Thursday, June 01, 2006

How to Finish A Dissertation in Two Easy Centuries! (Part II)

Part II: So how did I get here from there?

I've actually spent the last few days boxing up all my dissertation documents (for now), and what a good feeling! So it has given me a chance to reflect on how I made myself finish the beast. Keep in mind that I wrote my entire dissertation while in my first three to four years of a 4-4 teaching load... It certainly was a learning process, something that is unique to each writer, but hopefully we'll have some ideas in common. Here are my thoughts about How To Finish, in no particular order:

Action leads to more action, inaction leads to paralysis. I think momentum is important in the larger sense, since finishing a chapter or two really makes you feel like you can do it, i.e. who would bother to finish 65% of a dissertation and not keep going from there? Getting over the hump in the middle is important. And when I look back on how long it took me to finish each chapter (usually 6 months per chapter), I was able to finish chapters in shorter amounts of time toward the end. Going downhill is a powerful image.

But momentum is also important on the day-to-day level. I'm the kind of person who could very easily sit down to work and find myself feeling incredibly anxious about the next task at hand. But I learned over the years that while I would have loved to avoid the anxiety-producing task (hence the years-long blockage I experienced) that I would, in actuality, feel better if I plunged ahead. Even while I was directly grappling with whatever made me anxious in the first place, I felt better than if I had tried to avoid it entirely. Doing something felt better than doing nothing.

Thankfully I learned that slogan from my advisor. I've known a few graduate students who were cursed (in my opinion) with advisors who set unrealistically high standards for a dissertation. Mine only wanted it completed. A related slogan could be: YOU ONLY HAVE TO PASS. That gave me the freedom to turn off some of the perfectionistic voices in my head and just stumble forward. I can think of hundreds of times when I reached a fork in the road and faced a choice between two options: one option involved doing more research or reading or writing until I felt I'd really, really, really covered that particular point. The second option was to, frankly, do a half-assed job of it and hope it was good enough. I figured that if I needed more historiography or more primary sources, my advisors would tell me. And they never said a word. So obviously what I felt was a "half-assed job" was certainly good enough to pass. Again, momentum. By reducing my expectations and giving myself permission to take frequent shortcuts, I didn't slow myself down.

A related issue here: for those of you teaching while dissertating, it can be incredibly difficult to apply this same logic to your teaching. Teaching is more immediate in terms of pressures and rewards, and I firmly believe that teaching expands to fill the space available. But again, you'll come to a fork in the road and you have to choose the path that results in less work. Assign fewer papers. Give the same crappy lecture again. Show a film. Etc. You're almost certainly still doing a better job teaching than most of the faculty and you'll keep yourself sane at the same time. Learn to say no.

This idea is clearly related to momentum again. Physicists might disagree, but for me, momentum was not a self-perpetuating state. It had to be started and re-started numerous times. Sure, it got easier the more I did it, but it was still challenging to start from a "cold start" each day, week, chapter, whatever...

So how do you make yourself work? In Dissertation Land, there is no time clock. In most respects, you're on your own to set the hours and conditions of your work. I think dissertators often choose between time-oriented and task-oriented solutions to this problem. For me, I found that requiring myself to work for a certain time period each day was not the solution in and of itself. For example, saying I needed to put in two hours of work on my dissertation often resulted in me trying to wait out the clock, daydreaming, etc.

But what did work for me was to divide the work into smaller and smaller tasks. At least for me, writing a history dissertation included a lot of non-thinking scut work. I'm a fast typer, so it was easier to type in the text of a lot of primary sources, add a few thoughts, and keep going. Later I would re-arrange them, add text, delete sources, etc, but again, typing in the sources was something to do. It kept me moving. It produced pages and pages. It convinced me that I had enough sources and, more importantly, I had something to say about those sources. And trust me, some of those early "drafts" were pretty rough, stream-of-consciousness kind of writing.

So all I had to do was examine the tasks at hand. Typing in sources? Putting sources into a coherent paragraph? Whatever it was, I would require myself to do X amount of tasks before taking a quick mental break. Type in 5 sources, check e-mail. Write one paragraph, hang up clothes on the floor. Etc. Sure enough, my chapters would grow and grow, little by little. And there's nothing more anxiety-relieving than to find yourself with 60 pages of writing. Sure editing can be tough, but editing is always easier than staring at a blank page.

And I do mean "whatever it takes." Don't be afraid to be silly and to reward yourself with whatever little rewards work for you. Sometimes I would bring up a pile of grapes or nuts or whatever and eat one after each task. I actually had a package of shiny star stickers (the kind your grade school teacher gave you) and I would give myself a star for each task. When I completed a pyramid of stars, I would earn something else, etc. It was a good motivation to keep going when I was tired of working, i.e. if I write three more paragraphs I can complete the pyramid.

This was probably the most important lesson imposed by having a Real Job at the same time. Perhaps ironically, I managed to accomplish far more on my dissertation while having a full-time job than I ever did when I had more free time to work on it. I always had jobs in grad school -- I never got awarded any fabulous fellowships that would have enabled me to write without any other commitments. So for a while I think I romanticized the concept of Being With Fellowship as the ideal way to write a dissertation and thus not having one became an excuse not to work. But after becoming Unblocked, I had no choice. I had decided to work on it. And work I did.

Some dissertators will tell you that they required themselves to work a little bit on their dissertation every single day. I didn't do that. For one, sometimes while teaching you just have to concentrate on teaching. You can't expect yourself to work on your dissertation during finals week. And I also firmly believed in the concept of Having a Life while dissertating. I often opted to spend Saturday cooking some fabulous gourmet meal. Sure, it probably added months to the entire process, and if you're facing a gnarly deadline you might have to make some tough choices, but in general I managed to nurture myself, my marriage, and my friendships while writing. (it goes without saying that making time to do things like exercise should be a part of your routine regardless -- finding ways to stay sane should be your first priority.)

For me, the key was to find a way to be productive during those "orphaned hours," and in fact, to create an orphaned hour here or there. For a few semesters, my teaching day began mid-morning. I'm not a morning person, so there was no way I was going to force myself to get up at 5 a.m., but I did force myself to get up earlier than I had to. I made myself sit down at my computer for an hour each morning before going to campus. Sure, that served to crunch teaching into a finite space (and often a very stressed and hectic space!) but hey, no matter how stressed I was later on, I had already done an hour of work on my dissertation! Those hours add up. If I could put in another hour in the afternoon, I'd have 10 hours of work under my belt by the end of the week, even in a busy teaching time.

So for me, there never was a perfect time. Sure, I had breaks and some time in the summers. And those uninterrupted times were much more productive. No doubt about it. But I think knowing the pressures of the school-year forced me to take advantage of every "free" week I had. And yeah, it did grow tiring to feel that I never got a true break, i.e. every "day off" from teaching had to be viewed as a great opportunity (!) to work on something else, but so be it.


There endeth my Deep Thoughts about finishing. It's good to write them down, because it is easy to forget some of the strategies I developed, i.e. I took a bit of a break after writing my introduction (almost the last thing I wrote) and writing my conclusion (the last thing I wrote.) So when I sat down to write the conclusion, all the same old demons reappeared, but I was able to dispatch them by using some of these strategies. And frankly, mixing scholarship with teaching only means more of the same. Might as well get good at it.

So what about you? What strategies have worked for you? What hasn't? How did you finish? How are you finishing?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How to Finish A Dissertation in Two Easy Centuries! (Part I)

PART I: How I Became Blocked and Unblocked

Okay, so it didn't literally take me 200 years to write my dissertation, but it sure felt like that at times. And technically I did start the sucker last century. So before I move on to the next big change in my life, I figured it would be good to pause for a de-briefing. Maybe someone else out there is as blocked as I was...

So, forgive me for a moment, but since I'm a historian, I have to go back a few years to put this in its proper context. As we historians say, in the "olden days," I passed my doctoral exams. Nothing had ever or has ever terrified me as much as my doctoral exams -- it was a 3 hour oral exam with 5 faculty members lobbing questions at me. After passing that trial, I needed a break. Plus my husband and I moved away from my Home University into a much unhappier situation. Not a good combination. Thus began my dissertation block. A much-deserved break turned into years of avoidance. Now that I look back, I was battling all sorts of tough things such as working crappy jobs, missing my friends, not having my usual academic support system, missing my previous professional identity, etc. Probably some depression thrown in for good measure. In my defense, I did manage to spend my summers and occasionally times during the semester doing all the research I needed to do. But somehow three years had passed! I had crates and crates of xeroxed documents, but nothing much else to show for that passage of time. And there was at least one, if not two, chapters that I could have been working on, even prior to a single research trip.

So then we moved again. This time to a happier situation, but I was still blocked. And now I was really blocked. No more research trips to give me the semblance of making progress. Now I really had to WRITE. No more excuses. And that was pretty terrifying! How do you start? After all, I had thousands upon thousands of pages of documents. What if I can't make sense of them? What if I can't say anything original about this? I'm sure many of you have heard a similar chorus in your heads. Starting from a cold start is probably the hardest thing to do. You have no sense of how you're going to do this -- after all, you've never written a dissertation before! You haven't developed any coping skills or tricks or routines. And in some sense, graduate school doesn't really prepare you for this task. And since I have an advisor who is relatively hands-off, I didn't have anyone out there holding my feet to the fire or giving me deadlines. At times I appreciated that, but at other times it was probably to my detriment.

So how did I get un-blocked? Two events come to mind. One, my husband and I had an emotional, horrible, terrible, yet necessary Come-to-Jesus conversation in which he told me he was basically disappointed in me, and did I really want to end up like X Person in Grad School Who Never Finished? Even though I had my tenure track job at a community college, and even though getting tenure at this job was not contingent on finishing, I had to take a good, hard look at myself. He was right. Did I really want to become that person (we all probably know them) who never finished? Could I live with being disappointed with myself, and knowing that others would also be disappointed in me? I knew that if I decided that quitting was best for me, my friends and family would have solidly supported that decision -- but the key was to decide what was best for me. To finish or not to finish? I decided for a number of purely personal reasons (thankfully the professional ones were not weighing heavily upon me) that, yes, I did want to finish what I had started.

Secondly, once I decided that I did intend to finish, I had to face the music. How much had I accomplished so far? (not much.) How much was left to do? (pretty much all of it.) Okay, stock taken. Situation not looking good. Then I had to give myself some sort of rough timeline. Problem is that I faced no official deadline and no advisor-imposed deadline. What possible time constraints would I have? Well, I knew that my husband and I would eventually want to have kids. And I knew I was already in my early 30s, so we couldn't wait forever. And I knew that I most certainly wanted to wait until I was closer to being finished with my dissertation before having a kid. So I tried to plan ahead a few years, guessing when we'd want to have a kid, and guessing how long it would take me to finish. [In the end, I ended up being pregnant later than I had originally planned, and finishing my dissertation took longer than I had originally thought. Turns out the timing of finishing was perfect in terms of being pregnant, but that was actually just a lucky coincidence.]

So there I was, sitting at my desk, pondering the road ahead. I knew I intended to finish, and I knew there was something of a deadline out there. When I worked backwards from my prospective finishing date, it became painfully clear to me that I was already behind! I had no more time to waste. The time was NOW.

And I think that was it. I had my "moment of clarity" and knew what needed to be done. I'm not saying it was easy or quick or effortless from then on, but at least I had made a commitment to myself. And now, in hindsight, it is clear to me that the decision to become un-blocked and really work on my dissertation had to be something that came from within myself. It wouldn't have worked for me if it was due to external pressures, personal or professional. Those pressures might have helped to get me off the fence, but moving forward would have to come from within. How I navigated the bumpy road ahead will be the subject of part II.

The Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

Note to self: when Blogger warns you you'll lose your settings, listen! I'm working on a new template, look, whatever... so all my links disappeared. Bummer. Stay tuned...

Otherwise known as: Histgrad 'fesses up.

I'm guessing this post will fade into the ether, since even my most faithful readers have certainly tired of my lengthy silence by now. I've reached a bit of a blogging crossroads for two reasons. One, the ostensible purpose of this blog is no longer relevant! And two, I'm about to experience another major change in my life.

First of all, I am officially, finally, certified, 100% GRADUATED! I am done. Finished. Finito. I am now Dr. Histgrad. After sprinting to my defense back in December, I took a few well-deserved months off. My committee signed the signature form, so I figured that I didn't technically have to make any changes that I didn't want to. Which encouraged my natural tendencies to procrastinate until sometime this spring. I got up the courage to take out my advisors' comments and I started to work on them. Thankfully they were mostly cosmetic and easy to implement. It was slow going because it was hard to justify putting tons of effort into something that 1) will probably never be read and 2) would be totally transformed into something else should I ever write a book. But I felt I owed my advisors at least a token effort to implement the suggested changes. So I formatted and edited and double-checked and measured and printed and re-printed... and voila! I was done. I was even able to use UPS regular delivery instead of the Package of Shame (Fed Ex.) So after years and years of never making a self-imposed deadline, I turned it all in on time.

And secondly, my readers can decide which is the greater achievement up to now, but... to make a very long story short: I'm currently 39 weeks pregnant! For those of you happily ignorant about such matters, that means I'm due to have a baby in about a week. Here's where the road to hell part comes in... I kept intending to blog and write and comment about this whole pregnancy deal, but the longer I waited to do so, the more it seemed like I should write The Best Mea Culpa Blog Post Ever. And obviously that never happened. It's like having an incomplete -- the longer you wait to turn in a paper, the better it has to be. Probably not the best mind-set to be a blogger, but there it is.

So I've really reached a crossroads in my life, now that I think about it. I'm no longer ABD. I no longer have a dissertation hanging over my head. I could pack up all those boxes and files and piles and folders and put them away forever. Hell, I could even have a big bonfire and burn them all! I think I'll opt for the putting-them-away option and see if I feel like returning to this someday and writing a book. It really hasn't sunk in yet. In the many years it took me to finish, I have had weeks or months when I didn't touch my dissertation, so it doesn't feel quite real yet.

And I'm also about to become a parent. A mother. Unlike studying for a test or training for a marathon, being pregnant actually doesn't prepare one for parenthood. I know, I know, on a hormonal level it does, but as far as Actual Preparations, being pregnant only prepares you for being pregnant.

If I can turn over a new blogging leaf, I think that "Eating an Elephant" still applies. I think that works with caring for a newborn. For teaching. For pondering how to mingle scholarship with teaching. And I've found this community to be helpful and supportive in all those things.

So hopefully this will not be the last you hear from Dr. Histgrad!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

As heard in class, redux

Many of you enjoyed the "Black people were bred to be better athletes" story, so now I've got a follow-up story, featuring the same student.

A few weeks ago we were studying European immigrants to the United States in the early twentieth century. As part of their assignment, the students looked at some Jacob Riis photographs. (Riis was a famous photographer and reformer who went into the tenements to document immigrants' living conditions.) Not surprisingly, many of the photos showed dirty and crowded apartments, some of which were used by family members who operated sweatshops out of the apartments.

During class discussion students shared their impressions of the photos, which usually included surprise about the "bad" living conditions and being somewhat impressed with immigrants' fortitude. Then the student in question raised his hand and asked why these families continued to have so many kids if they were already poor and crowded into these small apartments. Fair enough question. And one that I'm actually fairly well-prepared to answer. So I launched in what seemed like an endless answer, including the following points:

*Many immigrants arrived with large families, something that might have been necessary back in the farming areas of Europe
*Some people considered children to be economic assets, i.e. to either work on the farm or work in factories to provide additional income, as well as to provide care for their parents in their old age
*Higher rates of infant mortality encouraged higher birth rates

I also went into the issue of birth control and why it was not available and/or utilized:
*Most poor women did not have access to knowledge about birth control, and would not have been able to afford it, even if they had known about it
*Birth control was illegal at the time, and in fact, it was even illegal to mail information about birth control

Then I told the class a bit about Margaret Sanger, who agitated for birth control during this period, and when she opened a clinic in a working-class neighborhood, it was deluged with women who were desperate for some information. Sanger's personal "epiphany," in fact, was when a young woman died from repeated pregnancies that she could not avoid. When this young woman asked how to avoid pregnancy, an insensitive doctor told her to tell her husband to "sleep on the roof." So I also pointed out to students:
*It's likely that most people back then had little to no understanding of the female reproductive cycle and would not have known about the timing of "safer" periods
*And even if they did, traditional gender roles did not usually empower women to refuse sex with their husbands. Which is why Sanger wanted to find some sort of female-controlled contraception.

So... that seemed like a pretty complete explanation, but he refused to buy it. He kept asking things like, "So, you're saying they're too stupid to know that sex results in children?" and: "Can't they read?"

So I reiterated most of what I had already said about the lack of knowledge, power, and access that these families experienced, and how most immigrant families either chose to have larger families or were simply unable to avoid pregnancy. It didn't take. So finally, I asked him simply, "So what you're saying is that poor people shouldn't have sex."

He looked a bit perplexed, and then denied that's what he was saying. I believe, however, that that is exactly what he was saying. The "punishment" for being poor and unable to access birth control should be denying yourself sex. And this is not the first time the question has come up -- it is more likely to be raised when we discuss Anne Moody's book about being part of the Civil Rights Movements. Anne's mother (an impoverished sharecropper in Mississippi) continues to have children throughout the book, which puts an economic strain on the family. Most students are quite critical of the mother for this, and don't understand why she doesn't just "stop having kids."

Any thoughts??

As heard during Faculty Development Days

Okay, still 'fessing up to being a slacker, so I'm trying to clear out a back-log of little gems to share. This one is a few weeks old, certainly, but still worth a grimace. During our Faculty Development Days at the beginning of the semester, our college President was previewing some of the upcoming events -- i.e. Chinese New Year celebrations, African-American History Month, and "Women's Appreciation Month" in March.

Of course, March is Women's History Month, and those crazy gals who pioneered the whole idea of Women's History would probably not be happy to learn that it is being "celebrated" with (get this) a table where you can buy flowers to show your appreciation for the women in your life (?) and a table to build awareness of breast cancer.

Surely, both worthy ideas in the abstract, but I'm not sure breasts and flowers are really what the founding mothers of women's history had in mind....

[In reality, our Director of Diversity will certainly work to beef up the offerings for Women's History Month, and I'll try to help out. This is one of those On-the-back-burner-until-I-finish-my-dissertation kind of things. Next Spring should be much better!]

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Things that make a teacher cry

Okay, okay, I know I've been a total slacker in terms of blogging. More on that soon. But I just couldn't resist sharing this one. My evening class uses an on-line discussion board so we can continue to discuss the material during the week following class. Last week we watched Birth of a Nation. (For those of you who don't know, this 1915 film was horrendously racist and basically tried to convince the nation that the KKK "saved" the South from the "anarchy" of black rule during Reconstruction.) We watched a 30 minute clip that included the young white "heroine" choosing to leap over a cliff to her death rather than "marry" the "renegade Negro." I introduced, we watched, we discussed. I pointed out that even though many protested the film at the time, it did very well at the box-office and even President Wilson called it "true." Most students who posted comments wrote things that were right on target. I figured that everyone was clear on the concept. Until this post:

"After this movie I came to thinking and even though predjustice was so bad back then...there are going to be bad people in every race and there is never really much said about the terrible things blacks did. It always showed them as vicitims(which most of the time they were) but it was interesting to view it from a white mans stand point. I liked to here that the president at the time thought it was an accurate portrayl, then you know that it is what is really going on."

Must. Go. Bang. Head. On. Wall.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

As Heard in Class This Week....

In my night class this week (read: non-traditional age students) we were talking about the Jim Crow South. I think we must have been talking about Booker T. Washington and his advocacy of a trade-based education (i.e. put freed slaves to work learning trades and farming). One student raised his hand and asked if, during slavery, slave owners tried to breed the strongest and best slaves. I told him that, yes, some slave owners did express interest in "breeding" (for example, purchasing female slaves known to be good "breeders") and that the horrendous conditions of the Middle Passage and slavery itself might have worked to create something of a "survival of the fittest" dynamic. But no, I didn't know of any systematic approach to "breeding," especially since they didn't understand how and which traits would be passed.

But this student wouldn't drop it. Apparently he wanted me to agree that the "strongest and most muscular" African-Americans had been bred during slavery because it would explain "why they're so good at sports." There are two women in the class who took my US I class last semester and they looked quite amused, wondering how I was going to handle this one! So, in the heat of the moment, I think I did pretty well. I told him that I did not believe that was true. For one, slavery happened many years ago and I'm not sure we can draw any causation from that, even if such "breeding" occurred. But more importantly, I don't think it is true to say that African-Americans are "good at sports" because they may predominate and succeed in certain sports. Why are almost all swimmers, tennis players, and golfers white? (Tiger Woods notwithstanding.) I suggested to the student that perhaps socio-economic factors served to concentrate African-Americans in certain "cheap" sports (tossing around a basketball) rather than sports that require memberships in certain swim or tennis clubs -- which both cost money and have historically excluded African-American members. Sadly, the student didn't seem to buy it, but the rest of the class nodded as if that made sense. As always, with teaching, forward progress can be slow...

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

As Heard on Local News...

File under: Stating the Obvious and/or Commodifying tragedy...

Last night I heard the following promo for the local (relatively big city) news (in fake Colbertesque anchor voice):

"Tonight we'll meet an area resident who spent three years during World War II in a Nazi prison camp. Not an easy place to be, especially if you're Jewish..."

Friday, January 13, 2006

Grading Gems

Okay, like any graduate student, I'm excellent at procrastinating. So I'm still trying to "catch up" with my blogging from last December. (even though I'm already one week into the new semester.) But still, I just couldn't resist sharing these grading gems. Right after my defense, I was just too mentally and physically exhausted to grade all those exams I brought on the plane. Plus there were friends to see, lunches to eat, coffees to drink! All (mostly) guilt-free!

When I returned home I had two full days to read all the exams and compute the final grades. Not fun, but certainly possible. Does anyone else get really cranky when grading? I have to continually remind myself that the students did not sit down to their bluebooks with the intention of annoying me. But I probably compound the cranky-factor with my choice of an essay question: The Civil Rights Movement. In USII, I devote quite a bit of time to this subject, and it is also a subject that is important to me personally -- especially after spending a week in Mississippi and Memphis this summer. And I must also add that the students knew ahead of the time that the essay would focus on the Civil Rights Movement. Yet I still get some really bad essays. Here are some winners in a few categories:

Word Choice:
"The black power statement made by Charmichael (sic) was a good thing because it got people riled up and ready to go on a march or riot or whatever they were doing that day." [RIOT?? Where did he get that word???]

Unclear on the Concept: (of the danger African-Americans faced in the South):
"One thing that I thought they could have done better was to protect themselves and their families more. I thought they could have done more to protect their communities instead of letting crazy white men drive through and hurl bombs into homes or squeeze off a few rounds into a house. They could have set up neighborhood watches or something."

Anthropomorphization (not Civil Rights-related; this is an identification of Silent Spring):
"This happened in 1962 and was a book written by Rachel Carson. This book came out of Pensilvania (sic) and made its way up to Washington DC."

That one had me laughing for a while -- not only did they get the direction wrong (up to Washington DC?) but I just imagined a book slowly shuffling along the interstate, perhaps trying to hitchhike?