Sunday, January 16, 2011

Through hell and back, part 2

School started. A lot happened. My director would have liked me to go on the job market (I would have liked to go on the job market!) – but in trying to summarize the dissertation and its chapters in a snappy coherent way, I ran aground: I just didn’t know the specifics of where each chapter was going in a way that meant I could summarize it in brief sentences, and yet have it sound like it was either finished, or on its way to being finished. I couldn’t even do that with the chapter I was working on, because the Aha! moment I’d had at the end of September would have sounded incoherent alone – it was a part of a good argument, but not enough.

With a colleague, I ran an unconference.

And I kept writing, if you can call the above fragmentary activities writing. In hindsight, I wish I’d given myself more time off. I did watch about 2 hours of television a week, and there were some nights where I was incredibly diligent, and others where I had a really hard time not putzing around on the internets. I always stuffed a book or article in my purse when I went out, and I should have given myself permission to just lay off. It was like I had a grindstone for a nasal piercing. Not cool. Not good. In this quarter, outside of plane reading on an emergency trip to London, I read 3 extracurricular, non-work-related books. For me to read 1 book per 3.3 weeks? Is insane, and not good.

I didn’t really realize how tense I was, only that my handwriting seemed to be getting worse and worse, and that, too, was frustrating. Then, mid-November, I treated myself to a massage, and discovered that my handwriting immediately showed a dramatic improvement.

Looking back at a draft document at this point, I can see that what I was doing was deleting a lot of ineffective, unambitious framing that I had crafted during the summer and early fall, and replacing it with better, albeit much rougher framework that took into account the historical economic argument that I was developing. By this time, the chapter had ballooned into 40-45 pages, and so I was also going through and highlighting the sentences and paragraphs that seemed to be most clear in communicating my point.

A note: in case it's not clear from other posts on this blog: I am not a linear thinker. In fact, I tend to instinctively think that the best arguments sliver seemingly unrelated ideas together, only to draw them together in the end. I think this instinct comes both from my proclivities for poetry, and for detective novels, and it has taken a very long time for me to learn that what I think will make the piece more interesting to the reader will not necessarily make it more helpful.

Actually, I haven't learned that yet. Near the end of this chapter, when all the pieces really were falling into place, I created a word document that loosely outlined the progression of ideas in the first half of the chapter in what I thought (and thought carefully!) was an organized fashion. Three days before I turned it in, I looked at that section with consternation, realizing that it just wasn't as smooth in its delivery of ideas as I had thought it would be. When I created a descriptive outline, I realized that it leapfrogged, paragraph to paragraph, between the 18th and 20th centuries. And it wasn't that the result was awful, but it was not going to be helpful in educating my readers about the background for the argument involving specific literary texts.

I set out to fix it so that it moved, in a mostly chronological fashion, through the 18th century, and then the 20th. It took a full day to do this (via the first descriptive outline, and then the second, with Very Specific Notes about transitions and linkages, and finally, the stitching everything else together. I still don't quite understand why that should have been the case; it doesn't seem as though it should have been such a slow process.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the end of the quarter, and grading, I went back to basically full-time work. I did go see Tangled (it's interesting -- the story in the film actually makes about ten times more sense than the "original"), but mostly, I just worked at the chapter. It wasn't that I was dedicated or enthralled in some sort of romantic passion for the problem that I was dealing with. Mainly, I felt like my arse was on the line, and my entire credibility with my director, the department, etc.

Then I had another breakthrough, on December 13th, when I went back to look at a secondary source, and realized that the way its author was framing his argument was really helpful -- not so much as a direct model for my argument, but because the way he was constructing it made it a really useful foundation for the argument that I was trying to develop. I had been having a hard time balancing its abstract and concrete dimensions so as not to make them look flimsy as all get out. And rereading D.'s chapter, I found part of the clarity that I had been looking for. I wrote 300 words paraphrasing his argument, and explaining their relation to mine, and those 300 words went straight in, in the end, unaltered, and they were part of 1300 words that I've been trying to articulate for three @#%%^#@(*%$#@$ing years.

I stopped work for 4 days, from the 22nd, to the 26th of December, prompted as much by the fact that I was just a bundle of panic attacks and nerves as the Christmas holidays.

I actually pounded through and finished, then, just before New Year's (or was it just before Christmas?), swearing that I just wanted to be done, that I would let M. tell me what he made of the argument, and not worrying about the sloppiness of the readings. I wanted so badly to be done, to hand something in, to feel more competent than worthless.

Of course, when I went through and looked at the thing before sending it off, it clearly wasn't done; the readings were there, but without the framing commentary that would be necessary to make them compelling, and that would connect the parts of the chapter together. FAIL. AGAIN.

One of the hardest parts of this chapter was internalizing the range of strategies that I had available to me for constructing an argument. I was thinking about this same challenge before the quarter started, looking at a couple of undergraduate composition papers that were meant to respond to a text that was about the dominant mood and atmosphere in Europe between WWI and WWII. The freshman students had, not surprisingly, had a difficult time with it, and it seemed immediately clear to me that part of the problem was that the very idea of writing about something as abstract as mood or atmosphere would have been entirely foreign to them; so foreign, in fact, that they might naturally have assumed that the scholarly text they were responding to was about something else, that all the stuff about mood and emotions was just the author being fancy.

I wasn't quite that naive; I did know about the different types of arguments that scholars used, and that few ideas or things were off-limits. But knowing that an argument about economic authority might be used, and realizing that I was constructing such an argument myself were two different things, and I do wish I had figured out a way to practice that as a graduate student doing coursework, and that it had been the subject of some form of workshop discussion in my seminars. I understand why it's not; or I think I do: many of the graduate professors currently teaching today weren't taught to teach writing (or perhaps taught to teach at all), and the assumption is that if you know how to write a sufficiently effective essay to get into graduate school in English, you must be good enough to figure out the intricacies and variants of argument styles.

Enough with the soapboxing. Despite the frustration of thinking I was done, and then realizing I wasn't, I did know that the chapter was starting to come together; I did begin to believe that it would be effective, and I believed I was close enough that I could be excited about it, and realistically, I have no idea where I would be without that vital burst of adrenaline. Not finished, I think.

1 comment:

  1. That is quite a process. I hope you're celebrating well and are making sure you've got time to put toward self-care now this chunk is over!