As I was revising Chapter One yesterday, I stumbled up some notes I had made during a Dissertation Support Group meeting. The (then Future) Doctor Gale told me about a process for figuring out a thesis that she heard about at a conference. The process was called the Archival Wheel.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the exact author of this concept. I’d be happy to cite it if anybody out there knows who made it up.
You can create your own archival wheel by clearing out some floor space. Then, stand in the middle of your space, at the hub of the wheel, and pile your different kinds of evidence in “spokes” around you. (You can also draw this on paper, which is how I did it.)
Then stand in the middle of your wheel and ask “What is all this evidence about?”
The Archival Wheel is a good start to a free-write and a good exercise for times when you have some really interesting stuff to work with, but you’re not sure what your project is ultimately about. It’s also allows you to think in a more tactile way, which can spark ideas if you’ve been in front of a computer screen too long.
Did you think that going to grad school would solve the problem you had about what to be when you grew up?
I delayed answering this question in 2001 when I decided to apply to graduate school. And for eight years, I have been (mostly) in ignorant bliss–the future life of Doctor Jones was much too far away to worry about.
I have certainly worked on opening doors for Doctor Jones, doing internships, assistant directorships, teaching, going to conferences, etc. But all my experience, the dissertation, and the degree are simply not enough to guarantee that I’ll be employed as an English professor.
I haven’t felt this way since college. And I sincerely believed then that going to college was answering this question for good. But I have grown up. And unfortunately, growing up doesn’t mean that I have all the answers. I do have some experience grappling for solutions. And that’s about it.
I’m not bringing this up to scare you. I’m bringing this up because my friend Rebecca, who has been busting her butt for three years to get a cello performance degree, said upon graduating that she wished someone would have told her that she’d be transported right back into the confusing decision making process of age twenty-one.
So, I’m telling you. I hope that if you expect it, it won’t be quite as scary when it happens. And take some comfort in knowing that what you do with your life is not something you “should” have figured out at your age.
I recently gave my introduction to my supervisor, hoping he’d allow me to graduate in May. He seemed positive in the e-mail he wrote to set up our meeting, so I was feeling good when I showed up to his office.
He proceeded to ask me some very hard questions–questions that magnified some of my biggest insecurities about my dissertation. I answered the questions hesitatingly, if at all.
So imagine my surprise when he wrapped up the meeting by telling me that the introduction was basically done–he didn’t want me to make any major revisions.
Another committee member told me today that hard questions are a sign that a dissertation defense is going well. She said that when there’s a sense that the dissertation is weak, people are very tentative, and don’t want to press the student too much. But when people are engaged by the work, they dive straight into hard questions that get right to core of the issues at stake.
Today, if you’re stumped, take it as a sign that you’ve got complex, interesting ideas–and don’t be scared.
As I approach graduation, I’m finding that my emotions are unusually roller coaster-y. The FEAR (of not graduating, of producing inferior work, of not being able to schedule a defense time, of not having a good dissertation topic) looms large much of the time. Yet every time something happens to let me know that graduating in May could really happen, I feel an almost paralyzing giddiness. (Today, one of my committee members said that she thought my introduction and conclusion drafts are defensible now.)
I recently talked with my friend Doctor Gale, who said that she was surprised at how quickly her self-confidence diminished after defending her dissertaton. She said that she still asks herself questions about her intelligence that have been bugging her since before she came to graduate school.
The academic environment can be a huge confidence-evaporator. People identify with their work, and then any small setback becomes a big problem. My feelings are super easily hurt, especially by my committee members, and I know many of my colleagues have the same issue.
I don’t know how to silence the FEAR.
I do know that degrees are not a measure of intelligence, and neither are the number of books written. If you’re far enough along to graduate, you know too many smart people who either decided graduate school wasn’t for them or who never applied in the first place.
The best way I know to pause the roller coaster is to remind myself that the FEAR is normal, and that transitions are hard for humans (and most organisms, for that matter). The FEAR comes to plenty of really smart people who do great work, so the FEAR’s presence does not guarantee my inadequacy.
I use Ta-Da lists. I really like keeping lists on-line because I can update them from any computer or my iPhone. What’s great about Ta-Da is that you can keep many, many lists. I’ve got 25 at the moment.You can also share lists with other users. I find it very useful to share the grocery list with my husband, for example.
Some my dissertation lists:
- the “my dissertation argues . . .” list. When I have a big idea about the purpose of my project, this is where it goes.
- the “freewrite” list. When I get stuck writing, I can refer back to that list for topics that need some more exploration.
- the “reasons why I’m writing a dissertation” list. This one is handy in moments of doubt.
- my “professional” list. This keeps track of things like paying dues to professional organizations and other tasks related to getting a job.
- the “anecdote” list. When things happen in my daily life related to my dissertation topic, I write them down for later use as paper/talk anecdotes.
If you have a habit of forgetting to write things down, you might try Jott. You can call their 800 number and leave yourself messages that are transcribed to your desktop application and available on-line. Edit: Jott’s services are no longer free as of February 2009.
Real Simple had two cute paper list makers in their January issue. One was a small notepad that said “I will do one thing today.” It could be perfect for the overwhelmed. One thing is so much better than no things.
The other one I liked was the List ME . . . Doodle ME pad from Broadway Paper. As Real Simple suggests, “Doodle to get those creative juices flowing; cross off items to stay on task.”
I read about the cycles of revision when I was trying to teach my students how to improve their work. I think they were in a Penguin handbook back in the day–I tend to purge writing handbooks regularly so I can’t cite them exactly.
- After reading your draft, clarify your thesis. As any good writing teacher will tell you, you often won’t know what you want to say until you’ve said it. Even if you start out with a thesis, it may need to be modified. Also, during the thesis stage, eliminate all writing that is not relevant to your thesis.
- Next, work on paragraph organization. I like to write a one-word summary next to each paragraph, which often helps me see where I need to rearrange. Also, if a paragraph can’t be easily summed up in a word or two, it may have more than one main idea in it and need to be divided.
- Now that you know your thesis and you have the structure of your paper figured out, look for places to add evidence. Some of the quotes you cut, for example, may need to be replaced with more appropriate citations.
- Read the paper out loud, slowly. Correct any issues of sentence clarity and transitions between paragraphs.
- Give your writing to someone else to review. If you want to communicate well, audience feedback is essential.
I find that focusing on different types of problems helps me do a more thorough job of revision. (It is always very difficult for me to avoid the temptation of stopping working once I have a first draft. At the same time, if you’re an endless tinkerer maybe having clear steps to follow would speed you up a bit.)
If you try to correct sentence clarity first, you end up wasting time (re-writing sentences that may not relate to your thesis) or, much worse–never get around to addressing major issues. It’s easy to not see the forest for the trees in revision. Reading with an eye for discovering your thesis–and only discovering your thesis–does more to improve your project than perfect grammar could ever do.
Stay tuned for a future Doctor Jones post on the influential book Getting Things Done, but in the meantime, I wanted to lend my support to one of the book’s tenets.
Periodic review of one’s work is one of the best ways to spur productivity. It can seem counter-intuitive. Let’s say you’ve had a bad, ineffective week of work. Instead of sitting down on Friday afternoon to assess your progress, you want to actually get something done.
But parodoxically, the very act of reviewing makes one more productive. I think this is one of the biggest benefits of having a Dissertation Support Group. Simply preparing for that meeting for fifteen minutes–which for me, involves checking the progress of last week’s goals, setting new goals for the following week, and noting a “big idea” that I had over the course of the week–often helps me crystalize some aspect of my project. Knowing that the check-in is imminent also sometimes prompts me to quickly finish (or start) working on one of my previous goals–even though there are no negative consequences if I don’t work on them.
I recommend periodic check-ins, alone or in groups. They are not a waste of time.
I’ve always been a huge fan of the “Reviewing” toolbar in Microsoft Word, which allows one to make marginal comments in documents. I grade using this tool and I love it. I don’t have to worry about messy handwriting, and I can type faster than I can write–which means I give my students more comments. Bonus: they can read them. I have long since given up receiving paper copies of student work.
While researching for my dissertation, I can comment on Word documents and highlight important points, but until today I wasn’t able to annotate .pdf files. Then I learned about the PDF XChange Viewer, which is a free program that lets one underline, draw pictures, and attach “sticky notes” all over a .pdf.
Academics may not be the worst paper wasters in our nation, but we’ve got to come close. In my book–or rather, my blog, taking notes while avoiding printing = awesome.
Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
(I got this from the blogger of The Happiness Project, who got it from Voltaire.)
I’ve been finding it really difficult to write this week. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve started thinking about applying for jobs. It’s scary, and fear makes me not want to work.
But by imagining the perfect dissertation / job application, I’ve made the perfect the enemy of the good. Today, I can improve my draft without making it perfect, and that is not only worthwhile, it’s pretty much the only way I’m going to make progress.
After I handed him very messy, fifty-page draft of a chapter that I had “no idea” what to do with, Prof. Cole Hutchison suggested I re-write the draft with no quoting. That way, I would avoid relying too heavily on quotes (a major weakness of the first draft) and would state a unique argument.
I didn’t take that advice at the time, but a few weeks ago, as I began Chapter 2, I set out to write a twenty-page chapter with almost no evidence.
I skipped around, writing wherever inspiration struck. And I wrote in relatively short spurts, simply trying to add a little each day.
One of the longest sections in my 18-page draft is the conclusion. There, I lay out all the main points I covered in the chapter. Of course, they seem a bit flimsy with no evidence to back them up. But unlike my first draft of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 is not a complete mess of tangents. It is compact. It is full of ideas.
The next time I dig through my notes, I will be digging with purpose. I know what I want to say–what I am saying.