Editing A Draft: A Seven Part System


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.


Start With Editing

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.

Writing vs. Editing

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.

It’s Called A Trash Can


Last Wednesday, we asserted that “dissertations are a trash genre.”

We stand by this statement

However, we’ve also received some great feedback from people who have written dissertations that we wish to add.

The most important thing to reiterate is that you absolutely have to write a dissertation. It is the only way to get your PhD.

And that means that you have to be a trash can and not a trash cannot.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you be your best dissertating self.

  1. Read other dissertations.

Okay, okay, this doesn’t really count as a new tip since it was what last week’s post was about but it’s important and it bears repeating.

2. Read other dissertations from your department/program.

Do this if at all possible. Many departments still follow the tradition of keeping recently defended dissertation manuscripts in hardcopy form. Ask your departmental admin if you can check out one or two.

If your department no longer does this because they are all digitally deposited then ask for the names of people who have recently deposited and look up their dissertations in ProQuest.

Looking at dissertations from your own program will give you a guideline for what you are expected to do. If at all possible, skim a couple of dissertations from your program to get a sense of the average page length and chapter layout.

One caveat here is that this will not work for all programs/departments. The larger your department is the more likely this strategy will work for you. However, if you in a smaller program, especially if you are in a smaller, interdisciplinary program, there may not be a lot of recent dissertations or dissertations similar to yours. Which brings us to our next point . . .

3. Find a dissertation you like.

This may seem contrary to our previous post about dissertations being trash but it’s not. Finding a favorite dissertation is a bit like having a favorite reality TV show. We all know the genre is terrible, but we also all have our favorites. (Mine are “Say ‘Yes’ to the Dress” and “America’s Next Top Model.”) Find a dissertation, or two, you like better than others and use it as a general guideline for writing your own dissertation. This is especially helpful at the first-draft stage when you’re striving to figure out how writing a dissertation is different than writing several seminar papers.

Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the difference between writing and editing and why it might be more important than you think.


The Struggle Is Real

On Tuesday I promised that I would share a post with you on Thursday about how to think about writing a dissertation because it is fundamentally different from almost any other writing project you can undertake.

However, if you check our archives that you’ll see there was no post on Thursday.

Started on Monday, now we here.

Yesterday, I had a bad mental health day. It was bad from the time I woke up to right before i went to bed and although there were some good moments in the day the overall day had a lot of unexpected curve balls.

As I was going to bed last night, finally feeling a bit more human, I contemplated just finishing and posting the draft I’d started for Thursday’s topic and hoping y’all wouldn’t notice that I was late.

Lord knows, as a grad student, I certainly used this tactic a time or two with my committee.

When I woke up this morning, though, I thought about all the times that my health had impacted my writing schedule when I was dissertating.

Sometimes it was physical health. Stop me if this one sounds familiar: It’s fall semester/quarter. Your students/classmates have the sniffles. You have grading to do and papers to write and a term to end. You are running on adrenaline and caffeine. You get to the end of the term. Hooray! Now, at long last, you can “catch up” on all that writing you put off while trying to finish things up over the last few weeks. But Lo! The minute you stop running off adrenaline you get sick. Your brain’s too foggy to read. You’re barely awake. You feel miserable and doing anything more active than laying on the couch with Netflix in the background is too damn much.

In interviewing grad students about barriers to their productivity I had dozens of grad students tell me that this exact pattern often ate up at least a week of their planned writing time while debilitating guilt and panic over the idea of catching up took out another week.

Mental health issues are just as debilitating but often more difficult to prevent or treat. For instance, I don’t know why I woke up already in a bad headspace yesterday. I do know that this time of year always exacerbates my anxiety and depression. It could also be residual exhaustion from the Kavanugh hearings and/or the ongoing stress of moving. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that I did all the right things: I used my UV spectrum light to help mitigate the effects of the weather. I took my escitalopram. I did restorative yoga and I called in sick to work. I took care of myself in the best way I knew how and, you know what? It was still just a bad mental health day and the writing did not get done.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Well, first, because if you are in a PhD program and deal with a chronic illness of any type I want you to know that you are not alone and that your dream is not impossible. During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with anxiety and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had likely had them for some time before my PhD but they became increasingly debilitating and, therefore, increasingly noticeable throughout my PhD.

My own illnesses were, in fact, part of what inspired this business. I didn’t want people to go through their PhD program thinking they were failing at all the things when they were sick.*

Second, the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so incredibly true when it comes to health and writing.

Most academics I know tend to think of their bodies as giant meat suits they use to carry books from the library to their office.

But that’s so far from the truth. The origins and perpetuation of that myth are a whole other set of topics. What’s important to know here is that feminist, queer, and disability studies have all clearly proven that our bodies are critical in working with our brain to shape what we perceive and what we think, how we process and how we make meaning.

The thing is, I can’t tell you how to take care of your health and I know there can be some structural barriers to doing that in grad school (like difficulty making an appointment with CAPS which is underfunded absolutely everywhere).

I can tell you that taking the time, daily, to do what works for optimizing your mental and physical health is a long-term investment in your writing.

For me, this often means ensuring that I get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep and doing somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes of yoga.

I can also tell you that even when you are doing your best there will be days when you just can’t write. There will be days when the thing you most need for your health is to stay far away from writing and that’s okay. Those days are, also, an investment in your long-term writing success.**

In summary, if you want to write well then do everything you can to be well–including practicing compassion towards yourself.

*PhDepression is something I foud via Twitter. They are doing some great work talking about mental health in grad school. If you know someone struggling to balance mental health and grad school I would recommend checking them out.

**Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy is a sign of depression. If you find yourself needing to take a lot of days off from writing it might be time to have a loving conversation with yourself about whether your health is in jeopardy or if grad school is still the right path for you. All the answers are ok and you are brilliant no matter what you do.





Do It For Love; or Dissertation Advice Conveyed Primarily Through GIFs of Elle Woods


You were admitted to a PhD program, you completed your course work, you survived your prelim exams, you defended your prospectus and now you are, at long last A. B. D.

That moment can feel like this:


Embrace it. Celebrate it. Take at least a week.

Then, right before you feel really ready for it, begin dissertating.


It is impossible to describe to you just how difficult writing a dissertation is. Within this difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first draft of the dissertation. Within that difficult process the most difficult part is writing the first chapter.

This is true no matter who you are. It’s true if you’ve written a lot. It’s true if you’ve been published before you start writing your disertation. It’s true if you like to write. It’s true if you’re good at writing. It’s true for everyone.

Previously, we’ve discussed how your prelims are the last big exercise you go through as a consumer of knowledge. Your dissertation is your first big exercise as a producer of knowledge. Nothing in your academic life can quite prepare you for it. You have, after all, spent well over a decade as a student and now you are being asked to create new knowledge. It’s a little bit of magic and a whole lot of difficult.

You may enter with an Elle Woodsian sense of confidence but throughout the process you will feel like this:


And like this:


Feedback from your committee will have you like:


And that is all not just in the realm of normal but damn close to a best case scenario.

You will want to quit.

Statistically, many people do quit.

There are many good reasons to quit and no part of this business exists to shame people who leave graduate school. What we are here to do, however, is to help people who want to get through their programs minimize unnecessary difficulty.

To that end, there is one thing you can do before you ever start dissertating that will help you cut through all the bullshit that dissertating will throw at you:



I know, I know! It seems cliche and unhelpful to simply say that love will get you through dissertating, but it’s true.

There were many, many moments throughout the dissertating process when I wanted to walk away. What kept me from walking away, every time, was the love of my project. Simply put, I wanted to be the person who did my project. I didn’t want to bequeath my research to someone else and go do something else.

On particularly bad days the thing that I always turned back to was my project. When I was writing the rest of the BS just seemed to fade away.

Being able to pick a project you love, or a project that has elements you love, is one of the great privileges of the humanities. I’ve spent a lot of time with STEM and social science grad students and their projects are often dictated by what lab or research group they get in which is, itself, dictated by what lab and research group get funding which, of course, is influenced by a whole nexus of factors.

While I loved the topic of my dissertation I’ve known people who have a genuine love for the practical applications of their research or the methods they’re using or where their archive was located or the population they were working with.

You don’t have to love every element of your project but I can promise you that your dissertation journey will be a helluva lot easier if you love something about it.

Loving something about your project will make you happy, even in some of the darkest moments of dissertating and


Well, that, and they’re much more likely to finish writing their dissertations.

Now, it’s possible you reading this and thinking, “Fucking great. It’s great to know this now but I already defended my prospectus and there was nothing in there that I loved so how the heck am I supposed to love something about my dissertation?!”

It’s a fair question.

Remember, your dissertation is supposed to change between when you defend your prospectus and when you defend, well, your dissertation. Even if your committee has already approved a prospectus on a project that feels doable but doesn’t have elements you love I promise that there are still ways to add a little of that most magic of ingredients to your project.

Again, it doesn’t have to be the subject material. It can be a whole host of things. It can even be the sheer challenge of it.


On Thursday we’ll be discussing how to think about writing–a crucial step into turning that ominous blank page into a first draft.

Until then, think about what you love about your project and remeber


WTF: Dissertating

The dissertation.

If you want to go from ABD to PhD, or abd2phd, then you have to write a dissertation.

You can do all the other things we’ve discussed from prelims to teaching to service work and if you don’t write the damn dissertation then you don’t get the damn PhD.

As my partner and I transition out of academics into other types of jobs I’ve become acutely aware of the fact that academics often refer to umbrella categories rather than specific job duties.

Take our September topic of teaching as an example. Teaching can include but is not limited to: project management, training, presentations, content creation (Blackboard or Moodle or other), curating content (putting together a course pack), and procedure writing (creating syllabus policies). Yet, we refer to it all simply as teaching.

Similarly, what we normally refer to as “dissertating” involves research (which may itself involve grant writing, travel planning, and so on), writing, editing, revising, and, ultimately, defending.

For our October series on dissertating we will specifically be focusing on how to write a first draft of your dissertation. This assumes that you have completed enough research to start writing.

Topics we will address are what enough even means in the context of researching and writing a dissertation draft, how to deal with the anxiety inherent in the process, and what to do when the words won’t go.

We will also address how to break down the overwhelming imperative of “Write an original book” into doable steps and share all the best practices and things we wish we’d done sooner in writing our own dissertations.

If you have a particular dissertating topic you want covered and don’t see it listed here then leave a comment or use the Contact page to send us a message!

Put Time On Your Side

Later this week I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite, portable lesson plans on topics vital to humanities classes such as privilege and intersectionality.

Before that, however, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the time that teaching takes. As mentioned earlier this month, graduate student teaching appointments exist inside an odd little paradox. Most graduate students are at research institutions and most research institutions prioritize research over teaching. I had the privilege of being at two of the top 100 universities in the world for my MA and PhD (the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University, respectively). I can tell you that, even with this limited sample, teaching was considered far more of a distraction from the “real work” of the university at the higher-ranked school.

One thing both schools had in common, however, was that the teaching advice I got from tenured professors was TERRIBLE. All of it boiled down to, “find ways to give fewer hours to teaching because the real work is your research, writing, and publishing.”

The problem with that advice is that it’s not actually advice.

I’m serious.

That injunction, though often given, was rarely followed up with strategies for how to spend less time teaching which made it worse than useless. It was, instead, debilitating giving me the impression that even when I was working I was somehow working wrong.

So, today, I want to have some real talk about why teaching is such a “time suck,” in the words of one tenured mentor, and how to make it work for you. Grab your coffee, and let’s settle in!


It’s true: teaching is time intensive. It is not, however, significantly more time intensive than any other aspect of graduate work. What does set teaching apart from other aspects of graduate labor is that it is significantly more immediate than almost anything else you do in graduate school. You can fake your way through a seminar when you haven’t read the book and there’s not really a whole lot your committee can do if you’re late with a chapter draft but you can’t show up to class unprepared. (Well, you can but if you’re reading this you probably aren’t that type of person so it’s a moot point.)

This means that, however often you teach, you have to show up to a place dressed and prepped and ready to interact with other human beings.

The other thing that sets teaching apart from other types of graduate labor is that it has a built in structure for setting goals and knowing whether or not you’ve made progress.

Let’s say you start the week with two primary goals. The first is to finish editing a chapter you’ve been working on and the second is to finish grading assignments for your class. With your class there is a very simple equation:

Number of assignments left to grade/Number of days to grade them = Number of assignments to grade every day.

There is no parallel for chapter editing. Sure, you can guarantee that you spend 2 hours a day in front of your computer staring at your document. You can print it out and read for typos. You can work on your footnotes. You can do research to solidify that nebulous part of your argument.

But how do you know if it’s really done?

How do you know how long any of these individual steps are going to take? How do you know if you’re on schedule or behind? What if you get writer’s block? What if your chapter drives you into an existential crisis and you lose a day to laying on the couch binging Jessica Jones and wondering how to find out if you have superpowers?

Even if you have firm answers to all of these questions (and I have never met anyone who has) at the end of a day of writing you often are left with what you started with: some words on a page rather than a concrete reminder of how much progress you’ve made.

Taken all together these things can make writing discouraging and difficult.

Teaching, on the other hand, allows you to see noticeable progress from when you start grading to when you stop. Whether you are grading hardcopies and can see physical papers moving from the “not-graded” to “graded” pile or are grading on Blackboard and can see the green “graded” icon pop up in your columns there is some sort of external validation that you are making progress.

In addition, when you leave comments on students’ work like, “Did you think about X?” they take it seriously! Some of them will come to your office and have long conversations about how they, in fact, did not think of X but Googled it and are now fascinated by X and would like to learn more and can you recommend any resources and might X connect to Y?

In short, students, even the shitty ones, often treat you like an authority because, in the classroom, you are.

This is a significant contrast to how we feel as graduate students. Even if you are in an exceptional program that does not make it’s graduate students feel like supplicants we often feel as if we know so little compared to the experts we are reading and writing about.

Combined, the sense of concrete progress and being an expert can make teaching feel kind of addictive. This, I think, is why so many graduate advisors give their advisees dire injunctions to teach less. I have personally known at least 3 graduate students who allowed teaching to take up all of their time because they were stumped on the dissertation and teaching was, comparatively, easy. To my knowledge, all of these graduate students are part of the 50% of humanities PhD candidates who leave their programs after becoming ABD.

I don’t say any of this to discourage you from teaching. I hope that you enjoy your teaching. The purpose of this post is to let you know how teaching can be detrimental to dissertation progress and, more importantly, how to make teaching work for you rather than against you. With that in mind, here are five tips I wish I had followed a helluva lot sooner.

1. Track Your Hours.

No, seriously, I mean it. This was advice I got from a committee member early on and didn’t follow until, I kid you not, my last semester of graduate school. God, how I wish I’d followed it sooner!

Part of why I didn’t follow this advice sooner is because I would start the semester with good intentions of logging my hours buuuut, I didn’t really do much the first week so I put it off. Then, before I knew what had happened, I was slammed with assignments to grade and logging my hours seemed like one more thing I didn’t have time for.

Please don’t make my mistake.

Please log your hours.

Don’t just log your teaching hours. Log all of your hours. Log the hours you teach and the hours you read and the hours you write. Log the hours you spend in class, as teacher or learner, and the hours you spend in your office.

There’s no need to be super-precise here just put in your best estimate.

Logging your hours combats he creeping sense of productivity paranoia that graduate school engenders. Instead of wondering if you are “doing enough” you can look at your hours over the past week or month and see where your time is going.

Logging your hours will also help you see if your teaching to writing ratio is creeping into dangerous territory.

Finally, and this a worst-case-scenario, if you have an awful teaching appointment that demands more of your time than your contract said it would then tracking your hours will give you evidence to take to your Graduate Coordinator or Ombudsperson.

Both Excel and Google Sheets have templates for activity logs you can use. I jut made my own as a table with a column for the day, what I was doing (e.g. teaching), and what I worked on (e.g. grading papers, lecture prep, responding to student emails).

2. Manage Student Expectations.

This one actually has two parts. First, decide what you won’t do. For me, I don’t answer emails outside of business hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 to 5:00. I know another person who doesn’t do teaching related things on days they don’t teach so if they are teaching MWF they are unavailable to students Tusday and Thursday. I know professors who live an hour away from where they work and won’t come into campus on days they don’t teach.

Set whatever boundaries you want to set for yourself and stick to them.

The second half of setting your boundaries is to communicate them clearly to students.

I tell students on the first day that I don’t answer emails outside of business hours. I also give them the following example: If you have a question about an assignment that is due on Monday you need to email me on Thursday because if you email close to or after 5 on Friday I may not see your message in time to do you any good.

In my last year of the PhD program, I would often devote Monday through Friday to teaching (I was teaching 2.5 classes) but the weekends were my writing time. Having the mental freedom to not worry about checking my emails meant that I could focus completely on writing. If I did happen to check my email and respond to a student over the weekend they were always appreciative because they knew my policy.

3. Grade Strategically

This is very simple but often overlooked by new instructors who are concerned with doing things the “right” way.

Structure the times that your students turn in assignments so that you don’t have overlapping deadlines that make your life a living hell.

For instance, if you are still in coursework when teaching your first class and you have a seminar paper due during finals week then for the love of all that is holy do not have your students turn in their final paper during finals week. Instead, have your students turn their paper in the penultimate week of the semester and then watch documentaries or have wrap up sessions for the last week of classes.

If you want to implement this advice but have already handed syllabi out to your students with deadlines that conflict with your own deadlines then give them a one week extension as their original due dates draw nigh. They will love you and your life will be so much better.

4. Assign What You Need to Read

If there’s a new work in your field or a classic you haven’t gotten around to reading yet or an old-favorite you need to revisit then assign it to your students.

If it’s an article, even if it’s a heavy-hitter, have them read it. If it’s book then have them read the introduction or the chapter most relevant to your work.

I guarantee you there’s a way to shove this thing into a week of your class as sort-of, kind-of related to something.

Again, if it’s not already in your syllabus and you’ve already started teaching then PDF that reading and post a Blackboard announcement that it’s replacing something not essential to your dissertation on next week’s course schedule.

The benefits of having students read something you need to read are manifold.

First, it’s often a good way to stretch the students understanding of the topic or the discipline because the level of scholarly work you are dealing with in your diss is, likely, more rigorous than general intro course level material.

Second, it forces you to be accountable to someone for reading it. (BONUS: If it’s a new book and you are using it for a class you might be able to get a free or low-cost copy from the publisher.)

Third, student comments can provide new insights on works you’re already familiar with.

Finally, because the work is likely a little more difficult compared to other course materials students will rely on you to help them interpret it through providing context or breaking down the argument. Doing this in the classroom for your students can be a great way to reassure your inner critic that you really do know your stuff. After all, if you can lead 35 undergraduates through a discussion of the thing then you are probably ready to write about.

5. Workshop, Bitches!

Let your time teaching double as a time to try out new ideas for your research. There are a million ways to do this.

Sometimes, if I got to class early I would ask the students already sitting there, “Hey, can I ask for your opinion on something?” With permission I would then summarize the new line of argument I was working on and ask what they thought. Sometimes students had great insights that helped my argument. Sometimes the value was just in forcing myself to articulate my argument out loud to an audience.

If you are in the later stages of your dissertation and have a few chapters that are done-ish then assign one of them to your class. Is it scary to open yourself up to your students like that?

Like heck.

But it’s also valuable. You can get some good feedback during the class discussion and it’s just great practice for presenting your research to a group who is not familiar with it (you know, like a job talk) in a low-stakes setting.

I had a professor during my MA who, the day our first paper was due, would bring five pages of her work in progress. She would pass them out to all of us and give us 20 minutes to read and edit them.

This practice, according to her, did two things. First, it was designed to reassure her students that absolutely everyone makes spelling and grammar mistakes and not to be embarassed by them. Second, it got her 30 free editors for those 5 pages.

Teaching is going to take up time but hopefully with these tips you can make that time work for you.