advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · Uncategorized

Working on my grant application…

I’m about 80% done my SSHRC Insight Grant application, the 80% where I made a serious go at getting all the moving pieces drafted and formatted and collated and sent it in for feedback. When it came the feedback was detailed, useful, and totally overwhelming and I pushed the whole thing away for a week or so to regroup. I did not regroup. I had to call in reinforcements, actually: my dear love who used to be the guy that did the feedback. He sat down with me and went over it step by step, while I tried not to lash out and/or cry.

Hilariously, the issue with my SSHRC Insight Grant application is the issue that I raise with all the grad students whose SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship applications I see. The issue is threefold:

  • Give the main point first
  • Be less tentative
  • Be more specific

The reason it’s hard to do these things is that it requires a kind of assertive confidence that is, understandably, hard to muster at the start of a project. This hesitation is natural and useful and keeps the mind open to the possibilities of the research as it proceeds. Good. That is, I dare see, the right way to feel. However, the grant application rewards confidence and straight-aheadness–literally rewards it, you are asking for money, remember–so the correct way to write the app requires bald directness, confidence, and the impression of mastery of time and space. Fake it if you have to.

So.

Give the main point first: If you ask my grad students what editorial suggestion I make most frequently on their writing they will probably say, “Take this thing at the end and put it at the beginning.” I say that a lot. Quite right. Most of us discover what we’re thinking once we see what we’re writing and often that means that we really get the point of the whole thing right at the end of the application / chapter / article,/ dissertation. That’s fine as a process. But then literally ask yourself every time: what would happen if I took my last paragraph and made it first. I will tell you: 9 times out of 10 your thing will get better, and clearer, and more fundable.

Be less tentative: I know that I’m not sure where my research is going to end up, but I sure as hell have to sound like I do. I’ve been tentative in my writing, saying things like, “this project aims to address” when I should say “this project addresses” or even “this project argues.” Tentativeness manifests mostly in the verbs, and the verbs hedge in two ways: they describe actions the author is going to do instead of what the research will prove, and they downplay the thesis animating the research. Here is a list of weasel words you should mostly cut almost completely from your grant application: understand, examine, explore, investigate, consider, aim, compare. Mostly, these words are about what you are going to do. But the grant app is not a biography, it is a statement of research. Better verbs: argue, prove, show, demonstrate, produce, craft. These verbs have the benefit of being much more active, and of being focused on the value of the research, rather than the process of the researcher.

Be more specific: It is frustrating to have to write very specifically about something you’re going to be doing three years from now, that you may not have properly even started yet. But it is also very frustrating to read things like, “over the course of the grant, I will examine the secondary literature and compare pertinent examples from among possible primary texts.” There’s nothing I can actually picture there. I would rather read “In the first year, I will perform a literature review of sources in social media practices (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd; Noble and Tynes; Thumin; van Dijck) and begin to select primary texts for the case studies, beginning with social justice selfies (eg, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #StayMadAbby)” Being specific is hard. You have to make decisions and go to the library. I hate it, myself, particularly when I’m trying to write about the second half of the third year of the grant. However. That’s what people want to read, myself included.

It’s pretty funny that this is the exact advice that I give grad students and yet it is very hard for me to follow it, too — I need my own reader to make exactly the same editorial comments I make to others. I guess we all need editors!

Anyhow, this is my day today. Changing my verbs, beefing up the details, getting to the point. If you’re still working on your Insight Grant, or your doctoral fellowship app, well, bon courage. I’m right there with you.

advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher

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Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!

advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.


Books


Articles


Webinars

 

 
Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
advice · defense · PhD

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I’ve had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it’s been six months and I’ve got some perspective on it, it’s time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I’m in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It’s not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney’s snake fight? And what do people mean by defend–is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And that editor (a.k.a. your committee) is going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from the work other people in your field are doing, and why? What’s the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don’t worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation–on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits–and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it’s optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing the opening talk is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you’re working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.

 

4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don’t need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases. Happily, there’s lots of evidence out there–in the form of their scholarship and public writing–that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn’t get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person–is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there’s a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well–talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you’ve learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don’t be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn’t anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual and often-denigrated approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just without directly acknowledging it. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off–I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.

6. Know to Stop

It’s two days before your defence. You’ve prepared your statement. You’ve anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you’ve practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There’s nothing more you can do. It’s time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you’re going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague: like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student.
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it–your clothes cannot be a distraction.
  • It must make you feel AWESOME.
I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a sleeveless blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn’t matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect.
Other things to bring:
  • a bottle of water
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down)
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to — methods, results, a key experiment or analysis — flagged
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring — it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) — STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He’s been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.)

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you’re going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided to frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also — as you should — figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm, cool, and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory–a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you’re prepared and you come at it as a discussion that’s intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that’s intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence.
advice · compassion · solidarity

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We’ve already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we’d all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama’s mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I’ve seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women’s March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I’ve had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can’t seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice…). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams…I hope you all read Lily Cho’s beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven’t even been trying to work on my own stuff. I’ve been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we’ll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime—reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can’t work 12 hours a day like I used to…and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don’t feel like I’m doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I’ve been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I’ve settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can’t blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I’m still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you’ve been feeling that way too.

So I guess I’m back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor – maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I’m already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I’m there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I’ve been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I’ve been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they’re doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I’m already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn’t get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I’ve been ruing.

Something that’s rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but…it’s true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don’t think becoming better should necessarily be the goal–because then you’re caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman’s post about the Women’s March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don’t need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  

The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, ‘you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment’ or ‘you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.’That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.

Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don’t owe the world our reasoning–if you’re out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I’ve ever written, but I’m happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? 🙂 Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 

advice · enter the confessional · supervision · writing

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they’re going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison’s Law of Academic Writing

The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have–you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from “meh, I’ve got LOADS of time” to “BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE.” I call this line, “The Terror Curve.”

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we’ve discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they’re read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to “write something” and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn’t a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like “finish within four years.”

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn’t know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent — the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it’s not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn’t is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don’t get me wrong! I’m not scary and I’m not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison’s Theory of Supervisory Terror

Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don’t read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn’t write the essays. I didn’t write them because I’m an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn’t hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn’t hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn’t get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it’s easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don’t want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don’t get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh — about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn’t have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it’s only three weeks away …

advice · book · dissertation · self care · writing

From Dissertation to Book – Part I: The Break

It’s been about a month since I submitted the final, revised version of my dissertation, and I haven’t looked at it since. My committee and I talked a lot about what my plans were for the dissertation prior to the defence: what presses I should think about pitching it to, if I should go trade or academic, who we know at the various presses and how that might be an advantage in crafting a proposal. But since submission? Nada. My cursor hasn’t even strayed toward the file.

I’ve done plenty else in the meantime. As Catherine Ayres notes, at the bottom of the PhD cliff lies all the stuff you’ve been putting off in the dash to submission, and oh man is that true. I’ve submitted the manuscript for a book of poetry I’m editing, started laying the groundwork for a new advice column series for another publication, ordered new business cards with my new title on them, and registered for CAGS. I’ve taken off the dissertation blinders and made a looooong list of all of the projects I’ve been putting off that are going to keep me busy this winter around our very old and very high-maintenance house.

After five years of thinking and writing about a single project every day, purposefully ignoring my dissertation feels wrong. It is, however, precisely the right thing to do right now. I have zero chill when it comes to my dissertation. I am both its biggest cheerleader and its biggest critic. Neither of those perspectives are conducive to frankly and honestly assessing its flaws and strengths with an aim to revision, nor are they useful for doing the kind of strategic assessment that is necessary in order to convince a press that this is a book they want to publish because it fills a market need, might make them some money, and will help burnish their reputation.

But because not doing something I feel like I should be doing is the surest road to amping up my anxiety levels, I’ve made “take a productive break” the official first step in my dissertation-to-book process. I’ve also tried to plan a break that is purposeful, productive, and prescribed in length. I’m giving myself a full term, until the end of 2016, and then I’m back at it. I’m also doing things in the meantime to help me move forward in the monograph publishing process even as I don’t properly start it, things like:

  • getting to work on another long writing project (fiction this time!) so that I’m maintaining my writing schedule, continuing to refine my style, practicing my ability to write engaging and accessible prose, and continually reinforcing those hard-won pathways in my brain that connect writing and revising with feeling good and accomplished
  • doing some preliminary market research — what presses are publishing work similar to mine? what professors are teaching books like mine? Is there a significant non-academic audience? Who do I know who has a BookNet account and can run me sales reports on similar titles?
  • starting to collect resources on the dissertation-to-book process so that I have a trove of advice at my fingertips whenever I need it
  • pulling together a bunch of successful book proposals that I’ve either worked on in my freelance life or have solicited from friends and colleagues so that I have a model to work from when it comes time to write my own
  • reading and rereading books that are similar to what mine will become–Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps, Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter, Frank Davey’s aka bpNichol–so that I can start teasing apart what makes them work and what ideas I can borrow when it comes time to craft a plan for revisions
But mostly I’m doing other things–cooking, running, spending time with my people–in an effort to relax, reset, and get some perspective. It feels good. I’m hopeful that if nothing else, by the end of the year it will have sunk in that I did indeed finish, defend, and submit a dissertation. That would be a good start!
advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

This is a repost of a timely how-to. Just this morning I noticed it zip across my Twitter mentions again. It’s reference letter season, and once more I’m coaching students on The Ask. This post is one of the most-read pieces in the archives, with nearly 18,000 page views as of this morning.

Refinements always welcome, so add your advice in the comments, and please share!

Cheers,
Aimée


I’m writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I’ve obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I’ve talked to a LOT of other students about the “ask.”

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It’s awkward: “Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you’re not too busy, but I know you’re busy and I’m not sure I’m awesome anyways?” Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end “And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?”

I thought I would put in a post what I’m repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I’ll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask

Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you’re asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment

The form letter

Dear Prof. [insert name here

I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 

The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.

I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 

Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 

Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can’t remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters (“I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY”). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what’s happening (“Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won’t tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie” [no last name whose email is warriornerd@gmail.com][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can’t figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones (“Hi, I’ve attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I’ve joined your program that would be great.”) If you make it hard for me to like you because you’re so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don’t give me enough information, it’s going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.
My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don’t know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that’s why I wrote this today.
Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I’ve suggested? What’s your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you’d like me to do a post on?
advice · chronicle vitae · feminism

Ladies, Let’s Negotiate

Did you know that Hook & Eye is now on Chronicle Vitae? We’re excited to be able to expand our audience, and Erin, Aimée, Boyda and I have posts up over there.

My first, on negotiating while female, discusses what the research says about the best strategies for negotiating as a woman, strategies that help to counter the unconscious bias that has contributed to the gendered wage gap.

I was annoyed at negotiating advice that just told women to ask for more, as research suggested that asking for more in the wrong ways could have significant negative social and financial impacts for women. But what I didn’t know at the time–for new research has just come out–is that women do ask. In fact, they ask as much as men–they just don’t get what they ask for. You can check out that study from the University of Warwick here.

I still stand by my advice about how to ask in ways that may get you what you want more of the time. But the fact that asking more doesn’t seem to be part of the issue at all makes me even more angry than I already was.

You can read the full post over at Chronicle Vitae.


Image: vintage photo of women boxing (via Creative Commons