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The Seminar Paper


Advice on How to Manage Multiple Papers at Once, from one Grad Student to Another

1. Define your topic as early as possible.

The semester rushes by faster than you can print out the week’s PDFs, and you’re left with the task of writing more in three weeks that you have in the previous fourteen. SO, if you can, jot down, bullet point, scribble out any nascent thoughts you might have for a term paper as soon as they come to mind.

If you can do this for one or two of your seminars before the last month of classes, you’ll be in good shape to finish everything up in time, and afford yourself a real break! Don’t worry if the thoughts are fragmented for now—you can work on articulating them more precisely in seminar, at a bar, or over the phone with a good friend (i.e. someone you trust with your newborn ideas.)

2. Consider the exam option.

Ideally we would all write beautifully articulated, thoroughly researched papers for every seminar we’ve every taken. In practice, this very seldom happens. If there is a LAIC seminar for which you cannot think of a paper topic, choose to take the exam. And don’t waste any more time fretting over it. Even if the professor discourages you, take the exam. They are obligated to offer it, and it is your right to request it. It does not mean you are weak. It means you are being smart with your time and scheduling.

3. Remember that this is a seminar paper.

It is not an article being submitted to a peer-review journal. It is not a piece for the New Yorker. It’s not a chapter of your diss. Though it may be one or all of those things in the future, for now it is just a humble term paper, possibly/probably produced under a good amount of pressure and a serious time constraint. Remind yourself of this as you’re editing it for the last time and realizing that the thesis is actually to be found in that concluding paragraph or that you didn’t manage to fit in your withering critique of name-your-distinguished-yet-staid scholar. You can always take note of everything that you think is wrong or needs adjusting for later. But first, attach that baby to an email, type in the prof’s address, write a nice delivery note, and press send.

4. Be clear with faculty.

If you’re unsure as to how long a paper should be, when the deadline is, how possible it is to get an extension, and the sorts of research and analysis expected (amount of primary/secondary material, extent and kinds of engagement with these materials, etc.), ask them either in class or via email. Expectations and preferences differ among faculty members, so be sure to clarify specifics with each one individually.

If you want to revisit a topic, text, or object you’ve already written about, clear it with the professor first. They will usually say yes. Make sure to get this confirmation from them to assure yourself that everything is above board.

5. Recognize that progress will be uneven. The papers will be uneven. And that’s O.K.

Some seminar papers will be easier to write than others—maybe you give yourself a week for each, and one will take you 2 days, while another, that you thought might come more easily, ends up monopolizing your life, invading your dreams, moving into your living room without offering to pay rent. If this happens to you, do not worry—take a step back, go for a walk, make dinner, grab a drink, lift weights. Basically, take your mind off of it for a second, and the ideas and words will come. If they don’t, I owe you a drink.

What’s more, you will not be equally satisfied with the outcome of all of your seminar papers. That’s totally normal and O.K. This will not preclude you from writing a beautiful diss.

6. Don’t overthink the assignment or its components.

When lost in the writing process, always return to this:




7. Use all available resources.

Faculty and fellow graduate students are obviously two great resources for workshopping ideas and getting advice on bibliography. Make an appointment with a prof, start a final-paper WhatsApp group, or sign-up for one of Eunice’s super-helpful talleres.

For working on the mechanics of writing one-on-one, Columbia’s Writing Center is free, and right across from Nous Café in Philosophy Hall. You can go to them at any stage of the writing process, and they will help you outline the next steps, give you feedback on your prose, and suggest a number of trade techniques. **First-gen students, non-native English speakers, and dissertators can schedule a recurring, weekly appoint at the beginning of the semester. They also have walk-in hours, and an online appointment scheduler, but keep in mind that they get swamped at the end of the semester.

For staying sane through the writing process, get in touch with Counseling and Psychological Services. I suggest you call and make an appointment, rather than dropping in, if that’s available to you. They will ask you some intake questions and then schedule you to meet with a counselor.

You will also need to meet with CPS first, if you’re planning on seeing a therapist off campus; they will refer you to someone in-network (meaning, your copay will be $20/visit). Like the Writing Center, they get VERY busy at the end of the semester. I’ve had students tell me that they’ve been turned away by CPS, because they’re so overburdened (ugh. sigh.). So, if you’re thinking you’d like to seek counseling, contact them ASAP.

8. Give yourself time to edit.

Writing is rewriting, is rewriting, is rewriting. So, make sure to give yourself ample time to edit—that might be a few hours or a few days, depending on how you work. If you can, have someone copy edit your paper for you. Swap papers amongst yourselves. Even if you’re not happy with parts of the argument, if you can ensure that the paper’s grammatically and orthographically sound, it and you will be better for it.

9. Submit a perfect paper.

Perficere in Latin mean “to complete.” A perfect paper is one that is completed and submitted. So, if you email out three papers at the end of this term, you will have sent our three perfect papers.

NB: If you’re unsure what format to send the paper in, your best bet is always PDF. When in doubt, just send a .doc and a .pdf file. But make sure the .doc file does not have any stray tracked changes or notes!

10. Follow up.

If you have not received feedback on your work, and you would like it, be in touch with the professor the following semester. Not all faculty will email you back a commented or edited draft—don’t take this as a reflection of the quality of your work; some faculty even prefer to meet in person. When in doubt, just email them asking for an appointment to discuss your paper.

Useful Tech Tools:

Onetab: extension for Chrome that will save collections of tabs. You can then email these out.

Zotero or Mandeley: two bibliography programs. Both are quite glitchy w. Chrome. If you can get used to using one of these, it will save you when it comes to changing citation formats, and will also liberate you from internet tab madness.

The whole Microsoft suite is free for CU students here.

If you’re willing to spend the money, Scrivener is a great alternative to working in Word. And after you’re done you can export the doc into Word, or create a PDF of it.

TinyReader is the best phone scanner I’ve found. It costs $4 and is more of a lifesaver than any latte you’ve ever had. You can use it to scan non-circulating books, for example.

SelfControl is a free computer program that let’s you block all or parts of the internet (using a whitelist or a blacklist) for an allotted amount of time. (I use it in blocks of 30 minutes.)

I also love Dropbox, and don’t fully trust GoogleDrive. But that’s just me.

Library Info: Inter Library Loan (ILL) vs. BorrowDirect: ILL is a network of university borrowers and lenders from around the country; CLIO links to it directly;

BD is an Ivy League borrowing program, where books are said to arrive within 24 business hours; it has a separate log-in page.

MaRLI Card: an ID offered to CU doctoral students and faculty that allows you borrowing privileges at NYU and the NYPL. I use this all the time at NYU’s Bobst. You need to fill out the registration form first and they usually take 2 business days to complete the request.

CLIO Account: You can login to your library account through CLIO. This is also where you can request an extension on your loan—you are allowed up to 3 extensions per item.

NB: If you check out a book during a semester in which you are teaching, and you then return that book past its due date, you will not be fined a late fee. Also, if you return a lost item, the fees associated with it should be dropped. If they do not disappear from your account after a week, see the circulation desk.

Last Updated 9 months ago


Nicole P. Basile, « The Seminar Paper », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on December 3, 2018. Full URL for this article

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