Category Archives: Confessions

The dissertation coach and writing mastery

I think most of us can relate to the utter panic that sometimes seizes us when we sit down at the computer to write. It might be one of those ultimate schadenfreude experiences; when the words are flowing and the document is scrolling ever upward, it’s a crazy rush of success, and yet when the cursor blinks and nothing is moving the experience is excruciating.

coaching I may have finally found a stride with my writing. But it has taken several years of denial, avoidance, regret, and over-scheduling myself professionally to find a way to make it happen. Not to mention lessons in project-management and a dissertation coach.

That’s right. I said it. Dissertation coach. I still feel my shoulders slump a little when I type it, I may have even felt an urge to look over my shoulder. I hired a dissertation coach. Do I have a bad advisor? Nope. But he certainly is busy with his own things. Have I forgotten how to write a paper? Nope. But I still wasn’t making progress in a way that I found satisfactory.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym.

I view having a dissertation coach the same way I view having a physical trainer at a gym or having a cognitive-behavioral therapist (psychology folks, I’m winging it with that term). The trainer or therapist does not lift the weights or make the changes in your life that are necessary, but they teach you how to do it safely, responsibly, and in that act empower you.  Once upon a time, when I was a youthful masters student gallivanting around New Orleans, I hired (at a profoundly reduced rate) a personal trainer to help me become more fit. Why? I had never lifted weights before, and I was smart enough to know that I could seriously injure myself.

My experience with a dissertation coach is no different. I have found (sadly, and ironically) that my mentors are extremely bad at providing writing advice (not editorial feedback, but mentorly advice). What a dissertation coach has helped me find is the smartest way to go about writing a dissertation (which, unless you’re part of a very small amount of scholars who hold multiple doctorates, we only do once).

You have developed a very good writing habit. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.

The other day, after nearly a month of coaching she said to me, “You have developed a very good writing habit now. If you didn’t have a writing habit before, you certainly do now.” Those of us who have looked into the self-help literature on dissertation writing know that they all preach the same thing: habit. The more frequently we do it, the better we are at it, the more measurable progress we make. The path to progress has come through a series of project-managing techniques that are so simple, it’s almost embarrassing. I’ll share them here.**

  1. Inventory your chapter and identify a portion that is either the most executable to you right away or that you’re enthusiastic about
  2. Break down each element or task into a manageable task. (i.e. not “write section on XYZ” but rather, “draft on this restricted topic for XYZ for 25 minutes,” / “read article on ABC for topic XYZ for 25 minutes”)
  3. Have a daily writing/researching plan for every day, both aspects are important. The plan should be laid out in advance of working. If you push to exhaustion, you will be less likely to work or make good progress the next day.
  4. Have dedicated time off from writing.
  5. Recognize that writing at the doctoral level cannot and should not be done like other writing you’ve done (undergraduate, graduate seminar papers etc.) You cannot sit down and write it line by line and expect good work. The stakes are higher and the approach should be different. Exploratory and draft writing is crucial to producing subsequent versions that are readable and sound.

Some of you might have gotten to this point faster, and that’s great. What has certainly helped me the most is having a feedback mechanism. Our faculty are often far too busy to manage us the way we wish they would. The coach assists me in developing daily plans for an entire week each week, and comments on my plan daily as I make progress, delivering feedback and advice about approaching tasks.

The take-away? I’m developing project-management skills that can apply to both professional and personal goals. There is no pressure from the organization I work with to continue services. When I feel I’ve grown beyond them, they’re thrilled for that development.

What does your writing habit look like? I’d love to know.

** I’m a great fan of using the Pomodoro technique.

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Imposteur! …and the professorial Godthing

That’s right. Impostor.  Or maybe hack is the word.  They’re going to figure out soon that I don’t know anything!

I think it is more than safe to say every graduate student routinely believes that she or he is substandard, dumb, not capable. Why? Well, personally, I think there are a multitude of reasons. Chief among them, if we’ve ended up on the academic roller coaster, we read a lot, we put our professors on pedestals, we recognize how many smart people we speak with often.

Further, and here is where the Wiki god shed some light on the issue:

Impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their own accomplishments.

Well, I think we’ve just described every graduate student, ever. Are there impostors out there? Sure. Though, usually, I think, academic departments have these needling ways of wheedling out those who don’t belong – like discussion, paper writing, comprehensive examinations, oral examinations, proposals, dissertations.

We spend hours upon hours pouring over books, writing, reflecting, teaching. It’s all going somewhere. Do our professors know more than we do? Duh.

Are there people who know more than we do? Usually!

Do these two premises mean that the conclusion is we know nothing? Hardly!  We may not be senior scholars, but we also haven’t been professional scholars for 20 years yet. We cannot possibly know everything that they know — yet.  At the end of the day, Grad School Ninja sums it up appropriately:

What to do about imposter syndrome? Know that everyone is going through it and that, as such, many of your fellow students (and even some faculty) may go around puffed up like a peacock using words like “hermeneutics” and other jargon, or pretending that they have photographic memories, or that they never procrastinate, or whatever. Recognize those signs when you see them and try to have a bit of empathy for those nervously puffed up people. And take a deep breath and just keep going.

This doesn’t mean we should have egos bigger than our accomplishments – but it also doesn’t mean we should self-deprecate or self-negate. Recognize what you know.  Understand that there will always be things you don’t know. Isn’t that the irony of the “life of the mind?”  The more we learn, the more we see what there is to be learned.

The side note is about Professor-as-Godthing syndrome that we seem to cling to. Paired with this is often a slew of unhealthy projection. Our professors are human beings with lives — the majority of said lives do not involve us in any way. We have this unfortunate habit of projecting all of our insecurities and fears onto our professors, advisors, and role models.

I know, with only a few notable exceptions on rare occasion, that I do not go home and obsess over my students’ work, writings, projects.  I go home and do my own work, watch TV, visit with friends, meow back and forth with my cat, take walks &c.   Why on earth would we assume that our professors are doing something different?

Take a cue from the pros whom we fear are suspicious of us.  Just do your work and remember to recognize the work that you’re doing.  This was tested just recently.  I spoke with someone connected to my own field of research but not fully versed in what I do specifically; an academic in my field but not my specific area. You know what the conversation revealed? I knew what I was talking about and it didn’t involve grand standing or faking.

So! Feel like an impostor? Well, if you obsess over what you don’t know to the point of not furthering what you do know, then you’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erm..Dr. X, if you’re reading my blog and keeping a balance sheet of every aspect of my life as I fear, I promise that amorphous chunk of writing I mumbled about when I rushed past you in the hall is coming!


Learn for me; it’s what I pay you for

…or, content aside, I try to teach “how not to fail at life,” concurrently.

It’s too early for this, far too early. But, I just can’t help it. Reading through many academic blogs, both current posts and past, one of my soap-box themes comes up often: student entitlement. We know I’m no stranger to this rant (See my previous post on effrontery).

I understand that there is a larger question of our society, its values (or sometimes lack thereof where education is concerned), consumerism, throw away society — the list of ‘woes’ and ills could go on forever.

When I greet my bright-faced, nervous, wide-eyed first year college students every fall, I’m astounded by how much of an assumption there is about what exactly my job is (and it’s really not their fault).

The common presumptions are: 1) I “work” for them.  2) My job is to make their life easier.  3) I have nothing else to do with my time other than waiting at my keyboard like a telephone operator to answer their last minute questions. 4) My purpose in life is to accommodate all of the hiccups in their week.

They arrive with a paucity of study skills, problem solving skills, and information gathering skills.  Now, I am not talking about the high-level critical thinking and research skills we expect out of a junior or senior. I’m talking about “I don’t know what this is” syndrome and the missing ability to take the next step — which gets misinterpreted as “ask him, he’ll know the answer.”

I am not so misanthropic that I cannot understand the developmental stage they’re all going through. Some advanced skills are very new to them. That’s cool. It’s one of the actual reasons I’m in the class room.

What rankles me is the refusal to do the basic skills work that is required. Students would always ask me for a study guide for each chapter of (in these instances) language classes. Now, I understand that a language can be a big amorphous beast to a novice learner. (As an aside, language textbooks are generally organized [with notable exceptions] into things like ‘vocabulary,’ ‘structures/grammar,’ ‘culture). Pithy as I thought I was at the beginning of my teaching career, I would answer:  “Why, Johnny, you already have a study guide! It’s that 250 page hard thing on your desk. It has a tell-all section called the ‘table of contents’ and a magical, top-secret decoder section called an ‘index.”

This did not go over well, clearly.

To my chagrin and great personal embarrassment, I came to understand that they hadn’t the first clue how to use a textbook (let alone an academic book or monograph).  This is when I adjusted my first day lesson to both cover some basic first class content and basic life skills.   We begin with a ‘how to use the textbook, similar features found across the genre’ talk — it’s very total physical response and task-based learning (for all the pedagogy wonks).   This is accompanied by a list of if-then scenarios. There’s even a document on blackboard and a hand out  (None of which they take notes on or consult, as evinced by the series of emails I continuously get all semester long).

This birthed the next phenomenon I still often encounter: “give me the answer,” often paired with: “I didn’t know what that was, so I just stopped reading.”  So, I introduced a short talk on the God of Google: finding out things quickly to aid your learning process.  I explain to them that when they run into a name, a word, a reference, a concept, anything that they do not know, we are blessed to live and learn in the 21st century. The interwebs hold basically all of human knowledge up to this point. I patiently philosophize that as college students, part of their task is to seek out things they don’t know so they can contextualize. This is almost always met with 1) eye-rolling, 2) incredulous blinking 3) much whining.

(I feel the need for another aside here: At this point, I sound like a colossal asshole. I promise, my students actually adore my classes because I respect them as people and make whatever I’m teaching as involved, energetic and engaging as possible. These are just the ‘oh my GOD, you’re killing me!’ thoughts I stifle in their presence)

What really gets my goat is when I realize that I am being paid (on paper) to teach a specific subject to my students, to prepare them for the next level of the subject, to teach them how this subject can and does fit into the larger picture of their overall studies but what I am expected to do is raise them all to the same level of ground-level functionality while teaching them content. Curricular juggling ensues.

When I really feel downtrodden is when I take a moment to explain something briefly and how it is relevant to other areas of their lives. One student, just this past summer said to me (and the entire class): “Jeez, if you were teaching a class on that, I’d be so bored I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d probably just sleep.”

I smiled tersely.

Where is this heading? You’ve all guessed it.  The romantic notion of liberal arts that we all still cling to but which is nowhere to be found. (Thank you romanticism, you’ve ruined us all).

I’ve given impassioned talks about the joy of learning and how it is actually useful in a way that is not always quantifiable. That all of these subjects you learn at a university that seem ‘useless’ are engaged in forming your mind, honing your thinking and problem solving skills, exposing you to the way it was done in the past (and all the innovations, landmarks, and errors therein) to produce a human being who can reason, who can step into a situation and say “I can solve this problem.”   Very large and dramatic eye-rolling, snorting and hoots of “That’s dumb” heralded their opinions.

Like, understanding the world is boring and hard, yo.

Again, I’m not a rube. You can’t put that on your résumé in today’s job market. Liberal arts has taken one for the team — we now must demonstrate clearly the practical, marketable application of everything we teach, or suffer losing our jobs (see CUNY’s Pathways initiative).

Sometimes though, I claim a pyrrhic victory. When they write to me about something that is logistical, I gleefully respond: “You’re industrious. I’m sure you’ll figure it out with some reflection.”

In the end, I make a compromise between sticking to my guns and bending to their will.  When they bleat pathetically for a study guide, I force them to make it (interjecting here or there when they falter).  I remind them to look in the index for something or I tell them ‘how to find it.’

I won’t stop giving my speech about why we do study the liberal arts. It’s my personal conceit. I will continue to hold out hope that some of them will believe it, that some of them will discover why the liberal arts are important through their own growing process.  I dare to hope that even some of them will repeat it to others.

The next Roland Barthes should grace us with a “Death of the Arts” essay.  For now, I consider our current culture to be a war on humanity’s past.  I can’t make my classroom a battle field; I cannot ethically propagandize my own belief.  But, I can take five minutes a semester to tell them why what they are forced to study is important to their lives.


Bilan, the balance sheet (or the profane)

Having perused one of the more recent Chronicle articles on stress and productivity, I’ve been reflecting on August being fully underway.  It’s the time of the balance sheet for those of us who kept saying, “Bah! This summer will be a wonderland of academic production!” 

I have by no means achieved herculean levels of labor. Though, I am pleased to report (to myself) that I have made progress that falls under the category of “not too shabby,” rested and brought my work to a new level.

Essentially, this topic is à l’esprit for most of us during this time of the year since we’ve spent most of the teaching part of the year looking forward to our “great summer of working.”  Sighing longingly through the stretching semesters, we dream of the uninterrupted (read: no students) months where we decide our wake-up time as we like, can read leisurely all day if we like, and fold ourselves in front of our favorite computer to tap diligently at the keys, pouring our most profound academic reflections onto the Great White Page.

Similarly, we tend to view the long-weekend and the short holiday breaks as sacred working time. Yet, I will confess, at least, that during these shorter ‘breaks,’ I’m so exhausted from an over-loaded teaching schedule that not a whole lot more than netflix, sleeping, and grading gets accomplished. I also make a pretty convincing argument to myself during these times to justify my avoidance of all things academic.

If we take a look at the ledger, how many of us get all this work done that we day-dreamed about in a grass-is-greener type way during the academic year?  As I said, I know during the short breaks I rarely accomplish anything unstructured without a deadline looming.

This is where (and yes, it’s a cliché, but a damned good one ) Paul Silvia’s book about being a productive little academic worker very much revolutionized my perception of what it is I do (or am supposed to do).  Essentially, it’s a self-help book for academics. But, if you haven’t read this book and are considering reading it, don’t expect a session of care and concern for your well-being.

Instead, Silvia lords his own work record over our heads (because, in the end, no matter what other lies we tell ourselves, we all know that academia is not very different from any other corporate structure these days. Money talks. Competition (healthy and unhealthy) thrives. Colleagues are annoying. But, we do get to set our hours, for the most part – it only took 3 degrees and mountains of money to get there).  He lists all the common (voiced and unvoiced) objections that we cry in dismay, all the ‘plans’ we come up with for ourselves and deftly finds the flaws in the logic as we’d do with our own students. It’s almost like he’s reading our thoughts (tricksy psychologist that he is).

In the end, you can reduce his lesson to the following: stop whining, stop procrastinating and schedule your ‘real’ work like you schedule your classes. Adhere to one as you would the other.   He says,

“As an academic…you’re a professional writer, just as you’re a professional teacher. Treat your scheduled writing time like your scheduled teaching time. Say no to well-intentioned intruders, and explain why you can’t (not won’t, but can’t) break your committed writing time. If you feel bad about saying no, then lie. If you feel bad about lying, then use the obscurantism you learned in grad school: Claim a “recurring intractable obligation.”

His sermon on the Sacred Writing Time is not without its humor and levity but the weight of his point resounds: schedule your work, get it done and stop making excuses: we all know the excuses.  I heartily recommend this for all graduate students — and anyone else who has large projects waiting to be completed. 

Of interest, I found that this program, Omm writer,  allowed me to increase my  amount of words that end up on the page (even just for reflecting on ideas and readings Note: it’s very much an aesthetic program and all sound effects can be muted) as one of his secrets is to not engage the rest of the world when you’re working.  Equally, Scrivener has revolutionized my approach to writing and is advised for large project management (such as the dreaded D-word or books).

The tools are there. I can attest to the efficaciousness; my productivity is up with the trifecta of the book and these two cheap (at least on a Mac) programs.

A renewed outlook (and wrist-slapping by Silvia) didn’t hurt either.

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Edit: I forgot to include a great resource from a fellow academic writing savvy blogger: Dailychicana’s resource page is great.