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.
“You can’t think yourself out of a writing block, you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” — John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 06-25-11
Everyone gets writer’s block — although the phrase’s Wikipedia entry suggests that it’s a condition primarily associated with writing as a profession, writer’s block can afflict anyone. Trying to write a message in that birthday or holiday card, but unable to find the right words? Spent so much time researching for your dissertation that you’re unable to figure out where to begin? College students, journalists, CEOs, and writers of jingles, letters, and blog posts, writer’s block is a dangerous and frustrating malady that can strike any person, at any time.
To help combat this condition for which modern medicine has not yet found a cure, we have compiled a list of selected resources to fight and demonstrate that, while writer’s block might last a little or a long time, it does not have to be a permanent condition.
After a week and a half away from work, the volume of unread messages in my e-mail inbox had shot up, as one might expect. However, careful clearing away of the clutter made opening my inbox far less daunting on my first day back. What was less manageable, though, was the “1000+” on my Google Reader and the loss of the Share functionality. Much as I wished to, I hesitated to delete or mark all new posts as read, analogous to an approach recommended by Danah Boyd for avoiding e-mail overload following a sabbatical. There were gems in that mountain of blogposts, I was certain. A simple slash-and-burn method of attacking the feed reader overload would have meant missing out on this jewel in particular: Katy Meyers’s post at GradHacker entitled, “Taking a Chance: My Blog is a Publication”.
I remember writing school reports entirely by hand when I was growing up in the United States. In an effort to give all students equal opportunities, we were prohibited from typing our reports until junior high school because not all students had computers or typewriters and computer labs with word processing software in elementary schools weren’t yet commonplace. At the start of the school year, my mom would buy several reams of lined paper because a single, good paper, required many drafts and many pieces of paper.
I’d start with penciled statements on 3×5 cards and then move on to pages of penciled notes. Then there would be penciled outlines and drafts. Then there would be at least one draft in black or blue pen (I loved those erasable pens when they came out; even as imperfect as they were, they saved so much time). Then my mom, who proofread my papers, would find mistakes in my “final” draft, mark them in red pen, and then I’d write out another final draft. I remember having an aching and tender writing bump at the end of the process, but a nice and neatly handwritten report.
Recently, I spent the day at a local restaurant – working. And remarkably I was not alone. Oh, lots of people came in and out through out the day to eat of course. But many more hung out with their laptops, alone or in groups, and some even conducted business meetings, via cell phone or face to face. Some stayed for a couple of hours and a few others, like I did, stayed for the whole day.
I had breakfast, a couple of refills on my coffee, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack. All in all, not a bad deal for the restaurant. And the free WiFi, comfy armchairs, ubiquitous Muzak, and reassuring buzz of nearby conversation made for a congenial, if public, workspace for me. Never mind that I have a perfectly convenient and well-equipped study at home and access to one of the stateliest libraries and a host of calm, quiet work spaces on campus – as I remarked to the server, sometimes it just feels more productive to be near people. We chatted briefly and both of us commented on the number of customers who came in to work.
Aisles of school supplies, shoes sales, and seven-thirty am school buses on the streets – all September signs of that most familiar fall ritual – back to school for kids of all ages. My youngest nephew turned five this summer, so, armed with a new Spiderman backpack, he started Kindergarten this week. The 22 thousand students in the Bethlehem Area School District started school last Tuesday. Lehigh’s campus, so quiet and sleepy all summer, is suddenly alive with a wave of undergraduates, almost five thousand of them. As for Lehigh’s graduate students, over two thousand of us, well there’s really no “back to school” for us – grad school never really stops. Courses may end; exams may be taken, passed or not, even retaken; deadlines may be set, extended, or shifted; but the dissertation has a life and a timeline all its own, more dependent upon the motivation, enthusiasm, and sheer persistence of the author than on arbitrary dates.
So, as much as I’m tempted to get juicy new highlighters, fresh notebooks, and a spiffy new book bag, there’s really no need. The old will do just fine, as I try to put the dissertation process back on track after a summer of teaching, researching and writing curriculum, vacationing and moving. Don’t get me wrong, I have great advisors, a wonderful support system, and a shelf full of books on how to “do” dissertation work. The sage advice in the latter runs the gamut from how to structure the work itself to how to manage and motivate yourself in the process.
Concept mapping is my go-to tool when fighting the inevitable “brain wander” that I experience when planning (and sometimes even writing) a research paper. It’s not that I’m not focused or dedicated to the task at hand. Rather, brain wander is the practice of unveiling new and interesting topics that you then want to jam into your research paper. With all the information that you amass while doing literature reviews and preliminary work, there is a tendency to get so wrapped up in the excitement of learning new things and making those connections that you end up trying to fit pieces together that don’t quite mesh.
So, imagine yourself planning a research project or a publication, and you are just overwhelmed with information and ideas, connections and conclusions. How do you work through it? My answer is the concept map. Concept mapping is the practice of using graphical representations (thought bubbles, arrows, and icons) to chart out ideas and topics for a task at hand. Read the rest of this entry »