Monday, September 29, 2008

Unconscious procrastination

This week, I've realized that I feel like the little ball being violently whacked around in a drunken Fussball game. All of these forces are acting on me in different should be doing your dissertation. You should be preparing for teaching. You should be cleaning your apartment. You should be exercising, losing weight, eating better, making friends and influencing people.

It feels impossible to do any of those things fully, so you spread yourself thin and feel like you're doing a mediocre job at best on any of them.

Lately, when people ask me how the writing is going, I tell them that my teaching is taking up too much time now, but next semester, oh, next semester, I'm going to not-teach and focus all my time on writing.

And I have a moment of pride: look, I'm setting aside time just for the dissertation!

Except, as one ruthless friend pointed out, well, okay, next semester is settled, but isn't that just putting things off until then? And she's right...without even realizing it, I've used my "next semester is dissertation time!" plan as a subconscious excuse for not doing anything right now.

So I'm starting to force myself to do things on the dissertation, even if they are small things - ordering books, organizing books, setting up the place in my apartment where books will go, looking at calls for papers to submit my as-yet-not-written chapter as a way to trick myself into having more deadlines. Because its great that next semester I will have time, but I should make myself make time now too.

Monday, September 22, 2008

You and Your Dissertation: A May-December Romance

At this week's workshop, the issue of age came up - how much more difficult writing a dissertation can be when your body is older, when you are taking care of children (even adult children), when you are running a household. Writing a dissertation at 40 or 50 (and up) isn't the same as writing it at 25 or 30.

It made me think of my mother, Sheila Hesler, shown at her college graduation above.

(I was an adjunct teaching at her college at the time of her graduation and was allowed to present her with her degree...but that's a whole other story)

When my mother decided to go back to school for her Associate's degree, some people said to her, "Why go back to school? You'll be 50 by the time you get your degree."

My mother replied, "I'm going to turn 50 anyway. I may as well have my degree when I do it."

This has always struck me as being an incredibly good answer.

Books or food? I guess I'll buy books...

Early in the dissertating process, I figured out that actively doing something, anything, on the dissertation makes me feel better / like I'm "taking care of business." And that includes buying books.

You need to buy the primary source texts (at the very least) for your dissertation. You'll need to write in them, flag them, read them in the bathtub (risking water damage) - they're too important for some lame person to put a "recall" on at the library.

And they're expensive. So here's where to go to buy used copies of the books you'll be living with: is a a company linked to eBay, but it isn't auction-based - there's no bidding and no time limits for when the books are available. Basically, its just a forum for regular people (and book companies) to put books up for sale, and because of the competition (there are often multiple copies of books available) the prices can be incredibly good - often below half price. The down side is that you still have to pay for shipping, and occasionally you get a seller who doesn't describe the condition of the book correctly or doesn't mail as fast as they said they would. But I've bought a lot of books off and have had good experiences with them.

Alibris is another site for buying used books. They tend to have a wider selection of rare and out of print books than (but definitely check both sites first and take the cheaper deal)

If you die during your dissertation process, Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, is where you'll wake up. Seriously, everyone concurs: this is Book Heaven. I have yet to go myself, but am waiting for the's supposed to be the most incredible place. Anyway, I just learned that they have an online component for used books, so check it out.

For in-person rather than online buying, I recommend buying local - Second Story books here in the Claremont village. You can give them a call at 909-624-0757 and ask if they have the books you're looking for. They mostly only carry major texts, but you never know...and its a fun place to visit if you haven't been there (it's easy to miss - it's a single glass door next to Podge's, across from Some Crust in the village. Go through the door and up to the second floor).

Formerly owned by the fabulous Chic Goldsmid (a book and manuscript appraiser and all-around awesome human being) and known as Claremont Books & Prints, Second Story books is now run by an incredibly nice man in his early twenties who has really built up the store's collections of indie prints and graphic novels.

Kyle Hernandez, owner of Second Story books.
Photo by Gabriel Fenoy of the Courier.

You'll pay a little more for used books here than you would online, but the experience will be nicer - you'll get that good feeling that can only come from supporting a local indie bookstore.

And while we're talking about books, can I recommend one for light reading / getting out of the dissertation? Comedian David Sedaris writes incredibly funny and smart short stories based on his life and his absurd childhood. I was feeling down this week, picked up his latest, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and started giggling in the aisle at the book store.

The stories are perfect because they're short (some around 8 pages) and you can just dip in and out of them as needed. No commitment for those of you already committed to books heavier than your car.

So I recommend either When You Are Engulfed in Flames or Me Talk Pretty One Day.

Me write a pretty dissertation one day!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Keep on truckin'

(artwork: Robert Crumb)

In today's meeting, we started by talking about motivation issues - how do you motivate yourself when your committee has asked you to restructure your work in a way that makes no sense to you? How do you motivate yourself to just keep going?

There's no catch-all, magic-bullet answer for everyone, but here are things you might try:

  • Get a few good friends (or random workshoppers) to pester you. Imagine it like being on a diet or quitting smoking - you need support around you to remind you and help you stay on track.
  • Schedule a meeting in the future with one of your committee members to discuss what you've been working on. Just pick some random date, even if you have nothing right now to give them. Because, well, you'll have to come up with something by then.
  • Keep something regular in your life - meetings with professors, therapy appointments at Monsour, the biweekly Dissertation Group, meeting with another dissertation writer for coffee once a month. Part of the problem of finishing a dissertation is the lack of structure, the lack of a timeframe, the lack of baby steps to reach your goal. So you need to invent that structure that you lack.
  • What's your biggest time waster? Come on, you know what it is. Video games, internet surfing, facebook, housecleaning. Whatever it is, force yourself to cut it back, go cold turkey, or use it only as a motivation (when I finish writing x, I can do y).
  • How are you going to treat yourself after you finally do whatever it is that you're avoiding? A good friend of mine who was a HUGE Harry Potter fan bought the last book when it came out and wouldn't allow herself to read it until she finished her dissertation. Pick small rewards for yourself and work towards them - be it food, going to the movies, crap television, going to the beach - whatever you really want that you can enjoy as a reward. Stop beating yourself up and start finding ways to pat yourself on the back. Positive reinforcement will do you better in the long run.
  • Remember: ultimately, this thing you're working on isn't going to become a polished masterpiece for generations of scholars to ooh and aah over (although hey, it could happen!). It's just gotta get done. And it has to get done in a manner to please a select group of people: your committee. You have the rest of your life to write Your Great Book (or even the Great American Novel ). This isn't it. This is Your Decent Book That Freed You From Having To Pay Tuition Forever.
Your Decent Book
That Freed You From Having to Pay Tuition Forever.

When you've been in your writing so long, you can't see the forest for the trees. It all looks the same to you. That's where outside readers, even those (or especially those) totally outside your field, can help. Fresh eyes! (fresh meat?!) If you've been in something so long you don't know if it makes sense anymore, that's where we come in.

Advice that both Bennett and Aris got from advisors:

  • Don't do too much, because the more you put in that's irrelevant, the more we'll have to chop up.
  • Keep it simple if you can - as you write, it will get more complicated all on its own.

  • Be wary of too much jargon - when you need to be understood clearly, be plain if you can.
Bennett made a great analogy between looking at the bare essentials / expectations of the dissertation and game theory. Ask yourself:

  • What's required of you? (what do you have to do to get the next thing signed off?)

  • What do you require of yourself? (what are your personal goals for this piece of writing?)

Because we workshopped Paula's proposal draft today, we talked a lot about proposals.
  • If someone picked up your proposal right now, would they be able to tell the gist of what your dissertation will be about by reading just the first and last paragraphs?

  • Are your hypotheses early in the proposal? (Margaret was advised to move her hypotheses from page 13, so she moved them way up, front and center)

  • Remember, the proposal is a sell. You're selling the reader / committee on your dissertation. They should get a good grasp of what it will be about, why its important, and why they should read it.
Remember, the point of the proposal (and eventually, this will work into your introduction) is to tell your reader:

  1. What you do
  2. Why you do it
  3. How you do it
Someone made the suggestion of trying to write the abstract (150 words or less, depending) first to see if you can "sell" your idea in a few words.

If you were in an elevator with your favorite academic, could you pitch your dissertation to them in a minute or less? This isn't about being reductive, of course, but if your topic is getting immense, it can help you stay focused on the central question you're out to answer.

Lorie brought up an unusual resource that she uses called Atlas t.i. According to the website, Atlas t.i. "serves as a powerful utility for qualitative analysis, particularly when working with larger bodies of textual, graphical, audio, and video data."

As Lorie says, it is software used in hermeneutical analysis and she used it to quantify results from a lit review. Some of the computer labs on campus have it, including computers in ACB. You can use it to code seminal words you keep on seeing, create relational trees, etc.

The Atlas t.i. website gives sample areas of application, including working with art, a medical application, and coding images and video.

It might be worth checking out to see if it is something that would be useful to you.

Lorie also mentioned filling out her Institutional Review Board (IRB) forms. What is the IRB? Well:

"In the interests of protecting the rights and welfare of individuals recruited for, or participaint in research conducted by faculty or students under the auspices of Claremont Graduate University, the University maintains the Institutional Review Board (IRB). All members of the CGU community who conduct research involving human participants must have the research protocol approved by the IRB, before the research is conducted."

Many fields use the IRB, including Education and SBOS.
The main CGU page with IRB info is here.

The CGU Writing Center also holds periodic workshops for IRB, so stay tuned.

You're Not Alone - Here are some of the members of our group!