Process, Collaboration, Epistemology

Way back in June I began my epic three-part series (which was recently picked up by Bravo, by the way; I’ll be played by Blake Lively) on “Trying to Wrap My Head Around the Digital Humanities.” This work was completed as part of my service on our Provost’s office’s Applied Think Tank. The first phase of the ATT is now over, so I’ve stopped to reflect on the summer’s thoughts — those that didn’t involve ice cream, that is. This report (also in .doc which may help with some of the embedded links) includes suggestions for how I’ll test some of my ideas re: “multimodal scholarship” through my classes in the fall.

This was my last official act of the summer. It’s all over now. <Sigh>


Critiquing Maps

“And what exactly is it you’re trying to tell me?” History of the Union Army @ HistoryShots:

As part of my recent “assessment obsession,” I’m now researching strategies for critiquing maps. Each week, students in my Urban Media Archaeology class will be reviewing a selection of maps and assessing what they illuminate and obfuscate, how they integrate form and content effectively and poorly, whether or not they serve their intended purpose, and what lessons we can take away from them and apply, or avoid, in our own mapping projects. Here’s my preliminary round-up of map critique resources; we’ll have to work together to distill all of this into some kind of flexible rubric — one that applies to maps as multimodal media (which is not how most of these folks seem to conceive of maps).

Harvard GSD, “Elements of Cartographic Style“:

  • Must consider difference between topographic and thematic maps

All maps should contain:

  • Title
  • Name / Institutional Affiliation / Date
  • Caption: “explains the critical concepts and relationships you are trying to illustrate”
  • Labeled Key Elements
  • Citations and dates for primary sources of data
  • Citation of projection method and case
  • Graphical Scalebar
  • Graphical Hierarchy: “key concepts as discussed in the caption should be given emphasis with a bright color and bold lineweights and labels. Key relationships may be portrayed with diagrammatic graphics”
  • Concise Legend, if Necessary

Advice for Thematic Maps: “The map is not the territory… Just so your map readers know that you are not confusing data with a perfect representation of reality your discussion of a thematic map should begin with a description of what the data literally represent — observations of particular classes of entities made for a specific purpose at a particular time, with a particular precision and aggregate units. After this explanation, you can go on to make statements about how the data do or do not adequately represent the concepts of interest for your study.”

Elements that every thematic map should have:

  • “Contextual Framework Portraying data without a contextual reference overlay as discussed in the sections on topographic mapping is pointless.
  • Concise, evocative legend Your thematic data should be re-categorized if necessary so that your readers are not challenged to keep track of more than 5 different classes. Seven, maximum.
  • Use plain terms in legend headings and labels If you accept the software defaults for your legend labels and headings, people who understand maps will also understand that you simply don’t care about communicating.
  • Try not to hide important information in arbitrarily broad categories The categories portrayed in the legend, whether qualitative or quantitative, should highlight distinctions that are useful.
  • Discuss the Aerial Precision of Mapping Units Whether the data are quantitative or qualitative, thematic data have a particular granularity. For example Census Data may be aggregated at a Block level or Tract. Land Use Data may only register distinctions for patches of ground larger than a stated Minimum Mapping Unit (like 5 acres, or a 90 meter cell.)
  • Graphical Hierarchy the same ideas about graphical hierarchy that apply to topographic maps may also apply with thematic maps. This is especially true with regard to the foreground layer of key topographic features and a reference layers to provide context. You may decide to drop some of the labels used in your reference layer — particularly when your map document includes separate maps for presenting the contextual framework. Typically, the thematic layer will be the background layer of the map but you may also use transparency and an aerial photo at large scales, or shaded relief at smaller (broader) scales. When mixing background layers with transparency you should be careful that whatever background layers you use — particularly aerial photos and or shaded relief, to not make the key distinctions in your thematic layer more difficult to read.”

Adrienne Gruver, “Visual Thinking and Visual Communication” Lesson in Geography 486: “Cartography and Visualization,” Penn State:

  1. Subject
  2. Purpose
  3. Audience
  4. Data Variables Shown
  5. Visual variables used to represent or symbolize the data variables (e.g. hue, size)
  6. Is there a logical match between the kind of data variable shown and the kind of visual variable used to represent it?
  7. Appropriate map specifications, e.g. color, size, output file, etc depending on how the map should be read/used (print, web etc).
  8. What is confusing or takes time to understand?
  9. What is well-done vs. what could be improved?
  10. How does design contribute to all of the above?

We need to extend these variables so that they encompass multimodal maps — i.e., maps that aren’t purely visual.

Denis Wood & John Fels, The Natures of Maps: Cartographic Constructions of the Natural World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008):

From Robert Karrow, Jr.’s, review, in Technology and Culture (October 2009):

“In terms of methodology, Wood and Fels rely, first, on extremely thorough and systematic “unpacking” of the map, the kind of analysis they famously directed at a North Carolina state highway map in The Power of Maps. And to assist in this process, they’ve adapted some terms from literary analysis that allow them to talk about a map’s context. They speak of the parimap as the verbal and physical expressions that surround and embody the map, everything from titles and legends to paper stock and typography. They also recognize an epimap, constituting information not physically a part of the map, but circulating freely around it. Elements of an epimap would include advertising, commentary, and packaging, like the issue of National Geographic that holds a given map. Together, parimap and epimap constitute the paramap, “everything that surrounds and extends a map in order to present it.”

Climate Cartographics“:

Guidelines for critiquing maps, drawing on Wood & Fels:

1. Layout and Perimap: How do the title, captions, text color, balance and other elements of the perimap set the context for reading the map?

2. Data Presentation: What symbology, colors, background, projection and other features in the map image contribute the map’s message?

3. Data Analysis: What type of data is shown? What are the classification techniques, choice of scale, research methods, and sources?

4. Message: What is the message of the map? How effectively is it communicated? Who is the intended audience?

5. Recommendations: How should the map be changed so that it would communicate the message more effectively?Xx

From James Corner’s “The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention” In Denis Cosgrove, Ed., Mappings:

  • Consider “what is selected and prioritized…, what is subsequently left aside or ignored, how the chosen material is schematized, indexed and framed, and how the synthesis of the graphic field invoked semantic, symbolic, and instrumental content” (216)
  • Consider “the graphic system within which the [map’s] extracts will…be organized. The system includes the frame, orientation, coordinates, scale, units of measure and the graphic projection (oblique, zenithal, isometric, anamorphic, folded, etc.). The design and set-up of the field is perhaps one of the most creative acts in mapping.” (229)
  • Consider the essential operations in mapping: “first, the creation of a field, the setting of rules and the establishment of a system; second, the extraction, isolation or ‘de-territorialization’ of parts and data; and third, the plotting, the drawing-out, the setting-up of relationships, or the ‘re-territorialization’ of the parts. At each stage, choices and judgments are made, with the construing and constructing of the map alternating between processes of accumulation, disassembly and reassembly” (231)

Other Resources:

**Judy M. Olson, “Multimedia in Geography: Good, Bad, Ugly, or Cool?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87:4 (December 1997): 571-578.

Cynthia Brewer, Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users (ESRI Press, 2005).

Vidya Setlur, Cynthia Kuo, Peter Mikelsons, “Towards Designing Better Map Interfaces for the Mobile: Experiences from Example” COM.geo 2010.


Off You Go With a Manifesto


In the final lecture of my intro to graduate studies class on Monday night, I plan to send the students off with some inspiration and a call to action in the form of a manifesto. There seems to be renewed interest in the manifesto, attributable in part, I imagine, to a presumption that “radical” media have played some role in the uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy movement.

I was a bit concerned that it might seem as if I’m trivializing this potent media form by using it to dispense advice to grad students — but I assured myself that a class dedicated to helping students identify who they are as scholars and practitioners, what values they subscribe to, and what kind of a field of study and practice they want to help cultivate, is inherently political — and is therefore perhaps deserving of its own manifesto, or at least something mildly “manifest-ish.”

Taking cues from numerous historical manifestos (the Communist and Futurist manifestos, Moholy-Nagy’s New Typography, Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto, Dogme 95, etc.) and some more recent examples (the Cult of Done Manifesto, the Information Visualization Manifesto, Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, etc), and soliciting input from a bunch of my faculty colleagues and all my graduate-student instructors, I created what follows: the intriguingly titled A Sort-of Manifesto for Graduate Students in a Praxis-Based MA Program Who Have Just Completed Their First Semesters and Are Embarking Into the Great Beyond,” or, SMGSPBMAPWHJCTFSAEIGB, for short.

Damn, I need a new title. Nevertheless, here it is:

Think theory and practice together.

Consider theory a form of critical practice, and practice a means of “making” something with theory.

  • Resist the urge to declare yourself a “theory person,” a “production person,” or a “management person.” You’re more than that. Your brain doesn’t like to be pigeonholed.

Practice material consciousness.

Think about the affordances and limitations, the politics and aesthetics, the accessibility and flexibility, the built-in ideologies and epistemologies, of the media tools you have at your disposal, and choose wisely.

Consider the end-goals of your media making. When does your practice become scholarship?

Consider the possibilities of “multimodal scholarship” and the use of media technologies as research tools.

  • Practice constitutes research “if and only if it is (1) a systematic investigation, (2) conducted intentionally, (3) to acquire new knowledge, understanding, insights, etc., (4) justified, and (5) communicated, (6) about a subject” (Stephen A. R. Scrivener, “The Roles of Art and Design Process and Object In Research” In Nithikul Nimkulrat & Tim O’Riley, Reflections and Connections: On the Relationship Between Creative Production and Academic Research (Helsinki: University of Art and Design, 2009): 71).

Design your own challenges.

In undergrad, challenges were created for you. Now, you determine how, where, when, and to what degree you want to be challenged.

  • You could potentially get through by simply showing up for class, reading what’s listed on the syllabus, and handing in the required assignments, but what you’re implicitly expected to do is…

Learn in the interstitial spaces.

Only a small fraction of your grad school learning happens in a classroom. Only a portion is codified on a syllabus. The rest of it – the majority, perhaps – happens in the in-between spaces, which you map out and fill in. Take advantage of resources around the city. Visit faculty members’ office hours. Start a reading group. Attend conferences. Do other stuff.

Find your through-line.

And do work that connects to it.

  • “Writing an obligatory paper for Ideas that will end up in the trashbin the next day is of no use to anyone; Creating a paper or project that connects up to longer-term ambitions in the department and beyond makes sense. “ – Jessica Blaustein
  • Approach your course selection as if you’re concocting a “recipe” of courses — theory, practice, management — that can “react” with one another and add up to something more than the sum of the parts. — Dawnja Burris

Take the Long View  // “UMS and the M.A. aren’t the goals; you and your work are.” – Aron Hsiao  

via Peter Haratonik: “In teaching (and in learning, I might add — PH) you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” — Jacques Barzun (who turned 104 on Nov. 30, 2011)

  • “[Y[our other classes are merely means to help you to craft the passionate, practical, intellectually sound self and matching body of work and/or expertise that your M.A. will someday signify.” – Aron Hsiao
  • But keep in mind that it’s not all about you. As a “master” of your field, you do have some obligations to it, which is why you should…

Be curious about your field. All of it.

You’ll never know when the “irrelevant” will be relevant, or when you’ll discover an interest you never knew you had. Besides, as Masters of Media Studies, we do have an obligation to be familiar with the breadth of the field. I’m sure you wouldn’t rather that obligation be institutionalized in the form of comprehensive exams!

Be curious about things outside your field, too. 

Media of course operates as one of myriad forces in the larger social world. To understand media’s role in that world, you need to know more about those other forces, and the context within which they interact. Plus, media’s usually about stuff; you need to be familiar with those other fields that media take as their content.

  • “I constantly find new inspiration through reading outside the lines, as it were, and by talking to people who approach my topic out of different disciplines” – Katie Kelley. Particularly if you’re doing something interdisciplinary – that is, even outside the already very interdisciplinary space of our field of study – you have to be conversant with people and literature and methods and conventions in other fields. “I have also found that talking to people in other fields cements my certainty that I’m taking the right approach, and allows me to be reflective about why I’m doing [what I’m doing instead of something else,] even though all of those other fields enter into my approach – which in turn helps me be more acute in thinking about what defines my approach and what I’m trying to accomplish.” – Katie Kelley

Don’t wait passively for inspiration to strike — Sanja Trpkovic

Inspiration isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you have to actively seek out, and sometimes that means leaving your comfort zone.

“Mediation is not limited to media.” –Eugene Thacker

We may be surrounded by revolution, but we need to be wary of uncritical, sensational claims about media’s power. Avoid media imperialism or determinism.

“All media are new. Especially old media. (And vice-versa.)” – Eugene Thacker

Historicize. Realize that all the hopes and fears we have about today’s new media, our ancestors had about tv and film and books and writing.

There is a point; you just might need some help finding it.

If you’re unsure of why you’re learning something, or what a particular reading or exercise is intended to teach you, ask for some guidance, without resorting to righteousness or defensiveness.

  • “Pointless” is the perennial complaint of the chronically unimaginative.

A little humility goes a long way.

Even if you “know this already,” questioning your assumptions, reinforcing your understanding through new applications, can help to put your knowledge into new perspective – or might even reveal that you never really knew what you thought you knew in the first place.

  • “[I]n taking the decision to embark upon postgraduate work, you have:
    • Acknowledged that you don’t know something, which is why you want to do some research in order to learn and discover new things;
    • Assumed a position of humility – essential for learning anything;
    • A genuine desire to carry out the research to the best of your ability with integrity and honesty” (Gray & Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004): 69).

Rein it in.

It’s good to have big ideas, ambitious goals. But think about what you can feasibly accomplish with the time and resources you have. Consider how to partition a large-scale project into “modules” you can complete through several classes. Think about what part of your larger project is best accomplished within grad school – what would benefit most from your taking advantage of academic, advising, and technical resources here – and what should take place in your “extracurricular” or “after grad school” time?

Get used to talking about your work and your ideas in public.” – Brian McCormick

“Develop language you can use in presenting your work to different audiences. The importance of artist statements and the manner in which work is presented is critical to its success and reception.” – Brian McCormick

  • Brian Eno: “the lack of a clear connection between all that creative activity and the intellectual life of the society leaves the whole (creative) project poorly understood, poorly supported and poorly exploited. If we’re going to expect people to help fund the arts, whether through taxation or lotteries, then surely we owe them an attempt at an explanation of what value we think the arts might be to them.”
  • Same goes for academic work. Develop an “abstract version” and an elevator pitch version of your research goals. Think about how to translate your work on the page to a talk for the ear. Think about what type of presenter you want to be: a reader, an extemporizer, a performer, etc.
  • Cultivate your public persona.

Give credit where it’s due.

Keep an ongoing list of folks who’ve assisted with your work, and add “Acknowledgments” to published/distributed work.

  • Citation formatting might seem trivial, but it’s really not. For instance, it’s really important to know when and how to use “quoted in…”, to understand the differences between editors, authors, and translators, etc.

Help people help you.

If you need a favor or want assistance, make it easy for others to assist you.

  • Briefly introduce yourself, say what you want, and tell them why you think they’re particularly well equipped to help you (saying things like “I’ve found your work in XX very helpful,” and expressing genuine respect and appreciation, can’t hurt!).
    • “…there are some fundamental questions you need to answer before you ask someone for help: Why are you asking that particular person? Why should that person help you? And why now?” (Rachel Toor, “The Art of ‘the Ask’The Chronicle of Higher Education  (November 28, 2011))
    • Read faculty bios! – Christiane Paul; Read the syllabus! — Sanja Trpkovic + Many, Many Others
  • Ask specific questions; show that you’ve already done your homework, that you’ve already tackled part of the challenge on your own, but that you need the help of an expert to move you along those last few inches.
  • Check your tone. Make sure you’re framing your inquires as requests rather than demands.
  • “Be clear about what you want and make it easy for the recipient to comply. If you have a lot of general questions and rampant confusion, don’t write until you’ve done enough homework to be able to narrow the focus of your request. You shouldn’t start by going to scarce resources; that should come only after you’ve exhausted the most well-trod and easy paths. // Recognize that you are asking for a favor and that you’re not necessarily going to be in a position to reciprocate. Realize that for someone who doesn’t love you, poring over your prose is not generally a reward in itself.” (Toor)

Build credibility to attract opportunity.

Assistantship offers come to those who cultivate respect and trust. Take classes with faculty with whom you’d like to work. Be genuinely engaged, be responsible, and make sure your work is stellar. Express your interest in collaboration.

  • “Credibility isn’t just about turning in good projects—it’s about not making excuses, not emailing for answers to questions you could have answered yourself, not turning in un-proofread papers full of mistakes.” – Katie Kelley. Right on, Katie.

If you want something, express interest to the folks who can make it happen.

Let it be known what opportunities you’d like to see come your way, and why. Show, with an appropriate measure of humility, that you’ve got the right experience and you’d be good to work with.

Labor over your cover letters.

Generic letters immediately go to recycling. Very few people know how to write a compelling letter that addresses why this position, why you, why you and this position are right for each other.

Disappointment is, I’m afraid, inevitable – in school, at work, in life, everywhere. Turn it into an opportunity to learn something, then try again.

If you don’t get that grant or internship, if your proposal is rejected, etc., first, take some time to get your emotions in check, and then ask the decision-makers if they can provide constructive feedback. Inquire about what you can do better to increase your chances in the future.

  • If a class you really want is already full, lodge your interest with the instructor, then try registering again near the start of the semester.

Remember that institutions are made of people.

If you’ve got an issue with something, have a civil, “grown up” discussion with the person most directly responsible for the issue. Most folks are reasonable, and they’ll do what they can to help. No need to resort immediately to inflammatory letters, lawsuits, or protest.

From Mitch Goldstein’s “A Design Education Manifesto”:Look at everything. Dismiss nothing.”

Each designer is born from a unique experience. Classmates in the same program will have different educations depending on which teachers they have, what field trips they take, and what books they pick up. As a designer you need to always be looking at the world around you. You need to see everything—the kind of detailed seeing taught in freshman drawing classes—not just looking, but really seeing. You need to be an observer as well as a maker. You should rid yourself of any preconceptions of what is and is not worthy of your attention. Everything has potential to be interesting and influential. Not everything will be, but the more you see the better your chances are at seeing something that will be useful to you.”

From Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”: ____________________.

“Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.”


Conference Tips

Positively Riveting! “RoCHI 2009 Audience,” by endirrilium on Flickr 


  • Start out with small conferences that have a reputation for being friendly. Seek out graduate student conferences and the gatherings of local or regional chapters in your professional organization. Make an effort to attend the major annual conferences in your field, and, if time and finances allow, meetings in your specialty area. Seek out events at which the major players in your field, or scholars whose work is particularly influential in your own research, will be in attendance.
  • If your work is interdisciplinary, or if you can’t quite figure out where you belong, try out a few major conferences for a year or two to determine which is the best fit. Keep in mind that your conference affiliation will likely “brand” you professionally.
  • If you’ve got all the major conferences covered, try out some of the interdisciplinary thematic conferences – especially those in Europe. I find these meetings to be among the most illuminating, comfortably scaled, and easily digestible.
  • “Make sure your conference choices show some overall focus. An important issue for tenure committees is, ‘Does the candidate show a consistent track record of research?’ Seemingly random and scattershot conference-going is no more helpful than haphazard publishing.” (David D. Perlmutter, “The Art of Good ConferencingThe Chronicle of Higher Education (8 February 2008)).


  • A few conferences require that you submit a complete paper at the proposal stage – but in most cases, you need only submit an abstract. So, you’re free to propose a presentation that draws on in-progress research. In fact, a conference is a great opportunity to present early-stage work and solicit feedback that will inform the development of your project. That said, you should be far enough along in your research to have a concrete, sufficiently delimited topic that lends itself well to oral (see below) presentation in 15 or 20 minutes (or however much time you’re allotted).
  • Explain the relevance of your work to the conference theme. Try to slip in a few keywords or phrases drawn from the call for proposals – but don’t force the fit or make your efforts to conform too obvious.
  • You’ll almost always have a greater chance of acceptance if you propose a complete panel rather than an individual paper. Composing panels of course requires that you know people in your field – preferably people whose work has some connection to your own, and with whom you could constitute a cohesive panel. If you’re the one coordinating the group proposal, do not underestimate the time required and frustration involved. See the American Studies Association’s tips for writing a successful panel proposal.
  • Most sessions follow a standard format: Each panel discussion runs no longer than two hours, during which two, three, or four specialists stand at a lectern and talk. Sometimes they will read a prepared paper; sometimes they will improvise; sometimes the final speaker will be charged with offering a critique of what has been said. At the end, questions from the audience will be invited. The enterprise will have a chair, who will introduce the speakers, call on people from the audience who wish to comment, and, when appropriate, end the session (Linda K. Kerber, “Conference Rules, Part IThe Chronicle of Higher Education (14 March 2008); see also parts 2 and 3). Consider an alternative format; the ASA, for instance, encourages debates, roundtable discussions, workshops, and performances.
Lief Parsons
Lief Parsons


  1. If you’re accepted at a conference, you’re obligated to attend. You can’t drop out at the last minute just because you just didn’t have enough time to write the paper, or you weren’t able to secure the necessary funding for travel. Of course there are real emergencies that prevent people from attending. But no-shows without a good excuse are disrespectful – and your fellow panelists, and any attendees who might be anticipating your presentation, are probably less likely to invite you collaborate on anything in the future.
  2. Some conferences require you to submit your complete paper to a conference organizer or to your panel chair a few weeks in advance of the conference. Honor these deadlines. You may be asked to make revisions. Do so in a timely manner – or, if you choose to disregard your reviewers’ advice, explain why you’ve done so.
  3. Respect the time limit.It takes at least two minutes to read a 12-point, double-spaced page. Divide your total time allotment by two to determine the maximum page length of your paper. And no, you can’t squeeze that 11th page into a 20-minute presentation! If you’ll be including graphics, video or film clips, etc., you’re likely to ad lib around the presentation of this material. Cut at least one additional page to allow time for extemporizing.
  4. Use your time wisely: “You will not be able to present everything you know about a subject. Just choose one idea, interpretation, or reading. You do not need to provide all the background tracing how you reached this interpretation…. You do not need to defend the validity of your idea. You also don’t need to give a literature review.  You want to make a clear, focused, and interesting argument that is backed up with a few interesting points of evidence, not give the entire content of your dissertation.  Many conferences are intended for “works in progress” and expect presenters to bring up engaging questions and offer suggestions for future research, not give the final definitive word on a subject” (Claremont Graduate University, “Presenting Conference Papers in the Humanities”).
    _____Cut the literature review. “Devote a sentence or two to explaining — briefly — the research base that sustains your arguments. A reader will see footnotes but listeners cannot. Establish your authority” (Kerber).
    _____“Don’t summarize popular ideas–you do not want to insult the intelligence of your audience. On the other hand, don’t assume that a critic familiar to you is familiar to everyone else” (Claremont).
    _____Don’t spend more than a third or your presentation time on clips or demonstrations. You don’t want to waste precious minutes fast-forwarding to the appropriate scene or setting up your equipment – so make sure clips are properly excerpted and edited and demonstrations are set-up ahead of time.
  5. Write for reading.“A paper written for the ears to hear must be substantially different from a paper written for the eyes to read.… [W]rite for the people who will be listening. Go through your final draft, looking for dependent clauses. Turn complex sentences into simple, declarative statements. Although a sentence linked by semicolons, or constructed with one or more dependent clauses, may be perfectly clear on paper, it is very hard to understand when it floats into the air. The listener cannot hang on to the subject until the object heaves into view three clauses later” (Kerber).
    _____Use clear transitions. “It is almost impossible to be too obvious in an oral presentation.  Obvious oral cues like, ‘I have three points. Number one will cover…’ which sound wooden in writing, are helpful when read aloud” (Claremont).
    _____“Find simple ways to discuss complex ideas. Use easily grasped metaphors and analogies” (Claremont). “Listeners have difficulty absorbing abstraction after abstraction; they need to be grounded in lived experience. (Kerber). I find it helpful to limit the abstract theoretical discussion and focus on the concrete; I use a case study, or one or two carefully chosen examples, to allow me to progress from the concrete to the abstract, and thereby couch a “lived experience” within my theoretical framework.
    _____Use quotations judiciously. If it’s necessary to use lengthy quotations, present the quoted passage on a handout or a PowerPoint slide so the audience can follow along.
    _____Don’t use acronyms, abbreviations, or jargon. Particularly for interdisciplinary conferences, it’s important to define all specialized terms and strive to use language that bridges the disciplines.
    There’s no need to offer full citations in your presentation script – but you should bring along a copy of your bibliography for reference during the question-and-answer period of the panel.
  6. Verbatim or improv?“It didn’t take me long to figure out that in simply reading my paper aloud, I’m apt to lose a few people immediately. Even worse is when the turgid prose and high theory sets in, when I lose the humor, bury my head, and forget the presence of others” (William Major, “The Conference Paper, ReconsideredThe Chronicle of Higher Education (31 March 2006)).
    _____Identify sections that are best read verbatim, and those that can be “talked through” or “talked around.” Yet you should be wary of improvising too much: “The more you improvise during a formal paper, the greater the dangers of rambling. Save your improvisational skill for the question period, when you will need it” (Kerber).
  7. Rehearse! Mark “stage directions.” Indicate where you need to push “play” on the DVD or CD player or change slides, and make your notes descriptive so you can ensure that your audiovisual presentation is properly synched with your talk – e.g., [SLIDE 3: VILLA SAVOYE]
    _____Number your pages, and print your paper in large type for easy legibility. Read your paper out loud, and note where you run out of breath. If, by the end of a sentence, you’re running out of air, dissect the sentence. Insert breath marks in your paper.
    _____Practice your talk with all the supports and technologies you’ll be using in the formal presentation. Store your presentation on at least two storage devices, and test your presentation on multiple machines, if possible, to ensure that all file formats are universally usable. Bring your laptop – and adapter! – in case the venue’s computer won’t cooperate, and, in case all else fails, print handouts of your slides.


  1. You might want to skip the panel immediately before your presentation. Use that time to collect your thoughts. Don’t squeeze in a last-minute edit of your paper. Don’t do a final run-through in the bathroom. Go get some coffee instead.
  2. Check out the room in advance. Is there a podium? Do you need one? Is all necessary equipment available? Do you know how to operate it? Can you raise and lower the movie screen? Do you know where the light switches are? How can you control the speaker volume? Do you have all necessary cords and adapters for your laptop? Is there water? If not, go buy a bottle.
  3. Introduce yourself to your fellow presenters and especially your session chair, moderator, and/or discussant.
The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010


  1. No disclaimers. No apologies.“Presentation Folly No. 1: If you don’t believe in your work, neither will the audience. Some presenters reflexively apologize for their presentations. That lack of confidence sends a message to the audience to stop listening. The speaker might say, ‘The experiment didn’t work, but here are the results” or “While it’s not the most exciting idea out there, here is my opinion.’ If you don’t like your work, why waste my time by presenting it? There is a difference between humility and self-doubt. Humility is greeted with respect. Self-doubt spawns a lack of interest” (Tory Defoe, “The Truth Is, You Gave a Lousy TalkThe Chronicle of Higher Education (21 December 2007)).
  2. Acknowledge and, if necessary, explain all audiovisual aids. Don’t force them to stand on their own. Explain their relevance in the context of your talk. “If you take the time to show something during your presentation, have the decency to explain it” (Defoe).
    _____On many an occasion I’ve found myself looking at an on-screen image — or, even worse, a super-complicated info graphic — wondering, why am I looking at this? What does it have to do with what I’m hearing right now?
  3. Stick to your time limit. Going over means less time for your fellow presenters. Ask your moderator for a “five minute warning” and a “two minute warning.” “At the two-minute warning, cut to your topic sentences and then to your well-crafted conclusion. Then stop” (Kerber).
  4. Expect questions. There’s no need to be defensive. At most conferences, questions are offered in a constructive, supportive spirit.* If you don’t know how to respond, say so – or offer to speak to the questioner individually after the panel. Jot down questions and suggestions that you’d like to remember in revising or developing your project.


  • Network. Review the proceedings before the conference starts and identify the sessions that contain work similar or relevant to yours. Attend those sessions, and introduce yourself to presenters after their panels. Pass out business cards. Go to the after-hours parties, but keep your wits about you. Don’t do anything you’ll regret tomorrow.
  • Visit the book fair (if they’ve got one). They’ve got great discounts!
  • Should you stay at the conference hotel (if there’s a conference hotel)? On the one hand, it’ll offer lots of opportunities for chance encounters and networking, but on the other, it’s likely much more expensive than other hotels right down the block.
  • Take some time to explore the city.
  • If you’re invited to submit your paper for publication in the proceedings, consider whether you might want to hold out for potential publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Conference proceedings typically carry less weight than a respected journal.
  • “…a ratio of more than three-to-one conference papers to publications would be a source of concern to many promotion committees. // Keep in mind that the goal of conferencing is not simply to add a line to your CV. You hope to enrich your understanding of your field and make important contacts with people who may one day sit in judgment of your work” (Perlmutter).


* Depending on the conventions of your field or the climate of a particular conference, you might someday face aggressively critical feedback and audience grandstanding. Prepare yourself to respond appropriately in such cases.


Engaging With Presentations + Asking Questions

Lief Parsons
Lief Parsons

Academia of course involves a lot of reading and writing of texts — and, in praxis-based or creative fields, the making of mediated and/or physical objects or structures. These are the myriad forms in which we “create knowledge” and communicate with one another. We also produce events — opportunities for a few, or a lot, of interesting, potentially like-minded people to get together in a (physical or virtual) space to share ideas, get feedback, tell lame inside jokes, and discuss the evolution of the field. These practices certainly aren’t specific to the academy; they’re common in various professional fields, in the art and media worlds, etc. So, learning how to navigate this terrain in one realm — in the academic public lecture, or the professional networking event, or the political conference — can prove useful in the others.

Let’s think about the live presentation — the guest lecture, the conference presentation, the screening-and-discussion of one’s work — as a medium in its own right, and consider how to best exploit this particular modality of communication. How do we get the most out of this experience? The lecture series or conference is like an “edited collection” of established and emerging voices in your field. It affords you an opportunity to meet some of the key figures working in your field-at-large, and to discover exciting work that’s happening on the periphery. Not all of this work will immediately be of obvious relevance or interest to you — but it’s important to be open to surprises: to leave open the possibility that the presenter might help you recognize interests you never knew you had, or she might introduce you to a concept or theorist or method that could prove useful in your own very different work. Plus, it’s important — both for the sake of your own well-roundedness, and for the sake of being a genuinely curious, interesting, interested, generous, and courteous person — to be generally interested in the breadth of your field. All of it. (See Austin Kleon on “how to make yourself a more interesting person.”)

Besides, you never know when something that’s seemingly irrelevant today becomes relevant for a future project. This happens way more often than you might imagine.

Lief Parsons
Lief Parsons

So, what to expect of this presentation medium? Some presenters might simply read a paper they’ve written in advance — which might seem a bit silly: why do we need to have a paper read to us? What might we gain from such an experience? We might similarly ask, why do we go to poetry or book readings, or to live musical performances? Why not just read the book, or listen to the recording? Why indeed. We’ll get back to that.

Other presenters might be more informal and extemporaneous, offering insight and frank discussion — and, if you’re lucky, comedic interludes — that you might not get in any other context. The entertainment value here might be more obvious — but in all cases, there’s much to be gained from the presentation-as-medium.

First, who knows if we’ll ever get around to reading that paper that’s being read to us — so, at the very least, the presentation gives us an opportunity to expose ourselves to ideas we might not have time to encounter on our own time. You might then get a better sense of whether or not you want to make time to dig into this person’s larger body of work. Second, we might get a sense of the personality of the presenters — and thus of their work — through the live presentation. Seeing and hearing and being in the presence of the person behind the ideas reminds us that the work of academia is affective and embodied — not reified, depersonalized theoretical products and creative objects, but the makings of flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings, dammit! We can better contextualize many of these ideas when we know from whence they came. Third, the presenter might extemporize around his or her talk, offering illuminating parenthetical asides, or insight into how she conceived of her project or circumnavigated obstacles and frustrations, or how she marshaled various forms of support to bring this project through to fruition. We might get a sense of the biography of the project. Fourth, we can ask questions! More about this later. Fifth, we have a chance to meet new people — to introduce ourselves, establish connections, forge new alliances, and maybe plant seeds for future collaborations.

There are plenty of other affordances of the live-presentation-as-medium, but we’ll leave it here.

What are the values of the group event: the academic conference or professional gathering? Well, it might be the one time of the year — or of a lifetime — that every individual working in your field, or every person on the planet who shares your esoteric interest in [fill in the blank], can get together in one space and hang out and geek out for a while. The gathering as a whole also gives you a sense of the breadth and boundaries of your field. It gives you a chance to ask questions — and to continue those post-Q&A discussions into the reception hour, or over dinner, or via a post-event email exchange.

Being Engaged

In order to fully exploit the social benefits of these events — and, seriously, in order to take full advantage the opportunity to enlighten yourself (isn’t that why you’re in school?) — you need to engage. How? These might be new and intimidating experiences for you, and you might be reluctant to put yourself out there. Or maybe you have a really hard time keeping your hands off your damn phone and potentially missing your BFFs’ FB status updates — so listening to somebody present a brilliantly woven, compellingly illustrated argument for 45 minutes is just soooo harrrddd. Believe me: you can do it.

  • Pay attention. Be interested — which is predicated in part on being interestingWant to know your field. Be a curious person. Some people live-tweet the presentations they attend (both for their own benefit, and for the benefit of those colleagues who can’t be present) or take notes. Others listen un-distractedly. Do whatever you need to do to attempt to follow through with the speaker from beginning to end.
  • It’s okay to be egocentric. Daniel Cosley recommends that you ask yourself “what’s in it for me?” Even if the specific topic isn’t something you’re naturally inclined to enjoy, keep and eye or ear out (as I recommended earlier) for concepts, frameworks, methods, tools, or references that could be of use to you. Consider how your own work could build on the presenter’s work. With this approach, “almost any talk or topic is interesting,” Cosley says, “even if I have to do translation work to connect topic X to my own interests.”
  • Take notes on things you don’t understand, too. These jottings might inspire you to seek clarification, by asking a question, at the end.
  • Ask questions, and thereby show appreciation for the presenter’s work and the time she took to come and share that work with you. As Crosley says, “Asking a question says ‘I cared enough about your work to think hard about it.'” Computer scientist Gregory Abowd echoes this sentiment:

We are a community and the more we get to know each other, the more we should begin to behave like caring friends and family. By that I mean we should be able to speak frankly and constructively with each other in an attempt to make each of us better at what we do…. If we could develop more of a feeling…that we are not competitors as much as we are collaborators seeking some common goals, and that someone else’s success is somehow our own success, then I think you would see more people trying to make others’ work better through discussion.

New Yorker, October 4, 2010
New Yorker, October 4, 2010

Now, how to ask a good question?

  • Take notes during the talk — particularly of questions you’d like to ask at the end.
  • When you’re called on, introduce yourself, and say what you do and where you’re from. Again, if we’re to think of these gatherings as “community” events, it’s nice to get to know one another. And if someone especially likes what you have to say, he or she will likely feel more comfortable approaching or contacting you afterward. Or acknowledging you at the next event.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Philosopher Guy Longworth enumerates the types of questions you might want to ask. His list includes:
    • The question of clarification. E.g., “I wonder if you could say a little more about…”
    • The counterexample. E.g., “If I understood you correctly, you said X. But suppose Y. Wouldn’t that be a counterexample to X?”…
    • The additional case. E.g., “If your proposal is viable, one would expect it to cover Y. Do you think that’s right? And if you do, I wonder if you could say something about how your account does cover Y [optional: because there would appear to be the following difficulties].”…
    • The support. E.g., “I wonder whether it might be helpful to consider X in developing your case…”
  • Crosley has some recommendations, too:
    • “It’s okay to ask hard questions, and asking good questions can help you be more visible, but don’t ask a question just to demonstrate that you’re smart. We’re all smart.”
    • It’s okay to introduce your own interests and work, particularly if they might open up the discussion. But “don’t make the question about you. Some questions are thinly disguised opinion pieces and/or self-promotion…. If you’re taking the ideas into your domain, help bring them back out for the speaker and the audience so they make sense.
    • “On question style, be more like an interviewer than a lawyer. Lawyers often ask yes-no questions, leading questions, and questions where they already know the answer. Usually, those lead to boring answers. So do questions where the answer is likely to be about details that are in the paper but that (probably correctly) got left out of the talk for space. Instead, shootfor more open-ended questions that give the speaker room and context to breathe and be creative.”
      • Fast Company’s Shane Snow points out that “Questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” have high probability of thoughtful responses, whereas those that begin with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” can limit your answers.” Also: “don’t fish.”
  • Listen for explicit or implicit questions the speaker poses, but doesn’t answer. Can you answer them? If not, ask.
  • Think about the larger frameworks within which the presentation resides, or the larger issues it points to. Ask questions that encourage the presenter to connect his or her work to this broader universe, to extrapolate and abstract.
  • Even if you disagree with the presenter, or feel compelled to point out an error or weakness in the presentation, make sure to do so in a polite, constructive way. Try reframing your critique as a question: “Given that lots of other scholars, like X, Y, and Z, take a different approach, I’m wondering how you came to the conclusion that….” If you don’t get the point of the presentation at all, rather than saying so, ask the presenter to “clarify” the bits you did get — or to explain the overarching motivations for his or her work.
  • If there’s more than one presentation — if, for example, we’re talking about a panel of presenters — you can tease out threads that connect or dissociate the various presentations from one another.
  • Pose your question not only to the presenter, but to everyone in the room. Encourage the presenter to respond first, but then give her the freedom to draw on the collective intelligence of everyone in attendance.
  • Don’t be afraid of showing weakness or ignorance. It takes obvious confidence to comfortably admit what one doesn’t know or understand, and what one needs clarified. Again, Abowd: “When I ask a question, it’s not about having someone else think I am smart. It is about trying to make me smarter about something I might not completely understand.” And your question will likely have the effect of making smarter all the other people in attendance, too.

*   *   *   *   *

Daniel Cosley, “On Asking Questions and Academic Love” Lightly Filtered (February 18, 2013).

Going in for the Kill” Science Professor (November 9, 2011).

Austin Kleon, “Have You Tried Making Yourself a More Interesting Person?Austin Kleon (October 21, 2015).

Guy Longworth, “Asking Questions” Guy Longworth (December 9, 2013).

Shane Snow, “The One Conversational Tool that Will Make You Better at Absolutely Everything” Fast Company (December 17, 2012).

Edison Thomaz, “Asking Good Questions at Conferences” Edison Thomaz (October 1, 2012).

George Washington University, “The Art of Asking Questions” GW University Writing and Research Conference.


Forms of Scholarship: Multimodal


In our field, media studies, we take a cross-platform, comparative approach to studying various modes of communication. This comparative approach characterizes not only our subjects of study, but also our methods for producing that work, and our means of presenting its outcomes.We need to think about what technologies can serve us as research tools – as methods – and what can help us present our work in the most effective way possible. That’s in part what multimodal scholarship is about: thinking about how different media might allow you ask new research questions, engage your subject in new ways, and share your in-progress or finished work in ways that “do justice” to your subject and your argument, that give appropriate form to your content.

As media scholar Tara McPherson argues, researchers are more than “content providers”; they “fully engage with the platforms and tools of the digital era…. Who better [than media studies scholars] to reimagine the relationship of scholarly form to content than those who have devoted their careers to studying narrative structure, representation and meaning, or the aesthetics of visuality (and aurality)?” (120). “The multimodal humanist,” McPherson continues,

brings together databases, scholarly tools, networked writing, and peer-to-peer commentary while also leveraging the potential of visual and aural (and interactive) media that so dominate contemporary life… She aims to produce work that reconfigures the relationships among author, reader, and technology while investigating the computer simultaneously as a platform, a medium, and a visualization device. She thinks carefully about the relationship of form to content, expression to idea (120).

Engagement with these technologies as research tools “reorients the scholarly imagination,” she says, enables researchers to “understand their arguments and their objects of study differently, even better, when they approach them through multiple modalities and emergent and interconnected forms of literacy. The ability to deploy new experiential, emotional and even tactile aspects of argument and expression can open up fresh avenues of inquiry and research” (121).


What types of arguments might call for presentation in textual format, and which might best be presented in a video, a radio play, an interactive project, etc.? What are the affordances and limitations of each of these modalities of presentation? How do each of these formats serve as “interpretive platforms” that shape how we understand our research — even the questions we ask — and how others ultimately understand our shared conclusions?

FILM-end_thumb_w_580Media scholar-filmmaker Eric Faden found in film — particularly, the media stylo — a compelling means of making short, multimedia academic essays. Taking cues from Alexandre Austruc’s “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Caméra Stylo,” he conceived of film and video as means of  thinking through theory, or creating media that simultaneously makes an argument about the moving image, while also critiquing its own process of production. He was thus able to devise an argumentative form that embodied the argument he put forward in his film’s content.

Because multimodal scholarship sometimes involves using copyrighted material in its production — in order to critique or comment on that material — we have to pay attention to issues of copyright and fair use. See the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ statement regarding fair use — which posits that scholars can use copyrighted material for “transformative” purposes, provided they use “only as much [of the source material] as necessary.” For various scenarios in which copyrighted material is used in the classroom or in student work, see Ewa McGrail’s “Copying Right and Copying Wrong…,” and for tips on how to use and cite photographs, see the Photo Credit Flowchart.

See also the “Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities,” on pp. 121 to 135, in on page 121, in Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner & Jeffrey Schnapp’s Digital_Humanities. For more on how to evaluate this work, see “Evaluating Multimodal Student Work.” And to find a community of multimodally-minded graduate students, check out HASTAC.


*   *   *   *   *

Pia Jane Bijkerk, Yvette Van Boven & Erin Loechner,Photo Credit Flowchart, Reprinted on Frolic! (March 17, 2011).

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner & Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

Center for Social Media, “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.”

Eric Faden, “A Manifesto for Critical Media” Mediascape (Spring 2008).

Shannon Mattern, “Evaluating Multimodal Student Work” Journal of Digital Humanities 1:4 (Fall 2012).

Ewa McGrail, “Copying Right and Copying Wrong with Web 2.0 Tools…” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 10:3 (2010).

Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities” Cinema Journal 48:2 (Winter 2009): 119-123.

Society for Cinema and Media Studies, “Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Statement of Fair Use Best Practices for Media Studies Publishing” (2009).


Forms of Scholarship: Writing

via _Abhi_ on Flickr
via _Abhi_ on Flickr 

Students come to graduate school from a variety of backgrounds, each involving different kinds and degrees of writing experience. Yet all of us — regardless of how experienced we might be — can benefit from reassessing how we approach our writing. For some of you, this might be the first time you’re developing your own writing frameworks, rather than writing in response to a prompt from a professor. Others of you might come from more technical or artistic backgrounds, and this might be the first time you’ve been asked to do extensive research-based, theoretically-framed writing. Some of you might have been away from school for a while, and you might be more accustomed to writing memos and TPS reports than academic essays. And still others of you — particularly those of you who come from writing-intensive liberal arts backgrounds — might need to resist the all-too-common temptation to “show your smarts” and cultivate what feels like a grad-student-appropriate “academic style,” which often amounts to overwriting

Cultivating Voice + Style

“Cultivating” needn’t imply calculated affectation, yet for graduate students it often does. As Gerald Graff notes, “When students write ponderously and evasively, it is often not because they could not do otherwise, but because they are convinced that such writing is what their professors want” (1041). Lee Konstantinou agrees that graduate students “write in the style of what [they] are asked to read” — which is often “material larded with jargon”; “We learn that to be a serious scholar or critic is to speak in a certain idiom.” He identifies other reasons why grad students sometimes fall prey to “bad writing”:

  • Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that [critical] study must be made “rigorous” through the “application” of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in “Introduction to Theory” courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let’s read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical “mash-up” culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments.
  • If we want the grant or the fellowship that will get us through the next year, we need to concoct elaborate answers to the “so-what” question. We therefore have an incentive to aggrandize the importance of our work.

If graduate students often learn bad writing from what they read, we can of course assume that plenty of established academics do it — they overwrite, practice obfuscation, etc. — too. C. Wright Mills argues that “lack of ready intelligibility [in scholarly writing]… usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his [or her] own status…. Desire for status is one reason why academic[s] slip so easily into unintelligibility.”  The late British historian Tony Judt offers a similar sentiment: “Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity.”

It’s easy to make jokes about writerly pretensions. James Lambert (facetiously) advises graduate students to stuff their prose with theoretical buzzwords and neologisms, and to add “the rhetoric(s) of” before any noun, and “ism” after any proper name  — e.g., “the rhetoric(s) of Kardashianism.” (He’s joking, of course. At least I hope that’s obvious — but I fear it might not be. Maybe this “pretentious academic quote generator” will drive home just how funny our formulaic rhetoric can be.) Psychologist Steven Pinker, while a problematic figure, does helpfully identify a number of other academic writing conventions to avoid: using excessive “scare quotes” to distance yourself from concepts; using excessive “hedging” terms, like “apparently,” “predominantly,” “presumably,” “seemingly” or “so to speak”; and using vacuous meta-concepts, like “approach,” “assumption,” “condition,” “context,” “framework,” “process,” or “levels of analysis.” We’ve all gotten mired in sentences like this: “Building on the assumption that [A], I shall employ an [B] framework, across various levels of analysis, to situate my approach within an historical and cultural context.” Twenty-seven words to say, uh, what, exactly?

So, how not to be a vacuous hetero-ethno-phallo-normative hegemon beholden to the “rhetorics of privilege”? What’s a writer to do? Different writers and writing coaches have different advice. Rachel Toor, who writes fantastic columns on writing and professional practice for The Chronicle of Higher Education, references George Orwell’s classic text “Politics of the English Language” in proposing a series of questions that every “scrupulous writer” should ask him or herself:

What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? …Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

She continues: “Never use a long word where a short one will do… If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out…. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.” I often encourage students to read their writing aloud to me and to paraphrase particularly clunky, over-stuffed, or pretentious sentences. “Say it aloud, then write it that way,” I often tell them.

1_intropage3Graff, meanwhile, offers the following tips and caveats regarding the writerly voice:

  • “Be bilingual. It is not necessary to avoid academese – you sometimes need the stuff… [Bu]
    try to say it in the vernacular as well.”
  • “If you could not explain it to your [friends], the chances are you don’t understand it yourself.”
  • “Say explicitly – or at least imply – why your ideas are important, what difference it makes to the world if you are right or wrong, and so forth” – “So what?
  • “[Y]ou are probably so eager to prove that you’ve left no thought unconsidered that you find it hard to resist the temptation to say everything at once, and consequence you say nothing that is understood while producing horribly overloaded paragraphs and sentences.” (1050-51)

In short, you can’t cover everything. And if it pains you to omit particular details or references that you so diligently collected during your research, consider using your foot- or endnotes to house all the material you simply can’t bear to lose, but which doesn’t belong in your main text.

Graff has some things to say about structure, too — about how you can create a map and guideposts to help your reader:

  • “Make a claim, the sooner the better, and flag it for the reader.”
  • “Remind readers of your claim periodically, especially the more you complicate it.” I often find myself encouraging students to find moments throughout their papers to link back to themes and concepts they introduced at the beginning — to remind their readers of how we’re still on track, we’re still pursuing our original objective.
  • “Summarize the objections that you anticipate can be made (or have been made) against your claim.”
  • “Generate a metatext that stands apart from your main text and puts it in perspective” – e.g., “I do not mean to suggest that…” “Here you will probably object that…”

See also Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Choosing Paper Types + Formats

Lots of college papers tend to follow a standard format: Ambitious Claim About All of Human Nature, Throughout All Time > Quotation Pulled Out of Context > Non Sequitur Thesis Statement…. Jon Wu offers a spot-on parody over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The poet Charles Bernstein also pokes fun at the all-to-common “Topic sentence. However; but; as a result. Blah, blah, blah. It follows from this. Concluding sentence.” structure.

In graduate school, where you can typically choose your own paper topics and formats, you’re free to break the mold. Yet all that freedom and all those choices sometimes prove intimidating, or even temporarily paralyzing. Gregory Colon Semenza suggests that thinking about what kind of paper you’re writing might help you get started. He identifies six types:

  1. The Controversy Paper, which is centered on a “claim that purports to end a controversy or debate” (93)
  2. The Textual Crux Paper, which posits that “for years readers have pondered the meaning of an ambiguous, unclear, or even a missing part of a given text…. Your research leads you to a strong conclusion about the meaning of the problematic text or term..” (93)
  3. The Gap in Scholarship Paper, which comes into being because, “in reading the scholarship about a particular subject, you are struck that no one has said anything about a related and seemingly important matter. You decide to widen the scope of the conversation” (93)
  4. The Historical Contextualization, which aims to “clarify the meaning of a particular work or explain its provenance, immediate reception, of influence on other contemporary texts” (94)
  5. The Pragmatic Proposal, which is “more interested in praxis than theory for its own sake” (94)
  6. The Theoretical Application, in which you, say, examine a text through the lens of a particular theoretical framework.

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does convey the variety of forms and purposes that a paper can have.

He also advocates that, regardless of what type of paper you write, you should always aim to answer the “so what?” question: why does your topic matter — to you, and to your field? And you must situate your argument in relation to the existing work in the field (the literature review, even if presented only in informal and super-brief form, serves this “orientation” purpose). You could dedicate an entire section of your paper to “precedent studies” — or you could sprinkle those references throughout your paper, noting their influence whenever they’re relevant to the discussion. Relating your work to what came before isn’t only about showing that you’re familiar with the existing discourse; it’s also, simply, a matter of courtesy. Shouldn’t we all want to give props to those who’ve labored before us, those who’ve inspired us, those who’ve challenged and critiqued us and made us better thinkers? Wouldn’t we want others to do the same for us? (I’ll say more about “Giving Credit” later on…)

You have all kinds of structural choices to make. And those choices are both rhetorical and aesthetic, mechanical and creative; they shape your argument and cultivate your style. Banish the standard five-paragraph structure you likely learned in high school, and consider the variety of formats in which you could write an academic paper or scholarly essay. Look for examples of smart, stylish, scholarly or para-academic prose. Draw inspiration from scholars writing for experimental, creative platforms, like CabinetThe New Inquiry, Jacobin, n+1, AeonPlaces, and other venues covering your favorite topics.

While there is room for experimentation, the two predominant paper formats are as follows:

  • Introduction / Methods and Materials / Results / Discussion / Conclusion (more commonly used within the social sciences)
  • Introduction / Variety of Subheaded Sections, with clear transitions leading from one to the next / Conclusion (more commonly used in the humanities)

And there’s a great deal of flexibility within the latter format. I commonly advise students to use their introduction to introduce a material case-study or contemporary anecdote, then step back and provide theoretical and historical framing, then allow their analysis to unfold, then return to something concrete and personally resonant at the end. But that’s just one way to go about it.

Via Allan Sanders @
Via Allan Sanders @

Drafting Strategies

You might be accustomed to writing a paper the night before it’s due and submitting it warm, fresh from the printer — or clicking “send” immediately after you’ve punched in your last period. Yet good writing typically evolves through many drafts. You should build this revision process into your writing time. How to begin?

Joseph M. Moxley suggests that any writer should begin the task with the following analytical steps: (1) audience analysis; (2) purpose analysis (are you reporting, critiquing, objecting, investigating, persuading?); (3) voice analysis (what “persona” do you want to cultivate? Be wary of passive voice, and don’t fear the first person!); and (4) “ritual” analysis (e.g., what is the best time of day for you to write? Where do you do your best writing?) (39).

He offers several practical starters:

  • Make a formal outline. 
    • Then again, there’s no law that says you need an outline. “…some academics believe that they are violating the rules when they write without an outline. Or, more sadly, when they cannot come up with an outline, some academicians fear that their idea is weak and insignificant, that they lack the critical thinking skills necessary to write well. In fact, recommending that one always outline before writing is based on the foolish assumption that thinking and writing are not related, that first one thinks and then one writes” (27)
  • Freewrite drafts. Write without hesitation; “try to ignore critical thoughts and focus on generating ideas” (29)
    • This approach helps you “(1) develop ideas that you otherwise would not develop, (2) overcome the tightness and frustration associated with beginning new writing projects, and (3) create a flow that helps establish a voice in your prose” (29)
    • “[W]hen you let your thoughts about the research flow, they often gain a forcefulness, a sense of directness and insight, that they otherwise might lack” (29)
    • “When reviewing your freewrites, identify the details that seem most significant. Put brackets around the sections that you believe are worth keeping.” (29)
  • Dictate drafts. Sometimes “dictated drafts have a strong, natural voice” — in part because you can speak faster and more confidently than you can write. (31) Some of my best writing ideas come while walking: I’ll take a long walk around the river, ruminate over whatever writing project I’m focused on, and, when illumination strikes, record passages on my iphone.
  • Draw a cluster diagram. “Rather than trying to force your ideas into a formal outline, you can pictorially represent them on the page and then draw lines between ideas that seem somewhat related” (31)
  • Draw a pie diagram, which “allows you to estimate visually how much tie you should spend addressing each aspect of your  subject” (31, 33).

This work should begin well in advance of your deadline. Seasoned, successful writers know to build in time for “ideation” and the inevitable dead-ends. You also need time to give yourself a little critical distance from editors’ and critical readers’ feedback — which of course presumes that you’re seeking feedback on your drafts. Which you should.Draft_Cmptr


Write a draft. Take a break from it. Revisit it. Read it aloud. Prune and clarify. Be prepared to “kill your darlings.” Give it to friends and colleagues to read. Consider their advice, and accept or reject as appropriate.

“When you receive comments on a draft,” Theresa MacPhail advises, “read them and put them away for at least a day. I recommend a full week. In that time, remind yourself that criticism of your arguments, your structure, or your evidence is not criticism of you as a person. Your work is completely separate from your self-worth.”

Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned writer or new to academic writing, I strongly encourage you to meet with a tutor at the University Learning Center. He or she can help you at various stages of the process — from developing a basic structure to polishing at the sentence-level.

Giving Credit Where It’s Due. Practicing Intellectual Generosity and Academic Integrity.

We talked earlier about the importance of “giving props.” Laur M. Jackson, a doctoral student and writer on black popular culture, writes about a tendency in contemporary cultural criticism, and particularly among “thinkpiece” authors, to claim prescience and originality — and to avoid acknowledging, or even seeking out, others writing on similar topics. “At worst, the intellectual property of [journalism’s or the young academy’s] most valuable players is mined without compensation or credit,” Jackson writes; “at best, writers waste words reinventing the wheel and projecting an unfinishedness to questions others have already answered.”

She also laments a tendency among writers to seek out the most impressive, highfalutin references, while overlooking excellent, relevant work from emerging scholars and practitioners who are often flying just under the radar.

Nobody’s mad that you won’t cite Foucault on every gesture to social constructs or Althusser on ideology (in fact, please don’t). Thankfully there’s way cooler stuff out there, writers and thinkers and tweeters and artists sharing what they know and making revelations [on a variety of platforms]. Read them and be smarter for it. Cite them so we all are.

Citation is often framed as a boring mechanical process, but Jackson encourages us to see it instead as “a community-building practice, as a discussion-enriching practice, and as a practice that can undo or prevent the force of erasure in terms of marginalized voices.”

We in the academy are obligated to acknowledge the work that precedes ours, and we’ve developed conventions to provide for acknowledgment. We need to make certain to cite our references appropriately in foot- or endnotes and/or your “works cited” section or bibliography. Even if we don’t quote directly from a resource, if it proved useful in our research, it’s good practice to acknowledge its utility.

— Marika Rose (@MarikaRose) November 24, 2017 

Your choice of citation format — MLA, Chicago, APA, etc. — might depend in part on which “community” you identify with most strongly. Which formats are used more regularly in the publications you find most useful? And while there’s plenty of reference-management software (e.g., Zotero, RefWorks) that will format your citations for you, it’s worth thinking about how those citation styles shape your thinking: how they embody the values of your work, how they shape your subjectivity as a researcher and writer. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword dedicates an entire beautiful chapter to “Points of Reference,” where she analyzes the politics of referential style — from bibliographies to artful endnotes. She references literary-scholar-turned-educational-researcher Frances Kelly, who had to transition from MLA to APA; Kelly found that APA’s clinical style, which doesn’t acknowledge authors’ first names or genders, transforms a “complex human story” into a “sanitized rational account of research” and regards language as a “somewhat unimportant container for information about phenomena, data, and theories” (136-7). Your choice of format should reflect your priorities and preferences.

You might also want to consider including an “Acknowledgements” section where you can give credit to those who inspired or reviewed or provided informal feedback on your work.

[Please familiarize yourself with the New School’s Academic Honesty Policy and the Center for Education Technology, Middlebury, Colby, Bates & Bowdoin Colleges, Plagiarism Resource Site. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of lectures on plagiarism, yet it continues to be a problem even among graduate students. I recommend that you make sure you’re perfectly clear on what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, because any infractions can result in failure of a course – or even expulsion from an academic program.]

Having Confidence in Your Own Voice

While honoring your intellectual and creative mentors and forebears is good practice, you don’t want to hide behind their work. The Big Theorists wield tremendous power, and we often allow them to overpower our own potential contributions. I’ve read plenty of student papers that consist entirely of quotations and paraphrases from Big Thinkers — entire essays that are simply imagined dialogues between Theory God A and Auteur B.

Your challenge is to find, and amplify, your own voice. As MacPhail argues,

There’s a fine line between using Judith Butler’s arguments to bolster your own and simply restating what she has said while adroitly avoiding making your own claim. I’ve seen a lot of essays with so many citations and paraphrases that the reader has a hard time figuring out where the author’s own voice begins and the famous theorist’s ends…. Revise your chapters and articles so that your own argument takes center stage; everyone else is in a supporting role.

Even Kanye recognizes the complexities of intellectual originality:

Finding Outlets for Graduate Writing

Your writing needn’t live only in a private exchange between you and your professor. There are plenty of opportunities for you to present your work at graduate-student conferences, and publish it in graduate-student journals (e.g., gnovisInVisible Culture). You could also submit short-form works-in-progress to In Media Res or Flow.

*   *   *   *   *

Howard S. Becker, Excerpts from “Freshman English for Graduate Students” and “Persona and Authority” In Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): 1-20, 26-40.

Gerald Graff, “Scholars and Sound Bites: The Myth of Academic Difficulty” PMLA 115:5 (October 2000): 1041-1052.

Gail A. Hornstein, “Prune That Prose” The Chronicle Review (September 7, 2009).

Laur M. Jackson, “Out of Cite,” The Awl (August 11, 2015).

Tony Judt, “Words” New York Review of Books Blog (June 17, 2010).

Lee Konstantinou, “The Origins of Bad Writing” ARCADE (May 16, 2010).

James S. Lambert, “Heteronormativity is Hot Right Now” The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 28, 2009).

Theresa MacPhail, “The Confidence Gap in Academic Writing,” Chronicle Vitae (October 16, 2014).

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959): 218-19.

Joseph M. Moxley, Publish, Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992).

Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle Review (September 26, 2014).

Gregory Colon Semenza, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Rachel Toor, “Bad Writing and Bad ThinkingThe Chronicle of Higher Education (15 April 2010).

Jon Wu, “A Generic College Paper,” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (September 19, 2014).

  • Another useful resource – especially if English is not your native language – is John Swales & Christine Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, 2nd Ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).
  • For more on the politics of academic language, see Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003); Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Lee Konstantinou, “On the Origins of Bad WritingArcade [Blog Pos]
    (May 16, 2010); James Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?Lingua Franca 9:9 (December/January 2000); Deborah Tannen, “Agonism in Academic Discourse” Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002): 1651-1669.
  • For more on scholarly writing and the writing process, see these links.

The Literature Review/Mediagraphy

Book Shelf Project 2, via Striatic on Flickr 


Whether you aspire to complete a research paper or thesis, a research-based production project, or even a grant proposal for a creative work, it’s important that you be able to demonstrate your familiarity with existing work in your field. The literature review is one common means of demonstrating this familiarity.

Different folks have different ways of explaining what, precisely, a lit review does:

  • According to educational psychologist John Creswell, author of numerous research design texts, the literature review does several things: (1) “It shares with the reader the results of other [projects] that are closely related to [yours]”; (2) “It relates [your projec]
    to the larger ongoing dialogue in the literature about a topic, filling in gaps and extending prior [studies/projects]”; and (3) “it provides a framework for establishing the importance of [your work] as well as a benchmark for comparing the results of [your work] with [others]” (Creswell 29-30).
  • Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter (2008), of the University of Toronto, argue that a literature review allows you to demonstrate your “information seeking” ability (we might prefer to say “resource seeking” or “knowledge gathering”) – your efficiency in reviewing a wide body of work, and your discernment in selecting the most useful sources – and it allows you to demonstrate your “critical appraisal.”
    • Daniel Chandler (2004) reminds us that the term “critical” does not necessarily imply that “you should focus on criticizing the work of established researchers”; it’s not all about picking apart someone’s argument. “It is primarily meant to indicate that: the review should not be merely a descriptive list…[and tha]
      you are capable of thinking critically and with insight of issues raised by previous research.” As Grey and Malins explain, the view “allows you to acknowledge…different contributions, but also encourages you to state your responses to them – both positive and negative” (p. 37).
  • USCS’s libraries remind us of a few additional purposes the lit review serves: it “Identif[ies] new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research”; “identif[ies] areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort; and “point[s] the way forward for future research.”

While all of these functions do serve an external purpose — i.e., allowing you to demonstrate to professors, thesis committee members, peer reviewers, conference and festival selection committee members, potential funders, and other “gatekeepers” of your work that you “know your stuff” — lit reviews also serve internal, selfish purposes: namely, they allow you to better understand the context within which you’re working. They allow you to know what’s already out there, so you can build on top of it. They save you the frustration of duplicating others’ efforts and allow you to learn from others’ mistakes. And, as Aron Hsiao explains, “In writing a sound literature review about Topic X, you either demonstrate [to others and yourself] that you are or have become (in the process of writing it) an authority of some sort on Topic X.”

Sociologist Howard Becker offers one caveat: in familiarizing yourself with the work that already exists in your area(s) of interest, you want to avoid “paying [so] much attention to it” that it “deform[s] the argument you want to make.” You need to “use the literature; don’t let it use you” (146, 149).


Let’s start with what it isn’t. The literature review is not simply a laundry list of research projects or a series of abstracts: “Author X said this, then Y said this, then Z said this….” Taylor and Proctor say, “It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher,” as if you’re simply running through a list of all the texts you’ve consulted.” The lit review is thus not simply a review — a rehashing, as its name might imply; instead, it’s a “critical appraisal” of the existing work.

The literature review is also not an opportunity for you to show your reader just how much research you’ve done by including everything you’ve discovered. You’ll need to take a selectively comprehensive and critical view of the work in your field. Yes, “selectively comprehensive” may seem like an oxymoron; what I hope to convey is the importance of delimiting the area you’re researching, and digging deep within that well-defined area.

Finally, a lit review isn’t a research paper. A research paper is meant to advance an argument. A lit review doesn’t really have an argument, although a lit review might appear in a research paper, where it serves to “set the stage” for the author to advance his or her argument.

Okay, now that we know what it isn’t, let’s consider what it is. A literature review is a document in which one summarizes and synthesizes the existing work in a field, and provides a critical assessment of that existing work. The review has a logical organization and effectively presents a summary/synthesis of the “state of the work in the field”; it is this context that ultimately, ideally, provides a justification for the work you plan to undertake.

Thus, although lit reviews don’t advance arguments, they can be said to have agendas: They allow you to identify patterns in existing research and draw conclusions. You might also identify the “holes,” the omissions in the literature or mediagraphy or shortcomings in previous research or production, that your work promises to fill.

(N.B. Although the literature review commonly serves to “set up,” to provide a foundation for, your own work, it’s important to note that not all lit reviews serve this purpose. The literature review is also a “genre” of academic writing that one might publish independently, simply to make readers aware of the state of the research on a particular topic or in a particular field. You can find many examples of this writing below.)


You can’t review the literature until you familiarize yourself with it, of course. So the first step is (1) defining a topic*, then (2) consulting the existing academic research on that topic. As Aron notes: “For some, [the topic] will be an academic topic like ‘the portrayal of race in American film drama, 1990-2000,’ while for others it will be a practical topic organized around a project goal, like ‘making a documentary about autistic kids and new media. In either case, there will be keywords (American film drama, race, new media, autism, documentary-making)'” to aid your search. Gray and Malins (2004) offer some valuable advice:

In searching for information, be prepared to be simultaneously depressed and excited – depressed because you cannot find anything to match your needs exactly, and excited because this means that your line of inquiry could be unusual or even unique. Be prepared to step out of both your subject area…and even your discipline (p. 43).

Grey and Malins — who argue that even artists need to know how to construct reviews of the fields in which they’re working (they call them “contextual reviews”) — say that, as you’re gathering the resources that will eventually comprise your review, you need to find a balance between breadth and depth. “Initially it is very important to cast the net of contextual enquiry very wide and develop an overview and understanding of the field. This is the mapping stage and can help in deciding what comes within the scope of the research and…what lies outside” (p. 37; more about mapping below.)

“As you work through the results of your search,” Aron says, “pay attention to titles or works that come up again and again in search results. Glance through bibliographies and references in the works that you collect, and make a note of the works that come up in these repeatedly as well.” The oft-cited works can be said to have been vetted and deemed important by experts in the field, and they should ultimately be included in your review. There might also be resources that pertain directly to your area of research, but haven’t (yet) achieved “canonical” status or proven their “impact”; because of their direct relevance to your project, these resources are worth including, too.

If you’ve been abstracting resources as you’ve encountered them, will greatly simplify your work in ultimately constructing the review.

Before you begin organizing and writing the review, Creswell (2003) promotes the creation of a “literature map”: “a visual summary of the research that has been conducted by others” in your area of research (p. 39).

via Krista Siniscarso
via Krista Siniscarso 
via cmaps
via cmaps 

This visual representation can take many forms: “One is a hierarchical structure, with a top-down presentation of the literature ending at the bottom with a proposed study that will extend the literature” (p. 39). You could map your sources chronologically, as the development of an idea, with your intervention positioned as the next step in that idea’s evolution. You could identify thematic clusters. “Another [model] might be similar to a flowchart in which the reader understands the literature unfolding from left to right, with the studies furthest to the right advancing a proposed study that adds to the literature”; this format isn’t necessarily organized chronologically, but it does perhaps narrow progressively in thematic focus, so that, at the end, it effectively makes the case for the work you propose to do (ibid.). You might also try a Venn diagram, “with each circle representing a body of literature and the intersection of the circles indicating the place at which future research is needed” (ibid.). Or you could try a chart, “arranged to demonstrate comparison and contrast perhaps using a common set of criteria as an ‘anchor'” (p. 49). “By playing with the references – organizing them in different ways – you could end up with several maps to help you decide how to structure your review” (p. 53).

The holes in our maps can tell us a lot, too.

Even after we mark the page, there are blanks beyond the borders of what we create, and blanks within what we create. Maps are defined by what they include but are often more revealing in what they exclude (Turchi, 2004, p. 29).

Fiction writer Peter Turchi helps us to look differently at these “holes” in the map of your terrain, the omissions in the literature, the gaps in the evolution of your practice. There are many ways to interpret these holes — so we need to be careful not to immediately assume that our job is to fill them. “Blanks can represent what is known, but deemed unimportant in a particular context, for a particular map” (p. 33). You might be the first to regard a subject worthy of investigation; you should ask yourself why that’s the case. “Ignorance is another sort of blank” (p. 34); it could be that nobody’s studied a particular issue before because the phenomenon you’re proposing to study is relatively new — or because the existing data and research instruments had been, until now, insufficient. Or, maybe you simply haven’t done enough research yet — and what currently appears to be an understudied area actually has a rich history of research; Malins and Grey note that it is common in literature reviews to state “that there is a ‘lack of research’ without providing sufficient evidence to justify that statement” (p. 43). I see this often.

Yet blanks can be opportunities: “a fuller understanding of what we don’t know is itself new knowledge, and redefines what we know. Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination” (p. 47). You work in the blanks.

EcoLiteracy Literature Review “Tube Map” via ecolabs on Flickr:


As Aron says, “To begin to move from annotated bibliography to literature review, [we need to] figure out the proper, most logical order for these works. This is an analytical task that you have to navigate on your own, using your own intuition and judgment.” If our “mapping” metaphor works for you, you might think about translating your visual literature map to a written outline that will eventually be fleshed out into your literature review. The most common means of structuring a literature review are thematic, chronological, or methodological– but different projects might call for different formats. Perhaps you can try out various ways of structuring your “literature map” to see which seems most consistent with the way you plan to structure your research. Eventually, you should decide upon one scheme that will structure how you write up the review.

“John Nash Visits My Apartment” via Maximolly on Flickr:

You might even try this (look right).

The structure you ultimately choose, Taylor and Procter say, should parallel the structure of the work you plan to conduct (e.g., why review the literature chronologically if your work will not have a historical dimension?).

The review should synthesize what is known and not known, what has been done and has not been done, within your delimited area of work; it should identify controversies in the field and acknowledge even work that you might find unconvincing or problematic, but which has proven influential; and it should identify areas where we need further work. I would add another key function: it could acknowledge existing work that has lain the theoretical or methodological foundations for your work, even if it’s not pertinent to your specific subject.

When writing your literature review, please keep these caveats (some of which are drawn from Boston College libraries) in mind:

  • Use direct quotations judiciously.
  • Subheads are a good idea; they help to identify what you regard as the key themes in your proposed project and track their logical unfolding.
  • Be sure to provide effective transitions between each section, where you preview and summarize the material and explain how each section connects to the next. Aron provides an example: “While Jeffers suggests that autistic children will never engage with new media in the same way that non-autistic children do, in the article XYZ and ABC, Heintz and Mills present research showing precisely the opposite…”
  • Provide an introduction: “name your topic, describe in brief your research experience (where you looked, how difficult or easy it was to find resources, how many you found, why you selected the ones that you did), and introduce the logical order of the [review] (you decided to present them chronologically, or in three categories, A, B, and C, etc.) so that readers know what to expect.” (Hsiao)
  • Provide a conclusion. As Aron recommends, “Introduce your own voice here. Critique the works that you found and the state of the literature in general (“Scholars have unjustifiably ignored this topic,” or “All existing work seems biased toward,” or “While there are many articles, no-one has yet made a film…,” and so on). Finish in a way that justifies your research and summarizes the knowledge you’ve presented.”


You can find sample literature reviews in the introductions or first chapters of many theses, dissertations and books. Many academic articles contain abbreviated literature reviews in their first or second subheaded sections. There are plenty of examples in online publications, like this one.

You can also search in the library’s electronic databases for “literature review” + [area of study] to find published, standalone literature review on particular topics. Here are just a few examples [Note that these these articles reside inside the library’s electronic databases, behind a password-protected wall. If you want to access these articles, or search for others that are more directly related to your own particular areas of interest, you can log into the libraries databases and search for yourself!]:


A graduate-level research project or research-based production or creative project requires extended review of the work in your specific research area, and in the broader field of media studies. It’s a good idea to start surveying the field early in the program — and to start piecing together the resources you find into a “living document” – a first-draft attempt to find patterns, identify major debates, assess methodologies, and plot potential openings for your eventual contribution. Then, over the next several semesters, your coursework and outside-of-class readings and viewings and listenings should all make their way into your “resource bank.” If, ultimately, you choose to complete a cumulative project – a thesis, or an independent study or production – in Media Studies, you can draw on this bank to revise and expand the literature review you drafted early in the program. Grey and Malins agree that it is important to “keep updating the information with new references as the field around you develops,” and as you discover more. “As your work progresses the map might expand, shrink, or change shape as relevant new references are identified and reviewed, and some earlier references become less important” (p. 36).


Common Problem: No Literature

Many students find that they “can’t find anything on” their topic of choice—i.e. they’ve typed “autism and new media and documentary” into Google Scholar and found only two or three works that seem to be “on point.” This is not a problem; this is a discovery — the discovery that you as a person interested in this topic have a bright future ahead of you because nobody else seems to have focused on this yet. You may have found a space for yourself to be a trailblazer with your research.

For our literature review, you solve this problem by breaking keywords down into smaller groupings. Instead of “autism and new media,” search for “autism and documentary,” “autism and new media,” and “new media and documentary.” If that still returns too little, search for “autism,” “new media,” and “documentary” and go through these much longer lists. If you still aren’t finding enough, search for allied topics (for example, if you have chosen “DSLR film techniques in guerrilla cinema” you may have to use “digital video” and “street photography” as similar topics to flesh out your list).

Yes, as you branch out this way, the works that you find will be less and less “directly related” to your nexus of keywords. This is an opportunity for you to insert your own analysis (read about and abstract digital film and mentally extrapolate to DSLR film based on the similarities) and then to comment on this in your introduction and conclusion (that there is a lack of literature on DSLR film; that you have extrapolated about similarities; that you may be missing something and additional work needs to be done).

Common Problem: Too Much Literature

The other most common problem is the discovery that there is far too much literature available to you to read or make sense of; you feel overwhelmed. There are two ways to approach this problem:

  1. Narrow your topic. Get more specific, introduce more keywords. Ask yourself why you are interested in this topic. Not why in general, but why in relation to your own particular biography, other interests, etc. Use these answers as further keywords. Or, continue to plough through the general list of sources until you find more specific subtopics that interest you, then focus on those.
  2. Write a broadly-based literature review. Even if your topic is simply “film,” you can do the legwork of trying to identify the 15-20 most critical, most classic academic works on “film” in your estimation, based on your judgment and expertise and research. Then, abstract these. Use your introduction and conclusion to explain your choices of these works, to explain that there are many, many more for such a huge area, and to name the particular point of view, perspective, or biases that you bring to bear in your selection. [This wouldn’t fly in the “real world” — but it is an acceptable solution within the context of UMS.]

Common Problem: Trouble Defending your Thesis Statement or Hypothesis In This Format

You needn’t have a strong thesis statement or hypothesis in a literature review. If in doubt, take it out. You are surveying the literature in a topic area and summarizing what you found; no need to make an argument or prove a point, particularly if you are struggling to do so.

Common Problem: It’s Too Positive/Too Negative

If you feel as though all you’re doing is cheerleading or complaining about the works that you found, you’re probably writing criticism instead of abstracting the works in the body of your paper. [My Addendum to Aron’s List:] Remember that “critical appraisal” does not imply that “you should focus on criticizing the work of established researchers”; it’s not all about picking apart someone’s argument (Chandler). “It is primarily meant to indicate that: the review should not be merely a descriptive list…[and tha]
you are capable of thinking critically and with insight of issues raised by previous research.”

Common Problem: Struggling to Make Sense of it All / Getting Lost in Writing

If you’re spending lots of time writing page after page of prose and trying to make it go where you want it to go or struggling to understand “how it all comes together,” you’re probably trying to write an exegetical or critical paper (as you would a term paper for a class) rather than a literature review. Stick to the steps above and remember that the literature review process is a research tool; the actual literature review that you submit is a side effect that demonstrates that you went through the process and that documents your research process; it’s not a “product” that you are aiming to perfect, especially at this level.

Other Resources


Abstracts + Annotated Bibliographies


Hayakawa’s Abstraction Letter, via

In one of our previous guides, on “Reading Effectively,” we closed with a few questions that you might ask yourself as your read through your research resources. These aren’t rhetorical questions. You should actually make note of your responses, for future reference. From my very first day of graduate school, my classmates and I were required to pose the following questions to every text we read throughout our graduate careers. The following is adapted from that list, with a few hints from John Cresswell’s Research Design thrown in:

  1. In two or three sentences, what is the central thesis of this work, or what is the major problem it is addressing?
  2. In two or three sentences, on what assumptions or points is the thesis of the work built, in logical order?
  3. What are the major terms or concepts central to this work, and how does the writer define these terms? Interrogate buzzwords. How are key concepts related to each other?
  4. What are the methods of research and argumentation and kinds of evidence used to develop and support the thesis of the work? What research methods – content analysis, interviews, discourse analysis, fieldwork, etc. – did the author employ? What methods of argumentation, or rhetorical strategies, is he or she employing to make his/her case? How else could the argument be made? Is it sufficiently elaborated? How is he or she supporting his/her arguments?
  5. In your judgment, what are the limitations, shortcomings, errors, or weaknesses in the work?
  6. In your judgment, what are the major contributions of this work to your understanding of the field and your specific research topic?

Each week, in each of my graduate seminars, I was expected to submit a two-page abstract, addressing these six questions, of each book we read for that week. Abstracts are of course, as their name would lead you to believe, abstracted critical summaries of a text as a whole — they help you step away from the details and consider the bigger picture, the larger argument, of a text. I’m no longer quite so diligent in composing and cataloguing thorough abstracts of each text I read (instead, I keep notes in a research database) – but I do recognize the value of the exercise: I still frequently refer to my notebooks of grad school abstracts.

The list of six reading questions, supplemented with others we posed in our previous discussion on “Reading Effectively” and issues that are unique to your own specific projects, can serve as an effective template for abstracting the resources you review. This template will evolve as you get more deeply involved in your research and discover what you’re asking from each of your sources, what you want to remember from each source. It’s a good idea to add these abstracts to your research database – ideally, in a searchable format online – so, later on, you can easily search for patterns and keywords.

Abstracts have personal value, of course, in that they allow you to keep record of what you’re reading and watching and listening to. But getting in the habit of writing abstracts is useful because they have plenty of applications in the professional world. You may have noticed the abstracts at the top of many academic articles or essays; publishers will usually ask you to provide a brief (usually about 150 words) abstract with your submission. You need to know how to distill your argument and methods and explain the value of your contribution. You’ll also commonly be asked to submit abstracts as part of your application or proposal to participate in academic or professional conferences or festivals, or to have your work considered for inclusion in exhibitions or edited volumes (see Melissa Gregg on the skill and value of abstract-writing). In these cases, you’ll need to be able to explain, in just a couple hundred words, what your work proposes to do, what methods you’re using, what key concepts you’re working with, in what traditions you’re working, etc. Keywords are particularly important. Organizers and editors have hundreds – if not thousands – of proposals to wade through, so you need to be able to get across the specificity and soundness and potential value of your proposed project quickly and clearly.

In short, abstracting your work, Joseph Moxley notes, “makes you focus on what is important” (63), forces you to “reevalut[e] your logic and… defin[e your] purpose” (63-4), and helps you “gain a firmer hold, a tighter perspective, on the nature of your work” (64).


Some scholars and writing tutors differentiate between “abstracts” and “annotations” by describing abstracts as purely descriptive and annotations as both descriptive and evaluative. As our preceding discussion of “abstracts” indicates, however, there are different “species” of abstracts — and those you create for your own research purposes can certainly include critical analysis. I’d argue that it’s not productive to draw rigid distinctions between “description” and “evaluation,” and that we can allow abstracts to be different things for different purposes. But because the annotated bibliography is a recognized and widely used genre, we should take a few minutes to consider what constitutes as “annotation” in this context.

via Spartanburg Community College

The annotated bibliography is an alphabetical list of resources, focusing on a particular topic or collection of topics, along with a brief (~150 word) descriptive and critical “annotation” for each source (for the purposes of my Understanding Media Studies class, those materials might include: resources that expand the scope of our guests’ work, by situating it within broader discourses and deeper historical context, and by drawing parallels to related work in other fields and in other modalities; resources that help us to better understand the macro-scale contours of our presenters’ oeuvres or the trajectories of their work; resources that identify similar work by other scholars and practitioners; and resources that acknowledge historical or contemporary applications for the type of work our guests are doing).

Citations should all be formatted consistently, in accordance with any of the standard citation styles: MLA, Chicago, Harvard, APA, etc. (your choice of style will depend on what style is used in the majority of your sources, and on what professional communities you wish to align yourself with, e.g., humanities or social science scholars). And annotations should briefly describe (in your own words) the source’s content and scope and evaluate its authority (do others cite it? is the author well regarded?) and relevance to other important work in the field and to your particular project.

You should begin your bibliography with an introduction that contextualizes your search for resources. And in listing those resources, you can adopt any of a variety of organizational schemes: listing materials alphabetically or chronologically, organizing them by theme, topic, or format, etc.

Michigan State, Penn State, and Skidmore College offer some potentially useful guides. You can also consult the following sample annotated bibliographies, or find your own examples by Googling “annotated bibliography” + [keyword]:

The annotated bibliography can then serve as a stepping stone on the way to a literature review, which will take all or most of the resources you’ve listed and annotated here, and “process” them into something that’s more than a mere listing.

Melissa Gregg, “Writing an AbstractHome Cooked Theory [Blog Pos]
(March 15, 2011).

S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (New York: Harcourt, 1949).

Joseph M. Moxley, “How to Write Informative Abstracts” In Publish, Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing (Westport, CT: Praeger 1992): 61-4.


Resource Management + Note-taking

Sometimes we all feel the weight of “information overload” or the “anxiety of influence.” We have an ever-expanding list of books we want, or feel compelled, to read; films we need to see; journal articles we need to track down and skim; etc. Not only do we need to devise a strategy for prioritizing what warrants our attention, but we also have to develop a system for managing those resources. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, emphasizes the importance of setting up a “file”:

In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various works in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encouraged you to capture “fringe-thoughts”: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatched of conversations overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience…

Under various topics in your file there are ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographic items and outlines of projects…. [S]ort all these items into a master file of ‘projects,’ with many subdivisions. The topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently….

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whether you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience.”

The “file” isn’t merely a means of documentation; it can also be a source of inspiration: “Imagination is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items,” Mills says, “by finding unsuspected connections…. It is a sort of logic of combination, and ‘chance’ sometimes plays a curiously large part in it.

Stan Brackhage Notebooks, Beinecke Library @ Yale
Stan Brackhage Notebooks, Beinecke Library @ Yale

Carole Gray and Julian Malins argue that a similar resource is necessary for artists and designers. The “reflective journal,” they say, should serve as an “off-loading device” to allow you to “take stock, evaluate and ‘deposit’ ideas”; and as a dynamic “depository for a range of information in a range of media” (58-9). This journal might include an activity and development log (a chronicle of work in progress, including a record of challenges and failures, periodic self-evaluations), contextual references (e.g., visual examples of other practitioners’ work, with discussion of how it might inspire your own), and a bibliographic database, etc.

Mills, writing in 1959, envisioned material files — notebooks, scrapbooks, binders, etc. Many people still keep paper files, for a variety of reasons. Some say that paper copies serve an important intellectual and phenomenological function: they’re a concrete index of the weight and scale of one’s ideas and labor. The Taking Note blog and the “Notes, Lists and Everyday Inscriptions” special issue of The New Everyday address the historical, epistemological, and cultural implications of different approaches to resource-management and notetaking.

Today we can also make use of all sorts of digital record-keeping and resource-managing tools. There are dozens to choose from: EverNote, Scrivener, DevonThink, etc. You could even use a WordPress blog or a Tumblr to chronicle your thoughts and references. Some citation managers, like Zotero (which is free!) and Endnote, allow you to link notes to your citations. There are lots of web resources about creating a “digital workflow.” Miriam Posner has posted some tremendously valuable tips about managing your research assets.

I prefer to store all my notes in DevonThink (see right), a personal database. I collect these notes by transcribing (either by typing or by using voice recognition software) passages from hard-copy materials and cutting-and-pasting passages from web resources or PDF’ed articles that I’ve previously annotated. It was Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and Interface Culture, who sold me on DevonThink; he described his own use of the software in a blog post (the original post is gone; we’ll have to settle for a post about the post), and again in the New York Times Book Review (See also Rachel Leow‘s and Chad Black‘s discussions of how they use the software, and various other users’ video tutorials). I use DevonThink to search my notes by keywords, generate topical or thematic reports, find connections between seemingly unrelated sources, and draw connections between those notes and relevant multimedia I’ve filed away in the database — photos I’ve scanned from books, videos I might use in an interactive project, etc. The software helps me work with my raw material; it does essentially the same things I used to do when I wrote all my notes on index cards, then arranged them in various orders to test different organizational schemes.

Scrivener, via

Some people also like to use Scrivener (see left). Ryan Cordell, at ProfHacker, talks about how he, too, uses Scrivener to write. There are also some helpful video tutorials.

But one needn’t feel obligated to go high-tech with note-taking. A legal pad and a pencil are no better or worse than a custom-designed database; it all depends on what works best for you. All the technology in the world can’t make someone a great note-taker. In fact, with the increased ease of note-taking, it’s much easier for a researcher to simply record everything he or she reads, often copying directly from source text to computer file. This can be a recipe for disaster.

Please take precautions to make sure you distinguish quoted passages from passages in your own words; perhaps you could color-code each differently, or simply make sure to begin and end each quoted passage in your notes with quotation marks. This practice will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism later on, when you write up your research. It’s also good to get into the habit of stepping away from the words on the page and periodically paraphrasing the author’s argument, or summing up various sections or chapters. Forcing yourself to regularly insert your own voice into your notes helps get you into the practice of reformulating your research material, making it your own, and priming your brain to organize that material into an original format or argument.

Carole Gray & Julian Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” Appendix to The Sociological Imagination, 40th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Oxford, [1959]2000): 195-226.