Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Your Questions, Problems, and Solutions


For today's post, the pictures speak for themselves. We had each group member write on the board a problem they've been wrestling with this week and then as a group we offered possible solutions.

Whether it's killing time on the internet, chowing down on chocolate, or struggling to organize chapters, you'd be surprised how much dissertators have in common.

Question: How do I stop playing internets? (grin)

  • Stop beating yourself up. The more you beat yourself up for killing time on the internet, the worse you'll feel, and the harder it will be to focus on your dissertation again.

  • Go to a cafe where there's no wireless.

  • Find the button on your laptop that turns the wireless off. TURN IT OFF!

  • If you're really serious about it, call your internet service provider and either turn your service off for a "vacation" or cancel it for good. (read: cold turkey)

  • Give yourself a designated time to check e-mail, etc. Then only check then. Stick to it.

  • Use the internet as a treat. "I will go on the net as a reward for finishing Chapter Two."

  • Set a timer with a buzzer. Then work until the timer goes off and you allow yourself some net time.

Question: How do I stop eating chocolate?

  • Figure out what's driving you to the chocolate. What's the payoff for you when you eat chocolate? If you can determine that, then you're more able to replace it with something else.

  • Try substituting gum or other chewy / crunchy foods for the chocolate.

  • Buy bite sizes of the chocolate, so it's easier to eat smaller portions and keep track of how much you are eating.

  • Drink water or tea instead.

  • Don't stop! If you're not gaining tons of weight and your teeth aren't falling out, are you really sure you need to stop the chocolate? Is it really doing you any harm? The dissertation really isn't the best time to make major life changes. You can always give up caffeine, chocolate, etc after you finish. It might be worthwhile for your stress levels and sanity to just let yourself have some vices during this time.

Question: How can I read faster?

  • Judge the book by its introduction. If you really don't like the intro, that can be a real indicator of the style of that author, the argument she is making, or the information in the book. You don't need to read every single page of every single book on your list. Consider moving on if you find a book that doesn't seem to be useful or accessible.

  • Determine what your goal for reading is before you begin.

  • Use the "cheap way" to read the book: Read the index, preface, table of contents, and chapter titles first. This will give you the big picture of the book. Then you can scan for the areas that are most important for your research. Remember, a good scholar knows what not to read. Don't waste time reading items that won't be useful for your purpose.

Question: How can I do the reading and writing at the same time?



  • One idea is to have your laptop out and spread your reading around you. Read for a bit, then go to the laptop to make notes, then read some more. You could do a synopsis of your reading or go into RefWorks and add notes on the material you're reading.
Question: What other verbs can I use?

  • Some professors will advise you to avoid jargon verbs, or recent trendy verbs or phrases, such as "to process" something (try "to reflect upon" instead) or "to unpack" (try "analyze" instead).

  • Use the list of "signal phrases" found in Diana Hacker's A Writer's Reference. You can find the information online, check out a copy at the library, or look at the copies at the CGU Writing Center (also available for checkout).

  • Try declare, explore, further, demonstrate, study, examine, identify, imply, theorize

Question: How do I force myself to write about x?




  • Ask yourself, "What don't I like about x? Why do I think x isn't the main point?" Be critical. This could lead you to the way you're going to talk about x.

  • Take the opposite position of how you feel, defend the opposite side. This can be a great writing exercise to start with.

  • Recognize that critical trends change over time. Maybe writing about x was really important in the past, but is it still that way now?

  • You might be the new Judith Butler or the new Edward Said of your field - meaning, the person who breaks from the critical tradition with a whole new way of looking at the topic. Give x a brief mention or nod in your text, but then go on to what you see as even more important. Create your own brand of critical theory as the scholar who does x...or not!

  • Footnote x.

  • Suck it up and write about x!

  • Eat more chocolate.

Question: I have the big roadmap of my dissertation, but how do I plan out the smaller, more detailed close-up map?

  • Write the subheadings and guides first, then write around them. For example, write your table of contents, list your chapter titles, create your headings and subheadings.

  • Figure out your sequence. Imagine that your dissertation is a short story or a novel. What's the climax of the story? Who's your main character? Then start writing right there. Kill all the backstory - only include what's essential to set up the climax, which is what your dissertation is about.

Question: How do I start writing when I'm stuck on the first chapter?


  • Try starting with your last chapter, which may help clarify where you end up. Once you know the end point, it may be easier to start the beginning.

  • Define the terms that you will be using, or your methodology.

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