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!

Funny thing about accountability: or, what it means to write a dissertation

February 13, 2011 § 12 Comments

While writing a dissertation, a student will explore a plethora of emotions that run the gamut from excitement to ennui to hysteria to antipathy. She (speaking for myself here) will doubt herself, defend herself, trust herself, torture herself. This is all entirely normal and to be expected.

What she might not expect is what happens when she maintains accountability with another dissertation-writer. My dissertation-writing buddy, V, has been…amazing. She pushes me when I need pushing; she supports me when I need supporting. At the beginning of the year, just after New Year’s and before the semester began, V and I met at “our” coffee shop to discuss our graduation plans. Of course, our dissertation lies in the way of graduation, and we must conquer it. We have both made significant steps toward that very regal walk we will take on August 7th, and I for one am extremely proud of us.

What I’ve learned about accountability is just how truly powerful it is. Because V has never belittled me or yelled at me (and I don’t believe she ever would, since she knows I don’t work this way) for not achieving a goal or for having a difficult time getting started on a particular day, I trust her and value her opinion when she helps me to set my next week’s goals. On Friday, she and I chatted for quite a long time about what I am going to do with this 51-page literature review…which is an exceedingly long lit review. She gave me fabulous advice in regards with how to reorganize some of the chunkier bits and where I might start looking to make cuts. And then she said:

“I don’t think your goal this week should be to churn out ten pages. I mean, you can if you feel inspired…but I think you’ve got plenty of work to do here. I’d spend the week getting this chapter ready to send out to your director.”

And when she said that, I felt such a weight lift off my shoulders. V gave me a new goal, one that I’m ready to accomplish, and I get to sort of “take a break” from new writing.

Although…truth be told…I’ll probably finish editing this chapter and just write more, lol.

Thanks, V, for keeping me accountable and for helping me to meet these commitments.

This is what 15,000 words and 51 pages looks like…

February 10, 2011 § 9 Comments

Go on, writer, blissed out of your ever-loving mind with a delightful heating pad on your back!

Boom! 15,933 words, 51 pages, and a fully drafted first chapter! Well…”fully” in the sense that I’m not going to seek out new sources of material to add to the chapter. Tomorrow, V and I are going to sit down with scissors, markers, and tape to put this thing into a cogent order. Right now it’s a glorified annotated bibliography, complete with reference citations and everything. It’s a bit of a horror.

That’s all I can share for today because I’m already late for my evening plans with friends. More later!

How would you celebrate 10,000 words?

January 28, 2011 § 6 Comments

Last night, as I saved my latest Word document of dissertation genius (heh), I glanced at my word count at the bottom of the page: 9,937 words. That means that in 63 words (about a paragraph), I will have written 10,000 brand-new words on my dissertation since January 9th. That translates to almost 31 full pages (probably if I had written those extra 63 words, it’d be the rest of the 31st page).

I am ecstatic. Proud. Impressed. Shocked. Stunned.

At times I find myself making statements like, “this dissertation is writing itself really quickly.”

It’s writing itself?

Come on, writer! Take some credit!

So, consider this my concerted effort to take credit: as of Sunday, I will have written over 10,000 brand-new words in January!

How do you celebrate 10,000 brand-new words anyway?

Well, I can think of no more appropriate method to celebrate than by organizing! Oh, no, I’m not even kidding. My office desk is a complete disaster area. I have trouble concentrating in here because I’m surrounded by clutter. And the clutter is entirely the fault of the dissertation–notes, copies, books are strewn all over the desk. There’s hardly any room for my laptop. So I went to Office Depot this afternoon (after my weekly meeting with V, of course), and I purchased two 3″ binders to complement the one 3″ binder I’ve already filled up with copies, a couple packs of paperclips, and some Post-It durable tabs. You can just see where this plan is going, right? All the copies I’ve made will be organized properly: 3-hole-punched, clipped, and appropriately labeled for easy retrieval. I’m actually super excited about my new project.

The other way I’ve celebrated 10,000 words is by changing my blog appearance. I’ve been working on it essentially all day–I realized that some of my pages were absolutely atrocious and in desperate need of attention. The HTML/CSS was just absolutely all over the place, so I’ve reworked the pages to clean them up, and I’m quite pleased with the outcome.

Thanks to all of you for your unflagging support for the first 10,000 words. On to the next 10,000! 🙂

Shorty but a goodie

January 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

Well, that’s a little arrogant. I don’t know if this blog post would be considered a “goodie,” but whatever. I’m tired and have two hours to go before my deadline, so I’m just going to let this be a quick, good post, and then call it a day.

Oh yes…there’s a list. This is some real classy blogging, folks.

1. I had a nightmare this morning that we had to cuddle out. My nightmare, which I awoke from around 7 a.m. today, included a sad little scenario in which Robert thought it was appropriate to tell all of our friends and family that I was dead…just because he didn’t want to be married to me any more. Apparently I was stressing out about talking to my parents today (number 3 on the list). In the dream, it was before Christmas, and for some reason or another I was at my parents’ home without Robert…who was at a friend’s wedding. Without me. Strange. After I talked to my parents, I called Robert at the wedding reception to tell him how it went. He stopped talking during our conversation…like, he was mid-sentence, and I suddenly realized that he didn’t want to talk to me. One of us hung up on the other, but I can’t remember who did what. I do remember feeling unbelievably sad and angry, though. Then, the dream continued, and next thing I know, I’m glimpsing the wedding reception…where Robert is offering a toast to the happy couple and saying something along the lines of, “And even though we are sad that Amanda is no longer alive, I know that she wanted to….” …something. I started to wake up at that point because I was so angry and sad–it suddenly dawned on me that my husband was lying to people about my demise because he didn’t want to be married any more. When I woke up, Robert was on his side facing away from me; I attempted to loop my arm through the one draped on his side, desperately needing some comfort. No such luck–he rolled away from me. My dream started to crash back to me. Did Robert really wish me dead? I poked him and whispered (not wanting to wake him but wanting him to wake up), “Can you cuddle me? I had a bad dream.” This is not uncommon in our house. Robert sighed, rolled over, and wrapped me up. My dream melted away while I melted into Robert’s arms. It was wonderful.

2. Today was my mom’s birthday! We celebrated with them (they came to visit us), and part of our birthday celebration was also our university’s national championship celebration. Although we spent a good portion of the day in different lines (and freezing our tails off in the coldest 41 degree weather we’d ever felt…gusting wind and shade really makes a difference), we still enjoyed each other’s company and were able to have wonderful conversations. Probably the best part of spending the day in all those lines was that they led us to and from the exciting celebration for the championship–because the game was played and won across the country, many of us could not travel (although…many of us did [myself and Robert not included, lol]). We cheered, we applauded, we War Eagle’d our little hearts out, and we sang fight songs endlessly. We might have gotten a little teary-eyed…maybe. Our president made a fantastic little comment that just made my born-Tiger heart sing. He said, “As university presidents, we’re expected to remain neutral and welcoming to all teams and schools to visit our campus. And, of course, I am. But I must say that this season, there were two exceptional teams on that field: the Auburn offense, and the Auburn defense.” I loved that. And you know what? I want to love that in the total blissful ignorance that outsiders get to enjoy.

3. Which brings me to number three. I talked to my parents today about the things I have been fairly vague about in my blog…I wanted to tell them first. Folks, as a couple of you have already guessed, I am unhappy in my career choice (teaching). I did not know that this is what the career was about when I entered graduate school, and, truth be told, I was emotionally and mentally ill-equipped to make a decision about the next seven years of my life. But I made the decision to go on through to get a Master’s and then to keep going on through to get a PhD. I am exhausted. I am worn down. And I do NOT want to be a teacher any more. I’m in my sixth year of teaching undergraduate students…and already I want to retire. This is not the attitude to have before going on the job market where I would theoretically hope to land a job in which I would die behind my desk in my office at the ripe old age of 139. But I’m tired now. And I can’t stand it now. Essentially, I was lying to myself for these past several years, believing that I even wanted to do this in the first place. But I was blinded by the possibility that I would grow out of my unhappiness. I haven’t yet, and I think that’s a sign. I’ll write more on this now and in greater detail, now that I’ve shared with my parents, but I thought first I should remark instead on how astounded I was at their reactions. I was afraid this entire time that I would disappoint them. That somewhere along the way, “we want you to be happy, Amanda” really meant, “we want you to be a college professor, Amanda.” Obviously, I misconstrued their meaning. I attempted to create hidden meaning where there was none. Instead, their reaction was a little…underwhelming. They were supportive, curious about the next step (whether or not this means I’ll graduate with a PhD or walk away ABD [all but dissertation…meaning I’ve done everything but write the book–this is my real and true status currently]). I explained to them that I would still write, that I’m still graduating in August with my PhD. I will not have come this far just to walk away from it. I’m at least too proud and too stubborn for that. But I don’t want to teach. My mom was relieved to know that I’m planning on taking a year to do something in the 9-5 work world. Neither of my parents expected me to have the answers right now (which, of course, I panicked about last night before Robert and I went to bed). They were satisfied enough to know that I identified my unhappiness at the early stages of my career life–essentially, I realized I hated my job before it was too late. The knot in my stomach has completely unraveled. My shoulders are lightweight and burden-free. I feel better.

I feel better.

Happy birthday, Mom. Thanks for the amazing present.

Let’s Talk Semantics 1: Goals vs. Commitments

January 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

Considering that one of the things I love to teach my students is the power of words in general, I have decided to begin a series of posts. From time to time, as the mood hits, I’ll add to this series: Let’s Talk Semantics. In this series, we’ll play with words and their individual power, as well as the meaning behind them.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Let’s Talk Semantics!

Yesterday morning, I met with my friend V over coffee to discuss some dissertation writing plans. We agreed that if we wrote two pages a day, five days a week, and turned in 10 pages every Friday to each other, by the end of April, we’d have every chapter in a full draft form. Considering we’ve been in academia for over a decade, and that we’ve studied English literature/composition for the majority of that decade, we can compose 2 pages a day with little trouble at all. We feel confident we’ll be able to meet these self-imposed deadlines and that we’ll hold each other fully accountable.

And that’s what brings me to today’s topic.

While V and I were writing down our deadlines in our calendars, I glanced over to V’s calendar and saw that she had chosen a very specific word. Rather than choosing to write “Writing Goal: 2 pages a day,” she wrote “Writing Commitment: 2 pages a day.” In that moment, it suddenly struck me that there is a clear difference between goals and commitments. Here’s what I mean:

Goals: something often vague, abstract, and in some distant future. We might say something like “my goal is to lose 100 pounds,” but we haven’t necessarily mapped out exactly how we intend to achieve that goal. So, fine, we map out our plan to achieve it. But does that plan automatically suggest that the goal will be met? I’m inclined to believe, no.

Commitments: something concrete, specific, and immediate. When we make commitments, we are holding ourselves responsible and accountable for meeting those commitments. If we fail in our commitments, we are often held responsible and accountable for them by others as well. For instance, if we commit to raising a puppy, we commit to feeding it, taking it potty all the times it rings a bell needs to go out, walking with it to keep it exercised, socializing it with other dogs, and playing with it to keep it people-friendly. If we fail in these commitments, we reap the consequences of that failure. We might have a poorly-adjusted dog, or (even worse) our dog might be taken from us.

Commitments are more serious goals. Goals say nothing about our level of interest in completion. Making a commitment says to all who are aware of it: “I mean to see this through to the very end. I will not give up.” Goals say: “I really hope/wish I could achieve this.”

So what? Anyone can hope and wish and dream. But commit?

To commit takes some real gumption.

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