I started grad school 5.5 years ago with stars in my eyes and a dream to teach and write among the anointed intelligentsia. Now it’s Spring Term 2011 and I’m still working on the first chapter of my dissertation. I have a ton of excuses — I had a baby, dissertations are hard — okay, just two excuses, but now that I’m finishing up year 6 of my pre-doctoral career, my mental state is shifting from general anxiety to sheer panic. Throw in some despair about the academic job market and you can see how hiding under my blanket, in a well, under a mountain on the LOST island seems like a reasonable fantasy.
My biggest struggle comes from my habit of thinking about my project, rather than within it. I found this 4-year old post on Tim Walker’s blog, What I’ve Learned So Far that addresses this very problem. Walker calls it “workiness”:
Writing a dissertation (and, to a lesser degree, passing qualifying exams) requires you to take fairly intangible goals — building a body of knowledge, contributing new ideas to your field — and turn them into a (quite long) series of (daily, possibly boring or painful) concrete tasks. That’s hard to do. The temptation, instead, is to keeping thinking ABOUT your intellectual project, to keep reading ABOUT it and talking ABOUT it, instead of working THROUGH your project. The distinction may not sound like much, but it makes all the difference in the world. For as long as you stay “meta” with your topic, so that you’re off to one side of it, you don’t achieve real clarity on it, and you don’t put your guts into it. This is a tempting state in which to abide, for thinky grad students who are prone to over-abstraction.
I’m hooked like a junkie on thinking about my project. When I think/read/write about my dissertation, I get a really nice dopamine fix. This comes from the inherit potential of my project: I think “It could be wonderful!”; “It could show the world that I’m smart!” and that “I belong!” When in reality, the goal of the dissertation project isn’t to fulfill these dreams. A wonderful dissertation is a finished dissertation. No one will think I’m any smarter when it’s finished. No one questions whether or not I belong, because most people are too concerned with whether they belong to notice. I get all this. But it doesn’t stop me from free-basing my dissertation’s potential greatness.
So isn’t this blog just another outlet for a meta relationship to the diss? Yes and no. My problem is over-indulgence. If I can moderate this meta thinking, reduce it to bite-sized, 1,000 words-or-less chunks, I think I can use “Dacia Takes Note” as a documentary space for the process of writing and completion.
I just finished catching up on Nate Simpson’s blog, Project Waldo, about his journey from an idea to completion/success through unemployment, despair, and lots of videogames. He humanized the creative process with honesty and generosity — characteristics often obscured or even frowned upon in academia. The success of Project Waldo wasn’t simply in his tone and writing, but that his blog serves as a toolkit to facilitate the creative practice as process.
I will write much more about the “practice as process toolkit” later, for now I have worked on this post for an hour and its time to look at my dissertation.
Thanks for reading!