balance · dissertation · grad school

On Playing the Long Game

I’m at the point in the PhD program that they like to call “the writing phase”: I’ve completed my coursework, met my language requirement, passed my candidacy, and all I have left to do is that one bit of work called “the dissertation”. So . . . lots of days staring into the distance, thinking, drinking coffee, and writing, right? Um, not so much.

Over the last year in particular, I’ve had to juggle dissertation writing with teaching, a research position, publishing, archive trips, and conferencing, amongst a myriad of other demands. But in the process I’ve learned a couple things about finding rhythms, discipline, and carving time from a busy schedule. One thing I’m finding is particularly crucial about writing the dissertation is the importance of consistency, regularity, and routine, or what a good friend of mine likes to call “playing the long game”.

Most English graduate programs are set up in such a way as to push students really hard for short periods of time. In Canada, in my graduate program, PhD and MA students must take three courses each term, with heavy reading loads. Most of these courses require students to write one lengthy term paper (18-25 pages) and give (at least) one oral presentation (8-10 pages of less formal writing). If you’re lucky, you can spread the presentations throughout the term so they don’t overlap (and occasionally, these presentations can roll into the final paper). But the final papers usually all converge within a few weeks of each other. Unless students are extremely well-organized and on top of things, this usually means an intense period of suffering writing at the end of term. The pay-off, of course, is great: at least sixty pages of writing in a month-long period. But the trade-off is that students don’t necessarily learn how to approach the long-game writing that makes up the dissertation.

I’ve been at this for a year and a half now and it’s just now that I’m realizing how committed I’ve been to the “short bursts of energy” model. To give just one example, I wrote my first chapter in four weeks after I returned from a research trip to the UK. It’s not just me, academia in general tends to push people towards models of this kind simply because of its cyclical nature. The two semester: teaching; one semester: research/writing idea is, of course, build into the semester system. But the increasing pressures to undertake more activities throughout the teaching year can sometimes mean that writing takes a back burner until the summer. The results are sometimes a little bit like this: Have a conference abroad next week? Frantically finish the paper on the plane! Article revision deadline? Don’t touch the paper until the week before!

Not all of this is bad, of course. Sometimes pressure has the glorious effect of making efficiency machines out of all of us. But the kind of pressure that makes us efficient with articles and conference papers doesn’t necessarily help for the lengthy work of the dissertation. 

Boyda wrote a great post last week about the slow scholarship movement, and what it means to “let our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.” And we’ve written a lot here in the past about the need to approach writing in a sustainable fashion. What I’m trying to suggest in this post is that in order to do the kind of work required for the dissertation, a fundamental shift is needed: we have to approach our projects with consistency and regularity over a long period of time. It’s not just enough to pound out a chapter in a month. It’s necessary to give our work enough time to percolate, to breathe. We need to write, and then return to our writings, and let our research speak for itself. Part of this involves what Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: looking again at what we’ve written, and seeing things with new eyes, arriving at it from “a new critical direction”. Rather than giving the dissertation periodic bursts of energy, we have to approach it with consistency and regularity, we have to return to it frequently, and let it speak to us.

 What I’m trying to commit to over the course of this semester is simple: one unit of dissertation-related writing, minimum, every day (35 to 45 minutes). I’m hoping this minimum requirement will be surpassed, of course, and there are days that I will certainly devote much more time to my writing. But by committing myself to this minimum, daily writing, I hope I can let my project speak for itself. 

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