Remix: Free to Fail

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting about the importance of failure in the dissertation process. Enjoy!

My birthday was last week and I threw 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 for 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.

Remix: The Best Kept Secret About Dissertations

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting the best kept secret about dissertations that will transform the way you think about dissertations and, hopefully, make writing significantly easier. Enjoy!

Gather round, my friends, and I will tell you the best-kept secret of dissertating.

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This is a secret I only learned in the last semester of my PhD as I was putting the finishing touches on the dissertation and sending it to my committee.

It is a secret I wish to God I had known much, much earlier because it would have saved me so much time and so many headaches.

If I could only give you one piece of advice for writing your whole dissertation it would be this secret, but not hidden, truth about dissertating:

DISSERTATIONS ARE A TRASH GENRE!

No, I’m not kidding.

Most dissertations, and I very much include my own in this, are awful.

They are not awful because you are a bad writer or a bad researcher.

They are awful because the genre is terrible.

A dissertation is a very specialized book that no one ever reads. You will read it. Your committee might read it. Your chair will probably read it.

That’s about it.

Imagine, for a second, how truly terrible your favorite book would be if it was written for an audience of five people one of which was the author and the other four were paid  to critique it.

Now imagine if that book had to tell its own story while simultaneously referencing most of the books in related genres and explaining how its story was different but still important.

On top of that, imagine if that book did not have the benefit of a professional editor and had to conform to a bizarre set of formatting standards.

See what we’ve done here? We’ve taken your favorite book and turned it into a trash fire.

When you write a dissertation, that is the genre you are writing in.

One of the biggest hurdles to sitting down and writing the first draft of your dissertation is the haunting question, “Will it be any good?”

This is not the right question. In fact, a lot of the most prolific authors openly talk (or talked, if they’re dead) about how the first draft is awful. You may have seen the following image, from time to time, on our site:

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When you’re sitting down to write a first draft don’t concern yourself with whether or not it’s good.

How would you even know?

Unless you’re Bruce Banner, you probably haven’t done this before. That’s part of why you have a committee! Their job is to tell you what’s working and what’s not. In reality, committees do this to varying degrees with wildly different success rates, but that’s a post for another time.

I said at the top of this post that I had one very important piece of dissertation advice for you.

Here it is:

In the early stages of your writing carve out times to read dissertations in your field.

Search for 3-5 of them and read the introductions then, maybe, skim an interesting chapter. Don’t devote a whole lot of time to this but do devote some time to it.

I didn’t do this until the absolute end of my dissertating process when I was revising the pop-culture chapter and I wanted to see how dissertations in media studies were citing TV shows.

The first dissertation I tried to read was, shall we say, disappointing and, also, seemed to have no consistent way of citing the TV shows they were referencing.

I figured I’d just gotten a lemon so I found another dissertation that seemed relevant and read part of it. It was also not great (e.g. obvious spelling and grammar errors, some logical slight of hand) and it cited sources in a completely different way than the first dissertation.

At this point, I needed a tie-breaker so I found a third dissertation which cited their TV sources yet another way and was also generally bad.

At around this same time a guest lecturer assigned a dissertation in their field to my students to familiarize them with the material they would be covering. That dissertation was truly awful. Not only did it have the spelling and grammar errors I had come to expect but the person was less conversant with the strains of feminism she claimed to be critiquing than my 200 level students were. That guest lecturer had to cancel at the last moment and my students and I engaged in a “deconstructive exercise” where we tore that dissertation apart.

I also personally know someone who deposited their dissertation with a typo in the title, so . . .

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “But my dissertation will be different! Mine will be special–a joy to read.”

To which I would ask you, “Why, tho?”

I say this to you as someone who wanted my dissertation to be beautiful . . . to be delicious in the way that good writing can be both beautiful and delicious. I say this to you as someone who had some moderate success in this realm. I am proud of the work I produced and I love my dissertation.

I also say this to you as someone whose dissertation has been read by fewer than 10 people and that includes people who have only read portions of it.

There is a subtle, but important difference, in your dissertation being a joy to write and a joy to read. Your book should be, ideally, a joy to read. But your dissertation is not a book and it will not be read by a wide audience.

Let your dissertation be a joy to write but don’t worry about whether or not it’s a joy to read. To master the difference the absolute best thing you can do is skim 3-5 dissertations in your field to get a realistic idea of where the bar is for what your reader is expecting. After that, as much as you can, have fun with it.

Remix: A Dissertation Is a Thousand Cranes

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting an unusual coping mechanism that got me through my dissertation and what I learned from it. Enjoy!

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.

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Remix: The Dissertation Bottleneck

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting why it’s so damn difficult to move between the stages of a PhD program. You’re not stupid if it’s hard. The system is set up to fail you, but we’re here to help you through. Enjoy!

There are a lot of weird things about dissertations. Some of them are just inherent in the writing process (#writingisweird) but some of them have to do with the fact that dissertations are an especially difficult genre of writing.

If you are in a PhD program, or grad school generally, chances are your social media is filled with memes about the oddities of grad school and dissertation writing, but as much as grad students love to discuss how f*ing weird grad school is we rarely discuss the absolute weirdest things about writing a dissertation: The Dissertation Bottleneck.

The Dissertation Bottleneck is the term I’ve given to the fact that no single part of the dissertation process prepares you for any other part of the dissertation process.

We’ve talked about the many oddities of the dissertation process before, particularly because it is one of the few truly medieval processes left in modern culture. Even among the modern apprenticeships the PhD process is unique in that each separate part of the process requires a completely new skill set.

In an ideal world, your committee, and particularly your advisor, would be able to mentor you as you transition from stage to stage of the process. But this is not an ideal world and faculty are overworked and overwhelmed. In fact, when coming up with the idea for this website, several faculty said the thing that there grad students most needed was a guide on how to transition from coursework to exams to prospectus to dissertation writing to defense. So, due to the dictates of capitalism I have jumped into the breach!

Below is a brief description of each of the four parts of the process, from coursework through defense:

Course Work: This is the most familiar part of the PhD process. If you are in a PhD program it’s probably because you are a good student who likes learning. If you did a Master’s before your PhD program your two years of course work will feel similar to your MA program in many respects. If you’ve gone straight from undergrad to a PhD program, or if you are coming to a PhD program after working for a while, the course work portion of your PhD will feel most familiar to your previous experiences as a student. There may be some differences in the amount of material you are expected to cover and the metrics by which you are evaluated but this part of the process is learning in classes. You can do this, for sure.

The dissertation bottleneck effect is most pronounced near the end of coursework. The entire point of coursework is to prepare you to move beyond coursework. By your last semester of courses you’ll feel frustrated with reading other people’s work. You’ll have a broad sense of your field and where your work falls within it. You’ll be looking forward to starting your own research.

You will celebrate turning in your last seminar paper, and you should, but you will come to miss the structure and relative simplicity of coursework.

Prelims/Exams/Fields: In brief, your preliminary exams, or prelims are the time at which your committee assesses whether or not you are familiar with the fields in which you wish to contribute as a scholar. We actually had a whole series on how to prep for prelims and, though we say it ourselves, it holds up pretty well. If you want to know more about what prelims are we recommend this post.

What’s important for this post is that the entire prelim process is drastically different from what you’ve done before and is, typically, not explained well.

The biggest connection between prelims and coursework is that prelims can be partially understood as your own ideal course–the course you would put together for yourself to prepare you for your dissertation. Then you read all the books (not really) and take a test on their concepts.

By the time you’re done with prelims you should be able to articulate the major conflicts and themes in the fields you wish to contribute to.

Prospectus: Personally, the prospectus was my absolute least favorite dissertation task. The prospectus itself isn’t terribly long–often shorter than a seminar paper–but it is hard. The prospectus is like planning a road trip to a place you’ve never been. What you’re trying to do is think ahead to what the journey will look like while simultaneously being frustrated by the fact that you have no idea what variables will inevitably fuck up even the most perfect plan. Don’t let the seeming paradox of the prospectus–drawing a map of a place you’ve never been–daunt you from the task. The big gap from the prelims to the prospectus is that, while the prelim exams make you aware of the gaps in your field of knowledge, your prospectus is your plan for how best to fill one of those gaps.

The thing is, knowing that a gap exists is not the same as knowing how to fill it. Anytime you’ve called a plumber, an electrician, or your apartment’s maintenance person you know acutely that identifying a problem and being able to fix a problem are very different skill sets.

Coursework is your training on what things should look like. Your prelims are training on how to identify problems in your field. Your prospectus is your plan on how to fix a part of those problems. The progression of steps makes a certain logical sense but require different skill sets and different training. Knowing what things should look like does not inherently prepare you to fix problems in the way things are anymore than enjoying ice cream prepares you to manage a restaurant.

Finally, after all of that there is the final stage in your graduate program.

Dissertation: Writing a dissertation, like writing any book, is an experience that is hard to describe. Just as learning how to identify a gap in your field doesn’t necessarily equip you to fill that gap your training in how to identify and critique the manuscripts of others does not inherently prepare you to write a manuscript of your own. It is necessary, but not sufficient, preparation. There are a lot of very successful editors who wouldn’t want to be authors.

Our October series is going to be a deep dive into how to manage the writing process.

Our point here is that, if you have felt lost and confused as you move from one stage of the process to the other then You. Are. Not. Alone.

No part of this process is clearly explained and, what’s worse, some of the skills you need to get through one part of the process are actually antithetical to other parts of the process. I know a lot of grad students who were very good at coursework. That is, they were very good at showing up to class on time, prepared, and writing seminar papers synthesizing other people’s work. In every case I can think of, the better someone was at coursework the more they struggled to write the dissertation. While coursework rewards your ability to follow a schedule that’s been set for you through the syllabus writing a dissertation requires you to be able to set, and stick to, your own schedule while also identifying all of the relevant materials and why they are relevant.

In contrast, I know a handful of graduate students who absolutely slogged through coursework or prelims because they were more interested in generating original answers to intriguing questions than reading what everyone else had to say about their topic. Several of these students put off the prelims process for over a year because it was so antithetical to how they worked. Once these students were allowed to build their own schedule and do their own research they flourished, often finishing their dissertations quickly.

It’s not that any of these people were dumb. They just had skill sets that didn’t work at parts of the process. In fact, part of the genesis of this website was a moment when, over drinks with a dear friend (who is now a PhD) I confessed that I had no idea how to start writing my dissertation and had tried to Google it late at night. I was completely surprised when this scholar I respected immensely told me she had done the same thing at every part of the process! Our confession made, we discussed how frustrating it was that all of the clear advice on how to move through a PhD program was geared towards STEM students. In that moment, abd2phd, was conceived.

At this point you might reasonably be asking yourself what this long diatribe has to do with our September focus on letting go of perfection to be productive.

A lot, actually. A lot of PhD students have always been very good at school. Their PhD program might be the first time they have significantly struggled. Combine this with the lack of clarity on the parts of the process, the fact that the skills for one part of the process aren’t the same as the skills to get you through the other parts of the process, and a perception that everyone else knows what they are doing and you wind up with grad students mired in shame.

Shame that they don’t inherently understand the steps of the process. (Who would?!)

Shame that they aren’t doing as well as everyone else. (You are!)

Shame that they are no longer “good at school.” (Because you aren’t “in school” anymore! You’re a young professional!)

Shame that while they did well in one part of the process they are struggling with another. (That’s normal!)

Underlying all that shame is a deeply held sense that we need to be perfect on the first try. But that’s ridiculous. And impossible.

It’s this shame, rooted in the idea that we need to appear perfect, that keeps us from asking, “What the hell are prelims?” and, instead, googling, “What the hell are prelims?” at 3:00 a.m. and then going to bed crying because none of the answers are helpful.

If you want to get through this process you need to understand that you will not be good at every part of it. That doesn’t make you dumb. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t cut out to be a scholar. It means you’re human, and that’s ok. At least, that’s what my therapist spent five years telling me and she always kept it 100.

Remix: Editing A Draft: A 7 Part System

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting our seven part editing system, sometimes hailed as externalized executive-function. Just follow the steps and Enjoy!

Congratulations!

You’ve completed your first chapter draft and are feeling that peculiar mix of excitement and nausea that settles in before sending something to your advisor and/or committee for feedback.

Before now and then, however, you want to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be to reduce the nausea part.

We’ve already talked about editing twice this week. We’ve talked about why writing and editing need to be separate processes and how to use simple editing to jumpstart your writing process.

Simple editing, for our purposes, is the process of reading through a text and annotating it with your thoughts. This process is similar to what you do when you read an article or grade a student’s paper. It is, fundamentally, a critical process and though criticism is not always bad it can be difficult to criticize the things we love which can make it difficult to criticize our dissertations.

Today, I want to share with you the seven-part editing process I cobbled together, largely from the good advice of other people, that I used to edit every chapter and the dissertation as a whole.

These first three steps I learned in a Facebook Live video from Kellee Weinhold at The Professor Is In. I tried to find a link to this system but failed. However, TPII and Kelle Weinhold have great advice on productivity and I would definitely recommend checking them out.

  1. Read it.

That’s it. Just read it. Don’t make notes. Don’t even hold a pen. Just read it. Then take a break–do something else. For whatever reason, I always liked to do this part while walking up and down the long hallway outside my office. I felt like I had better editing skills when I was walking. I probably looked a bit odd but, hey, it got some movement in my day.

2. Read it again. Put checkmarks next to changes.

Just like it sounds. Read it again but instead of writing out full comments put checkmarks next to everything you want to change from punctuation to restructuring paragraphs. That’s it. Then take another break.

3. Read it again. Write comments.

This is the phase where you write in all those comments that have been brewing during the previous two reads. Change the punctuation, correct spelling, make a note to include that source you can’t believe you didn’t include and so on.

Weinhold argues that this three-part process build critical distance between you and your work. In my experience, that’s true. With each read through I picked up more nuance and was able to read the work as if I was providing helpful comments on a friend’s piece rather than criticising my own (intellectual) baby.

4. Start with the easy ones.

Once you’ve written in all your comments prop your notes up on one of these things (seriously, it will save you SO many neck problems) and start with the easy edits. Go through and put in, or take out, all the commas, fix all the typos, use a thesaurus to find a synonym for any words you noticed you were over using and so on.

PRO TIP: Every time you make a change, even a simple one, highlight it on the document. This seems like such an easy thing but it is a huge timesaver when you inevitably get interrupted while editing. Instead of reading back through the document and comparing it to the previous draft to figure out what the last thing you edited was you can just find the last highlighted portion and start right back up.

5. Repeat for the harder changes.

This is where you tackle adding sources, refining the argument, and all of those more nuanced changes. Be sure to highlight them when you’re done.

6. Listen to your draft.

Okay, this one is a game changer and I owe it all to my advisor who gave me this piece of advice.

Make Word read your draft to you. For Mac users: here. For PC users: here.

Highlight a section or two of text click the button and let the robot voice read to you. This will help you catch all kind of mistakes. It will certainly help you catch spelling mistakes but it will help you catch a variety of other mistakes. For instance, it will help you catch when Word has autocorrected a word you misspelled to another word that makes no sense in your sentence. It will also catch when you’ve fallen into the habit of obnoxiously overusing a particular word without realising it. Finally, hearing whether or not the rhythm of the sentence is off can be a huge help in catching punctuation mistakes.

Seriously. Do this. It is amazing.

Also, just listening to the document gives you a bit of time to do something mindless and relaxing like your nails or playing with playdoh. Personally, I liked to play Spider Solitaire while listening to my dissertation.

7. Celebrate!

You did it. Send that draft in and celebrate yourself.

Remix: Start With Editing

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting why it’s important to start writing by editing and how to do it. Enjoy!

So far this October we’ve given you some of our best tips to make dissertating feel doable and, dare we say it, exciting!, rather than terrifying.

If you are an astute reader (and of course you are, you smart cookie) then you’ve probably noticed that we haven’t talked much about writing at all. Certainly, we’ve talked about how to approach your writing with an understanding of the genre, unlearning unhelpful writing habits, and focusing on momentum. However, we still haven’t talked about how to sit down and write the thing.

Truth be told, the advice we can give here is limited. You are the expert in what your committee and department want just as you are the expert in what type of writing system works for you (e.g. mornings, midnight, in silence, on a bus, and so on).

However, there is one piece of advice we can recommend to all of you: start with editing.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by writers that editing an existing piece is 1000% easier than writing a piece into existence.

Starting a project as massive as a dissertation can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s hard to know exactly where to start. By now, you’ve certainly written enough things to know that you always write the introduction last but knowing what comes last just isn’t enough. What should come first?

Make it easy on yourself and start with editing.

Since this month’s focus is on writing a first draft you might be asking yourself, “Editing what? I haven’t written anything yet!”

Except that you have.

You’ve written seminar papers and prelim exams and a prospectus.

You’ve written lots of things that are, in some small way, related to your dissertation.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the document you are starting with is on exactly what your dissertation is on. It just has to be sort of, kind of, maybe, a little related.

This is the brilliance of editing.

After some failed attempts to start writing the dissertation I began to make real progress when I went back an edited an old paper from my Master’s which was on the Adolescent Family Life Act as a piece of Cold War legislation. My dissertation is a comparative study of virginity as a form of sexual regulation in World War II and the War on Terror in the United States. I wasn’t looking to write about the Cold War at all, much less about the rhetorical history of Cold War legislation. All of that is to say, the paper I was editing had very, very little to do in subject or time period of my dissertation.

However, in editing an older piece of work that was tangentially related to my dissertation topic I started to ask myself questions and make writing notes. Examples include but are not limited to:

  • Does this source also talk about World War II?
  • Are budget re-authorizations a good place to look for legislative changes?
  • How is this different from World War II and War on Terror? How is it the same?

In looking up and writing out the answers to these questions I suddenly had that most magical of substances–new material. From the answers to those questions and others, all inspired by editing an old draft of a kind-of related paper, I had material I could work with. I then began to edit the answers to the questions into a more coherent piece which, over time, became the iteration of the problem–why it was necessary to compare World War II and the War on Terror–rather than do a more traditional longitudnal study.

It’s important to note that when I started this process I wasn’t trying to shoehorn old work into my dissertation. What I was doing was looking at my old work to find the gaps between already articulated questions and the questions I had yet to articulate for my dissertation.

Moreover, I didn’t go through this process one time. Since editing a seminar paper felt like it gave me some much needed momentum I went back and edited my prospectus as well. What had I said in the prospectus? How would I say it better now that I knew more? Had new questions arisen since I defended my prospectus? Was my list of archives up to date?

Through editing these older works I was able to reduce the question from “how the hell do I write a book on this?” to “what questions did I leave unanswered in these older pieces and how can I answer them in the dissertation?”

The second question is much more manageable than the first.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about our favorite editing strategies.

Remix: Writing vs. Editing

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting a primer on the difference between your writing and editing brains and how to train them so you can get some sh*t done. Enjoy!

When I was in coursework I often had 3 seminar papers due around the same time at the end of the semester. Combined with teaching responsibilities and the rigors of trying to be a person (e.g. cooking, cleaning, showering) I often wrote these papers at the last minute.

What I mean by that, is that I would often have some books, some notes, some ideas and no words on paper. I would sit down at 7:00 a.m. the day the paper was due and write as many pages as possible before the paper was due at 5:00 or 6:00 or 11:00 or whenever.

This process got me through my MA and all of my PhD coursework.

Although there are undoubtedly people who are more prepared for their lives many of the graduate students I knew, operating under the same constraints, used a very similar process.

Similarly, your prelims exams are timed and whether you have a day or a week you are cranking out a large amount of writing in a condensed amount of time.

In each of these situations, you are going from having next-to-nothing (or nothing) and turning in a finished product. The consequence is that you combine the writing and editing processes somewhat. As you write you’re thinking to yourself, “Does this tie-in with what I want to say in my conclusion? Does this make sense here?”

While that’s not ideal, it’s certainly workable in a project that is (a) under 50 pages long and (b) not the foundation of your future scholarly career.

Dissertations, however, are significantly longer and more important to your overall career making a habit that was functional for previous parts of the process a detriment to your dissertation writing.

One of the most important things to do when writing a dissertation is to un-learn writing habits that got you through previous work but will work against you in a dissertation.

I speak from personal experience. when I started writing the first draft of my dissertation I would make a claim–not even a particularly bold claim or a claim central to my argument–just an ordinary claim. I would then, trained from years of writing and editing simultaneously, ask myself how that claim fit in with the dissertation as a whole. In the rare cases where that question alone was not paralyzingly overwhelming, I would then ask myself how I would defend that claim if I were asked about it in a job talk. This would then lead to an afternoon spent researching the literature and experts related to that one simple claim and no writing would get done.

I have an anxiety disorder so my brain tends to perceive everything as a slippery-slope anyway and for the longest time I perceived this as a problem that was mine alone.

Until, one day, my friend Marc confided that he had a similar problem when he started writing his first draft. I asked Marc how he dealt with this problem and he said one of the most brilliant things I think I’ve ever heard:

I think of my dissertation as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. I’m trying to bring this thing to life but first I have to make all the requisite pieces. I used to get derailed from writing thinking I needed a heart, an arm, a specific thing at a specific place. If I wasn’t making what I thought I needed in the moment I would get paralyzed wondering where, exactly, the paragraph I was writing would fit–would it be a toe or a nose or what? Now, I’ve given myself permission just to write and to trust that everything I’m writing is like making a piece of the monster. I don’t need to know where it goes right away. I’m just building a critical mass of pieces and I trust when it comes time to assemble them I’ll be able to figure that out.

If the idea of your dissertation as a Frankensteinian monster, while seasonally appropriate, doesn’t make sense to you then feel free to substitute whatever building or growing analogy does. Some other examples include:

  • Each sentence you write is like a brick for the grand edifice that will be your dissertation but before you can start building you have to make all the bricks.
  • Each sentence is like planting a seedling in the ground and editing is your harvest. You have to plant your seeds and give them sun and water and space before you harvest.

The analogy you use isn’t the important part. The important part is that you begin to train yourself to think of writing and editing as separate processes and, in so doing, set yourself free simply to write without wondering if it “fits” the larger project.

A measure I developed to do this was my Wild Promises document. Any time I was writing I would have up a separate Word document titled Wild PromisesEvery time I made a claim like “I will revisit this issue in chapter three,” I would hop over to my Wild Promises document and make a note to myself saying “Be sure to revisit topic X in chapter three.”

This did several things. First, it removed the worry that I would forget to revisit topic X in chapter three because I hate nothing more than when an author makes a promise in a chapter to revisit something and then never does. Second, it gave me permission to delay thinking about how topic X threaded through multiple chapters and just focus on what I was writing about topic X in the moment. Finally, if I got stuck working on chapter three I could revisit Wild Promises and see what I had said I was going to write about to jump start my brain and alleviate writer’s block.

I’ve shared this method with several dissertating folks and they’ve reported that it has aided their process immensely and I hope it helps you as well.

Come back tomorrow when we’ll be talking about some of our favorite editing processes.

Remix: The Humanities Are Harder

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting our most controversial post of all time on why writing a dissertation in the humanities is so fudging hard. We got a lot of messages about this one and we’re looking forward to a lot more. Enjoy!

Happy Halloween!

Our goal for this month was to make dissertating feel exciting rather than terrifying.

There is, however, a fundamental truth of dissertating which we may have mentioned before: It is hard.

Even if you love your project, even if you have the world’s best committee, even if you have a generous funding package–writing a dissertation is difficult.

As it should be.

The old adage about getting a PhD remains true: it’s 10% intelligence and 90% perseverance.

What I’m about to say next is a little controversial, but I believe it completely:

Humanities dissertations are harder than other dissertations.

There are a lot of reasons for why this is.

In general, humanities dissertations are longer than dissertations in other disciplines. A friend of mine in the social sciences had a ten-page chapter. Ten (10) pages. Another person I know had a four-page chapter. Four (4) pages. In fact, that four-page chapter was for a person in STEM where the dissertation was not new, original research but four published articles bound together with an introduction and conclusion. Those articles? They weren’t solo pieces. They had several co-authors and, of course, the reputation of the lab of which the person is part can play a significant role in their ability to get published in the first place.

Is this the standard in all STEM programs? Probably not.

Is it difficult to write a dissertation, even one with a four-page chapter? Of course it is. I’m sure my STEM friends would want me to point out that a lot of work went into that four-page chapter. It can summarize hundreds of hours in a lab and dozens of hours of research. I’m not trying to say that STEM dissertations are easy in any way.

What I am saying is that humanities dissertations are harder.

Aside from the general length of the thing, though, the formatting can be more difficult. At the beginning of this month, I encouraged you to read a couple of dissertations related to your field to get a sense of the genre (and, importantly, remind yourself that you are definitely good enough to do this thing). We also noted that you can find a dissertation you admire and use it as a model for your own dissertation. One of the reasons you might want, or need, to do this is because there’s no formula for a humanities dissertation.

In most social science and STEM programs the structure of the dissertation is quite rigid. Many of them follow some version of this outline: introduction (chapter 1), literature review (chapter 2), methods (chapter 3), results (chapter 4), conclusion (chapter 5).

Using my own dissertation as contrast, I went through that process above (intro, lit review, methods/documents, results/argument, conclusion) in each of my chapters while trying to weave the broader connections between my arguments together so that the overall dissertation followed that same pattern in a wider arc.

Again, I’m not saying other dissertations are easy. I’m saying humanities dissertations are harder.

Finally, humanities dissertations are harder because of the types of questions we deal with. The types of questions you are asking in a humanities dissertation don’t have easy answers. They are questions of ontology and epistemology that have been argued and fought over for as long as humans have been around.

As someone who has worked in both STEM and the humanities I find it incredibly disappointing how often my STEM colleagues forget that many of their heroes did not perceive a rigid division between science and metaphysics. Descartes was both a mathematician and a philosopher whose work on intersecting planes is part of introductory study in both fields today. Newton was an alchemist, and not a proto-chemist-alchemist, but a turn-lead-into-gold-and-find-the-secret-to-immortality-alchemist. Sure, he wrote the Principia which is a great achievement but it was also part and parcel of his questions about how to understand human life.

What I’m saying here is that many of the great minds in both the sciences and the humanities did not percieve a difference between the sciences and humanities. Moreover, while they contributed greatly to our scientific knowledge they didn’t come up with a lot of concrete answers to the humanities part so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. Those questions are just harder, at least in part because people and societies have the alarming tendency to change much more quickly than the physical properties of the universe.

Writing a dissertation shouldn’t feel scary but it is hard and humanities dissertations are harder.

Don’t make the process harder than it has to be by being hard on yourself. The work is hard enough; treat yourself with kindness and, if appropriate, half-off Halloween candy <3

 

 

Remix: Wonder: Your Superpower

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. Today we’re re-posting our most popular post of all time on how to keep up your motivation. We’ve updated it for the new year and added in some new links. Enjoy!

Near the end of my Master’s program, I had the good fortune to attend a small workshop with Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. Dr. Tinsley was generous enough to end the workshop with a Q&A. As all private Q&As between young profs and grad students are wont to do the questions eventually turned to

“HOW ON EARTH DO YOU GET THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL WITH YOUR SANITY INTACT?!”

Dr. Tinsley said something that got me through graduate school:

Don’t lose your love of stories. 

Maybe your PhD isn’t in literature. Maybe stories, in the sense of novels or films, aren’t what got you into graduate school.

But something brought you here. Specifically, it was a love of something that brought you here. (Side note: I often listen to this song on repeat while writing or doing syllabus prep.) It was a bit of wonder at the beauty of a good story or the elegance of high theory or the historical intricacies of AAVE or the nuances of social commentary in space operas or whatever the thing was that made you say to yourself, “I could definitely spend 7 years and a book on THIS thing.”

And yet.

The process of graduate school can wear away that sense of wonder. It starts to slip away in your first “Intro to the Discipline” course where you read the canon and start to wonder if you can shoehorn that thing you’re so passionate about into academic jargon. It erodes a bit more in a semester where there are no classes offered related to your thing and so you have to take a bunch of other classes and write a bunch of papers about stuff that isn’t your thing. Then come prelims where you read a wide-range of books and your sense of wonder renews itself but in a negative way that leaves you wonder-ing why so many half-baked theories got published in the first place. Then comes the actual dissertation which is just so much more work than you can imagine before you actually do it and you wonder if it was a mistake to start a project that seems like it will never be finished. In short, it’s very easy to lose your love of the thing, your wonder, somewhere along the way.

There are a lot of surveys of why 50% of humanities PhDs leave their programs before completion. None of them ask about wonder. Yet, from my own observations, a lot of people who walk away do so because that sense of wonder either turns to something outside of academia or withers away. In the most difficult moments of graduate school that sense of awe or wonder, that deep devotion to your topic, is your lodestone leading you through the Forrest of No Fucks Left to Give.

Wonder is, in short, a superpower we all have access to. It can be the thing that leads you down the right path research/career-wise, and it is an easily accessible answer to many teaching questions.

I know a lot of folks reading this will be preparing a syllabus (or several) for the upcoming semester. If you’re putting together a new syllabus use wonder as your guide to fill in the gaps. When asking what texts to put on the syllabus ask which ones you’re dying to talk about–which ones fill you with awe/wonder? Put those in.

When trying to decide how to set up assignments you can use wonder two ways. First, what assignments really sparked your own wonder and creativity as a student? Incorporate those. Second, what types of assignments have you always wanted to incorporate or try? Incorporate those.

I can tell you from almost a decade of my own teaching reviews the feedback I consistently get from students in every class I teach is that I really love teaching that subject. Some students think I’m a great teacher. Some students think I’m a terrible teacher. Some love me. Some hate me. But they unanimously agree that I really, really love teaching that subject even if they think I’m the worst person to ever stand in front of a class.

Similarly, every award I won during grad school was some version of an audience-choice award. I used to think that meant my research wasn’t good enough to win a more prestigious award. However, I’ve come to think those audience-choice awards really mean that I did an excellent job getting people to care about my topic and I think I did that because I cared so deeply about it even at the points when I hated graduate school the most.

Now, there’s a solid chance you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “I’ve totally lost my sense of wonder so please stop blathering on about a superpower I don’t have.”

No.

No, I won’t stop blathering on. Wonder is a renewable resource, my friend, and I believe in your ability to reclaim your superpower.

The reason I’m going on about wonder in our summer series on rest is because rest is the only way I know to renew your sense of wonder. There are so many moments that take it away. You could argue the whole academic system is designed to take away your wonder, but you have to find the moments to renew it.

I often find that little moments of wonder occur during moments of mindlessness. When I’m waiting for the bus or walking across campus and not really thinking about anything  I’ll feel a deep sense of wonder and awe that I get to be in this space. Maintaining my sense of wonder, my love of stories, is also why I read fiction every day throughout grad school. Even though my PhD wasn’t in literature it was important to me to stay in touch with my love of language throughout this process.

Finally, I know a lot, A LOT, of people who tell me that wonder is definitely important for their teaching and research and they will get on renewing their sense of wonder just as soon as they are done with graduate school.

Bruh.

D1Z-thats-not-how-it-works-thats-not-how-any-of-this-works

You need to take time to attempt to renew your sense of wonder, your love of the thing, often. Ideally daily, even if it’s just for twenty-five minutes, because if you don’t figure out how to make rest and wonder part of your routine now then you never will.

I’m speaking particularly to humanities PhDs who want to get TT jobs here.

Graduating is a huge accomplishment. Getting a TT job is an even bigger accomplishment. For both of those accomplishments you are rewarded with more responsibility, not less. You have more things to do, more claims on your time, and the pressure doesn’t ease up. Sure, you have more money and better insurance, and those things definitely help some, but most folks I know who have TT jobs are just as busy as they were as grad students and most are more so. The extra money and better insurance means you (barely) break even with your newly increased work load.

This isn’t meant to discourage anyone from getting a TT job. Rather, I want to encourage you to do so in way that is sustainable for your mental, emotional, and physical health. On a related note, there’s some science indicating wonder seems to be a vital component for each of those things.

Remix: Using #MightyKacy to Teach Privilege

For the month of January, and in celebration of our two year and 100th post anniversaries, we’re revisiting some of our most viewed columns. For all of you who are teaching this semester, here’s our post about the best (imho) way to teach privilege, particularly at predominately white institutions. Enjoy!

Earlier this week I said I would share my favorite lesson to teach students the concept of privilege. Understanding privilege is essential for understanding, well, pretty much anything else. However, a lot of students are initially resistant to the concept of privilege and the idea that they have it.

I was one of these students. When I was a junior in college and first learning about the concept of privilege through my work with the Bonner Leader’s program I was deeply uncomfortable with the concept. It felt as if someone was trying to tell me I had not earned my place at the institution. It felt like my hard work was being invalidated. I really, really, really could have used this article.

There are two fundamental truths of teaching (which no one ever tells you, for some reason). The first is that all of us teach first to who we were as students. The second is that the best teaching is a balance between earning your students’ trust enough to fuck up their day a little bit.

I’ve designed this lesson on privilege to do both of those things, reaching through the resistance students like me had to the concept of privilege and destabilizing their day the more they think about.

This lesson is adaptable to most humanities classes, is a stand alone, and can be adjusted to fit the length of your class period. The lesson as described below is designed to take up one full 50 minute class period.

First, have your students watch this video of Kacy Catanzaro, or #MightyKacy, at the 2014 Dallas Qualifiers. This is the first time that a woman completed the American Ninja Warrior qualifying course. The video is fun to watch and exciting whether you’ve seen it 50 times or it’s brand new. Have students watch it twice. The first time just to watch it and feel the excitement. The second time students watch it, when they know what to expect, ask them to listen to the commentary and watch the audience. You know your class best so if you think they need to then have them watch it a third time, possibly taking notes on the phrases that stick out to them.

After you’ve had them watch the qualifiers hit them with the 2014 Dallas Finals.

Have them repeat the same process they went through for the qualifying video with the finals.

After watching the videos guide students through discussing what they heard from the commenters and the fans.

They may notice a lot of different things from the fact that Kacy picked up some fans and a hashtag between the qualifiers and the finals to the fact that her BF and training partner calls her “one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever worked with.”

Guide them towards the observations the commenters made about her body–particularly about her “wingspan,” places her weight or height is a disadvantage, and so on.

These comments hint at the fact that the course was not built for Kacy’s body. It was built for a taller, heavier body.

This is privilege.

Privilege doesn’t mean that you hate individuals who are not like you. In fact, you can enthusiastically support them as individuals just as the commenters and fans enthusiastically support Kacy’s progress through the courses.

What privilege means is that the structure (in this example, the obstacle course) is built for certain types of bodies rather than others.

This doesn’t mean those other bodies can’t make it through the course–only that it is more difficult for them to do so.

Similarly, this doesn’t mean people who have the bodies the course is made for will automatically make it through the course, but it does mean they won’t face extra obstacles just by being who they are.

If you like, you can take this lesson even further.

The American Ninja Warrior obstacle course is made for certain types of bodies–but whose?

If you ask students who the course is made for they will tentatively answer, “Men.”

But #NotAllMen

If you have any Ninja Warrior enthusiasts in your class they will likely know that American Ninja Warrior is a popular spinoff of the original Japanese game show. That does not explain, however, why ANW became an American sensation when other Japanese game shows, like the brilliant Hole In The Wall, did not.

The answer can be found in, of all places, WWII. After WWII Japan dissolved it’s Army and the US established a strong military presence in bases all over Japan. Competing in the original Ninja Warrior became a popular pastime for American soldiers on leave in Japan.

American soldiers who liked competing in the show, and their families who wanted to watch them, created a market for an American version of the show.

Thus, the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course isn’t built for every male body. It is built explicitly for the bodies of American soldiers.

In essence, we have the glory that is American Ninja Warrior because of the United States’ military and cultural imperialism.

This is the other lesson of privilege: being a member of the American armed-forces doesn’t guarantee you will make it through the ANW obstacle course but it does increase your odds because the structure was, literally, built for you.