Thursday, March 27, 2014

Patchwriting as a Valuable Stage for Developing Writers? Re-Thinking Plagiarism in Writing Courses

By Sarah Giragosian

     At one university where I taught College Writing I for a semester, I was required to include the following definition of plagiarism in my course syllabus:
Plagiarism is a serious academic crime; it is, in essence, the stealing of someone else's ideas. Plagiarism will result in immediate failure for the course, and all students involved will be held responsible; the Dean of Academic Affairs, the Humanities Division Director, and your Academic Advisor will be notified.
The consequences for academic infringement are severe, and the institution’s policy was inflexible; in its definition, plagiarism was construed not only as an academic infringement, but as a crime.  Fortunately, I never encountered a paper that I suspected of plagiarism.  While I urged students to take responsibility for their writing, I realize now that I toed the party line without understanding the limitations that inhere in the university’s definition of plagiarism. 
      In “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty,” Rebecca Moore Howard re-conceptualizes the standard institutional policy on plagiarism and accounts for the various forms that plagiarism may take: cheating, non-attribution, and patchwriting, which complicates—in a potentially productive way— overly rigid definitions of plagiarism.   For students learning to inhabit new discourses, writing is a transitive process, and patchwriting may be a pedagogical tool for students who are learning the conventions and practices of a particular discourse.  While cheating, non-attribution, and patchwriting fall under the category of plagiarism, today’s technologies and complex notions of authorship necessitate a re-examination of the factors that motivate textual appropriations among students.  Additionally, as Howard shows, it is possible for students to violate academic conduct codes unwittingly. Donning the values, topoi, and habits of different discourses, students who are evolving as writers and scholars may patchwrite as they attempt to understand difficult material.  Accordingly, the ethical implications of plagiarism fall along a continuum and may call for less draconian disciplinary measures than those currently in place at many institutions.  As Howard suggests, instructors should facilitate dialogues with students about their writing processes and provide not just a disciplinary framework, but also a pedagogical structure for addressing plagiarism.  
     Much like emerging creative writers, novice scholars achieve fluency in their discipline through the transitive stages of reading, listening to, endorsing, swerving from and subverting each other.  In the realm of poetry, for example, poets are accorded a space for the misprision of their precursors, which Harold Bloom theorizes in his seminal The Anxiety of Influence.  Bloom  argues that the young poet, or ephebe, must “clear imaginative space” for herself through creative misprisions of first rank poets, writing, “But nothing is got for nothing, and self appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself? Poetic influence…  is necessarily the life cycle of the poet-as-poet” (Bloom 5).  While it would be problematic to suggest that the poet’s “life cycle” can be correlated with student’s educational cycle, I believe that Howard provides an entryway into considering the anxieties and misapprehensions that occur as the student develops facility in a discourse.  Inadvertent academic violations, such as interpretive misprisions and patchwriting, may be part of early writing attempts.
     As a graduate instructor, I have decided to address plagiarism in the classroom with a more expansive notion of the factors contributing to academic violations and the forms that plagiarism can take.  Rather than reducing plagiarism to a single definition, I believe that it is important for instructors to offer a concrete framework for students to examine complex notions of authorship, to discuss their own writing processes, and to monitor their own efforts at apprenticeship.


WORKS CITED

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Second Edition (Oxford:   
         Oxford University Press 1997).

Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, Authorships, and the Academic Death Penalty”
College English 57.7 (November 1995): 788-806. Web. March 2014.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Teaching Unfamiliar Content

By Kristen Hourigan

I recently attended an event offered by the Institute of Teaching, Learning and Academic Leadership that I felt warranted dispersion. It was based on the work of Therese Huston (Teaching What You Don’t Know) and offered relevant and meaningful tips and thought-provoking discussion. Two topics that I found particularly useful were Establishing Credibility and Workload/Time Management.
Establishing Credibility
Research indicates that there are several key principles that drive instructor credibility in the classroom, and they may be different from what a new instructor may expect. Students are most concerned that instructors treat them with respect, demonstrate that they care about their learning and are willing to help them to learn and to succeed in the course. Knowing that these are the factors that matter most to students can help new instructors, or those teaching outside their content area, because there is less pressure to demonstrate expertise in the classroom. It allows space for instructors to make mistakes (as long as you are willing to correct them), use prepared notes, and learn right along side your students.
One of the ways to establish credibility is to set an appropriate tone in your classroom right from the first day of classes. In order to do this, make accountability a consistent part of the class with frequent, short assignments. For example, if you expect students to read, hold them accountable regularly with scheduled assessments (quizzes, activities, etc.).  Also, give students a way to follow their progress in your course. If they are aware of how they are doing throughout the course, they will feel more secure and more supported by you as their instructor.  
If you want students to engage with you and the content of the course, establish trust by asking authentic questions. Do not always ask questions that have a definite right or wrong answer, as they pose a risk to the students of being wrong, publically. Instead, ask questions that only the student knows the answer to or that have multiple correct answers (“What did you feel was the most interesting aspect of the reading?” “How would you define (some important concept) if you were creating a research study?” “Give me some examples of (the concept).”)
It is also important to recognize your own expertise. The topic of the course may be new to you, but even if you are not an expert in all of the content in your course, you ARE an expert thinker in your discipline. You know how people in your field think and how they approach topics, what sort of questions they seek answers to, what methods they employ, etc. Sometimes, it can also be an asset that you are a novice thinker in the topic area, just like your students. This leaves you well equipped to deliver content in such as way as to help students move from novice ways of thinking toward more expert ways of seeing the content. You are probably well quipped to explain concepts in language that the students are comfortable with, rather than the jargon associated with those who are fully enmeshed within the area of study. Therefore, there are ways you can use your position as newly introduced to the specifics of the topic area as an asset in developing and delivering your course.
Workload/Time Management
There are several useful tips that can help instructors teaching outside their expertise to manage the amount of work necessary to develop and deliver a new course. First, prioritize content. Stick to what is really important—both in designing your course and in focusing daily preparation. Once you have incorporated all the knowledge that you feel the students ‘must’ know after completing your course, you can move toward adding in learning of those ideas they ‘should’ know. Then, if there is still time, you can teach students what they ‘could’ know. But do not attempt to include all three types of knowledge right from the start! There is a finite amount of time in any semester and focusing on the key elements of the course will limit the amount of stress and pressure you will be under as an instructor.
Also, resist the temptation to lecture all of the time. Think of and plan class sessions as small chunks of time rather than as full periods. Breaking up class sessions not only helps to maintain student engagement, but also puts less pressure upon you as the instructor and gives you a chance to breathe. There are several wonderful resources for active learning tools that are available online, in books, on websites for national groups within your discipline, through the FFLC, or through ITLAL. Also, keep in mind that there are others within your discipline or department who have already successfully taught the course you are planning and most will most likely be willing to share activity ideas or to sit down and discuss how they chose to teach their version of the course. I encourage readers of this blog to reach out to others when developing active learning experiences for your classes. Take what others have created to mold for use in your classroom. There is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel.’

The ideas in this blog are from Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston. This book is a wonderful resource that serves as an asset to anyone concerned about teaching outside of their discipline. Readers are encouraged to look more closely at this book for more tips and further development of the ideas mentioned above.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The First Day of Class


Kevin Ramer
The first day of class is often accompanied by feelings of excitement and anxiety:  Excitement about meeting a new group of students, introducing new ideas into your course (assessments, lessons, etc.), or teaching a new subject.  Anxiety about how these new students will receive your ideas (or maybe from teaching a new subject!).  However you feel about the first day, it is essential to setting the tone for the semester.  As an instructor, you want to appear relaxed, confident, and in control, while selling your students on the course and showing them that you’re invested in their learning.  This post contains suggestions to help you accomplish these goals.

Before the First Class
Appearing in control is largely about preparation and organization.  Here are a few tips to make sure you are prepared and organized on the first day:
·      Have your course materials (especially the syllabus) ready in advance.  If your course uses a website or some other online component, make sure it’s up to date and that all of the necessary materials are available.  If you have to make copies, do so as early as possible; the beginning of the semester is usually the hardest time to get access to the copy machine.
·       Check out your classroom.  Does it have a whiteboard of chalkboard?  Does it have the technology you need (computer, projector, etc.) in working order?  Does the seating/board arrangement suit your teaching style?  If any of the requisite technology isn’t working, ask to have it fixed.  If there is a serious problem with the layout of the classroom, you can request a room change.
·       Make a plan for the first day of class.  I have included some ideas for a first day plan later in this post.

Right Before the First Class
Class is starting in a half-hour.  All of your handouts are ready, the classroom is (or should be) in working order, and you have your first day activities mapped out.  Despite all of your preparation, there is probably still some anxiety about walking into a classroom full of strangers and executing your plan, especially with the performance element involved.  Here are some exercises to help you relax and warm-up for class.
To prepare your voice:
·       Sing scales up and down
·       Stretch your mouth and lips and/or exaggerate their movement while speaking
To relax and prepare your body:
·       Take slow deep breaths from your diaphragm
·       Stretch to loosen up your body
·       Shake out your hands and feet
·       Move your eyes around (preparation for making eye contact with different parts of the room)
To trick yourself into feeling more confident:
·       Stand with wide feet, a straight back, and your hands on your hips for two minutes
·       Stand with your feet close together, a straight back, and your arms in the air, forming a “v” shape
Those last bullets come from a TED Talk about “power poses.”  See the following link for more information (and pictures!).

A General Plan for the First Day
Here is a general plan for the first day of class.  Remember, the first day sets the tone for the semester, so making use of the entire class is important.

1. Introduce Yourself to the Class

A good introduction establishes your credibility as an instructor while allowing students to view you as a person.  Some ideas to consider for your introduction are:
·       What you prefer to be called.
·       Where you’re from.
·       Where you’ve studied (because you are/were a student too).
·       How long you’ve been teaching (if you have a lot of experience).
·       Why you love your discipline.
·       Why you love teaching in your discipline.
The last two are especially important; enthusiasm is infectious.  This might also be a good time to say a few words about the course and why it’s useful.  Marketing is an important part of getting students on board for the semester.

2. Distribute/Discuss the Syllabus

Take some time to review the syllabus with your students.  A few tips:
·       Avoid reading the syllabus to the class as this tends to be a boring, unproductive use of class time.
·       On your copy, highlight points that need to be emphasized, expanded, or clarified.  This is a more productive use of class time.
·       Offer an explanation for the assessments (and teaching strategies) that you’ve chosen.  This helps to further establish your credibility and shows your students that you genuinely care about their learning.
·       If you are concerned about students not reading/understanding the syllabus, give a short, syllabus-themed quiz at the beginning of the second class meeting.

3. Get to Know Your Students

There are lots of methods for accomplishing this (see Nilson, Teaching at Its Best).  My preference is to pass out a short questionnaire (you can also have them write down the info on index cards).  Questions typically include:
·       What do you prefer to be called?
·       What is your major?
·       Do you have any previous experience with the course material?
·       What are your expectations for the course (aside from your grade)?
·       Is there anything else I should know about you?
You may want to make the final question more specific (hometown, hobbies, etc.) to help you tailor the class to your students’ interests.  I like to collect the questionnaires one by one to help me learn students’ names but, depending on the structure of your class, this may not be the most efficient use of class time.  As an alternative, you can give students assigned seats and make a seating chart to help memorize their names.  Learning names shows that you care; the faster you learn them, the better.

4. Class Rules Activity

This is an activity that I’ve mentioned previously in my post on classroom incivility.  Instead of listing class rules on the syllabus, I use the first day of class to let the students decide on what rules they want. 
The activity is simple: divide students into groups and ask them what class rules they need in order to learn.  After a set amount of time (five or ten minutes), go around the room and ask each team to contribute a rule.  Usually, some discussion will follow each of the contributions.  Find a volunteer to write down the rules as you list them on the board.  Once you have a set of rules that the entire class agrees on, collect the written copy from your volunteer.  Type them up and distribute them at the beginning of the second class.
I like this activity because it gives students ownership of the class rules.  It also serves as an icebreaker, especially within the groups.

5. Questions

Take the remaining class time to address any unanswered questions students have about the course.
This basic plan has worked well for me in past semesters.  If some of the ideas here don’t appeal to you, Nilson’s Teaching at Its Best has quite a few suggestions for first day activities that might be better suited to your teaching style.



Source: Linda B. Nilson, Teaching at Its Best

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Review of Publish and Flourish by Tara Gray

By Hannah Attard

In the fall, ITLAL held an invent entitled Publish and Flourish in which Tara Gray presented her book on how to become a prolific scholar.  The blurbs for the event suggested that by taking this course and applying the concepts your productivity will increase by four times.   How can a graduate student stay away from that kind of promise?  Ever since attending this event I have been working on implementing these ideas and, even though at times it is difficult to stay on track, I have noticed an increase in my own productivity and a feeling of accomplishment every day that I write.  Below, I have summarized Gray’s steps for a productive writer which can be broken up into four categories:  managing time, writing, revising, getting help, and polishing and publishing.  All of her suggestions are outlined below, but I will only go into detail about the time management and writing sections, which are the important first steps. I highly suggest buying the book as she goes into much more detail and gives examples.

Managing Time
1.Differentiate the “urgent” from the important.  Important activities move you closer to your goals and have serious consequences when left undone.  Urgent activities, however force you to act upon them immediately (email, knock at the door, etc.).  Research is important, but is not urgent.  Therefore, it is important to not neglect what is important just for what is urgent.  

2.  Write daily for 15-30 minutes.  This is the hard but important part.  Gray cites plenty of research in her book that states that “binge writing” (in which you sit and write for hours at a time every once in a while) is not as productive as writing every single day and those that write every single day actually end up writing more hours than those who binge write.  It is also easy to only write when you’re inspired to write.  The trick is that inspiration comes from regular accumulated work, so if you write daily inspiration will follow. 

In order to do this you must select a time and place to write and ensure there are no interruptions.  That means putting the phone on silent and closing your email.  You may need to give something up in order to ensure you have these 15 minutes.  But don’t give up something that is important (sleep or exercise), if you have to give something up in should be reading the newspaper, watching T.V., surfing the web, etc. Choosing a time to write is very important and making sure it is the same time every day.  Gray suggests the first thing in your day when you are most awake (even night people can be successful writing in the morning).   Keep this time as your writing date.  Do not attend meetings are make plans during this time.  Set aside a room where only writing is done. 

To ensure there are no interruptions (external or internal) before you begin your writing, make a list of things that you want to get done that may distract you (thaw chicken for dinner, etc.).  If you are in your office, put a note on the door that says you are writing and come back at whatever time when you are done.  Also, keep a record of how long you are writing for.  I use the stopwatch on my phone (after putting my phone on silent), but you can also simply write down the exact time you started and finished. 

3.  Record time spent writing daily-share records weekly.  Find others that are also doing this method (or if you don’t have anyone, email a friend or a relative—anyone).  This makes you accountable for your work.  And studies show it can increase your productivity by a factor of nine or ten. 

Writing
4.Write from the first day of your research project.  No literature review is ever finished; so don’t wait to start writing until it’s done.  You can leave holes in your writing that needs to be filled in later, just make a note of it.  You’ll be more productive if you write down your ideas and go back to them later.  Write informally throughout your research project also. 

5. Post your thesis on the wall and write to it.  Simply write down your topic to begin with, don’t come up with a perfect sentence.  This thesis can and will evolve as you write, but by putting it up on the wall and writing to it you are constantly reminded about why you are doing what you are doing. 


Revising
6.Organize around key sentences
7. Use key sentences as an after-the-fact-outline

Getting Help
8. Share early drafts with non-experts and later drafts with experts
9. Learn how to listen
10. Respond to each specific comment

Polishing and Publishing
11. Read your prose out loud
12. Kick it out the door and make ‘em say “No.” 

Tara Gray’s Publish and Flourish website can be found here:  http://www.taragray.com/workshops/pu

MAINTAINING ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: Preventing Cheating

By Caroline Girard-Cartier
As a teaching assistant I have unfortunately been faced with the unpleasant task of dealing with students involved in cheating more than once. It is always an uncomfortable situation and while it may be tempting to let lesser offenses slide, in the interest of preserving the academic integrity of the institution from which I have received my Master’s degree and will soon receive my PhD, I have taken action for each offense. So why do students cheat? How do we know when students are cheating? Perhaps most important, how do we prevent cheating?
Why do students cheat?
It has been suggested that cheating is a reflection of the decline in morality of the larger society (Nilson 2010). There are also studies that suggest that certain demographics (Hutton 2006; Kerkvliet 1994; Nowell & Laufner 1997) and participation in particular activities (Hutton 20006; Kerkvliet 1994; McCabe & Trevino 1997; Nowell & Laufner 1997) make a student more or less likely to take part in cheating. Perhaps it is students’ perceptions that cheating is acceptable on some level, the likelihood of getting caught is low and that the penalty for doing so is minimal that contribute to a student’s decision to cheat. In order to overcome these perceptions, it is important that at a large institution, such as UAlbany, we as instructors emphasize the importance of academic integrity and we must make it clear to our students that cheating will not be tolerated. It may also be beneficial to demonstrate our dedication to their learning. If we show that we car, then perhaps they will too.

How to detect cheating.
It doesn’t require knowledge of rocket science or brain surgery to identify cheating on quizzes and exams. Sideways glances, rustling papers, hidden cell phones, regular looks at one’s hands, etc. are all indicators that perhaps a student is using outside help. While proctoring exams it is important to remain alert at all times and not be distracted by other activities. Students may be opportunistic and waiting for those moments when your guard is down.

Plagiarism, may be a little bit more challenging to detect. There are a number of indicators that may suggest a student’s work is not completely their own. References may be key to detecting plagiarism. If references are missing, don’t seem appropriate to the work or the references are inaccessible, you may have a case of plagiarism on your hands. A topic other than the one assigned, perhaps one that looks like one assigned in previous semesters, or a recent change in topic may be indications that a student’s work is not their own.  While reading a paper if the writing style appears to shift or at points seems too well written and mature or if a section sounds too familiar, it may be worth some time to determine if a student has plagiarized. If plagiarism is suspected it may be helpful to search the references or use quotation marks to search questionable selections of the work.

How to prevent cheating.
Don’t avoid the topic of cheating. It is a good idea to let students know from the get go that cheating will not be tolerated and let them know that it comes from a place of caring about them and the academic integrity of the institution. Students’ perception of cheating may be askew, so let them know what forms of cheating exist and how they may avoid it. Provide examples of cheating and what the penalty has been for students guilty of such offenses in the past. For more specific ideas on how to prevent cheating, see Nilson 2010. When you suspect an instance of academic dishonesty, take immediate and decisive action.

Be familiar with the institution’s policy on academic integrity and provide students with a link to information about academic integrity: http://www.albany.edu/undergraduate_bulletin/regulations.html.

References
Hutton, P.A. (2006). Understanding student cheating and what educators can do about it. College Teaching, 54(1): 171-176

Kerkvliet, J. (1994). Cheating by economics students: A comparison of survey results. Journal of Economic Education 25(2): 121-133

McAbe, D.L. & Trevino, L.K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: Amulti-campus investigation. Research in Higher Education 38(3): 379-396

Nilson, L.B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Third Edition. Preserving Academic Integrity (pp.82-88). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Nowell, C. & Laufner, D. (1997). Undergraduate students cheating in the fields of business and economics. Journal of Economic Education 28(1): 3-12




Motivation and Leadership

By Ben Malczyk

Imagine someone who is the youngest tenured professor (age 32) at one of the nation’s top universities. Now imagine the same person having more than 60 publications and being considered one of the most influential researchers in your field. Based on these images alone, you might imagine a person who works all day and night, slaving over his/her keyboard pushing teaching, service and other interests aside.
This however is not the case. I am writing about Adam Grant. His list of accolades and accomplishments could easily fill a newspaper. Along with being a top-notch researcher, he is the top rated professor in his department and adored by his students—oh, and he even had his class participate in learning activities that have resulted in raising more than $175,000 for charity.
For me, perhaps the highest form of praise that I could give to him, or to just about anyone, is that he seems to practice what he preaches. Adam Grant studies work motivation and leadership. In his best-selling book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Grant shares some of the findings of his research. I think these findings are pertinent to those of us who are future faculty, especially considering Adam Grant’s success following the principles he outlines. I would encourage you to read the book or at least a summary, or even listen to one of his presentations or videos like the one below.

One idea from the book is that people can be divided into one of three types: takers, matchers and givers. Takers, as their name describes, try to get as much from other people as they can. Matchers look for fair trades. They may help someone review a paper for publication if they feel they can get the same treatment in return. This is how most of us interact with other people. Givers on the other hand, look for ways that they can be helpful to other people without thought of getting something immediately in return. Grant’s research has come to the interesting conclusion that givers find themselves in a unique position. When examining success, givers are often found at the bottom…but they are also often found at the top. His research found that givers who have a high level of concern for others as well as for themselves, often find themselves on top. Some reasons that he suggests givers ending up on top include:
Being a giver helps to establish relationships that will be a greater benefit later
These ties and relationships built by doing a simple favor are often the most helpful when finding a job or getting into a group or organization
A giver mentality is ideal for the team based world we are moving into because they take the best interest of the group into account, not the mentality of what’s best for them
Givers get help from matchers, while takers don’t see givers as much of a threat

Grant’s simple framework as depicted here offers a clear picture of the difference between successful givers and self-sacrificing givers.

Low concern for others
High concern for others
Low concern for self
Apathetic
Self-sacrificing givers
High concern for self
Takers
Successful givers
Grant draws the conclusion that it is possible to be both self-interested and other interested—which is key to being a successful giver. We may end up as a self-sacrificing giver if we don’t ask for help from others later down the road when it’s needed, if we fail to have the discipline to work on our own projects, or if we continue to give to takers.
While most of us are simply matchers, I would challenge you to find a way to become a more successful giver. You may find that your list of friends and acquaintances who are willing to go to bat for you when needed expands and that having others around you who care about you because you care about them propels you to heights you did not think were possible.



Frustration, Creativity, and Mandatory Distraction

By Gary Roth

There are only so many hours in a day, and being a graduate student can tax these to the utmost.  At any given time you may find yourself taking classes, teaching classes, mentoring other students outside of class, putting in dozens of extra hours per week in a lab or library towards your thesis, or any combination of these things.  Sometimes, you may even need to assist in work not directly pertaining to these goals for political reasons within your department or to round out your CV.  That’s going to easily soak up a vast majority of your time and does not even begin to account for familial obligations or the like.  One phrase I’ve heard from students and faculty alike is, “If you have time to sleep, you’re not working hard enough.”  Another indicative quote from a professor I’ve had was, “Family, career, hobbies.  Choose two.” 

While not all graduate students feel the loss as acutely or abruptly, for many of us, there is a gradual erosion of social connections and activities that would otherwise have filled our free time.  We accept this as the cost of our chosen career path.  However, we often don’t realize that there is an invisible loss of morale and creativity that accompanies single-minded devotion to our work.   

No time does this become more evident than when we find our progress arrested.  This can mean an experiment that repeatedly fails without an obvious cause, a case of writer’s block, or, most frustratingly, one of those times you stare at a problem with a nagging sensation that the obvious solution is in front of you but just out of reach.  The fact is that human beings are not built by nature to focus unerringly on a single task without end.  When we become trapped attacking a stubborn problem, we are quickly get frustrated, which only fixates us more on the problem and diminishes our ability to solve it by thinking laterally.

Immersive distractions are, in fact, a good thing when it comes to thinking laterally.  There are three reasons for this.  The first is distance from a problem decreases the level of immediate frustration and makes it easier to think along different paths than you’ve already tried.  The second is that, provided you enjoy your choice distractions, it will improve your morale and enthusiasm for anything you may need to do, rather than being wound up in the frustration of a given task. 

Most importantly, though, is that it diversifies your experience.  Good hobbies not only serve as a way to pass the time, but they cause you to think and perform in ways quite different from your work, to learn things very far afield, to approach problems differently, and interact with an entirely different crowd of people.  Each of these things expands your potential options.  You never know when inspiration may strike you from things that you wouldn’t ordinarily connect, or when a different way of thinking may lead you to an answer that the traditional, textbook approaches of your field couldn’t have arrived at so easily.

So what differentiates a good distraction from a bad one?  Well, bad distractions interfere with routine work while a good one is something you can embrace on your own schedule.  As importantly, good distractions should encourage you to develop skills, knowledge, and social connections that are different from the normal work environment.  Some good examples are hobbies such as crafts, music, or athletics certainly qualify; these are enjoyable, require concentration, and yield new skills.  Another is consumable media.  Putting aside passing judgment on modern television, a good book or movie can be quite relaxing and can prompt you to think about things in a radically different way, often while expanding your vocabulary or knowledge of things outside your usual study.  Finally, there is the value of pure socialization: dynamic conversations satisfy a deep requirement for interpersonal interaction while exposing you to other people’s routines which are likely to be quite different than yours and thus cause you to think differently.  All of these activities aren’t merely distractions but enrichment activities for your mind, even as they provide you a much needed reprieve from intractable problems.  They even provide another level on which to connect with future audiences, either in your classrooms, board rooms, or seminars.


The trick lies in where to fit this time in.  Even the most regimented of schedules can become upset on a moment’s notice when you’re a graduate student.  I recommend that you set aside at least five hours per week to do what you enjoy: this could be an hour each day, or a single evening.  It may be difficult to do, but it is an important asset.  Resist the urge to keep pouring onto a difficult challenge during this period: that’s when it’s most important to go get distracted.  In fact, when all else fails on a challenge, you’re getting frustrated, and no amount of extra time is yielding progress, it’s not the time to tune out distraction.  It’s time to embrace it.