Reading and writing in and after grad school

Last night on Twitter, several people discussed writing the dissertation and how helpful it was to have writing partners (one or several) during the process. This conversation evolved into a discussion about post-project malaise–the inability to write after concluding something, which many of have experienced after the diss and people report feeling after finishing the tenure book. Here are a few entirely anecdotal thoughts on these matters.

A good friend from grad school described the year spent preparing for oral exams as “when they insert the microchip.” What he meant was that during this year all you do is work, to an even greater extent than you had in the first two years of the PhD. The quantity of work and quality of it are so very different than whatever you had experienced before that you come to understand yourself as some kind of reading machine. No activity is thereafter excluded from your hermeneutic gaze. Read a blog? Example of whatever theory you are reading. See a movie? New dissertation chapter. Have a conversation? Become aware of how little work you are actually doing.

This disciplining is useful for producing people who can finish the dissertation as that task requires an ability to suspend all other life functions for indefinite periods of time. von Uexkull’s tick climbs, waits, drops, and feeds. Dissertation writers read, write, eat, and sleep–in widely ranging amounts.

And despite my discipline, I floundered during my fourth year. As the summer ended going into my fifth year, I attended the department’s welcome back party and found myself in conversation with someone of my cohort I did not know very well at all. I always found her to be extremely smart, perhaps intimidatingly so. In any case, we did not hang out together often. Nonetheless, as we talked she told me that she was also floundering a bit. We decided to work with one another and push each other to finish.

What ensued was perhaps one of the five most intense relationships of my life–less so than with my spouse, but more so than with many of those I would call my best friends. It was a limited relationship, in that it focused entirely on our work and our department’s politics, but it was exactly the relationship I needed at the time. I believe she felt the same way. As a bonus, I learned more about Gertrude Stein through her than I ever thought possible to know.

The problem here for many, no doubt, is finding this person, someone you can trust with your bad ideas and self-doubts. Because make no mistake: that’s what this was. We shared ALL of our writing. You had to turn something in every week, no matter how poorly conceived. You had to admit when you were having difficulties, when you did not know what comes next. That was valuable and nearly impossible at the same time. In the end, I learned a great deal about how to write and about how to read writing for someone else with a critical and gentle eye simultaneously. Long story short: it worked, and although I still did not finish as quickly as I would have liked, this relationship go me through the diss.

I left Buffalo before defending to take up a Brittain postdoc and Georgia Tech. I defended shortly after arriving there. And then the malaise set in. I was flat broke after six years of the PhD and had to work a second job (teaching MWF, the other job literally every other day of the week–I got to sleep until 10 am on Sunday, which was like a day off). Surely this had something to do with the malaise, but whatever caused me to feel this way, feel this way I did. I did not read anything that was not for teaching. I did not write anything but comments on papers. I did nothing at all that would qualify as research. It lasted for the better part of a year.

As someone who grew up reading all of the time (as I expect many English types did), this inability to do what my identity told me I was disturbed me greatly. I wondered if I would be able to remain in the field if I could not at least read new texts for teaching or produce a minimal amount of scholarship. What if the microchip was broken? I was not sure I wanted to feel like I was working all of the time, but I wanted to work some of the time (or at least I wanted to want to work some of the time).

It took a while, but I did come back to reading after about a year. I knew that the reading I was doing was different than what I had done before grad school It was pleasurable, but work lurked at the periphery of my vision at all times. This confluence of work and pleasure eventually became the pleasure itself and I no longer worry about distinguishing between them in terms of reading or going to the movies. On one hand, this confluence has enriched my professional life immensely as I am constantly producing new ideas, some of which I pursue and others of which I don’t. It has also enriched the rest of my life by forcing me to engage in leisure activities that truly take me away from work. I think that the time off my brain and body demanded produced, in the end, a more well-adjusted and well-rounded person. I don’t mean to suggest that I have no problems. Far from it. Nonetheless, I without doubt deal with these problems better now than I ever have in the past. (And let me say that, by virtue of my very good job that I was lucky to get and am lucky to keep I am subsequently lucky to be able to deal with my issues. Not everyone can do this, I understand, for one reason or another. I don’t mean for this story to have a moral dimension or come off as a “by one’s bootstraps” tale. I am lucky to have supportive friends, family, and colleagues who helped me through these periods of my life.)

Writing took a bit longer. It took perhaps a year and a half following my defense before I was up to producing anything like the academic essay. Everything I had hear about writing without a deadline or any direct need was true. It was very hard for me to conceive of an idea and pursue it without some impetus. CFPs helped, as they provided a starting point, but writing remained difficult even as I was doing it. It remains so today, but (whatever my demeanor as I do it–ask my wife) I find the difficulty rewarding in the end , when all of the ideas come together and I realize that I have said something, however small (and saying something, even if relatively minor and without world-shattering consequences, is enough as Liz Grosz once told a seminar at Buffalo; most people will never have a truly new thought, and this includes academics; we should struggle to produce minor ideas, in the several senses of “minor”).

These rough notes are merely anecdotal. They are part of what I went through, without the gory details. After the conversation of last night, and hearing from a few dissertating PhD students and several recently minted PhDs about their own struggles, I thought I would share them. Cheers.


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