Tools of the Trade

Writing a dissertation (or any long project; particularly one that involves research) is a specialized skill that requires specialized training and (not to be ignored) specialized equipment. While I suppose in theory you could write a dissertation on a single laptop with nothing but Microsoft word and an internet browser, doing so would be a great disservice to yourself and make your life needlessly complicated. In the digital age, technology is plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and generally easy to operate. There’s no reason to do without certain vital tools that can make your writing days more productive.

With that goal in mind, I thought I’d take a minute to share the tools of my trade; the things I use to write and research that make my life infinitely easier. I would go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t have made it to this point in the process without them. For me, these tools are simply necessary to productivity; I think you’ll find them equally useful.

For reference: my primary machine is a basic model Macbook Pro from 2012. Nothing fancy, but definitely gets the job done.

External Monitor 

The only “excess” technological asset that researchers have found actually increases productivity is increased monitor space. It’s not the speed of your hard drive or parallel processing capabilities, but rather how much (literal) digital space you have to lay things out. For me, the external monitor is key to almost everything I do. It allows me to open a text on one screen and my notes on a second, thus transcribing with ease. It allows me to open my notes on one screen and my writing document on a second, thus allowing me to write from research with ease. It allows me to open multiple images on a large scale and compare them side-by-side. It allows me to have my citation manager available for reference during note taking and writing. My external monitor has been key to my work as a Graduate student, academic, and person in the world. And, when you’re taking a break for lunch or what have you, you can play your YouTube videos on one monitor while browsing the web on the second. It’s a win/win. If you’re not writing/researching from two monitors, you’re basically living in the dark ages. Invest in this not-terribly-expensive but terribly-useful tool now; I promise you won’t regret it.

Backups

Anyone who works on any serious project needs to have a backup strategy. While e-mailing yourself copies of your work might be one way to do this, there are easier and more consistent methods. I use a combination of Dropbox, Crashplan, and Google docs to save my work in triplicate both locally and in the cloud. No matter what you decide to use for backups, make sure that your plan includes: redundancy, frequency, and version history. You want to know that your work is being backed up on a regular basis, to several places, and that you can roll back a version should you need to.

External mouse and Keyboard

Because I’ve basically created a docking station for my mac, the external mouse and keyboard have become necessary. I’ve found, over the years, that I much prefer a conventional mouse to the built-in track pad that most laptops have. Additionally, an external fully sized keyboard makes it easier for me to type ergonomically. A few clever re-programs of the hotkeys on my Mac and it’s just as good as using the built-in keyboard. I use a Logitech wireless mouse/keyboard, and have since purchased several external travel mice for use when I’m on the go. 

Writing Tools 

I’ve previously gushed about the ease and functionality of Scrivener to my writing process.  If you are interested in Scrivener, here’s my affiliate link for windows, and here it is for Mac.  I will take this moment to emphasize how necessary the program has been to the continued success of my work. Additionally, this project is the first time I’ve used automated citation management software and I’m never looking back. I use Zotero because it’s free, integrates seamlessly to Word (where I do my composing; Scrivener I use for note-taking), and has a Scrivener work-around if I REALLY want it. If you do choose Zotero, make sure you know how to back up your library; it’s only a tiny bit tricky and requires an extra step every now and again to accomplish. Totally worth it for peace of mind.

Caveman Tools

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

This is not a technical tool whatsoever, but when I’m working with actual books (which I do with a surprising frequency), I use a bookstand to hold them up for ease of transcription. I seriously don’t know how I did without this thing. When I’m editing by hand (which I also do with a surprising frequency), I use a clipboard and many different colored pens. It’s crazy how much easier this has made my life; for years I’d edit on large hardcovers, notepads, or binders…. I finally broke down and spend the $5 on a clipboard and look at that! The rudimentary technology works exactly the way it’s supposed to!

So…. What tools are you using for dissertation writing that you simply can’t do without?

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).

 

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.

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.

Gimme S’More!

In keeping with my theme of stress baking, I made S’mores cookies this week!

As I mentioned, I started baking this semester because I wanted to learn how, but also because some things are just so much awesomer home-made. I’ve been using cookies as a morsel-of-sweet staple to get to know baking techniques, and at this point I have a pretty solid understanding of what goes into crafting a well-made cookie. Here is the recipe I used as the basis for my S’mores cookies.

I actually get a lot of my sweet tooth recipes from Averie Cooks. She knows how to make a good cookie, that’s for sure! I made a half batch of these cookies because I was trying to keep the amount of diet-breaking things in the pantry to a low. Despite the fact that Averie claims her recipe yields 26 cookies, my half-batch made 20! So either she makes HUGE confections, or mine are a bit on the small side for a standard cookie. Either way, the recipe below is how I made them…

INGREDIENTS

3/8 cup (3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/8 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/8 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I actually used vanilla bean paste because I find that it packs more flavor than the extract)
7/8 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt, optional and to taste
1/2 cup coarsely chopped graham crackers (I used fat free honey flavored graham crackers)
1 cup (half of a bag) semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used the mini chips)
5/8 cups miniature marshmallows

DIRECTIONS:

  • Averie calls for a stand mixer to cream the butter, sugars, egg, and vanilla with, but I don’t have this piece of equipment in my kitchen. Instead, I use an immersion blender on high. I took the first five ingredients of this recipe, mixed them together in a tall measuring cup (actually the one which came with my immersion blender), and blended for about five minutes until the mixture became light and fluffy. I would highly recommend a stand mixer if you have one; my immersion blender requires you to hold the button down for the blender to work (which is actually really annoying for periods longer than a minute or two).
  • I moved my creamed ingredients from their tall measure into a mixing bowl at this point, scraping down the sides of the measure as I went. To them, I added the next four ingredients (flour, cornstarch, baking soda, and pinch of salt), and used a rubber spatula to fold them together until everything was combined.
  • I crumbled the graham crackers by chopping them with my kitchen knife. Because more problems should have “kitchen knife” as a viable solution. I then folded them into the mixture along with the mini chocolate chips and marshmallows until everything looked pretty evenly combined.
  • I have a cookie scoop (it’s a medium scoop) and I love it. I know that my ever-patient boyfriend was strongly adverse to my bringing this single-use kitchen implement into our already-packed kitchen, but trust me; this little baby has more than made up for the space it takes. If you don’t have a cookie scoop, use the old spoon and scrape method to make 2-inch balls of dough. Place dough balls on a plate (I set down parchment paper sprayed with nonstick spray for easy transfer later and covered with plastic wrap to ensure they didn’t get tough in the fridge). You’ll want to refrigerate them for at least two hours if not overnight before baking. Warm dough will spread in the oven while chilled dough gives you fluffy, thick cookies. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP; trust me. I’m going to be a Doctor.
  • Preheat your oven to 350F. You’ll want to destickify your cookie sheet with spray, a silpat mat, or parchment paper (I tend to double-dip and use parchment sprayed with non-stick). Transfer chilled dough mounds to your baking sheet giving the cookies plenty of space to expand. Averie says you want at least 2 inches per cookie (I bake a bit closer together, but then again… I like to live dangerously). You want to bake the cookies until the tops are just golden brown (it took mine 8 minutes; though I checked them at 7 just in case). The cookies will firm as they cool, so keep that in mind when you’re checking on them. Because of this, you’ll want to you’re your cookies rest on their baking sheets for a bit before transferring them to a cooling rack to finish the cooling process (five minutes or so should do the trick).

I’m told that cookies will last at room temperature for up to one week if stored in an airtight container. Honestly, mine never last that long. You can also freeze them for “up to 3 months”, but I’ve not yet tested this theory.

Hope you’re having a nice week!

The Parking Lot Rule

As you can imagine, I see a lot of theatre.

As a reviewer, PhD Candidate, fight director, and general denizen of the theatre community here in Boston, it’s important that I remain active and supportive on the theatre scene. It’s also important that I stay professional whenever I’m out at the theatre. For those who have read my reviews, you will know that I see theatre that’s good, theatre that’s not so good, and pretty much everything in between. While the casual observer perhaps isn’t concerned about being overheard at intermission yapping with their neighbor about this actor or that directing choice, I very much am. When I’m at the theatre, I represent several different brands that have backed me and my professional thespian skills: Tufts University, New England Theatre Geek, and my own brand as an FD (to name a few). The last thing I want to do is compromise any of these brands by letting a half-thought sentiment be overheard by the wrong person. Theatre is art. Art is personal. We theatre people take our theatre-babies very seriously.

....this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things.  All good things).

….this is a photo of the time that I managed to improvise a song in rhyme while playing the ukelele for no reason other than I sure had things to say about the experience in the parking lot (good things. All good things).

So I have developed a solution to the inevitable theatrical eavesdropping which might potentially get me in trouble. I call it “The Parking Lot Rule”.

This is a rule that I impart to all of my theatrical companions as they enter the theatre with me. It’s actually very simple: no matter how bad a play is, we don’t talk about it until we hit the parking lot of the building. While inside the theatre, we can praise the show’s good parts, but criticism waits until we are outside.

This accomplishes several things:

1) It curtails the issues I discuss above.

2) It forces you to think about criticism before spouting it in the heat of the moment. Theatre is visceral; humanity has known that since the Greeks; often times it can provoke a visceral reaction which bypasses your critical thinky muscles. To put something down in a harsh way without first examining your criticism is not fair to the artwork, and the parking lot rule helps you take a moment to step back and figure out why it is that you feel a certain way about something before you hurt anyone’s feelings.

3) It lets the play settle in before you make a snap judgment. Sometimes, you really need to see a piece in its entirety before you can determine your feelings on it; the parking lot rule gives you a bit of breathing room in which to make up your mind before you begin to discuss your thoughts. It also allows the “small stuff” to fall away. Sometimes things will catch your eye in the moment which, in the long run, mean nothing; the parking lot rule allows those details to fall into perspective before you render judgment.

4) It allows the theatre to remain a “sacred” space. Acting comes with a lot of woo, and much of it I don’t (personally) subscribe to; but I do believe this: the theatre space is a temple. When a company is performing in a given place, that’s their home for the duration of their run (sometimes longer depending upon circumstances of the play). You wouldn’t criticize somebody’s cooking while sitting on their couch; you shouldn’t criticize somebody’s acting while sitting in their theatre. The parking lot rule allots a certain amount of respect to the art which I believe is necessary for healthy audience/performer interaction.

Whether you’re an experienced theatre-goer or just getting to know the theatre, I highly recommend that you give the parking lot rule a shot. In my opinion, it’s the first step towards learning to think critically about theatre. It has certainly served me well over the years, and I hope that it does the same for you!

Bread

One of the things I have learned from being a Graduate Student with an over-burdened schedule is that I am constant devising new coping tactics.  Extreme stress will wear a body down to the point of collapse, and as a warrior on the front lines of enlightenment you are constantly needing to find ways to fight this.

My new method of stress-busting is baking.

It started as a whim.  I’m a pretty amazing cook, but baking was an art which had always eluded me and scared me just a little.  I didn’t know enough about the chemistry of it, I didn’t understand what I could and could not do to a recipe in order to change it.  But a couple season of America’s Next Great Baker and some extreme dissertation stress later, I decided that it was high time I dipped my toes into the wide world of baking.  After several experiments with cookies, scones, and muffins, I decided to try my hand at bread for the first time this week.

Here is the recipe that I used and here is what I learned making it:

No Kneed Beer Bread

I found this recipe on allrecipes.com (which, if you vet the reviews carefully, is a pretty solid source for such things).

Ingredients 

1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100 degrees F or 38 degrees C)
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer
1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt
all-purpose flour for dusting
1 tablespoon cornmeal

You start out with 1.5 tsp (or one packet) of active dry yeast.  Yeast, as it turns out, comes in two varieties: active dry, and instant yeast.  Instant yeast can be used directly in your bread recipe, active dry needs to be “proofed” or woken up first.  For my experiment, I used active dry (which is, by the way, what the recipe calls for).

So yeast is actually an organism that feeds on the sugars in your bread dough and lets it rise (there’s a really good tutorial on working with yeast here).  In order to wake up the yeast, dissolve the amount you need (for this recipe 1.5 tsp) into ½ cup warm water (for this recipe).  When I say “warm”, I mean between 95 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit (about room temperature or slightly above).  You can use a pinch of sugar in there as well to give the yeast some food.  Cover with a towel and let sit in a nice warm place for 6-8 minutes.  When you come back, the mixture should be bubbling; this is the CO2 that the yeast produces as a byproduct and it means the yeast is successfully woken.  Or, in the words of bad Mary Shelley impersonators, “IT’S ALIVE!”

Once you do this, add half a cup of flour to yeast mixture.  Stir together, cover again, and let sit in a warm dark place for half an hour.  Yeast likes dark and warmth to do its best work; if it gets too cold or too bright, the dough won’t rise properly and you’ll be left with a big hunk of flat, solid bread.

Next add the beer.  You want one 12-oz can/bottle (I used Blue Moon pumpkin because… well.. obviously).  Stir it into the mix, and add four cups of flour and 1.5 tsp salt.  This will form a thick dough that will stick to the sides of the bowl.  Cover it again, and allow it to rise for 2 hours.  It should double in size at that time.  Again, make certain your kitchen is nice and warm so that little diva yeast can do its business.

On a well-floured surface (that means a good sprinkling, not cakes and cakes of flour), pour out your dough blob.  Scrape down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula in order to get the most dough possible into your blog.  Flour your hands a bit and form the mound into loaf-shape, then place it on a baking sheet covered in a thin dusting of cornmeal.  Sprinkle the entire darn thing with more flour, cover, and let rise for 30-40 minutes.  Again with the dark, again with the warm.

You want to preheat your oven to 425 and place on the bottom rack a shallow oven-proof dish filled with water (I used a small pyrex).  This will humidify the oven and ensure that your bread comes out nice and crusty.

Slit the loaf down the middle with a knife or razor to create a pretty line in the dough.  Bake in the oven on a rack above the water for 35 minutes.  You will know the bread is done when the crust turns golden brown.

Remove from oven and cool on cooling rack.  Allow to cool fully before slicing open.

And TA DAH!  Bread!  All the yum, none of the fuss; so tasty, so fresh, and so much less stress than I though it would be.

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