The ticket to full steam ahead

image of list of things to remember throughout the dissertation writing processNearly a year ago I attended a workshop on maintaining healthy habits throughout the dissertation writing process. Boy am I glad I did. This fall I’m taking time off from teaching to focus solely on writing my dissertation–oh, annnnnnd applying for jobs. Fun stuff. It’s all writing-based, deadline-oriented and, at times, pretty stressful. So I’ve found myself putting some of the tips from the workshop into practice each day.

I’ve included a high-resolution image of the all-important workshop handout above. (Sorry it’s crinkled. It hangs above my desk and occasionally gets knocked about by a bored cat or two.) I reread the tips often. Among the most important and oft-used tips for me are:

  • Recognizing the dissertation writing process as stress laden. Once I get into the groove of writing I actually find it quite fun and satisfying. But the writing process contains both hills and valleys. Recognizing this as I begin each day is key to sticking to the task at hand without getting discouraged. As long as I work to the best of my ability each day, I know I’ll meet my goals and everything will be “okay.” P90X leader Tony Horton’s mantra ain’t no joke: “Do your best and forget the rest.” Worrying only hinders your work. Let it go as best you can each time you sit down to work.
  • Tips 1-4 are critical. Progress in writing requires an unwavering commitment to a well-defined writing schedule. Before I began writing I devised a very detailed plan of action. I committed to specific hours to be at my desk each day, distraction-free, and I hold myself to that schedule each and every day. My writing hours are my priority and everything else–dentist appointments, household chores, e-mail, extracurricular activities, other academic duties–yields to my writing schedule. Yep, my place gets pretty messy sometimes by week’s end. C’est la vie. I also take time each week to define and assess my daily, weekly, monthly, and semester-long goals. Of course, sometimes I get distracted or a new idea leads to the reorganization of a chapter or section and I need to readjust my goals. But again, hills and valleys. When I encounter setbacks, I remember to…

Tony Horton meme: Do your best and forget the rest!

  • Get support. For me this includes not only keeping family appraised of my work schedule so they don’t wig out because they haven’t seen me in a while and think maybe my husband murdered me (he wouldn’t); it also includes seeking out support and advice from others who know what the writing process is all about. Like many Twitterstorians, I am fond of using #writingpact and #TeamPhinisheD. Although, for privacy reasons, I don’t use the hashtags every time I sit down to work, they are wonderful options for maintaining accountability for daily goals and for both getting and giving support during the somewhat lonesome writing process.
  • Tips 16-19. For me, this set of tips is on equal ground with tips 1-4 because tips 1-4 aren’t possible to achieve without holding yourself to tips 16-19. In the current culture of overwork self-care all too often falls to the wayside. While I was completing my master’s thesis, I was simultaneously struggling with a tragic, untimely death in my family, many late-night/early morning phone calls to help family members through the difficult time, and feelings of not being understood/not belonging/not being accepted into academic culture based on my first-generation, low-income background. I had few healthy work habits and came very close to full-on burnout. Since then, self-care has become a high priority as I complete my PhD. I’ve worked hard to develop a wide variety of healthy habits to keep my history mojo flowing sure and steady. A well-defined work schedule IS critical, but it won’t get you anywhere if you’re too weak and stressed out to think. Self-care isn’t a distraction from writing or something only the uncommitted do. Self-care enhances your ability to do your best. Plus, massages, runner-highs, ice cream, and beer are awesome.

See you next time.

Tinkering around at DHSI 2014

During the first week in June I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) for the first time. The trip also marked my first visit to Canada, and the first time I traveled internationally in more than a decade. It was a bit of a whirlwind experience. I took the DHSI course, “Physical Computing and Desktop Fabrication for Humanists,” with William J. Turkel, Devon Elliott, and Jentery Sayers. In addition to meeting new DH enthusiasts and reuniting with old friends, the course provided an exciting introduction to both the culture of the maker movement and the potential applications of 3-D printing. Below is a brief photo essay reflection — or as close to one as my WordPress template permits — on my time at DHSI 2014.


Don’t be a snob: “How people use language is how language works”

The quote above is one of the central points Mary Rolf makes in her excellent post, “Why I Stopped Being a Grammar Snob.” In the post Rolf, a self-described recovering English major and former grammar snob, discusses the major lessons she learned from a course entitled “Introduction to the English Language.” Rolf’s shift in perspective is something anyone who aspires to maintain a healthy level of behavioral self-regulation and humility can take to heart. But her arguments about the hierarchies inherent in grammar and the negative impact of grammar snobbery strike me as particularly crucial for those of us who are educators to bear in mind as we encourage our students to learn to express their ideas and arguments in writing. Below are some of the highlights from Rolf’s initial post, as well as from a follow-up post in which Rolf addresses the “grammar police” directly.

The most important thing I learned, though, was that there is no such thing as ‘standard English’ with a capital E. Instead there are many ‘englishes’ with a lower case E. There is the english of the Caribbean and the english of the southern United States and the english of Oxbridge and the english rappers use in their music.

A prescriptivist believes in the idea of standard English and sees mistakes everywhere. A descriptivist sees many englishes, and none of them are standard.

The way people speak and write is based on a lot of factors. Geography, for one. The various communities you belong to are also a big influence. Most of us belong to several communities and speak a little differently in the context of each one, whether that community is found at work, on a sports team, in a particular ethnic group, or in a religious community. We’re all fluent in more than one english, for example the language of our peer group and the language of our parents’ generation.

When you judge people for what you consider to be poor grammar, you’re judging them for not being as good as you at something that might be a challenge because they didn’t have the advantages or experience you did. Maybe they haven’t had the luxury of worrying about their grammar. Maybe their use of language is right in line with their community.

We don’t live in a grammar police state. Vigilantism clobbers the creative and communicative intention of language because it derails the conversation. And who are you to pass judgement on other people at all? Language belongs to all of us.

Language and grammar seem to be one of the few areas we still celebrate intolerance. Grammar Police, you can be so self-righteous that you’ve managed to warp grammar into a moral thing. You’re right or you’re wrong, and if you’re wrong you’re not just stupid, but also bad and the Grammar Police has license to judge you accordingly. No. This is denies the very essence of language, which is that it’s organic and continually evolving.

The new American Dream: Doing what you love

I recently stumbled across Paul Graham‘s 2006 piece, “How to do what you love” and find myself smitten. The ability to do what one loves for a living might accurately be described as the new American Dream, and Graham has some excellent recommendations for those of us in pursuit of our love. I keep a printed copy of his article above my desk and reread highlighted sections from time to time to remind myself of the bigger picture. Below are just of few of my favorite quotes, including some of Graham’s best–on prestige as the enemy of passion.

Why is it conventional to pretend to like what you do?…If you have to like something to do it well, then the most successful people will all like what they do…conventional attitudes about work are, without the owners even knowing it, nth-degree imitations of the attitudes of people who’ve done great things. What a recipe for alienation.

The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn’t mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month. Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something.

You shouldn’t worry about prestige…This is easy advice to give. It’s hard to follow, especially when you’re young. Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Your opinions about what’s admirable are always going to be slightly influenced by prestige, so if two [kinds of work] seem equal to you, you probably have more genuine admiration for the less prestigious one.

Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money…It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial.

You have to make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations.

In the design of lives, as in the design of most other things, you get better results if you use flexible media…It’s also wise, early on, to seek jobs that let you do many different things, so you can learn faster what various kinds of work are like.

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.

white noise reduction

Ground rules for civil discourse

white noise reduction

As I look toward the freshman survey I’ll be teaching in the Fall and reflect upon my experiences leading recitation sections, serving as a teaching assistant, participating in graduate seminars, and arguing politics with relatives, a handout for my students with some basic guidelines for civil discourse seems ever more like a good idea. Below is a pdf of the document I developed, which I plan to discuss with the students in the first days of the course. The survey, which will be capped at 25 students, will be heavily discussion-oriented and should therefore provide many excellent opportunities for the students to practice civil discourse and learn its value in everyday life. As always, I welcome comments and recommendations.

Losing the military’s past & with it, the lessons of war

ProPublica is working to bring national attention to the story of missing war records:

The U.S. military began relying on computer records during the Gulf War, introducing major gaps in recordkeeping as the old paper-style system fell apart. The Army then introduced a centralized system for collecting electronic field reports, but units have failed to submit records there…The loss of field reports – after-action write-ups, intelligence reports and other day-to-day accounts from the war zones – has far reaching implications. It has complicated efforts by soldiers like DeLara to claim benefits. And it makes it harder for military strategists to learn the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the nation’s most protracted wars.

Issues related to digital preservation impact us all. The systemic failure to preserve war records from Iraq and Afghanistan not only means veterans will encounter difficulties obtaining diagnoses and benefits; it also means historians and military strategists will simply not be able to reconstruct the day-to-day wartime experiences of American soldiers with anything resembling the level of detail, complexity, and scope of wars past.

Historians had complained about lax recordkeeping for years with little result. ‘We were just on our knees begging for the Army to do something about it,’ said Dr. Reina Pennington, a Professor at Norwich University in Vermont who chaired the Army’s Historical Advisory Committee. ‘It’s the kind of thing that everyone nods about and agrees it’s a problem but doesn’t do anything about it.’

Could academics have done more to raise the alarm? Although details are still emerging, I’m personally leaning toward “yes.” When academics recognize a problem with such far-reaching implications not only for themselves and their work but for real people and public life, it’s high time to step down from the ivory tower – advisory committees and all – and engage in “on the ground” work in our communities to draw attention to critical issues of social importance.

You can read ProPublica’s full investigative article here. The PBS NewsHour also covered the story in a segment last night.