May 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
I’ve been feeling a lot like a loser lately. And that’s only in the sense that in the wake of an uber-productive weekend (including two revised and polished chapter drafts sent back to my dissertation director), I have been extraordinarily unproductive. Sunday, I chose to rest after grading without feeling guilty about it. And I did rest. And I did not feel guilty. Monday, I did major domestic chores, which included paying bills for a couple of hours and filling out a job application for the Princeton Review so that I can proctor an LSAT exam in a few weeks. I didn’t expect either of those tasks to take as long as they did, but the Internet was acting rather slow for me…I imagine it’s because of Osama Bin Laden’s death, honestly. I think people were clogging up the Interwebs, if such a thing can happen.
Today I have been productive. I’ve read Twelfth Night, which I’ve been trying to do (according to my schedule on iProcrastinate) since last Wednesday. I’ve dog-eared the passages that will be particularly useful to my argument in Chapter Three. And now I’ve chosen to take a little break, not a nap, before plugging away at the segment on Twelfth Night.
As much as I fight it and struggle with guilt, breaks are important. They afford us an opportunity to take a breath, to walk away from the project, to gain some perspective. They might even allow us to recharge our batteries, reignite our motivation to work, offer us the chance to talk to someone else. As I write this massive project, the largest project I have ever worked on, I have had to reevaluate my writing process, my research process, even my very thinking process. How I create ideas, cultivate them, and rework them until they’re cogent has been entirely different from any other project I’ve worked on. No, not even seminar papers (those little conference-papers-to-be or wanna-be-publications) in all their 20-to-25-page glory are developed in quite the same way as a dissertation. I was once told, and I once naively believed, that writing a dissertation is doable simply because, in theory, it’s five or six seminar papers smushed together.
For those who have wisely avoided graduate school (I kid, but only a little), a seminar paper is the end-of-semester culmination of theory and application for a single course that tends to take an overwhelming majority of the total course percentage. If you bomb your seminar paper, you’re in a pretty bad place. Seminar papers can range in required page counts, but most fall between a requisite 20-30 pages minimum. In my line of experience, most professors ask for a 20-25 page paper.
Theoretically, a dissertation chapter would fall on the high-end of a seminar paper page range. But, no, dissertations are not five or six seminar papers smushed together. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a bold-faced liar and you should call them so to their face.
The difference is fairly stark:
1. Dissertations require you to maintain a single theoretical argument from page 1 to page 250. You have to span chapters with this single argument. The success of your dissertation can hinge a great deal on how well you articulate and consistently discuss that argument. It’s all about the follow-through. A 20-25 page paper, though long and daunting in its own way, simply doesn’t have the same requirement about it.
2. Although most PhD candidates will have written more than five or six seminar papers in their entire graduate careers, they likely will not have consistently written on the exact same topic from paper to paper. Frankly, doing so is improbable because of the very nature of graduate work. If a student has had the opportunity to take several graduate-level classes that have curricula identical enough to warrant repeat topics, then that student has been done a vast disservice. Although I haven’t had a graduate-level American lit. course, a fact that I would correct given the opportunity to, the British lit. courses I’ve taken at the graduate level simply did not make it possible for me to write on the same topic consistently.
3. The composition of a dissertation is less about the writing and more about the pre-writing. Yes, pages are what matter. If you have not written a page, then you have not really begun “writing” your dissertation. However. More often than not, the conceptualization of a dissertation takes a long time. (The amount of time differs on an individual basis, but for me, it was two years.) During this time, the candidate is conducting research, asking questions, coming to conclusions, and assessing other writers’ arguments in order to make their own. If a dissertation-writer failed to take the time (however long that is for their own purposes) to do the research and ask the questions and come to the conclusions, then that student’s own argument simply cannot be taken seriously. (How can one claim expertise on a subject, claim even a convincing opinion, when the proper steps have not been taken first?)
Because I am still learning the intricacies of dissertation-writing, I’ll leave my list there for now. But I will clarify this point once more: the dissertation is unlike any writing project I have ever undertaken before. That alone requires me to rework my writing process until it is something that I can sustain over the course of a years-long writing project.
Break’s over. On to Chapter Three.
April 26, 2011 § 5 Comments
I believe in order to be a successful writer, you must have a system in place. Perhaps it’s a favorite coffee shop, or specific drink ordered there. Maybe it’s that one playlist that unlocks your creativity. Or maybe it’s your own obsession with planning.
Whatever your preferred system, that system requires tools. And my tools are all about the plan.
I have already mentioned one of my favorite new tools for keeping track of all those to-do lists in order to maintain motivation as well as to avoid double-booking responsibilities. iProcrastinate has been one of those apps that just really gets me going. It makes me utterly happy and excited to check those little “complete” boxes and see the required to-do items begin to diminish.
In addition to that awesome app, I have been using another set of tools to sort of “trick” myself into believing that not only is writing fun but it’s also something worthwhile. (I know, I know, the sarcasm is palpable.) V has voluntarily come along with me on this crazy ride, and as writing buddies, we have responded to each other’s needs by developing useful writing aids.
Behold! Our tools for dissertation success:
It may not look particularly fancy to you, but allow me to explain.
Have you ever watched a college football game and ever wondered why those boys have stickers lining their helmets? No, silly as it may look, the boys aren’t exploring their six-year-old-girlie-sides. The stickers mean something. Sometimes they mean success on the field or in academics (…more often than not they mean field success…), and often the football players can rattle off the meaning behind each individual sticker. Robert is the one who sparked this little idea. He recommended that we do something where we could collect success stickers and feel pride and motivation. My clipboard, although not particularly photogenic, is gorgeous with butterfly stickers representing pages completed and metallic floral stickers representing major goals accomplished (like submitting the fellowship materials and e-mailing drafts to my committee chair). V has adorable paw prints for her pages-written accomplishments (because she and her husband have three awesome dogs), and beautiful gold metallic bird stickers for major dissertation goals met (because she loves birds and was once the loving owner of a darling pair).
Every Friday, during our weekly dissertation meeting and “therapy” session (oh the therapeutic powers of raspberry Chai…), we tally up the goals we’ve accomplished and pages written. Each time we write ten pages, we get a new sticker (butterflies for me, paw prints for V). Each time we accomplish a major goal, we get a fancy sticker (flowers for me, birds for V). The placement and design of these stickers is entirely up to us, and we do have in mind the specific location for the dissertation defense sticker. Hey, it’s good to have a goal, right?
Our Post-It Note Argument.
You’re already familiar with the concept behind this little beauty, so I won’t go into greater detail here. If you need a refresher on the theory behind the Post-It note argument, please feel free to go back and read, “A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic.”
Please note: As far as I know, V has not publicly released her Post-It Note argument. Regardless her reason and my decision to do the opposite, I obviously respect both her privacy and intellectual property. Therefore, I have purposefully smudged-out her dissertation argument past the opening “My dissertation explores the.” Also, I thought I should mention that V’s handwriting is super neat and tidy…my poor smudging skills on Photoshop are what caused the wavy lines. Her original Post-It looks very nice.
The “Honest About Our Time” Chart.
V is actually entirely responsible for the honest-time chart. She suggested that to prepare us for summer vacation (which can either be an embarrassment of riches in terms of undesignated hours or an enticement to laziness), we should keep track of how we utilize our time utterly honestly this week. This is the beginning of my time chart. My goal is to have a slew of mostly pink and orange (dissertation) time charts by the time this entire thing is over.
The Antithesis to Success.
A Beatrice who insists on being exactly where my hands are at all times, which often happens to be the laptop keyboard. This is often my view. Or, rather, the view my laptop camera has of me. 😉 The best way to combat this? Set her down on her favorite chair cushion and convince her she’d much rather be there than around me anyway.
So, these are our tools to writing success.
What are yours?
April 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
I feel awful.
I have broken down twice today over the phone–once to Robert and the other time to my mom. So, what’s got this girl so gloomy?
I hate saying no to people I love.
Recently, V and I offered some words of hard-won wisdom to a fellow graduate student…and V said something that I’ve never managed to properly accept. She told him not to get so caught up in the stress of the project that he refuses to allow himself some social time. And as a married man, this is important advice to receive.
I have trouble with this particular piece of advice because I feel like I so royally fucked up that now I’m being punished for it. And part of the punishment is not hanging out with friends and family. Telling people no.
We received an invitation to dinner at a couple of friends’ house for Easter dinner (since we’ll be celebrating early with Robert’s family tomorrow…and not seeing my family at all…since March 12th). I haven’t seen these friends since February. I nearly burst into tears when I received the texted invitation. And I did burst into tears when I called Robert to talk to him about it.
I’m fairly certain I won’t be able to go because dinner is going to take a great deal of time tomorrow evening.
I feel like a horrible friend, a horrible daughter, and a horrible daughter-in-law. Not to mention the world’s worst sister–I haven’t seen my sister, who literally lives right around the corner from us, since March 12th. It makes me sick to my stomach to realize what all I am having to sacrifice in order to repay for my dilly-dallying last year.
Take it from A.Hab., future and present grad students: set yourself up for success. Get started as early as you legitimately can so that you are able to equally divide your time between research/writing and a social life. The alternative is not pleasant. Truly.
April 21, 2011 § 11 Comments
I stare at the Word document. It stares right on back. Jeering. Judging. Judging? Definitely judging. Why don’t you just go ahead and write something then? It taunts me. I sigh and fight the urge to open WordPress.com to begin another hour-long marathon of blog-reading. Do it. The document seems to say. You can’t write today anyway. You’re too tired. You’re too bored. You’re too lame. You’re too incapable.
Instead of succumbing to the document’s powerful fighting words, I open a new window in Safari. But not to visit WordPress.com. Instead, I visit my university employment site. I log in. And I see something beautiful. Under the words “Application Status” are the glorious and truly validating words “Forwarded to hiring department.”
This is not the first time I’ve read this memo. I must have logged in to this system at least five times since yesterday. Seven times since Tuesday night when I came home in tears over blog grades. Were they happy tears? I think so. And angry tears. Tears that indicated the vindication I so desperately sought from a department that won’t offer it. Come on, I told myself. Seriously. What English department actually vindicates its graduate students? I thought of my undergraduate English department. Yeah, I corrected myself. You weren’t a graduate student then. I wanted to buck-up or maybe I wanted to continue ripping apart my self-esteem. I logged onto the employment site for the first time since submitting my application and saw the status was, gloriously, updated as though to say, “Amanda, we think you’re all right!” I fought back more tears. I was too tired to deal with this, but I went to bed happy. I made it through one more hoop.
Since Tuesday, I have logged onto that site in the moments when self-doubt and -deprecation threaten to creep back in. I want nothing more than to silence that voice that has seemed to locate a megaphone in my mind and that hourly shouts at me, “You are such a fucking loser!”
Knowing my application has been approved by someone with the expertise to approve such things offers that megaphone-voice the equivalent of a mental raspberry. Pbbt! I imagine spitting at the negativity. Gosh darn it someone likes me! I giggle at my own reference to early Franken.
Somehow this job application, this whimsical hope, this dream, this fantasy has been enough to spur me onward. I have been productive–if not every moment on my dissertation, then I have been a more productive teacher in these past few days. I have graded more, lesson-planned better, conducted more analytical and interesting class discussions. I have written over twelve pages all told. I have compiled disparate secondary sources and identified the ways in which I will use each one. I am ready to move forward and finish.
This job, this fantasy has offered me a concrete finish line.
“It will be extremely difficult for someone to do this job well while also finishing a dissertation,” she told me confidentially. I smiled and assured her I’d be finished by the beginning of August.
And I will be.
I will be because this job is important. And I want this job. This specific job. This isn’t just any job in the wide world. This is a great job. An interesting job. A job I know I would do well. It shouldn’t even have been available this year, but thank goodness that it is.
Even though the promise of the job is as solid as gossamer, belief in it fortifies the fantasy until it can withstand the weight of my dissertation, of my motivation.
April 13, 2011 § 16 Comments
Probably the single best part about the actual instruction involved with teaching is the motivation, the encouragement. I love it. I thrive on it. It happens all too infrequently.
Yesterday was a great teaching day. Class clicked along swimmingly (although discussion was a bit one-sided for my tastes), I had a few opportunities to demonstrate my generous benevolence, and I met with a few students in my office a full gasp! nine days before the paper is due! (That’s not meant to be read as sarcasm…I am truly astonished and thrilled.)
This paper that my students are writing is an experiment. All semester, I have asked them to consider the theme of “Identity” throughout these World Literature II texts. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve done a stand-up job. This final paper condenses a semester’s worth of lectures and thoughts into a single moment, a single exploration of the Self. I have assigned my students the weighty and nigh-on impossible task of crafting their own identities. They will interact with the literature, though, analyzing the authors’ approach to identity-making and mimicking as best they can the approaches that work best for them. I expect some creativity. I want some sparkle. This could be the last paper I read for quite some time (and at least until August–since I won’t teach this summer), so why not go out on an experimental high note? So far, I believe they are enjoying the journey. Many of them are relieved to find out that I’m fairly loosey-goosey on this particular assignment…unlike the first one which was very rules-y. (We must all learn to write in specific landscapes, yes?)
Yesterday’s good teaching day allowed me a moment’s meditation (and only a moment) on the loveliness of helping. And, in light of that, I’d like to write a short open letter to students everywhere.
To all students present and future:
To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, please help me help you. Give me the chance to demonstrate to you my knowledge. Allow me the opportunity to attempt to motivate you. Ask me questions. Open up. Be honest. Reveal your insecurities, your concerns, your fears. Be receptive to my advice, my recommendations, my suggestions. Take notes while I expound on my answers to your questions. Demonstrate to me that you are actively listening. When I see you take notes, feverishly writing to keep up with my fevered counsel, a fire burns in my heart and I become proud. I become confident. I realize that I have something of value to offer you. Give me that chance because the more often you do so, the better my advice will be.
Let me celebrate with you. Tell me about the times when you broke through your Writer’s Block. Share with me the harrowing tale of your 2 a.m. Dorito’s and Mountain Dew bender at the library and the genius that pored forth from your fingertips to the keyboard. Recount for me the time you showed your classmate a rough draft in an impromptu peer review, and how it helped you. Give me the gift of collegial joy. I’m a writer, too. I can revel in your successes, too. I can live vicariously through your victories, your triumphs, your battles hard-won, too.
Help me help you.
Offer me a moment to teach you, to feel a burst of confidence when you promise to get it, and to experience the utter, bone-deep pride when you actually do.
April 9, 2011 § 15 Comments
Last week, that is March 28-April 2nd, was kind of a bummer for me. I had to make a conscious stab at happiness in many, many ways. Although last week was by no means the first time I had experienced this sort of thing, it is still something I do not seek out nor particularly appreciate experiencing.
And then difference!
During my lunch meeting with my directing professor, she encouraged me to apply for a position that was just posted on our university website. Nervous, I went home and read the job description. A lot of work…a lot of responsibility…still working within the university but not part of Academia proper…. It looked perfect. I started working on converting my CV into a resume–a really daunting and monstrous task. I wrote and rewrote a cover letter for the first time in my adult life–cover letters and statements of purpose are just not the same thing.
If I were to get this job, I would be able to work with a university that I have come to love (ever since I was a little girl), but more importantly, I would serve students in an advisory capacity. It is not the instruction, advising, or interaction with students that factors into my trouble with teaching. My trouble with teaching falls almost squarely upon the anxiety and agony I feel when forced to grade student work. It takes too long for me to go through a paper, and the reason is that I sit and imagine a scenario where a student will quibble over that one comment or those three points off. What will I tell this student? If they come to argue, how would I justify my decision? I go through this with every single comment on every single paper. Multiply that by 60 students in a semester (for a 2-course semester, which is light–most instructors are given at least a four-course teaching load), and you have a great deal of mental and emotional energy spent on something that probably didn’t require it. (Yeah…ask me, of the 60 students in a single semester, how many of them come to argue about the three points I lost sleep over.)
This job would be the best of both worlds. I would be able to teach without grading. I would be able to interact with students in a capacity that utilized both my degree and training in a way that could actually make me happy. I would make a contribution and feel (at least more than I am now) appreciation.
Yesterday I met with the graduate student whose position this new job will be replacing, and he gave me a great deal of encouragement. Obviously, he didn’t divulge any nasty secrets (I’m not interested in them), but he gave me a very practical picture of what this job is. It’s a lot of work. But I thrive on work. I love work. And I believe I would really love this work.
I can’t get this job out of my mind. I can’t stop brainstorming ideas of how I would improve upon some of the methods already in place. I want this bad.
I meet with the woman who’s in charge of hiring Monday afternoon (in other words, the director–the boss-lady). I really just want her to be able to associate the name on my application with my face. (Brilliant idea by A.Mo., R, and V, by the way. They’re such awesome friends!) I actually feel excited about the prospect of this meeting rather than daunted by it. (Maybe as Monday draws nearer, I’ll feel more daunted…but I don’t know….) I actually want to get the meeting “over with” because I want her to hear how awesome I would be at this job. How excited I am about working in this particular position and in this particular capacity. How perfect I am for this program.
Keep your fingers, toes, eyes, hair, everything crossed for me, my friends. A.Hab. really really wants this job! 🙂
April 3, 2011 Enter your password to view comments.
April 2, 2011 § 16 Comments
“It’s like ripples in a pond!” I exclaim over my grilled herb chicken. My director and I are at lunch at a local in-hotel Italian restaurant. The number of faculty and staff at this particular location right now is astounding–this must be the tastiest lunch deal within walking distance of campus. I’d tend to agree with them.
“Well, maybe for you it is…,” she says warily.
“I guess I have a great topic.” When she cocks her eyebrow and kind of laughs, I take it back. “Well…I have good ideas how to work on this topic. I guess I’m just worried that this topic is so huge, so unwieldy that I’ll get to the end of the dissertation and hear criticism because I didn’t talk about this point or apply my theory in that way. I’m scared of being judged for what could have been.”
“That’s fair,” she concedes. And then she pauses. I take a sip of my water realizing that I’m doing it again–rambling like a hyperactive child who discovered her mother’s sugary treat stash. “You need to come up with an elevator topic.” My eyebrows crease. “You don’t know about the elevator topic?” she asks, surprised she hasn’t already divulged this secret to me yet, over our six-year working relationship.
And, friends, that’s when my directing professor delivered the single-best advice I have ever been given. And now I will share it with you.
“The elevator topic…,” she says almost conspiratorially, leaning forward a little. “…is a method for distilling your entire dissertation argument into a single, concise sentence.”
Imagine you are at the MLA conference, the location for all humanities-related job interviews. You are in a hotel, preparing for one of your first market interviews. You’ve waited a while, and now you wait on the elevator. As the doors ding! open, another job-seeking-hopeful joins you and pleasantly engages you in conversation.
“So, what’s your dissertation about?” he asks, pushing the number 3.
You have three floors to offer the argument of a 200-page book.
What do you say?
I laugh, interrupting the magic of the moment, and say, “I’d end up having to hold the door open and would just annoy everyone.”
She laughs too. “Well, this is something you need to do. I’m concerned that your topic is attempting to do too much. Your dissertation will not be perfect. It just won’t. Even if you publish it, you will flip it open to the first page and locate an error immediately. You’ll realize that you meant to say it another way or that you should have developed your argument in a different direction. That’s the nature of a dissertation. If you focus on the perfect product that argues everything, you will never finish.”
The last four words she delivers ominously. I think the sky darkens outside the window as she speaks.
“So, an elevator topic, huh?” I ask when the sky lightens. “That is what I will devote my next 48 hours to. I will come up with an elevator topic.”
“Yes. And when you do, you need to write it down and put it on your fridge. Put it everywhere you will see it.”
After I left lunch, I felt inspired.
“V!” I probably blast off her ear when we’re on the phone. “I have this great idea. Professor Director told me about the elevator topic. Have you heard about it?” She hasn’t. I impart my newly-gained wisdom upon her. Once I finish, I say, “So I was thinking…if it’s something that should go on the fridge, it’s something that should fit on a small piece of paper, right? Like a Post-It Note!”
V knows where I’m going with this. “Oh my gosh, A.Hab., I love it!”
We agree that Saturday will be Post-It Note Argument Day. (It’s a lengthy title, but major projects deserve lengthy titles.)
This morning, V and I worked on and wrote our Post-It Note Arguments. We wrote them about four times (twice on Post-It notes, once on our notepads, and once on our laptops). We exchanged one of the two Post-It notes with our argument with each other, fully intending to help hold the other accountable for her concise argument.
I will speak for V when I say that we are relieved, better focused, and more motivated to incorporate these arguments throughout our dissertation chapters. V’s even going to apply this theory to individual chapter arguments in order to check that she is consistent from the beginning to the end of each chapter.
I’m thrilled. My first Post-It note argument draft was rough. V helped me see how it was too broad. She gave me a dose of honesty that I truly needed. My first draft, she said, read too much like a dissertation from a psychology student or a human sciences or evolutionary biology student. “Are you really going to be able to prove this by the end of your dissertation?” she asked. I shook my head. “And where’s Shakespeare?” I reworked it to include the words “select seventeenth century texts” and reevaluated my end-goal…and now I’m happy. Because my chapters are working toward this argument. I just now need to make sure I state it clearly throughout the dissertation in a way that won’t leave my readers wondering why they’re receiving a specific anecdote.
So, here’s the moral of the story:
When in doubt, write it out…on a Post-It note!