Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Go Back to the Text

To this point in my dissertation process, I have run up against a number of difficulties that are not out of the ordinary for someone tackling a project of this scope for the first time. But there is one battle that I continue to fight over and over again, even though I have been conscious of it since the first draft of my first chapter. I call it "the framing/theory battle."

What happens is this: I find myself spending way too much time and energy framing/theorizing my analysis of whatever primary text I am analyzing to the point that the primary text itself gets lost in the shuffle. I have had the great fortune to work with a committee and with other readers who remind me to "go back to the text."

When I go back to the primary text (and this might look different for all of us depending on our discipline) I always find that things break loose. By that I mean that the primary text always breaks up my mental log jam because it is inevitably the source of the idea I'm trying to work out through a host of other theoretical/historical/philosophical sources.

Going back to the primary text usually involves identifying the most important passages that I'm analyzing, and then writing close readings of those passages. Next, I map out those specific passages in relation to the larger text as a whole. Finally, I go back to whatever I'm writing (usually chapters right now) and pretend like the primary text IS my frame and slowly layer in the theory, history, philosophy, sociology, whatever.

Without fail, I will end up rewriting the actual prose I produce as a result of going back to the text. BUT without going back to the text I find that I wouldn't have produced much prose anyways.

Go back to the text, it's holding everything else up anyway!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Live Now!

For as long as you plan to remain active in the world of academia, the following statement will seem true:

You feel that if you can just finish this one task then you can go on to do whatever it is you think really need to be doing.

Once I get done with this stack of papers I'll have time to work on my seminar paper, thesis, dissertation, book, article, conference paper, lecture. After I get back from this conference I'll have more time to devote to my book chapter. If summer would just get here I'd have more time to study for my comprehensive exams. If I can just finish this revise/resubmit I'll be able to focus on my book.

This post might seem a little life-coachy, but that's a risk I'm willing to take because of the importance of this subject. First, when you allow this mode of thinking to dominate your approach to the tasks that actually CONSTITUTE your profession you run the terrible risk of not devoting the proper amount of time and attention to these projects. Second, when you constantly live for the future you forget to live in the present, which is really all you actually have.

One last quick note for grad students in particular (I'm speaking to myself here as well): We don't need to finish grad school in order to start living our "real" lives. Live now! Grad school is an awesome (if sometimes stressful) part of the process. Just as all of the above scenarios will lead to new tasks, finishing grad school will lead to a new host of responsibilities and tasks that make up the life of the academic professional.

So live now! If you follow solid planning advice from folks like Tanya, then you have a sense of how to allocate your time in a realistic manner, and you can get the most out of each task. This mindset is important because in the academy, as in most professions I would imagine, all these things you do end up determining how others see you as a professional. There's nothing wrong with planning your future, but remember that you don't have to get to the next project, the next level, the next job in order to live your life!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Wisdom to Live By


Thomas communicates one of the most fundamental principles of professional writing in his latest explanation of the 16-week challenge.

Every time I lose my writing momentum I go back to the ideas that frame this approach to the discipline.

Hope you're all having happy, relaxing, and yet productive breaks!