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An Academic Writing Group

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Whether you feel great anxiety at the thought of Academic Writing or whether you don’t particularly dislike it, I think it’s fair to agree that writing is a challenging process for everyone. And there is no shame in admitting that writing is difficult. In fact, novelist and playwright Joseph Heller once said, “Every writer I know has trouble writing”.

There are different degrees and reasons for this challenge, but most of us are likely to identify with at least one of these, at some point in our careers. We come from different educational institutions, cultural backgrounds and academic disciplines, all of which impact the degree of experience we have had with academic writing. At the start of our PhD careers, many of us find ourselves in a new country where we must read and write about complex concepts and ideas in a second (or third) language. Not only do we have to master the terminology of our field but we also have to learn the secrets of building a strong academic text — how to organize it so that it is clear and coherent, how to engage the reader and convey the importance of our work, and how not to slip into colloquial writing if we are not writing in our mother tongue.

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Three Funerals and a Baptism

Nope, not the title of a movie, but of my life this week. Actually, that’s the short version of the title. The long version would be something like: Three Funerals, a Baptism, an Anniversary, Three Deadlines, Six Meetings, Two Classes and a Dozen Errands.

My most frequently uttered inner-thought this week was, “This is too much. There’s too much on my mind. All these feelings are too big for me”. We often think and talk about balance during our PhD careers. I think the hardest part about our PhD is probably that we pursue it at a time in our lives where we are old enough for really big things to happen to us, and young enough to still feel unsure, unbalanced, inexperienced and afraid. I’ve realized lately that finding this balance is not only about devoting time to other activities outside of your work, but also devoting a part of yourself, your thoughts and your feelings, to the stuff going on in your life outside of work. It is about getting to know yourself and your needs, and being kind enough to yourself to make meeting those needs a priority. It is about being okay with setting aside time to process things, to have a slow-going morning once in a while, to stare blankly at a wall, to wallow and brood, to enjoy some peace with yourself, your love, your family, and to celebrate.

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Without words

How could such a gloriously sunny day bring such terribly bad news? And why is it that it always takes such tragedies and painful occurrences for us to (finally) gain some perspective, a new take on what really matters in life?

Today, after an amazingly peaceful walk from the Old Port to the Atwater market, after a day of much-needed fresh air, sunshine, quiet and simplicity, I came home to a haunting phone call. I was first asked, “Did you hear what happened?” which immediately caused my heart to sink and my stomach to turn. “No,” I answered, fearfully, wincing already. I found out that a very close friend of my father’s — a friend dear to our whole family — had suddenly lost his son and his ex-wife last night, in a house fire, and only his youngest son was able to escape.  (more…)

My non-academic to-do list

When I lived abroad during my Master’s degree, I used to keep a list of all the non-academic experiences I wished to make time for during my stay. Sights I wanted to visit, cafés and restaurants I was craving to try, names of streets and parks deserving a stroll, weekly markets in different parts of town, art exhibitions that were calling out to me at various points of the year… I would jot them all down on an ever-growing and ever-shrinking to-do list that I kept quite separate from my “academic to-do list”, usually folded into a small square and tucked into the front pocket of my purse, or the first page of the small journal I’d carry around with me everywhere.  (more…)

Dancing beams of light

I had a bit of an off day today. No particular cause for it. It was just the way I woke up, and I couldn’t shake the feeling all day long. It must have been the cloudy sky. After so many consecutive days of glowing sunshine, a grey sky hanging much too low overhead can have that effect – at least on me.

Wednesdays are my long days; I usually co-lead a seminar on Academic Writing in the morning (which I am likely to tell you about in future posts!), spend the rest of the day at my desk working towards my PhD, and then I attend a course in the evening, from 5.30 to 8.30 — roughly the time when most others are crowding the metro and rushing home, making supper, unwinding after their day. The course is a bit outside of my comfort zone, too. My research interests are in the area of neurolinguistics (a combination of “language” and the “brain“) and specifically about bilingualism. How do children and adults learn a second (or third, fourth) language? How are different aspects of a bilingual’s languages stored and accessed in the brain? How does a bilingual’s mother tongue affect the learning of other languages? These are some of the questions that fascinate me.

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That crisp autumn air and the promise of a fresh year ahead

McGill Campus in the Fall. Photo: Claudio Calligaris

And so, gradually, comes the change in season. Flipflops are slowly — stubbornly almost –relinquishing themselves to boots, red and orange leaves are falling and fluttering about, and the light has changed. There is a definite, unmistakable autumn glow, and the old buildings on campus look like they are showing off a different face now, one that catches our eye in this light, and makes us surprisingly tilt our heads up to the sky on our everyday way home.

With the change in season and change in light comes a noticeable change in rhythm; campus feels livelier now, refreshed and revived with its student population. But there’s also a certain freshness and promise in the air, at least for me — a distinct sense of a Beginning, for new students but also returning ones. It’s a new academic year, a chance to take a great big deep breath and tackle our goals with newfound energy. As fresh as the top page of a notepad (or at least one where you’ve torn off all no-longer-appealing previous pages) or a highlighter that still colors the words on your page in a happy, bright yellow.  (more…)

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