Tag Archives: reviews

Book Review: Eric Hayot’s Academic Writing Advice

By: Carolyn Ureña

The first time I taught a course on academic writing, I was assigned Cathy Birkenstein and Gerald Graff’s The Say, I Say as the core text for the class. As I read through this small book filled with practical advice on how to write clear transitions and build an argument, I was thrilled by its clarity but also incredulous that I had somehow managed to get by without it. I mean, why had no one handed me this book when I was in college?

This was the same feeling I experienced upon reading the first few pages of Eric Hayot’s The Elements of Academic Style. As graduate students, we are often tasked with teaching others to write, having become relatively adept at doing so ourselves. And yet, the difference between writing a college seminar paper and your first graduate school paper (or publishable article, or – gasp – your dissertation) can honestly feel as daunting as making that initial transition from high school to college writing. While there is no telling whether graduate education in the humanities will include a course on writing, the good news is that Hayot’s book has emerged to fill that void, helping to assuage the fears of anyone who has ever felt unsure of how to start, push through, and revise an academic writing project.

Part pep talk, part practical advice, The Elements of Academic Style offers readers concrete suggestions on essential topics such as: how to create and maintain a writing schedule; how to transition between the paragraphs, sections, and chapters of your project while also building an argument; and how to effectively engage sources. Deciding how much to “show your iceberg” –that is, determining how much of the research you’ve done you really need to show your readers (versus, say, placing those ideas in footnotes and letting your synthesized ideas show in the main text)— can be a major challenge when working with large bodies of work, and Hayot’s careful explanation of when to show what has already proved incredibly helpful to me as I engage in revisions.

One of the great strengths of Hayot’s book is his ability to position himself as a fellow writer throughout, offering advice from the perspective of someone who is constantly telling you not only a) this is what I actually do, but b) this is not the only way, just what has worked for me. I for one always appreciate when my mentors share with me their process as well as what they still find challenging, and for this reason Hayot’s book stands out as the best book on academic writing I have read to date. I’ve already been returning to it as a reference, recommending it to teachers, tutors, and students alike, and I highly recommend you give it a read, no matter where in your graduate career (or beyond) you find yourself.

Tech Review: f.lux

This month, the Rutgers Comp Lit Magazine will be expanding its coverage of tech tools that Comp Lit students and faculty use professionally and personally. If you have a tech tool you would like to see featured here, please leave a comment or send an email to rutgerscomplitmagazine@gmail.com.

F.lux is a simple piece of software that can have a noticeable impact on how you use your computer. If you frequently use your computer late at night, you might notice that the light of the screen seems much more intense at night. The f.lux website says, “During the day, computer screens look good—they’re designed to look like the sun. But, at 9PM, 10PM, or 3AM, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the sun.”

F.lux provides a surprisingly easy solution to this problem. The software monitors the time of sunset in your timezone and after sunset transitions the light of your screen to match indoor lighting. Unlike simply dimming your screen, the f.lux filter makes your screen easy to read, but without the strain on your eyes. It can also help you sleep better after computer use.

At first, you will probably notice f.lux, because at the moment of sunset, a red tint comes over the screen. However, within a few minutes your eyes adjust and the color change is no longer noticeable. If you need to do color-sensitive work at night, like photo editing, f.lux can be easily disabled for a period of time.

F.lux is available for Windows, Mac, Linux, and iPhone/iPad. Unfortunately, the iPhone app operates as a stand-alone reader app, so you cannot use f.lux to control the brightness of the iPhone as a whole.

I cannot recommend f.lux highly enough for anyone who spends a lot of time on their computer in the evenings. It requires little effort to install, and I saw a dramatic change in my ability to work on the computer at night without straining my eyes or disrupting my sleep.

Language Learning Online with italki

Comparative Literature students pride themselves on the study of literature in multiple languages. However, during the semester it can be a challenge to prioritize language learning. If you want to fit more language study into your schedule this semester, italki.com is truly a hidden gem for language learners.

Italki is an online language-learning community of over one million teachers and students. What makes italki unique is that it connects you with native speaker teachers around the world through one-on-one Skype lessons.

If you’ve been meaning to work on one or more languages, I encourage you to check out italki for yourself or to share it with your students. Here’s why:

  1. The online platform

Italki.com is absolutely seamless. The process of scheduling Skype meetings, transferring payments, and evaluating lessons seems like it should be very complicated. However, italki is extremely well organized. When you want to schedule a lesson, you search for a teacher in your price range that is available when you want to study. You schedule your lesson and then connect with your teacher on skype. After the lesson is over, italki handles the payment. This website makes everything so easy that you can focus on your lessons and not have to worry about all of the logistics.

  1. One-on-one lessons

When I arrived at Rutgers, I was struggling to find ways to improve my French skills. I knew my French was too advanced for an undergraduate grammar course, but not nearly advanced enough for a graduate literature course. Many of us find that our language skills do not match up with any of our options for formal language instruction. One-on-one lessons on italki give you the flexibility to begin at your current level and focus on the specific skills that you want to develop. In my case, I found a French tutor with an interest in reading and we slowly worked our way through a few novels together. The one-on-one lessons gave me so much more feedback than I could’ve gotten in a traditional language classroom or by studying on my own. I progressed much faster than I had when I had been spending many more hours a week in a grammar class in college. Also, the commitment of talking to your teacher each week helps motivate you to continue to work independently on the language in between lessons.

  1. A wide range of teachers

Italki has a variety of teachers with different levels of professional training, experience, and pricing. Depending on your language level, your learning style, and what skills you are working on, you can experiment with multiple teachers until you figure out what works best. There are professional teachers with a full curriculum who teach grammar and assign homework. Some of these teachers make excellent use of the video chat format by using tools like screen-sharing websites, Prezi, and the Skype chat function. There are also college students with no training in language pedagogy who will practice casual conversation with you. Since you don’t enroll in a formal course, you can experiment with a variety of teachers until you find someone who works for you. After a few lessons or a few months, you can easily start working with someone else. The flexibility lets you experience a wide variety of teaching approaches and also can expose you to different regional accents and vocabulary. Before scheduling a lesson, you can see a teacher’s profile, video introduction, and student reviews, which helps you find someone that you will enjoy working with.

Bonus: Many teachers offer half hour trial lessons for somewhere between $1 and $5. This gives you the opportunity to meet teachers, even those at a higher price point, without spending a lot up front.

  1. Work as a tutor

If you enjoy taking lessons on italki, you can also sign up to tutor your native language or another language you speak fluently. This is an ideal work opportunity for students because you set your own hours and prices and you can work from home. You can also easily offer more sessions over breaks and fewer sessions during the busiest parts of the semester. I’ve really enjoyed talking to English students from around the world, and working on italki allowed me to fund my language lessons. Also, talking to motivated language learners helps me to continue my own language study.

Italki also offers language exchanges where two students can connect for free over Skype to practice. For example, an American and a Chinese student could meet on Skype and speak in English for a half hour and then in Chinese for a half hour. I have not used this feature, but it offers another way to use this language learning community for free.

  1. Language challenges

If you like having an extra bit of accountability, italki sponsors language challenges a few times a year. For these challenges, students commit to taking a certain number of lessons in a limited time period (past challenges have included 12 hours of lessons in a month or 20 hours in six weeks). Students commit to the challenge by making a $10 pledge. If they complete the challenge, they receive $30 towards more language lessons. Every time italki announces a language challenge, a group of students commit to the challenge by making a public YouTube video demonstrating their current skill level. After the challenge, many students post videos documenting their progress. Check out these before-and-after videos from the New Year’s 2015 20-hour language challenge.

If you have any questions about italki or would like recommendations of French, Spanish, or Portuguese teachers, please be in touch.

A Grad Student’s Guide to Zotero

By: Lidia Levkovitch, graduate student in Comparative Literature

As we progress through our academic careers, the bulk of Really Important Data we accumulate – bibliographic records, web bookmarks, downloaded articles, chapter scans, annotated PDFs of all kinds, and lecture notes – keeps growing. And growing. And growing.

And then comes graduate school.

And then our hard drive cr… but some hypothetical scenarios are better left unarticulated.

Sooner or later, (and not too late, one would hope) the need for reliable storage and for a piece of software to organize our hoarded treasure becomes obvious. Zotero (www.zotero.org) is a tool that offers solutions to both problems. Designed with the needs of the academic community in mind, it boasts features that help researchers take full advantage of print and digital resources alike.

Zotero allows the user to collect bibliographical records and physical copies of digital resources, creating a database that can be stored on a personal computer or in Zotero’s cloud and synchronized across multiple devices, ensuring that losing a laptop no longer amounts to losing years of research. Zotero’s storage is unlimited for bibliographical data but limited for attached files. This limitation may be bypassed by paying for extra storage or by setting up one’s own file storage through another service provider (the different storage and syncing options are described in this section of Zotero’s user manual: https://www.zotero.org/support/sync).

How Zotero works

No less important than no longer having to worry about the safety of one’s research data is being able to organize it while simultaneously pursuing several projects, possibly interrelated, but not necessarily so. The structure and the organizing principles are entirely up to the user, who can create as many folders as needed; the same item may belong to more than one project, and can be included  by reference, as a link, or as a physical copy (for example, when the same PDF has two different sets of annotations).

When importing an item, Zotero supplies some tags (usually mapping to subjects in library catalogs), but user-defined tags can be added. The tags enhance the search capabilities within the database, which, of course, can also be searched by author and title keywords. Each record can be further extended by adding notes, scanned chapters, or anything else that may seem useful. As for me, I try to write a short summary for every record I add (this makes putting together an annotated bibliography at the end of an independent study a breeze!) and to scan tables of contents for books, unless they are automatically loaded from library catalog records, which Zotero consults when it looks up an item.


Getting records into Zotero is easy: the only time one needs to type anything is when the item in question has no identifiers, such as an ISBN, DOI or PMID; given one of these, Zotero creates a record automatically. Sometimes, there is no need to even know the ISBN, since Zotero’s web browser plugin recognizes a bibliographical record when it sees it (for example, on the screen of a search engine such as WorldCat or article database like JSTOR). This way, one click is all it takes to import an item. If full text of an article is available, one can proceed to add the downloaded article itself to Zotero or to link the record to a copy of it elsewhere on the hard drive. Another task Zotero successfully automates is the creation of bibliography. It supports MLA, Chicago, and, indeed, just about any other conceivable format.

To me, Zotero is a big time-saver that is up to all of the tasks I can think of in relation to my reading, writing, and teaching projects. Still, my endorsement must come with a disclaimer: there might be tasks that I have not actually thought about, and there are certainly other tools out there. To be quite frank, I saved myself agonizing doubts over choosing a tool to support my intellectual quests by not having tried anything else. I needed something to organize my projects, and some magic for generating term paper bibliography pages, and Zotero worked perfectly. Plus, it came recommended by Professor Parker, whose taste I trust entirely!

At the very least, if you still type your bibliography, it is worth a try. After all, if you later decide that you have to switch, Zotero can export your entire library to RefWorks, Endnote, and many other formats, but this is one function I never needed to test.