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