The Story of the [Research] Question

As writer and scholar, have you ever felt “stuck” conceptualizing and fleshing out your thesis and related research question?

At any point in the writing process and academic calendar, but especially relevant during the semester-end stretch when final papers are due, it is not unusual to find oneself reflecting on interrogating the premises of, and perhaps, even feeling “stuck” in how to further develop the research question(s).

One way to intentionally and mindfully deliberate on the research question and unleash the conceptual flow of writing is to PAUSE and REFLECT on the “story” of the [research] question itself. This can be done by writing a brief reflective memo, which may or may not be integrated into the paper itself, but will probably prove to be quite cathartic, anchoring, and clarifying.
Taking license to be free and unrestrained, write as if journaling to yourself, and reflect on any one or combination of the following prompts relative to your thesis and/or research question(s):
  • What is the (background) “story” of (behind) this [research] question?
  • What has been the developmental trajectory of the research question?
  • How did I become interested in this question?
  • Why is this question significant to me?
  • What do I find most compelling about my question?
  • In what ways do I connect with this question? What are my points-of-reference in probing into, responding to, or contextualizing this research question – in my own life, practice, field, and/or in the world?

For more help or strategies to get started, come into Weingarten to work a learning instructor and get tailored feedback with individual consultations. Or feel free to join our Dissertation Bootcamp working group series for support in undergraduate and graduate research!


Staff writer: Min Derry

How to Make the Most of Office Hours

Office hours: It’s that thing listed underneath the professor’s contact information on the syllabus, the thing we all glance at to make a note of, but rarely take advantage of. Meeting a professor during their office hours can be intimidating, but if utilized correctly, it can be a goldmine of a resource. Here are just a few quick tips on how to make the most of your office hour sessions:

  1. (unless specifically asked to) Don’t go just to go. Set a purpose to your meeting. Be prepared to ask open ended questions or get clarification on a certain class topic while you’re in front of the professors. Make sure you aren’t asking the kinds of questions that could have been easily answered elsewhere; i.e. Google, a peer, the class syllabus, or the readings. office-hours

2. Do show up early. By arriving 5 minutes before office hours start, it’ll give you a better chance of meeting with the professor first. This way, you can make sure your questions are answered instead of having to wait around, looking for the best time to interrupt another student.

3. Do be honest. Don’t be coy if the professor is talking about something and you don’t quite understand. Admit to it and you’ll get an even better or different explanation. Also, don’t make excuses for your performance or go in attacking the professor. If there are issues academically, professionally, or personally occurring in your life, let you professor know. They are human too and they will understand and work with you to best accommodate or resolve the issue. montreal-que-february-3-2015-mcgill-university-profess

For more support on how to make the most of your office hours, come set an appointment with a learning instructor and we will work with you individually to prep you for a meeting with your professor!

Staff writer: Victoria Gill

The Problem With Problems

“If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.”
~ Frank Wilczek, 2004 Nobel Prize winner in physics

My Weingarten colleague, Rashmi Kumar, knowing my deep affection for epigrams, aphorisms and anything even remotely quotable, gave me this one while we were prepping for a STEM related workshop. Good one, isn’t it?

Wilczek won his Nobel Prize (along with David Gross and H. David Politzer) for his discovery of asymptotic freedom, which deals with the distance between quarks and the effect on strong interaction. If you’re looking for a better explanation and you’re not rooming with Sheldon Cooper, you can read this instead [SPOILER ALERT: the closer the quarks, the less the strong interaction.]

But back to the quote. I like this one because, for me, it encapsulates a useful piece of metacognitive wisdom: you can learn more from getting something wrong than by getting it right. To put a finer point on it, you deepen your understanding by searching out why something is wrong, why you can’t see it, and along the way maybe discover whatever blind spot in the mind’s eye that prevents you from seeing everything whole. It’s a wondrous moment when you finally see why some particular something or other is a mistake, and that feeling of exhilaration can last you quite a while, right up until the next mistake, usually on the very next problem. But it’s best not to dwell on that. Making mistakes is not just a part of any successful process, but the inextricable part.

On a more pragmatic level, the quote also implies a strategic realization: plug and chug gets you only so far. All those formulas and equations and numbers mean something, and if you’re not actively looking for the deeper meaning and the bigger picture, you’ll never find it.

Staff Blogger: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

The Unexamined Exam is Not Worth Hiding

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
~ Mark Twain

Ever gotten back a midterm, peeked at the grade and stuffed it away somewhere dark, never to look at it again?

There are lots of reasons for not confronting the bad exam, not the least being embarrassment – you know, the whole, “But I don’t get grades like this, other people do.” It can come as quite a shock to the system. So hiding that nasty assessment point in a folder or in the back of a notebook is perfectly understandable.

It’s also a missed opportunity.

Let’s face it, basking in the comforting glow of a great exam grade feels all kinds of terrific. Good grades not only confirm our brilliance, but also reassure us that The Plan, in all its glory, is moving along, right on schedule. A bad exam grade can send us into a downward spiral of catastrophic fantasy, where we take this one grade as confirmation not only of our obvious imbecility, but that Dear Old Penn didn’t just make a mistake in accepting us, but should have never even allowed us on that pre-application campus tour. Indulging in this type of logical fallacy may feel cathartic, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

Once again, missed opportunity.

Just remember this: Unless you goose-egged the exam, you did something right, and that’s what we like to call a basis for improvement.

WARNING: Shameless institutional promotion to follow.

The folks at your learning center can help you with all this. We call it Exam Analysis. All you have to do is exhume the offensive exam from its deep, dark hidey-hole of shame and make an appointment with one of our friendly non-judgmental learning instructors. And then? And then together we’ll question the living daylights out of your exam. What questions specifically? There are too many possible questions of a reflective nature to go into, and we simply haven’t the space. We’d have to consider the discipline, the course, the format of the exam, the nature of preparation, the class resources, and so on and so forth.

Staff Blogger: Pete Kimchuk