As a kid, I was kind of a quote-hound. As a cynical academic, I can kind of see how an inspiring quote has only a very limited ability to change one’s life. Also, I tend to quote things like, “it jarred my slats” from L.M. Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill that I find amusing but mystify the people I’m talking to.
Anyway, I cracked open the September issue of Real Simple this morning and saw a quote that seemed pertinent to my dissertation this morning:
Nothing great has been and nothing great can be accomplished without passion.–G.W.F. Hegel
Yes, I thought to myself. I need to get some passion going. Then I did a double-take and flipped back to another quote a few pages earlier:
One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdowns is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. If I were a medical man, I should prescribe a holiday to any patient who considered his work important.–Bertrand Russell
There are a lot of contradictory adages out there that have a ring of truth. While some dissertators I know draw a lot of comfort and even strength from a mantra of some sort, it’s good to be adaptable.
For example, when I told the now-Doctor Gale that “There shouldn’t be all this craziness,” she used it as a sort of grounding tool while she was revising her dissertation. I was a little surprised that what I’d said seemed so meaningful to her, but when she repeated it back to me a couple of months ago (I didn’t even recognize it as my own phrase) it seemed like a crucial idea to hold on to. OMG, There really SHOULDN’T be all this craziness. Wow!!!
There’s only a little of summer left, so maybe now is a good time for all of us to assess whether or not we need more passion for our work or more vacation in the next few weeks. I fall into the passion camp at the moment, but I know there’s some of you out there who haven’t let yourselves take enough of a break this summer. There’s still time!
Before I started writing my dissertation, I found that freewrites were about the only way I could accomplish anything tangible. I did a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and the freewrites allowed me to record my thoughts a couple of times a day (on a good day). I did very little re-reading of this writing–but the act of writing helped keep me moving.
Some people are proponents of the “write without letting your pencil leave the page until the timer rings” freewriting method. I got along better when I had a specific topic (a book I’d just read) and simply tried to type quickly until I ran out of steam — usually around ten minutes. I let myself pause instead of making myself write “I don’t know what to write” because I found that if I wrote continuously, a bunch of complaining would seep into the writing that was actually not emotionally helpful to put on paper.
Once I started researching my specific chapters (instead of the general reading I did at first), I stopped needed freewrites so much–I typed notes about my sources (with any additional dissertation thoughts, related or unrelated, in parentheses). And I typed my chapters. But I didn’t need to do the free-form, no-planned-direction type of writing for a least a couple of years.
All the sudden, with a complete draft of my dissertation done, I find myself turning to freewriting again at the advice of my Dissertation Support Group. And I’m reminded that freewrites can be good for getting unstuck any time. At the very least, some writing is happening.
I never want to freewrite–I always want to do the “actual” writing that other people will see as part of the dissertation document. But even at this late stage, sometimes I really don’t see another way to get the project moving.
I am embarking on a truly excellent adventure this month: a working roadtrip. The plan was simple: visit a bunch of family & friends all while working as usual. We planned to be on the road four weeks.
You might be laughing right now, and indeed, it hasn’t exactly gone as planned. (Witness the lack of blog posts in the last few weeks.)
Let me be clear: seeing said family & friends (and thirteen states while we’re at it) has been awesome. We’ve had so much fun with everyone. It’s the work part that has been difficult.
But I’m not ready to give up on this idea–in fact, we’re already planning another version of this trip for next summer. And I would add in my defense that after seven years in one city (working on one project) I needed a change of scenery pretty badly.
So for those of you who are as committed to traveling as we are in my family, let me share what I’ve learned.
- Give your work good PR. I freely admitted my burned-out state and reluctance to work, and as a result few of my hosts/hostesses took my schedule seriously. My husband on the other hand, has made his job sound not only important but also exciting and lucrative. He’s gotten a lot more space.
- Instead of telling my hosts I needed to work for 4 hours, as I’ve been doing–I should have told them that I needed to write five pages (or some such thing) before hanging out. In this way, I could have cut out some of the lingering breakfasts that I felt were sucking away precious energy.
- I would have stayed in hotels a few more times. It’s cheaper to stay with friends, but a little more down time would have helped keep me energized at working times.
- I should have left the house to work, which I didn’t think of because I generally like to work at home, in my pajamas.
- I should have realized that most of the people I know do not work 9-5! I imagined having a house to myself all day, and that has happened exactly never in the first three weeks of this trip. It was relatively easy for my hosts to make free time in their days, which wasn’t expected and should have been accounted for.
My friend, the Dr. Somers-Willett, very recently published the book that grew out of her dissertation. We were discussing my work, and she told me, “don’t be afraid of radical revision.”
The way I have been revising–the way many people revise–is by attempting to shove my responses to advisor and writing group feedback into my previous draft. But Dr. S-W suggested a way that was indeed more radical and much more frightening.
She suggested I write the whole chapter from scratch, pasting in sections from my old draft as needed.
When she said it, I felt a flash of recognition–yes, this was a good idea; yes, this would work better; yes, this would be more efficient in the long run. Then came the FEAR. (Oh, *&^%, not again!)
As a teacher, I never got one revision that was written over from scratch. If I had, I would have jumped for joy. Most of them tried to address my comments but never did so in anything more than a superficial way.
Recently, I re-wrote my introduction from scratch. Not one sentence was kept in the original. When I went back to look at the old intro (hoping to salvage some of it), I didn’t see a single thing worth keeping. By starting over, I freed myself to improve much more dramatically.
But now I’m facing re-writing Chapter 1 and it’s seriously freaking me out. I want so badly to finish that it can be hard to trust in a method that feels like more work, even with my own experience and trusted advice contradicting telling me that this method is going to work.
I’m reading an interview of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity. Fredrickson discussed some research by business consultant Marcial Losada. Losada studied sixty business teams during their annual strategy meetings. He tracked the statements made in the meetings as positive, negative, and neutral. He then tracked the performance of the different teams. He found that “three positive events to one negative event should be the tipping point” that turns a medium-performing team into a high-performing one.
The first thing I thought about when I read this was a recent bad meeting I had. The meeting was so bad that it wasn’t until the next day that I realized major progress had been made on my dissertation. All the negative feedback was essentially about style. The core of my project–which had been on shaky ground–was finally acceptable. However, instead of anyone telling me that, they started telling me about minor things I was doing wrong. I can’t say I helped the positive vibe–I felt emotional to the point that it was difficult for me to have productive thoughts or defend myself.
Contrast that with a conversation I just had with my DSG (Dissertation Support Group). The first thing the future Doctor Anderson said after I told her about the meeting was, “wow, you sound like you’re handling a hard situtation really well.” I have long marveled at the chemistry and productivity of my DSG meetings, and now I realize that they are well beyond the 3 to 1 ratio of positivity. No matter how rough the material, we find ways to remind each other of the good work we’ve done.
But let’s go back to what I did right after this bad meeting. I was determined to squeeze every ounce of usefulness out of it that I could. So after it was over, I went over my notes and wrote down every useful suggestion I could find about how to improve my dissertation. Then I categorized the suggestions into categories. This was already helpful–the meeting seemed more productive once it was on paper. Then I sent the summary to people involved. I asked them to check over my summary and make sure we were all on the same page. The summary was in neutral language (“need to improve close reading” as opposed to “close reading section is very bad”).
The 3 to 1 ratio has many applications. I know that I don’t give my students that much positive feedback on their papers. I would really like to try to do that. I’d like to talk to my family with that much positivity. I’d like to be that positive when I’m reflecting on or discussing my work.
Here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to send this blog post to my committee before my defense. And I’m going to ask that they help me make that conversation as productive as possible. I know too many stories of defenses that are not fun, anti-climactic, or boring. Defenses should be at best a celebration of what’s been achieved, and at least a productive conversation that helps students revise before graduation and/or publication.
Both of my brother-in-laws, who work in the restaurant industry, are happy to work seven days a week. Imagining chopping vegetables for eight hours straight and then having to cover someone on my day off is downright appalling to me. But they are both of the opinion that a weekend (or other two-day break) breaks up their routine in a bad way. Another way of putting this is that Mondays are terrible precisely because you’ve had time off. You’re not used to working, and now you have to get used to it, and fast.
I really believe that working five days a week is best for me. But there are other ways of working it out–writing six or seven days a week, writing every other day, two days on/one day off . . . it’s worth experimenting, especially at the beginning of the dissertation writing process to find out what patterns keep you in your groove.
Another advantage of experimenting with your work habits is that you will confident that you’ve chosen the best process for you, which can be comforting when you discover other people’s habits. I usually have a reaction like “how could you possibly work that much?” and people tend to react to me like, “it’s amazing how you’re able to make so much time for things besides work!” As far as I can tell, there’s usually a bit of jealousy on both sides. But what other people do is not important. It’s only important that you aren’t ignorant of your own best practices.
Sometimes when I’m trying to start working, I get this fluttery feeling. Sometimes that feeling makes me want to clean something, sometimes it makes me want to find comics to read on the internet, sometimes I want to call a friend, and sometimes I want to play a computer game.
“Just for a minute,” I say to myself. “Just to clear my head and calm me down.”
What happens next is embarrassing. With each successive game, I get more and more agitated, telling myself I just need to win one more time and then I’ll get back to work. All the while I’m more and more alarmed at how much time is passing. “Oh, sh**! 3:00 already!”
So I’ve started a new ritual to deal with the flutters. It’s very simple–I’m not into incense or mantras or meditation, though I don’t see any problem with using those techniques to get in the mood for working. All I mean by ritual is that I do the same thing ever day before starting work, to calm me down and get me focused on the task at hand.
I read five pages of The Craft of Research. It’s a guide to writing that I enjoy reading. It’s clearly written, infused with a you-can-do-it! attitude, and relevant to what I’m trying to accomplish. I think reading anything that you like, that you think is well-written, could be great–even if it wasn’t related to your dissertation specifically. It should be something you know well (this ritual should not be suspenseful), something you like, and, most importantly, something that doesn’t spark any wild emotions.