Expertise: You Have It

My MA program, like many humanities PhD programs, came with a teaching assistantship. I taught two sections of public speaking and, in return, the university waived my tuition and paid me a (very) small stipend.

I was nervous about my first teaching assignment for several reasons. Like many students entering a graduate program I had just moved across the country to a new place where I didn’t know anyone or anything. I had just finished my Bachelor’s degree and while it was in Communication I had never even taken a public speaking class.

How, I wondered, was I supposed to establish expertise in a class I had never taken in a classroom of students who were about my age? Would I even be a good teacher? What if my students didn’t learn anything? What if I was too easy or too harsh in grading?

There were a thousand overwhelming “what-ifs” that were compounded by not having a support network in the area.

What all of these what-ifs ultimately came down to was “how do I get students to believe I’m an expert in this subject when I don’t feel like an expert?”

Every single time I’ve taught a brand new class I’ve had an anxiety attack about how dare I think I’m enough of an expert to teach anyone anything outside of my very narrow little field.

I know I’m not alone in this. Most graduate students, and almost every woman graduate student, I’ve talked to has felt the same way when confronting a new class.

People have also developed some intriguing coping mechanisms.

One semester, when teaching in a new department, I was required to attend their TA orientation and a *very* successful professor said that the key to establishing your expertise in the classroom was to get there as early as possible so that the students were walking into your classroom rather than you walking into their classroom.

And . . . just . . . what the actual fuck?

Later, at a bar with senior graduate students in that department, I shared how outrageous this idea of authority was expecting them all to laugh along with me and say, “That’s just Dr. So-and so.”

But they did not.

Instead, I was met with a variety of blank stares until someone meekly said, “Well, yeah.”

Readers, this man had indoctrinated dozens of graduate students with the idea that your expertise is based on when you enter a room.

Now, certainly, there is a feeling of authority that comes with being prepared and that can involve getting to the classroom early so that you’re organized and ready to go when class starts.

Even if you get to class late, though, you are still the teacher.

If an eager student gets to your office hours before you do they are not suddenly the instructor.

Your credibility in the classroom is not based on your location or the time of your arrival.

Your credibility is located in the expertise you’ve gained.

If you’re anything like me this would be the time when your impostor syndrome starts yelling, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY EXPERTISE??? HOW COULD THEY PUT ME IN FRONT OF STUDENTS???”

You do, though.

Even if you aren’t a subject expert on every single subject your survey class touches, even if you’re teaching a class you never took, you still have valuable expertise to share with your students.

What you know, what your expertise is in, the only expertise you need to teach is how to learn.

You have more experience learning in a formal educational setting than anyone else in the room.

You aren’t there to be the first in the room or to know more about absolutely every subject.

You are there to show your students how to learn and by the very virtue of being in a graduate program you’ve proven that you have that expertise.

From Students to Collaborators

Don’t be afraid to make your students work.

I know, it sounds obvious, but I often meet graduate student instructors who feel comfortable testing their students but not making them work.

Your students are one of your best resources in teaching and you should use them so that your job is easier and they learn better.

Let’s revisit the issue of coverage, which we talked about in an earlier post. No class is ever going to get perfect coverage but, you can significantly improve your coverage if you let your students do it for you.

For instance, I used to teach an Intro to LGBTQ+ Studies class. I knew going into it that my understanding of LGBTQ+ issues was very US based. I also knew that making dissertation progress and educating myself on global LGBTQ+ issues were not things I could do justice to if I did them simultaneously.

Instead, I set aside a week in the syllabus to have the students present on global LGBTQ+ issues. Students picked a country to present on and put together a five minute presentation on LGBTQ+ rights in the country of choice.

Not only did this introduce the class to the status of LGBTQ rights in 25 countries (something I, as an individual instructor, could never do in a survey course) it also helped students learn.

By allowing students to pick their own country I tapped into the power of their intrinsic motivation. Some students picked countries they had family in and some picked countries they had been on mission trips to. Others picked countries they had seen a documentary on or were just generally interested in. Whatever the reason they picked the country they had at least a non-zero level of interest in it that helped motivate their research.

In addition, as many of us know, teaching something to others helps you learn it better yourself.

Not only did incorporating my deficiency into the syllabus save me work but the class as a whole learned more than if I had tried to teach it myself AND individual students learned better through presenting on a subject they were actually interested in.

This semester (as in every semester) I’m behind on grading. I woke up with an anxiety attack at 3:00 this morning because my students have an assignment due Friday but I still haven’t gotten them grades from their last assignment.

This was the first issue I brought up in class today. I gave my students two options: push back the due date for the assignment or convert their four-part assignment into a three-part. My students had a few questions about how each option would work. After I answered those we voted.

Again, by allowing the students to shape their own experience I have confidence that we are reaching a solution that serves all of us, maximizes their intrinsic motivation through reflecting their values, and it significantly eases my stress.

Making your students your collaborators helps empower them. Many of our students come from a world of endless assessments in which they are measured by the quantity of what they learn. When you let your students be active partners through helping shape the syllabus, teaching their peers, or decide on course policies you are doing the most important work: teaching them how to problem solve.

Intrinsic Motivation

In education, as in anything else, there are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is external in the form of rewards of some sort. In teaching, rewards correlate to an increase in grade in some way.

Intrinsic motivation is, like it sounds, motivation that is internal to the individual. If you’re getting a PhD in the humanities you are probably highly intrinsically motivated. In other words, you like learning for learning’s sake. While this is great for you it might make it harder to relate to students who don’t have a deep well of intrinsic motivation to pull from.

In education, intrinsic motivation is something of a paradox. We know that students learn better when they are intrinsically motivated (aka, when they want to learn) but when we create a mechanism to encourage a student’s intrinsic motivation we have, in that act, converted that motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic.

If you can tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation you can make your life, as an instructor, much easier. There are two reasons for this.

First, because people work harder when they are intrinsically motivated. There’s tons of research on it. You can look it up if you want.

Second, and far more importantly for our purposes, everything that makes up extrinsic motivation requires you to do work. This is fairly obvious, yet, somehow, people over look this point.

Do you want to motivate your students to attend an event by offering them extra credit? Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Do you want to motivate your students to revise their work and turn it back in for a better grade?

Congratulations. You now have to grade that shit.

Any form of extrinsic motivation you offer your students will create a disproportionate amount of work for you.

In contrast, creating ways to tap into your students’ intrinsic motivation will decrease your workload while actually increasing how much they learn.

The magic question then becomes: how do you tap into intrinsic motivation without converting it to extrinsic motivation?

There are several ways to do this and we will be highlighting strategies you can use from the first day of class to the final grade.

For now, there’s one thing you need to know.

If a student is in your class then they already have a base line of intrinsic motivation because they chose to be there.

There are, of course, a few exceptions to this rule. At the institution I work at now there is one History class that absolutely everyone has to take before graduation. The professor that teaches that can’t really draw from an untapped pool of intrinsic motivation in his students because they are all forced to be there.

For every other class on this campus, though, students have some level of intrinsic motivation to be there.

On the first day of class this semester I had students go around the room and say one thing they hoped to get from the class. One student said that they wanted to get their mandatory diversity credit. Perhaps that’s not *the* most inspiring reason to take a class but what that tells me is that student looked at the half dozen diversity credits being offered this semester and chose this class. That means they wanted to be here more than they wanted to be anywhere else.

At my previous institution, students had to take one half of the history survey as a graduation requirement. Even though they only had a choice between two classes, they had some kernel of intrinsic motivation, some preference, to take one over the other.

And that’s all you need. I promise you, we can work with that.

 

What Does It Mean To Learn

It seems like a simple question: we all know what it means to learn. We’ve been learning our whole lives and, if you got into grad school, you’re probably pretty good at learning.

Sometimes, when we are good at something, we don’t think much about how that thing works.

Addressing the question of what it means to learn is the core of your teaching philosophy and practice, your pedagogy, and it’s worth taking some time to think about.

Everything about teaching flows from how you conceive of learning.

For instance, what will you use to grade your students? Well, that depends on what they need to learn. If they need to learn the specialized vocabulary of your field it would make sense to have a test or quiz on vocabulary.

If you want to see if they can put what they’ve learned into practice then it makes sense to have a practicum.

If you want them to acquire research skills then it makes sense to assign a research paper or annotated bibliography.

In my classes we use the following definition of learning:

Learning is the process by which you connect new information to your lived reality.

For me, as an instructor, this means that I want students to feel that the skills and knowledge they are acquiring have real baring on and connect to their every day lives.

This definition of learning shapes almost everything about how I teach from my attendance policy to the texts I assign to how I grade their work.

I primarily teach Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science so there are a variety of skills I want my students to acquire. I want them to learn media criticism, textual exposition, research methods, and rhetoric.

There are a variety of ways I could help them acquire these skills from quizzes and tests to essays to community services.

The reason it’s important to think critically about what it means to learn for your subject and your students is because understanding what learning is helps you decide where you can cut back on time intensive tasks like grading.

In our previous post we talked about how most new instructors tend to put too much time and effort into teaching for a variety of reasons. Even if you want to take our advice to stop working so much and start timing your teaching tasks it can be difficult to know what to cut from your teaching to-do list.

To figure out what to cut compare what you are doing to how you want your students to learn.

If you need your students to learn vocabulary then it might make sense to set up a Blackboard or Canvas quiz tat is automatically graded rather than you individually grading vocan quizzes.

If you want to promote engagement with reading it might make sense to have your students turn in a written response that they simply get credit for doing. You can pull a few to read to get a sense of how the class is relating to the readings but don’t fall into the trap of reading them all.

These are only a few possible solutions, but the point is to limit what you do to what benefits your students rather than doing all the things you think you should be doing.

Hopefully you can take some time this weekend to think of ways to limit what you teach not to how you’ve been taught to teach but what is best for your students and for you.

On Monday, we’ll begin talking about how to promote intrinsic motivation an how this can make your life easier.

Stop Working So Hard

You are working too hard on teaching and you need to stop.

I know you think you’re not doing enough, but I promise you that you are doing too much.

How do I know this?

Because all new professors do too much. (And, yes, if you have yet to defend your dissertation I’m counting you as “new.”)

I think there are a lot of reasons why PhD candidates work too much on teaching. In part, it’s because teaching is significantly clearer than dissertation work. You have a time that you show up at a place and you do a thing and then it’s done in stark contrast to dissertation work which you can start whenever you want and never feels done. It’s significantly easier to measure your progress in teaching. If you have twelve papers to grade and grade six of them then you are halfway done in contrast to dissertation work where you may write 600 words but how close is that to done, exactly? Perhaps the most seductive thing about teaching, though, is that it lets us feel like experts because when you teach you are automatically viewed as the expert in the room whereas, with writing a dissertation, we are constantly thinking about how to prove that we know a thing.

Teaching, as we’ve said before, expands to fill the space you give it and many, many ABD students give teaching too much of their time because, for the reasons mentioned above, teaching feels good when other parts of the PhD process do not.

As always, there is something about the type of person who wants to get a PhD in the first place that lends towards the teaching-too-much problem. If you are getting a PhD you probably love learning and you probably want other people to love learning which means you’re going to put a lot of your time and energy into making your classes a space where students can love learning.

These are all the reasons why I know you are teaching too, too much and you need to stop it.

Here are three ways to help you teach less without short-changing your students:

  1. Let go of the idea of coverage. It’s not possible to cover everything in a single class particularly if, like most graduate students, you are teaching an intro level survey class. You will want to cover everything, but you can’t. The professor who first gave me this advice used this example, “So what if you teach a class about the 20th century and don’t cover World War I?!” This was from an historian. Her point, however, was that when putting together your syllabus you have to let go of the idea that you will cover everything. Instead of trying to cover everything include a mix of what you think they absolutely need to know and what you find interesting.
  2. Limit your teaching time. Again, teaching will expand to fill the time you give it so one of the absolute best ways to do less teaching is to limit the amount of time you allow yourself to teach. I mean this literally. Set a timer when you work on teaching tasks. The timer shouldn’t be for longer than an hour. When the timer goes off you stop doing teaching things.
  3. Time your teaching. Set a time limit for how much teaching work you will do per week. The general assumption is that you’ll spend twenty (20) hours a week on teaching things and the same amount on research and writing things. In reality, most people work far more than this on both their research and teaching. However much you actually work commit to spending absolutely no more than half of those hours on teaching things. The important thing here is to make sure that you count ALL of your teaching hours. This doesn’t just mean you count the hours you spend grading. It means that you count the time you spend in the classroom, in office hours, prepping for class, and grading. Time all of those things, add up how much total time it is and when you reach half of your working hours for the week it’s time to cut off teaching.

If you practice these tips you will reduce the amount of time you spend teaching which will give you more time to dissertate. I know first hand, however, that it can be difficult to put these tips into practice because it can feel that limiting our time on teaching will, somehow, short change our students.

I can only promise you that it won’t. Putting these tips into practice for the first time may feel scary but I would urge you to try it for a month and see if the quality of your teaching decreases.

In my experience, when I limit the amount of time I spend on individual teaching tasks and the amount of total time I spend teaching weekly my teaching improves immensely. It improves because I have more energy and focus for teaching. It improves because limiting time helps me prioritize my teaching tasks. It improves because I feel less distracting guilt that I’m not working on my dissertation enough.

We hope that these tips will help you save time on teaching and create time for dissertating from now to the end of the present term. For our next couple of posts we’re going to focus on how to set up your syllabus so that you have less grading and less class prep from the beginning.

Just One Day

Listen.

I have something important to tell you.

You may not believe me, but I promise that what I’m about to tell you is 1000% true and it’s important for you to sit with this knowledge:

Every working professor I know is A MESS when it comes to teaching.

No.

Really.

I’m not saying they aren’t good teachers, or even great teachers.

I’m saying that they are a mess.

They all feel overwhelmed by the amount of grading they have. They are all preparing their lectures hours, or minutes, before class. Many of them are reusing a syllabus from the past or changing their syllabus on the fly.

[Fun Fact: Literally as I was writing this piece one of my favorite profs, an award-winning teacher, on campus asked if I could help them organize their graded in-class activities to hand back. This is one of the best teachers I know.]

When I was an undergraduate I revered my professors. They seemed so put-together, so smart, so grown-up. They were clever and funny and gave no fucks–all qualities I aspired to.

I began teaching myself in my MA program. I taught two sections of public speaking and, to prepare for this, there was a four day training on how to use the assigned textbook, and avoid doing things that could get the university sued. For the first semester, all the public speaking TAs met weekly to go over how to grade speeches and so on.

This is more teaching training and oversight than many first-time graduate student teachers or TAs get.

I was incredibly nervous to start teaching. I felt I could never measure up to the amazing teachers I had as an undergraduate. I wasn’t a real adult (TM). I didn’t have my shit together. I didn’t know anything about anything. What if these students saw right through me on the first day?!

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had an amazing teaching mentor and she said something to me that I want to pass on to you:

You only ever need to be one day ahead of your students. If you’re a week ahead of them they’ll think you’re god. 

Reader, over a decade of experience has taught me that these words are true.

Here’s the thing: The inside view always, always, always looks worse than the outside view.

When it comes to your teaching you have the inside view. You are constantly aware of how much there is to learn and, conversely, how little you really know.

In contrast, your students have the outside view. They are aware of how much more than them you know and how much they have to learn.

My favorite example of this is a grad student friend of mine getting their PhD in History. When they were assigned to teach the second half of the US History Survey (1877-Presentish) ordered several supplementary texts online including one about the speeches and policies of Henry Kissinger.

When I asked why on earth they were reading a book about Kissinger their response was, “Well, I don’t know that much about Kissinger and if a student asks a question about him I want to be able to answer it.”

Reader, that person, now a PhD in History, has taught the second half of the US Survey several times and no one has ever asked a nuanced question about Kissinger that would merit reading a whole book about him if he wasn’t already the subject of your dissertation.

Let go of the myth of the perfect professor who knows everything about their topic. If that person ever existed they don’t anymore. It’s just not how the US university system works these days.

All you need to be is one day ahead of your students. In practice, what that means is you go into the classroom that day knowing what’s about to happen and your student doesn’t.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

If you can begin or end the class by articulating how today’s material will connect to the next few classes they really will think you’re god.

Lastly, being prepared for the day doesn’t mean knowing everything for the day.

If you are lucky you will have clever students who ask nuanced questions that you may not know the answer to. That’s ok. It’s perfectly okay to tell a student, “I hadn’t thought of that but let me do some digging and get back to you next class.” Your students know that no one person can think of every angle on a topic and being honest about what you don’t know will often build your credibility.

When teaching, don’t think you have to be able to lay out the whole semester ahead of time. You can take it one day at a time and, for heaven’s sake, don’t read any books about Henry Kissinger.

 

Teaching is a TARDIS

If you’re not familiar with Dr. Who’s home/time traveling device/constant companion then the idea that teaching is a TARDIS may not make sense to you but it’s not hard to get.

A TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside. Similarly, teaching takes up much more of your actual time than it looks like it will from the outside. At both my MA and PhD institutions a full-time teaching appointment was a .5 FTE, otherwise known as 50% Full Time Employment. We all signed contracts with the university stating that we were getting paid on the assumption that we were working on teaching tasks 20 hours a week.

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This is almost never true.

It’s particularly not true if you have a class you’ve never taught before, also known as a new prep.

Teaching expands to fill the space you give it and you will never feel that you’re doing enough.

For October, we’re focusing on streamlining your teaching without shortchanging your students so that you have more time to research and write your dissertation.

No one is writing syllabi in October so why would we put this series here?

For those of you in the semester system you’re approaching midterms. For those of you on the quarter system you’re likely approaching your first evaluative metric. In other words, the timing of the semester is about to provide you with some poignant lessons on what you want to do differently the next time you teach this, or any, class.

Maybe you realized that you gave yourself too much grading or that you need to give your students more background information to contextualize what they’re learning. Maybe you’re realizing that the readings you assigned were too simple or complex. Whatever it is, right about now, you’re probably thinking about some things you want to change about your class.

Well, we are here to help.

We’re putting this series here so that, as you realize you want to make changes we can provide some guidance on the how. We’re also putting this series here so that, in December, when you’re making your next syllabus, you have a full series to come back and read through.

We got your back.

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Topics we’ll cover this month include:

  • Why you should do less work
  • How doing less work will serve your students better
  • Letting go of professorial myths
  • Saving your time

We look forward to covering all of these topics in detail. If there are others you want to see covered just drop us a line in the comments!

How to Fail

Earlier this week we shared that a crucial part of making progress on your dissertation isn’t just letting go of perfection but actively giving yourself the freedom to fail.

Today, we’re going to share our favorite ways to fail.

If you take lessons in acrobatics, stagecraft, or tumbling, one of the first things you will learn is how to fall. While we’ve all been challenged by gravity a time or two there are better ways to fall than others. There are ways to fall that you can recover from so the routine goes on and, if you can’t recover, there are ways to fall that minimize the possibility of injury.

In the same way, there are better and worse ways of failing.

Trying to prevent failure in the dissertation process is futile. The only thing you can do is learn to fail forward.

If you’re in a US institution then you are in a culture were we are discouraged, in numerous ways, from talking about our failures.

Beyond this broader cultural taboo, however, is a problem peculiar to academia: most of us chose to be in academia because we’ve always been good at learning.

We were the kids who got “A”s on most of our school work. We are better than average at testing of all kinds, at reading comprehension, and writing. We like making nuanced arguments. Many of us were encouraged to go to grad school because we are good at these things.

We choose graduate programs that play to our strengths. For instance, I find media and culture incredibly interesting so I picked a PhD program that would allow me to focus on cultural critique and media analysis. Once I was there I had a choice between collecting data through interviews or analyzing historical documents. I love analyzing documents. I’m very good at it. I conducted exactly one interview during my MA program and learned that I hated it.

My story is not uncommon. Most of us, particularly in the humanities, are blessed to be able to choose our programs and projects according to what interests us and what we are good at.

This will serve you well in coursework and even through your prospectus writing.

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

You see, for many of us, pursuing a career in the academy has kept us safe within the bubble of our skill where we rarely have to fail. But writing, like most successful ventures, is a process of failing until you succeed.

I think one of the reasons a full 50% of PhD students drop out is because writing an original manuscript like a dissertation requires them to fail and it feels indescribably yucky.

You are not going to complete a dissertation without some version of what feels like failing and when you’re not used to it “failing” can feel like dying.

I put failing in quotes there because what grad students count as failure often wouldn’t count as failure in a different workplace.

I passed my prospectus defense with revisions and I counted that as failure.

Every time my advisor gave me back a draft with extensive notes I felt like I had failed.

If I hadn’t been so used to turning things in and getting “A”s on the first try I might have had a better adjusted sense that revision is a normal, inevitable, vital part of writing.

In my workplace now it’s normal for most projects to go through several stages of revision and it’s not failure; it’s not even a big deal. It’s just work.

Beyond that, most graduate students I know, particularly those in the humanities, hold themselves to an impossible, invisible standard known or cared about by no one but themselves. That standard is often simply, “be perfect.”

No one can be perfect but when you’ve always been close to perfect, an “A” student, being less than perfect can feel like failure. When the only way forward is through imperfection and failure and you’re terrified of failure then you may find yourself standing still. I’ve known people who have stood still, doing nothing on their dissertations, for years. I know people who have left their graduate programs rather than face the sort of failure inherent in the writing process. If you want to finish your dissertation then you have to give yourself the freedom to fail and you have to learn how to fail forward.

Write Badly. Write as badly as you can. Instead of worrying about how to write a good sentence or how to succinctly state the significance of the problem do those things as badly as you can. It’s always easier to edit than to generate original content. The most intimidating part of a blank page is the pressure we put on ourselves to write something brilliant. Set that aside. Write as badly as you can. You can always make it beautiful later.

Writing Is Not Cooking. My aunt taught me that, when I was cooking, I should always add less salt to a recipe than I thought was warranted because, while I could always add more at a later stage, I couldn’t take the salt out once it was in the dish. This is a good principle in cooking and a terrible principle in writing. You can always go back and erase what you’ve written if you decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t fit. Don’t stop to think or critique your work while you’re producing it. Don’t worry or wonder if what you’re writing is good. Just let it all flow out and trust your inner editor to clean it up later.

Create a”Pieces” Document. I suggest doing this for every part of the dissertation: each chapter, the introduction, even the acknowledgements. A pieces document is an intellectual security blanket. When you know that a sentence or a paragraph or a section doesn’t quite fit where you want it to but you don’t want to delete it because, damn it, you worked hard on those words, then you can copy and paste it into your “Pieces” document. Chances are you will not actually go back and use these pieces in your dissertation. If you’ve made the decision to take them out then they probably need to be out. However, reading through my old “pieces” document has often worked as a great way to get over writer’s block.

Follow Bunny Trails. One of the most defeating experiences as a writer is when you spend all day (or week or month or year) chasing down a lead. Sometimes all you have is the name of a scholar who said something you know would tie together your whole argument in this one place. Sometimes you remember the gist of what was said but not who said it or where. Sometimes, you find what you’re looking for but once you find it it’s not obvious why you were so sure it would fit. Sometimes, you spend all day looking and you don’t find what you’re looking for. Either way, at the end of these days it’s easy to feel frustrated with yourself for wasting so much time chasing down a bunny trail. But those bunny trails are actually an essential part of the writing experience and help prepare you for your dissertation defense. In your search for whatever piece of scholarship you are looking for you are acquainting yourself with the literature of your field. If you find the thing you were looking for and it doesn’t fit then you’ll be prepared to articulate to your committee or a job search committee why you rejected it because you made a conscious decision to do so. Mostly, you have to trust that you’re not an idiot and if you have a hunch that you need to hunt something down then that work will pay off sometime, somewhere. It always does.

This is the last entry in our September series on letting go of perfection and embracing progress.

For October we’ll be focusing on how to spend less time teaching and create more time for your dissertation without short changing your students. This is one of our favorite topics and we can’t wait to dive into it with you!

Free to Fail

My birthday was last week and I through a party. In lieu of a cake I made dozens and dozens of macarons.

They were delicious (it was the cake batter buttercream) and my guests were very impressed.

Several people told me that they didn’t know I had such advanced baking skills as macarons have a reputation as being particularly difficult to make.

But here’s the thing about macarons: they aren’t that hard to make if you have the right equipment. To make macarons you need the following ingredients:

  • blanched almond flour
  • powedered sugar
  • cream of tartar
  • egg whites
  • granulated sugar
  • flavored extracts or emulsions (if you want to add them)
  • food coloring (if you want)
  • filling (I like buttercream but you can use jam, ganache, or whatever you want)

Other than the blanched almond flour, most of the ingredients are common place and not very expensive.

The equipment, however, is a different matter.

Macarons are ridiculously hard to make if you don’t have a stand mixer to make that crucial meringue. You can make a meringue with a hand mixer or, god forbid, a whisk but it takes sooooo long and will tire out your arms.

You also need something to sift the almond flour and powdered sugar together.

Once you mix the batter together and it gets to the stage where you can make a full figure eight with the batter sliding off the spatula you’re ready to put it in the piping bag. Piping bags are a wonderful invention but they take some getting used to.

From there, pipe the macarons to the size you want, bang the tray on the counter three times, let them sit for twenty minutes, and put them in the oven.

After that, you’ll probably have pretty good macarons.

You see, the process is time consuming and resource intensive, but it’s not particularly difficult.

I was thinking about this while I was making endless macarons for my party and realized that most skills are that way: not particularly difficult if you have the resources, the time, and the freedom to fail (as I did with my first several batches of macarons).

Dissertations are the same way. The PhD process, from course work to prelims, is designed to give you the resources you need to complete the project.

If you’ve completed those things then I promise that you have what you need to write and defend a dissertation.

To make that crucial transition from ABD to PhD, you need to give yourself the other two things: time and the freedom to fail.

This month we’ve been covering the latter. Next month, we’ll be covering the former.

Part of why we started with letting go of perfection is because you will find that, when you let go of being perfect, you gain a lot of time.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice. A lot of authors more famous than me have said the same thing. There’s the Jane Smiley quote, “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” There’s also Shannon Hale’s quote, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

I could pull up a dozen more quotes but the point is always the same: let go of perfection in your work, especially your first drafts. This is necessary for writers to function generally but particularly necessary for academic writers. You have a committee whose job it is to assess the quality of your work. Your job is to do the work. Let them do theirs and you do yours.

Is it more complicated than that? Sure, there are nuances, but if you want to make any kind of progress you have to give yourself the freedom to fail.

 

A Dissertation is a Thousand Cranes

Being from a working-class background, I grew up identifying “work” as something with visible, tangible results. My stepdad poured concrete. His work was a series of discrete tasks. That is not to say it didn’t take skill–it absolutely did–but at the end of the day, when his work was done, there was concrete where there had been no concrete. My grandfather was a machinist. When his work was done there was a thing where there had been no thing. My mom was a secretary and a large part of her job was archiving documents. She started the day with a pile of documents to archive and at the end of the day they were archived. That’s how you knew that work was done.

Academic work is not like that.

Writing, in general, is not like that.

You sit down at your computer and you start to write. Then you start to edit. You might end the day with more words than you started with. You might end the day with fewer words than you started with. If you track your word count over time you will see a steady increase, but even then there often isn’t a tangible product at the end of the day to show that you did something other than sit at a desk all day. And that’s on the good days! The days when you actually get to write. There are other days where you go down research trails that may or may not lead somewhere. (Well, they all lead somewhere, but they often don’t lead where you expect them to.) There are days where you are mired in meetings or days when teaching takes all of your energy and you feel like you didn’t make any dissertation progress.

Without concrete proof that you are moving forward, the ebb and flow of writing can feel discouraging and self-defeating.

To help myself fight this discouragement I made a seemingly small decision on a completely ordinary day. At the time, I was using this little post-it sized to-do lists I’d gotten at Target. I had enough space to write about five tasks on each one and, because they were square, they were perfect for origami. I decided that, when I completed all five items on my to-do list, I would fold it into a paper crane.

I had no idea how to make paper cranes.

I finished the to-do list and looked up a YouTube paper crane tutorial.

I made a crane.

There it was, sitting on my desk, a little reminder that I had completed the tasks I had set for myself.

The next day, I decided to try the same thing. I made a small to-do list. I completed it. I made another paper crane.

Now I had two cranes and two tangible reminders that I had completed all my tasks for the day. When I started there was no crane. When I finished a crane existed. This was a form of work that made sense to me.

I found that this method helped keep me focused on my progress rather than what I didn’t get done.

About a week into this I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to make 1000 cranes and turn them into streamers for my dissertation defense?” It’s said that, if you make 1000 cranes you get a wish. Maybe I could use them to wish to become a doctor.

Reader, I did it.

I made 1000 cranes.

They weren’t all to-do lists. I also used the hard copy drafts of my dissertation that I printed out to edit. (You can get about 4 cranes out of an 8.5×11 piece of paper, btw.)

Was it great to have my crane streamers in the room when I defended my dissertation? Absolutley.

Do I still have them? Of course.

Here’s what making 1000 cranes taught me.

  1. You will get bad advice. You will recover. Remember when I told you that I didn’t know anything about making paper cranes and searched a YouTube video to learn how? Well, the first video I found was not a good tutorial. I don’t think the maker of that video new how to make a crane either. As a result, my first dozen “cranes” aren’t, technically, cranes. They kind of look like cranes, if you squint. When I realized that these first cranes didn’t look right I found another tutorial which I followed religiously until I could make a crane with my eyes closed.
  2. You will feel crazy. Here’s the thing about making 1000 of anything. At first, it will be fun and cute. People will comment on it saying, “What a neat idea!” or “How fun!” Once you get about 30 of them and they are strewn across your desk people will stop commenting. They are no longer cute. They are messy and a little weird. When you have to get a box to store your first 100 cranes in you will start to wonder if you are crazy. Once you reach 500 it will feel like there’s no point in stopping. Once you reach 925 you will wonder if you *really* have to make it to 1000. Once you hit 1000 you will be so incredibly proud of yourself.
  3. It’s not about one crane. Remember back in step one when I said that my first dozen cranes were made incorrectly? Well, they weren’t the only ones. Even after I learned to make cranes there were still days when I made bad ones. The paper wasn’t perfectly square or my fold was off. The thing is, though, when you make 1000 of anything what each individual one looks like isn’t as important as what they look like together. Let me tell you, friends, those 1000 cranes together are a beautiful sight to behold.
  4. Ask for help. It may sound odd given everything I’ve said up to this point but making 1000 cranes was actually the easy part. I severely underestimated the difficulty of making streamers out of 1000 paper cranes. I’m also not what you would call a “crafty” person. This meant that I was about a week out from my dissertation defense and had no streamers and felt frustrated and overwhelmed. I reached out to see if any of my friends wanted to come over, watch movies, and make streamers. I will be eternally grateful to the people who came over and engaged in that ridiculous activity to make this dream come true.
  5. Celebrate. You did something difficult. Show it off! Be proud of it! Tell people about it! Do your favorite thing! You earned it.

A dissertation, it turns out, is remarkably similar to making 1000 cranes.

  1. You will get bad advice from faculty who think grad school hasn’t changed since they were in it, from abusive advisors, from bitter grad students. You will recover. Your ability to course-correct is unlimited.
  2. You will feel crazy. At first it will be exciting (and intimidating), then it will feel boring (and daunting). You will feel crazy. Then you will feel like you might as well keep going since you’ve gotten this far. You will feel crazy. Then you will wonder if you really wanna finish this thing. You will feel crazy. Then you will be done and feel glorious.
  3. It’s not about the individual words or sentences. It’s not that words aren’t important, because they are. It’s just that there’s no reason to get hung up on individual words or sentences that don’t sound “perfect” because it’s about the totality of the thing you are doing. It’s about the book, not the paragraph. Just keep writing. You might come back and find those sentences you agonized over weren’t so bad after all.
  4. Ask for help. Find people you trust. Ask for help. Do this often.
  5. Celebrate. Celebrate fiercely. Celebrate the little wins and the big wins. Celebrate.