Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Making the Break

As the fall semester is finally over for most schools across North America, we find ourselves in the midst of something most of us refer to as "the break." But what should we do with this time? What is the break for? I want to suggest that we should do our best to minimize the distinction between semester and break so as to avoid the extremes that often accompany the post-semester sigh.

Based on my experiences, burgeoning academics misunderstand the winter and summer breaks in two fundamental ways:

1) we talk about the break as the time to get ALL of OUR work done

2) we talk about the break as the time to get absolutely nothing done

Neither one of these approaches is conducive to mental, emotional, or physical health in the long run. If your day-to-day routine during the semester leaves absolutely no time for regular progress on your own work then your breaks will be hectic and jam-packed. On the other hand, if you don't maintain some contact with your intellectual projects in between semesters, then you'll spend valuable time during the semester simply getting caught up.

As is so often the case, the best case scenario lies somewhere in the middle. Because it's my only point of reference, I'll use myself as an example here. During the semester I try to get my teaching schedule set in the afternoons so that I can devote my time before lunch each day to writing, researching, and reading (but you can certainly do the opposite if you work better in the afternoon). On the afternoons when I do not teach and during my office hours, I will work on course planning and preparation. My Fridays are completely devoted to adjunct teaching. So basically my schedule on a weekly basis looks like this:

write/research 8am-11am
lunch/family 11am-1pm
office/teaching 1pm-5pm

write/research 8am-12pm
lunch/family 12pm-2pm
course prep/reading/misc. 2pm-5pm

All-day adjunct work

Now that we're into the winter break, I'm keeping the same basic morning schedule, working from 8am until lunch each weekday. But in the afternoons, I may just read for a while, work on next semester's syllabi, or work on my job materials. The point is that I'm much more flexible. Sometimes I may just work a little after lunch and spend more time with my family.

Because I'm disciplined during the semester, I rarely have to spend time working in the evening or on weekends (except for when I'm grading). And so during the break, those times aren't all that different. I won't work Christmas weekend, but that's normal since I don't generally work much on weekends. The difference will be that I probably won't do any seriously engaging work at all on Friday, Monday, or Tuesday (although since I'm on the job market I will be working on interview materials and etc).

The break is truly a break for me, but that doesn't mean I do nothing. Neither does it mean that I'm on a break from teaching responsibilities and can do all my own work. The break is a break because I don't have pressure of teaching, grading, or planning. If I don't want to go back to work after lunch I don't have to! In the summer I'll generally devote more time to "doing nothing," by taking a couple full weeks and a couple long weekend vacations.

The point is that maintaining some balance throughout the year should mean that in terms of doing your own work, the breaks shouldn't look drastically different from the semesters. And minimizing this distinction will help you avoid the stressful extremes of academia and make the best of your breaks.

Expect inconsistent posting over the next couple weeks, as I'll be spending some time with family and then making the trek to Seattle for the MLA Convention.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Strategies: Dealing with Rejection

Rejection is a fairly common experience in the world of academia. We are constantly putting ourselves out there, making ourselves vulnerable. We speak up in graduate seminars despite our fears of saying something stupid and being thought of as phonies. We submit abstracts to conferences knowing an email could come back saying the panel is full. We send our writing out to journals and proposed books and then check our emails with nervous anxiety, waiting for a message that begins, "We're sorry to inform you..."

Then there's the world of applying for things: grad school, grants, fellowships, and...oh yeah...JOBS!!! In a market where single positions are often receiving many hundreds of applicants, the numbers say to prepare yourself for a little rejection as the stars align and you bide your time until the right position comes along. It seems like rejection is hanging out around every corner just waiting for us to walk by so it can trip us and then look around as if someone else did it.

Well, I don't have any advice that can make rejection itself feel better, but I can offer a few strategies for dealing with rejection:

1. whenever you receive any kind of rejection, it's ok to be bummed about it.'ve got to figure out an appropriate bummed out window. For me, I'll let myself feel bummed out for as long as it takes to tell my wife about the rejection. Having someone to tell who can commiserate without immediately trying to make you feel better as if the rejection never happened is therapeutic. So, take a little while to feel poorly, that's natural, but get it all out. Tell someone who can relate and who cares.

2. once you've got all your bad feelings out (preferably as soon as possible) decide what your next step is with that particular project. If I just received a rejection on an article, for instance, I decide ASAP what changes I will make based on the reviewers' comments, and then I try to locate a new potential home for it the same day so that I can revise with that new home in mind. In other words, make an action plan.

3. once you have an action plan, decide on what days and at what times you will work on the project. Give your action plans hands and feet. When you're feeling down there's nothing like a little planning to pick you up!

4. get something else out there right away! Get on the UPENN site and check for new CFPs, or look at whatever listservs, blogs, etc. that you follow in your field, and find something new to get invested in. Create new expectation whenever your current expectations have taken a shot.

5. don't freak out! Rejection is a normal part of academia. One of the most important things we can do as burgeoning scholars is to embrace criticism and learn from it.

To recap briefly, when you experience rejection share it with someone who understands and get it out of your system. Make a new plan for the rejected project. Find a new project to get involved in. Don't freak out!!

Believe it or not, rejection can become an emotion that you don't merely have to endure. While I can't say that I feel good when I get a rejection, I can say that I have begun to feel more motivated than depressed by these experiences. The first strategy (telling someone who can commiserate) is especially important here, as I've come to realize that if my identity is primarily tied to my family and friends, and not to my work alone, then rejection of my work can't touch all of me; it can only touch the work part, and that part is fixable through time, practice, and revision!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Special Thanks and Looking Ahead

This is just a short post to thank Will Duffy and Kristen Pond for their respective series on conceptualizing the dissertation and making the transition from graduate student to faculty member.

The month of November was absolutely amazing thanks to these insightful and generous academics. If you're new to the blog and would like to read back over these amazing posts, just have a look over at the menu bar on the right-hand side of this page and click on the month of November!

Next up on Constructing the Academy:

Look for a new post next week addressing rejection in the world of the burgeoning academic. While this may sound like a depressing topic (and it can be), rejection is something that we all have to deal with on a fairly regular basis, and if you're not very good at dealing with it rejection can become paralyzing. So, next week's post will be geared towards dealing with rejection in healthy ways. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 6

A Summary.

In this final post of the "What Is a Dissertation?" series, I want to summarize the key points I've tried to articulate over the past month about the work of writing a dissertation. In the second post, I pointed to Jastrow's duck/rabbit illusion to explain the pesky business of trying to simultaneously see the dissertation as an object of inquiry as well as a site for performance. On the one hand, the rhetorical space that surrounds the writing of a dissertation is supposed to be one of inquiry, experimentation, and discovery. The dissertation is a scholar's first attempt at extended research, which is to say part of the value of a dissertation is simply located in its writing. On the other hand, the dissertation is also a ticket of sorts, one that gets us out of grad school and into a tenure-track job. It's a document in which we perform the role of a serious scholar, and as such the project should not be taken lightly.

But I am convinced that dissertation writers who get stuck in the performance frame end up creating not only more stress for themselves, but also more work than is necessary. That is, because the dissertation is a dissertation (see post 3) writers should focus on making the most of the dissertation experience by letting themselves enjoy the process as much as possible.

So, here are the suggestions I've made (in somewhat sequential order) for how to conceptualize the writing of a dissertation as a place for inquiry throughout its development.

  • Even though the "conversation" metaphor is sometimes overused in academic discourse, it really does help to imagine your dissertation as an initial contribution to an existing conversation. As one who has just pulled up a chair to the circle, so to speak, you aren't expected to be an expert. Nor do those with whom you are conversing want to be overpowered by your talk. Your dissertation is a way to introduce yourself and your ideas into the conversation. The trick is to allow yourself the grace to realize these ideas will need further refinement and articulation, which is why you entered the conversation in the first place.
  • A good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Yes, this is another cliche but it is true. Think about those folks you know who have been writing a dissertation for 2+ years. Is there any end in site? They might have an amazing project in theory, but it's not amazing if it's not finished. For this reason, look at the calendar and decide on the date when you want to have a complete first draft of the whole thing. From there, break up the writing and give yourself reasonable deadlines. I offered my own writing schedule as an example, but I'm sure you can ask friends and colleagues who have been through this process to share their schedules with you. Regardless, make a schedule and stick to it. Imagine each deadline as a hurdle you will jump. With each hurdle you pass, you are one step closer to that complete first draft. Whatever you do, though, don't drag the process out.
  • After you have defended the project, give yourself time to let the dissertation sit. Most likely there will be more pressing things going on anyway, but the goal of this time is to put some critical distance between you and your dissertation. Whether you want to turn the diss into a book, mine it for a couple articles, use it as the justification for a related project, or anything else, you first need to attempt to see the forest through the trees. When you are on the job market, for example, the dissertation is a prop you hold up to signal you are a decent scholar because you can finish a long-term project. But remember, the goal of the dissertation was in part simply to write the thing, to prove yourself worthy of the "Ph.D." at the end of your name. But if you want to use the dissertation for a new project, use some of the exercises I've suggested (and others that might get suggested--I'm sure there are lots of them) to re-see your dissertation, to identify those aspects of it most rich with potential.

Now if I can be allowed to leave this series with one final idea, I want it to be this:

You are not your dissertation.

Yes, the dissertation is an important project that heavily shapes your scholarly identity as you transition out of grad school, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to be the [fill in subject of your diss] person. Remember, this is a conversation you entered as a way to test out some ideas. No one says you have to become the host of the party. Moreover, and more importantly, you might be interested in other things. In short, do what makes you happy. That's why we are in this profession, isn't it?

[cue balloons]

Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 5

Whether you defend your dissertation in the spring or summer of your last year, or, like I did, in the fall of your last year (If you can defend in the fall, do it!), you'll probably be overwhelmed with other, more pressing work once the defense is over. You might be in the middle of a job search, which is a full-time job unto itself, or preparing for interviews, or planning a move. And once you figure out what's next after grad school, the pressing work becomes figuring out the ropes of your new school and department, getting to know everyone you can, and simply discovering a routine. Kristen Pond's current CtA series about the transition from graduate student to tenure-track professor nicely chronicles some of this labor.

The point I want to underscore here is that your dissertation takes a position on the proverbial backburner after you finish the thing. It has to, because other stuff demands your attention. But this is a good thing. It has been a little over a year since I defended my own dissertation, and I'm just now beginning to seriously plot what to do next with the project. While I can only speak for myself, I'm finding that this time away from my diss has been incredibly generative. For starters, it has allowed me to assess my other scholarly interests and work on projects related to those. I've also poured more attention into my teaching, which has been refreshing. While you shouldn't forget about your dissertation during this time, putting space between it and you will mean you can approach it after the break with fresh eyes.

Why you need to allow time to step away from your diss is because you become so close to it during your last year of school. You are so intimately familiar with its ideas that you need distance to establish the critical perspective with which you will eventually refine those ideas.

So what is your dissertation at this stage? Especially when you are ready to get back to it, how do your approach this document? I won't say too much about how to decide whether and what to publish. Perhaps the diss will become a book, or perhaps a series of articles. Regardless, before you plan specific projects you first need to examine the forest through the trees. That is, you have to think about your dissertation and ask, "so, what is this project about again?"

During a job search and throughout your transition away from the position of graduate student, your dissertation serves a utilitarian end as a stage prop. It is something you use along with teaching experience, letters of rec, publications, and the like to set the scene for what kind of scholar and teacher you are. One consequence of this professional staging is that your dissertation takes on a kind of liminal existence. It is something you have written, yes, but it is nevertheless an evolving text. You memorize the abstract, you perfect the 3-minute pitch, you have that one line summary. All of these help you land the job. But when you are finally in a job and ready to return to it, you have to reevaluate the dissertation in order to, as I say above, see the forest. You have to make yourself re-see the project in order to understand its borders and general terrain.

To help this re-seeing, I suggest the three following exercises:
1. Re-write your abstract. But this time, write the abstract not according to what is technically in the dissertation, nor what you have written before in a previous abstract, but according to what you think the dissertation does (or should do). In other words, don't go back and re-read your diss before you do this--just rely on memory and wishful thinking. You might find that what you think you do in the diss is what you didn't do (or didn't do well enough) and need to do in whatever iteration of the project comes next.

2. Then you should go back a re-read your dissertation. From there, make a list of the top 4-5 ideas or claims you make in the text. Really limit yourself here and identify what you see as your most important arguments. This doesn't mean that what doesn't make the list is insignificant. The point, though, is to capitalize on the dissertation's strengths. Don't focus too much on its weaknesses.

3. Even if you've already done this for the job search, make yourself come up with a one-sentence claim about why your project matters. One sentence.

These exercises can be used to help you see the dissertation in a fresh way. They also will provide direction you can utilize to decide what to do next with the thing. Your dissertation has helped you get a job, now you have to reassess this text and decide what it's really about, what are its most provocative claims, and what you want to do next.
Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at

Friday, November 25, 2011

Transition Series: Part Four

I thought it would be interesting when I sat down to write this fourth, and final, post about the transition from graduate student to faculty member to see what would pop up if I actually googled that phrase. I found quite a few great sites (some of those links appear below), but what I also found was a lot of similarity in the topics that were addressed. I doubt you are holding your breath here because I am sure you know exactly what those topics are: the importance of balancing research, teaching, and service, and how to be a professional in the field. Several of these sites were framed around the idea that these things will come as a great surprise to graduate students moving into a tenure-track position. The popularity of this framing device for disseminating advice was what actually surprised me.

Are graduate students really surprised by what it feels like to be a faculty member? Have I been caught off-guard by anything? Maybe I should just chalk this up to wonderful advisors who prepared me well, but I do not feel as though I have encountered much that I didn’t expect. Now, I’m not saying the transition has been easy, just because something isn’t “surprising” doesn’t mean it suddenly becomes easy. Here are some things that have not surprised me:

1) I feel like an imposter

2) it is hard to protect my writing time

3) there are politics in the department

4) the students are different

5) People treat you differently because of your title

6) it is lonelier being a faculty member than being a graduate student

7) the department expects different things from you as faculty than it expects from graduate students

I imagine these things sound about as obvious to you as they did to me. It’s still good to be aware of them, of course, but perhaps this rhetoric of the surprising and the unexpected drives this culture of needing to talk about the transition and adds to the mystique of being a faculty member. I did not think it at all strange when Matt asked me to contribute to this series (well, I thought it strange he asked me, but not that he was doing this series. Example of #1 above), but now that I have written a few posts and perused a few websites this morning I’m realizing that what I am writing about is not so much a transition, but the job itself.

Surely this is shaped by the institution you come from and the institution where you land that first job, so what I am saying here has to be taken with a grain of salt (or paprika, which is more fun to say). I would thus sum up the “transition from graduate student to faculty member” in this way:

You do what you did in graduate school, but with weightier implications

This is good news, right? Now, there is a lot of stuff crammed into that last bit, the “weightier implications.” But I’ll leave that for someone else to hash out, or for you to discover on your own when you land The Job.

What I will leave you with is the beautiful conundrum of being a Doctor in the Literature field:

You probably worked harder than most people in graduate programs, but you did it for the simple reason that you love to read. No magnanimous reasons that have to do with saving people’s lives, discovering epic cures, exploring uncharted territories, contributing to the greater good, etc. We are overly educated bibliophiles who, though we may outwardly shun any pretense to greatness, secretly believe we are saving the world. Now that’s a cool job.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What is a Dissertation? Part 4

In this post I will offer a few thoughts about how to imagine your dissertation when you are in the middle of writing it.

Before I proceed, let’s acknowledge that the design of a dissertation is heavily influenced by the conventions of your academic discipline. Dissertation writers in education and the social sciences, for example, usually follow a standard five-part chapter sequence: Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results, and Conclusion/Discussion. Dissertations in fields related to English Studies, let’s say American Lit, might include an introductory chapter, a theory chapter, and then 2-4 additional chapters that offer close reading or interpretation of specific texts. In my own discipline, Rhetoric and Composition Studies, dissertation writers have greater leeway when it comes to design and chapter sequence, but it just depends on the topic.

Regardless of academic discipline, the point here is that if you are currently drafting the dissertation I’m going to assume you have an idea of chapter sequence, which is to say you probably have an outline for the dissertation you are writing. (You did get that prospectus approved, right?) This might be a very rough and tentative outline, but you should have one.

Now for another thesis about writing your dissertation as a kind of inquiry: Many of your best ideas emerge when you are engrossed in the writing itself, so make sure you are actually writing.

Okay, this isn’t really an argument because, well, most of us would probably agree that we often have to write in order to understand what we want to say. Simply put, we can only plan so much. And writing, the actual work of putting words on the page, is itself a way to discover things. The outline is a conceptual map, a rough list that tells us what to write before we begin. But the writing itself is the real work, because the writing itself is what leads to the completion of drafts. And at this stage in the process, getting drafts of chapters finished is your most important job.

There’s an aphorism with which most of us are familiar, and it goes like this: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Perhaps this saying is reductive and too simplistic, but on a strategic level I agree with it. To slave away on a dissertation with no end in sight is pointless. Dissertations serve a number of purposes, of course, but if you are currently writing one, I imagine your primary goal is to graduate…to finish!

And the only way to move closer to a finished dissertation is to produce pages. And the only way to ensure that pages get produced is to have a writing schedule to which you are committed.

I’ll be a bit more direct here…

You need to complete full rough drafts of chapters so that you have texts to revise. As we all know, it often takes a couple drafts to properly articulate complex ideas and observations, and then it usually takes another revision or two to get the prose itself right. This means you shouldn’t spend too much time at any one point in a draft if it means you have to push back the schedule. Put a bit differently, don’t be overly concerned with getting everything right in a draft; instead focus on getting things right enough so that you can stay on schedule to finish the draft. You can focus on clarifying ideas and sharpening prose later, when it is time to revise specific chapter drafts.

When it comes to imagining this work, I like the image of a finish line on a track. The track here is the combination of your outline and the schedule you are following, and the various drafts you need to produce and revise are the hurdles. Again, I’m sticking with this aphorism that a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. So finish the “race” (I don’t like this metaphor but I guess it comes with the territory), set out a schedule for yourself, and make sure you are steadily moving towards the finish line.

As an example, here is a rough outline of the writing schedule I followed.

April 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 1
May 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 2

June 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 3

July 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 4

August 2010: Finish 1st draft of Introduction

September - October 2010: First revision of full dissertation

November 1, 2010: Dissertation Defense

November 2010 - February 2011: Second revision of full dissertation

March 2011: Submit polished draft to Graduate School

You might see that my timeline is a little unconventional because I defended my dissertation during the fall of my last year, which was a deliberate attempt to make myself more marketable on the job front. I also wasn’t teaching in the summer, so I could write full-time. Regardless, I gave myself about six months to have a full draft of the dissertation. Yes, it would be (and it was!) a rough full draft, but by that point I had a clearer vision of what my dissertation was about (because I had a full draft), one much clearer than the vision I had before I started writing.

Anyway, in those summer months is when I really had to force myself to write. Here’s what those schedules more or less looked like:

Week 1: Organize notes, prioritize sources, draft a detailed outline for the chapter.

Weeks 2 & 3: Draft, draft, draft.

Week 4 (first half): Organize writing, revise, and edit text into a working draft; send to committee.

Week 4 (second half): Do nothing and relax.

Once you get a rhythm like this going, it really is possible to meet deadlines and cross those finish lines. For me, when I was in the thick of drafting I had to constantly keep one eye on the finish line, which evolved as the draft evolved. First it was that date at the end of the month when I was scheduled to send chapters to my committee. Then it was the date at the end of August when I would send them my first full draft, then it was the date of my dissertation defense.

Let me add one final idea before I close this post….

Don’t drag the process out. With a firm schedule and a good outline, you can write faster than you think. The goal is to get each draft to a place where you can go back and revise, so doesn’t it make better sense to make a schedule that allows plenty of time for more revisions? Yes, it can be intimidating to think you may be giving yourself only five or sixth months to write a first draft, but remember, you want a finished dissertation. That’s the goal, right?


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at

Friday, November 18, 2011

Transition Series: Part Three

The last couple posts on transitioning to tenure track have dealt with the mind-game of feeling like a tenure-track professor. I want to get a bit more practical here and offer a practice I use to help me balance all the things I need to do in a day. I feel as though this post does not fit squarely
within a “transitioning” series, as the problem of balancing is not something one takes on once you hit the tenure-track. However, it is something I have really focused on in the last few months, so for me, at least, this practice of planning is connected in some way with starting this new job.

Two Prefaces:

1) I have always been an obsessive planner, living in the future and fretting over the past (as in – fretting over what I did not get done last week). In fact, when I lived in the dorm as an undergraduate my hall mates used to joke that they always knew where to find me because my entire day was written out on a white board at the foot of my bed. They used to write “breath” in various places on my schedule because it seemed that if it wasn’t on my list I might forget to do it. So what I am proposing below is new to me because of the kind of plan it is.

2) I owe many of these ideas to Tanya and her blog.

Starting sometime this summer the “to do” list became so long and cluttered with various tasks, from menial things like “mail this birthday card” to monumental things like “set up the movers” that I quickly discovered my old way of having one list no longer sufficed.

Although I had lots of things I needed to do in one week as a graduate student, they somehow seemed all about equally important and generally took similar amounts of time (read for class A, read for class B, write my final papers, read for comp list, attend EGSA meeting, attend meeting with advisor, and so forth). Leaving one place and settling in another first alerted me to the need for “pyramid plans” (not to be confused with pyramid schemes). I had to develop several different layers of the to-do plan that incorporated a sense of varying priority levels and timelines. The pyramid plan consists of layers: the semester, the monthly & weekly, and the daily. Here is how I go about doing that:

At the beginning of each semester I create a “semester plan” that lists everything I want to accomplish in four categories: research, service, teaching, and personal. This list provides no detailed notes on any item. It might look something like this:

Fall 2011 Semester Plan

Research Goals

Book Project

Submit one article

RSA Proposal


NAVSA roundtable paper

Teaching Goals

Develop a website

Create paper assignments and exams

Course proposals for next fall


Join one department committee

Serve on one grad student thesis/diss committee


Get office set up

Plant a garden

This list is the largest layer of the pyramid; it is also the most basic and will form the foundation from which all the other lists are generated. One other element I like to add to this list is to divide some items into months, particularly where it makes sense. So, for example, I know the book project will be part of every month but for the conference papers I would section them off under “October” since they had to get written then for the conferences in late October and early November.

At the beginning of each month I look at my semester plan and decide what I will accomplish in that specific month. Some of that will already be designated (as in the conference papers) but other things become a decision you make during this planning session. So, for example, I could decide that November will be the month I work on a personal website.

I like for my semester level plan to be ambitious, knowing I probably won’t get to everything, but as I move down the pyramid the plans have to start getting more realistic. A monthly level plan might look like this:

Sept 5-9

Article: send rough draft to writing partner

RSA: finish reading sources and draft proposal

Book Project: read through chp 3, make notes for book revisions

Sept 12-16

Article: finish last bits of research & implement writing partner’s comments

RSA: polish draft, send off (due sept 16)

Book Project: read through chp 4, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Sept 19-23

Article: final revisions, send off

Conference: get back into visawus research

Goal this week: to get through at least one novel and some analysis of it, add one page to conference draft

Book Project: read through chp 5, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Goal this week: locate any useful sources and read them, get 2 pages of brainstorm draft

ATL application: finish

Sept 26-30:

Book Project: look over sample book proposals and start drafting yours, make specific action plan for revising each chapter (look at 1-2 chapter a day and have this done by the end of the week)

visawus. Read two library books checked out, 3 ebrary sources

navsa: start making yourself brainstorm, actually write something down! Look at Goffman sources

Once I have listed the specific things I want to get done that month, I then divide them up into weeks. Notice this is getting a little more specific, so instead of just listing “work on article” I might delineate a specific task like “send draft to writing partner.”

At the beginning of each week (for me this means either Sunday night or Monday morning) I sit down and look at what I had designated for that week as listed on my monthly level plan. As you can probably imagine by now, I create a list for that week and I get really specific. I have just recently discovered that it is more effective to allot time amounts rather than time slots to tasks. So for my weekly plan, one day’s plan might look like this:


Teach (2 hours)

Class prep & office hours (4 hours)

Write 2 pages of NAVSA draft (1 hour)

Look at book proposal samples (1 hour)

Read 2 sources for visawus paper (2 hours)

Finish final article draft revisions (2 hours)

Workout (1 hour)

I am still learning how much time certain tasks take, so I intentionally demonstrated what often happens to me when I first create a plan for one day of the week. This plan shows me working for 12 hours, and while it does include things like working out, there is not much time left in the day for things like dinner, getting to and from work, etc. But this is the beauty of creating a plan based on time allotments. Once I create this day-layer plan, I would quickly realize it’s not realistic. I can revise it by moving, say, the reading a source for the visawus paper to Thursday and that at least gives me a 10 hour day. Sometimes, I’ll admit, 10-hour days happen for me at least once a week. But if I’ve already scheduled a long day this week according to my plan, then I know I need to shuffle still more from this day to another. So I might also decide to do only one hour of article revisions and finish it up on Thursday and add in an hour of class prep time back into Monday which I realize was a much lighter day according to the plan I had created.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that the weekly plan becomes kind of like a game of shuffling tasks around like puzzle pieces until you get it all to fit together.This can take some time, but for me it is well worth it, primarily for two reasons:

*It holds me accountable to getting done what I set out to do

*It lets me feel guilt-free when I am not working.

I want to end this post with that last point: if being in a tenure-track job is exhilarating, it is that way primarily because, like a race-horse, you’ve just been let out of the starting gate and you are now racing around the track, the tenure-track that is. The narrative that we have been groomed to hear over the years of graduate school is that for the next 5 or 6 years of your life you should be harried, overwhelmed, stressed-out, and always working as you race around that track. I just don’t buy that (or refuse to and am in denial). A lot of the stress and worry that I’ve experienced in my first few months on the tenure track comes from feeling like I’m not doing enough. Anytime I feel that way now, however, I pull out my plan and, starting from the top level of the pyramid, I look at all that I will accomplish by the end of the semester, and then I glance at what I was supposed to do today. Did I do it? Yes! Then that means I can stop for the day because if I’ve followed the layering I outlined above, the tasks I laid out for today will lead me to accomplish all that I should this semester. And, by the way, that semester plan is connected to a 5-year plan so that I know what needs to happen each semester to make sure I am “doing enough” on the track we call tenure.

This has saved me countless evenings when I feel myself starting to fidget with guilt after I’ve been sitting for more than 5 minutes. I simply pull out my daily plan, re-confirm that I checked off my tasks and then there is absolutely no reason not to relax. Do I always stick to this plan? Of course not. I am still a terrible judge of how long things take so I am constantly revising the plan. In fact, I leave Saturday unplanned, knowing I always work a half-day Saturday. Whatever doesn’t get done mon-fri becomes the task I focus on for that half-day.

Keep in mind the plan is supposed to be freeing, so it can never become too rigid or else it just becomes another task. I never consider it failing if I don’t get to something on my list, so long as I resituate the plan to accommodate it. Obviously if this happens to often then you will start not meeting goals, but there should be enough flexibility in your schedule to accommodate minor schedule changes.

This also answers to those people balking at the idea of being so scheduled because they claim they went into this field because they could have flexible schedules. The kind of pyramid plan I have laid out here absolutely allows you to do that. Flexibility is one of the things I love about this job as well. Today is the perfect example. Justin works night shifts at the hospital, so sometimes there are really odd times of the week that we can actually spend time together. It just so happens that his sleep & work schedule meant that for the first half of Thursday we could spend some time together. When I got up this morning, then, I shifted all the tasks I planned to do this morning to Saturday afternoon. I spent a fun morning with my husband, guilt-free, in the middle of the week. I never could have done that if I didn’t have written down tangibly in front of me that I would still get all my work done this week even with taking Thursday morning off. It’s a beautiful thing.

So my biggest piece of advice? Create a plan that has layers to it – so you can get increasingly more specific and so that you can allot priorities to more important tasks (they get done in the first week of the month or during your biggest chunks of time, say).

And plan to plan. That’s right, schedule a time each week where you sit down and do this. The upshot to all this? You won’t be the horse running in front lathered and completely winded, nor the horse getting mud slung all over her in the back of the pack. You’ll be the horse running comfortably in the middle, hugging the rail, pacing herself, who makes her move perfectly on time at the finish line.


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 3

A dissertation is a dissertation, and you only write one.

This is a claim I developed in the previous post, which I used to make a distinction between conceptualizing the dissertation as a site for inquiry versus a site for performance. It is my belief that to understand a dissertation primarily in terms of inquiry is to counteract the negative effects of anxiety and apprehension that sometimes stymie dissertation writers.

In this post, I’ll address the work of imagining the dissertation before you actually begin to write the thing. Indeed, to imagine a dissertation seems most haphazard in the months before the work of writing actually begins. In a way this makes sense, because there is usually no shortage of advice on this matter.

For example, I remember as a graduate student listening to an assistant professor in the English department explain why we should want the dissertation to be our first book. At the time, his argument was persuasive. It basically boiled down to the assumption that we will have to write a book to get tenure, so why not write the dissertation as a book and enter a tenure-track job with most of the work already completed?

There are some obvious flaws to this argument. First, not all of us will have jobs where a book is required for tenure. Second, how can we write the dissertation as a book if we have never written a book, or, for that matter, a dissertation? In other words, does it mean something different to write the dissertation as a book opposed to, I don’t know, writing it as a dissertation? I could go on, but the dissertation-as-book conceptualization is a popular one. There are variations of this model, of course, but the fundamental problem with it is that I have never seen this happen. That is, I do not know anyone who has ever finished the dissertation only to turn around and drop a draft in the mail to a publisher. I will discuss this idea in more detail in a later post, but keep in mind that it is easier than ever to access dissertations electronically thanks to library indexing technology, so why would a press publish something that people can—in most cases—download for free with the click of a button?

Then there is the suggestion to envision a dissertation as a series of articles. I heard this many times, too, when I was preparing to write. It certainly makes sense to want to write a dissertation that will lead to a publication or two, so I won’t challenge this goal, but I will say that complications arise if you try to view each chapter as a stand-alone article. For one thing, part of the uniqueness of the dissertation genre is that arguments develop from chapter to chapter. Moreover, it often takes the work of writing the damn thing to get your dissertation draft to a place where you can actually see the value and efficacy of your ideas.

So is there another way to conceptualize your dissertation at this early stage of the game?

I remember having a freak-out moment in my first year of graduate school. I had just arrived at the frightening realization that I had no idea what I would (eventually) write a dissertation about. I went to a professor and confessed this sense of dread. How would I decide on a topic? My professor (who is famous for quelling such freak-out moments) told me to relax. Eventually I would identify a conversation I wanted to join, one I will have been listening to for awhile, and that’s how I will land on a topic: realizing I had something of value to add to an existing conversation.

So that’s what I offer here. Imagine your dissertation as a contribution to a conversation. Yes, this is something of a cliché (Kenneth Burke’s parlor analogy is quite famous) but this image continues to thrive because it is true.

So once you have a dissertation topic and are working on a prospectus, it helps to think about you dissertation as a way into a conversation. You are not an expert at this point, so the idea is to enter the conversation (whatever that conversation is about) so others will treat you as one who is serious about carrying the conversation forward. In more practical terms, using the concept of conversation might help you keep the dissertation grounded.

Think about it.

When you enter a conversation for the first time, your goal should not be to over-power the talk already going on. Nobody likes a blowhard. This means to think about your dissertation as a contribution to the talk. It is an “and” tacked on to something said earlier.

Also, new contributors to a conversation make connections that have not been previously articulated. For your dissertation, think about it as a way to show readers links between (and beyond) the existing literature, ones that open new paths for inquiry.

Finally, what keeps a conversation going is the identification of new things to talk about. In other words, you should not think of your dissertation as the last (or best) word on your topic. You should welcome those places where you might say “I don’t know” because this means more conversation is needed. No one expects a new member of the conversation to have every argument worked out perfectly. If this were the case, the conversation would already be over.

Just keep in mind that as a dissertation writer, you position yourself as someone who has something to add to an existing conversation. Yours in an initial contribution, though, so don’t be too forceful and know it is okay to claim questions you might not be in a position to fully answer. This, after all, is why the conversation exists.


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at

Friday, November 11, 2011

Transitions: Part Two

In part two of this transitions series I am taking up one element of academic life that has always been seen as an important aspect of professionalism-the conference-and sharing how my experience at two recent conferences as a tenure-track faculty actually felt quite different.

Scenario One: The Graduate Student

Bernice walks, mostly eyes down, along the corridor looking for the “Acorn Room.” On noting the nametag of a near passerby, she stops and gapes, mouth open, at the retreating back. Was that really just [insert name of famous scholar here]?? Bernice finally finds the Acorn Room and sits uncomfortably at the front table, wishing she were in the audience. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself one of the fortunate who was not asked any questions, and she flees the conference floor up to her room. She spends the rest of the weekend enjoying [insert city here, chosen as the conference location either for its obvious attractions or because the city could never hope to attract people otherwise]

Scenario Two: The TT

Bernice walks, looking at tags or faces for familiar names or people, along the corridor until she finds the “Acorn Room.” Along the way she stops to say hello to someone she met yesterday in panel 3. They chat a few moments, and then scatter to their respective sessions. As Bernice ducks into the room she notices [insert name of famous scholar] and stops to gape at the retreating back. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself among the fortunate who get to answer several questions about her paper, take on some challenges to her ideas, and jot down some resources others share with her. Bernice leaves the session and joins a group of people to chat for a few minutes over coffee before heading to another panel.

Bernice’s experiences (which are eerily similar to my own; how strange) illustrate a few of the key differences between the conference experience as a graduate student and as tenure-track faculty. I am sure there are many graduate students who will read my description of how I approach conferences as a tenure-track faculty member and think that is already how they view conferences. To them, I would say Bravo! But for the rest of us who are slow to realize ourselves as professionals, I attempt to pinpoint some of the differences in attending a conference as a student and as a scholar.

Community: As a graduate student conferences were mostly a means to an end, namely a line on my CV. They were also a place to have a great time, but that was usually totally disconnected from the conference itself. In many ways, both of those things are still true now, but conferences have also become a vital source of community for me. I have never before felt the urge to go up and introduce myself to people, but in the two conferences I have been to this semester, I have done just that numerous times.

The banner of overwrought graduate student no longer forms the ties that bind me naturally to those down the hall. What I found, then, at my first conference as a tenure-track faculty member was that I wanted to be part of the British Literature community. The “ties that bind” had now become my field. I suppose this should have been true all along, but for me this revelation only happened when I no longer had my community of fellow cheap laborers (oops, I mean graduate students) to commiserate with.

Ideas: Even though I landed a job in an extremely vibrant and friendly department, it still seems like people walk around the halls in their own little bubble. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the stakes are higher now than in graduate school, and there isn’t the same room for intellectual play and the spontaneous exchange of ideas amidst the business of daily department life. My eagerness to attend panels and engage in discussions before, during, and after sessions at these two recent conferences was evidence, I believe, that this kind of engagement does not happen as organically on an everyday basis for tenure-track folk. The publish-or-perish motif of tenure-track necessitates grabbing onto an idea and stubbornly pursuing it at all costs. As a good friend and colleague recently said to me: Flailing isn't cool in that context and flailing is what makes learning great.

There doesn’t seem to be time for flailing on the tenure-clock. Except, perhaps, at conferences, which are the professions glorified water cooler break. Away from the immediate influence of meetings, department hierarchy, deadlines, conferences are a places to flail, to try out new ideas and see what others think. Certainly they still feel like a place to prove myself, as they did when I was a graduate student, but having gotten a job takes some of that pressure off. Sort of like getting published proves other people outside your department think your work is worthwhile, getting a job proves other people outside your graduate institution think you have something to offer. Conferences become less about proving yourself, to some extent, and more about truly sharing your work.

Professionalism: In bringing the above two points together, I come to my third – the sense of myself as part of a field. This is something I never had as a graduate student, and so I missed that aspect of the conference experience. I might mark the difference like this: whereas before I would peruse the book table displays to see if there were any titles relevant to my dissertation research, I now pay more attention to which publishers tend to produce books in what areas. The authors on the cover of those books have become people now, and I recognize how they developed a certain niche for themselves. I observe the trends that are happening in the field by seeing how many books have come out recently on certain topics. By observing the broad sweep of ideas, as well as their smaller nuances, I gain a sense of the pulse and breath of the field around me, and consequently of my place within it.

In short, conferences have become more than a line on my CV (though that is still an essential part of it as well. tick tock. tick tock). They are a place of community building and a way to feel the heartbeat of your chosen field. Although “networking” has an icky sound to it, and has probably left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth who has tried it before, I think it worth noting that network as a verb in the nineteenth century meant “To cover (something)” often used in the sense of a region being covered with railroads, ie the region was networked (OED). This definition can give a fresh twist to the role of conferences in the tenure-track life. Instead of the usual word “connect” networking may have more to do with this notion of “cover.” As in “I got you covered.” My new peeps have my back and we’re “tracking” together now. As in, hey, I got this man!


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at