Seeking external motivation: the power of a job application

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.

A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic

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!

Letting sleep(y) dogs lie

March 23, 2011 § 7 Comments

My home is incredibly quiet this morning. Except for the snoring of two sleep-deprived canines.

And the source of their sleep deprivation? Me.

You see, I stayed up until 2 a.m. this morning working on the finishing touches of my draft of Chapter Two (draft one, I should clarify). I woke up around 7:30 to Annie’s beckoning (she needed to potty, as puppies do), and sat down to do some quick proofreading (although I am confident I left some errors in the document…it’s fine, though–it’s just a draft), converted in-text citations to footnotes, and wrote a bibliography. And then…around 9:30, I e-mailed the draft off…and this is it in its current statistical form:

36 pages, over 10,000 words. The best part? Those 36 pages are really just the beginning. Those 36 pages are just to prove to my professor that I am going to make the kind of progress one needs to make in order to bang out a dissertation in time to graduate. I still have the depths of my argument to explore, which will probably take at least another 20-30 pages. Chapter Two is destined to be a long one, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the foundation of my own argument.

Although I would love to say that my day’s plan is to just sit around and sleep, that is not the case. I have a great deal of grading left to do (most of my students’ papers). So, I’m going to work my way through those so that I can have those off my shoulders by tomorrow, return them in class, and then spend my entire weekend relaxing.

In the meantime, I’d like you to enjoy the view I’m enjoying this morning:

The saying may be “let sleeping dogs lie” (in other words “if there’s no problem rearing its head, leave it alone”)…but in my house, today the saying is “let sleepy dogs lie!”

Cannot brain…too exhausted…

March 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

I feel like I’m going to pass out here any second. I’ve had a little bit of an emotional couple of days (much related to stress, unnecessary panic, excitement, and finally relief)…and now I’m left just tired.

So, here you go for your daily post from A.Hab.:

I am going to apply for the dissertation completion fellowship for this summer–this means that I would be fully funded by a “scholarship” so that I do not have to teach the semester I plan to graduate.

This is just generally good news, even if I am nervous as hell to apply for it. V is certain that we are well-qualified applicants. I literally cling to those words for encouragement and motivation to apply in the first place. I meant to send my materials to the committee before the end of the day today, but I don’t see that happening now. I’m unsure if I’ll be able to submit everything tomorrow either. It might be Sunday or Monday. Either way, the gist is this: I am applying. As much as it scares me to compete with other graduate students, I’m going to apply anyway.

Good night everyone. It’s way past time for ol’ A.Hab. to get herself to bed.

Lent for Adults

March 7, 2011 § 15 Comments

It seems for me that every year I feel compelled to explain how I plan to acknowledge Lent. As a Catholic who has fallen out of the habit of attending Mass regularly, I hesitate to call myself non-practicing. I do practice. In other ways. In ways that don’t count for the Church. But I don’t care.

Last year I participated in Lent by fasting from my temper and impatience. Looking back now, I believe I accomplished my goal of permanently affecting a change. It was during that time that I really reevaluated the way I chose to conduct myself during arguments with Robert, and I believe I have become a better partner for it. (Only he can vouch for that.)

This year, I have decided to take this concept of “fasting” in grown-up terms to another level. I do not believe in giving up a food item or something frivolous with the intent to indulge in it or even just to reincorporate it in my life again. That’s fine for children who, as Robert points out, do not have a capacity to think in the abstract. Adults, I believe, should make lasting changes–changes that will carry on throughout their lives, changes that will help them or make up for a lack.

In light of these ideas, I have decided to attempt something I have always always struggled with. As many of you are aware of, in October I felt deeply wronged by a family member of mine. (I won’t go into great detail for this person’s sake.) Despite our best efforts (mine and Robert’s), the apologies we so deeply desired were never offered to us. Christmas came and went, and I was civil, friendly even. I have not seen this family member since that time. I will see this person next weekend, though, at a family gathering. And this is why I need to make a change.

When I think of this person and hear this person’s name, a deep rage bubbles from within me. I am quick to cut this person down and ignore any redeeming characteristics others point out to me. I absolutely will not hear them because this person so deeply broke my trust.

Harboring this rage and anger when I know a sincere, heartfelt apology will never come is extremely dangerous and unacceptable.

That’s why, for this Lent, I have decided to try something I have never been able to accomplish:

Forgiveness without an apology.

I have heard of people forgiving people who murdered loved ones without ever once receiving an apology from the murderer. I was not wronged in that way. Comparatively, the wrong I felt seems like the difference between running into a gnat with a windshield and purposefully running over, reversing, and running over again someone’s beloved pet cat. (I’m the gnat in this little scenario.) If someone has it in their heart to forgive and no longer harbor hatred and rage toward a murderer, then surely I can forgive this person and no longer harbor anger and hurt feelings toward my family member.

As with my attempt for patience last year, I will probably fail in my goal in many ways. But it is a change I am desperate (for my own sake) to accomplish and successfully incorporate within my character. Probably the greatest struggle I can foresee with this Lenten “sacrifice” is that I in no way want this person to believe that forgiveness came because I just eventually let the wrongdoing go or because I am letting this person off the hook.

But you know what, A.Hab.?

You can’t control what other people think or how they respond to your actions. If this person chooses to believe that you are ignoring the hurt and that they “got away with it,” then that’s this person’s deal. You will rest easy knowing that, hurt feelings or no, you are not expending any more emotional energy feeling angry and hurt by this person’s inconsideration.

Is anyone else participating in Lent in grown-up ways?

The ultimate gender determination smackdown: announced by V

March 6, 2011 § 9 Comments

[Because of an extremely strict deadline that V and I have imposed upon ourselves, I find myself incapable of writing a brand-new post of my own creativity. So, I’m going to “borrow” V’s words and just let that count as my post for the day. Remember, kiddies, it’s not plagiarism if you cite your source! This emerged as a direct result from rambling to V about the specific direction this next chapter will go. Please note that “Stubbes” is Philip Stubbes, a Puritan pamphleteer from the sixteenth century who really just hated for anyone to diverge even in the slightest from his understanding of the Bible’s teachings. In my dissertation, I will focus primarily on his approach to apparel. Also, please note that “Round Three” refers to “Chapter Three”–V is so clever! That said, enjoy the smackdown! And you are welcome to address comments to V–she’ll see them. :)]

A.Hab. vs. Stubbes:

The ultimate gender determination smackdown

A.Hab.’s chapter is designed to establish the difference between effeminacy and masculinity and cross-dressing in order to explain “gender” and cross-dressing as not inherently determinative of sexuality. With an uppercut to the jaw of Stubbes and other proponents of a socio-religious climate based on constructed sexual determination, A.Hab. argues that sexuality is more complex than trousers and dresses, and maintains that applying this lens to studies of Shakespeare’s plays (featured in Round 3) allows for analyses of performances and performers that would be problematic for Stubbes in that performances can cross social boundaries and rules in that they are “not real.”

With trainer Valerie Traub in her corner, A.Hab. will use this Round to establish the socio-religious climate identified and propagated by Stubbes and his posse in an analysis of eight texts. She will offer a particular focus on texts that describe how to raise boys to be men, such as The Governor [by Thomas Elyot], The Schole-master [by Roger Ascham], and Positions [by Richard Mulcaster]. In these analyses, she will articulate how these texts create and devise masculinity and, by virtue of the default of otherness, femininity. She will take to task the potential paradox in these authors’ assumption that gender is innate via divine creation, yet the authors feel compelled to establish rules for gender in their works. If innate, why would rules and material markers such as dress and hobbies be necessary, A.Hab. queries with a cross to the face? With a skull-shattering blow to the temple of Elizabethan prudishness, A.Hab. will divorce the idea that gender identity is related to sexual identity while taking on scholars who rely on the queer theory steroid that causes them to find homosexuality everywhere just because they are looking for it.

Deep in the gladiator dungeon of The Palms in Vegas, A.Hab. and Stubbes shadow box in their corners, eager to make physical contact with their psychological enemy.

Hungry to make Stubbes bleed, A.Hab. opens with unexpected force square in Stubbes’s face. Nose broken, pores waterfalls of sweat, Stubbes staggers back.

A.Hab. shows no mercy and advances on Stubbes with a swift sidekick to his ribs.

Stubbes falters, and falls.

A.Hab., new UFC champion of Elizabethan performance theory and theatre, stands over Stubbes and ruefully smirks,

“I wear pants, but I’m no man.”

[Thanks, V, for the amazing write-up and delightful recap of Chapter Two! 🙂 I hope in real life to accomplish proving my theory that gender identity and sexual identity are not interchangeable {just because a man likes to wear dresses does not mean he likes to fuck dudes, for instance} just as masterfully as I did in this thrilling fantasy!]

Nerves: or, why I fail so hard at competitive academics

February 27, 2011 § 9 Comments

Even though I can carry a tune, I was never the girl who fought hard for the solo in elementary school chorus.

Even though I know I could have tuned the rest of the orchestra with my awesome “A,” I never challenged another violinist for the prime spot in first chair.

Even though my grades had always supported my claim that I can write, I never voluntarily entered into an essay contest.

Even though I loved dancing and practiced at all hours, I never auditioned for better stage placement.

I am not competitive. I never played competitive sports. I never earned any accolades that come from nominating myself. I never luxuriated in the thrill of being called “the best.”

In fact, all achievement certificates I earned found their places buried deep in my school folders, forgotten almost immediately and rarely mentioned to my parents (who would have been so proud). No blue ribbons or gold medals from mandatory orchestral all-state competitions decorated my walls. No plaques declaring me the absolute best literature student in college hung above my desk. Oh yes, I had these things. I still have them…somewhere. I’ve always shied away from pride and boasting, even when it’s actually just celebrating. My own birthday actually brushes against my comfort boundary for self-celebration (much to Robert’s eternal chagrin). The only reason my Master’s degree adorns my home office wall is because Robert encouraged me to hang it there…and because my granddaddy framed it. If those two points of fact had not been true, I would have been happy enough to leave it rolled up somewhere in a tube. My Bachelor’s degree, although framed, is not hanging–it still waits for its moment of glory in the framer’s box, stuffed behind my dresser at my parents’ home.

Why am I so wary of competition and even more weary of celebrating my victories?

Because they seem wasteful and petty.

I don’t relish another person’s loss or failure. In fact, when a classmate of mine recently challenged me in regards to our dissertation completion dates, boasting that she would finish in four years and not in the five and a half that I took, I could merely smile at her and wish her well. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to say to her, “How sad that you think your academic progress has anything to do at all with my academic progress. I will forget about you in a couple of years, and your cruelty will mean absolutely nothing to me.” How is her progress going these days? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her in at least a year, and I frankly don’t care about her progress. Her progress or lack of progress has nothing to do with me or my progress.

But now…now all of a sudden, I’m meant to care about everyone else’s progress. Because there’s a substantial fellowship up for grabs now. Being awarded this fellowship means competing against my colleagues (and even my best dissertation writing buddy, V! Sob! But…really…if she gets it, I will be super-duper thrilled because she totally deserves it!). Receiving the fellowship also means the freedom to write, write, write absolutely uninterrupted for the entire summer semester–no teaching!! Recipients of the fellowship are funded so that tuition is not painful, so that they do not miss paying bills because they are not teaching.

I am going to apply for this fellowship more out of necessity than the desire for prestige.

This could very well be my final semester teaching because my department may choose not to offer me a teaching assistantship for the summer semester. Typically, our department funds doctoral candidates through their fifth year. Summer will mark my fifth year and a half. My department may choose not to fund me, but I will still require one last credit hour to be considered a student in order to graduate in summer–and the tuition is not cheap.

If I don’t get the teaching assistantship, it will be okay. If I don’t get the fellowship, it will hurt…but it will be okay. It will be okay because my husband is taking on so many extra courses this summer, and we will miraculously make it. (Well, no…not miraculously. We will make it because Robert is a hard-worker and an excellent provider.)

But despite knowing that we will be okay, I still want the fellowship. And my nerves hit me square in the gut when, on Friday morning, I received an e-mail from our graduate studies coordinator who sent the message along to all advanced PhD students (from my best calculations, people who are at least in their fourth year) and announced the details for applying. I was nervous when I saw the sheer number of names on that e-mail. I felt sick to my stomach when I read the requirements for qualifying. I need a letter of support from my dissertation director. I need to be able to show that I am making progress on the dissertation. I need to be able to say that I will defend and graduate within the term of receiving the fellowship.

I believe in my plan. I believe I will defend and graduate in the summer.

My fear, the only thing that would actually deter me from applying in the first place, centers entirely on the one reality: because I have never cared a whit about my colleagues’ academic progress, I don’t know where my competition is. I don’t know my likelihood for receiving the fellowship. V came up with some really good, educated guesses, and I do feel better now about our chances than I had felt initially. But, despite all of V’s wonderful uplifting words, my nerves still grip my heart…and my stomach.

In what might be my last moment in academia, I face near-mandatory competition. I wonder if I have it in me.

I don’t know about teaching, but I’m pretty good at being bossy

February 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

One of the traits I was always qualified as having when I was a young girl (ah, who am I kidding? This is a quality I’ve been described with even into my adulthood) is bossiness. When I was quite small, my parents thought perhaps I would be a lawyer or a teacher, the way I commanded my sister and our friends in play. Of course, I was often a bit mean about it…so I don’t know why teacher crossed their minds, but there you have it.

At any rate, I am still quite bossy, even today. Even as an adult, I like to tell people what to do and am satisfied when they go off to do what I so wisely commanded of them. So, here I am a teacher. And I tell people what to do, and they do it.

And I don’t enjoy it.

(Turns out that teaching isn’t just all telling people what to do. Who knew?)

Tonight Robert and I went up to his community college and saw their production of Tartuffe. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a religious hypocrite (Tartuffe) who swindles a guy out of house and home by his charming, smooth-talking ways. The students did an admirable job at the play, but it was severely cut (curtain rose at 7 p.m. and fell at 8 p.m.), and there were moments where I thought to myself:

Gee…if only they knew that that bit they just said was funny, they might have delivered it this way.

So, I’m left wondering this. If I don’t want to be a director and I don’t want to be a theater teacher, do you think I could have a job as the bossiest person in the auditorium, just telling people how to deliver their lines and why the jokes are funny?

What’s that job called?

(P.S. You might have noticed that this is an extremely late, extremely short post. I spent the entire day working on a draft of my introduction that I am e-mailing to my director tomorrow morning after a couple more edits. It’s crunch time; I’ll explain more later.)

I’m no role model: why new ABDs should not follow my lead

February 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, I happened to run into (almost literally because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going) one of my younger peers who is a freshly-minted ABD (that’s “all but dissertation” for the uninitiated). (She actually reads the blog–hey, L! :)) L is at that tremendously exciting and terrifying place in her academic career where she has completed her course requirements…forever (unless she chooses to get another degree, I suppose), and she has passed all of her written and oral examinations (comprehensive exams, or comps, we call ’em). She is now perched upon the tippy-tip of the graduate school tree limb and is gearing up to take her flying leap into Dissertation Land. L is currently drafting her prospectus, which is a smallish-to-largeish document that essentially outlines her future dissertation project. She will be asked to explain what her argument is while also foreseeing (to some degree) the direction each chapter will take as she develops her argument. She will be expected to compile a working bibliography that confidently says to her committee members, “See? I’ve done some research, and I’m really on to something here!” This gate-keeping document can set even the most stalwart academic a-trembling. And, sure, L will have her stumbling days, her days when she’s not certain her theoretical wings are strong enough to hold the weight of her ideas. But, as I’ve learned, the prospectus will change. It just will. So, L, and to all brand-new ABDs, I say this to you: just write it. Seriously, just bang it out. Let it be a little rough, not your most perfect work, but just get the ideas out there. Your committee members are absolutely going to have changes no matter how perfect you believe your document to be. So, don’t torture yourself to craft the end-all-be-all draft on the first or even second go. Your dissertation will also very probably diverge from the prospectus in some ways. Don’t waste your time agonizing over whether or not you know for sure that the points you want to discuss in Chapter Three belong there or if they’d be better suited in Chapter Four. All of that can be figured out later. What is important is pages. And forward progress.

When L and I were talking yesterday, she so sweetly (and I know she meant it genuinely) complimented me on my latest progress. “I can’t imagine writing two pages a day! That’s incredible,” she said…or something like that. I had to laugh. “Yeah,” I said. “But I’m at the stage now where I better be writing two pages a day or else I don’t graduate in August.” (Hell…I still may not graduate in August, but I’m sure as hell going to try!) As she remained surprised and complimentary at my self-inflicted torture progress, I continued to laugh ruefully and say, “Just don’t follow my example, just don’t follow my example.” Seriously. Don’t follow my example.

I am no role model.

Let me explain in very clear terms why I am not to be made a template of: I lolly-gagged for two years and am now forced to work at breakneck speed to finish or else I could lose funding (hell, that might already be gone) and I could definitely not graduate in August.

What happened to me? Well, I passed my exams and entered into the stage L’s in now at the very beginning of March 2009. Two months before my wedding. That’s almost exactly two years ago. Then, I struggled to write a prospectus. I finally composed a draft of…something…by August 2009. It went through several drafts (I think in the neighborhood of five…either the fifth or the sixth one was the one that received final approval), and my prospectus was approved March 2010 (a full year after I became ABD). And here we are, another year later, and I’m finally producing chapters. I don’t have another year in me. This is it. I’m done.

So why not follow my lead? Because I gave up. I admit it–I absolutely gave up. I felt miserable, incapable, and exhausted. I had the idea that now that I had finished my courses and my exams and my prospectus, I was entitled to a rest. (This is one of the signs to me that this is not the career for me. More on that later.) It was like I had a case of senioritis. I just wanted to be finished for a while so that I could take a break. What I have come around to realize, though, is that this break only hurt me rather than helped me. Sure, I was conducting research in that time. I was reading and writing notes and outlines and thinking, thinking, thinking. Always thinking. But pages were nonexistent. I finally composed over 25 pages of Chapter Two between August and September 2010 so that I could present a shortened version of it at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC for short) in October 2010. (Little factoid: this conference is HUGE for people in this field. There were so many meetings and presentations, and if I had not come down with the plague, I may have actually gone to some of them.) After I returned from my trip to Montreal to present a shortened version of my chapter, I took another break. Sure, I wrote a little bit here and there, but they were notes and nothing really worth getting excited about. But because I gave up, because I took a break, I forced myself into this specific situation.

It was in November, when I realized how unhappy I was, that I started to realize that I needed to make a decision. As my wonderful and amazing friend Dr. Amanda Morris asked me during her visit in October, I had to answer the question: am I having trouble hanging on or letting go? If I’m having trouble hanging on, then I need to rework my strategy so that I can get a better grip on my responsibilities and work requirements. If I’m having trouble letting go, then I need to come to terms with what it means to release this path and pursue another. At first, I concluded that I was having trouble hanging on. I wanted that to be the right answer so badly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, I was having trouble letting go.

Now, let me clarify one point: I am going to get my Ph.D. I am not stopping now, although there is no shame in walking away from a program ABD. I know several people who have walked away from the program before writing their dissertation. I know several people who have walked away from the program before taking exams. There is a culture of shame around these decisions, but I have learned that these are not shameful choices to make. (Why continue the torture if it’s not working for you? Life’s too short!) The reason I am going to finish, though, is because I am months away (nearly five, to be exact), and I am too stubborn to be five months away from a degree and then leave it on the table. So, I’m going to finish, one way or another.

Back to why I’m no role model.

Writing a dissertation is hard work. It just is. It is not as simple as writing five or six seminar papers and cramming them together. (Who here has written that many seminar papers on the exact same topic? Not me! I’m not sure I even have two related seminar papers.) A dissertation requires a sustainable argument that can last for somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-ish pages. I want this point to be clear. Many of us won’t admit it until we’re safe from being graded (like I am), but it is not common practice to begin writing a 25-page paper at the beginning of the semester, or even a month before deadline. So many of us write our seminar papers within, oh, I’d say at least two weeks before deadline. (And let’s not kid ourselves–our professors know.) If this is your habit, let me be perfectly frank with you: you cannot write a dissertation the way you write your seminar papers.

They are not the same animal, and they do not share the same requirements. Begin early, stay on track, write every single day (okay, you can have weekends off, if you begin working early enough). One of my friends V was told by a professor (neither of us can remember who now) who gave her a clever response to the question, “How do you write a 300-page book?” The answer: “One page a day.” Literally. If you write one page every day for a year, you have 365 pages. And that’s far too many for a dissertation.

In the world of dissertation writing, pages are everything.

Yes, make time to do your research, make your notes, do your outlines. But also compose pages. A dissertation, while a milestone to be proud of, is not the marker that you have finished something but instead it is an indicator that you have one more task to complete.

L, and all you other ABDs out there, please don’t follow my model. Don’t torture yourselves. Keep a steady pace and stay focused. Regardless if you want to stay in academia or not, make a decision whether or not you want to get the degree. If you don’t care about the degree, then stop now. If you do want it, then let that be your golden fleece. You won’t get the degree without a dissertation, plain and simple.

And if any of you ever needs someone to vent to or to kick your ass into gear as A.Mo. did mine, I will be happy to fill that role for you.

My writing haven: Grad Study Nirvana

February 18, 2011 § 5 Comments

The clouds part. Angels sing a hallelujah. Trumpets blast their victorious flourish:

A.Hab. has submitted the first full draft of Chapter One
to her dissertation director!

And, in honor and celebration of the accomplishment of this goal, I am going to share with you the place that helped make it all possible: the faculty/graduate student individual study room. Folks, please, golf clapping only…this is a library after all.

I welcome you to…the new and improved Grad Study Nirvana!

View from the front, right-hand couch. This is the view I had while I studied for comps.

View of front right-hand couch, as well as little study cubicles behind a privacy partition.

Back of room--large study desks with private lamps for additional, focused lighting.

My desk with the lamp on--see? I was even writing the day I took these pictures!

When I was studying for comps, Grad Study Nirvana was not the glorious place it is before you. Sure, there were a couple of couches in the front and some tables in the back, but the furniture wasn’t nearly as nice, and there were no additional lamps for individual study. I walked out of Grad Study Nirvana in February 2009. I did not return until January 2011. That’s quite a long time. I think I’d like not to dwell on that.

Anyway. So, when I returned and found Grad Study Nirvana to look like this–with lots of seating, private lamps–I immediately fell in love. It is a private room that (I believe) is sound-proof against the general library din. (Yeah, you read that right. Din. As in noise. As in library noise…our library has become this crazy hotspot in recent years, so the undergrads gather and chatter. It’s quite distracting. Thank goodness for Grad Study Nirvana.) At one time, Grad Study Nirvana was office space for research librarians. But our library has seen massive changes recently that left it with a new coffee shop, newly built office space for librarians, new book-free gathering spaces (which absolutely get loud…I try to avoid the second floor as much as possible), and updated carpeting on all floors. I have always loved our library, ever since I was a young thing and my dad would bring us in for some air conditioning and a potty break before we walked into the football stadium. But now that Grad Study Nirvana has truly achieved nirvana, I am super-productive and happy.

I think all writers should locate their writing haven to help spur their creativity. If your writing space does not spur creativity…find a new haven!

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