Early Career Researcher and Teacher (SOAS)
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been mulling over potential posts for #BlogTank. Like most bloggers, I have a catalogue of half-finished posts sitting in my drafts folder, and the options, while not endless, were certainly extensive enough to warrant consideration. My pipeline projects include a post on what I actually do on a day to day basis (as requested by my second year students), two woefully overdue posts on MLA13 and AcWriMo, and a series of posts on alt-ac icons, inspired by an article I’m writing about the anti-apartheid activist and arch alt-ac Ruth First for Radical History Review. At some point in the process of reviewing my options, though, it occurred to me that the subject of finishing–or, rather, not finishing–might, in and of itself, be worthy of a post. I’ve also found myself talking about the risks of scholarly blogging with various people at several points in recent weeks, and I think this fits in nicely both with those conversations and with my associated desire to explore more fully what those risks might look and feel like.
You see, finishing has been a *little* bit of a problem for me recently. And when I say recently, I really mean a long time: I don’t think I’ve submitted a “finished” piece of work to my supervisor since my second year. I just can’t bring myself to do it. My drafts are full of comments and notes along the lines of “more here” and “follow this up”. This is understandable to an extent – theses can change shape, sometimes significantly, over the years, and open-ended chunks of writing are often more receptive to these shifts than finished chapters. And yet, at the same time, not finishing chapters, even provisionally, has profound consequences, both practical and psychological.
I’ve already promised myself that 2013 will be the year that I submit my PhD, so at some point this finishing obstacle is going to have to be dealt with. As my official deadline of September 30 fast approaches, today seems like a pretty good time to start. Now, a few weeks ago I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, a book which made me think deeply about the bad habits that I’ve developed in both my personal and professional life over the course of my doctorate, and how I might go about eliminating them. I can’t recommend The Happiness Project highly enough – my love of the Mary Poppins-esque phrase “Tackle a nagging task” has motivated me to decimate in only a few days a to-do list that had done nothing but grow for at least six months. But sadly, try as I might, I am never going to be able to see my thesis as a nagging task. A giant millstone, yes; a nagging task, not so much.
However, it occurred to me that Rubin’s Eighth Personal Commandment might just hold the key. Simple though it sounds, the basic act of identifying the problem is, I suspect, going to play a crucial role in taking my work from the bleak tundra of “almost finished” to the balmy oasis of “done”. On her blog, Rubin writes about the moment that she realized she’d been putting up with a problem or irritation “for years, because [she hadn’t] actually examined the actual nature of the problem, and therefore, hadn’t seen how it might be solved”. Like Rubin, I have been putting up with–and subjecting my supervisor to–my inability to finish a piece of work for eighteen months, without examining the actual nature of the problem. Oh, I’ve come up with excuses, as much to explain away my own anxieties as to placate my supervisor, but that’s exactly what they were: excuses. The real reasons for my inability to finish go beyond unexpected family commitments, technological hiccups, and research gaps. I know this, and I expect my supervisor does too. He’s a pretty intelligent man.
So, why can’t I finish my work? Some fairly generic features of the doctoral process come immediately to mind: the relatively long timescale of the project; the ongoing experience of intellectual development it involves; the fact that even when you submit it for examination it’s unlikely to be done (most people are required to make corrections). And then there’s the nature of academic research, which at its best develops organically into projects that can consume decades of a researcher’s lifespan. It’s hard to produce a piece of “finished” work in the knowledge that you have not, and are unlikely to, finish thinking about it for months, if not years, to come. And yet writers of all kinds negotiate this paradox on a regular basis. I myself have done so, without losing my mind, in the past — only three and a bit years ago I handed in a “finished” Master’s thesis, for which I received a distinction. At 94,380 words, this thesis was a full 34,380 words longer than my PhD needs to be, and the whole thing was conceived, researched, and written in under two years. I’ve also published papers, submitted grant proposals, and presented conference papers. So, while these are all plausible reasons, they don’t provide much insight into the actual nature of the problem.
Fear not: I have no intention of embarking on an extended autoanalysis here. Sometimes thinking through problems is best done in private, so let’s just say that there’s a whole lot of paddling going on beneath the (relatively) smooth surface of this post. What I’m going to focus on now is the possible solutions that this frantic paddling has led me to consider. For a start, examining why I was able to finish in the instances I mentioned above has thrown up an issue that I have long been aware of, but haven’t taken any significant steps towards resolving. Clearly, in each of these cases, I had a deadline. Not a faux deadline, flimsy as plasterboard. A rock solid, real deadline, in the form of a conference presentation, a non-negotiable journal deadline, and, for my Master’s, a rapidly expiring visa: nothing puts the wind in your sails like impending deportation. However, barring my first year upgrade from MPhil to PhD status, and my final submission date of 30 September 2013, at no point in my PhD have I had a real deadline to contend with. My supervisor is unfazed by missed deadlines, and until recently it’s been hard to convince myself that they matter. Circumstances have also intervened: I changed my topic significantly relatively late on in the process, and as such haven’t presented many conference papers that directly relate to my current work. Sure, I’m currently sitting on a pile of potential articles, as well as a book based on my original PhD topic, but basic chapter drafts are sorely lacking. In retrospect, I would have benefited from a more coherent strategy from the very outset. This knowledge will profoundly affect the way I approach my next project, but at present it feels like there’s not much to be gained from mulling over the past. I’ll save that for 1 October.
Obviously I don’t want to still be writing my PhD at 5 am on 30 September, so I’m going to have to find a way of identifying and committing to a deadline well in advance of that date to leave time for feedback and revisions. I also need this deadline to be externally, rather than internally, motivated. Fortunately, my mum, more than anyone else (including myself), is desperate for me to finish, and her sixtieth birthday falls on 21 May. It might not sound like much of a present, but let me tell you, a full draft of my thesis is high on her wish list.
As we all know, identifying a deadline is one thing – sticking to it quite another. Clearly, my fear of finishing chapters has something to do with my reluctance to see the bigger picture in which they fit. For various reasons, I stopped thinking about my finished PhD a long time ago, and it’s now hard to commit once again to a vision of what it might look like – a vision that, I suspect, will be essential to the process of finishing. On a more practical level, this reluctance has made it difficult for me to break my project down into meaningful steps, and to realistically plan out how I might go about completing them. One way to approach this is in terms of word count, and indeed this is how a project like AcWriMo typically operates. Working on word count alone, though, I’ve probably written well over two PhDs since I started, and that’s a pretty conservative estimate. Inspired by Ellen Spaeth’s PhD as Video Game concept, I’ve been thinking about breaking each chapter down into concepts/points, rather than words, and seeing how that might work out. I never played video games as a kid, so it never occurred to me to think of my PhD in terms of cumulative levels of achievement until I read Ellen’s post.
Like Ellen, I’ve always revelled in short term bursts of achievement, and this is one of the reasons I loved, and did so well at, school. It’s also the reason that I love my part time work in Careers, where I offer advice on CVs, covering letters, applications forms, and so on to students in short fifteen minute sessions, and oversee a mentoring scheme that runs in repetitive fifteen week cycles. Hell, I even love the Nike Training Club app on my iPad, where I earn rewards for the minutes I spend exercising – rewards that usually come in the form of MORE EXERCISE. Breaking my thesis down into achievable levels, and charting my progress towards completion could provide a workable solution, and I’m keen to see how it pans out. I’m also aware that accountability is key. I’m hardly raking in the readers, but blogging and tweeting about my research and PhD experience has increasingly given me a sense of real achievement that my day to day life lacks – it’s a way of turning the small victories into proper milestones.
My first task, then, is to finish my paper on Ruth First for 1 February. I’m almost there, and have been for a few days now. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to sit down and make a checklist, schedule my tasks, and then finish them, one by one. If it takes me all night, I don’t care: it will be done. Sometimes finished is more important than a good night’s sleep (a potential contender for my First Personal Commandment). When I do finish, I’m going to purchase my pre-selected reward (gold nail varnish, in honour of Ruth First’s penchant for fashion). And then on Monday, I’m going to gamify my PhD. Wish me luck.
Does this post resonate with your experience of academic writing/postgraduate study? If so, I’d love to hear your tips and comments.