Make it New

I’m a little self-conscious about the title of this post, mostly because I don’t intend to talk Ezra Pound or Modernism here and in fact, I find both the poet and the movement a little tiresome. This is for a number of reasons, primary of which is the whiplash from reading dozens of Modernist texts for my preliminary exams.

That said, Ezra Pound’s famous expression “Make it New” is perfect in my mind. To me, “Making it New” is essential to surviving in graduate school.

Let me take a step back for a moment: like so many others, I’ve found my graduate school experience simultaneously gratifying, exhilarating, and disheartening. I’ve had moments of great confidence and empowerment and perhaps even more moments of self-doubt. I just recently erased the subtitle on my to-do list “Happenings of a Continued Adolescence.” Though it was initially written in jest, I realized I was re-enforcing my own self-loathing and insecurities and I just couldn’t have that.

Though I recognize that graduate school is necessary career training and apprenticing for a life in the academy (or, increasingly, in other kinds of professional institutions and research settings), I can’t help but shake the feeling much of the time that I’m doing college all over again, but with higher stakes and more responsibilities. It’s a lot like treading water, endlessly egg beating with only the potential outcome for the rescue ship to come in.

Yet I have to remind myself (frequently) that I’m very happy here, reading and writing, and though it may feel like I’m staying in one place much of the time, I am (very slowly and often imperceptibly) moving forward, building skills, and becoming a sharper thinker and communicator.

One way I remind myself of this is by reminding myself of what, indeed, makes me happy. In college, I kept a gratitude journal for a little while, trying to map what made me feel happy during a time where I felt very sad. So, even today, I look at what I’m grateful for: my flexible schedule, my time to read as many books (and whatever books) I want and reflect on those books, my ability to exercise on a regular basis, my proximity to a beautiful campus, and the opportunity to work with dynamic and motivated students. These reminders keep me pushing through.

That said, to really dig into and find joy in reading and writing, I’ve found that I truly also need novelty. Let me start by saying that, as a general rule, graduate students are rarely doing anything truly novel on their own. Rather, graduate students often (nervously) emulate advisers, hero theorists, and trendy trailblazers in the field.

Yet we need to feel like our work is new and discover what makes it new: that’s what builds scholarship.

For me, post-preliminary exam (and for those following at home: I passed), I’m revisiting a lot of old work and trying to make it new again. I’m not necessarily revising work or outputting much for others. Rather, I’m trying to make it new for myself. I’m trying to remind myself of why I’m in graduate school in the first place and why the topics I’m purportedly interested in (life writing, writing about technology, writing with technology) are even interesting to me at all. Then, I want to make my work new to others. But I’ve got to convince myself first.

Let me make one thing clear: I’ve never been unconvinced that my ideas are uninteresting. However, I’ve had many days recently when I’ve been reading books and have taken a pause to wonder: why am I interested in this? What is actually of interest here? What am I noticing that’s new? What am I noticing that’s exciting? I can usually think of something, come up with a million questions, and then never manage to reach one conclusion about them. Days often go from exhilaration about a new book or question to complete despair about whether there’s anything of value to say about anything. Do questions even matter anymore? Do books matter? AM I AN INTERESTING PERSON??

This spiral is not impossible to recover from, but it’s one that also leads to the larger, looming purpose of making work new again: writing a dissertation.

I mean, here’s the thing. I don’t know how to write a dissertation. If a dissertation walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, and said “Cheerio!”, I don’t think I’d recognize it.

This shouldn’t be news to me. But it is.

I hadn’t put it together until recently that I’m at the scary-exciting moment of figuring out how to interpret a new genre of writing. This is something I haven’t had to do in a long time and I’m now facing the questions I have to tell my own writing students to face all of the time: what’s the purpose of this writing? Who’s the audience? What are the constraints? What’s your exigence for writing?

So, what have I been doing to a.) make my ideas feel new again and b.) tackle an unfamiliar genre?

Well, in addition to reading, I’ve been revisiting writing I know how to do. I started penning a short story for the first time in forever, I’ve been drafting up some short articles that I can (hopefully) submit to GradHacker. In other words, I’ve been trying to rediscover what I like not just about reading, but also about writing in the first place. Why do I care so much about writing? Why is knowing how to write – and knowing how to write well – something that endlessly fascinates me? Perhaps more importantly, why do I still think I’m a “good” writer and how can I continue to validate and enjoy my own practice?

These are questions that scare me because they require deep introspection, an opportunity to consider my values and my everyday practices. At the same time, this is a rare opportunity, one that I know will be important to all of the choices I make in the future. I hope that making it new is a practice that will soon feel very practiced and very – well – old.

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