Dissertation Boot Camp: Not for SissiesPosted: Sat 02.04.2012
It’s billed as a distraction-free writing time. There’s a pledge to sign, a basket to park your cell phone, and a vast silence broken only by the clicking of computer keys, the turning of pages, and the occasional clink of shifting ice as some poor soul tries to unobtrusively pour a glass of water from one of those diabolical plastic jugs. (A great goal, but impossible.) It’s Lehigh’s dissertation boot camp and one of the best of many activities organized by the Graduate Life Office. After a full breakfast, replete with plenty of protein, fruit, and grad student fuel (read coffee) there’s always a motivational speaker to kick off the day. This morning, Greg Skutches, Lehigh’s Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinator, spoke to the group. I collect quotes, so the one he started off his presentation with made me laugh out loud, “You either wrote today. Or you didn’t.” His advice was practical and included such commonsense tips as organizing one or two writing spaces where all you do is write, resist temptations to clean up your writing site instead of writing, limit your social interactions, write every day, and give yourself permission to write an awful first draft. He even referenced one of my go-to researchers on scholarly writing, Robert Boice.
From the Tower on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus you can see for miles. The boot camp is held two floors down in the Woods Dining Room, the former social gathering spot for executives of Bethlehem Steel. Research and writing can be mesmerizing, but remembering to look up occasionally is rewarded by views of sere, mid-winter skies, bare branched trees, foraging birds. Lunch is provided: no need to interrupt your writing to prepare it or delay the inevitable return to writing by having to clean up after it. Besides a great lunch and killer brownies, there’s the opportunity to socialize, network, celebrate or commiserate with fellow grad students. Today, I got a recommendation for another website on writing, 750 Words, and met a fellow ice skater. After lunch, three uninterrupted hours can be broken up with more coffee, water, red licorice, or applications of lip balm, all thoughtfully provided. Although I’m evolving into a fairly disciplined writer at home, by the end of the day I reckoned I had motored through over half the red-ink suggestions that had come back from my advisor. All in all, not a bad day. Day 1, that is. Boot Camp is two days. At 9:00 am tomorrow, it starts all over. Boot Camp, like parenthood and old age, is not for sissies.