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: Macros, Mids, and Micros

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. It seems fitting that one of our first posts ever was about breaking goals down into macros, mids, and micros. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that breaking goals down into doable pieces is something we’re constantly talking about and this is where it all started. Enjoy!

There are many things that academics are good at, but that’s not why this site exists.

One thing that academics, particularly grad students, are bad at is practical goal setting. In the early days of an academic career, there is a fair amount of structure established for you by course work where the syllabus establishes what you read, by when, and gives deadlines for turning in work. This isn’t to say that improved goal setting can’t improve your experience of coursework. It can, but that post is for another time.

Today, I want to focus on the latter half of a grad students career when the structure of course work disappears. In my personal observation, everyone tends to talk about time management as if it is the panacea to all of the difficulties of being post-coursework. Time management, on its own, however, is meaningless. What exactly, are you managing your time for?

You are managing your time (or attempting to) to make progress on your exams or your dissertation. How do you know if you are making progress?

You know you are making progress by setting and meeting goals.

Goal setting is the heart of time management and yet, at least in the academic circles I’ve been privy to, it is left out of the conversation almost completely. I suspect the reason for this is because academics are very, very bad at goal setting in any meaningful way.

Let me give you an example. At the beginning of this semester (fall 2017) I sat down with a friend to determine our macro goals for the semester and the micro-goals that would get us there. I initiated this conversation after some business classes had introduced me to the concept of macro and micro goals and setting them with a partner.

Our first attempt at goals was a train wreck. My friend listed a micro-goal as finishing edits on a chapter.

This, beloved, is not a micro goal. This is a macro goal. It makes a certain type of sense that, with the ultimate macro-goal of the dissertation on the horizon chapter revisions do seem like a micro-goal. Yet, chapter revisions are comprised of several independent tasks (the real micro-goals) and take days to complete (at best).

Why does it matter?

Well, if you set revising chapter three as your micro-goal you are going to wind up frustrated and discouraged. Instead of focusing on the progress you’ve made you will wind up feeling like you never get anywhere.

I believe this is why so many grad students prioritize teaching tasks over dissertation tasks despite dire warnings that “teaching is a time suck.” Teaching inherently has a micro-, mid-, macro-goal structure that is rewarding. For instance, in one of my classes this semester I have 15 students. If I want to get their papers back to them in a week (ha!) I know I need to grade two papers a day–that is my micro goal. I can adjust it based on what else is going on–if I have a day where I miss grading papers I can add two more to the next day or grade three papers per day over the next two days. When I grade 8 papers I know that I’m over the halfway hump. In a career where most of our labor doesn’t produce tangible results teaching let’s us see that we are making progress and it can be addictive.

This is actually really good news because it means you already likely have experience with setting micro-, mid-, and macro-goals. The trick is learning to apply it to dissertating–the ultimate in structureless, macro-goals.

First, what is a macro-goal in the context of dissertating? A macro-goal is any goal that is in the future and relies on the completion of several other discrete tasks. These discrete tasks can then be broken down into your micro- and mid-goals. Let’s go back to that chapter revisions example.

Macro-goal: Revise Chapter 3. This goal will likely take several days, at a minimum, and relies on you completing several other discrete tasks such as proofreading, rewriting, and citing.

Mid-goal: Proofreading. I use the model advocated by Kellee who conducts the UNSTUCK productivity group over at The Professor Is In and it has transformed my editing process for the better.

Micro-goals:

  1. Read through my draft. That’s it. Just read. No pen, no marks, no margin notes. Just read it.
  2. Give it some breathing room (try one of our recommended 5-minute videos here).
  3. Read through my draft and put a check mark next to anything I think needs editing. No notes. No comments. Just a check mark.
  4. Give it some breathing room.
  5. Read through one more time and add a comment for every check mark on what you think needs to be done.

Ta-da! I’ve transformed the overwhelming process of “Revise Chapter 3” into several things I can do today and each time I cross off one of these micro-goals I can see and feel my progress. (Kellee calls this “feeding the Lizard brain” which I love.)

My next Mid-goal will likely be Rewriting and here are some relevant micros- for that goal:

  1. Make all spelling and grammar edits. (Pro-tip: I use a highlighter to highlight my own comments after I make the requisite changes so I don’t go in circles or waste time looking for where I stopped if I get interrupted.)
  2. Make any syntax edits. (What the hell did I mean when I wrote that sentence, anyway?)
  3. Make notes on any changes to the argument. These will become your next set of micro-goals. For instance, do you need to look up that one article that will tie together the transition from section two to section three?

Let us know how goal-setting works for you and what you’d like to see next!

Happy New Year!

Welcome back, Beloved!

We are so happy that you are here! We’ve been so in the work that we haven’t noticed a couple of big milestones have happened.

First, we had our two year anniversary back in November! Holy Cow! It seems amazing that this little site has been around for two years already. It’s been a joyful, at times chaotic, journey–much like the process of dissertating itself.

Second, we have over forty (40) followers! To all of you who have clicked the “follow” box, we cannot thank you enough for letting us into your minds, into your hearts, and into your inbox. We are here to serve you and we are so grateful to connect with you.

As we move into our third year of existence we’re making a couple of changes.

First, we’re going to add some new pages to help clarify our mission, who we can help, and how. Get excited, folks 😉

Second, we are working on some brand new series taking on some big dissertation challenges for the the upcoming academic term. While we work on these changes we’re going to be re-posting our favorite/most popular posts from the last two years.

Today, though, we can’t wait to share a little piece of advice we came across from our friends at Panda Planner. You may have previously encountered this advice:

A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action becomes reality.

I think we can all acknowledge that’s good advice but how do we put that into practice? It can be hard if you struggle with executive function or if you have perfectly normal executive function but have professional training in connecting disparate parts rather than breaking things down into discrete pieces.

Here’s how Panda Planner suggests we break our goals down.

First, make a goal. Easy–I know we all have a million, maybe start with one slightly more doable than world domination. For example, one of my goals for the new year is to stick to my budget.

Second, set a date by which you want to achieve that goal. The date by which I went to be living by my budget is March 1st but I know that I often underestimate how much time change takes so I’m gonna give myself until May 30th.

Third, every week, keep track of your goal. If it’s a weekly thing, like a budget, did you meet it or not? If it’s a daily thing, how many days did you succeed?

Fourth, analyze what went wrong? For instance, I’ve already broken my resolution to stick to my budget because I needed new clothes for a conference next week.

Fifth, test a solution. I’m going to take my mom’s recommendation of buying one new professional clothing item with every paycheck instead of putting it off until the last minute and see if that helps me stick to my budget next week.

Above all, be patient with yourself. It’s not about flipping a switch and changing your life–it’s about building new structures to live in.

WTF: Executive Function

Executive function is the set of cognitive functions that enables you to do things.

In broad terms, executive function covers three areas: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control (including self-control). Together, these three areas make up a lot of what we do. If you haven’t heard the term “executive function” before you might have heard of some of it’s most popular side effects like:

  • Paying attention
  • Organizing, planning, and prioritizing
  • Starting tasks
  • Staying focused on tasks until they’re done
  • Keeping track of what you’re doing

We know that ADHD, OCD, ASD, Anxiety, and Bipolar are all entangled with decreases in executive function.

Many of the most talented academics I know are plagued by executive dysfunction either on its own or as a symptom of one of the above. As a result, we spend a lot of time yelling at our brains to

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In fact, problems with executive function are why I spent ten (10) minutes looking for the *perfect* gif for this piece when a search instantly revealed half a dozen gifs that would be just fine.

While problems with executive function might be part of neurodiversity on your part I’ve long thought that the current structure of PhD programs in the humanities breeds executive dysfunction. After all, part of executive function is being able to prioritize tasks but every humanities PhD student I know feels torn between prioritizing their teaching, research, writing, activism, and self-care. So many of us are doing too much with too little it’s not at all surprising that deciding what to focus on for the hour or the day or the week can seem so challenging.

That is why we are so excited to debut our two-part series for December!

The first part of the series will take place here on the website, with articles about how executive function might be impacting your progress towards your PhD.

The second half of our series will take place on Instagram (search abd2phd) where we are having a Productivity Advent. Every day we will post one small, easily doable goal designed to move you towards measurable progress on your dissertation by Christmas.

Join us!

Bring Your Work to Class

Humanities PhD programs will pull you in a lot of different directions. Almost every humanities PhD student I have ever met is trying to be their best researcher-self, teacher-self, activist-self, and human-self.

It’s a lot.

We’ve talked before about learning to balance these multiple desires and multiple expectations. One part of balance is recognizing that all these aspects are unique expressions of who you are. Your researcher-self informs your teacher-self and both are probably motivated by experiences your human-self has had.

It can be helpful, for both your sanity and your students, to bring your researcher-self into your classroom.

Advantages to you include, but are not limited to:

  • Getting feedback from an educated layperson (your students)
  • Learning your own material better through teaching it
  • Getting some free editing

Benefits to your students include, but are not limited to:

  • Seeing you as a scholar
  • Seeing the process of how scholarship happens
  • Helping them think of themselves as scholars
  • Practice in editing
  • Learning more about your specialty

Often graduate instructors don’t have the luxury of teaching an upper division class related to their area of research. It can be difficult to imagine bringing your highly specialized research into a survey class but there are several ways you can do it.

One former professor of mine would bring in a couple of pages of her work in progress (WIP) the first day that her students had to turn in a paper. She would have students spend the class editing the document looking for everything from unclear arguments to comma errors. Her reason for doing this was to help anxious students relax about turning in their work by seeing, in real time, that even professor’s need help to make the work excellent.

When I taught public speaking, I employed a similar strategy. I would bring a short section of my own WIP and have students work on turning it from a written argument to an oral one. First, they would convert the long-form document into an outline. Then we would work on how to appropriately cite sources and why I used the sources I did. For them, this was a conversation on different sources for different audiences. For me, it was preparation for how to orally present my work at conferences

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These are not the only ways to bring your work into your teaching. In a composition class you can have your students edit your work. In a disciplinary class you can have them analyze your methods.

However you decide to do it, bringing your scholarship to your teaching will benefit both you and your students!

What Does It Mean To Learn

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

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

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

Everything about teaching flows from how you conceive of learning.

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

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

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

In my classes we use the following definition of learning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Working So Hard

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

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

How do I know this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will work against you in writing your dissertation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manage Out

One of the wisest pieces of advice I got while I was writing my dissertation was from a senior faculty member who observed that, “Sometimes, through no fault of their own, advisors and advisees get stuck in a loop rehashing the same issues in the text.”

Again, in it’s own way, this can be a bizarre sort of academic compliment. It can mean that your advisor sees potential in your work and wants it to be the best it can be. It can mean that your advisor is trying to prepare you for questions you’ll face from journal editors and hiring committees. It can be a lot of things, but whatever else it is, it is also damn annoying. No document is ever perfect. Dissertations, in particular, are a deeply weird genre, in which perfection should not be the goal.

When this happens, the best thing you can do is manage out.

(Note: I have no idea if this is a real term. I just made it up to parallel our last post about managing up, which is a real term.)

The entire point behind having academic committees is to make sure that the whims of one person don’t control your whole dissertation. Even so, I’ve met dozens of dissertating students who don’t use their committee. Hell, I was one until the very end of the process when a molten core of anxiety and rage formed something approximating motivation that was strong enough to overcome my imposter syndrome.

That is how I know that if you feel stuck in a feedback loop with your advisor one of the best things you can do is to show your work in progress to another member of your committee and get their feedback on it. Perhaps they’ll be able to frame your advisor’s comments in a different way that makes more sense to you. Perhaps they’ll be able to advocate for you with your advisor by mentioning how well that chapter is coming along the next time they see each other.

There are some cases where you genuinely can’t go to the rest of your committee for help for various reasons. For instance, two of your committee members could be out of the country and one could be on sabbatical. Alternately, you could have senior committee members who have explicitly told you they’ll defer to the advisor’s judgement (thus nullifying the entire god damn point of committees, but anyway) and a junior member who feels powerless because she is powerless in this context.

If you find yourself in these or other commitee permutations that don’t allow your committee to advocate for you with your advisor then there are two key ways to manage out.

The Long-Game

The preferred method is to cultivate academic relationships. Cultivating connections in your discipline can be a huge help in breaking up advisor (or committee) gridlock. It can also be a good long-term help in your academic career.

When you and your advisor keep circling the same issues with no path to resolution it can be powerful to go into a meeting and say, “Scholar-X, who wrote book Y, very kindly read over this chapter and gave me some feedback. Based on her notes I was thinking of doing A and B in section C of this chapter.”

There’s no bones about it, this is a power move. What you’re essentially saying in the above sentence is: Look, another expert in the field thinks this is fucking fine. I’m going to make these minor changes. Please just drop this shit and let us all move on, ok? It’s a subtle reminder to your advisor that they aren’t the only expert in the field and that other experts have looked at your work and deemed it good enough (which is all our work can ever really be, tbh).

The thing about this strategy is that it takes *a lot* of investment to get to this place. You have to cultivate a relationship with a senior scholar in your field. Everyone says the best place to do this is conferences and that might be true? IDK, it’s never really worked for me. Everyone at conferences is some bizarre mix of tired and amped, bored and exhausted, trying to network and trying to turn this trip into a vacation. I’ve rarely made good academic connections at conferences and when I have it’s because I’ve been the slightly senior academic, but that’s a whole other post.

If you want to employ this strategy you can’t just email a senior scholar in your field and say, “Will you read my chapter?” (I mean, you could, but it’s not respectful of their time and if they send a response it likely won’t be in your favor.) Instead, you have to reach out to them ahead of time. I recommend reaching out with a genuine compliment like, “I saw your op-ed and really enjoyed it” or “Your book has been so influential in my thinking about X.” Everybody likes to be complimented, academics more than most.

If the academic in question responds positively to this then follow-up the next time you see a pop culture thing that makes you think of them like a Twitter thread or a television show related to their work. (I specifically advocate doing this with a pop culture thing related to their work because academia is a very small world when you get into people’s specialties. Sure, you could send them that new journal article in their area of research but there’s a decent chance that they were asked to be a reviewer for it or have already heard of it.)

When the next major conference rolls around then you email them and ask if they’d like to serve as the chair of a panel you’re putting together for the major conference. The important thing here is that you, as the junior scholar, are offering to do all the time-consuming leg work. If they agree then you now have a professional connection. Hooray!

After the conference it will be appropriate to ask them to read over your chapter.

Like I said, it’s a very time-consuming process.

The Quick Fix

If you need help sooner than that timeline would allow there are a lot of services out there to help you. You know, like this one.

You can work with abd2phd, or a service like us, where someone who knows the process can look at your work along with your advisor’s comments and help you figure out how to move forward. If you feel truly stuck this is a great option. In fact, I did this when I was near giving up on my dissertation and it was immensely helpful to have someone who didn’t have a lot of power over my work/life give me honest feedback about what was good and what was missing.

[Shameless Self-Promo: abd2phd is currently accepting clients FOR FREE. As in, we will work with you at no cost. If you’d like to work with abd2phd to jumpstart your dissertation progress then drop us a line via our Contact page. We’ll schedule a 30 minute consultation so you can decide if we’re right for you. If we’re not what you need then we’re more than happy to recommend some other folks.]

One last note here, managing out is not the same thing as having a support network. During the exact same time that I was working with the wonderful Avigail Oren on revising my dissertation I also had weekly meetings with a close friend to whom I could complain and rant and rage. My friend did an excellent job of supporting me which was her job in that moment. It was the emotional component I needed but it’s not what you want someone you hire to do for you. While it’s certainly alright to get on well with a paid editor (you should!) their job isn’t to take your side like a friend would but to help you make progress even if that means telling you something you don’t want to hear.

Sometimes, though, sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

Sometimes, you have to leave.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with an advisor you don’t particularly like. Sometimes they may be the best person for your topic. Sometimes they are the only person at your institution to work with for whatever reasons. Sometimes things go bad when you are very close to done with the project and it’s easier just to finish.

Our next post in the ongoing advising series will be on what to do when your advisor is deliberately sabotaging you.

 

The Humanities Are Harder

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