a planning department. What a pity? I don’t think so. My womanist intuition immediately kicked in and resisted the victimization. I quickly replied: I am not the victim! The sense of pity for those of us who do not “fit in,” according to the powers that be, is one way for the planning establishment and/or authorities to assert supremacy and control when in reality they are feeling anxious and inadequate about loss and/or change. Five or ten years ago, such a downward gaze may have worked to silence me, or scare me into appeasing Beauregard’s concept of the modernist planning project. To that, I can’t help but remember what my five-year old niece said to me when she got out of bed, brimming over with the energy and anticipation of a brand new day: “I’m woke now!” Indeed, I am woke (e.g., awake), and feeling sorry for myself or others with similar perspectives and worldviews is simply not an option. We are here, and there are far too many academic opportunities and venues (that will not be afraid of these differences and challenges) to feel loyal or limited to any one master, so to speak. And, thus, it is a brand new day.

As I wind up my dissertation, if it happens that I am courted to fulfill my life’s work outside of planning, then so be it. It won’t be my fault; I am not hiding somewhere under a bush for nobody to see. But the philosophy that the PhD in Urban Planning will find the best “fit” in a planning environment does not jive with the rapidly changing global economy and socio-political landscapes in the U.S and beyond. The safety net is primarily for those who need it. On the other hand, there are those of us, who because of life’s circumstances, have been learning to walk on water and have faith when there was very little, if any, evidence that hope was on the horizon. We are out here on the water because we have to, and we know the risks. Yes, we may lose the opportunity to be “Professor of Planning,” but we may, indeed, gain greater mobility and complexity by not limiting ourselves and our interests to planning structures that do not, in practice, encourage and/or support a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and research. So, when the outlook looks dim to me and my faith in myself and others begins to falter, I keep the focus on my goals, which is the prize. What makes me think, I say to myself, that planning “authorities” will be able to implement the structural changes needed to welcome and appreciate people like me? Such an embrace takes skill and power not just rhetoric. Few planners and professors, as far as I’m concerned, have demonstrated the will and the ability to be truly inclusive, i.e., how well does your town or city planning department include those who have historically been left out of the process? How about your academic department?

Well, I’ll take my chances out here on the water and stand firmly in the belief that the key to a rich, vibrant career in academia with the PhD in Planning is being content with the experiences along the way that have given me the courage and the ability to meet whatever comes my way, because as its said in black folk tradition, I know that I know that I know!!

annalise fonza, PhD Candidate
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Query on Post-Submission Etiquette

Here's another opportunity to shed some light for doctoral students, if you're so inclined: What is the usual time frame in terms of finding out what's going to happen to a submitted article? My understanding is that it can take months to review and render judgment upon an article; what I don't know is how much time has to elapse before the impatient writer can fire off a polite query as to how the review process is going, and when he or she can expect to hear a verdict. Two months? Three? Six? Or are such inquiries seen as too pushy no matter when they come?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Donovan Finn on Workspace

I'm forwarding some thoughts this week from Donovan Finn, who was a classmate of mine at Illinois and now teaches at Hunter...

I'm probably no expert in this matter, what with still being ABD even after leaving school 9 months ago to "finish".  Still, I've made what I think/hope is a borderline insane amount of progress on my dissertation in the last 5 weeks or so.  At about the time I was really feeling like I was on a roll, our fearless leader sent me an email announcing the birth of this blog, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to try and articulate some of the things that seem to have helped me hit a stride lately.  Hopefully this will be useful information for anyone at the proposal, data gathering or starting-to-write stage of their dissertation.  While my project is for a department of urban and regional planning, I think many of the tips apply regardless of your field or sub-field.

I'm well aware that everyone works in different ways and no two situations are exactly alike.  Some people write best in their pajamas.  Me, I need to be showered, shaved and dressed.  But that said, if even one person is helped through this arduous process by any of the dribble I'm sure to post here over the next few weeks, it will be time well spent.

In the interest of brevity, I've tried to break down the causes of my recent burst of progress into a few key topics.  This post will mainly concentrate on workspace, but others will follow (hopefully) soon enough.  So, on to this week's topic:


In my humble opinion, this is key, and something that you should start thinking about as early as possible, while you're still doing your coursework if it's feasible.  In previous eras of my writing life (field paper, proposal, and so on), I was working all over the place -- at the dining room table, in my spare bedroom/home office (shared with another dissertator), at a couple coffee shops, at multiple libraries, at my research office.  Each had pros and cons.  I won't get into them here - you can make your own list I'm sure.  But since moving to a new town where I have no office to go to, there are no good coffee shops, and the libraries are only passable and always crowded, I've started working exclusively at home.  Luckily we have a spare room that can be a dedicated office.  I have everything I need here and just hole up when I am writing - shut the door and try to pretend the TV, dirty dishes, and the rest don't exist.  I fyou don't have a good home office space of your own to work in (or if you just KNOW you don't work well at home), I'd suggest starting work now on finding a dedicated space to work.  Anyplace where you can dedicate yourself to working with as few distractions as possible and where you can store all (or at least some) of your books, notes and other crap without having to schlep them all over town every day.

While space is usually a premium on campuses, I find that some faculty occasionally have access to extra offices that they don't need at the moment but also don't want to admit this lest they lose the space for ever, so it just sits empty or full of a few file boxes.  If you suspect any of your committee members has such a space, ask them if you could use it for a while.  A friend once commandeered a rarely-used conference room in her department's annex for the summer to work on her final chapter and editing.  She didn't have web access, but sometimes the space and a locking door (she had a LOT of files) is more important than the amenities.  Plus, because it was in an out-of-the-way corner of the building, no one ever bothered her.  Another friend is particularly good at (and bold enough) asking faculty members about to go on leave if she can camp in their office for a semester.  I've been surprised by how many say yes, so if you can make this work, good for you.

I personally found that my research lab office was not an amazing place to work, though many people like to write at the same place they spend the rest of their time so they can keep all their stuff in one place.  This is a personal decision.  Personally I found it too hard to go to the lab every day because, even though I was only "officially" working on lab related work a couple days a week, it was too easy for people to come to me with questions, last-minute tasks, impromptu meetings, etc. and I never seemed to get that much writing done.  On the other hand, access to software, server space, physical storage space, a printer, and other tools can be great. Similarly, a coffee shop provides, well, coffee, but also the ability to put in some earplugs and concentrate on cranking out text while binging on muffins.  And home is convenient, comfortable, and has cable, but it's also comfortable and has cable.

As you can see, perhaps, there are no easy solutions to this problem, and everyone's needs are different.  Plus, it's not really realistic to expect that as a grad student (or even as a faculty member for that matter) you'll be able to secure a different dedicated space for each of your needs (a teaching office, a research office, a dissertation office, and so on).  On the other hand, if you can figure out what works for you early, secure some sort of space or even just a routine or a rhythm (library on Monday, home on Tuesday, coffee shop on Wednesday) around which you can plan your life, I think you'll find that it makes sitting down to write just that much easier.

Next week's topic: Making time to write

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Field Paper

In any doctoral program, some elements are likely to be more institutionalized than others.  Most schools, for instance, have a pretty good idea of how they would like you to form your dissertation committee.  In this entry I will present some notes on a task that is probably less emphasized, but is important nonetheless: the field paper.

A field paper is a synthesis of the literature in the particular area of planning in which you intend to focus.  It is more than an annotated bibliography and different than the literature review for your dissertation or proposal.  In an annotated bibliography you summarize the key points of relevant literature.  The field paper is more comprehensive, and a more coherent synthesis.  The field paper stakes the bounds of a particular area of study, placing literature in its larger context.  You should cover at least four elements: what is known and what is not in your field, what methodological approaches researchers have used to answer questions, how the questions and approaches to answer those questions have changed over time, and what issues and controversies are particularly timely now.  Where a literature review marshals sources to a specific research question, the field paper brings sources together to delineate the somewhat broader area in which you will work.  (My field paper had eighty-some sources, but a better paper for my area of interest might have included more.)

It is best to write the field paper early on in your doctoral studies, before you have progressed to exams.  In my case Lew Hopkins organized a seminar for me and a couple of my classmates at the University of Illinois.  If the PhD coordinator at your program does not organize a similar seminar, you might talk to your advisor about using a semester or two of independent study coursework to write your field paper, or better, self-organize a seminar with your class mates.

I'm on the job market this year (and possibly next year...), and my recent interviews have given me a new appreciation for the value of a field paper.  Originally I saw it as a good way of identifying useful dissertation topics (planners have long been concerned with X issue, but Y specific question remains unanswered...).  Now that I'm giving job talks, I have come to see its usefulness in establishing the value of my research to a larger audience.  I have to say that in terms of both scholarship and writing, my field paper kind of sucked, and in the end it didn't even relate much to my dissertation.  Nevertheless, because we doctoral students tend to hone in on our own research questions, sometimes more than we should, the experience of having to stake out the territory of a particular area of planning gave me a good sense of perspective.

ACSP Awards

In case you haven't heard about them, a few awards from ACSP were announced recently: Edward McClure Award for the Best Master's Student Paper (Deadline, May 1) and Barclay Gibbs Jones Award for Best Dissertation in Planning (Deadline, July 1). There are more award announcements on the ACSP website's Awards and Scholarships page.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Resources for Designing a Course

One of the things I'd like to do while I'm still a doctoral student, and assume I will have to do after having been a doctoral student, is design a course, top to bottom. At this point my main guideline for doing so would be the syllabi of courses I've taken, and while those will be useful, any texts or previously published guidelines or advice would also doubtless be useful. Can anyone point me to resources they drew upon while trying to create a course? Bonus points if it's planning-specific, but I would think it wouldn't have to be.