This week I cut up my thesis…

… Well, part of it.

So I’m not sure whether I was driven to this point through pure frustration or I had a moment of clarity but either way last weekend I took a pair of scissors to my latest chapter draft. I divided it into paragraphs, or the smallest unit I could without losing comprehensibility, and then began a process of marking each snippet as “main argument”, “tangent”, “background”, or “unknown”. I enjoyed picking colours (green, red, blue, and grey respectively) from my book of rainbow sticky tabs. Being away from the computer felt too good – was I deceiving myself? Surely this was just a novel way to procrastinate?

Actually, this process has yielded a breakthrough. Chopping the chapter into blocks of thought made it startlingly clear what was useful and what was guff. But once I’d got down to the core of my writing (green) I needed to make sure it was actually saying what I thought it was. This is where phase two comes in: take a post-it, summarise the point you are making in one or two sentences, and then stick this to the fragment. The hardest part of this was being honest about what I’d actually written, which sometimes had no bearing on what I had wanted to say. I took care not to treat the bits in order as I didn’t want to be filling in the gaps in my mind.

Now I’m entering phase three. My plan is to take the pieces and use their post-it-summaries to write an outline of what I currently have. This should then be added to and refined to form a very detailed plan. I’ll only then go back to the laptop, writing and refining with the argument and structure at the forefront. After that I will return to the blue, red, and grey and assess whether they are still relevant to the chapter as it then stands.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has taken a similar/similarly crazy approach to redrafting, particularly if it involves getting away from the computer. Before tearing it apart I was frustrated and bored by this chapter. Now I’m excited to get back to what I wanted to say.

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The Defensive Voice.

I have a problem.

My default setting is the back foot.

A thesis (particularly a literary one) is where you are supposed to present your ideas for scrutiny. You need to convince, persuade, and inform. But it’s not just about your ideas, it’s about what you think of other people’s. My own thesis will fulfil the requirement for originality, not through some act of discovery, but through my own original interpretation. I’m not breaking new ground, I’m re-tilling someone else’s field.

So, my question is this: how do you assert your own position in a way that allows for the position of others?

In the epic I’m studying the characters often get the answer to this question wrong. This leads to defensiveness, misunderstanding, conflict, and, eventually, death. Fortunately for me I am not fighting for the kingship of Thebes, and my own aristea will be fought with words, not swords. But it’s still difficult when faced with a conflicting scholarly idea not to go on the attack. It starts when you read a carefully crafted sentence that conflicts with your own reading of the text. “How dare they?”, you think, “This is wrong because my way is right. I must show everyone how wrong this is!” As I said before, the problem with this is that with this type of thesis wrong and right are rarely black and white: it’s more like fifty-thousand shades of grey. And, if you do go on the attack, it conversely makes your own position seem the more insecure.

My supervisor tells me that language is the key to solving this issue. Choose words that are neutral in order to avoid a fight you don’t need. This doesn’t mean you cannot be passionate, it just means you don’t always have to be dressed for war.

Writing is not conflict; it is intimacy.

The Blank Page

I can’t think of anything harder to face than the overwhelming emptiness of the blank page. After battling with a particularly tricky chapter draft I’ve needed to come back to the beginning, and the beginning is terrifying.

Of course, a blank page doesn’t mean starting again in my mind – my head still contains all of the ideas, struggles, and information that I’ve gained through the last year I’ve been writing. There are also a couple of hundred notes, tagged and ready in Evernote, and 30,000 words of a previous draft. Both of these things are waiting to fill up the page before me. 

Yet, I delay. 

I don’t want to spoil the pristine page. At the moment it is full of potential but when I begin to type I am closing off avenues of thought, avenues that might be better than the one I choose. 

I also don’t want to deal with the weighty draft from before: it’s too big, too messy, too much. But I need to. I need to start breaking it down, unpicking the careful hours of writing and re-sewing my argument. This is the most painful part of the writing process: the redraft. The blank page of the new document is scary, yes, but it’s also hopeful. Staring at a load of work you thought was done, but isn’t, is simply demoralising. 

I search the internet for writing advice. I pour over blogs on how to complete your thesis. I procrastinate by setting up Scrivener workflows and choosing fonts. However, none of this helps. The remedy for both the blank page and the difficult second draft is the same: start writing. Nothing will change unless you start.

Constructive Criticism Overload

Where did year two go? Seriously, 2015, what happened?

It has been over a year since my last post so I thought I’d read through previous ones to try to remind myself what the early days of the PhD experience were like. Surprisingly, my outlook hasn’t changed much. I still think it’s easy to be overwhelmed by academic guilt, I’m still resorting to baking as stress relief, and I still spend way too much time with the over-sixties.

Yet some things have changed. I’m now in my third (but probably not final) year. This means the money is soon to run out. I’ve survived my first term teaching and done a hell of a lot of undergrad marking, much to the detriment of my thesis but to the benefit of my bank balance. I think I’ve grown. I think.

But around Christmas I began to feel lost. I began to lose hope that I could do this thing called a doctorate. This feeling has been slowly eating at me since then, and it took me a while to figure out what it was. My diagnosis? Constructive Criticism Overload: CCO. Stuff has been moving so fast in 2016 – it’s like someone stepped on the accelerator of the life and I missed my stop. During this time I’ve written 40,000 words and taught 10 seminars and one lecture. All of these things have been under observation: out in the open to be picked apart. Don’t get me wrong, my supervisor, teaching peers, and even some of my students, have been really good at giving solid advice on how I can improve. It’s just after the second teaching observation, or the 100 page draft with comments scribbled all over it, even the kindest piece of advice can make you feel raw. I’m tired. Right now I just don’t want to be challenged or grow or improve: I want to stay in this state for a while.

The end of term and Easter bank holiday have been a good way of doing this. Today, I finally cleaned the bathroom and filed away all the crap that had accumulated since the new year. Yesterday, I went clothes shopping with my mom (don’t correct me – she’s from the midlands). Tomorrow, I’m going to go to the supermarket and get some decent food for the house. It’s taken a while, but I’m beginning to feel like I might be coming out the other side of the CCO and may even pick up the chapter draft I’ve been ignoring for a couple of weeks. A good PhD friend also told me she isn’t ready to get back to work yet, and it feels good to have a co-conspirator. Hope is returning.

I suppose the point of this post is to say that it’s ok to stop pushing yourself every once in a while. In a culture where we are constantly told we need to be thinking out the next step, the next way we can improve, we have the choice to say no. You can choose to go to bed early, to take that day off, and that doesn’t make you weak. Challenging yourself is good, but do it too much and all it brings is stress. The internet is full of those PhD students who burn out before the end, so my third year resolution is to make sure I don’t become one of them. Watch this space.

Year one: gone.

Many months have passed since I last decided to put hand to keyboard and cast out my fledgling academic thoughts into the internet. Those months have yielded 20,000 words of rough draft and 100+ items of bibliography. They’ve included seminars, reading groups, trips to Scotland and Oxford, and will culminate in a conference panel and my end of year review. Looking back it’s comforting to see that what felt like a slow continuous procrastination has led to some quantifiable results.

But what about all the other things that have been achieved, things that (shock horror) are not strictly academic? Well in the spirit of Christmas here are my top ten random achievements of 2014:

  1. Watching all 10 seasons of Stargate SG1 on Netflix (Samantha Carter: ultimate feminist role model).
  2. Organising a Post graduate bake-off  (a little academic but not much).
  3. Being a bridesmaid for my best friend/maid of honour.
  4. Joining a gym for the first time
  5. Leaving a gym for the first time
  6. Moving house again.
  7. Finding the world’s best caramel slice in Cromer.
  8. Reaching 1 year of marriage and loving it.
  9. Reading 21 non-academic books (how?!?).
  10. Baking approximately 100 cakes and 150 biscuits.

Next year my goal is to blog more, write more and generally grow in confidence. I feel like in the face of all the horrendous tidings regarding the state of the academic job market it’s important to not lose sight of the fun and joy of a research life.

Merry Christmas, one and all, and to each a fantastic 2015.

Charlie brown knows how the season is done.

Charlie Brown knows how the season is done.

Six months down, thirty-six more to go. 

It’s been quite a while since I decided to air my thoughts on the post-grad experience, and in that time quite a bit has changed. Whilst there is a great deal of good advice out there on the web regarding the gamut of feelings that can assail you, none of them quite adequately express the speed at which you hurtle through the whole range. 

Very early on you slip from the joy of stage one (excitement) to the despair of stage two (bewilderment) and then proceed to daily cycle between the two. A look into the running commentary of my brain might sound something like this:

“Yay, I get to read!”

“Argh, I don’t understand”

“Why don’t I understand?”

“I’ll just (insert meaningless leisure activity here) until I feel happier”

“I am the lowest of the low for (meaningless leisure activity).”

“I am a slug”

“You want me to go to a workshop and talk to others about my research?”

“Help”

“Oooh, thats interesting”

“Where did that book go to?”

And repeat.  

But amidst all of this there is hope. I comes in the form of friends being surprisingly interested in what you’re doing. It arrives when you actually connect with another academic. It happens when you realise that if a journal/article is boring you can question its use to you. It springs forth when you use the word ‘gamut’ successfully in a sentence.

This is the hope that will get you through the panic of conferences and workshops and poster presentations. It will remind you that academics are generally not scary ‘others’ who seek to overpower you and challenge your safe research home. They are primarily curious people who enjoy learning, and thats exactly what you are too. 

So don’t panic when you start to spiral and if all else fails do what I did: buy some gerbils!

How to complete your thesis: follow these easy steps. 

Ok, for those of you who came to this post seeking advice: sorry, you won’t find it here! Instead you are going to be treated to my musings on the following question: is there a right way of doing things? 

Let me clarify. By “things” I mean the grind of reading, note-taking, writing (not that I’m there yet), and learning that is crafting the thesis. Advice abounds across the internet. Books, and I’m pretty sure theses themselves, have been published. Yet, I am still unconvinced that we can find a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. “But those books/websites are so helpful!”, I hear you cry, “They must be the path to PhD enlightenment!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about reading, it makes me feel productive and hopeful and infinitely more skilled. But do they change the way I absorb information? Do they provide life changing results? Not really. They do encourage procrastination, which hardly needs encouraging. Alongside the workshops, graduate skills programmes, and productivity seminars a student could spend their whole PhD learning about how to get a PhD, which would of course lead to failure. 

So what’s the point of this ramble? Well, I suppose it is a belief that, whilst all care should be taken to follow guidelines and make sure your thesis will be passed, research is a creative activity. Leaps of thought happen at unexpected times, sometimes springing from the paragraphs that an ‘effective’ researcher would be encouraged to gloss for meaning. Yes, sometimes you need to skim a document to make sure it is worthy of your attention. Yes, looking for keywords in sentences is a good tool to get through a large amount of information quickly. But what about the slow considered delving into a new world of ideas? What about taking time to draw the flow of the text? What about colouring pencils? If collating information was all that was needed then would a robot be sufficient? 

Sometimes it’s not about how many journal articles you can get through in an hour, week, month. It’s about sitting and living with the voices you’ve already discovered: asking them questions and taking them out for a stroll. This can’t be used as an excuse to put off doing work, but I think everyone is able to recognise the feeling of denial that occurs when you start browsing imdb for ‘research purposes’. It’s about finding out how you think. If you get your best ideas when you are at home then work from home! If you like being in your office for a normal working day, then feel free to sit at your desk 9 to 5. The biggest, and one of the only, luxury of doing a PhD is that you can do what you like! There are of course other commitments, like jobs and family, that do constrain you somewhat BUT at least you aren’t stuck in a windowless card-factory store all day serving people who get angry about 29p birthday cards. 

I know there will be many research students, and even researchers, who are much further along in their careers than me, that will be thinking: “This girl needs to get a grip on reality, there are too many things to do and not enough time”. Some may even be getting angry at this point, getting ready to grasp the mouse in one hand and splurge the pent-up, coffee-fuelled rage over the comments section. That’s ok. I didn’t mean to preach. I just needed to remind myself that it’s ok to sit for 10 minutes, doing nothing but pondering ideas, because if I forget this then the next three years are going to be a lot more painful. 

So, for those of you who want to join me, here is something seemingly irrelevant to ponder:

“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have souls that cannot understand their language” 

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the professors, 7.126.8-9 trans. Waterfield 2000)

Now, go put the kettle on and have a think about that. 

(Aside – finding that gem actually led me to remember an important source: point proved!) 

Living life alongside the retired… in my twenties.

I’ve only just started on this bizarre journey of discovery, otherwise known as the PhD, and even though I’m only a month back into full-time study I’ve noticed that I tend to do my shopping, use the gym, and drink in coffee shops with those who have a free bus pass.

Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a complaint! I very much enjoy the lack of social pressure in my Pilates class, especially as this is the first time in my life I have ever been inside a gym voluntarily. No, living alongside those who are substantially more experienced than myself does not make me throw my arms up in horror, but what it does do is make one feel alien when confronted with “the real world”.

First there is the guilt; the feeling that you are somehow lazy/under ambitious and really should have sought a more socially responsible profession. Why was I not content to slog it out administering a charity? Should I have chosen the sciences over the arts and be conducting medical research? Why am I not helping vulnerable women through the messy and life-giving work of midwifery? My hands don’t seem nearly dirty enough. This is a feeling that is mildly exacerbated by the presence of my wonderful husband, who cannot sit still and think without feeling a need to be doing something, and has led me to this discovery: it’s incredibly hard to look like you are working hard when you are simply thinking. How on earth can you quantify it? Yet, it is somehow incredibly tiring.

Lost in a forest of thought.

Lost in a forest of thought.

Second are the new difficulties encountered when asked the question: ‘what do you do?’. The main problem with this is not the question itself, but the follow-up of ‘Oh, so what’s that about then?’. My intense unease may be simply that I am doing a PhD in Classics, which often gets confused with music or so-called ‘classical’ English literature. It may also cause panic as I am still very much defining my research (I presume this will be the case for the next three years!) and so am constantly confronted with this truth: I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Thirdly, there is the lack of financial stability compared to your peers. Now is the time when friends are buying houses, having babies, and building an investment portfolio. I, on the other hand, am working out whether I can afford a new Macbook (answer: no).

So what can be done? well a quick peruse of the web has come up with some great resources that make the isolation more bearable, particularly The Thesis Wispherer and phd comics. The former is brilliant advice and the latter is brilliant relief. My only other tactic is going to be embracing the strangeness of my days and trying to chart my course (and progress) on this blog.

All of this is just a way of getting some more space in my brain for a crash-course in modern philosophy alongside the revision of three years of neglected Latin, but I hope that something may have resonated with you. Now, I best get back to looking productive whilst thinking (ideas on a postcard, please)

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