Dixit, for an end-of-unit review in a theory heavy course

Making good tests is hard. And especially in theory-heavy classes, where my goal is primarily for students to become proficient at actually using the big ideas they are learning, I worry that my tests will reflect who among my students already happens to think the most like me, rather than what they have really learned.

ASMDX01US

Dixit!

So when we came to the end of the second Unit of the class on aging and culture, I had already committed that I would not test them. Still, I wanted to give them the benefits of the opportunity to practice their retrieval, not to mention more chances to show them how much they have learned about the material.

We had already used group-based sketchnotes a few times in the semester to try and translate their understanding of course and reading concepts into a visual representation. Students discussed the concept in their group and revised their drawings in relation to what they learned from each other. The drawing was great, but it became quickly clear that the visual metaphor could work with almost anything if their sense of the concept were strong enough. In fact, the more theoretically dense the topic was – and in a class working heavily with comparing epistemologies of aging across sociopolitical contexts, the topics were often dense – the more useful the visual metaphor seemed to be in solidifying their knowledge of it.

Dixit-cards-2

The winning card for the objective “Define adolescence as a “technology” and discuss embodying politics in bodies through time.” Lots of groups chimed in with connections to Foucault and disciplinary time that I didn’t see until they said them.

So instead of using Kahoot! to whip up an on the spot competitive version of a test, I brought my big box full of beautiful Dixit cards to class. The premise of Dixit is that a person chooses an ambiguous word or phrase to describe the surreal art on their card, and then the other players put down their own cards with a similar theme and try to guess which is the “real” card. In my variation, I put the unit’s objectives on the powerpoint and selected a card that I thought might be the best metaphor for that concept. Each small group chose their own card, and then a representative from each group guessed which one I had put down (because it was the “best”). They could not, of course, choose their own card. The group that put down the card that won each round was asked to explain the logic of how their image represented the particular objective, and then others in the room explained why they had chosen that same card.

I got to hear students articulating – without a hint of the anxiety that so often comes when asking students to speak about heavy theory – a strong and nuanced grasp of exactly what I had been hoping they would learn. They got as many points for other groups choosing their card as they did for guessing mine. In fact, they almost never chose my card, but if they didn’t touch on an element that I thought needed mentioning, I took the time to explain the metaphor on my card as well.

It took about 30 minutes to do 5 rounds, but it was worth every minute of class time. I think I actually like playing the theory version of Dixit even better than the real version! Anyone wanna come over and play some anthropological life course theory Dixit?!

P.S. Check out the Tabletop episode on playing Dixit that made me want to buy it in the first place!

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Scrivener: a grad student review

NSF Word Cloud

Look! I made this from my NSF DDIG application!

I just submitted an application to the NSF DDIG*. It’s a big grant and a big deal and getting it in makes me a very happy camper. I had already done a lot of writing for it in Word, which is where I had done all my grant writing previously. But I was feeling a definite need for a Fresh Start, and so I downloaded a trial version of Scrivener** so I could stare at a new kind of blank page.

I had heard that Scrivener is a pretty impressive writing management system from novelists and other academics. They were correct.

The first awesome thing was that I imported all the grant writing I had already done into folders in the Grant Collection I started. That meant that whenever I wanted to check or copy some previous writing I could zip quickly between a preloaded list, instead of sifting through the eight million heavy, slow Word windows I had been dealing with before. It  reminded me of the light touch and organization of Journler, except with a much more fluid import. It worked so well that I added folders for reference and dumped in a number of grant guidelines from various online sources. Not only were they super easy to navigate, they were also super easy to search from within the application I was writing. Major bonus.

Screenshot of my Grant collection in ScrivenerThe second awesome thing – which Scrivener markets first – is that they have existing templates you can use. These templates are nice in terms of organizing your thoughts and writing and breaking the work ahead of you into a bare bones outline that you can then mess around with so it best suits you. In fact, I found these sub-documents and folders a MUCH more useful way to outline and organize than the more typical outlining within a document. Unfortunately, if you DO want to outline within a doc, Scrivener’s bullet formatting is only mediocre. But if I am really itching for that kind of structure, I prefer to use Opal (which I can later import into Scrivener if I feel like it).

The third awesome thing is that I can highlight and/or compile my different sub-documents in different ways, which I found particularly useful in checking maximum lengths for different sub-sections of my application.

I am not yet writing my dissertation, of course, but I have no doubt that the recommendations I’ve gotten from peers for its utility are not overstated.

The biggest disadvantages I have run into thus far are formatting related. This is true for reference notation (though someone more dedicated than I may have found good work arounds for this), for text-based outlining within a document, and – worst of all – for making tables. The commenting and footnoting features are acceptable (to me) but nothing to write home about.

Overall, I would recommend this to every grad student ever. At a reasonable $45 (or less if you’ve got a coupon from NaNoWriMo like me), it’s a solid investment. There may be a little bit of a learning curve for people intimidated by technology, but I think those people might end up being its biggest fans in the end.

* That’s the National Science Foundation’s Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, for those of you not in the loop.
** They give you 30 non-consecutive days of trial with the full program, which I highly recommend taking advantage of.

Comps Preparation Tips

I will be taking comps* in about a month and so these days my full attention is on making sure I’m as prepared as I can be. Now you, hypothetical reader, can benefit from my reflection on the process. Here’s what I think a person starting to think about preparing for comps will need to know and do:

  1. Ask your peers. Before I started the process, it all seemed really opaque to me, so I informally interviewed some friends (ok, with a notebook) and realized that it was confusing because in fact it was not exactly an entirely uniform process. Along the way, I was also able to identify what elements ARE actually uniform here (but which vary from department to department, so I won’t bother mentioning here).
  2. Design your committee. Some people may not have as many choices about who to have, but I had the privilege of having a bunch of brilliant people to choose from. Things I considered included:
    • how much time/attention each professor would provide to guide me (based off of their personality type, workload, and reviews from students – it is probably not a coincidence that most of my committee is younger faculty)
    • the interpersonal dynamics of the group (things go more smoothly if everyone likes talking to each other)
    • what topical overlap we have and, more importantly, whether our theoretical orientation to the topic overlapped (while stretching myself intellectually is a good thing, I don’t want to find myself in the profoundly frustrating position of writing against my own theoretical inclinations because of a fundamental difference in approach with my comps questioner)
  3. Talk to your committee. That was a challenge for me. I think it would have helped if I had scheduled out how many conversations I wanted to have and how often. Planning a schedule of when I wanted to ask specific questions (e.g., “how do you design a comps question?” or “how many drafts of a comps statement do you usually ask for?” or “here’s where I am in the reading preparation, how does this sound to you?”) would have helped.
  4. Organize the crap out of your preparation. Figure out the last possible date for you to take comps and work backwards filling in the dates (I needed my adviser to make this calendar). Figure out how much you are going to have to read for each professor and create a syllabus for yourself – ideally you can do this as an independent study. Create internal deadlines, and include preparatory assignments. My adviser asks me to synthesize groups of books rather than simply creating an annotated bibliography and I have found this incredibly useful. I expect to take full chunks from that writing later.
  5. Read like the wind. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to read everything you want to in the detail you had hoped. But this is advice for the preparation stage, so I think it’s still valid.
  6. Take notes on everything you read. I use a notetaking rubric that helps me stay on track that I already wrote about.**

If you are reading this and you are post-comps, please leave me your advice!

* aka the comprehensive exams, aka qualifying exams, aka quals
** edited to add this because Mr. Masson was totally right, it does make it a million times easier later, but it is really tempting to skip.

Note Taker HD in school and the field

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the third of many.
Sam with iPad and dog
Like many of us with the privilege to be in school, I take a lot of notes. For years, I have debated the merits of paper notetaking and computer notetaking with myself. Despite my love of tech solutions, I got a tactual pleasure out of writing by hand and appreciated the superior flexibility and organization of a blank sheet of paper. Sadly, once the semester was over, my notes formed indistinguishable piles where nothing could ever hope to be found again. So, by my second year, I had transitioned to taking all my notes on my computer, first in Journler then in Evernote (because Evernote syncs between devices). Magically, amazingly, I could find all my notes! I could search them! I could use tags to navigate them! It was wonderful!

But I missed handwritten notes.

notes taken in Note Taker HD

notes taken in Note Taker HD

This came to a head when I returned from some scoping work in Ecuador with a pile of notebooks and the boring task of transcribing them somewhere I could search through them (and maybe code them later). Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could just take the notes electronically? Typing on a tablet seemed like a good route*, but the fact of its tablet-ness made drawing on the screen a more logical option.

Then the spectacular Tracie Mayfield introduced me to Note Taker HD for iPad. It had the best of my worlds: 1) handwritten notes organized like my brain and 2) PDFs I can sync between devices (via Dropbox or Evernote). It’s not perfect – I wish it automatically synced my handwritten notes as tagged PDFs rather than the intermediary step of Dropbox. And, of course, real paper doesn’t have a battery that needs charging. But its folder organization works well within the program and tagging it again on my computer is, for me, a small price to pay. One of the best unlooked for (in my case) features is the ability to annotate PDFs by drawing on them – something that I would continue to use even if I ultimately decided I like typing my notes better after all.

* And I’m still looking into this, I’ll let you know if I find something awesome

Science fiction and fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists

After my first post on SF/F books and anthropology, I decided I had a lot more to say. Today, I will say it about things I think linguistic anthropologists* (or, you know, anyone who likes thinking about people and language) should read.

Lingua Franca, as I mentioned previously, is by Carole McDonnell in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. It’s a short story about people who adapted to life on a loud world by becoming deaf and using sign language but now face the loss of that language and their whole way of life thanks to mouth-speaking traders and a new technology for hearing. This is a story that I would probably have any new linguistic anthropology student read, just so they could start thinking about the same things linguistic anthropologists think about.

Trade Winds by devorah major, also in So Long, Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Unsurprisingly, about cross-cultural communication. Not as good as “Lingua Franca”, but you just checked out the book anyway, might as well read this one, too.

Embassytown, by China Miéville. Primarily appealing just because it’s so metalinguistic. This central premise of this book is language – or more specifically, extreme differences in language. And yet … Well just check out Jonathan Crowe’s review.

Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. It’s delicious cyberpunk and a sci-fi classic, but the thought experiment underlying the plot is all about the power of language, though how language is communicated is somewhat different (hint: it’s communicable!).

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Valuable in its exploration of the phenomenology of semiosis. Lol. Jk, I mean it’s cool because she takes the old Tolkien idea of Essentially True Words as having magical power to a whole new level. Is it how language works? No. Does it have something potentially fascinating to say about what language means to humans? I think so …

Leave your own scifi/fantasy recommendations for linguistic anthropologists in the comments!


*Linguistic anthropologists are not like Henry Higgins, whatever BJG‘s parents might think. They are betwixt and between academic disciplines and enjoy everything from weird sounds and gestures to the reasons for saying “y’all” in political speeches.

Grant Writing Sucks

Grant Writing Forever Alone

Grant Writing Forever Alone

I am a happy, confident person. I generally do the things I have learned are beneficial to my learning success*. But grant writing is the loneliest, awful-est, ego-destroying-est task I have ever had set before me.

As I mentioned previously, this is my first semester of dissertation grant writing. I am keeping in mind the following pieces of sage wisdom:

  1. this process sucks for pretty much everyone
  2. it will eventually get better as I practice more (even though it may still suck a lot)**
  3. getting support from peers is a good thing (think samples, writing groups, and editing)

This wisdom, while good to know, generally doesn’t make me feel better. Neither do assurances of my awesomeness. I think this feeling of soul-wrenching inadequacy has a great deal in common with how I have felt in some of my most socially painful phases: when I have experienced personal rejection that I took as proof that I was fundamentally flawed. The best advice I ever got on how to deal – at least temporarily – with these feelings was to call the person doing the rejection a “dumb bitch”. So I think the time has come for me to stop thinking of Fulbright as my “new best friend”, and to realize that she might just be a dumb bitch*** whose opinion of me should not reshape my world.

Any other strategies for dealing with the similar yucky feelings are welcome. Except for @xarkgirl‘s because liquor is expensive and I’ve got a long semester ahead of me.

* These vary so much by person that it does not seem worth wasting a blog post enumerating them.
** Getting better at it is simplified with such awesome tools as Dr. Karen’s Foolproof Grant Template, by Dr. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In (http://theprofessorisin.com), which I highly recommend.
*** Yes, “dumb bitch” is a vitriolic and sexist thing to actually call someone and not something I endorse “in real life”. But the point of the original advice, and the application here, is to utterly disengage from one’s sense of obligations of appearing to be a good person to the rejecter in question. Thus, the immorality of it serves as a way to really turn off one’s instinct to “be good” so that instead one can focus on the task at hand.

Opal is for Outlining

I am a software evangelist. I admit it. I get super excited when I find something that works for me and become convinced that the life of almost everyone I know could be improved if they adopted the same thing. For that reason, I expect that this post on software will be only the second of many.

Opal is an outlining program for Macs and one of the programs I rely heavily on in grad school. It costs $32, but has a free 30 day trial that is exactly the same as the full version. If you outline, but you get overwhelmed at all the writing you have on the page, this is a really good program.

Opal screenshot

It’s good at a very short list of things. Pretty much just writing and editing outlines. But if that’s part of your writing process (and how could it NOT be if you are a grad student or academic?), this is a huge step up from just writing in a text file or a word document.