Wednesday, May 2, 2012


After a long hiatus from blogging, I'm excited to make a triumphant return. It's hard to know where to start after such a long absence, but suffice it to say I have come a long way from where I was in September. In order to compare progress between where I was then and now, I'm going to make a short list:

In September I....
-Was working on finishing my trabajo de invesigacion (still had to finish the discussion and conclusion)
-Still had not transcribed all of the videos from the corpus that I had recorded the previous academic year
-Had no idea how I wanted to extend the DEA project into the dissertation
-Had not presented my work at any conferences
-Had not even presented the paperwork for my homologacion (application for the validation of my American degrees here in Spain)

In May I....
-Am the proud recipient of the DEA (Diploma de Estudios Avanzados) having completed my entire trabajo and presented it in October
-Have a completed (and transcribed) corpus that I am working with for my dissertation
-Have formulated research questions and a project plan for the dissertation
-Have read more articles than I can count and am in the midst of writing the (dreaded) literature review
-Have begun coding my transcriptions in "real time" (measuring motivation the way that the MOLT framework intended), which is time consuming though gives a much better picture of what is happening in each class.
-Have presented my pilot study at two conferences, with a third coming up in Barcelona next week
-Presented my homologacion papers and am nearly finished with the requirements for the degree (I have been taking a German language and literature class this past year).

After so much time and so much work, it's nice to reflect and see how far you've come.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Back to School

For me, New Year's Day will never have the same resonance of a fresh start as the first day of September. Maybe it's the chill in the air, maybe the Staple's school supply sale, but whatever it is it, fall is the time to reboot and embrace a new beginning.

Nothing like the smell of freshly sharpened pencils....

After an incredibly busy summer spent in the States tying the knot (that's right, I'm a Mrs. now, or as my good friend Monica B. would say, a matron!), I'm back in Spain working like crazy trying to put the finishing touches on my AfL project. Though I went back to Michigan with the best intentions of working for a few hours all summer, let's be honest, the wedding trumped all else. I mean, really, what would you rather investigate?


That's what I thought. 

I made my best efforts to get out of the house for a few hours a day and do some writing at Caribou (the midwestern version of Starbucks, mmm) with my little sis, Anna. According to my to-do list, the goal was to submit a draft of the entire project to my thesis advisor by the beginning of July, before I went back home and the wedding festivities commenced. But sometimes even the best laid plans get squelched and I found myself sucked up into a whirlwind of adventure for the entire month of August. 

By the time the honeymoon was over (literally), I had an email waiting for me from my advisor saying that she hoped I had completed everything, as she had to submit my final grade by September 15th. 

My reaction: "Jigga what??"

I was under the impression that I had until the end of September to finish the entire study including revisions, before submitting it to the defense tribunal in October. Apparently not! So, I did what any procrastinating grad student would do....from the minute my flight touched down on September 5th, I locked myself away and miraculously finished everything. Not exactly the back to school homecoming that I was used to, but sometimes we need a little kick in the pants to get the motivation we need. Right?

Half of the battle has been won, but I still need to wait for my advisor's approval on the revised document before submitting it to the tribunal. My defense will be sometime in late October and hopefully it will go better than that of the Japanese linguistics candidate (see previous post). We shall see!!!

In the meantime, I think it's time to bring this blog out of study mode and start expanding its horizons. You might be pleasantly surprised to see some posts about non-grad school related themes. 

In the meantime, do you have any procrastination stories?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

DEA Fail and the Importance of Thesis Advisors

Yesterday, I went to the university to watch a defense of a DEA project (basically a Masters thesis). My advisor always recommends for me to do this (and anyone in our department) because I will have to defend the first part of my thesis this upcoming October. Basically, how it works is that you have to do a substantial research project, writing it out in the form or a research study (with a literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, bibliography, etc) and submit it to the department. Three professors will read it and these profs will form the tribunal that will witness your presentation and ask you questions at the end and you have to literally "defend" your thesis and tell them why you made certain decisions and why you structured everything in a certain way. It's extremely nerve wracking because you have no idea what questions are going to be asked. Also, it's in English which is great for me but for many of my cohorts means it adds another layer of stress since it's not their native language.

Even more stressful, you have to ween down your  100+ page report into a 15 minute powerpoint presentation, making sure that you touch on all aspects of your study. Ahhh!!

It's difficult, to say the least. So that brings us to yesterday. There were two candidates presenting their studies: one Spanish woman who had actually finished with her doctoral thesis already and was only doing the DEA because it was a requirement before you could present your thesis. She was overly prepared, clearly, and had a really interesting study. The second candidate was a Japanese student who seemed very nervous to present. Outside before the presentations began, you could tell that he was trying to keep calm and we re-assured him that he would do fine and not to worry.

The tribunal called everyone in and the presentations began. The Spanish woman started out speaking a mile a minute and giving an in-depth computational analysis of gender differences in chat rooms. It was very fun to watch and well presented and organized. The tribunal asked their questions and gave her some comments about what should be improved, which she took in politely (though surely won't take since she has already finished her thesis)  and then peaced out, leaving the Japanese candidate to his own devices.

He started off putting up a gorgeous picture of a mountain in Japan with on his title card and you could tell that he had put a lot of work into making his Powerpoint look nice. He gave a short intro, which he read directly from a cue card, and then launched into his presentation. When he went to the first slide, I could immediately tell that something was off. Most people only put a few bullet points on each slide, but it seems that he wrote his entire speech in his presentation, which is a big no-no and against the established rules. You must use the Powerpoint as a supplement, referring to it in your presentation but not reading directly from it the entire time. He started reading it word for word and the tribunal gasped and started whispering to each other. This is how the rest of the presentation went:

(It was in Spanish but I will write it in English)
Japanese Candidate: (reading off of powerpoint) The study was one that I did with my first year Japanese students here in Spain in order to analyze their grasp of the.....
Tribunal: Excuse me? Excuse me? Sorry to interrupt, but you can't read directly from the presentation.
Japanese Candidate: Oh, sorry, sorry....(takes out notes and starts reading directly from notes which are the same as the presentation)  The study was one that I did with my first year Japanese students here in Spain in order to analyze their grasp of the...
Tribunal: Sorry....sorry...again, you can't read directly from the notes or from the need to give the speech in a more spontaneous way referring occasionally to the powerpoint, do you understand?
Japanese Candidate: Oh, sure, sure, sorry. (looks up at the powerpoint, trying to see how he can extrapolate and give the speech in a more spontaneous way) My students of Japanese here in, the study that we did....The study was one that I did with my first year Japanese students here in Spain in order to analyze their grasp of the.....
Tribunal: &^%##@

The poor guy....not only did he completely bomb his presentation, but they stopped him in the middle and told him not to continue. The whole thing was, in a word, painful to watch. They then proceeded to tell him that his study lacked the fundamental organization and statistics needed to be dubbed a "research study" but was more a conglomeration of his observations that he had made of his class. It had no bibliography, no page numbers in the index which just made it overall difficult for the reader to follow. He took the critique in a very elegant and humble way and thanked them for their comments.

The tragic thing is that he had clearly worked so hard on the project, but it was evident that his thesis advisor (who was absent from the presentation) did not even look at his final work. If they had, they would have told him that it was not at all ready to present and not what the tribunal was looking for and there was no way that he would pass. While I genuinely felt so sorry for this guy, it made me all the more thankful to know that my advisor is so on the ball with everything and a total badass when it comes to giving comments and criticism BEFORE I go out there and make an ass out of myself.

Friday, April 1, 2011

To-Do Lists

At the beginning of this year, around October probably, just as I was starting my project, I was feeling rather lost. Scratch that, I was feeling extremely lost, disorganized and without direction. I didn't have any research plan in mind and was basically starting from zero on my project. One of the biggest challenges of writing a thesis or doing research independently is that nobody is there looking over your shoulder or giving you tasks to do and it can be extremely overwhelming. You have to be the master of your own destiny, for lack of a better expression, and take matters into your own hands. 

I remember one particular day I was getting really frustrated. Alfonso, my fiance, was living in Zaragoza at the time, so I called him up to vent. He very calmly asked me, "And what happened to your to-do lists?". I took a step back and realized that he was right. The root of my problems was organization. It's important when tackling a bigger project to make smaller, more manageable goals for yourself while always keeping an eye on the big picture. In college, I was the queen of checklists, and my friends would stare in awe of the different lists on my bulletin board with the neat boxes next to each task. Call me a nerd, but I got shit done because there was nothing more satisfying than checking off the latest project. 

After hanging up with Alf (not to be confused with AfL), I went straight home, got out a few sheets of paper and went to town. Maybe I am a little bit out of control, but here are my current lists:

1. A monthly list with all of the project tasks that I want to accomplish
2. A weekly/ daily to-do list with all of the things that I have to do day-by-day
3. A daily to-do that maps out a schedule. The reason for this is that I am inherently a late sleeper and if I didn't make this plan for myself, I would be in bed til noon and never get anything done!
4. Seasonal to-do lists- things that I want to get done in the summer, spring and winter
5. A master list for my trabajo de investigacion and things that I have to do
6. A list of recordings/ transcriptions that need to be done

Call me crazy, but without these lists, it would be impossible for me to get organized. I might be getting a few raised eyebrows from any Spaniards who are reading this, since the obsessive mapping out of one's life in list form contradicts their basic tenet of "enjoy can get done tomorrow". In that way, living her has mellowed me out (despite the gross number of lists that would point to the contrary) and I don't get too stressed out if I don't finish everything. But trying to live without a planner would drive me nuts- I have tried it before and it just doesn't work. 

Things came full circle a few weekends ago when Alf and I made a trip out to Decathalon one weekend and he expressed his frustrations to me about writing his own thesis, which he needs to finish by June. Being a civil engineer, writing is extremely difficult for him and he found himself in a rut. He pulled out all of the excuses "I just don't have time" and "the project just isn't that interesting to me anymore" and "I just don't have anything to say," which I dismissed, telling him to follow his own advice and get organized. You can imagine my satisfaction when a few days later I saw a to-do list on his desk, complete with check boxes, and him working diligently on his project. 

And by the way...

Blog update (check)

(I couldn't resist)

Friday, February 18, 2011


If you ask any student, grad student, researcher, or general seeker of knowledge what the most important element of their investigation is, chances are that the answer is workspace. Forget books, computers, calculators, sharpened #2 pencils, if you don't have a decent space to work in, you will probably be lost. Some people are lucky enough to have their own office or home office, but for the rest of us, finding a great workspace that we can concentrate in is like the holy grail to ending writer's block and getting shit done.

As I mentioned in previous posts, there are two factors that make my home workspace unusable. The first of which is a rambunctious puppy that thinks she is helping me by shaking throwing her toys at my feet, gnawing on my computer chord and farting in the office. The second factor is that someone who shall remain nameless punched two fist-sized holes into my new ikea desk in a fit of assembly frustration. Couple that with the fact that I have never ever been able to concentrate at home (I get easy distracted by any minute task that could lead me away from my work) and thus begins my desire to search elsewhere.

At the beginning of the year, my advisor was gently pressuring me to take advantage of the special room in the library reserved for doctoral students and becarios. It was a logical choice, since it was reserved for students just like me and there were never more than three people working there at a time. The room is equipped with three computers, nice tables, floor to ceiling windows overlooking the campus and it is an offshoot of the humanities library, meaning that all of my reference material would be more accessible. I went there a few times to read, but just couldn't get comfortable there for a few different reasons. Number one, for some reason I need other people around me to concentrate. It's the same reason I always choose a treadmill at the gym with other runners next to me: it keeps me motivated. Also, when I'm working, I need refreshments. I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I wouldn't say no to a tea, bagel, mini-mufffin. Also, with a puppy in the house, I didn't want to be too far away from home during the day just in case.

With all of these factors swirling in my head, I stumbled upon my Zen of workspaces: Starbucks.

Let me preface this by saying that the Starbucks marketing slogan is "third home." Your first home should be obviously your home, your work is your second home, and Starbucks is designed to be your third home: a place with plush couches, friendly staff, work tables with outlets, free wifi and more. There is a Starbucks five minutes away from my apartment right next to a dog park, so you can imagine what an idea workspace this has become for me. Let's just say that the staff knows my name, my drink, and basically my entire life story. I usually come in the morning for a little chai and breakfast and work for several hours at my designated table (designated by me, of course). It'd been coming here throughout the years to read and occasionally write other products for my program, but never have I been a regular.

It feels great to have a place where I know I can get shiz done and be home in five minutes if I want. I think that my thesis will have a special dedication to the staff for keeping me sane.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Still Transcribing

Happy New Year, loyal readers! I realize that it's been awhile since my last post, but that doesn't mean that nothing has happened. Things with the project have been going along swimmingly, and despite a minor hiccup, we are on our way to collecting all of the data needed by the end of this year. Transcribing it, however, is another story.

Over Christmas, I went back to my lovely homeland of Michigan where I was nestled in the comfort of holiday cheer and wedding planning (yes, I'm getting married in August). Like any good student, I brought my work home with me and managed to do much more than I usually do when I'm home, which is absolutely nothing. Sitting in the den with my family while they watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and other such films, my keyboard clacked away as I took advantage of the comfy chair and ottoman to continue transcribing the classes that we had recorded so far.

While I was home, I spent some time with my lovely friend Monica, who is doing a doctorate in Education Policy at the University of Michigan. She informed me that for their dissertations, there were two options for using data: one included making use of previously collected data and analyzing it for your own purposes, and the other meant collecting the data on your own. For the former method, a lot more depth was required in terms of analysis, since the data that you were working with had already been used and therefore you must work extra hard to make sure to do something original with what other had previously touched. The second method, collecting data on your own, was so time consuming in and of itself and yet more rewarding since you are creating sources of your own and could choose to extract whatever you wished.

My objective is the former, of course, collecting data on my own with my cohort, Irene. We are creating a corpus, which is a spoken or written collection of text or dialogue that will serve us in our research and also be made available to others down the road. As of right now, we have at least two full didactic units from the beginning of the year at five different schools. The length of the unit depends on the subject: science units, for example may be eight classes, whereas citizenship are only two. While I love going to record the different units and absorbing the classroom dynamic and the different teaching techniques and AfL techniques employed, the transcribing part is, in a word, horrendous. Forcing myself to sit down and transcribe is hard enough, and while I can read and write and pull sources for hours on end, I usually hit a brick wall with transcribing in about two hours. Let's do the math for how many hours Irene and I will spend with the transcriptions this year:

As of now, we have about 40 classroom hours of video. For me, because I am a fast typer, it takes about 30 minutes to transcribe five minutes of video. Since most lessons are 40-minutes to one hour, that's about 4-6 hours of transcription per classroom hour. Since we're dividing the hours up, 20 hours apiece at the beginning (and another 20 at the end of the year, but let's not talk about that right now) that's about  80 hours of transcription, give or take.

Let me give you an idea of how this looks, and while you are reading, take a guess as to how many minutes of class this equates to)
From Citizenship:

TCH: Ok, did you have a nice lunch?
STU: Yes!!!
TCH: Yes? Ok. Right, citizenship. Shut the door. ((shuts doord)) Now, it was only two days ago that we had the first part. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already. What have we been doing in citizenship? ((puts the WALT and WILF cards up on blackboard)) Lucas?
STU: Lucas: Emotions
TCH: We were looking at emotions, right? We started looking at emotions. Who can tell me anything that we did in Wednesday’s lesson about emotions? Lucia?
STU: Lucia: Em, in Wednesday, we did, you give us a paper that we have to color,
TCH: And then?
STU: Lucia: And we had to color it with the color that we think that emotions ….the personality in the color.
TCH: Very good! You had to think of a color to match that emotion, didn’t you? And you all did a brilliant job of that, you all had some really good reasons for the colors that you’d chosen. Em, anything else we’ve done? What else did we do? 

Have you taken your guess? Let me give you the answer: this equate to one minute of classroom time, and it would have taken me about six minutes to transcribe. That is, if everyone was speaking clearly and the acoustics of the room were perfect. If not, you can find yourself rewinding time and time again and getting so frustrated that you bang your fists on the table and call it a day (like I did yesterday).

Speaking of frustrations, this past weekend, since the fiance is back from his four month stint away, we decided to make an Ikea run so that I could purchase a much needed desk and move my stuff away from his workspace in the office and make my own. I decided on this one: 

From the looks of it, it would be the perfect place to keep my things and do my work. I've assembled a great deal of Ikea furniture in my time, and when looking at it in the store thought, "how hard can it be?" It wasn't until I arrived at home and splayed the 200+ screws and 80 wooden boards out on the floor at home that I realized I might've gotten in a little bit over my head. The real problem came when it was time to put the table top upon the desk, because it simply would not fit. There were about six screws sticking out of the bottom of the board, and when I asked the fiance to help me he berated me for using a hammer to try and get one of the pegs into the hole and making a dent on the top of the board. 

After about two minutes of pushing, wedging, maneuvering and swearing, the poor guy got his thumb stuck in between the boards. Upon its removal was so filled with rage that he slammed both fists down, incredible hulk style, punching two matching holes in the top of the desk. We were about to jump back in the car and drive the piece of crap back to Ikea and dump it outside of the sliding doors as a reminder to all customers, "Beware all ye who enter here" but finally, and miraculously, we fixed the problem and the desk is as good as new minus the two massive dents in the shape of Alf's fists. 

And even after this experience, let me tell you that I would still prefer building Ikea furniture to transcribing!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Plugging along

Since the last update, a lot of progress has been made, but there is a still a lot left to go!!! As of right now, my cohort Irene and I have started recording in four different AfL and non-AfL schools, with one more on the way. We're still waiting to get permission from the last piece of the puzzle, the last AfL school, but the jefa de estudios is being a total buzzkill so far! We have been in contact with the Comunidad de Madrid district inspector to get the permission, who insists that it's the only director that needs to give the approval, but the director will not believe us at all. We have sent numerous faxes and letters, and finally I got my advisor in on the situation and they have been corresponding through email. You know that you're talking to a brick wall when the director signs her name as "La Directora" in an informal email. She's now affectionately known as the Dragon Director. But we finally sent the final formal fax requesting her permission, signed by us, our advisors, the inspector, basically everyone and their mother, so if she doesn't approve we'll just have to give up on her forever. Let's see!!!

Recording is going well. I'm actually in a classroom with several of my former students in El Boalo and it's so cute! I was worried they wouldn't remember me and it turns out not only that they do, but they were worried I wouldn't remember them!! As if I could forget. They were my first students ever and they will always hold a fond place in my heart. It's strange being in the classroom as an observer rather than a teacher/ assistant, though. I can't tell you how many times one of them has come up to me and asked a question, "Rachel, how do you spell democracy?.....what's the meaning of this sentence?......where is Athens?" and the list goes on. But it's definitely nice to be back.

Now that we're getting the recordings, it comes with the burden of transcriptions. If you have never experienced this before, let me tell you that transcribing videos is just about a mundane task as can be, right up there with filing, alphabetizing and making photocopies. Only worse. In all honesty, I would rather walk barefoot over burning coals than transcribe video tapes. It doesn't help having a three month old beagle nipping at your hands while you're trying to make sense of the dialogue, but it does make it a hell of a lot more interesting.

And now, off to play fetch with the little one before resuming transcribing hell!