Tag Archives: academy

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.


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.


Black Studies, NSR opines and the trolls flock

Some may not be up to date on Naomi Schaefer Reily’s incendiary Chronicle of Higher Education post, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just read the Dissertations.”  

In short, she has unleashed a firestorm of academic fury, the Chronicle being the trade paper for higher education professionals. What does this mean, precisely? Readers of the Chronicle have come to expect (though not always have delivered):

  • Cogent arguments
  • Informed opinions
  • A degree of academic professionalism (and integrity)

I’ve been reading the CHE for years and though some articles have been debatable, they generally respect the conventions of academia. In fact, this entire firestorm comes down to this point: debatable.  NSR fails to provide any  type of researched opinion in what many have lampooned as a viciously racist attack on the field of Black Studies.  In response to the immediate and critical reception her first article engendered, she replies:

Finally, since this is a blog about academia and not journalism, I’ll forgive the commenters for not understanding that it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them. I read some academic publications (as they relate to other research I do), but there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery.

And she completely reinforces the readership’s outcry: she is irresponsible, sloppy, and a dilettante in things academic.  Indeed, we should like to think that in the academy we attempt to hold criticism, and especially the scathing variety, to a more rigorous argumentative standard. The outcry is not for her questioning of an academic field of study – questioning a field is part of the process. Rather, it is for the hateful, inappropriate, and unsubstantiated way in which she strikes forth. Many have called for an end to her tenure at the CHE, myself included.

In a response, editor Liz McMillen responds to the outcry, asking for participation in the debate:

Many of you have asked The Chronicle to take down Naomi Schaefer Riley’s recent posting, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.

The problem? There is nothing in NSR’s article to debate – nothing of substance that is. One writer for the CHE responds to NSR and McMillen with both parody and substantive criticism.  To boil down his response: 1) NSR’s post is a product of our mediatized culture: incendiary fire starting with no substantive basis, 2) The dissertations she attacks are actually interesting pieces of scholarship (which she didn’t bother to learn) and 3) The editor’s response is shameful.

I was personally aghast to read her article and her followup. The CHE is a trade paper and Reily is not a member of the trade – nor is she qualified to opine in the fashion that she does.  We are not angry, or at least this reader is not angry, that Reily wants to express a polemic opinion (whether or not it’s a popular one). The issue is that it was in no way substantive and is unabashedly racist. If you’re going to eliminate or label as irrelevant an entire field of studies, especially one as well-researched, proven, and critical as Black Studies or African American Studies, you need to actually have a valid, cogent point to make.  I fear this is yet another example, as Kelman asserts, of our mediatized culture. NSR comes off no differently than some person in the check-out aisle screaming into a cell phone spectacularly.  Indeed, her “articles” feel more like an episode of Jerry Springer (since he’s about as qualified as she is to express the opinions).

And now the threads have attracted the attention of the internet trolls who flock to controversy without knowing the issue in order to fan the flames. The supporters of NSR’s writing are about as logical as she is, and that’s not saying much.

In fairness, the CHE was trying to balance out articles in the publication, trying to represent conservative opinions. Their error? They critically misjudged the effect NSR would have and have grievously erred in defending the article. They may have many thousands  more page hits for this, but ultimately, they will lose readership, subscriptions and credibility  from among their client base.


Graduate reading courses: boon or bane?

Is the language exam requirement impractical for many? You tell me.

Private University asked me  to handle a summer Graduate Language for Reading course. This is one of those mixed situations where I stop and think: A new course to add to the CV!

This is immediately followed by: Ugh, will it do them any good? A reading course during the summer. That’s not a lot of time.  This is also an interruption to my personal summer research, reading etc plans.

Answered by: But… this will fund a potential research trip in August.

In short, I’m wary of summer language institutes, though I covered one of my research languages during a summer institute.  It was like being on one of those carnival rides where you lose all sense of time and focus: hard, fast, no view of the ground (while repeating a mantra of I hate language X, I hate language X.)  But, I passed. The fall back is that 1 year later, I remember so very little of the fast-paced grammar and translation we learned in that course. To be fair, I still have the grammar and the large dictionary and think with some fiddling I could muddle through things until I built my proficiency again.

As someone who does his own work in Romance language literature, I feel that the ability to read research in other languages is extremely important. I also recognize that whereas many fields absolutely need other-language research, some may not.

In an article for the Chronicle, Edward White lays out the central thoughts on the requirement in general: students fret, hassle, fail, get grumpy over this hurdle. Faculty recognizes the problem but generally we all agree it needs to stay. (I fall into this camp: can we really be researchers without the ability, or proof of an ability, to expand past our comfortably accessed research?) White proposes that we stop allowing students to meet the requirement with “trivial” course work (glorified grammar and syntax reviews mercifully conducted by language department faculty) and start getting tough to show that we take it seriously. Demonstrate proficiency or do not move on.  He proposes that we stop admitting students who don’t have proficiency before arriving. (I can hear the screaming on this one!) He says:

The second argument seems more persuasive than it actually is. It is that if we made foreign-language proficiency an admissions requirement, our graduate enrollments would decline, perhaps sharply. That might happen if some institutions took the step while many others did not. Then students who could not meet the admissions requirement at University A would not even apply there but would instead attend University B, which allows its graduate students to meet or pretend to meet the requirement after admission. University A would have to be prepared to lose some less-qualified students, but its higher standards would surely make it more attractive to some students and faculty members.

Is a summer reading course a boon or a bane? Without prior language experience, it has the potential to own your life for that period and be extremely frustrating.  On the other hand, getting it ‘out of the way’ during the summer months will stop it from interfering with your normal teaching/coursework.

Here’s Secret Blogging Seminar’s take on making it a more productive experience. 

What was your experience? Do you have language reading horror stories? Amazing success stories? Is there a ‘perfect’ language reading course?


Generally educating?

This is an old-ish article on the CUNY Pathways initiative from the Chronicle about a debate that is still raging as of five months later in CUNY’s immediate geographical vicinity, if not farther.

The topic of general education/core requirements is one of my personal soap boxes, about which I have very strong opinions.  We’ve all been lamenting the trend of declining general education standards across the boards. Though CUNY’s initiative is one of the more publicized and polemic initiatives that I am engaged in.

I’m not weighing in here in long form to spare the inevitable rant. But, at the end of the day I cannot help but scream that this is a bandage over gangrene. The problem of a dumbed-down curriculum will continue to fester, students will have learned less while reports look nicer and administrators can say to politicians “We’re doing, we’re changing, we’re  innovating.”

The race to the almighty Diploma accelerates by means of  sacrificing its content.