Category Archives: Dissertation

Dissertating During Coronavirus

As you all are well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has redoubled public health and safety efforts, effectively resulting in the seeming indefinite closure of schools and universities, retailers and other places and events where folks congregate. This means conferences have been cancelled or postponed, travel is limited, and teleworking and online learning is the new standard.

There’s plenty to be concerned about: beyond the risk and concerns of contracting the virus, many are worried about spreading it, as we’re learning some folks are asymptomatic carriers; parents and other caretakers are now concerned about how to balance caring for their children and elderly; finding appropriate sustenance and necessities as panic-induced bulk buying cleans out shelves at grocery stores. There are worries about displaced college students having to shelter in abusive homes; acute financial concerns as some people are laid off entirely and losing work, and others having to continue working overtime to support a panicking population; and whether our president will wield this disaster as an opportunity to postpone the election.

And that’s just some of the discourse I’ve seen on the news and around the internet in the last week.

Then, of course, there’s the firm suggestion that we practice “social distancing,” a conscious effort to prevent the spread of the virus, which involves limiting the amount of contact we have with others. Many others are having a much harder time with this than I am, admittedly. Staying indoors, only venturing out for necessities, and entertaining myself with hobbies I can do in the house is pretty much what I do anyway. Plus, as I’ve written before, it’s just me and my dissertation this semester, which means I can write from anywhere as I have no obligations to be physically present at the university.

Rationally, I know not much changes for me, aside from the fact that my dog and I are weathering the pandemic from my parents’ house an hour away from campus. And yet, the low level of panic I typically feel in general on any given day has been turned up from about a 1.5 to a 4, with spikes of acute anxiety throughout the day.

I know I will be okay for a while. I’m safe. I have many of my comforts: my dog, my art, my books, my journals… but I can’t say I’m not unaffected by the many stories that cross my timeline in a day. Folks I interact with regularly online are having graduations cancelled and losing freelance gigs and are already in precarious financial and health situations. It could easily be months before things get back to normal.

It feels…disingenuous to be worried about my dissertation right now. On the one hand, there are so many other, more important things I could be occupying myself with at the moment. But on the other, work has always been my anchor, it has kept me grounded in the midst of personal upheavals. As long as my already busy mind is kept focused on a task, I can minimize the amount of time I spend spiraling into rabbit holes about the world ending.

I can’t say that there’s a “right” response to an international pandemic, but pressuring myself to work on a project that ultimately will end up on a shelf in College Apartments, untouched for decades once finished, just doesn’t seem useful.

What I think is a better idea is striving for some sense of normalcy in these uncertain times. Given that I am already prone to panic and anxiety without the added stress of a global crisis, for me, striving for normalcy will probably mean being more proactive than usual about my mental health and tending myself first, and working when and if I feel like it. I will need sleep, walks with Genghis, time to read, make art, write, to feel okay. I really need yoga, but it looks like my University is working to put some virtual fitness classes in place for us, so hopefully, I’ll be able to tune in with my favorite yoga teachers soon enough.

Most importantly, I think I’ll be reminding myself as often as I can to take some very deep breaths. More often than not, I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I sit up straight and and do some seated cat and cows to release my spine, roll my head on my shoulders, and breathe.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Breathe.

Dissertation Check-In #1

I opened a new scrivener file for my dissertation and started writing on December 28, 2019. In the two months that have elapsed since that day, I have done a lot of reading and a lot of drafting– 50 pages worth actually.

If it seems like I’m writing like a madwoman, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Writing is my primary vehicle for processing the world so I write a lot and often.
  2. I write fast. If I have an idea, I can lay down 1,000 words in under an hour.
  3. I don’t self-edit as I write. I word vomit and edit later.
  4. I am not working this semester. At my school, if you TA or are a teaching fellow, you’re off the semester you are not working.
  5. I have written something that can serve as a basis for each chapter, intro and conclusion, whether it be a conference or seminar paper, or an article draft. (Protip: before I started writing, I gathered all my relevant writing into a document so I would have my ideas all in one place. That document was 150 pages.)

To point number five, I’ve tested out a lot of these ideas, worked them out, but I’m excited to get to spend some time molding them on paper and synthesizing them even further.

Also, in terms of actual writing time, I don’t spend that much time writing. Every week, I give myself a writing goal word count. Typically, the minimum is 1,250 words (or 250 words on average every week day) and the maximum is 2,500 (or 500 words on average every week day). I try to be very flexible with myself, so it doesn’t matter how the words come out. If I write 1,250 words or more one day, I consider my work done for the week unless I have a stroke of inspiration, I rarely write more. Usually, though, I spend about an hour three days out of the week working on my word count goal.

That said, if I’m only writing a few hours a week, what am I doing the rest of the time? Reading. I spend a lot of time reading, rereading, reviewing, and researching. I’m taking notes and sketching and outlining. Admittedly, I do other things, too: I go to meetings for my various jobs around campus and with my advisor, I do conferences, go to lectures. And of course, I spend some time freelance writing, pitching and drafting and editing essays.

But I’ve got a rhythm for the time being: Monday through Friday, I am in Williamsburg, writing in my apartment or at the local coffeehouse. Every day that I write, I also move. So I try to make it to a yoga class (or Body Combat on Wednesdays), every day that I spend sedentary working. On Friday, I stop working, no matter where I am on the spectrum of my word count, and I drive home to Suffolk and spend the weekend with my folks. We do nothing happily and we go to church on Sundays. I sometimes make things, like mini canvases with custom quotes, for people. I take a break. And then on Monday, I drive back to Williamsburg and start my week over again.

All of my pages have gone off to my dissertation advisor and I’ve since gotten edits and comments back. However, sometime last week, I realized I was going really hard on the dissertation, even with all of my scheduling and breaks. So I took last week (which incidentally happened to be my birthday week) off. Tomorrow, Monday March 2, I am going to comb through my advisor’s comments a little more carefully and spend a week or two adjusting and reworking based on her thoughts. I will spend the last two weeks of March hopefully drafting about 20 new pages of work.

My goal, ultimately, is to have a sizeable chunk of this project drafted this year. I expect most of my work will come in the editing process. Writing, simply put, isn’t the hard part for me. Editing to get it where it needs to be is the beast I have to conquer.

In any case, I think I’ve made good progress over the last two months. I have a system that works for me and an advisor who is supportive, present and forthcoming with feedback. I do like being in this space: I love that it’s just me and my writing. It’s what I love, just getting carried away by ideas, and right now I can do that with minimal interruption.

It’s kind of nice.

Will it stay that way? Only time will tell.

New Decade, New Me: Post-Student Life and Embracing Candidacy

January– the start of a new year and a new semester. This semester is a little unusual for me because this will be the first semester since I’ve started graduate school that I have “off.” The deal is that if you are a teaching assistant (TA) or a teaching fellow (TF) one semester during the academic year, then that semester of work for the entire year. This is absolutely an institution-specific thing, a program-specific policy even. I have friends in another department at my school who have some sort of graduate assistant duties each semester, no matter what. However, they’re guaranteed at least one full year of funding where they have no obligations except to write. It all varies.

So much feels like it’s changed since I last wrote. Last semester (Fall 2019) seemed like the end of an era in a lot of ways. It was the first, and likely last, time that I’ll be a teaching assistant; the next time I set foot in a classroom for an extended period of time, I will probably be teaching my own course. It also marked the end of a series of trials and tests; with coursework, comps and prospectus behind me, as well as the experience of getting my feet wet with pedagogy under a tenured professor, I finally feel ABD (all but dissertation). I feel like everything I do from here on out is for me, on my time, on my terms, and I can begin to craft my career the way I want to, as opposed to satisfying the whims of others.

 

I’m not a student anymore.

And that means I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual thinking about how I want my career to look, studying the careers of others, reaching out, daydreaming, and hustling. A lot of things have been put into motion that I can’t necessarily say much about at the moment, but in the last few months of 2019 and into this first month of the new decade, I feel myself finding my footing as I begin to walk in my purpose.

The one thing that’s abundantly clear is that I want to write. It seems so obvious to say, but nothing feels like writing for me. Nothing feels like the moment when I get the first words down on a new document or in a new journal; nothing like working through rounds of revisions; and nothing like seeing those words find a home and make their way out into the world.

An important note is that I want to be a writer with range; I recently got to see Lamar Giles in conversation with Meg Medina and the discussion about range has stayed with me. My scholarship, my blogging and my essays are starting to find homes and an audience. I want that for my fiction, too– my novels and short stories. And one day I want to write a comic. I would love to write lots of comics, but let’s just start with one. (I won’t say who I’d want to write but let’s just say her initials are LL.)

One day, I’ll write a post about how I balance all the different types of writing that I do/want to do. For now, just assume I spend a lot of time juggling and dropping the various balls.

As I get further down my path and closer to aligning myself with my own goals, I have come to resent grad school less and less. Yes, I could write a book about what’s wrong with higher education as it stands, but the time I got to hone my thinking, develop my writing, read widely, meet people– specifically, authors and writers…those are skills I can take with me, no matter where I end up. I don’t think I ever would have wrote the novel I drafted last summer if I hadn’t been in grad school, day-dreaming about digital Black girlhood, blogging and writing. I maybe wouldn’t have made the time, or perhaps never even had the idea.

Things happen for a reason, and they’ll reveal themselves in time.

At any rate, there’s still the practical business of having a semester off. What will I do? Well, I still have plenty to do. I still have a whole dissertation to write, research to do, stuff to read to get there. I’ll be making some appearances at conferences: Chesapeake DH in February, SXSWEdu in March and the Lemon Project Symposium later that month. I’m still the graduate advisor of the Africana House on campus so I’ll be working a little more closely with the students this semester. Of course, I’m already back to yoga, but I’m adding in a new cardio class for fun. And I’ll probably be writing across the internet (I’ve already had pieces in Black Youth Project, Wear Your Voice, and ZORA) in addition to my dissertation work and noveling.

I have some cool projects and news dropping soon, too, so stay close to the blog (and Twitter) to be the first in the know.

I’m so glad I’m finding my magic in this liminal space between life as a student and a lifetime as a scholar.