Renouncing the Privileges of Laziness

I adore Rob Brezsny’s horoscopes. Let me just say, at the outset, that I do not believe in astrology. In fact, it creeps me out when people discuss things like going into their Neptune phase in a serious manner. Yeesh! But Rob Brezny’s horoscopes are imaginative and playful and clever. He creates a feeling of intimacy and insight week after week that I find truly commendable.

So pretend this is your horoscope for today–it may get you excited about what comes next in your work life:

“Let us not underestimate the privileges of the mediocre,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “Life becomes harder and harder as it approaches the heights — the coldness increases, the responsibility increases.” I bring these thoughts to your attention,  because in the next two months you’ll be in a prime position to renounce some of the “privileges” of your laziness. Please hear me out. I’m not saying that your lackadaisical attitudes are any worse than mine or anyone else’s. But there come times when he or she has a chance to outgrow those lackadaisical attitudes so as to reach a higher level that’s both more demanding and more rewarding. This will be one of those times for you.

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Emergency! Emergency!

. . . is the title of one of my favorite Promise Ring songs. But it’s also the state in which many of us get the most work done.

You can’t exactly maintain a sense of urgency for eight years. At the same time, watching The Future Doctor Anderson revise each chapter in 48 hours in the final push to finish her dissertation was completely awe-inspiring. And then I, who took 3 full months to revise my first chapter, revised Chapter 4 in less than two weeks. When graduation gets near, you can do amazing things!

But wouldn’t it have been great if we could have been that fast earlier? How can that be accomplished?

  • Some people apply to conferences with yet-to-be-written papers. If they get in, this forces them to get a solid draft of something by the time they give their talk.
  • For me, what kicked me into high gear even more than graduation was the thought of my upcoming four-day stay in a luxurious-looking hotel in Napa Valley. We’re going there for a wedding. I’ve never been, and the thought of the restaurants (French Laundry! I’ve been dreaming of you!) and the wineries just makes me want to have accomplished something. I cannot work in Villagio Palacio Hotel of Grandeur, or whatever it’s called. I need to be treating myself to a hot rock massage in celebration of my dissertating accomplishments! I need to be telling other wedding guests that I’ve finished my dissertation as I sip (okay, guzzle) local wine. Whee!
  • My husband has two busy seasons in his work. His business has a seemingly natural flow to it, heating up for September, slowing down for the holidays, getting crazy in March and then relaxing through summer. Maybe it’s possible to arbitrarily designate two busy months of the year, when you’re going to knock something out or die trying. Especially if you follow that busy period with a small break–perhaps a holiday, or just a couple weeks of taking it easier.
  • Sometimes a big life change (pregnancy, the start of a new job, funding running out) can be used as motivation to finish up quickly. Or maybe even a particular birthday looming ominously.
  • A writing group deadline, where you have one or two chances per semester to turn in work, could be very helpful. If your date to share is not flexible, you’ll probably crank something out just to avoid looking like a fool in front of your colleagues.

It’s hard to have a sense of urgency, though, when you really don’t know how long things are going to take. You don’t want to punish yourself for taking longer to write a book than you expected–hey, you’ve never done it before. That sense of urgency can quickly turn into a sense of failure if one isn’t careful. My therapist used to ask me what would happen if I took a semester longer to graduate. I guess she was trying to give me perspective, and show me that 3 months here or there wasn’t the end of the world. But it’s all too easy to get used to that lack of urgency, and be unproductive because of it.

Finding the Right Routine

Joan Bolker talks about finding good routines to maximize productivity. “Write first” is one of Bolker’s most highly recommended routines.  But some people will get more done at night, and there are probably even weirdos whose energy peaks in the afternoon.

Bolker advises dissertators to continue refining the routine, letting your process evolve so that you’re doing what works, not merely what seems logical.

Recently, I started working on weekends, because I really want to graduate in May. I have resisted working weekends since the Future Mister Doctor moved to Austin, because he does not generally work then and I wanted our free time to align. However, I thought I could handle working weekends for a few months, especially if I made the weekends a little different than the weekdays.

I told myself I would work every day, but on the weekends, I could stop as soon as I didn’t feel like writing anymore, no matter how long it had been. Then I would read dissertation-related books until I was sick of that, too. By pressuring myself less on the weekends, I hoped to preserve some sense of relaxation.

It turns out that I can be insanely productive on the weekends. I should have figured it out sooner. Unlike the Future Mister Doctor, I don’t sleep in that well. Usually, I try not to wait to wake him up until he’s slept more than 12 hours (Sorry, parents. I know how much that last sentence hurt you to read.) Anyway, a lot of the time, what would happen is that I would do something productive (pay bills, catch up on personal e-mail) and then feel kind of tired because I’d popped out of bed so darn early.  I’d go back to sleep for awhile. (I’m not good at sleeping in but I excel at napping.) Turns out that weekend mornings are great dissertating times for me.

It’s possible that I should have been working weekends all along, and taking off Mondays instead, when I feel like lazing around (and have no problem sleeping in).

Job Talks

I recently attended a mock job talk. One of the hardest things about this particular talk was that it was supposed to be given to a mixed audience of undergraduates and professors. Here’s some thoughts I have about how to give a good talk in this situation:

1) Ask your audience easy questions at the beginning. Getting even a small amount of feedback (Let’s have a show of hands on who has seen Avatar!) will calm your nerves. Plus, the audience will be engaged. I say ask easy questions because you don’t know these people–you don’t want to put them on the spot if they are shy or insecure.

2) Repeat key terms a couple of different ways. Even the main concepts are not difficult to grasp, giving a quick definition or simple example will force you to introduce your main ideas slowly and keep your audience with you.

3) Rather than trying to cram all the different issues in your dissertation into one talk, pick one thread and stick to it.  As one professor put it, the hiring committee has read your abstract. They don’t need it rehashed, and a summary of all your big thoughts will just confuse a listening audience.

4) Don’t try to sound smart. Don’t name drop scholars. And if someone asks you a question that you don’t have a good answer to, it’s okay to ask them to elaborate or say that it’s an interesting problem (and explain why) without answering the question definitively. This approach has the added bonus of making your audience feel smart (they thought of something that you, the expert, didn’t!) and also making you look humble. Everyone would rather work with the humble guy than the guy who pretends to know what he’s talking about but is obviously full of it.

If you’ve got a job talk coming up, good luck!

Interview Tips from FSP

Female Science Professor strikes again! Her calm, practical advice for interviewing is definitely beneficial to any future doctor. There’s a whole series, but this post particularly addresses issues that are worried over often, including wardrobe and family issues.

Doing What You’re Not Good At

My friend and mentor, Dr. Susan Somers-Willett, once told me that most academic writers are much better at close reading than theoretical framing, or vice versa. She described herself as more naturally inclined toward bigger-picture scholarly questions. I am more of a detail-oriented, pick-apart-the-text-one-syllable-at-a-time kind of woman.

Back then, I thought there might be something wrong with me because I was having such a hard time thinking about my project in terms of literary theory or contemporary scholarship. The idea that I might be better at something that Susan was–whether true or not–was pretty exciting.

I continue to struggle to fit these two types of thinking into a single piece of academic writing. Today, starting a chapter revision, I decided to completely ignore all my evidence and examples, and focus on getting the big-picture, scholarly conversation stuff in place.

It was scary but so worth it! I already have a wealth of examples to draw from previous drafts. But rather than try to build an argument around those pieces of evidence, I focused on writing all my ideas on a rather daunting topic–nothing less than the history of poetry as a genre. I came away from my work this morning knowing that my advisor will not find the same old weaknesses in this version of the chapter.

I don’t know if I could have used this technique in earlier drafts or not. Without realizing I was doing it, I started writing my dissertation by putting down a wealth of detail that had no real point. It would have been awesome to figure out my theoretical questions before writing, but I don’t know if I was capable of doing that then.

Nevertheless, wherever you are in your writing project, I encourage you to try on an alter-ego for a day. Be the person whose strengths are your greatest weaknesses. It might be easier than you expect.

Marketplace of Ideas

Here’s a book review by Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Opening of the Academic Mind: How to Rescue the Professoriate from Professionalization.” It’s about the book The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand, but it is interesting on its own.

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas