Setting goals for the summer

Summer is like New Year’s for academics: a time of reflection and goal-setting, both in work and in personal life.

2016–2017 was rewarding—I finished my dissertation and landed a tenure-track job—but intensely difficult. Neither of the New Year’s resolutions I made really worked out long-term.

I lost sight of writing 5 days a week while I was in the depths of interviewing and landing a job, although I got better about it when it came time to pushing to the finish line.

I meditated pretty consistently for a month or two, until interviewing and getting a job became extremely difficult and intense for me. This is when you need to meditate the most, or so the wisdom goes, but the last thing I wanted to do was sit around with my thoughts. Meditation is harder than it sounds.

Forgiveness being crucial, I want to try again, and set out some new Big Changes for myself before I get lost in the hubbub of the 2017–2018 schoolyear. Really committing to all of these would be impossible, so this is more of a brainstorming session. I will feel accomplished if I manage just one or two of these big changes.

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What happens in the writing center

Instead of teaching college classes, for the fifth year of my fellowship, my assignment is to work in a college writing center. I have long told my students to take their papers to the writing center for help, without having actually gone myself. Now, I help students with their class essays in any subject, or sometimes I help them with graduate school application materials.

Working at the writing center gives me a new window into students’ perspectives on writing. Students tend to vent or otherwise open up to writing tutors—they feel safe with us. Every day, I listen to students who are trying their very hardest to succeed in school, but they are stretched incredibly thin and pulled in many different directions. The students I tutor are, almost always, not just going to school; they are working, they have children, they are immigrants who travel back to their home countries regularly. Students are also often facing immense barriers to their success: they are suffering from illnesses; they are broke; they are being evicted. Their teacher wants them to write a paper, though, so they are at the writing center asking for help.

So when I am scrolling through Twitter to take a break between tutoring students, and I come across a tweet like this…

…it’s hard not to get immediately incensed, on a personal level.

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What helps me survive writing my dissertation

For dozens of years in a row, I was a student that took classes every semester which were taught by a professor and culminated in a final project or exam. I didn’t really need long-term goals because they were largely articulated for me. I got pretty good at writing a 15-ish page paper every semester for every class.

Transitioning into the new full-time job of writing a long document (my dissertation) has been somewhat bizarre. I can’t rely on my old thought patterns anymore.  I’ve made number of changes to my working style that improve my mentality and attitude toward writing, which I hope could be helpful for someone else out there. (This seems to be a pretty common type of post for a PhD blogger!) I have six tips and recommendations to share.

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Blogging and the writing process

Writing a dissertation is an isolating endeavor. The majority of my work is done when I’m alone. I have stopped trying to write my dissertation in my apartment, where my two cats and the temptations of games, TV, chores, and snacking are too easy to fall for; I instead always go to the public library, the Graduate Center, or a cafe instead. But even when surrounded by other people in a public place, to do the work, I have to put in my headphones and tune out the rest of the world. Complicating this is the protectiveness that I feel about my research. My dissertation is not finished, so it’s not perfect, so I don’t want to share it for fear of people getting the wrong idea about my work. When people ask “what’s your dissertation about?”, I tend to give my elevator pitch but change the subject at the next organic opportunity; when people ask how the writing is going, I’ll say “it’s going!” or “fine!” without boring them with details.

This is sort of a confession of problems I have in the writing process—problems I hope to alleviate with this blog. I want to have a place to share my ideas in a more conversational tone, to ask questions and think “out loud”, to link to on my Twitter and get feedback from those who are interested. I am also looking forward to putting my writing process on display. For History of Theory class early in my Ph.D., I translated part of a treatise by  a 19th-century German, Johann Christian Lobe. He wrote “Even the greatest and most learned geniuses don’t have roasted doves flying into their mouths.” This isn’t a humble-brag or a name drop—this charming and ever-so-19th-century-German quote truly has stuck in my mind ever since I read it. The point is, of course, that everyone has rough drafts, revisions, and junk ideas. It’s not a new idea, but writing-as-a-process could always use more emphasis in academic life. I want to contribute to that with this blog. (It won’t hurt that I’ll also be getting my work on the internet, just a google away from curious eyes…)

I intend to share snippets of dissertation work, as well as passing thoughts on other musical or academic topics. Enjoy!