Writing Your Grad School Personal Statement: 3 Quick Tips

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Tis’ the season of love and jingly things… and also when grad school applications are due!

If you are applying to a research program and are still finalizing your application, I have three tips here that might be of use:

1. Align your research interests with the faculty members’ in the program

It is often made obvious in graduate program applications that the applicant should mention which faculty member they would like to work with as part of their graduate education. Before writing your personal statement, do a thorough search on the program’s people page, such as this page that’s housed in our Writing Studies department. Include the faculty member’s specialty areas as keywords in your letter as a rhetorical move to show that you have done your homework. As part of the UMN RSTC program, applicants are asked to select a professor to be his/her desired academic advisor. It would be smart for the applicant to get in touch with one or two current grad students in the program to get a sense of the “advisee-load” that the desired advisor has already had to avoid choosing someone who are already occupied and so are not able to undertake anymore new students.

2. Showcase your research trajectory, past and future

Include a trajectory of your scholarly works as well as future directions (where you came from and where you want to go), including past or present seminar research topics and classroom/teaching workshops. This will help the admission committee to see your scholarly agenda and give them confidence that you are self-motivated because you have clear goals in mind. Remember, the grad school application is also similar to a job application; while admitting new students, the program or department is looking for individuals who are competent in conducting research (in and out of lab, classroom, etc.) as well as teaching (some are even looking for applicants with certain specialization to teach specific classes).  

3. Define your scholarly identity

This last advice should be taken with a grain of salt. While it is good to exhibit excitement and flexibility as a graduate applicant, I think it is equally important to define one’s scholarly identity. Especially for PhD applicants, the individual should have already had a sense of what it means to be a part of an academic discipline or community, and what it means to contribute to the development of that community. By defining one’s scholarly identity, one is performing a(nother) rhetorical move that situates him /herself in an ongoing conversation–thus increasing the credibility of the application. For a program with multiple tracks (such as RSTC and programs like Arizona’s RCTE and Iowa State’s RPC), I think it would be helpful to define yourself as a rhetorician, compositionist (basic writing, first-year writing, advanced composition, etc), or technical  or professional communication scholar (scientific writing, tech or business comm, technology and culture, etc), or somewhere in between these (but you have articulate how you fit in such a niche). 

There are certainly many other factors that concern the admission committee and these are just my two cents. If you are reading this and are interested in applying to the RSTC program at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities), feel free to leave me a message and I’d be glad to help!

Learning the Internet of Things

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You can now earn a degree in the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Waterford Institute of Technology (Ireland) offers a 4-year honors bachelors degree program in the IoT through its computing, maths (yes, the brit’s way), and physics department. According to its website, the program aims to prepare students to be “software practitioners who understand mobile, cloud and connected devices and understand how these devices can be designed, interfaced with and operated.”

The program “will explore the disciplines, technologies, tools and business opportunities involved in both sensing and connecting people, places and things. Powerful, connected, always-on devices and sensors, combined with sophisticated cloud infrastructure, are fast becoming a major focus for new products and services.”

For context purposes, see Intel’s explanation of the IoT below.

Visit the Waterford IoT website if you are interested to learn more about the structure of the course.

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I am very encouraged to see this kind of academic programs emerging in the age of connectivism and connected learning. The interdisciplinary nature of the Waterford IoT program is also an exemplar of networked education––where disciplines no longer teach in silos nor produce students who are only experts of a trade, but coming together to harvest the intelligence and information that enable co-creation of knowledge to serve the emergent technological needs of the world.

Do you know of other programs or educational opportunities that prepare students for a networked world? Please share or comment below!

Language, Words, Writing: TED Talks for Your Writing Courses

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Happy 2015! May this new year sparkles a renewed spirit in all your personal and professional endeavors. Since classes here at the U don’t start until the 20th of January, I am having the time of my life just reading and writing this winter break (spending most of my time at a Starbucks that’s located a few blocks from my apartment). Of course, as a teacher, I’m never really on full vacation — so I am still thinking about teaching from time to time.

As I am preparing for the first-year composition class I will be teaching in a few weeks, I turn to TED for inspirations and materials to use in introducing students to the idea of writing and communication, and more importantly, the power of language. To cut to the chase, here are five talks that I think are appropriate for writing classes:

1. Anne Curzan: What Makes a Word “Real”?

I think this is a great discussion starter, especially for teachers who want to start out with something that’s closer to home (for students, at least!) — taking a look at the invention of words, including slangs like “defriend,” “hangry,” and “adorkable.” By evaluating the process of dictionary editing, language historian Anne Curzan charmingly finds crucial meaning gaps in the English language in a world of constant evolvement.

2. Mark Pagel: How Language Transformed Humanity

Biologist Mark Pagel shares his theory of the social engineering functions of language. He suggests that language is a social technology/learning that allow humans to cooperate. This may sound a little removed from the humanities, but I always like spicing up the class with some social sciences, what more a biological take on language!

3. Alan Siegel: Let’s Simplify Legal Jargon!

In our complex world, simplicity is bliss. Alan Siegel calls for a simple, sensible design — and Plain English — to make legal documents intelligible to laypeople. This may be a gem for technical and professional writing/communication classes.

4.  Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter Fiction

Here’s one for digital storytellers and media scholars! Andrew Fitzgerald, who works for Twitter, goes back in time to look at the (short) history of creative experimentation of fiction and storytelling through new-age broadcast tools like the radio, television, and now, social media.

5. Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story

This one is my all-time favorite. I show this to my students every semester. (Warning: it contains explicit language.) Filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares what he’s learnt about storytelling (through visual communication), giving his audience an engaging presentation that starts at the end working back to the beginning.


There you have it — five TED Talks you may use to jumpstart a class this coming semester. Have other videos that you might suggest to add to the list? Comment below to let me know!

Visual Rhetoric: Negotiating Meanings in a Colorful World

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that we’re living in a world full of signs and symbols. These signs and symbols serve several functions: they guide our actions, warn us about potential dangers, among many other purposes. As a society we are moving rather quickly into a visual-driven culture. Cultural studies scholars, rhetoricians, and researchers from arts, history, anthropology, and even philosophy are interested in how citizens of the 21st century world negotiate meanings, locate information, and connect with one another through various visual means and technology.

In a writing class, it might sound silly at first to make visuality as one of the main learning units. But one would soon realize that we cannot detach the visual from the composing process (which is often only thought of as only textual). Take for instance when one writes using a word processor on the computer: the writer is constantly influenced by the tools, functions, the constraints of the “page,” and other visual aspects presented on the writing platform. An immediate example to turn to is the blogosphere. Blogging spaces providers have, over the years, made significant improvements to their writing dashboards so to give writers a more comfortable canvas to write. They do so by carefully crafting the look and feel of the writing interface; some even remove action buttons and toolbars altogether to give bloggers a distraction-free writing zone.

Given my interests in visual culture and rhetoric, the third unit of my University Writing course is dedicated to exploring the roles and impacts of visual composition in the realm of persuasion. My aim is to facilitate discussions on how meanings are/get constructed via visual design and arrangements. One easy, and perhaps most important, element to go to is color. One can think of so much impact colors have on our lives and how we relate to colors. To explore the role of colors in visual composition, I introduced an activity called the color association exercise, inspired by a professor in my PhD visual rhetoric seminar. This activity is simple yet fun and engaging.

Part A

  1. Break students into groups of 2-3.
  2. Give each group a color. (For my class, I assigned 8 colors to 8 groups.)
  3. Ask each group to generate as many associations (things, events, people, emotions, etc.) as possible with their assigned color.
  4. After few minutes, ask each group to finalize their top 2 or 3 associations for the color.
  5. Have the students report back to the class as a whole. The instructor may pull up a spreadsheet (as below) to fill out the chosen top associations as students report them.
  6. Once the table is filled, ask the class if there are any discrepancy. If so, ask for amendment recommendations. (I also made the groups defend their top choices.)

Part B

  1. Ask the class if each color meaning they came up with is identified by local, regional, national, or global citizens.
  2. As the instructor moves down the table, discuss why some color meanings are hard to decide their relevance to a larger population.

Below is a snapshot of the table generated in my class today. It serves as a springboard to a fruitful conversation on how we perceive colors, consciously or otherwise, to generate meanings in life. As my students are working on a visual analysis project, this activity sought to expose them to different ways of looking at images — a rather more critical perspective on how images are composed to make certain arguments.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.08.12 PMAs I am deeply intrigued by how visuals are woven into our daily discourses – public speeches, PR events, advertisements, telecommunications – I think visual literacy has become an importance part of verbal and intellectual development to allow us deeper understandings of representation and meanings.

Are you interested in visual rhetoric? Check out these free massively open courses:

Cover image from Galleryhip.com

The Rhetoric and Design of Course Syllabus

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It’s that time of the year when professors and instructors squeeze their brains and put together their hopefully-comprehensible course syllabi for respective classes. As I enter my fourth semester of teaching a freshman-writing course, I realize there’s a constant urge to put more and more into my syllabus: maybe I should tell my students not to use their cellphones in class, maybe I should tell them I hate chewing gums, maybe I should tell them to bring their textbooks, maybe…

However, as Barbara Fister complained (quoted by Jason B. Jones), the syllabus is becoming less of a resource for the students, but something they skip “without reading-Terms of Service agreements”:

When you add all those rules to the traditional stuff – course description, the list of assigned texts, the class-by-class schedule, and information about major assignments – these documents get incredibly long and complex. … We traditionally go over syllabi on the first day of class, and then we’re annoyed when students miss an assignment or fail to adhere to a rule because “it was in the syllabus.”

So, this semester, I challenged myself by changing my approach to creating the syllabus for my freshman-writing class. By referring my students to all detailed information put on the course website, I reduced the dreary document into a 2-page course overview and added some colors to the layout. I have come to realized that a course syllabus should articulate only the gist of the course, which attracts students to find out more by redirecting them to other more-suitable avenues that contain detailed information about the course.

See the PDF of my syllabus here.

In this Information/Digital Age, I believe teachers, especially instructors of rhetoric and communication, should recognize how information is acquired and digested, and thus consider the more appreciate outlets to communicate with new-age students. Here are more examples of non-traditional syllabus:

Do you have a creative syllabus? Link it in the comments!

Updated: Came across this humorous post by College Humor today and so I decided to add it to this entry.

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Points made. Period.