Tag Archives: Writing

What Matters in a Statement of Purpose

I’m seeing an awful lot of SOP/grad school flailing going on on my various social media platforms, so here are some highlights from the workshop I ran for our students a couple of weeks ago along with the handout I distributed. All materials are the property of the New Economic School Writing and Communications Center.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and GRE scores.
  • Your Personal Statement is the document where you make the argument for why you will be a good investment, demonstrating:
    • That you understand what advanced academic work in your field entails and that you have at least a general plan for getting through it.
    • That you have thought about your areas of interest and are able to describe the shape that your future research might take.
    • That you have done research on this specific program and understand how their specific strengths fit your goals.
    • That you have some idea of what you want to do with your degree (even though that may be a decade in the future).


  • Start writing early. Your personal statement will likely go through many drafts before you are ready to submit it.
  • If a school asks you to answer specific questions, be sure to do that. It’s crucial to show that you’re individualizing your application for each school and that you have thought seriously about their questions.
  • And even with a specific set of questions, you still must work to make your answers meaningful and unique.
  • Ask yourself the following sets of questions as you brainstorm.
    • The Field:
      • Why do you want to be a _____? Don’t think about why other people may choose this profession; why do you want that as your profession?
      • What are the benefits and drawbacks of the profession?
      • How and when did you learn about the field? Was it through a class, reading, work experience, or a professor? Is that story important to your story? What have you learned about it that has further stimulated your interest?
      • What particular path in the field interests you now? What are your career goals?
    • The Program:
      • Why do you want to get into this program? Don’t talk about Economics programs in general, but Harvard’s Economics Program or Stanford’s Economics Program. Maybe there’s a particular professor with whom you want to work. Maybe the school offers excellent research opportunities or teaching experience to graduate students. If you’re not sure, do more research about the school or talk with a professor or student.
    • Yourself:
      • What’s special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you and your story?
      • Are there details about your life that can help the committee understand you or that will make you stand out from other applicants?
      • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (i.e. economic, familial, physical)? Admissions committees are interested in unique personal narratives and evidence of having overcome adversity.
      • What personal skills or characteristics do you possess that would make you successful in the field? How can you show admissions committees that you have those?
      • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school and/or more successful in the field than other applicants?
      • What are the most important reasons the admissions committee should be interested in you?
      • Does your academic record have gaps or discrepancies you need to explain (i.e. excellent grades but poor GRE)

What Makes a Poor Personal Statement:

  • Isn’t specific or unique—relies on clichés “I have always wanted to be an economist” or “I have always dreamed of attending Harvard.”
  • Doesn’t indicate that you’ve researched the institution
  • Doesn’t indicate your past work that serves as evidence of your potential as a student
  • Rambles or includes irrelevant information

General Tips:

  • Tell a story—show what you want to say through concrete experience. Rather than “I have an adventurous spirit,” tell us about the service trip you went on with a group of strangers to India.
  • Find an angle—most people have “normal” stories, so a focus that makes yours interesting.
  • Be focused—if the application asks you to answer specific questions, answer them. If there are no specific questions, still maintain focus. Choose important qualities/characteristics and write only about those.
  • Be specific—do not make claims you cannot back up with experience.
  • Avoid clichés.
  • Be coherent—the way you write indicates the kind of person you are. Someone who writes clearly is likely a sensible person.
  • Interpret material for your readers. Don’t repeat the material in your application—instead, explain how those experiences relate to the program for which you’re applying.
  • Don’t be afraid to be personal, as long as it’s appropriate.
  • Tell what you know about the field or profession. Share what you’ve already learned—refer to experience (work, research), classes, conversations you’ve had with people who work in the field, books you’ve read, seminars you’ve attended—and then show why you’re well suited to the profession.
  • Research the school.
  • If the school’s location provides a major geographical or cultural change, consider writing about that.
  • If there is a word limit, stay within it.

More, including samples, here: Personal Statement Workshop Handout

If you’re going to be pedantic about grammar, please at least be right.

Students need to learn the principles of grammar in order to communicate effectively. This is an argument that even the grooviest of descriptive linguists has a hard time disagreeing with. In order to be able to break the rules in ways that are aesthetically or rhetorically effective, you first have to master them. But the same, I humbly argue, applies if you are going to be ultra-picky about grammar.

I am speaking especially to instructors who shave points off papers for perceived grammatical mistakes, particularly in classes where you are not actually teaching writing. In order for that sort of system to be fair, it needs to be pretty nigh close to infallible, but unfortunately, in my years working in writing centers and as an independent writing coach, I’ve seen plenty of papers on which mistakes are marked that aren’t actual mistakes. There’s the egregious stuff, like the business communication instructor who confuses passive voice with intransitive verbs (no, really). And there’s the subtle, but arguably more insidious stuff, like the marking of things as wrong that are not in fact grammatically wrong could, perhaps, benefit from editing to deal with wordiness, vagueness, or syntactical awkwardness. I’ve seen sentences like this receive nothing but an “X” with “GRAMMAR”  in the margin without any guidance as to what rule the student has broken or how they should correct it. It’s notations like these that indicate to me that the instructor in question hasn’t the foggiest idea what they’re actually talking about when they talk about grammar.

The truth is that effective editing is often a subjective process that involves not the upholding or breaking of set-in-stone rules but selection among multiple legitimate choices depending upon what it is the writer wishes to communicate. But acknowledging that questions of what makes effective writing are at bottom so subjective is threatening both to instructors and to students who are looking for something concrete upon which to base a grade. Sure, you can point to really specific things like comma splices and sentence fragments, but when it gets down to more complex writing issues, students will invariably find that their grade depends upon the hobby horses of their specific teachers. This one says the passive voice is always wrong. This one says never begin a sentence with a conjunction. In this context, such attempts to present grammar as a set of absolute, inarguable statutes, students receive the message that they are going to be punished for doing things they didn’t even know were wrong. That they may, in fact, be punished for doing something in X’s class that was considered correct in Y’s class. Last year, I had a graduate student bring me her marked paper, distraught by the points she lost for grammar, and I looked through the marks and had to tell her that honestly, in some places she lost points for things that weren’t wrong. And in fact, in at least one case, her instructor had changed a verb tense that was correct originally but now no longer agreed with the subject.

This is unacceptable. If you are going to make an issue out of grammar in your class, you need to be prepared to teach grammar in some form or another, even if that only means  making resources readily available for students who exhibit patterns of error. But the bottom line remains that you, yourself need to know what you are talking about.

The same thing goes if you are flitting about the internet correcting people’s tweets or interrupting casual conversation to comment on adverb usage. This is already socially marginal behavior, so don’t take the risk of both being a dick and a fool.

David Foster Wallace’s “Octet” and the Torture of Writing

One of my most intelligent students last semester told me that he’s always had a hard time getting into David Foster Wallace because he feels like if he fails to “get it,” he’ll feel stupid. Having sat through graduate courses on Postmodernism and Critical Theory, I know the feeling–really–and yet I find Wallace to be one of the more approachable, humanistic purveyors of post-post-whatever meta-fictional experimentation. His stuff is dense, sure, and often deliberately opaque, but in additional to probing and satirizing aspects of twentieth and twenty-first century life in apt and often prescient ways, he in the top 1% of writers who are capable of combining humor with a soul-rending sense of pathos.

“Octet,” which appears in Brief Interviews of Hideous Men, is a story I’ve started assigning both because it’s a great example of meta-fictionality and because it dramatizes right before your eyes the crippling self-consciousness that afflicts anyone who has ever sat down to write something, from a novel to a term paper. Along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, it’s a terrifyingly funny and relatable depiction of just how torturous writing typically is–particularly in the era of detached, adultish, post-ironic snark.

Beginning as a set of experimental fictional pieces called “pop quizzes,” Wallace presents a series of stories that conclude with some kind of question that asks the reader to make some kind of judgment about the predicament of the characters in it, questions that are designed to probe something meaningful about the reader herself. We get 4 such quizzes, numbered 4-7 (two are labelled 6 and 6A). Number 8 is skipped. And 9 begins with a direct address to the reader:

You are, unfortunately, a fiction writer. You are attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces, pieces which as it happens are not contes philosophiques and not vignettes or scenarios or allegories or fables, exactly, though neither are they really qualifiable as ‘short stories’ (not even as those upscale microbrewed Flash Fictions that have become so popular in recent years–even though these belletristic pieces are really short, they just don’t work like Flash Fictions are supposed to). How exactly the cycle’s short pieces are supposed to work is hard to describe. Maybe say they’re supposed to compose a sort of ‘interrogation’ of the person reading them, somehow–i.e. palpations, feelers into the interstices of her sense of something, etc. . . . though what that ‘something’ is remains maddeningly hard to pin down, even just for yourself as you’re working on the pieces (pieces that are taking a truly grotesque amount of time, by the way, far more time than they ought to vis a vis their length and aesthetic ‘weight,’ etc.

What follows for the next 15 pages is a foot-noted diatribe on the difficulties of writing what the author declares to be “a total fiasco,” a series of pieces that the author insists, for some reason, on calling an “octet,” when it really isn’t, of a series of “pop quizzes,” most of which don’t really function all that well as such. The author asks the reader to consider all of the devices by which one might salvage the whole endeavor, perhaps by “some terse unapologetic acknowledgement” that this isn’t working, which might save face and deflate the pretentiousness of the whole thing but “also has the disadvantage of flirting with metafictional self-reference . . . which in the late 1990s, when even Wes Craven is cashing in on metafictional self-reference, might come off as lame and tired and facile.” The whole thing crawls further up its own ass when the author offers the reader

[A] chance to salvage the potential fiasco of you feeling that the 2+(2(1)) pieces add up to something urgent and humand and the reader not feeling that way at all. Because now it occurs to you that you could simply ask her. The reader. That you could poke your nose out of the mural hole that ‘6 isn’t working as a Pop Quiz’ and ‘Here’s another shot at it’ etc. have already made adnd address the reader directly and ask her straight out whether she’s feeling anything like what you feel.

The hazard of this additional, ultra-meta pop quiz, he warns is that

You’d have to be 100% honest. Meaning not just sincere but almost naked. Worse than naked–more like unarmed. Defenseless. ‘This thing I feel, I can’t name it straight out but it seems important, do you feel it too?–this sort of direct question is not for the squeamish. For one thing, it’s perilously close to

The whole thing is riddled with footnotes that dramatize the author/reader’s growing insecurity about his/her choices, obsessing over whether the use of the term “relationship” is too touchy-feely or whether the word “palpate” to describe what the quizzes are meant to do is too pretentious. This reaches its climax when he tries to figure out if the verb “to be” as in “to be with someone” carries too much cultural baggage to be taken seriously.

All of this, of course, offers plenty of opportunities to talk about form and authorial choices and to what degree Wallace is just fucking with us. Many of my students think he’s doing quite a lot of the latter and find the whole thing more than a little pretentious and exhausting. This, of course, is what the authorial voice of the “Octet” anticipates, that the reader will be alienated by this excruciating sincerity in the same way that someone “who not only goes to a party all obsessed about whether he’ll be like or not but actually goes around at the party and goes up to strangers and asks them whether they like him or not” is going to terrify and alienate his neighbors. When I teach this piece, I show the Community episode, “Critical Film Studies” and talk about the fact that the terrifying sincerity of the final Pop Quiz shares features with Jeff’s speech to Abed when he confesses to calling up phone sex lines and saying he weighs 300 pounds because he needs to believe that he’ll be loved regardless of what he looks like. It’s something you’re not supposed to say, and because of that, it needs to be folded into layers of mediation and self-reference in order to defuse the horrifying nakedness of it all.

There is one sentence in “Octet” that runs on for three pages, footnoted no less than six times, requiring you, the reader, to decide whether to read the entire thing and go back to the footnotes, break up the sentence by reading the footnotes as they appear, or ignoring the footnotes altogether. If you go with Option #2, it’s easy to completely miss the fact that this sentence is essentially the thesis statement of the piece, which amounts to, more or less, the fact that we all desperately want to be loved and understood on our own terms but are desperately afraid (and rightly so) that we won’t. If you choose Option #3, you miss dramatization of the authorial voice’s excruciating indecision over specific word choices, and if you choose #1, you sort of get that but not with the same immediacy. In other works, both you’re going to kind of miss the urgency of it any way, and the author has designed it as such so that you can be impressed by the pyrotecnics in case you don’t “get” the essential terrifying point that he’s driving at.

The thing is that you don’t have to be a writer of belletristic fiction in order to get this. Every time you post something to a blog or to Facebook or Twitter or even go up to someone and say, “I was just thinking…” you are inviting a kind of rejection and misunderstanding and weighing against that terror the possibility that you might be warmly received, that your interlocutor or reader will say, “Hey, I totally get you.” In an age of endless self-disclosure that was only beginning to spring up when this piece was written, it’s a set of demons we do battle with not only when we sit down to do formal writing but with almost every online interaction.

And then you have to reflect on the fact that the more successful you get at this dance, the more people who are willing to buy what you’re selling, you run the risk of becoming further alienated from the people who provided you with that sense of connection to humanity. One of the demons Wallace seems to be battling in “Octet” is, in fact, “David Foster Wallace,” a literary persona weighted down with a host of expectations:

At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of pre-arranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anything like the same way you do . . . more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a Writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ.

And of course, there is a degree to which this all just feels too clever, like the whole thing has crawled so far up its own ass that it ceases to be as human or urgent or relateable as it wants to be. The piece acknowledges its own manipulativeness, which in and of itself manipulative. But then you remember that David Foster Wallace killed himself and realize that this crippling self-consciousness and inability to escape the recursive loops of self-doubt might have had something to do with that. Because earlier in this same collection there is a story called “The Depressed Person” that lays out with excruciating accuracy the self-defeating, often fatal cycles of self-loathing that accompany mental illness. Such that the whole thing just spills open for you and becomes either a yawning pit of sadness or a sign that you, writing your blog post or thinking about your term paper, aren’t as alone as you think.

Being a “Real” Writer

comic frame from Hyperbole and a Half depicts a girl typing happily on her computer at 3:17 am
Eerily accurate portrait of myself at this moment.

Ok, so sometimes I’m late to the party.  I just came across this two month old post at Hyperbole and a Half, which hilariously depicts what happens when we try to get our lives together and act like “real adults” (cleaning the house, buying real groceries, going to the bank, etc.), take on way too many responsibilities, start to slip a bit, plummet into a guilt spiral, and wind up indulging in shameful, non-adult habits like surfing the internet at all hours of the night (ahem).

This is a cycle I also tend to go through with my writing.  I’ll have a backlog of projects (blog posts, prospective articles, dissertation chapters, etc.) that I haven’t been able to finish, so I start setting schedules.  Actually, what usually happens first is that I read something like this and feel terrible that I’m not churning out a certain number of pages or staring at a Word document a certain number of hours of the day.  Writing advice columns are toxic for me.  No matter how benign and common sensical that advice might be, my brain interprets it like this:  “There are people out there writing so much more than I am.  I WILL NEVER BE A SERIOUS WRITER OR ACADEMIC OR EVER HAVE A REAL JOB OR BE ABLE TO FEED MYSELF UNTIL I GET MY SHIT TOGETHER!!!1!1!1!!1111 My therapist and I are trying to sort out why this is.

So I then start making promises to myself about how I am going to rise much earlier than my body would like and begin WORKING in all capital letters just like that.  I will get wildly optimistic about what I can accomplish and even–because why?  I’m not sure–start bragging about my ambitious schedule to my advisors:  “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a draft of that chapter I still have to read 20 books for by the end of the month!”  God bless these people.  They seem to know that it’s delusion but indulge me anyway.  So yeah, I’ll plug away at my writing for several hours a day for a few days.  I’ll read and take notes on stuff.  I’ll organize my bibliography and format the margins.  Then eventually I’ll realize that the actual text isn’t really going anywhere and I’ll start to panic.  I realize that my self-imposed deadlines, which were ridiculous to begin with, are going to be blown.   Then I start falling asleep at my computer because my circadian rhythms are all screwed up.  So I sort of say “eff it” and start distracting myself with West Wing reruns.

Eventually, the chapters do get done, but it never EVER looks like the advice dispensed in those writing advice columns.  I always spin my wheels like for weeks on end working in fits and spurts with the best of intentions until I discover the Alpha and Omega of ideas, the idea that unlocks the whole goddamn problem.  Then I’ll spend two to three weeks in a kind of writing fugue state, churning out massive chunks of prose in record time, working 7-8 hours a day and forgetting to eat, waking up in the middle of the night to write some more.  During these periods, I don’t need “motivation.”  I need chemical sedatives.  Last April, an epiphany struck while I was casually reading on my way home from a conference and nearly had a panic attack when I was asked to please turn off my electronic device.  Then I’ll emerge from this process exhausted and worn out.  I’ll send that project off to someone for feedback and then indulge in some World of Warcraft or Spider Solitaire or whatever, since my brain is by that point a wrung out piece of mush.  Then I’ll start that process all over again (it’s conveniently timed for maximum productivity in the months of November/December and April/May, so at least it’s attuned to the academic calendar).

Part of me sort of hates this.  I wish I wrote more like writing advice columns told me to.  I wish I were able to keep a meticulous writing log or commit to writing between the hours of 8 and 12 for more than a few days at a time.  I like to think that I would be even more productive if I did, but it’s not working out, at least not yet.

Part of me also wonders if those bits of advice so ceremoniously handed down are, in fact, little fictions in and of themselves.  Perhaps, instead of the sort of “here’s how I write and how you should too because I get columns published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Moses atop the mountain, handing you the keys to the kingdom wisdom nuggets I imagine them to be, they are in fact stories about how the author would like to write.  Perhaps they document how they think other people write, the inflated expectations they impose upon themselves after selectively watching their successful colleagues only during their best, most productive moments.  Or, you know, maybe I just need therapy.

I’m considering the notion of embracing my own process and making it work rather than trying to adopt someone else’s.  That’s a little bit scary, because I have issues with self-trust.  I would start with acknowledging that there is something sort of valid about the way I do things, that I do, in fact, get writing done and that the end product (once that first draft produced during the fugue state rests for a little while and gets a thorough revision or six over the course of the next few months) tends to be good.  All I would like to do is speed it up a little bit.  So instead of shaming myself for being one of those people who requires a moment of divine revelation in order to really get a project going, I can study the conditions under which those epiphanies occur.  They happen when I’m reading, actually.  So I need to read and read widely, even stuff that doesn’t seem to be 100% relevant.  They also happen when I’m not feeling harried and exhausted, so I need to create the conditions for calm to the best of my ability.  And yeah, sometimes that will mean a West Wing episode or two.

But accepting my own process also means setting aside my fantasies about how other, more successful writers do things.  The truth is, it probably isn’t as neat as it looks on the surface.  And it’s worth noting  that I’ve never actually looked at the name of the author of one of these columns and said, “Oh yeah, he wrote that groundbreaking article on the theory of blahdy blah blah blah.”  The world isn’t made up of just good writers and bad writers, successful writers and unsuccessful ones.  Most of us are just writers, puttering along, trying to figure shit out on our own terms, sometimes doing well at it and sometimes doing less well.

It’s the same with being a “real adult.”  Most other people over the age of 22 aren’t doing it nearly as well as you imagine they are.  I’ve long been insecure about not having a “real job” yet, a real job being defined by me as an arrangement in which you show up at a workplace at predefined hours and perform Work (whatever that may be).  Then my sister told me about her “real job” at a major accounting firm, where she sometimes did client work (sometimes late into the night) but also spent an awful lot of time reading ESPN.com.  She now has her own accounting business and recently told me that she does her most boring work on a dual monitor setup so that she can watch Glee on another screen.  She makes a  lot more money than me, too.  My other sister, who works the night shift on the reservations line for a major luxury hotel chain also surfs the internet between calls and is encouraged to bring a book to read to help stay awake.  In other words, I have learned that a big part of having a “real job” is showing up, performing the work that needs to be done but also just being there in case work needs to be done even if what you’re doing at any given moment looks decidedly not like work.

So yeah, I’ll own it.  I’m on fellowship, and my job looks an awful lot like vacation, especially to my father in law (therapy!).  But I can “show up.”  I can create the conditions that are likely to produce good writing.  I can learn more about how I write and potentially turn that knowledge into higher productivity.  And the thing is:  no one’s watching, not my parents, not the people who dispense trophies for being a “real writer/adult,” not the people who write the advice columns, and not even my advisors.  As long as the diss eventually gets done, who really gives a crap how it happened?

Image credit:  Allie Brosh

Revision Blues

I’m deep into revisions of the first two chapters of my dissertation, and it is going so slow and taking so long that I feel like I can see myself aging in the slight reflection of my laptop monitor (I really should have sprung for the non-reflective, anti-glare screen).  As such, I don’t have the time or mental energy to be witty and insightful on the blog.  In fact, the number of blog posts I produce in any given month is probably a direct measurement of how much is not getting done on my thesis.

You’d think that the revision stage would be easier than the drafting stage, especially when you already have a pretty good document to work with, as I do right now.  You’d think that it would be pretty automatic, fun even.  But the revision process is decidedly lacking in the euphoric moments that the invention and drafting processes seem to be full of, moments of discovery, moments when you suddenly realize you know exactly what to say and how to say it, entire days where you can scarcely tear yourself away from the keyboard because you are so inspired and have to get that thought down before it flies away.  That doesn’t happen as often when you’re revising.

Revision is where you have to go back and look critically at those epiphanies, those products of inspiration and figure out if they are worth keeping, if they are really as brilliant as you thought they were the first time.  Revision is where you have to take that list of additional sources your advisor thinks you should cite and figure out how to work them into a vision you thought was so complete when you sent it to him.  Revision is where you have to look at those places where the reader went, “Huh?” and figure out why they aren’t getting it.  When I’m drafting, there are moments where I stop and say, “Damn, I’m good at this.”  Revision is the opposite.  Revision is where I start updating my resume and wondering if I should just go back to working in retail or medical billing.

I’m guessing that this stage of the process is why a lot of people don’t finish.  It’s like spending hours of each day looking at your face in a magnified mirror in florescent lighting.  Also, did I mention that it takes forever?  In order to work in five additional citations, which will amount, at most, to a few new paragraphs of material, I first have to read all those books, and then figure out what new light they might shed on my particular research problem.  Then I have to figure out if they merit lengthy summaries and discussions of their own or if I can get away with assigning a few footnotes of the “see also” variety.

The one advantage revision has over drafting is that I have a pretty clear set of priorities.  I have a checklist.  Read X, Y, and Z, then alter this section to accommodate them.  Then get rid of this section and disperse some of the examples into other sections.  Then write a better conclusion.  Et. freaking cetera.  I normally like checklists, but right now, I, a textbook Type A control freak who has her entire personal library alphabetized wants nothing more than to become a Jack Kerouac-style beatnik, but without the casual sexism and racism.  Also, I want to set fire to my computer.

It helps to be a little bit nice to yourself when you’re revising.  I’ve been relocating to various Panera Bread restaurants all week, to avoid the insistent, judgmental silence of my home office, the bleakness of the college campus during the summer, and the urge to avoid the inevitable by going out and weeding my flower bed in triple digit heat.  I am spending way too much money on fancy schmancy salads and Chai Tea Lattes lately.  But that’s how I cope, I guess.

NPR: Mapping the Brain through Writing

Who says English has no practical applications?  I heard a bit of writing-related news on NPR this morning:

Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, has spent much of his career trying to see past the words on the page and into the psyche of the author. He makes concordances of different texts; basically, an alphabetical list of all the words and the contexts in which they appear in a text. This is a tradition that dates back to medieval monks, who would make concordances of the Bible in the hopes of seeing the mind of God.

Lancashire fed the works of one of the most prolific authors in modern history–Agatha Christie–into a computer and studied the evolution of the vocabulary of her novels:

When Lancashire looked at the results for Christie’s 73rd novel, written when she was 81 years old, he saw something strange. Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” “nothing” – terms that Lancashire classifies as “indefinite words” – spiked. At the same time, number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. “That is astounding,” says Lancashire, “that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.”

Lancashire waited two years before publishing the results of his study, during which time he checked his results with statisticians and linguists and pathologists. “I did not want to say what was said in the end,” says Lancashire, “that yes, the data supported a view that she had developed Alzheimer’s.”

Christie was never formally diagnosed, so we will never know for sure if Lancashire’s conclusions are correct, but the implications for this sort of scholarship seem to be compelling, not only because it might enable us to understand the authors of the past on a new level but because it points to how our own writing might be key to understanding who we are and where we are going.

At the very least, it suggests some exciting confluences between the world of literary studies and the world of science.

Multiple Assignments and Unlimited Revisions in a Writing Curriculum

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Fall course offerings and came across an upper division undergraduate History class called “Religion and Popular Culture.” The content of the course looked fantastic, as the pop culture focus was on the Ben-Hur tradition (something I am currently researching), but in the part of the course description that lists assessment criteria, I found cause for concern:

Fifty percent of the course grade will be determined by class attendance and sustained and useful participation in class discussion. There will be no examinations as long as students do the assigned reading and sustain effective discussion. The other half of the course grade will be determined by the semester’s writing project. Students will write a paper of at least sixteen pages on a topic that traces a theme or development through all of the cultural manifestations of Ben-Hur over the past 125 pages. In preparing that paper they will write a brief prospectus, a longer prospectus, a first draft of the essay and then a revised draft. At all stages of the writing project leading to the final version, students’ work will be evaluated by the instructor and then re-written to reflect that evaluation.

I have said my piece about participation grades already. Basing half the entire course grade on participation seems to me to be a recipe for migraine headaches at the end of term, but this professor has been doing his thing for a long time, so I guess he has a method.

What I really want to talk about here is the logic of basing almost the entirety (given that most participation components are kind of bullshit) of a final course grade on a single written assignment and then marking it–as this course was–with a “Writing Flag.” Ok, from what I understand, “Writing Flag” courses are meant to teach undergraduates something about writing in that particular discipline. A good half of the student body tests out of the required freshman comp class here, so most writing instruction is inevitably happening in these Writing Flag courses that can be hosted by just about any department.

Now, a sixteen page research project in an upper division course is probably pretty reflective of the kind of writing one might do in the history field. At least, that’s been par for the course in all of the graduate seminars I’ve taken in the humanities and social sciences. My concern is that writing is something that one can only learn by practicing, by trial and error. Even though this particular class requires a good deal of preparatory work for the final paper (two prospectuses and a first draft), I would worry that students aren’t really getting a whole lot of practice at this particular kind of writing before it comes time to start working on this massive omnibus project.  They ought to have some lower stakes opportunities for figuring out what kinds of topics work, what counts as a thesis, how to structure and organize a smaller argument before doing a larger one, etc.

And this is a course being taught by a professor who I know to be excellent. I can see him doing quite a bit of writing instruction in the classroom, presenting samples, holding students hands through the process, giving ample feedback on proposals, etc. But there are a number of “Writing Flag” courses out there (enough that the chair of the Sophomore Literature committee warned all new instructors against following this example) that really do just demand a final draft of a huge paper on the final day of class and call that a writing course. I imagine these are the same professors who whine about the under-preparedness of college freshman (without a clue as to what the conditions are in public high school English departments) and refuse to teach “writing fundamentals” in any form whatsoever. I imagine that these are also the same professors who take off a point for every grammatical error.

Knew the material before you walked in the door and doesn't really need to be in this class.

My issue with this type of grading policy is that it does not encourage actual improvement. It’s designed to disproportionately reward students who came into the class with a lot of experience and strong skills while disproportionately punishing those with less experience and rougher skills. There’s a column at The Chronicle of Higher Education that I mostly find insufferable (for reasons I may talk about in another post) but that makes this point pretty well. Describing his first experience as a graduate student composition instructor, when he was asked to curb the trend toward grade inflation, the pseudonymous author says:

What Dr. Cathcart didn’t say, but that I realized afterward, was that Elite National U. did not want me to teach first-year students as much as sort them according to the abilities they brought with them to my classroom. Having been asked to halt the progress of Marty, a student with special needs, I had no desire to find out what happened to a TA who didn’t sort papers according to a bell-curve standard. After that day, my grading report sheets displayed lovely bell shapes.

Because first-year students’ success depended upon skills they had mastered before showing up on our campus, I suspected the same principle applied to teaching assistants.

Trying to teach writing without a strong emphasis on shorter, lower stakes assignments, regular instructor feedback, and opportunity for revision, without–in a word–PRACTICE built into the curriculum makes about as much sense as trying to teach a musical instrument via a lecture course. Imagine you are a student sitting in this hypothetical lecture course on, say, the piano, in which the professor waxes poetically about the piano itself, about the technique of great pianists past, even demonstrates his own remarkable skills and then asks everyone to learn a Sonata by the end of term without any opportunity for one-on-one instruction. The bald reality of the situation is that teaching writing–like learning an instrument–requires a great deal of back and forth between student and instructor and requires ample room for the student to take risks and mess up and then start over and try again. Teaching writing requires room for shitty first drafts.

So, while a long assignment may be desirable in your class–especially if you want your students to engage in focused research–it’s worthwhile to consider adding shorter assignments–ones that are unrelated to the larger project–to the syllabus. My students do a long paper on a text assigned in class at the end of the semester, but they also do three short analysis papers, all of which receive feedback from me.

And here’s the kicker: I allow all of my students to revise any assignment as many times as they want up to a certain date. I’m not exactly an innovator in this respect, but it’s worth mentioning here because I think this policy scares a lot of instructors, mostly because it seems like it would translate to a lot more work. It really doesn’t have to. I’m going to do a follow up post to this tomorrow (because this one is already really long) that will explain how the concept of unlimited revisions can actually drastically decrease the amount of time you spend commenting on individual drafts while actually increasing the amount of aggregate useful feedback your students get from you throughout the term. Other benefits for you include:

Fewer grade disputes: Students who know that they can revise their essays feel that they control their own destiny in your class. They are less likely to be shell shocked by a bad grade if they know they have the opportunity to change it, and that leads to less demoralization, less defensiveness, and the decreased likelihood that they will blame you for their poor performance. All of my nightmare, stalker grade grubbing incidents happened before I started allowing unlimited revisions.

Intrinsic motivation for submitting papers on time. I actually don’t even have a late policy in my class. I don’t need one. I tell students what my grading schedule is for each week, so if they want timely feedback (and I get papers back within 3 days, usually) that will allow them to revise the paper, they have to get it in by a certain time on a certain day. I love this policy for so many reasons. For one, it causes students (and therefore me) less stress, but mostly I love it because it flips the logic of due date incentives on its head by offering a reward for timely submission rather than a punishment for lateness. Also, it works.

More meaningful engagement with the writing process when revision is for a full grade replacement. Two years ago, I taught in the freshman writing program, which emphasized the revision process by requiring a revision of each of the three major essays. These revisions were recorded as a separate grade from the first draft. The problem with this approach is that most students would essentially just turn in the same paper, resigned to the fact that they were going to get more or less the same grade no matter what they did. I started seeing remarkable, thorough revisions when I offered students the opportunity to actually improve their grade by revising the paper. Furthermore, I no longer felt sketchy about encouraging revision by assigning grades strategically. Under the “separate grades” model, I felt like I needed to reward excellent first drafts (they do happen) with “A’s,” even though I knew that meant that they wouldn’t engage with the revision process. Now, I can give a strategic B+ here an there to encourage the strong students to make their papers even stronger, because they almost always do (and phooey to them if they let the opportunity slide).

The student’s final grade is ultimately a true reflection of where they are at the end of the semester rather than where they were at the beginning. And that, for me, is the true beauty of allowing unlimited revisions for a whole grade replacement, yet this seems to be a real psychological barrier for a certain type of pedagogue. The type of professor that the Chronicle essayist describes, seems to me to remain highly invested in pigeon-holing students into the “good writer/bad writer” categories. I’ve written before about why I think doing so is damaging. For one thing, it privileges students who came from the best high school programs, i.e. students who are inherently privileged already. For another thing, that’s not teaching. That’s sorting, and I find the investment of certain instructors (who often engage in this practice in the name of stamping out grade inflation) in engaging in this practice to be both cynical and discriminatory.

Not all students advance light-years in a single semester, but if you allow unlimited revisions and give some shorter, lower stakes assignments, you will often see a B- student start turning in A- work by the end of term. Not all students will revise every assignment, but almost all students will revise at least one. Not all students will learn to love writing, but some will actually start to think of themselves as people who are capable of writing, and for me, that’s good enough.

Hitting the Wall

This is me right now.

Embarrassing confession time: I’ve been having trouble with a non-blog related writing project for the past few weeks. Guys, it is so stupid. I’m trying to finish a damn conference paper. It is, for the most part, almost finished. The first two-thirds of it are pretty much locked.  The framework for the argument is laid out. I have quotes selected and notes ready to be revised into real copy waiting in a separate document. Basically, what I’ve been facing for the past several days is the task of laying down about 1000 words of close textual analysis and a brief conclusion. 1000 words. I can write 1000 words in half an hour. I did a 1000 word close analysis almost on a whim last week. I have, in total, written about 20,000 words on this blog just in the past 10 days or so. 1000 words is a wind sprint. Yet every time I sit down to finish this thing, nothing comes out but an incomprehensible stream of inane blather. Technically, those 1000 words are already typed out, but they are bad, bad, bad. Every time I look at that Word document, I want to scream. It makes me wish I actually drafted things long hand on paper so that I could start a trash can fire with all of the draft material I’ve sent into the nether of late, though that would probably also burn my house down.

So, the result is that I’m having nightmares and not sleeping well. This happens every once in a while, and whenever it does, I feel like I spend my days teetering on the edge of a panic attack. I try to distract myself with other reading and house cleaning and crap like that, but then I’ll read something infuriating on the internet or I’ll break a glass or something, and all the tension I’m feeling about not being able to finish that project comes bubbling to the surface but directed at something totally ridiculous. So, in the four days leading up this conference, I am either going to find a way to fix this paper, or I am going to have a meltdown.

I know why this is happening. It happened somewhere around Draft 5 of my dissertation prospectus last year. The shortest explanation is:  I desperately need a vacation. In the past six months, I have completed the following:

2 dissertation chapters
1 journal article
4 conference papers
1 fellowship proposal

All told, that comes out to about 75,000 words or over 150 double spaced pages of presentation/submission quality work. And that’s not even counting the reams of early draft material that got excised. About a third of that work was all done just in the month of April, so it’s probably not surprising that I’m tired. I’ve hit the wall with less under my belt than that before, so perhaps this is progress or something.

“Hitting the wall” has special meaning for marathon runners. The average trained runner burns about 100 calories per mile. The average body stores about 2,000 calories of ready-to-burn energy, which means that at about 20 miles (give or take), the marathon runner has reached the bitter end of their body’s reserves, and the body begins to revolt. Never having run more than 10 miles at time (and that was only once), I’m not entirely sure what this feels like, but I think you can approximate it if you’ve ever tried to do an intense workout on a totally empty stomach. I did that last week, and it ended in nausea and cramps and shaky hands and needing to guzzle a Dr. Pepper (sports drinks are gross) as soon as I got home. Long distance runners can try to delay the inevitable by–I kid you not–eating candy or taking hits off of those nasty energy gel packs.

I think this happens with writing or any other kind of creative work as well. Graduate students usually figure this out the first semester they sign up for three courses that all have 20+ page papers as their final project. One of those papers is going to suck, maybe two of them, depending on how hard your semester was. But at least one execrable seminar paper is pretty much guaranteed in that situation, because for some reason, most brains just can’t do much more than that. Undergraduates who wait until the last minute to write all of their papers figure this out too and wind up turning stuff in that’s incomplete or just not turning it in at all. Pacing yourself helps, but I think that no matter what, we eventually reach a point where our energy reserves, creativity-wise, are just sapped. When you reach that point, you’re just done. The magic won’t happen any more.

Of course, my fear is always that it will never come back, that I’m just through. Finished. Washed up. Cut off before my career could even get started. If writing (or drawing, or making music, or whatever creative work you do) is the source of your identity. If you know that your career prospects are in some very real way attached to it. (Yes. SENTENCE FRAGMENTS. DEAL WITH IT.) If you feel that writing is your major contribution to the world, then hitting the wall produces existential terror.

The West Wing, one of my favorite shows, captures this beautifully. Seriously, if you know the feeling I’ve described above, bookmark this clip and watch it whenever you hit that point. It will make you feel just a little bit better. In this scene from “Arctic Radar,” Toby Ziegler is sitting down to write the President’s second inaugural address after a long, harrowing campaign season. Watch how this scene is shot, with the Seal of the President looming ghost-like in the background to remind you just how high the stakes are. The other character here is a speech writer who has been sent by Toby’s deputy to help write the address, and Toby has given him an assignment to figure out if he’s up to the task. I like to think that Aaron Sorkin (or whoever) wrote this scene with the full knowledge of exactly how this feels, where–not for want of effort–“there’s just no blood going to it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t go to Atlantic City right now. I have to finish this paper, the conference being in four days and all. But afterward, I think it will be time to just take a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to go anywhere, but I can go to the book store and pick out something that just looks fun to read, preferably something with sexy people on the cover. I can re-watch the last three seasons of Mad Men. I can bake cookies. I can write long, rambling posts on this blog to remind myself that I still have words, even if I’m not able to hammer out that next dissertation chapter right away. And I can remind myself that it will, eventually, come back. It always has.

Taking a break has always been pretty hard for me. I think it’s just because we live in a culture that devalues rest, that shames us for being unproductive and wasting time. I actually think that rest can be a form of production. Taking a break from creative work is ultimately part of the invention process. It’s the carbo-loading period. It’s that day of rest in your week of athletic training, where you give your muscles time to repair themselves. Recently, Kate Harding confessed on her blog that her writing process includes a “talking about it in bars stage,” and that such a stage really is essential. Sometimes, that space in which you aren’t yet really producing anything is when the ideas really come, when problems with a project that seemed insurmountable suddenly get worked out.

It’s hard to trust in that process, though, because like I said, we live in a culture that tells us we can never stop, even for a second (academic writing advice columnists are pretty bad about this too). It’s easy to believe that if you take a break, you will never actually get back to the project itself, or never return to writing, that you will lie on the sofa for the rest of your life and never touch the keyboard again. Finding the size acceptance movement and intuitive eating, strangely, has helped me get over that feeling a bit. Intuitive eating teaches you that allowing yourself to have one french fry does not mean that you will just go ahead and eat ALL THE FRENCH FRIES IN THE WORLD. Taking a step back from writing for a couple of weeks does not mean that you will waste away, unproductively, for the rest of your life.

But, you know, deadlines exist. Sometimes you have to crank something out even though you know it’s not going to be your best work, so that’s what I’ll be doing for the next few days, though I’ll likely also be venting in this blog about it. I’m not writing an inaugural address. I’ll be lucky if half a dozen people show up to hear this paper. The stakes are really not THAT high.

And vacation starts on Friday.

Celebrity Professors, George Lucas, and the Myth of Inviolable Genius

I’ve been sort of keeping up with the comments on The Sexist post that mentioned this blog, specifically my take down of first paragraph of God’s Brain. A few people are sort of mad about it. This one, in particular, stuck out at me:

The writing itself is only packaging for the ideas and research, secondary and kind of irrlevant, unless you are looking for a strawman to attack.

The commenter also suggests that Hess and I are criticizing Tiger because we think boys are icky, but I don’t plan to address my fear of cooties on this blog. I’m also resisting the temptation to digress at length here on the definition of “straw man,” but I think I may cover logical fallacies in a separate post. Instead, I want to address the substance of this critique, which is that when the ideas are good, the packaging (i.e. “the writing”) doesn’t really matter. This sounds an awful lot like a classic lazy student defense: MY IDEAS WERE GOOD WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT MY PAPER WAS ONE 6 PAGE PARAGRAPH!!111!!1 But isn’t there also sort of a statement about privilege going on here? Some people are required to make themselves congenial to their audience in order to hold their attention and have their ideas validated but some are not? I think I’ve heard that before.

Truth is, I think all of us need editors, people who can tell us how to best shape our message, how to make ourselves intelligible, how to present our work in the best possible way.  Western culture is deeply invested in this idea of The Author whose genius is special and individual and must break free from the constraints of “Society” or “Other People” in general in order to find his or her most authentic mode of expression.  But this obscures the fact that creative work is an inherently collaborative process, that no matter whose name gets put on the project, there are a legion of other people who helped bring it into the world.

The dissertation chapter I’m working on right now is on Theodore Dreiser, who wrote some of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, novels like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.  Dreiser’s relationship to the world of publishing was a fractious one.  Some publishers refused to print his works because of the sexual frankness (frankness that would appear decidedly tame now), and his work was frequently censored.  Recently, we’ve seen a variety of “uncensored” editions of Dreiser’s work come out with the juiciest stuff put back in (again, “juicy” is relative here).  The problem is that the difference between what was actually censored in his work and what was culled in order to make the prose more readable gets confused sometimes.  The additional 80 pages of Sister Carrie are a bit more sexual, but they are also pretty repetitive and  do not add very much to the story itself or the development of the characters.  The truth is that Theodore Dreiser, left to his own devices, is difficult to get through.  Raised by working class parents without much in the way of formal education, he was a terrible speller and barely had a working knowledge of punctuation.  But more problematic than that was his tendency to ramble, to repeat himself, to make his novels perhaps a bit more bulky than they absolutely needed to be.  Dare I say that in spite of his difficult relationships with his editors and people like H.L. Mencken, who helped bring his work in to the spotlight, Dreiser really sort of needed them?  That they maybe contributed to making his work precisely what we know and love today?

Another strong example of why accountability is important is George Lucas and the cinematic atrocities that were the three Star Wars prequels. If you have never seen the YouTube video critiques of these films by RedLetterMedia, you must set aside a day to watch them ASAP (disclaimer: There’s kind of a bizarre slasher film parody running alongside the commentary, which definitely warrants a trigger warning). They are hilarious and presented from the perspective of a true Star Wars fan who was disappointed by the tonal inconsistencies, plot contrivances, and overall sloppiness of the way the films were written and put together. In the the final video on The Phantom Menace, the narrator looks at the DVD special features to try to determine what went so wrong:

TRIGGER WARNING: There is a very weird moment at the end that might be upsetting (see above). I think this video series is kind of a cool lesson in narrative technique, and there actually are some excellent points about gender and race fail in Star Wars, so I sort of scrubbed it from my brain. Stop the video around 8:00 if you want to get the gist without being surprised.

The gist of it is that when Lucas was creating the first three films, he was a young, unknown, and untested filmmaker. He had to constantly make a case for his trilogy to skeptical studio executives and the experienced filmmakers who were more or less “put in charge” of him. Many of his original ideas–including bizarre concepts for the main characters, who were originally supposed to be aliens–were scrapped. When Lucas was creating The Phantom Menace, he had a free hand. As the narrator says, everyone in the room seems scared of him, of questioning his judgment. You can actually see how really, really, awful ideas like Jar Jar Binks and a bloated, six part ending are getting a pass, because no one wants to question George Lucas of the George Lucas Empire. As such, “The Phantom Menace is the biggest case of blue balls in cinematic history.”

I know that alot of people liked Avatar, but I have to say that I found James Cameron’s work to be a hell of alot more compelling when he was doing Aliens and Terminator, before he became the King of the World. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of people, I do not believe that Lucas or Cameron are hacks. At bottom, I think that they are gifted, creative individuals capable of producing both important and enjoyable work. But, EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR. Theoretically, I like the idea of creative people being given the freedom to just create, but I also know that some of the most important art has been created when the artists had to fight for their vision, when they had to overcome adversity and naysayers and budget constraints. Adversity and accountability don’t always go hand in hand, but sometimes they do. When your colleagues are so terrified of challenging you and so intent on impressing you that they are no longer capable of delivering honest feedback, your work is probably going to suffer.

I think that happens sometimes to famous academics as well. Publishing houses are so excited just to sign them, knowing that they could have gone elsewhere, that they do not challenge them as much as they would a previously unpublished scholar. Given the state of academic publishing right now and the extent to which it may become dependent on its ability to produce material accessible to the general public, that is a real shame. And it’s also sort of perplexing. I realize that Lucasfilm, which has to consist of more people in authority with substantial stakes in the company’s future than just George Lucas, made gobs of money off the prequels. I wonder how much more they might have made if they had been good. Because academic publishing barely clears the costs of printing some books (though to be clear, marketability and the profit-motive shouldn’t be the only concern here), can publishers really afford to print ones that are poorly written?

Rabbit Trails

Everyone seems to have a system for writing, and most people are willing to share it.  As most dissertation/thesis, aspiring freelance writers, and budding novelists know, there is a sizable industry devoted to telling you how to write:  what time you should write and for how long, what tools you will need, what alignment the planets ought to be in.  A quick Amazon search for “dissertation writing” spits out the following titles:  the ever famous Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, Writing the Winning Thesis or Dissertation:  A Step-by-Step Guide (what is this “winning,” are there prizes I didn’t know about?  Is it cash?  I hope it’s cash.), Demystifying Dissertation Writing:  A Streamlined Process from Choice to Topic to Final Text. I have yet to find the title that actually interests me, which is How to Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day While Playing Online Games and Watching West Wing Reruns. But alas.

Higher education websites are full of advice too, notably from overworked assistant professors describing in horrifying detail how one manages to produce enough published material in order to get a full time job and ultimately receive tenure.  Those articles frankly scare the shit out of me, not only because they speak to the appalling state of the academic job market but because they make me fear that the rest of my life is going to more or less feel like my first year of grad school.  I have always been “good at school” in general.  I always handed in assignments early in college and managed to get through final exams without having to pull any all-nighters (yes, the high school lunch room was MISERABLE for me, thank you for asking).  But in grad school I found myself feeling like I had to Say Something Brilliant in every class I was in, that every term paper I turned in needed to be of publishable quality (before I really had a clue what publishable quality was).  It seemed like everyone else had read Derrida back in like the third grade and had interesting and insightful things to say, and here I was just trying to figure out what “poststructuralist” meant.  I felt way, way behind.  I wondered why they had admitted me in the first place.  And my lack of interesting things to say in class or write in my term papers meant I had a hard time producing anything worth reading.

A switch sort of flipped in my second year when, after reading what most everyone else had been reading (you should read your Derrida, kids, it builds character), I started chasing rabbit trails.  I started reading stuff that wasn’t assigned and exploring subjects that people weren’t talking about and thinking of ways to make them interesting.  That’s how I wound up with a disseration that I feel passionate about and that is getting written pretty quickly.  I get so excited by the discoveries that I actually can write for seven hours a day and forget to eat lunch (and ignore West Wing reruns) when things are going well.  But getting there has also meant deviating from the schedule I established back in college, which was of the YOU MUST WRITE THIS MANY PAGES A DAY AND COMPLETE PROJECTS ACCORDING TO THIS SCHEDULE model that most advice columnists recommend.  I’m all for forcing yourself to write sometimes when you feel like procrastinating, making yourself just get it done when a deadline is looming and you know what you’re going to be saying anyway.

But sometimes procrastination isn’t just procrastination, if you know what I mean.  Sometimes it’s actually invention.  Sometimes there’s that book title that sounds really interesting to you but doesn’t seem to be relevant to whatever you are working on right this minute, so you put it on your “free time” list.  Then you get so exhausted with your current research that you pick it up anyway just to get your mind off of things and finding a new piece of information or a new connection that makes the whole thing come alive again.  Sometimes you fall down a Wikipedia hole during a bout of internet insomnia and wind up finding something significant.  This semester, I decided to take a class in Sociology, which I didn’t need to take and was, in fact, discouraged from taking because it would take time away from my dissertation, just because the course description sounded fascinating to me.  I wound up discovering scholars I had never heard of and encountering a wealth of data and theory that helped me complete both a dissertation chapter and an article in just a couple of months (over 100 pages of solid, final draft quality work, haters).  In other words, you never know where the rabbit trails are going to take you.  (That sounded unbelievably cheesy).

I don’t think we allow ourselves to do that enough, chase whatever wayward interest happens to seize you at the moment and follow it where it leads.  More than that, I don’t think we encourage our students to do that enough.  In a future post, I’ll explain why I structure and schedule writing assignments in a sort of idiosyncratic way, but I’ll just say this here.  Sometimes, the way we teach writing tends encourages a mindset focused on meeting a deadline at all costs (or suffer late penalties), or producing X number of pages, instead of producing vibrant, exciting work.  Structures and schedules are important, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t get much done.  But we ought to teach ourselves and our students to manage deadlines in a way that leaves room for discovery, whether that means taking on fewer projects at a time, or, when it seems important to do so, devoting a day or a week to chasing a rabbit.