Meditation on the Writing Process and Dissertations: Time for a wee break

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, though.

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.

Stickers, Post-Its, and Charts: unexpected tools to success

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:

My tools to dissertation success

It may not look particularly fancy to you, but allow me to explain.

Our Sticker-Clipboards.

Doesn't photograph very well, but my clipboard is very pretty.

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.

My Post-It Note argument is written on the piece of paper; Vs Post-It Note demonstrates the concept.

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.

How A.Hab. has been spending her time...

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.

Uhm...'scuse me calico-girl...but I can't see the screen....

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?

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.

Evidence of a failed assignment

April 20, 2011 § 12 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I had my annual review. And I subsequently blogged about it. Twice.

Yesterday, I completed my students’ blog grades for the semester and had Excel do all the math for me. I utilized my Average and Sum formulas, and these are the results.

Spring 2010: I think I have a different concept of "failure"....

Clearly my students failed to remember their blogs, three days a week (including Sunday nights).

Obviously they failed to complete the assignment in a satisfactory manner.

I had a horrible idea that wasted not only my students’ time but mine as well.

See?

And, in case you were curious, these are the results from the previous semesters.

Summer 2010: the pilot class

Fall 2010: section 1

Fall 2010: section 2

Every A.Hab. Needs a Moby Dick

April 18, 2011 § 6 Comments

I may have married into my nickname of A.Hab., but the mantle fits. I struggle every day to search for and dominate my white whale, my Moby Dick, my dissertation. The trouble, of course, for searching for a massive white whale is that the endgame often overshadows the journey. Right now, all I can think of is graduating in August. I can only imagine this book’s completion. I want it to be over. I want to win at dissertating.

Then I experience life and am reminded that this project requires a specific type of journey. I am learning about my fortitude, my intellect, my confidence, my ability to just keep going. Yes, the endgame is specific (graduation), but what about after graduation? Once I am no longer a student (and, believe me, friends, A.Hab. will not be enrolling in any more degree-seeking programs), what will I have to show for myself if all I’ve focused on is the product? Surely there is more to life than just trying to race to the end. Surely I should develop my Self instead of merely focus on producing something.

So yes, I will pursue my white whale. But I will not lose sight of the purpose of my journey while in pursuit.

In the meantime, I wanted to introduce you to my little helper: mini Moby Dick!

Moby's hard at work. Is A.Hab.?

This little guy is a USB-hub (he comes with four ports) and is just a genius at his job. The two drives you see plugged into his side here are too wide side-by-side to plug in nicely to my laptop. So, I bought Moby in order to offer myself some additional space. He has not disappointed. If my laptop is with me, Moby goes too. And yes, his eyes glow red when he’s at work. I’m not sure why the engineers behind Moby’s magnificence chose red for his eyes (surely blue or green are more attractive and less demonic), and yes I was freaked-out when I first plugged him in only to be greeted by sinister eyes. I’ve come to appreciate Moby for what he is…even his bright red eyes.

With miniature Moby by my side, I will pursue my great white whale (and hopefully be more successful than my namesake) and will hopefully come to learn something in the process.

From the Other Side of the Desk: help me help you

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.

Respectfully yours,
Mrs. H.

Please don’t compliment me; I don’t think I can take it.

April 8, 2011 § 12 Comments

“I love this, A.Hab.!” V exclaims. She’s reading something I wrote. A draft of something. I can’t remember what now. I must not look convinced by her adoration of my writing. “Don’t you think this sounds good?” She reads me the section that has her so impressed. A smile cracks on my lips…I don’t really know why.

“I…guess…?” It’s not really a question, but my tone inflects up. “I mean…yeah?” I do it again.

Poor V sits across from me, paper in hand, trying so hard to get me to read what she’s reading, the way she’s reading it. She tries again and reads a different section. Afterward, she looks up at me, waiting. “It’s good!” There’s no room for arguing against her–she speaks so emphatically, already convinced that she’s not only right but that I’ll think so, too.

“Well…thank you,” I finally manage. It’s feeble. I’m pretty sure she notices it’s feeble.

“A.Hab., don’t you see that this is good?” she asks again. “I mean, it sounds intelligent. You really know what you’re talking about.”

Yeah, I want to say to her. But we’re talking about my writing here. My writing is never that good. I’m just average. Your writing on the other hand–it’s the real deal!

I don’t say that. I know it won’t go over well. V is trying to help me learn to take a compliment. I’m trying, V, I really am.

Like so many graduate and professional students out there, I suffer from what’s commonly called “Impostor Syndrome.” The imposture here is that, despite my ability to please two admissions committees enough for entrance into two graduate programs (one at the Master’s level and another at the Doctoral level), I’m really not as good as they all think I am. In fact, I know I’m not that good, and one day they’ll find out and boot me from the program. Literally. They will kick me on my rear-end with a boot. Out the door.

I’ve been in my graduate program since 2004. I graduated in 2006 with my M.A., and the same year I entered the PhD program. Maybe I just sort of snuck in under the radar? Maybe they didn’t notice how bad my seminar papers were? How horrible my thesis was? How contrived my theoretical lines of inquiry?

When I receive compliments (especially in regards to my intellect or writing ability), my first thought is an emphatic But!

Would I like to curb this tendency? Absolutely. Of course.

Do I want to value myself and the work I do? Absolutely.

But, honestly, the majority of my motivation to learn how to take a compliment is externally-driven. I would like to be able to believe what others say about me for their sake. I am keenly aware at how disappointing it is for the people who compliment me to be met with a mere shrug or shake of the head or protest. It infuriates me when others do that to the compliments I offer them. I feel embarrassed when others offer me a compliment because I know better than they do. (How arrogant!) And I want to set them straight; I want them to know just how ill-bestowed their kind words are. (Ever the teacher….)

So how do we break out of this habit? What do we do with the Impostor Within? How do we learn to embrace and love and see the Person That Other People See?

Blogs and Writing Pedagogy: what I should have said

April 7, 2011 § 22 Comments

“I just don’t see the blogs accomplishing your pedagogy like you think they do.”

I sit there, blinking. Crap. My jaw clenches. Don’t you cry, Amanda. Not now. Not in your annual review. I am so miserable in my job, and I’m positive he can tell. Despite my best efforts to prepare a portfolio that might suggest otherwise, I’m sure he can tell that I have been miserable for quite some time. But I’m afraid. If I tell him the truth, what consequences could I stand to risk? Might I be strung up? Would this follow me my entire life? If a potential employer asks him about my teaching experience, will I be ruined? Buck up. Seriously. Stop. Just don’t say anything. If you talk, you’ll definitely cry. Just don’t say anything.

“According to your students, they had trouble remembering to do the blogs. And it looks like they’re not worth much, only 10% of the overall grade, so doing them doesn’t really affect their overall grade.”

“Actually,” I cut in, my voice breaking. “They’re part of the 10% daily grade, which also includes quizzes.”

“Right, I saw that on your policy statement. That’s redundant. Daily quizzes and three blogs a week.”

“They’re not daily quizzes,” I try to explain. The tears are starting to rise up. Can he tell? “I give the quizzes randomly, but on average there are ten quizzes in a semester.”

“Okay, so my point is that the blogs don’t count for much, and if they’re sharing that 10% of the daily grade with a few quizzes, then they count for even less. Do you see how that gives the students little incentive to want to even do them in the first place?”

It takes a conscious effort to nod. Don’t say anything or else you’ll start crying. Shit, why are you such a baby? You’ve never been like this before in an annual review! Can’t you take criticism at all??

“Why did you come up with the blog assignment at all?”

The question surprises me. Catches me off-guard. It shouldn’t because I’ve been asked it before. Except…this is different. I think when I’ve been asked this question, it’s usually been phrased with the word how. This feels immediately judgmental. He has already made up his mind. He’s looking for a reason to change his mind. I won’t give it to him. I can’t give it to him. Not without crying.

“I-I guess I just…” I swallow. “To me, they’re like critical reading responses except the students have the opportunity to read each other’s responses and then respond to them as well. I wanted to keep the conversation going, I guess. I just….”

“Okay, but I’m not sure that it does that for you. The students remarked about how they often forgot to even do the blogs in the first place. I would recommend either eliminating the blogs entirely, reducing the number of blogs they should do in a week, or eliminate quizzes. Actually, I think I would recommend reducing the number of blogs in a week and eliminate the quizzes.”

I’m back to blinking. I really like the blogs. My students had seemed to really like the blogs. My mind is reeling. They forgot to do the blogs? But…according to my grade book, most of my students did most, if not all, of the blogs…. I have more students with perfect blog grades than students with failing blog grades. I don’t understand why they would claim that they didn’t remember to do them…. That’s not true….

The rest of the review continues in a similar vein. He pulls out the already-written assessment report, crosses out the word “eliminate” and replaces it with “reconsider” so that the final sentence now reads, “reconsider the blog assignments.” I sign the form, representing my agreement to his report. He was going to tell me to eliminate the blogs entirely…. My first out-of-the-box assignment failed. I walk out of his office and quickly get into mine, closing the door, and collecting myself. Don’t cry, not now. One more meeting. Don’t cry. I pull it together after ten minutes, and I am late to my next meeting. But I’m not in tears.

After several days of consideration, I realize now what I should have said. And now that I am beginning to apply for jobs, I realize what I did by not defending myself–if he serves as a reference, then he will deliver the same report he gave during my annual review. If I mention the blog assignment in my application materials (in spite of everything, I am still proud of it), then I now face the risk of the hiring manager asking him, “She mentioned something about blogs. What do you know about that assignment?” And what will he say? I surely can’t know, but I have a good guess.

I should have defended myself. I should have given him something else to say.

The blogs work.

1. Overall quiz grades from semesters without blogs to semesters with blogs have marked improvement. The reason? Students are reading. They have to do the readings in order to write the blogs. And if they did the readings, then they will do well on quizzes. Although I do change questions from time to time on my quizzes, the type of information I’m searching for is pretty consistent from semester to semester. My students’ daily grade average has improved.

2. They are a low-stakes assignment purposefully designed to be low-stakes. If a student forgets to write a blog once or twice, his or her daily average is not ruined. But, completing all blog assignments on time and receiving a perfect score on the blogging assignment by the end of the semester is equal to receiving perfect scores on four quizzes. It is a “gimme” assignment, but it’s supposed to be. Students are not graded on quality or content of the blog, except according to some basic standards (it should be about a specific text assigned that day and it should be analytical). They are not graded on how well they analyze (unlike their papers), but instead they are given an opportunity to practice analysis in a way that will not hurt their overall grade.

3. Class discussions are much more focused on critically analyzing the texts rather than “walking through” the plots. Students will chime in and say, “Yeah! I wrote about that on my blog!” And others will respond to that student in class. The classroom rapport is typically supportive, congenial, and encouraging. Because a student was able to sort of “try out” his or her idea on a personal blog, the idea was given space to develop so that it would be fully-formed by the time s/he brings it up in class. Even when students disagree with one another’s points, the comments are polite, respectful, and explanatory. They learn not only how to make their own points but also how to properly counter-argue against someone else’s points respectfully.

4. Papers and essay questions on exams are generally more analytical than summative. My students have physical evidence that their peers have previous knowledge of the text, so there is little reason to summarize major plot points. Because they’ve had the chance to practice analysis without fear of failure, they are often more confident in the presentation of their arguments. Because of this, I’ve been able to ask more from my students. And, for the most part, they deliver.

5. The blogs reinforce to my students the idea that one cannot be a good reader without writing, and one cannot be a good writer without reading. Although my students may have more writing assignments in a literature course than others may have, my students not only get the point but have it demonstrated to them that reading and writing are inextricable.

6. I use the blogs myself as a guide for class discussions. I usually try to peruse the blogs the day of class (since blogs are due by midnight the day before), and through that perusal I’ll see what they are confused about, what was interesting to them, what they really gravitated toward. And I will tailor class discussion based on their needs–do we need to unpack that theme more? explore that concept? Judging by exams, my students do get more out of these discussions from the blog posts.

I realize now that I should have defended myself and my blogs.

They work.

If I were to teach again, I would absolutely keep the blogs with no changes whatsoever. They would still be worth very little on the overall grade because low-stakes grades work. There would still be three blogs due every week. They would still have the same number of required words due per post.

My writing pedagogy is that through practice (constant, consistent practice), students develop basic communication skills as well as sophisticated analytical skills. Ideas develop best through writing. Texts are explored best through writing. Learning to write properly will inevitably lead to the ability to articulate an intelligent thought eloquently (either in speech or the written word). If my students are to believe that the literature was not composed within a vacuum, then I should demonstrate to them precisely how one composes devoid of a vacuum. And, thanks to the power of the Internet and new social media, blogs are a perfect method to free writing from a vacuum-like experience.

That’s what I should have said.

Protected: A Post-It Note Argument: revisited

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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!

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