Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Awkward Encounters

Awkward encounters in the halls of the ivory tower are certainly not unusual. Around my campus, grad students and faculty alike are adept at the fine art of not acknowledging the presence of the other: they avoid eye contact; they are oblivious to nods, smiles, or waves; they spend office hours with doors closed.

Ever the contrarian, I sometimes over-perform friendly sociability when I pass fellow grads or faculty in the hallway. (Although at other times, I too am guilty of looking busy with my phone rather than suffer through awkward small talk about the fact that I’m still around.)

But then one day I was the perpetrator of an awkward encounter with a prospective PhD student visiting campus.

I had been working in my office most of the day, a hodgepodge of labor which included writing (my dissertation), reading (for my dissertation), being anxious (about finishing my dissertation), and some day-to-day tasks related to teaching. I was on my way to the washroom at the end of the day, and passed C in the hallway, standing with a Prospective Student. (C is reading for exams. Her studying habits are fueled by anxiety and guilt; she reads on an ereader, and if the screen begins to blacken because she’s taking too long to read the page, she feels guilty and reads faster. Such is the condition of graduate life.)

C introduces me to Prospective Student, who immediately asks what I do. (Hm, what DO I do?) A horde of contradictory answers came to mind: I am desperately writing my dissertation, I am plotting my career outside of conventional T-T academe, I do my best to mentor and support fellow grads struggling to professionalize and to write because they don’t receive formal training from their courses or advisers, I volunteer locally to build my skill-set, I read and think a lot about the state of graduate education, the academic job market, and how to market academic skills in a non-academic setting.  

Instead of any of this, though, I rattle off my historical and conceptual fields, and ask where she’s from and what she’s doing. The encounter was awkward; Prospective Student had trouble maintaining eye contact. But the bigger problem was the conversation we *weren’t* having. Why is she going to grad school? What are her career/professional goals? Has she any idea about the academic job market? Doesn’t she know that she just shouldn’t go

But those are the questions that would mark me as the cynical, advanced graduate student. Still here, still writing, and railing against the system that turns reading into a guilt-fueled consumption and amazing, well-qualified people into warm bodies filling short-term, temporary positions.

I don’t want to be the jaded grad student. So until I can figure out how to have those real conversations with prospective and new PhD students, I’ll keep having these awkward encounters. 


Finding Ways to Write

The world of graduate writing tends to be a lonely place. Graduate research and writing is not often taught explicitly, tutoring support seems more often aimed at undergrads, and a functional dissertation group seems harder to find than a tenure-track job. Of the grad students I know that have left their programs, 3 out of 4 left during the dissertation-writing stage (for a host of reasons unique to each individual, but still). Of course, there are shelf-loads of books devoted to not only writing, but actually “surviving” the dissertation, but everyone hates to tell a grad student to read just one more book. So, here are some things I’ve been experimenting with in my quest to Finish. This. Damn. Dissertation.

Goal-based writing sessions with other people.

This is a new model of writing group for me. In the past, I’ve tried diss writing groups based on peer feedback. We had a group of 4 grad students and each week (or every other or so), someone shared a piece of writing, and everyone else responded. This was the classic model in our department, but it didn’t work that well for me. I clashed with some of the other personalities involved, and the pace was too fast–I needed longer periods of ME-time in my writing process before I wanted to know (or cared) what readers thought. Responding to other people’s work so frequently was also time- and energy-intensive.

My new model of writing group is completely different. Four of us (2 grad students, 1 lecturer/PhD, and 1 Assoc. Prof) meet twice a week to WRITE. We don’t read each other’s work, we don’t respond as readers, we’re not even in the same disciplines. We come together ready to write, and begin each session by stating our goals for that writing session. We sometimes ask questions or pushback during this part of the session, if someone’s goals aren’t clear, don’t sound productive, or their rationale isn’t clear or convincing. Then we sit and write. At the end of the session (1-2 hours, sometimes more), we check back in with the group about our progress.

Having this dedicated time and space to write has been great–I’ve never skipped a session, it functioned as a real obligation in my calendar (unlike solo writing sessions, which are all too easy to cancel/postpone/schedule something else during), and the group created a sense of both community and accountability.

Document progress.

In addition to discussing my writing goals with my group, I’ve also started to keep track of my progress in a writing journal. (Okay, it’s just a googledoc, but “writing journal” sounds way better.) At the end of each session, I record how many words I added to my draft and write a quick self-assessment about my work, ideas, research, process, progress, and/or goals for next time.

Schedule downtime.

Stop working at a certain time and/or don’t work on certain days. Have a hobby. Be a real human being, not a grad-student drone. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and while it’s certainly true that maybe I would have been one of those superstar students out of the door in 5 years (I think maybe one person has done this that I can think of), but I like living a fuller life, feeling human, and to be honest, my brain absolutely need breaks from my work. My work suffers or stagnates when I’m mentally exhausted anyway, so I might as well be smart about how I’m expending my energy.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 97 other followers

Twitter Updates


%d bloggers like this: