Fall Rituals: Back to School

Courtesy of school-game.com

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.

One of the most useful “how-to” books, “Destination Dissertation” by Sonja Foss and William Waters includes a final chapter describing all of the roles doc students adopt instead of the one they should most focus on – that of Scholar.  Re-reading it recently, by turns I smiled in recognition and winced to find myself in Foss and Waters’ descriptions of the perfect Housekeeper, Model Employee, Good Student, and Proxy Critic.  Yup, I’ve unpacked boxes, scrubbed the kitchen floor, organized cupboards, wrote and re-wrote a perfectly good syllabus, polished a presentation that was actually good-to-go, and let my inner critic convince me that none of my sentences should ever appear in print.

The antidote to adopting all of these roles is deceptively simple – let them all go and take on the role of Scholar.  I say deceptive because, just like weight loss strategies, sensible dissertation advice is often easier to spout than it is to take.  Embracing the role of Scholar involves that most unglamorous task of writing. Not intermittently, not when you feel like it, and certainly not in binging bursts to meet real or imagined deadlines.  In fact, the authors recommend setting a regular writing schedule, recording how many pages and how much time you spend writing, and being accountable to a friend or another graduate student.  (For more information on the research upon which authors base this advice, read Robert Boice’s studies with faculty members and graduate students on writing output.) Of course, these tips could be summed up much more prosaically by my committee chair who counseled me months ago to “hug” my dissertation every day. 🙂

So this past week, I’ve set and adhered to my writing schedule (mornings work best for me), have started to record my pages (3 new ones so far), and am accountable to a fellow graduate student in Ed. Leadership (Thanks, Alba!).  Mmm, guess I am” back” to school after all.  Spiderman backpack, anyone?



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