Moving Toward Momentum

A quick thought on momentum, which (as you can tell from my lack of posts) has sputtered out on the Bench.  The thought: putting “work on dissertation” in your schedule isn’t enough.  If you’re like me (poor soul!), you have to be specific: “Edit pages 10-30 of chapter one of dissertation” or something like that.  Otherwise, “working on dissertation” is too easily interpreted as “surf the internet looking for articles that are vaguely relevant to my dissertation, were I high.”

This morning: edit pages 21-41 of first chapter of dissertation.  And do it in two-and-a-half hours, kid.

Lessons from an Idealized Life

My week-long experiment in leading the idealized life of an academic has nearly come to an end, and I’ve learned two important lessons:

  1. I am either too slow, dull-witted, or require too much sleep to make such a leisurely life work.  Not if I want to get anything done, anyway.  This week, I did a little bit of brainstorming on my dissertation and sketched out some ideas for teaching in the fall, but that’s about it.  No writing, no outlines, no concentrated periods of thinking or musing.  Just skipping around from the newspaper to the Internet to my e-mail to whatever happened to be lying on the desk.  Of course, I rather enjoyed the break, but if I’m going to revise one chapter a week for the next five weeks — which I plan to do — I need more time for my actual work, not the crossword puzzle.  In other words, it turns out that real-life academics don’t have time for shit like getting up late and drinking espresso.  There’s work to do, dammit.
  2. My junk-food news diet has wreaked havoc on my mental health.  For years, I have consumed the latest in world affairs through Google News and its links to assorted media outlets.  But my attention span has waned; I can barely muster the patience to read the headlines and one-sentence follow-ups on Google News, much less read the full articles.  It’s become an addiction: I check Google News at least a dozen times a day, lingering anywhere from 5-15 minutes.   I just can’t do that if I want to read the paper in the morning, which takes about an hour.  And I do want to read the paper in the morning: it forces me to slow down, read about issues that I would normally just ignore, and — when things are going well — actually think for a while.  Which is exactly the frame of mind I need for my work: deliberate, thoughtful, and comprehensive.  In short, the newspaper provides better food for my brain than Google News.  Moreover, I am better equipped emotionally to handle the speed of news presented by newspapers rather than Google News.  I often feel whiplashed by Internet news: the latest stories and trends flash by without a chance to consider their meaning.  There’s no time to build a narrative with Google News: it’s all a jumble of updates and disappearing people, places, and events.  There’s no sense to it, because there’s no time to put it into a story, and stories and narratives are the ways we understand ourselves and our worlds.  And so I’m changing my news diet: no Google News (or other Internet sources) for me, at least until the late afternoon when my brain starts shutting down.  With luck, this will not only help me think more clearly about my academic work, but also provide a deeper sense of calm or serenity or something.

And so, I’m developing a new schedule for next week, one that keeps the newspaper, drops the Internet, and gets back to the business of writing a dissertation and becoming a good teacher.  But first, I think I’ll have one more peak at the latest developments in US soccer…

Done, but Not Nearly Dusted

I sent off the first draft of my last chapter yesterday.  Hoo-ray!  It’s a relatively major milestone, and I’m happy to reach it.  But the finish line is still quite a ways off, and there are a lot of hurdles in the way: the many, many distractions that I’ve already lined up (woodworking projects, mountain biking trips, movies to watch, re-subscription to the New York Times), the non-dissertation stuff-to-do (class prep for the fall semester, job application season), and, oh yeah, the baby on the way.  Will our flawed hero have the tenacity, focus, and scheduling skills to manage it all?  Stay tuned.  (No, really, I hope you’ll check in — I hope to blog more frequently.  Another distraction.)

Getting Engaged (to “the public”)

As I wrap up the first draft of my dissertation (whoo-hoo!), I’m starting to look for ways to engage in public discussions of broader themes and topics to which my dissertation is relevant, however remotely.  I’ve approached my teaching institution’s communications office to participate in a series of public talks; I’ve added a Google News section with keywords associated to my dissertation topic; and I’m saving my pennies to restart my subscription to the New York Times and maybe, if I can bear it, The Economist.  My hope is that by and through these outlets, I’ll both find ways of making broader connections within my dissertation and bring my dissertation to a group larger than my three committee members and my dog.

But I’m not entirely sure how to begin.  Initially, I thought that I should get involved in the comments sections of blogs and other websites when something relevant comes up — like a TED presentation a few weeks back about which I might have left some insightful (of course!) comment.  But maybe that’s a waste of time, or maybe I just need to pick and choose; Foreign Policy might be good, while Seeking Alpha might be the wrong audience.  And what, exactly, should I say?  While I have the advantage, compared to other historians, of working on a relatively recent and relevant topic, I’m used to talking about the past for its own sake, rather than making the direct connections to the present and future that most readers — who are busy with real jobs and lives in the real present and future — want.

Despite these concerns, I will push forward with my grand plans for public engagement, for at least two reasons.  First, it is actually important that we historians — both student and faculty — take a lead role in bringing historical interpretation to the public.  If we don’t, other people who don’t know a damned thing about the past will use it and abuse it.  Second, this sort of thing can’t hurt when trying to land a job.  Of course, you have to be smart about where, when, and and how you engage the public, but I think it can work out well if you do it right.

Finding My “Voice”

No, not that one.  Although I hear it’s a fine television program.  No, I’m talking about the writing “voice” about which I’ve read in oh-so-many books on the craft, like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, in which Mr. Zinsser instructs his readers to, “develop one voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page, a voice that’s enjoyable not only in its musical line but in its avoidance of sounds that would cheapen its tone” (233).  That’s all well and good, Mr. Zinsser, but how, pray tell, does one develop that voice?  (I suspect more advice is to be found in his weekly column at The American Scholar, to which I’ll try to pay more attention).  I’ve been puzzling over this for some time now, usually while also stumbling through some troublesome sentence that I can’t seem to extricate myself from (or should it be “from which I can’t seem to extricate myself”?).  I suspect that I get stuck on some sentences not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m not sure how I want to say it — which is to say, so to speak, that I haven’t found my voice.  Lately, in an effort to just get through these tricky times, I just write out what I would say if I were trying to get through a lecture on the topic.  I pretend that I’m standing in front of students and I’ve lost my place in my notes and I simply need to push on to the next big point.  Sometimes it’s clumsy, but it always gets me through.  And often, it’s my voice.  Those are words that I might actually say, rather than some prose that I forced out in an attempt to sound intelligent.  Obviously, those words need editing and polishing and  more elegance.  But the essential sound of the sentence is still mine; it’s the “voice that readers will recognize when they hear it on the page,” as Mr. Zinsser would put it.  And it starts by realizing what seems an obvious truth: my “voice” is actually my voice.  But without the annoying nasal tone, I hope.

State of the Dissertation and Dissertator

State of the Dissertation:  I have finished first drafts of four out of five chapters.  According to one of my committee members, the stuff looks good enough for a dissertation, although not good enough for a book.  At this stage, that’s fine with me!  I also feel like I’ve hit a tipping point.  With just one chapter left to write, the project not only looks do-able, but feels almost inevitable.  It’s as though the end of the dissertation is pulling me towards it.  I have this feeling that if I get stuck during this chapter, I’ll push through by sure force of momentum.  It’s probably like running a marathon — once you see the finish line, how can you not finish?  This is a good thing, because I’m not entirely sure how this last chapter is going to shape up.  Which brings me to…
State of the Dissertator: I feel pretty confident about getting to the end of the project, and I think I’ve written something that (some) people will be interested in.  My writing rhythm has worked out pretty well.  But I’m nervous about a few things.  First, I’m not sure where I’m headed with the last chapter.  I haven’t brainstormed/outlined yet, so that’s to be expected.  Second, I’m developing pre-job application season anxiety: wondering what jobs will become available, whether I’ll be ready by then, etc.  That’s silly, of course, since we’re at least three months away from announcements going out, and there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it, anyway.  Third, I’m worried that I haven’t stayed engaged with the things I should be doing in addition to writing: getting to conferences, staying in touch with other scholars in my field, etc.  I keep pushing that back until I get done with the draft.  So we’ll see what happens come July 1st, when I plan to be done with my last chapter.  Fingers crossed.

Go Big Or Go Home (apparently)

[note: I’m trying to write this blog post in five minutes.  Sorry if it stinks.]

It seems that I need to learn how to write bigger stories.  That, at least, is the message from my dissertation committee, the members of which have universally signaled that my chapters are short on long narratives: things like the Rise of the New Right, the Cold War, or the environmentalism movement.  It’s taken me a while — three chapters, to be precise — to understand my committee’s advice, because of two things.  First, I have been focusing on straightening out my dissertation’s particular story, which is complicated and nuanced enough on its own.  I haven’t done justice to the detail of my own story as it is; the thought of stripping out some of that detail in order to make room for bigger connections makes me feel a little dirty.  Second, I have, in fact, been making some of those big connections…just not in the right direction, apparently.  I’ve been using bigger themes and contexts to explain the origins and causes of the events within my story, but I haven’t flipped that arrow to show how my story explains those bigger historical trajectories.  So, I know how the Cold War shaped the events in my narrative.  But now I need to explain how my narrative shaped, or at least helps us better understand, the Cold War.  Sounds (a) super interesting and (b) super difficult.  Whee!

The Usual Pre-Chapter Panic

I’m about to start writing a new chapter, and that means pushing through the inevitable pre-writing panic.  I have an outline and a (vague) sense of where this chapter is going, but the first step always frightens me a little.  Perhaps many/most/all writers experience the same kind of anxiety, but believing that doesn’t make it any more pleasant for me.  But why do I experience such fear?  What scares me, exactly?  I’ve come up with two ideas:

  • That I won’t be able to write anything.  This has happened before and will probably happen again.  But I’ve always managed to push through.  By acknowledging the probable appearance of writer’s block, perhaps I’ll be better prepared to not panic and keep working my way through it.
  • That I will write crap.  This will most definitely happen.  After all, I’m writing the first draft, which, as I’ve discussed before, is inevitably crap.  But it’s a start, and I will go back and re-write and re-write again.  Again, if I just accept the inevitability of crap and know that I will revise that crap later on, maybe I won’t get scared away from starting to write.

My advice to myself, in short: combine acceptance of my slow production of crap with the knowledge that I have got through it before and will revise it again.  Presto: writer’s block solved.

Now, how exactly will I begin this chapter…

Chapter done. Ho-hum.

I sent off the third chapter of my dissertation yesterday, and I’m feeling pretty…bleh.  I’m glad to have another chapter out the door, and I think it’s pretty solid.  But I’m not sure what to expect from my committee — they politely instructed me to rewrite, rather than revise, the last chapter I sent in — and I’m wondering if the chapter’s thesis is really all that interesting.  This might be the cost of my emphasis on narrative; while the story might be good, the analysis probably needs work.  But I’ve been inside my own head for so long that I’m not sure where to take the analysis, specifically, what interpretations and arguments other readers might find interesting.  I need feedback, and I’m blessed to have a couple of committee members who are good about that.  But in the meantime I wait, and I’ll return to that rewrite-not-revise chapter tomorrow.  Today, though, I’m taking a break and catching up on domestic duties, like that pesky leaking sink drain…

Producing, Not Writing

The writing spirit has moved me of late, and I’ve been averaging 786.77 words and 2.69 paragraphs per writing day.  At this rate, I should finish the 12,000 words for this chapter’s rough draft in two days.  I know this because I keep track on a spreadsheet: the date, the total words written, the total paragraphs written, the words and paragraphs per day, average word/paragraph production, and days to finish at current rate.  When I explained this system to a non-academic friend of mine, he said, “That doesn’t really sound like creative writing to me.” And, of course, he’s right.  In fact, I’m not even sure I would consider what I’m doing “writing.”  I am wringing out words, spawning sentences, producing paragraphs.  I think I’ve slipped in some good ideas here and there, but right now I’m just trying to get the narrative on the page.  And it is liberating; I have often tortured myself over the perfect argument, retreated to my research notes on a hunt for the tidbit that will bring that perfection, only to find myself stumped or sidetracked.  But when I follow the narrative, I find myself bumping into analytical problems that I must resolve (at least partially) in order to move on to the next part of the story.  And that imperative — to solve the problem so that I can get on with the story — places an immediacy on my analysis that demands focus.  Which is to say: when I’m forced to figure out a problem, I usually do.  My analysis isn’t airtight, but I’m not done with my analysis yet; that’s what revisions are for.  But first I need to write the story.