Soloist: Dealing with Isolation

One of the big challenges that we grad students (particularly non-resident grad students caught somewhere between late dissertation writing and the job market) face is isolation. Going from a structured schedule that involves a highly-social job (teaching and or learning) to sitting at home alone with your research every day can be extremely challenging. If you’re not the type of person that deals well with large tasks to perform in unstructured time, then you’ll face even worse troubles at this stage of the game (and frankly it’s a miracle you got this far). I’m not going to say that I’ve solved the many problems of academic isolation, they are definitely demons I face every day, but I’m coping and I certainly put a lot of thought into how to cope with these issues. Here are a few of my better brainwaves for methods I use to help deal with academic isolation.

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University's "Richard III"

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University’s “Richard III”

Get a Job

I’ve tried to keep a hand in teaching as much as I can, even when that means taking on alternative teaching jobs. I spent a few years teaching continuing adult education which was extremely rewarding and gave me somewhere to be once a week to make human eye contact and discuss things I was passionate about with other people. Though this program didn’t pay “the big bucks”, it was a worthwhile use of my time in that it got me out of the house, gave me a forum in which to try out new teaching materials, and gave me teaching experience that I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to acquire. But even when there are no teaching jobs available (this happens sometimes and it’s not your fault), consider taking on a very part-time, very temporary position somewhere near your beaten path. A few hours of responsibility, social activity, and paid work every week can do wonders for your self-esteem at this highly volatile time. Finding the right fit for this can sometimes be challenging, but think about things you’d actually like to do and see if you can’t monetize them. Remember: not every job you work has to go on your resume and you never know when you’ll meet someone who may just be a useful connection for your true professional calling.

Reach Out

I am not a highly social creature during the best of times, and my social energies get sapped very quickly when I’m under a lot of stress. What this has generally meant is that the dissertation process has made me not just an academic hermit, but a social hermit as well. At the end of the day, the last thing I tend to want to do is go out and be social. Despite this, I try to make an extra effort to see people who I know will 1) understand the process I’m going through, and 2) put positive energy back into my bucket. There are a few friends I have who I know are low-key to be around, will support me if I’m feeling not so great about my work life, and will understand if I just don’t want to talk about much of anything. Being around these people as much as possible (which, let’s face it, is not much when you have a demanding professional schedule) is important to keeping the lonelies at bay. I’m often pleasantly surprised at what an evening in the right company can do for my mood; and my mood in turn effects my productivity. In short: the right amount of time with the right people will help you be a better writer.

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Vitamin D

Sometimes, just leaving my house to go for a walk can help to improve a dismal mood brought on by dissertation-related isolation. Fresh air and sunshine are mood-lifters, and endorphins will give you an extra kick to boot. If you’ve been keeping up with Dani Dash, you know that I tend to go running rather than walking these days, but whatever your speed taking a break outside is definitely worth your while.

Have a (Small) Treat 

While we grad students live on a notoriously tight budget, now and again a special treat can help you support yourself. Sometimes, this treat can be productivity related; if I’m stuck in the “I don’t wanna” phase of editing, I’ll take my draft to a favorite coffee shop and grab myself a drink (I almost never buy coffee, so this is a great little treat). Sometimes, it can be self-care related; if I’m feeling extremely stressed or strung out, I’ll find a groupon for a massage and take an hour just to refuel and unwind. The pitfall here is obvious: too much of a good thing can break your budget and self-reward structure. Just be careful about how frequently (and how much) you are treating yourself; but don’t feel guilty when you do on occasion (especially if you plan and budget for this). You are worth it.

Remind yourself Why 

This one is the biggest challenge. Facing down today’s job market, it can be difficult to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. If you can find any way to remind yourself, any trigger to reinvigorate the passion which led you down the road you’re traveling, revisit it as frequently as you need. Often I get so caught up in the writing portion of dissertating that I can’t see the forest for the trees; it’s in these moments that I need to go see a show, or look at old journal entries, or re-read particularly glowing course evals from former students. Find a touchstone that will help key you in to what you love about the work and never let it go. I’m not saying you need to moon like an adolescent love poem, but without taking the time to reinvigorate your passion now and again you’ll slide into the doldrums of the grind and that is soul crushing. Fortify with frequent doses of vitamin L(ove) and try to ignore the vampiric voice of futility.

Get Help

I know many people (myself included) who are likely to thank their therapists in their dissertation acknowledgements. If you’re feeling stuck, depressed, or just unable to shake your mood, there is no shame in seeking professional help. The right person will be able to talk you through your troubles and inject some new light on the subject. If your issues seem to be mostly grad-school related, I highly recommend seeking out a therapist with a PsyD. Since this person has been through the process of getting a Doctorate, they are much more likely to understand your journey and be able to offer insight without you having to explain every step of the way. They have first hand experience with the stakes and stresses of exams, research, advisors, and the myriad of other field-specific stressors that academic life entails.

Whatever you do, don’t let isolation impede your progress. Breaking the cycle is a pivotal piece of “getting it done” (which, at the end of the day, is really what you need to do).

 

We All Make Mistakes

Over the past several years, I’ve had the enormous opportunity to do a great deal of teaching. I’ve had some extremely smart, talented, and driven students come through my classroom and I genuinely loved working with every single one of them.

I’ve also made a few observations about some of the most common mistakes that students make in a university setting. Between mentoring my own students, listening to my mentors tell stories about their experiences, and discussing teaching with colleagues, I’ve come to recognize a few basic patterns that students can develop which are ultimately destructive to their success in the classroom.

This is not to say that every student will make the same mistakes (far from it), or that

Jumbo: Tufts' Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

Jumbo: Tufts’ Mascot and one of my favorite things to teach about

avoiding these mistakes will guarantee top grades, but certainly remedying these issues can nip failure in the bud. Because I am discussing student patterns in general and not the behavior of any specific student (mine or otherwise), I don’t feel like I am betraying confidences to share these patterns in hopes that thinking about them might benefit university students in general. Please do note that I am not referencing any single incident or individual at any time, but rather a series of observations made over the years in dealing with many bodies of students.

Communication

If I had to pinpoint a single thing that could increase classroom success, it would be communication between student and professor. Instructors genuinely want their students to do well and are (on the whole) fairly generous with their abilities to help students do well. Student communication is key to unlocking this. If you feel you are struggling, reach out to the instructor. Chances are they have noticed and have a few ideas for how you can improve, or what you might do to remedy your situation. They also might know about university resources that can help you outside of the classroom should your issue be persistent/long term.

Office hours are a severely under-utilized resource. I can’t count the times I’ve sat in my office available and willing to help anyone who dropped by with no visitors to help. Simply taking a moment to stop by office hours with a clear problem in hand is the first step towards solving it.

This goes double if you know that an issue is brewing. If you know you are going to miss class for some reason, be late, or arrive in a state that isn’t best suited to learning, communicate this with your instructor well in advance of the conflict. Most of us are much more willing to be lenient when the students plans for a problem than we are to be forgiving after a student has a problem.

Planning

 Look at your schedule for the semester as a whole; do you have several assignments due in one lump “crunch time”? Are you going to be out of town unavoidably for a long weekend? Do you foresee any reason why you might not be able to execute what the instructor asks of you? Then discuss this with your professor. I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan well in advance; this shows your professor that you care greatly about your success, that you have the skills to deal with managing your own time; and that you can be trusted with privileges such as extensions and extra credit. Your instructor wants you to take your success as seriously as they do, and proper planning can help assure them that you are doing everything in your power to succeed.

This can also apply to your assignments; leave yourself ample time (particularly if you’ve never before completed an assignment like what your instructor has asked for). This way, if you run into a hitch, you have plenty of time to ask for help or clarification. Remember: instructors do not answer e-mails 24/7. If you leave your big paper worth a significant chunk of your grade to the last minute and are held up because you need input from your instructor, you might be putting yourself in a bad situation that could have been entirely avoided.

Not Reading the Syllabus 

The syllabus is designed to be your go-to resource for pretty much anything you might want to know about the course. There’s a reason that they can be so long! Chances are, if you have a question, the syllabus will have your answer. Before e-mailing or taking class time to ask your professor what day something is due or how your grade will be calculated, check the syllabus. If your answer isn’t there or is unclear, then you can definitely feel free to ask the question. Always look at the syllabus first; your instructor spent a lot of time crafting it to help you out in situations like this one!

Always remember: your instructor is someone who loves learning, loves the subject matter, and is invested in helping you succeed. We are on your side, and we are always hoping to help you improve over the course of the semester. We can’t carry you to the finish line, but we can definitely coach you there!

Summertime

Hello, all!

It being summer, it also happens to be a time of year when us educators are faced with the frustrating situation of explaining away certain myths about our jobs. One still prevalent is the “summer off”.

I know that the university calendar tells you that there’s no class over the three-month span between June and September. I am also aware that conventional ideas about summer equate to vacation, beaches, volleyballs, and children frolicking in fields of free time.

But let me assure you, simply because school’s out for summer doesn’t mean that we get “three blissful months” of sitting on our couches binge-watching Netflix. I can’t speak for everyone (especially because primary and secondary education are two different ballgames really). That said, I would like to give you a sense of what my summer, as an adjunct, a PhD Candidate, and a working artist, consists of:

I Write

So all that time during the “working semesters” when I’m not actually standing in front of a classroom teaching is generally reserved for teaching-related tasks. I have to prepare lessons, grade, deal with administrative issues, answer emails, meet with students, prepare exams, prepare projects, and monitor attendance (amongst other things). Since I am not in a situation where I am guaranteed work semester-to-semester, I also have to submit resumes, look for work for the coming semesters, and also work a few spare jobs on the side just to make ends meet. This means that my time to research and write is at a premium. As a PhD candidate, my primary focus needs to be finishing my dissertation. Summers mean that classroom-teaching-related-tasks go away and I can reclaim that time specifically for my dissertation project.

I Look for Work

As I mention above, I am not in a situation that guarantees work semester to semester (this is true for many adjuncts, by the way… having a long-term relationship with an institution makes your chances at acquiring work better, but does not guarantee you anything no matter how good you are at your job). This means that summertime is spent fervently applying to as many universities as possible hoping that enough of them will throw me a writing 101 or Theatre History class for the next semester. What with the way universities hire, I may not know whether I am, in fact, teaching a class until the week (or even days) before I step into the classroom. In some rare instances, I may be asked mid-semester to take over a class on a rush basis and come in same-day or next-day to teach someone else’s curriculum from someone else’s slides off of someone else’s syllabus.

I Work as Much as I Can

 Since teaching as an adjunct is not a guaranteed thing, and since the pay is generally poor enough that eking a living out doing it is nearly impossible, I have several side jobs. During the summer, in addition to the above-tasks, I also take on as much extra work as possible in hopes that I can squirrel money away to pay bills should next semester prove a bit lean.

I Battle my Mental Demons

Dissertation work is very isolating. Since summertime means that campus is very empty and I’m not generally leaving my house on a regular schedule to teach or run errands, it also means that I have a lot of time to spend by myself with my thoughts and my work. This can lead to some very unhealthy mental habits and thought patterns including (but not limited to): workaholism, depression, anxiety, and the host of physical complications which come with these troubles. Because of items 1-3, summertime can be extremely tough on a PhD Candidate, and a great deal of maintenance is required to ensure that we keep ourselves healthy. For me, this generally involves a high level of athletic activity (I’m currently training for a half marathon and a Spartan race); running several times a week ensures that I have micro-goals unrelated to my stressors which I can accomplish, that I leave the house and get some vitamin D with frequency, and that endorphins give me a little boost when I need it. I can’t recommend some kind of intense physical training in combination with dissertation-writing more; it has seriously changed my Diss-game dramatically.

All of this is not to say that Dissertation work is not rewarding (it is) or that I am not lucky to be where I am with my career path (I am), but to ask you to think a bit about some harsh realities. Particularly before you remark to your teacher friends that they are so lucky to have the summer off, or that you wish you could have three months of guaranteed vacation every year.

And on that note, I suppose I should return to my top priority: the ever-present dissertation. Cheers, all! Stay cool!

The Marathon

In case you’re not tired of this metaphor already, writing a dissertation is like running a marathon.

Now let me be clear: I am a runner. I’m slow, but I’m persistent. That said, my longest distance goal at the moment is a half marathon (which I should hit in the next few months if I keep at it; I’ll be running a 10 Mile race on March 7th; the Salem Black Cat 10 Miler in case you want to join me).

Training to run a long-distance race has many striking similarities to the research and dissertation writing process. First: it comes in chunks. Neither a Marathon nor a Dissertation are finished the day after you decide that you are going to complete them. They take time, dedication, and commitment to accomplish. When you finally do cross the finish line, you will have done something that an overwhelmingly small portion of the population will ever have the opportunity to do.

They both require training and diligence. Increasing your running distance is a matter of patience, fortitude, and attitude; just like increasing your research banks. In both cases, you need to train both hard and smart to accomplish your goal. In both cases, you will often find yourself in vast swathes of the unknown unsure what to do next. In those instances, you need to look to others who have come before; trainers, other athletes, colleagues, friends; people who have been where you are and can advise you accordingly. You’ll need periodic check-ins with professionals; advisors, mentors, and coaches to ensure that you’re on track to meet your goal.

Marathon running, just like dissertation writing, can be an isolating sport. After all, much of the training you do is solitary and so specialized that few will be able to connect with it. But it is precisely for this reason that you need to keep in touch with your community of supporters.

Because not every day is a good day. Not every run is a good run, and not every research session is productive. While some days you’ll be crushing your book stack or your long run with relative ease, other days just putting on your running shoes or getting to your desk will feel like a marathon in and of itself. Some days you’ll be engrossed in what you’re doing and feel invincible; other days you’ll have to take frequent breaks and go so slowly that you’ll wonder if you’re getting anywhere at all.

But that’s where the cheerleaders help. On bad days, they’re there to remind that

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

At the finish line of the Super Sunday 5 Mile race last weekend

tomorrow will be better and that just by getting up and going for it, you’re getting somewhere. They’re there to reality check your foibles (I mean, really, who should rightfully complain about being able to run 2/3 your final target distance EVEN IF it was slow as molasses and felt awful; or spending an “unproductive” day rooting through archival material older than your country?). They’re there to support you in those bad moments and remind you of the good ones. And you have to learn to trust them and treasure them, no matter how crazy the things they tell you sound in the moment (“What do you MEAN I’m not a failure for missing my deadline/run!? I haven’t missed one YET and thus I FAILED my perfect track record! Never mind that I haven’t missed on yet!”).

Distance running, like dissertation writing, is about micro-goals. Getting out there and doing your short run in a week is just as important to crossing the finish line as your BIG LONG TRAINING RUN before you taper. Getting that first vomit draft out of the way is just as important a milestone as getting the final advisor “Okay” on your last chapter. If you don’t set and meet your micro-goals, there’s no way that you’ll be making it to the finish line.

Dissertation writing, like distance running, is inevitably something that has to give you independent fulfillment. At the end, you will be a leading (if burgeoning) expert in a field of your own devising. This means that few, if any, outside sources will be able to validate the worth of your research in way that will satisfy you if you can’t find that validation within yourself. If you don’t get validation or feelings of elation from running, you will stop before you ever make it close to that finish line.

At the end of the day, dissertation writing, like distance running, is hugely fulfilling. It will mess up your mind as bad as running will mess up your body. It will require self-care and heavy doses of aspiration, perspiration, and determination to conquer. It demands sacrifice, time management, and a strong dose of priority mindedness. But if you can manage it, you can (and will) walk away rightfully feeling like biggest winner the world has ever known.

The Doctrine of Kindness

I want to take a moment to touch upon something that should seem so logical it needn’t even be said. In my experience, however, that doesn’t guarantee that it has already been discussed: being nice.

Look; let’s face it; having a pretty face just isn’t enough to get you by in academia. For that matter, neither is having a pretty CV or the best publications or the most accomplishments or the most prestigious fellowships. It’s a tough world out there, and it’s a world full of pressure and stress. It can be really difficult not to let this get to you; but at least in public you need to have a smooth, unbreakable mask of niceness.

Being a nice, helpful person absolutely will take you far. Remember that tenure-track means an institution is ready to stick with you for the long haul (and that haul can be pretty long). They want to work with you; they want to see your smiling face in every faculty meeting; they want to share a hallway with you. Nothing will keep them from wanting to do that quite like being someone who isn’t pleasant to be around.

I see every interaction with other academics as an opportunity to be the kind of person that I would want to work with. Whether this interaction is via e-mail, skype, or face-to-face conferencing, each touch provides me the unique opportunity to make a good impression. That being said, I’ve had to learn how to put my bad day aside so that I can present a clean, professional image no matter what’s going on in my life.

Of course, this is sometimes easier to do than others. It’s a lot easier to be “on” in an e-mail than it is at a conference. Particularly if you are an introvert, finding the social energy to present the kind of image you need to can be rough. Make absolutely certain that you take the necessary measures to ensure success for yourself on this front (whether that means scheduling some off-time during a conference weekend, sleeping in a little later on days when you have big presentations or job talks, or making sure that you eat a good breakfast to fuel up for being your best professional self).

It should be noted that this extends to lateral networking as well as vertical networking. Networking with your peers is just as important as networking with senior academics. After all, these are the people with whom you will be looking to collaborate on book projects, grant proposals, and conference panels. These are also the people with whom you will have the most personable war-stories to tell. Knowing who else is out there doing the kind of work you are interested in also involves getting to know those people; and when you get to know those people you want to be the kind of person they want to connect with. There’s no call or need for off-putting theatrics or peacocking in lateral networking; nobody wants to be around that guy who can’t stop telling you about his AWEEEESOME most recent GIANT fellowship or job opportunity. Yea, you’re great, but networking with your peers is less about impressing and more about impressioning. Let your work speak for itself whenever possible; be proud of it, but don’t flaunt it.

Find yourself some good attitude role-models. Think about people you’ve encountered in the field who you want to see again not just for networking-related items, but also for drinks at the conference bar. What kind of qualities do these people have? What makes you want to be around them? Like I tell my acting students, keen observation is the first step to replication. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve encountered good models in this regard, and I’ve encountered bad ones. The trick is not to let the bad ones ruffle you; the more people who choose grace under pressure, the better we can make the ivory tower of the future. Try to be like the ones who kept you going and lifted you up rather than the ones who pushed you down. Imagine what it would be like for our students if we all chose to be “lifters” rather than “pushers”. It may sound idealistic, but I do think that we grad students have the tremendous power to shape the future of academia. It’s up to us to determine what things will be like round these parts when we grow up to be the people in charge. If we start practicing the doctrine of kindness now, think about how much easier all of our lives will be.

This is not to say that we should all be pushovers; you can be firm without being unkind. But taking that extra moment to think about your actions may save some student years of class-induced angst, and will definitely improve your cosmic karma score. And it will make you look better to potential employers and colleagues.

It comes down to a few basic precepts: be kind without reason, be smart without arrogance, be helpful without patronization. These qualities, if followed, will definitely leave an impression (…and not the kind that will have folks running in the opposite direction).

At the Finish Line

One thing I have emphasized as we go along (and that I feel the need to reemphasize) is the importance of cross training.

Getting a PhD is insanely taxing mentally and emotionally. You spend all day every day working out your brain (so… basically you can ignore those luminosity commercials that pop up in Hulu when you’re trying to kick back a bit). Moreover, your work becomes something that you’re invested in; there are huge emotional stakes in turning in a paper, chapter, draft, or even research proposal. Getting a PhD is tough on the psyche. But like working any muscle, it’s important to rest and relax between sets.

This is part of why I’ve taken up so many physical hobbies over the course of getting my PhD. When I was studying for my German language proficiency, I taught myself to play the ukulele because it would relax me and help me unjam my mind from words too long to fit on one line. When I was studying for my written comprehensive exams, I taught myself to crack a six foot bullwhip and spin poi because taking ten minutes to just step outside and do something in my own body really helped me to de-stress and uncram my brain so that I might fit a bit more in with each study session.

Workouts have also been an important part of this cross training. While I’ve been a long-time gym bunny, over the last year I’ve gotten serious about one workout specifically which has really helped me in a lot of ways: running.

It sounds silly because it’s something we learn to do as children. Everybody, after all, can run. But let me tell you, before I started my C25K program last year, I was pretty hopeless at it. I set in hoping to just complete a 5K (because who wouldn’t want to cross that completely doable task off their bucket list?). One Spartan Sprint later and I was hooked.

I’ve had to be careful; running is tough on your body and if you have any particular injuries or quirks it will exacerbate them (I, for example, have knee issues that I have to keep a close eye on). Since I started running outside, I also have learned to wear highlighter-colored jackets to avoid being hit by less-than-careful Massachusetts drivers.

But I’ve found that it’s extremely satisfying to train up distances. Nothing can turn around a bad day with my books like setting a goal and doing it; and my running goals are something I keep very achievable just for this reason. I upped the stakes this winter by investing in some cold-weather running gear and, despite being a general wimp about the cold, I’ve never enjoyed working out more. Cold-weather workouts mean that once you get warmed up, you have a pleasant (natural) coolant to keep you from overheating (… unless you accidentally put on too many layers which is a learning curve all to itself). Let me tell you, I was the most astonished when I woke up the morning of my most recent race to nineteen degree weather and thought “It’s not that bad out!”

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

This year, I’ve decided that to celebrate my achievements by running twelve races; one race a month in 2015. The races can be of any length, they just need to be chip-timed events (and it is, of course, preferable that there’s some kind of cool race-sponsored after-party to attend). On this Saturday past, I ran my first race of 2015: the Resolution Run to Kick Cancer 5k. I set a personal best for chip time, and even overheated in the nineteen-degree weather. Not a bad way to start my year of races!

In a world of hazy deadlines and work that has seemingly no end and no beginning, running these races gives me something to work towards, something to look forward to, and something to feel accomplished about at the finish line. If you’re in your writing phase and haven’t found that for yourself yet, I highly recommend that you do. It doesn’t have to be running, but it should be something that you can accomplish and feel proud about (and, ideally, share with the wide world of the internet; because what’s achievement without facebook fame?).

Next up for me will be the Super Sunday 5M (followed by the Black Cat 10M in March). I am really excited about it!

Productivity

So I’ve been working on my dissertation almost specifically these days (I say “almost” because I still have a few side-projects going on, including my ongoing work with the Folger Shakespeare Library and some of their digital initiatives, but that’s probably a tale best told later).  I’m only teaching one class this semester (my continuing adult ed. class for OSHER lifelong learning), and it’s a very odd thing.

It’s odd because I’m working almost entirely on my own time.  I have nominal amounts of meetings, and deadlines are pretty hazy.  It’s odd because I don’t have to set an alarm if I don’t want to, because if I sleep in a little bit it just means that I have to work a little later that day.  It’s odd because I have lost almost entire sense of what day of the week it is and how that effects the rest of the world (let me tell you what it’s like to try and make appointments with businesses or doctors when you have small sense of “normal people time”).  And it’s odd because I spend all day, every day, all alone with my thoughts.  It’s true.  If I didn’t cohabitate with another human being, I would go LONG SPANS without making eye contact or speaking with another human without the interference of an electronic device.

So how can one possibly hope to succeed under these conditions? 

 Well, I’ve set up some pretty strict regulations for myself to ensure that work gets done and, so far, it seems to be working.

1)   I sit at my desk to work.  After breakfast, I put down the iPad and phone, and go plant myself at my desk.  And that’s where I stay until lunch.  I allow myself an hour for lunch, then I sit back at my desk until it’s an appropriate time to end the day.  I also allow myself a break to work out when I’m in true brain-fry space; but when I’m back and showered, I sit back down at the desk.  If I’m reviewing a show in the evening, or going to a rehearsal, or doing some other kind of legitimate work, I let myself “leave” a bit early just to provide enough cool-down time between jobs.  But other than that, I regulate my desk habits.  I find that if I don’t, I spend more time cleaning my apartment than conducting research.

2)   I set micro-goals.  Every day, before I leave my desk, I try to give myself a sense of what needs to be accomplished the next day.  Whether that’s “read this stack of books”, or “finish drafting another draft of this chapter”.  I always try to visually represent these goals for myself because otherwise the things I do become too theoretical to make me feel accomplished.  Sometimes this means setting out a stack of books for myself that I’m allowed to move to the “done” pile when I finish them.  Sometimes it means leaving the red pen on top of my draft so that I know it’s time for drafting.  Sometimes it means writing a list that I can cross off when I’ve completed tasks.  Whatever it is, I make sure to give myself the satisfaction of literally seeing accomplishment on a daily basis.  This keeps my morale high, and also gives me a sense of my pace and what I can reasonably expect from myself in a day.

3)   I update my social media feeds.  I know that, for some people, this can be a time-suck and a distraction rather than a boon, but for me it’s really refreshing to be able to post about funny things I read in my research books, or small accomplishments throughout the day.  Also, it keeps my twitter feed relevant and, as a result, refreshes the content on my blog which is directly linked to my SEO.  In other words: it kills a lot of marketing birds while simultaneously making me feel connected with the outside world.  I do make sure that, once I’ve posted my update, I minimize my browser windows and turn my phone upside down on

This guy helps.  He's my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

This guy helps. He’s my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

my desk.  This way, I have to work to become re-distracted by whatever’s going on on the internet.

4)   I evaluate situations fairly, but I don’t take excuses.  Since I’m essentially my own boss, I don’t let myself off easy.  I think this is probably a personality trait that most at the Candidacy stage share (if not, you probably wouldn’t have successfully reached Candidacy).  That said, there are sometimes things that will happen which will prevent productivity for a short time.  This winter, I’ve been dealing with some car troubles (for example) that will sometimes take me away from my desk for longer than I’d like.  On days when I am stuck out waiting, I take as much work as is feasible with me (pre-planning helps with this), but I also don’t beat myself up because I couldn’t read two books instead of one while waiting at the garage.  Know your limits, know your work habits, and know when it’s acceptable to push and when it’s acceptable to slack a little.  Also have a plan for when/how you’ll be able to make up missed work at a later date.

5)   I combat anxiety at every turn.  There are some well known psychological consequences to writing a dissertation.  Imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, and occasional bouts of depression pretty much come with the territory (no, really, they’ve done studies on it).  Learning to manage these things for yourself is a personal journey that you’re going to have to accept and grow with.  Understanding for myself, what helped, what didn’t, and who I could turn to for what kind of help was HUGE in terms of my productivity.  Find your allies, find your coping mechanisms, and use them repeatedly and often.

6)   I take care of myself.  I’m writing a dissertation.  This is probably the biggest thing I’ve so far done in my entire life.  It’s a hugely taxing endeavor mentally and physically.  In order to get it done, I need to feel my best; and in order to feel my best I need to eat right, work out, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep.  Period.  Nothing comes in the way of those things for me (and if it threatens to, I execute it before it executes me).  You have to make you a priority; even though it means sacrificing things you might want to be doing (like… say… social engagements).

 7)   Weekends are weekends.  I don’t work on the weekends.  I try not to even turn my computer on on the weekends.  I am entitled to two days off a week (…I will often review a show or FD a project on the weekends, but to me this doesn’t really count as “work” in the same way as working on my dissertation does).  The point is this: it doesn’t matter what your boundaries are, just find them and stick to them.

Those are the big ones for me, but obviously everyone is different.  Keep on plugging; that’s the real trick.  I hope that your writing is going as well as mine is!  Stay warm out there, everybody!

Holidays are Stressful

The hardest things about the holidays is letting yourself walk away from your desk.

This year, we’re going to be spending some time with family (a week of it away in New York). I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, I’m really looking forward to being in New York, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable pile-up and feelings of guilt I will experience while I’m gone/when I return because I took some time off and didn’t work on my dissertation.

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

December is a tough month to work through. The inevitably jerky start/stop rhythm necessitated by finals, end-of-semester celebrations, holidays, birthdays, etc. does not lead to the most productive environment for the academic writer. Especially the academic writer who is out of coursework and thus has no excuses about why end-of-semester is so tough on the brain.

Working at your own pace on your own calendar with only the loosest of deadlines set and agreed upon with any kind of higher authority can be taxing this way. It means that you are your own boss and, as everyone knows, being your own boss means that you have to answer to yourself. Your harsh, slave-driving, judgmental, over-achieving self.

The problem with this stage of the Ph.D. is that, by this point, you know your own limits because they were pushed and tested so hard by the rigors of your exams. During my peak Comps. studying time, I was reading 4-6 books in a day (…and watching at least one documentary or film as a sort of “cool down”). I was also, of course, not-so-slowly having a nervous break-down about the stress of studying for these colossal exams, and the pace at which I was cramming information into my head. Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly the most healthy time of my academic life (… and that seems to be the common experience amongst humanities Ph.D. candidates).

Unfortunately, this also means that I know it is entirely possible for me to work at that pace and sustain it for four months. And because I know that, I know that when I’m not working at that pace I’m not working at top capacity. And because I’m my own boss and can’t hide anything from myself, excuses don’t really jive with me. So when I don’t output at that level, I feel like I’ve “wasted a day” unless I do some pretty serious sanity checks about what I actually accomplish in a given period.

Perspective is a hard thing to maintain when you’re staring down the eyes of something as big as the Dissertation beast. At the moment my beast and I are still friends, but I am fully aware that at any time it might turn on me savagely and tear my arm off. My only hope of survival is in keeping up with the deadlines I’ve imposed on myself. Ensuring that I don’t tire myself out with irrationally-placed demands while at the same time balancing the amount of work that I need to accomplish is key to winning the long game here.

So, while I’m not going to feel entirely good about it, I am walking away from my desk for a week. When I come back, I’ll be refreshed and good to go for another year. Or at least another several months until I can justify taking another break longer than my workout.

I hope you find it in yourself to put down the keyboard and leave the book stacks to themselves for a few days. I also hope that you have a wonderful holiday season full of warmth, love, and delicious food! I know I will; there’s a maple-glazed bacon turkey in my future.

FaceSpace

It’s the end of the semester which means that I’ve received what I’ve now come to regard as an end-of-semester tradition: the Facebook friend requests from students who were in my classes.

Since my students are millennials who grew up in the digital era, and since I do spend so much time speaking about social media in my classes, it’s not strange that they should seek me out or otherwise find me on the Internet. Let’s get real: when’s the last time you’ve had someone be a part of your life for any significant period of time and didn’t bother to Google or Facebook them? As I’ve so often said, the Internet is a monstrous facet of the modern era and it’s not going away. We can either embrace it, or be doomed to obsoletion.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

This shot of the BPL can, for instance, be found on my Instagram. And yet? I fear it not.

So yes, I do connect with my students via social media. My twitter feed is public (as is my Instagram, this blog, and most of my Pinterest boards), my Facebook profile has enough security checks on it that I am comfortable with what’s available to the world being public information. If and when students find me, I approve friend requests.

I know that this can cause no small amount of anxiety amongst teachers of any age. I think the vast amount of social media anxiety in regards to one’s students stems from either a lack of understanding about privacy features, or a lack of understanding about digital boundaries.

So let’s discuss how and why I keep my feeds so public.

Social media is an excellent networking resource. I have personally met future employers, kept track of contract employers, and connected people I know who could usefully utilize each others’ talents via Twitter and Facebook (connections which otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to make). I have made a digital portfolio available to potential clients via my Facebook and blog updates (I always make certain to blog or micro-blog from projects to keep this sort of record on hand). If you want the best summary of why I’m the right girl for a job, just spend some time looking at my social media feeds; they’ll tell you how hard-working I am, my relative fields of expertise, and enough about my personality that you’ll know if you want to work with me but not so much that you’ll feel like you’re looking at a tabloid.

It’s important to understand that social media doesn’t have to lay your soul open for the world to see. Social media is, very much, what you make of it. Do I occasionally do and say things which might not be construed as the most professional/that I wouldn’t want my students to find out? You bet I do. I’m human; it comes with the territory. Am I going to discuss those things or even advertise them via the public forums that are my social media feeds? Absolutely not! If I don’t put it on the internet, then it’s not magically out there waiting for someone to find.

I can understand the argument that, sometimes, others will post things to your feed which might hint at previously mentioned not-so-awesome activities and that might keep a working professional from connecting with mentees in cyberspace. This is truly a matter of knowing thy privacy settings. There are ways to ensure that content others post either doesn’t turn up on your public feed, or must be approved before going public. Understanding these options will allay the fear of being exposed in a way that you’re not ready (or willing) to be.

Social media connections are not synonymous with unhealthy mentor/mentee boundaries. In fact, I look at these connections as an extension of my mentorship. In a world of poor Facebook-public decisions, I hope that my students can view my social media feeds as a good example of how to handle a digital persona. After all, how are students meant to understand the best way to build themselves a valuable digital presence if those skills aren’t taught, discussed, or demonstrated to them? This is a teaching opportunity which can assist my students in developing life-skills which will carry them into the job market, far past their careers at the University.

This is not to say that it’s “wrong” to keep your social media feeds private. Everyone has their own comfort level with technology, and that needs to be respected. But just as the choice to maintain a locked-down internet presence is valid, so is the choice to curate a public online persona and to utilize that persona to further enrich the lives of your students.

Thanking You

What with finals around the corner and the end of the semester only kind of in sight, it can be tough for us grads to really enjoy what’s supposed to be a day off to reflect about all the things that make our lives pretty great.

While I can’t promise that I’ll refrain from opening a book until Campus opens again on Monday (our break is Wednesday – Sunday), I can honestly say that I’m going to take at least a moment to honor the spirit of the holiday.

To make sure I do, the following is a partial list of some of the things I am thankful for this year:

  • My incredible advisor who is a super hero, rock star, and academic pit bull all in one. Seriously, this lady is unbelievable. The fact that she does all of the things she does (president of this professional organization, top of that research field, leading expert in all kinds of things, teacher, mentor, philosopher…) is a feat of its own, but on top of everything she makes herself so available to her students. She has done more for me this year than I think I can possibly relate in words, and I am thankful every day for her guidance and wisdom.
  • For that matter; all of my mentors (past, present, and future). They let me ask potentially embarrassing questions without judging me (or at least without telling me that they’re judging me, which is really what counts), they even give me valuable answers despite their own packed research and travel schedules. Every day in dealing with my own students, I only hope to be as awesome to them students as my mentors have been to me.
  • The well-stocked school library with ILL privileges that will get me anything I need from anywhere in the world in a reasonable enough time. With a slight bit of forethought, I can have any book that I might want to put my hands on delivered to me so that I can read and love it. Hooray.
  • A supportive partner who knows when he needs to leave me alone so that I can deal with some red pen problems, when he needs to ask me questions about my work so that I can talk my way out of a funk, and when he just needs to let me cry at him about Edwin Booth.
  • Good smart friends and colleagues with sympathetic ears, appetites for good beer, and heads full of giant brains. As a note: should this year be the year of the inevitable zombie apocalypse, this item of gratitude to the universe would be written no differently. Brains.
  • Lots of tea. And espresso. Oh my espresso machine. And really anything that makes liquid caffeine. As a note: the rest of the world should also be thankful for this and the effect that it has on me. Nobody wants to deal with an uncaffeinated Dani. Trust me.
  •  All of the wonderful theatre companies who continue to include me in their creative plans. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a great many incredible theatre-makers this year, and I look forward to continued opportunities to come.

Alright folks, that’s that. Go eat some turkey and be thankful that you’re not on line at the grocery store. Unless you are in which case you might want to consider how planning impacts your life, stress, and happiness.

Have a great holiday!