Powering Through the Last Month of Dissertation Writing

This will be a short post, as I’m not feeling great at all these last couple of days. I’ve officially caught some bug, and the timing couldn’t get much worse given that I have less than a month to complete my dissertation in preparation for my March defense.

But as I frequently say to myself and my students, now is the time to “power through” the feeling sick, the exhaustion, the desire to let work slide. This does not mean that I’m working as productively or diligently as I do when I feel well, but it does mean that I don’t halt all work. If I did that, I’d lose momentum, quickly fall behind, and find it to be a real struggle when I try to then frantically wrap up my dissertation.

Instead, I’m taking a break from revising my last chapter in order to review some reading for my introduction. I still can review and read text right now even with the exhaustion and coughing. But final revisions require an objective eye and an alert brain, and I can’t claim to have either of those assets right now. So I continue to work a little each day to keep the momentum going and make a little progress, but I do so with lowered expectations. (Admittedly, even with lowered expectations, I still fall short, but that’s because I dream big so I don’t beat myself up about it–I’m just grateful for any progress.)

So I guess, for me, powering through means keep moving forward despite the obstacle(s). But also know your limits. Don’t push so hard that you wear yourself out and extend the illness or create new problems. It’s a skill that will serve you well in academia and in other environments (professional or otherwise).

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Dissertation Break & Scheduled Relaxation: Community Watercolor Class

While I am ever so slowly getting back into my chapter (and getting excited about the topic once more), the dissertation writing process frequently feels like a lonesome task. And it is lonely, particularly as I am focusing on my dissertation rather than teaching this academic year. While I certainly don’t miss the hassle of course preparation, lesson planning, and grading, interacting with students and other instructors is a method of getting away from the solo business of writing and focusing on something else; in my world (and I assume in that of many other academics), teaching can become a research break that forces me to stop thinking about my chapters.

But what do you do when you aren’t teaching? The guilt of not working on my dissertation is ridiculous, especially when I can’t claim other types of productivity. Moreover, while I’m happy to be done with coursework, I do miss being a student and the joy of learning. Enter the community center introduction to watercolors class.

My community center art class has proven to be a great method of forcing myself to relax and forget about my dissertation for at least a few hours a week. There are many reasons for this:

  1. It’s fun.
  2. I’m paying for the class so I’m going to attend the class because, like most grad students, I have a tight budget. But, the class is not nearly as expensive as a college course so it actually fits within my budget. Supplies were also affordable, which is why I chose watercolors over the more expensive ceramics class.
  3. Nobody in the class cares about my dissertation. Unlike my friends, family, and colleagues, the instructor and other students don’t want to hear about my research, beyond the general topic being fairy tales, so while I’m in the class, I’m not talking about my progress and challenges.
  4. It meets regularly in the evenings, so each week I have 2.5 hours set aside for the class without worrying about losing or wasting time. Basically, relaxation is built into my schedule. Also, evenings are usually my least productive time of day, so I’m not painting during normally productive hours.

I really enjoyed my 6 week late summer class, and this weekend I will be registering for Fall session classes. If you’re like me and find it difficult to relax but really need to get out of the house and away from your research, look into what classes are offered by your local community center. You may be surprised by the options available and find a great new hobby. Plus, my finished artwork (pictured below) made a lovely birthday present for my mother.

Watercolor purple flower

My Finished Watercolor (Painted from image at top of post.)

Optimizing My Writing Space: Paint & Plans

In a previous post, I discussed how having a dedicated and comfortable writing space was improving my productivity as I compose my dissertation. I mentioned purchasing a separate keyboard to use to increase comfort when typing as my desk is setup with a keyboard shelf and therefore not super conducive to typing on a laptop resting on the desktop. (I switched to the keyboard halfway through the first sentence of this post, so it was a very good decision!) In this post, I’d like to compile and discuss some of my plans for improving my writing space (aka desk).

In a week I will finally be moving into my “permanent” apartment (yay!) and so will have the opportunity to reorganize my work space. This is what I currently have in mind:

1. METALLIC PAINT

To begin with, I’m painting my current desk to make it more aesthetically appealing. The desk was a hand-me-down from my dad, so I really had no say in picking it out. Also, because it was free for me, I’m not opposed to putting a bit of money into painting it.  What color, you may ask? I’ve decided on metallic nickel!

I’m excited for the transformation and have been “researching” how to spray paint laminate furniture (mostly on Pinterest). This backfired a bit as the paint I wanted, and the copper color I wanted, was unavailable in my area. I was able to find the metallic nickel color, however, and the paint, while not formulated for laminate, is made for plastics and other “hard to paint surfaces.” I tested it on the keyboard shelf yesterday as an easily removable and mostly unseen piece to paint and perhaps ruin, and so far so good! Hopefully, the results prove equally pleasing when the rest of the desk is done!

messy workspace, painting in progress

Part of my current disaster of a work space. You may notice the newly metallic keyboard shelf at the bottom.

2. NOTE & QUOTE ORGANIZATION

In addition to painting my desk, I’ve been considering new ways to organize my materials. During this recent in-between time (crammed into a one-bedroom apartment with another person–my bed is in the dining room actually and my desk is located at its foot) my desk has become out of control–simply a huge jumbled mess of random stuff (see photo evidence above). While this may do for now, I want a better system in the new apartment. Enter Pinterest (again)!

I came across some pins from a Better Homes & Gardens slideshow called “Home Office Storage on a Dime.” This simple organization system using some labeled clothespins appealed to me.

While the article suggests using the clothespins as a weekly schedule, labeling the clothespins with days of the week, I think this setup could be perfect for organizing various notes, quickly jotted thoughts, questions or directions, and/or quotations. Each pin could be labeled according to article or chapter topic or even sub-topic (for instance, Literary Annuals, Mary de Morgan, Theory, Introduction, etc.). Additional pins could be used as a to-do list or even a series of goals. Really, the possibilities seem endless.

3. ARTWORK & MEMO BOARDS

The same article also suggested turning canvas artwork into a memo board. It explained, “Don’t spend money on a corkboard — instead turn an artist’s canvas into a practical memo board. For a magnetic surface, attach a sheet-metal square. Hang it above your desk to keep important items visible” (“Home Office Storage on a Dime“)

I like the idea of a “prettier” memo board. But more than that, I like the idea of creating my own piece of artwork on a canvas and transforming that into a memo board. I’m currently taking a watercolor class at the community art center, and I think this may be the perfect way to utilize my newly acquired (basic) watercolor skills. Or, for more pop, I might use some basic acrylic paints, or even just wrap a canvas in a favorite piece of patterned fabric. Plus, I can choose whatever size I want and/or need.

Moreover, should I go the magnetic route suggested by the article, I could glue magnets to the labeled clothespins and skip the hanging twine altogether!

4. QUOTATIONS THAT MOTIVATE

Finally, I’m considering a motivational quotation, perhaps in the form of a wall decal. Tradingphrases.com has several options, but I kind of have a specific quotation in mind and am having trouble finding it in decal form. It’s from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.

Not only is this quotation motivational as it encourages perseverence in the pursuit and completion of goals, but it also is rather calming in suggesting that there is a linear process to an end, whatever that end may be. I simply love it. So I might need to order a custom decal with this quotation. Or I might get an extra-large canvas for a memo board and incorporate the quotation into my artwork. 🙂

(Dissertation) Writing Tips

These are the steps that I have found productive in my personal dissertation-writing experience so far. While mostly basic and unoriginal, the tips below are tried and true in my experience. They may not work for everyone, but they are working for me, and so I’ll (re)share in the hopes that someone else finds them helpful.

Keep Writing

Source Unknown

1. Write every day.

Or almost every day. As regularly as possible. I’ve discussed this in a previous post, with links to other sites that offer similar tips and discuss daily writing specifically. When I wrote that post, I was just about to begin my trial run of daily writing.

Like most graduate students I know, I was previously a binge-writer, setting aside large amounts of time to write a lot all at once and then taking some days off. Although it has taken me several months to get into a daily (or almost daily) writing groove, it truly is amazing how much more productive I (feel I) am. Regularly working on my dissertation has also the side benefit (other than the main benefit of progress) of reducing my stress and guilt. Moreover, I can still binge-write; some days I might only write a sentence or paragraph, plan an outline of the direction I plan to take next, or read and take notes in preparation of writing the next day, while other days I will sit down for 6-8 hours and write.

But it’s important to note that by “write every day,” I do not necessarily mean WRITE. Perhaps work would be better, but writing is such a major component of the process that I think it needs to be emphasized. Once a complete draft is written, reading and incorporating secondary sources as well as revision are equally productive and necessary tasks. I therefore might not actually “write” anything that day yet I have prepared for the next day’s writing task.

1.2. Write every day even while teaching.

While I must note that my productivity has increased a lot since I began my fellowship and have not had to worry about teaching preparation and grading at the same time, it is also important to find ways to prioritize writing and research while teaching, especially because the final goal for most of us is to find a academic position that will require research and teaching.

One way I incorporated my own productivity into my composition classroom is through a Daily Writing Challenge. Basically, students could earn some extra credit points by posting daily writing (related to the course, such as paragraphs or outlines for writing assignments, reflections on or plans for progress in the course, etc.) to our course’s Blackboard Discussion Board. I posted as well, and if I did not meet the 6 out of 7 days a week goal I set for my students and myself, students earned freebie days they could skip as well. (So if I posted 5 days one week, students only needed to post 5 days to earn bonus extra credit points for completing the challenge for the week). Knowing I’m not helping my students progress by handing out unearned points motivated me to prioritize my own daily writing practices even while being busy teaching.

HabitRPG (discussed previously here and here) has also proven an excellent tool to encourage my own daily writing.

Moreover, Gregory Semenza just wrote on the benefits of writing in short 10-15 minute bursts throughout the day, in “The Value of 10 Minutes: Writing Advice for the Time-Less Academic;” these daily writing bursts can take place in between classes or any time some spare time is found.

2. Have a comfortable and dedicated writing space.

This really helps the writing process as I know when I sit down at my desk (or stand at my desk…more on that coming soon), I am preparing to write. Sure, I end up playing online games and checking out Facebook or Pinterest, but more often than not, writing occurs without me forcing myself to do so. A thought will pop into my mind that I begin to work out in writing, or my notes will catch my eye and inspire a new direction or nuance that I’ll want to immediately begin to record.

But comfort is also important, and the more you write in your dedicated space, the more you’ll realize what adjustments can and should be made to improve productivity. For instance, I purchased a separate keyboard a few days ago after becoming frustrated at how high my laptop sat on my desk; with the separate (and wireless) keyboard on my desk’s keyboard shelf, I’m sitting in a much more comfortable and natural writing position, without the edge of my desk digging into my wrists or my back aching from leaning forward.

3. Know your writing process.

This may seem basic but it is important, and if you don’t already know your writing process, you probably will by the time you’re halfway through your dissertation. This knowledge will certainly prove useful as you try to optimize your productivity.

I know my process begins with marking up the primary source, followed by drafting, researching, incorporating secondary sources, revising, and proofreading. I know that researching before I write my analysis usually leaves me confused and overwhelmed. I also know that I will inevitably write more during the drafting process, followed by less writing while I research and read secondary sources, followed by a final return to the writing process. Because I know this, I don’t worry when I’m not making visible progress on my written draft when I hit the secondary source stages; progress is still being made even if concrete evidence of it cannot be seen, and the bulk reading and note taking (or rather, quotation flagging) will pay off in a quicker incorporation and revision process.

4. Plan your writing projects strategically.

By this I mean that you don’t necessarily have to write your introduction first, followed by Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc. I began with my middle chapter first because I felt most confident in the argument being made in it and I already had ~40 pages written on the topic from my Master’s Essay. I chose my next chapters based on scheduled conference presentations related to the topics, as well as based on which chapters had the most written on the subject from previous term papers and presentations. I know I’ll be leaving the introduction until the end, and I’ve also decided to wait to work on one of my chapters because it easily drops out of the project if I run out of time to complete it and defend in order to graduate in May 2015 (my current plan involves an intro, seven chapters, and a coda and therefore more than meets any length requirements even with one chapter dropped).

I’ve also allowed whim and muse to play a role in my writing process. If I’m trying to decide what chapter to work on next, and I’m not particularly interested in the subject at the moment, I choose a subject and chapter that does interest me. Writing about something I like and care about at the moment only increases my productivity and has me still loving my project even after several months of writing.