collaboration · gradgrind · PhD · productivity · social media

Ideas for the Break: Online Dissertation Boot Camp

Today, my brilliant Americanist colleague Christy Pottroff has graciously agreed to let me repost her piece (originally posted on the Fordham Graduate Digital Humanities Group blog) describing her experience with the online, collective dissertation writing group we formed over our Spring Break in March (I called it “Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp,” but there was very little booting, only cheering). I know the semester is winding down for many folks in the great white north, and you should all, first and foremost, take an actual break after the hard work of the academic year–but once you’re ready to move back into working mode, consider forming an online writing group! I was very pleased with the way this Facebook post blossomed into a productive, collaborative community of motivated women hailing from various universities across the continent. Three H&E-ers–myself, Melissa, and Jana–took part in the group, so it seems only appropriate that it should be discussed here. Without further ado, here’s Christy:

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For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my Texts & Contexts course. I don’t have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It’s a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.

An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?

A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire [*blush*], Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond. The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn’t critique one another’s writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e. read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan). Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.

The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member’s goals. Here’s our group’s template:

Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with each other’s goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.

At the end of each day, I would set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.

Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them. What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group’s institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don’t know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.

Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it’s not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you’ll use your time and hold one another accountable.

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Christy Pottroff is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University in New York City where she specializes in nineteenth-century American literature, queer and feminist theory, and rural studies. Thank you, Christy!

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