Embracing Failure

The silence on this blog is glaring. Crafting yet another introduction to yet another apology for silence fills me with a familiar feeling of fraudulence, a nagging insecurity about my repeated inability to embrace the constant grind that being a writer requires.

Yet I can embrace one thing: the knowledge that the root of all of this silence comes from my persistent willingness to value success over failure. That is, my silence roots not from an inability to speak, but an inability to accept the failure that inevitably comes from each and every attempt I will ever make to express myself wholly. Good ideas do not emerge intrinsically; they emerge from iterations and iterations of an idea, and it takes a lot of failure to get to a successful idea worth sharing. And while I could have been iterating on failures, I was instead, finding short-term successes in my career. Much of my daily job requires producing successes, which means that much of my work happens in the form of ephemeral face-to-face interactions or in short, satisfying e-mails. I am not shaming myself for engrossing fully in this work (it has been the right thing to do at this point in my life), but I also want to work on embracing more fully the work required to write.

That is, today, I want to embrace the work of failure. I’m starting this by writing what’s going to be something of a failure at a blog post.

Why am I already saying that this blog post is a failure? I’m saying it’s a failure because it does not adhere to any of the conventions of a blog post. Its title is not that catchy; it won’t get caught on any search engine optimization filters. The only way anyone will ever read or find this is if I share it through social media. Otherwise, it’ll just be a part of the block of Internet content noise. Fine. So be it. I’m embracing it.

It’s also a failure because it’s not going to compel you to do anything. It won’t offer you an action item; it’ll simply offer you with some understanding of how I’m feeling about my writing now and my identity as a “writer.” Maybe that’ll be worthwhile to you. But this post is still something of a blogging failure precisely because it doesn’t explicitly offer you much of anything. I’m aware of your needs as an audience, but I’m not really addressing them right now. I’m going to apologize – yes, sorry – but I know that apology probably seems a little insincere because I’m not really going to do anything to remedy this failure of a blog post. It’s going to live as a little failure.

I’m deliberately making failure to help myself embrace it. What I’ve learned from my various identity pivots over the years – thinking of myself as a creative writer to a journalist to a burgeoning professor to a “higher education professional” – is that boxing myself into successes and expecting myself to produce my best work possible at all times is not possible. My pivots have been possible because I’ve been willing to “fail” and, have, instead, turned my failures or falterings into futures. I’ve never always been entirely comfortable with that, but remaining flexible, trying new things, and discovering new strengths has, much to my surprise, made me pretty happy.

I’m going to fail a little more on this blog soon and make this my space to keep experimenting with ideas and allowing this to be the space where I see things that are working and not working. This will be the only one I’ll continue to learn and grow.

 

Should I Blog My Research?

Let me start with some Obvious Things:

Obvious Thing #1: I’m pretty good at starting and abandoning blogs. Why is that? Well, here’s an obvious reason for my obvious fact: writing is hard. I’ve come to accept that (and embrace it on my best days). This is, of course, coming from someone who likes to write, but who can be intensely critical of her own writing especially when it’s – yowza! – public!

When I teach writing, I like to analogize writing with exercise. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it and even easier to come up with excuses not to do it. When you do it, it is painful, but gradually (graaadually) it becomes something you like to do, even when it’s painful. I’m past stage #1: I like writing and I always have. I’m now on stage #2: how do I train myself to become a “marathon writer?” How do I keep myself writing? These are questions more for me than for you, but I’m stating them anyway in the hopes that some (many?) will relate.

Obvious Thing #2: I’m in an industry (i.e. academia) where blogging is becoming an increasingly important part of one’s identity. Web presence is not only “a thing,” but a big and important, potentially career-defining thing (The Guardian has written about this, Henry Jenkins sees blogging as a good way to connect with a broader public, and some folks from the LSE find that blogging is the best way to communicate ideas that won’t make it through the traditionally slow academic publication timeline very quickly). As someone billing herself as a specialist in digital culture and rhetoric in particular, I’ve got to be extra-super (supextra?) aware of how I present myself online, how often,and what sorts of things I’m writing (i.e. more relevant hot topics in my field, less whining probably?).

Obvious Thing #3: I’m working on a dissertation.

Given these discrete obvious things, I’m at a cross-roads where I must make a choice: should I blog my dissertation progress? I’ve read a lot about the process at this point, from this open thread on GradHacker to the Remix the Dissertation webinar last week. Because I like lists, I’ve decided to lay out some more personal pros and cons, based on info gathered and my own personal circumstances:

Pros: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #2. Here’s a way to show people that I know how to do the blog thing! I’ve got a knack for it! I can write about my work for a “general public!” This is valuable and highly encouraged!
  • It’ll keep me reflective and thinking about my writing process the whole way through. The dissertation is a long haul, and there’s real value in having an informal space to reflect on ideas that may make their way into a project, but may not.
  • Low stakes. Let’s be real: how many people are actually going to read my work-in-progress dissertation blog (to be hosted on a site I’ve just set up with a free WordPress URL)? Probably my dissertation committee (that’s 3), and maybe my boyfriend on a day where he’s feeling particularly generous (OK, 4), and my mom will skim it and tell met that I’m smart (So, 5?). This is a good thing. It makes me feel like I’m not revealing to the entire world my trials, pitfalls, and potential mistakes.
  • It’ll give me a space to hash out nuggets of ideas that really could turn into potential articles and blog chapters.
  • Choosing which topics to blog about may help me see which ideas for my dissertation are actually useful and interesting. This seems like a potentially silly advantage, but I tend to think that everything is interesting (my co-chair had to tell me to STOP collecting primary texts for my project)… until I actually start writing about it. It’s when the metaphorical rubber hits the metaphorical road that I actually can sit back and assess my ideas more clearly.

OK, so Cons: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #1. I don’t want to contribute more blog detritus to the world if I don’t write regularly (though this is really my own problem and not necessarily a “con” to the whole venture).
  • There’s potential for ideas to be “scooped” by random readers and could potentially jeopardize the ability to distribute ideas in things that people have to actually buy, like journal articles or books.
  • I don’t want to look like an idiot?

My pro list looks certainly more compelling than my cons (especially since 3/4 cons are enveloped in personal concerns). But what do you think? Should I blog my dissertation? Why or why not?

Commenting on Comments

My poor, almost four-year-old laptop is on the brink of collapse. She moans and churns and thinks really hard about loading webpages now. Awakening her from digital slumber takes a few pushes and prods at her buttons. It’s not her fault; this is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

So, I’ve started the overwhelming task of researching new laptops, tempted by the possibilities of sleek and fast Chromebooks in particular. 90% of the work I do on my computer is online anyway, and rarely do I use any of the clunky software I impulsively buy for various “productive” uses that quickly fall by the wayside. I’ve thought about switching to a Mac too, but I can’t bring myself to invest in a product that requires consumers to buy individual and unique cords for basically every function (I take pride in being able to plug overhead projectors directly into my computer without having to use the limp-necked, insultingly-named “dongle”).

Yet there’s one Microsoft tool that I just can’t quit: Microsoft Word commenting and Track Changes. OK, OK, I know that Track Changes is prescriptive and ugly and red, but when it comes to my own writing especially, I love that I can see the changes I make dynamically, visibly, and quickly.

I’ve become especially fond of commenting on my own writing as I’m writing. Comments are what I use when I have something more I want to say about a particular idea, but am not yet sure how to incorporate it into the prose. My comments include everything from venting about how clunky my phrasing is to wondering whether a particular idea makes sense to expanding upon my prose more with ideas that I know must fit somewhere, but I’m not quite sure where.

I’ve even found myself writing things in comments like, “Well, what I really want to say is more about… but I’m not sure it’s relevant to put this thought here…” In other words, comments free me from my desire to have every thought of my writing placed in a linear and particular order. For better or for worse, I often feel obligated to constrict my writing in particular ways, to only write things in the order that I know I’ll finally want them. That’s totally silly, of course; I should know as a writing instructor that the space of a page, the space of a word processing document never ever has to be written in a “final” order and, in fact, words and paragraphs should be moved around. A lot! But there’s a part of my personality that resists a desire to move things (at least until I have every idea down). It’s not a convenient impulse.

So, what do I do instead? I write myself comments. I often wind up moving the comments too and they feel wonderfully liberating. They allow me to see just how messy and insane my writing is. And that’s a good thing.

Every day, writing is hard and I work to psyche myself out and convince myself that it’s not. One way that I’m making sure it feels less hard is by allowing myself to comment and comment freely. I don’t think I’ll wind up buying a Chromebook – I’m still exploring my options – because I think that using a Word interface comforts me, gives me infrastructure, and perhaps most importantly, allows me the freedom to see my messy thoughts and mistakes. Believe me, I’m still working away from Microsoft applications for other purposes (See “Citation Woes”), but for initial drafting at least, the comforts of my good ol’ software applications still give me the space I need for the most important thing: my ideas.

My Hesitation to Talk about Research is Not About You.

Whenever I am asked, “So, what’s your research about anyway?” my stomach dips. My mind goes blank for a moment; what is my research about? Do I even know? Sometimes, I feel like the project I’m working on is so big that I don’t know where to begin and there’s a certain dread I experience in trying to capture this project in a few sentences. So, my answer typically meanders through some qualified, fuzzy statements, like “Well, you know, it’s like…”

Let me just assure you of this: my hesitation is not about you. It’s all about me.

After I passed my qualifying exams, I thought that I would finally feel comfortable with the big research question. After all, I managed to convince a committee of five professors of my competence; surely, I could convince others of the same. Yet months after my qualifying exam, I somehow feel more insecure than ever about explaining my research.

The reason for my insecurity is simple: the more I learn, the more I know that I don’t know very much at all. The more I start to probe my research questions, the more depth, complexity, and texture they seem to take on. I feel as though I’ve hatched open a large egg and have just discovered that the creature hatched is not just a lizard but a fire-breathing dragon. I’ve got to get myself one hell of a shield.

Feeling like an incompetent nincompoop is a classic learned person problem. It’s impossible not to feel like one when your days are filled with reading, writing, reflecting, and asking questions. In fact, at the beginning of every graduate seminar I took, the professor always asked the participants to introduce themselves and their major fields of interest, and every time, my peers and I would have to qualify our interests with statements like, “Well, I’m not really an expert or anything, but…” Arguably, all of us in that room were well on our way to being experts, yet none of us could own that title. It felt uncomfortable. It still feels uncomfortable.

The thing is, the only way I’ll be able to convince other people that I’m doing more than picking lint out of my navel these days is by giving the dreaded 2-minute version of my research. People like Nicholas Kristof have called for making academic research accessible to the public and I completely agree. I don’t struggle very much with colloquial language and making ideas accessible, but I find I struggle with condensing an argument and making it clear without either obfuscating the point or over-simplifying it. In other words, I don’t want to misrepresent an idea, but I also don’t want to bog down.

What’s the solution here? I’m not sure yet, but here’s my call to you if you’re reading this (and if you are, it probably means you know me in person because – let’s be real – this blog is mostly getting circulated through my Facebook friends): ask me about my research. Keep asking me. The more practice I get, the less uncomfortable I’ll feel, and hey, maybe the more coherent I’ll become too. I want to be able to share ideas and discuss them with you, whether you’re an academic or not. I might be afraid to do so and I might seem a little weird about it, but ultimately, I’ll be grateful. If I don’t seem grateful, just point me back to this blog post and allow me to eat my words. They’ll be delicious.

Why I Keep (Some) Old Graded Writing

Last week, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my living room sorting through piles of old papers. It’s only when I begin a move to a new apartment that I go through this purging ritual. This time around, I had to exude an enormous amount of personal strength to throw away photo-copied poems from college seminar classes (I’ll take note of the titles I like and find them online, I reassure myself), favorite New Yorker stories (again, these are all available online, I remind myself as I toss away bundles of magazine clippings with a wince), and even old stickers and leaflets I picked up from boutiques and bookstores that I once thought quaint and charming. Those too I chucked with a reluctant sigh. Nostalgia is a powerful force.

Yet every time I go through an apartment purge, I always find things that I still can’t bring myself to throw away for one reason or another. This time, it was a select collection of college papers annotated by former professors. First, allow me to defend myself and say that I threw most of my graded papers away; the majority of them did not have much on them by way of marginalia anyway and there was no sense in keeping reminders of the “A-” papers I wrote over the years.

Yet a couple of papers had comments that moved me beyond nostalgia, that made me reflect on my writing in ways that I hadn’t before and that I hope will be sobering reminders of where my writing can still grow and what I can keep doing to sustain the enthusiasm I had for writing through my college years.

First, see Exhibit A, an artifact certainly graded by a graduate student TA in a “Bible as Literature” class I took during what I believe was my junior year of college:

 

Bible Paper_Jenae

 

The comment in the image may be hard to read, so here’s what part of it says:

You raise some great points throughout this paper on John 5 and Jesus’ complex role in that text, and you do a good job of citing your source material and reading into it. Still, your paper seems disorganized at times, and in need of a much more effective overall argument to bring your various points into a more convincing unity… you make a number of different points about audience that would be even stronger if your argument was more specific and contentious.

As soon as I re-read this, I realized that this is often the kind of feedback I still receive on my writing. I may offer great ideas, but they’re frequently without a strong enough argument. I’m able to come up with a lot of different ideas and make some pointed observations, but there needs to be greater unity connecting all of these “interesting” ideas. In other words, I still struggle with coherence and argument strength and even as I’m working on an article and a dissertation this summer, I’m realizing how I often manage to fall into the same pitfalls of writing and observing a number of different and exciting things without necessarily seeing one particular argument they’re pointing to. Writing this out, the solution seems simple: articulate a clear argument and keep that argument alongside my paper as I write, ensuring that each observation ties into that argument. That, of course, is the advice I’d give to another writer.

Yet I know that this solution is much easier said than done. The biggest problem for me with articulating an argument and sticking with it is knowing that arguments frequently change during the writing process. I often find myself analyzing evidence and realizing part-way through my analysis that the conclusion I thought I had reached is only one small part of what I’m noticing and that, in fact, the argument I initially devised still needs to be more nuanced (and perhaps “contentious” as the TA in the comment suggested) than I thought before.

So, I’ve always been of the “write as much as you can and then go back and revise to create a better argument” school of thought. I still think this may be the best way to approach the particular “contentious argument” problem, but this approach takes a lot of time. I imagine in college that I didn’t review and re-write my essay nearly enough times to notice where the argument lapsed or where it seemed disorganized. I imagine too that I may have felt overwhelmed by the source material; the gospels are no joke and there’s a lot to look at there that can make the articulation of an argument even more challenging. I always tell my students that the more challenging of an idea they’re grappling with, the more likely their grammar and sentence structure is to break down. I’m really no exception to that rule; I find that the more I struggle to express a complex idea, the less clear it is going to be articulated.

So, what do I do with this knowledge that I’ve been suffering from the same writing problems for years?

At this point, my response is: remain mindful of these mistakes. I’m keeping this particular paper because it places in front of me an error I’m prone to make and helps me more mindfully look at it. Sure, I may not need to keep the paper to maintain this memory, but there’s something about holding a tangible finished product and seeing the pencil-written note assuring me that it’s not yet finished that humbles me and reminds me of how much further I still have to go with writing for all different purposes. Writing has to be slow cooked and simmered; it’s easy to forget that, especially as I compose a blog entry, the “fast food” of writing in many ways.

Of course, I keep old writing, too, not just as a form of penance, but also as a reminder of what I can accomplish and the hope that mentors have had (hopefully still have?) for me.

An example is Exhibit B:

Uplifting Comment

 

 

This one’s a bit easier to read, but just in case you can’t:

Another excellent interview Jenae – I just hope in 30 years you will still find outlets for your obvious talent.

This is a bittersweet comment in its suggestion that there may not be outlets “in 30 years” for “good writing.” What it also assumes though is that I’ll still be writing in 30 years. That is the part that motivates me and fills me with some additional confidence. A professor at some point in some time had the confidence to believe in my writing for years and years to come. I saved this paper too to share this reminder with myself, that I will still be able to produce work and that I have “talent” for it. I hope that these 30 years keep getting recycled, that after 30 years, I can remember that there are 30 more years where I can keep working and writing.

Perhaps one day I’ll throw these papers away too, but in the meantime, they’re the ones I can’t quite commit to the recycling bin. They still offer me something that I couldn’t find elsewhere, artifacts of writing projects completed and motivation for projects to be completed.

 

Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.

Software University?

When I take notes on books I’m reading, I’ve got comments and sub-comments.

The comments are of the most mundane variety: I flag down quotes, make note of important moments, and process through key concepts. The typical stuff.

The sub-comments, however, are where things get juicy. This is where I throw my font into italics and write whatever I want: curse words, exclamations, lines of punctuation (think: “!!!!!”), and emoticons abound. It’s my own inner commentary, the liberating part of note-taking. If you don’t have your own running commentary on your own book notes, it’s a practice I highly recommend taking up. Since authors don’t, you know, typically pop out of the ether and explain things to you, the most you can do is talk back.

In any case, my most recent read was James J. O’Donnell’s Avatars of the Wordwhich is a pretty slim volume on the history and evolution of writing technologies. O’Donnell is a classicist by training and, perhaps most famously, taught the “first MOOC” on Augustine.

His book is remarkable for me because it offers a strange balance of nostalgia for large libraries filled with dusty stacks and an impulse to adapt the “digital world” and deem those same dusty libraries “dead” and obsolete. Authors like O’Donnell – especially in the mid-90s moment of, “hey, look, computers are not all HAL!” – tend to express this ambivalence. The weirdest moment, however, is this one:

“The image I like is that of the university as a suite of software, a front end, or what you see onscreen and interact with, to the world as a whole, chosen for its power, speed, functionality, ease of use, even for its user-friendliness. The professor turns into a kind of software icon – click on the professor and let him take you to the world that he knows” (157). 
 

So, a professor becomes the Clippy of the university? Click on the professor and he’ll guide you through your learning experience? This kind of metaphor turns the professor into a sort of bizarre escort into the university world, a packaged “guide.” Now I recognize that part of O’Donnell’s vision is a kind of historical artifact; he was speaking from a moment when online, hybrid, and MOOCs were a complete unknown. Yet I find it fun to chew on the metaphor a decade later and consider: would it be useful for the university to create a more “user-friendly interface?” What happens when learning becomes something treated at “interface value,” a glossy entree to the “professor’s world?” What does “the professor’s world” even look like in this vision of “the university as a suite of software?”

One might argue there’s a certain neoliberal, TED talk vision in this kind of statement too, a desire to make the university more like a WYSWYIG where the purposes of courses are transparent; there’s no self-assembly required to make sense of the work you’re doing. But I wonder how much we owe this transparency to our students. How much do we need to teach at interface value and what do we lose when we don’t have them assemble the parts on their own?

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.

Noise

I’m having trouble turning off noise today. It’s all kinds of noise: cell phone noise, social media noise, inside brain noise. There’s something poetic about being consumed in this “white noise” considering I am in the postmodern phase of my prelim reading. I think my seeming inability to block out all of these dopamine-inducing noises is partially because I started today with finishing a good (well, yes, for my prelim exams, but come on now, what else am I reading?) novel and when that happens, I sometimes don’t quite know what to do with myself. When a novel has an ending that is just so perfect and final, so inevitable, it seems as though there’s nothing else to say either within or outside the world of the novel. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing now: to work out of this funk of, “How do I possibly write about or think about something that already seems so complete?”
To react this way is obviously to react to “good” writing; it is to react to writing that has communicated something surprising, thought-provoking, and insightful. And it is exactly this kind of writing to which scholarship is devoted. But it is also exactly this kind of writing that reminds me why I am sometimes intimidated by putting my voice into scholarly conversation. Sometimes, when I have a very emotional reaction to a piece of writing, I don’t know how to be critical of it anymore. Putting on a scholarly cap is easy to do when it’s a work that evokes nothing in me at all. Obviously, it is pleasurable to write about pleasurable things, but I have yet to determine how to apply an analytic lens to portrayals of love and loss and memory and all of those things that hit me straight in the emotional bits of my being.
I am perhaps feeling a bit emotionally wrought and a bit concerned with “inevitable endings” after today’s appointment of Janet Napolitano for UC President. Now I typically reserve political discussion for places offline (you know, places where my words won’t be stored forever and ever), but I just want to muse upon a few lingering thoughts I’ve had with the news: what does it mean for the head of Homeland Security to become a president of a public university? What message does this send to the larger academic community? In what ways are militarization, intelligence, and national security relevant to the role of the academy in the larger national fabric? There have been university leaders who have not been academics in the past, but never before has there been a university leader implicated primarily in national security. I’ve read a lot of angry editorials (and a lot of optimistic ones too), but I can’t sift through enough of the noise to really make sense of the long-term impacts of this kind of appointment. Perhaps we can’t know what these long-term impacts will be, but I see big changes to public perception of public education that I feel I can’t change, that I’m powerless to affect.
It’s normal to feel small and afraid and voiceless both in the face of large decisions and in front of awe-inspiring works. I’ve expressed this here before and I’ll express it again: I’m paralyzed by the not knowing of where my voice could actually affect change. But (and also again), what can I do but keep beating the oars through the water, hoping that wherever I steer this boat of mine, I’ll make it to some pretty sweet island.

Recurring Dreams, Real Dreams

I’ve been sent to an administrator’s office. The hallway is long, sterile, inevitably linoleum. I’m ushered into a room with taupe walls and stock art. A secretary barely notices me. Then, it’s time to talk to the Man in Charge.

“There’s been something of… a mix-up in the records,” Man in Charge starts, folding his hands on the desk in front of him. He looks me straight in the eyes, somber.

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling the room shrink smaller as the knots in my stomach grow larger.

“It appears as though the scores on your eighth grade exit exams were never put on your academic record,” Man in Charge lowers the glasses to the bridge of his nose, clears his throat. “Without those test scores on your record, it appears as though you never graduated from the eighth grade. Your other degrees are nullified unless you take those state exams.”

I lean back, appalled.

“But I’m working on my doctoral degree! I graduated from college Phi Beta Kappa! I was in the top fifty students at my high school!”

Man in Charge shakes his head.

“None of that matters if there’s no proof that you finished the eighth grade.”

I slump back, defeated.

“There’s nothing I can do?”

Man in Charge purses his lips into a thin line. He sighs audibly.

“I’m afraid not.” He pushes a stack of papers towards me, one emblazoned with golden cursive words that spell, “Welcome!” “I’ve arranged for your enrollment at your former middle school. Golden Hills?”

I nod, dreading all of this, every moment of this.

“You’ve already got your class schedule here. You’ll need to start tomorrow at promptly 7:30 A.M. Your home room is with Mrs. Shepard. School ends at 2:45 P.M. Lunch is at 12:00 P.M. You understand?”

I nod, eyes stinging with the welling of nascent tears.

Some time passes in a breezy drift and then I’m there: school uniform, backpack, three-ring binder. The eighth grade all over again.

It is usually at some point between hearing that fateful news from Man in Charge and stepping into an actual classroom, squeezing into a desk made for a body much smaller than mine, that I wake up from this nightmare. It is a recurring dream, this dream of having to repeat a grade. It is not always the eighth grade; sometimes, it’s the fifth grade. Sometimes, it’s high school. Either way, it’s a return to a regimented day, divided into school periods, always involving a state exam or an exam I forgot to take or never took at all.

I have a number of recurring dreams; this is just one of them. It’s perhaps the most striking one at this point in my career as I anticipate taking more exams of my own, exams that first prove I have basic knowledge of my field and then more exams that prove I have the ideas and chops to write this itsy-bitsy dissertation project thing. Me? Nervous?

If the thoughts from my dreamscape did not make it clear enough already, I hate exams and rarely perform well on them. Perhaps this is why I like writing; it’s an assessment that I can reasonably control. I know how to fix writing to make it clearer. I know when an argument is faulty. I don’t always know when I’ve given a wrong answer. I don’t like anticipating what someone might ask me. In other words, I don’t like giving up my control over the material.

That said, I’m not taking any loathed multiple choice exams. The first exam is my preliminary exam, a two-hour oral exam that tests my knowledge of literary history and media technology theory. I’ve got roughly 150 books of poetry, fiction, drama, and theory to complete before some time this fall (I will not know what date I’ll be taking the exam until roughly six weeks before the date I’m assigned).

I will sit at the end of a long table in a large, hollow room with a cup of compensatory water set in front of me as I answer a series of questions aimed to test how quickly I can think on my feet. I call this “graduate student hazing.” If I pass, I’m on to the next step. If I don’t pass, the punishment is as simple as re-taking this test until I pass. There’s no getting around it.

I’m not exactly reading a book per day, but I’m probably reading anywhere between 200 and 400 pages each day. This seems daunting on paper, but is quite lovely in reality.

Given my life on the screen, an excuse to sit with a book with PAGES on a couch in the summertime is – well – a treat. When I realize my job is to sit on the couch with a book with PAGES (reading carefully and critically and taking good notes and reading critical essays in tandem and ensuring that I understand the literary terms and movements applicable to the text, mind you), I can’t complain. None of these books are “beach reads,” but they are all ones I’ve somehow meant to read, the kinds of books one puts on a bucket list and then, when the time comes to pick it up and actually open up the pages, find something more pressing to do or to read. But I’ve got my external motivation to push me: that long table, those questions, that cup of water I’ll hope not to choke down in a fit of nerves. So, I’m reading. I’m reading a lot.

And as I’m reading, I remember how good it is to read again. It slows me down. It makes my brain lift weights.

A quick digression that will return to the main point soon: I use a lot of analogies with my students when I’m teaching writing and one of my favorites is to compare writing to running. When I first start running, I often feel OK. The adrenaline is rushing. I’ve put myself in the mindset that I’m going to run. But then, after about ten minutes, I’m tired. My breathing is heavy. My thighs and hamstrings feel tight. I’m thirsty. I mean, I’m really over the whole thing and can I go home now? But I recognize that I need to build my endurance in order for the run to be effective, to keep my heart rate high and my body strong. A longer run means that I build more strength. After I get past the pain and the exhaustion, running – at a certain point – feels like exactly what I need. I’m refreshed and my mind is clearer after a run. I’m proud of my efforts.

Similarly, writing for longer and writing more frequently makes writing come more easily; it strengthens one’s ability to articulate one’s thoughts and make an argument. Even when “writer’s block” kicks in and it’s HARD to keep going, writers have to write more – more of anything – in order to produce something of value. Writing is about production.

I struggle with producing words, even as I claim that it’s my craft. This is an everlasting struggle or me, one as wrought as tying on tennis shoes and hitting the pavement. The funny thing is, once I’m invested enough in both activities, I can do both with relative ease; it is the anticipation and fear of both that chokes me up more than anything else.

Even more similarly, reading can be difficult. Sure, reading is much more passive than writing is, but the kind of reading I’m doing – rapid reading of intensely dense materials – requires a concentration and endurance I’ve never had to exert before. While I’m eager to get into my research and to stat my preparation for my next set of exams – the qualifying exams – I know that I have to work through the preliminary exam stage carefully and show that I can absorb hundreds of ideas in a short stretch of time.

I need to prove that I can be an efficient learner, a learner who can synthesize an enormous amount of information and synthesize it well enough to chat casually over tea about it all.

“Why, of course, I can give you not only a clear but an engaging definition of naturalism! Oh, posthumanism, you ask? Why, let me call upon my dear friend, Mark Hansen, to bring that definition to life (pun very much intended!). Perhaps let’s talk time-image while we’re at it. Oh, Deleeeeeuze!”

What will all of this “tea-time” literature knowledge amount to in the long run? The right answer is that I will acquire a basic ability to converse in academic circles. The other and equally as right answer is that I will have the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the critical perspectives that inform whatever kind of dissertation project I pursue. Another equally right answer is that all of my media and technology theory reading will spark ideas for that very same dissertation project and will legitimize the inquiry I pursue. And all of that is very cool even though I’ve been somewhat glib about it.

But I can already imagine the day of the exam itself. I’ll pace around my apartment, then go outside and treat myself to a large mocha and instantly regret the sugar and the caffeine. I’ll be paralyzed with the not knowing what to do and find small things to do until the exam hits. It’ll happen and I’ll forget almost everything about it (unless I fail) and then it’ll be over and I’ll be hit with the crushing anti-climax of it all.

But I think knowing that I can do this, that I can read and read and read and prove myself worthy of being a part of an institution of higher education may quell those dreams, those thoughts of somehow being undeserving or being a clerical error. I know that I can do graduate work and I know that I can do it well. I’ve always wanted to write a book and I’m going to. I hope, I think.

But I’ve got to prove myself first. It’s the first check point. It’s go time.