Rebecca Schuman

Author, Translator, Independent Scholar at self-employed

Are You Working? How to Move Past Fear and Into Productivity

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Editor’s Note: In this new series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions about scholarly motivation and productivity from graduate students and faculty members. The questions she tackles this month came via Twitter and Facebook. Read her inaugural column on work issues amid Covid-19 here.

Question: How do you write when you’re scared of your dissertation? I can’t even open a document for days. I think a portion of it is a fear of impending criticism from my committee  the result of both a longstanding aversion to criticism and a more recent set of criticisms I got in the prospectus phase of my project. Another portion is perhaps having a “scary adviser” who, in fact, has never been scary in our meetings and has been very encouraging. The scariness, I think, comes from this person’s reputation in the field and my fear that I might turn in something that disappoints. And then probably the third element of the scariness — that I can identify — is that this is my very own, Very Big Project (if that makes sense).

Signed, Scared

Oh, it makes so very much sense. You have articulated the innermost thoughts of every graduate student: “What if everyone finds out I don’t really know as much as they think I do? What if, at my dissertation defense, they pull a Billy Madison on me, and award zero points?”

You have every right to feel anxious; this an anxiety-producing process (in an anxiety-producing period of history). But! There’s good news: What’s happening to you is actually quite a bit less about your prospectus defense and your aversion to criticism than you think. That scathing critique of your prospectus? That was your initiation into the Real Scholars’ Club. Welcome, and enjoy more of the same for the rest of your academic life.

But it sounds as if either your advisers forgot to tell you an important caveat or, if they did, you didn’t hear it: Compiling a monograph is a skill totally independent of your mastery of the subject matter. It’s also a skill that you do not yet possess because you (probably) haven’t written a book before.

It may be a skill they forgot to teach you — although, to be frank, their advice on this front could be less than helpful, anyway. If your advisers are of the work-is-everything school, they may think that sacrificing weekends and vacations for years, in order to write, is normal. (Pro tip: It’s not.) Even if their intentions are good, their methods might be unrealistic. (“Wake up at 3 a.m., and write for five hours straight.”)

Instead, try to do the following two steps:

  • Acknowledge that your impostor syndrome is real, but make an appointment to check back in with it in, say, six months, after you’ve written more words. Existential terror never sped anyone’s typing. Best to treat it as an annoying acquaintance that you have to go out to lunch with at some point, just not today.
  • Forget about the scope of your Very Big Project for now. Create multiple small documents as if you were simply writing a series of unrelated papers. Trick yourself into doing something you already know how to do. And set yourself a very real, doable goal of writing 500 words a day, five days a week. (If you’re a slow writer, choose a smaller number: 200, 250, 300.) They don’t have to be good words. You can fix them later.

Good luck, my scared friend. (And the next time you see your “scary” adviser? Picture him/her/them doing the GOB “chicken” dance.)

Question: I’ve been teaching for 14 years, but I still tend to reread everything before each class (although I usually rely on my notes). What are some strategies for spending less time prepping for class, so I have more time to focus on my research?

Signed, Reluctant Preppy

One of the least-discussed laws of physics is that teaching will expand to fill every single second of time it’s given. At the same time, a seasoned pedagogue such as yourself could — I’m not suggesting you should — walk into any class cold and do a pretty good job of winging it. For the simple reason that you have amassed the knowledge necessary to obtain a terminal degree in your field, and know more about your subject than your students do.

The solution lies in the middle: Give your teaching less of your work time, and harness the jolt of adrenaline that comes from that. I actually find that the little jolt you get from not being as prepared as usual (e.g., overprepared) brings a certain energy to the classroom.

So whether you are preparing for class at home or in the office, train yourself to do this first: Open your laptop, and pull up literally any document related to your research, set a timer for 15 minutes, and work on the draft in some way for that mere quarter of an hour. Edit a paragraph or two. Free-write 150 words. Write a note to self about some reading you want to do. After a while, as you get better at shortcutting your class prep (really, just unconsciously working faster at it), turn that 15 minutes of research/writing into 30. Those minutes will add up, and you will resent your teaching (and your students) less, and be more productive in all aspects of your work.

Question: I’m wondering, as a career adjunct, if it’s worth trying to get proper academic publications (and the rigorous process that we all know that is) or to go with more “alt-ac” website or blog-style writing that has a shorter time to press. The prestige of a big-time publication is all in the hope of a tenure-track position. Since that seems to be all but a fever dream at this point, should I use my powers for good elsewhere?

Signed, I’m Tired Boss

I’m going to go ahead and say, with 95-percent certainty, that a tenure-track job is unlikely to be in your future. That, dear ITB, has nothing to do with you or your work. There just aren’t enough jobs on the tenure track for all the Ph.D.s seeking one, and no amount of “big-time” publications will make those positions materialize. (I write from experience: When I was on the faculty-job market, I had quite the tidy handful of said publications, and it did diddly squat for my chances.)

The last thing I want you (or anyone) to do is donate hours of your time to a scholarly article that you would not otherwise write. The days of publish or perish are firmly in the past, displaced in our casualized dystopia by publish and perish.

As for writing for websites and mainstream publications, do you know something I don’t about blogs? Because from my vantage point, their heyday was a few years back. In any event, my advice is actually the same: Write only what is interesting to you for its own sake, and with the knowledge that while this publication may help your career, it probably will not.

I can’t alleviate your disillusionment about the faculty-career path, but I can offer advice on how to proceed with your writing. Despite your exhaustion, ITB, I think you actually do want to pursue your scholarship. So here’s a plan (reader, it’s going to sound familiar):

  • Every day for the next two weeks, devote — you guessed it — 15 minutes to just spewing out any random thoughts about said research that come to your mind. Don’t delete anything.
  • Don’t reread anything you’ve written until the two weeks are up. (If you miss a day, or two, or three, don’t sweat it. Just try to do it the next day and remember: You can do almost anything for 15 minutes.)
  • Once the two-week stint is over, leave everything for a day or two. Then hold your nose and read through it all. Decide: What does this really want to be?

I don’t say this to be fatalistic as much as liberating: Allow the writing you already have inside you to reveal itself, instead of fretting over what you should do for your career, since — and again, I mean this in the best possible way — a single piece of writing won’t really matter.

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