Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

Can You Really Do Humanities Research With Your Undergraduates?

Full projectrunway

Photo: Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final column in the "Are You Writing?" series on scholarly productivity. Read the first five essays here.


Here’s a scenario that might seem familiar: You are this close to finishing an article or chapter of your book. All that’s left is to wrap up one teeny final section and polish the intro and conclusion. And then, suddenly: the freakout.

In my writing and productivity consulting practice, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen this happen to academic clients. Speedy progress on an article, chapter, or even an entire monograph. But then it turns weird, and they begin to say things like:

  • "I decided that there were 25 more theorists I had to work with in this section that was supposed to be 500 words."
  • Or, "I printed the whole thing out and cut it into literal pieces of paper and spread them all over my kitchen floor."
  • Or, "I realized the thesis was entirely wrong, and I had to rewrite the whole thing."
  • Or just, "I’ll never get it, never!"

Something bizarre happens during that final 10 percent. Something that turns mild-mannered scholars into full-on academic zombies, insatiable for the innards of the meticulous arguments they just spent months crafting. For some reason — actually, for reasons that are transparent, and I’ll get to them — just before a piece of writing is ready to leave a writer’s hands, said writer gets a major case of the Project Runways.

Yes, I’m referring to the classic reality-TV show on fashion design, now in its umpteenth incarnation. In its early years, the show’s mentor, Tim Gunn, would offer a robust critique of a particular garment and tell the designer that this was a "make it work" moment. What he meant: The designer needed to finesse an inspired idea. What the contestants often heard: Throw the garment out and start over. Then these otherwise-brilliant designers would end up sending what essentially amounted to a sack of flour down the runway, sheepishly explaining that they’d created it in two hours. The result was a ticket "auf" the show.

Stay with me. This exact thing applies to academic writing: Anything that you produce in two days to replace months of careful writing — because suddenly you’ve realized something about your manuscript doesn’t quite work — is garbage. Meanwhile, what you thought was garbage because it had a few drafty little problems in it? That had the potential to be great, and you chucked it.

Some of you have the self-discipline not to chuck your manuscript, but you do something almost as bad: You keep revising it … and revising it … and revising it, until it’s an unrecognizable version of its former self. You abjectly refuse to let anyone look at it until it’s "ready," by which you mean "perfect," which it never will be, so maybe you should just start over, right?

To quote that great theorist, Lloyd Dobler: "You must chill!"

Step away from the keyboard. Take a deep breath. Now pay very careful attention to what I’m about to say: That unacceptably facile argument or glaring dearth of adequate citations you just discovered? It is a cruel academic illusion. It’s nothing more than Impostor Syndrome, back again to make itself at home in your head and turn all your productivity into gnawing self-doubt. It’s your anxiety telling you that if you don’t fix this newly discovered flaw immediately, everyone will know that you are a big faking faker who knows nothing about anything, and you will never get tenure, never!

So here’s what you do. It’s not as simple as taking that voice in your head and telling it to shove off (as I can attest from my own experiences with anxiety). Attempting to beat anxiety back just makes it come at you stronger. Instead, whenever you notice (or, more accurately, your partner or friends notice) that you have started to spiral out of control in the last phases of a writing project, try this three-step process:

Step No. 1: Admit the anxiety. Recognize that you are feeling it, that it’s present, that it’s making you feel very, very bad, and that you want to take what seems like the only reasonable remedy — i.e., immediately trash the manuscript causing you that anxiety.

Step No. 2: Make a two-column list. On the left side, put everything you are feeling about what you need to do right now. Don’t hold back. Then on the right side, write the actual, dispassionate fact of the situation that vaguely corresponds to that feeling. For example:

  • Feeling: "This entire thesis is garbage, and a 4-year-old could have come up with it. Everyone is going to make fun of me at the conference, and I’ll be the first person in the history of my institution to be sent back to my B.A. program for being so bad at research."
  • Fact: "The crux of my argument in Section III isn’t quite working at present, and the larger argument of my manuscript depends on the crux of Section III."

Step No. 3: Ignore half of the list. Under no circumstances should you act on anything that appears in the left column of that list. Instead, concentrate on the facts you’ve listed in the right column and on what you need to do to remedy most of them. Notice that I said most — not all. In your "final" revision of the project, take care of most of the problems, but leave at least one unresolved. In the words of another great mentor, that esteemed philosopher Elsa of Arendelle, you’ve got to let it go. Then show your draft with its unresolved issue to someone.

This trick works for several reasons. First, it gets you to wrest the thing from your neurotic little mitts in the first place, since scholars publish exactly zero percent of the work they don’t submit. Second, it forces you to do something you were going to do anyway: Show your imperfect work to another human being.

Because here’s the thing: Even if you magically got your work into what you very much believe to be a perfect state, it is the literal job of your dissertation adviser, mentor, peer reviewer, or editor to find faults in it. And they will. So why not lob them a softball or two?

Worst-case scenario: You get told to fix something you already knew you had to fix. Plus you bought yourself some time to figure out how to "make it work." Best-case scenario: Your reader doesn’t actually find fault with the thing you think is a deal-breaker, and you save a trunkload of time.

Now here’s the fun part. Both of those scenarios are actually the best-case scenario. Because you did it — you stopped overworking your writing or, worse, sloppily redoing it. You let go what needed to be let go.

Most important of all, you refused to let your natural and understandable anxiety masquerade as fact. You trusted, even shakily, your own worth and intellect, and kept the academic zombie apocalypse at bay for just a little longer.

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