Thursday, March 24, 2011

I've been here before

Back my first semester in grad school, as a young M.A. student, the first paper I ever had to submit was one of two 20-pagers for a seminar with Big Deal Professor. I was new, I suspected that I was there on sufferance, and this was the professor who had drawn me to this school. So, I listened carefully to what he had to say in class, drew up a proposal for my first paper, got his approval, and began to read.

And I kept reading. And reading. For four weeks solid I read, because I was new both to the topic of my paper, and to the broader topic of the course in general. I knew nothing, and thought I had to know everything.

And four weeks into the reading phase (keep in mind that this was only the first of two major papers due that semester, about 7 weeks in), I figured out my first valuable grad school lesson: There will always be another book you should read. But you can't possibly, so at some point, you just need to arbitrarily call a halt to the reading, and start writing.

So I put away the books, and wrote, and revised, and bagged my first grad-school A.**

And now, here I am, fifteen years, two advanced degrees, one book, and a handful of articles later, with a presentation on new materials staring me in the face. Oddly enough, the paper version is going to have to be about -- you guessed it -- 20 pages long. And there are a stack of books and articles that I think I absolutely, positively must get read before I can start to write. And only just now did I remember 25 year-old me, and how she was brave enough to just stop reading, and start writing. So I'm giving myself until Sunday, and then, ready or not (and I'm probably more ready than I think I am), I write.


**This was before I figured out that anything less than an A-minus is a warning shot fired across a grad student bow. But it was a triumph at that moment, and that's how I will continue to treat it, thankyouverymuch.

17 comments:

squadratomagico said...

I still struggle with that glazed-eye MUST..... READ..... EVERYTHING.... impulse as well. I'm still learning how to balance that against the need to move forward with writing at some point. It's an historian's occupational hazard I suspect.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I'm totally with you. Since Shakespeare is my field, I feel like I have a mountain of reading to do just to write one sentence. I found myself in that situation when I was writing my dissertation. Before I could even close to back up a point, I had to read, like, ten books. It was ridiculous. At some point, I just gave up reading, knowing I'd never be able to read it all and get my dissertation done. Now, I feel like I've got my whole career to read all this stuff, and I STILL won't read it all. I'm making peace with it, but it's really, really hard.

reassignedtime said...

This is so what I needed to read just now, as I have read "everything" necessary, but what I need to do is to write. My writing begins tomorrow, but, sister, we are nearly in sync in our processes. Write. WRITE. Writing is good :)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thanks, all. Crazy, watch my word count bar. Let's keep motivated.

Belle said...

Ain't this the truth! It's a lesson I try to give my students: there's that point where you just have to stop and start writing. It is a hard lesson to learn, teach and live.

Not to mention, there's that remaining fear that just one more book might keep you from looking like a fool. Ick.

Spanish prof said...

I have two conflicting tendencies: on one side, I'm like you. Read, read, read, there is always something else to read. My advisor probably saved my academic career, saying that I had to finish my dissertation by Summer 2007, and pressuring me to do so. I did it, wrote not the best dissertation in the world, but a decent enough one, went on the job market and was lucky enough to get a good job. Those who waited one more year got hit with the financial meltdown, and some of them still haven't been able to find a job (and in Spanish it's easier than many other fields)

On the other side, I work on a subject that is pretty new to the field, and with very contemporary writing. Therefore, there isn't much written about it. I sometimes find myself wishing that there was more written, so I could get a sense of whether what I'm saying makes sense or is just nonsense.

feMOMhist said...

best advice ever, write as you go. I lived with someone who did it, but never managed to pull it off myself until recently.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Since Shakespeare is my field, I feel like I have a mountain of reading to do just to write one sentence.

Wut?

Anonymous said...

>**This was before I figured out that anything less than an A-minus is a warning shot fired across a grad student bow.

Heh heh...my graduate school - perhaps only a smidge more honestly - only gave Honors, High Pass, Pass and Fail for graduate students. I imagine they could even just do with Honors, Pass and Fail, since Pass basically functioned like you describe a B..."ok sure, you wrote something, but we expect better."

Anthea said...

Oh, I remember that feeling exactly..where you feel as if you have to read everything, you'll for sure have missed a key book and sadly the reading seems to bear a strong resemblance to a huge mountain. The lesson when I had to start to write came...but it was a hard one that I had to lear myself. I think that traces of the 'when to start writing' still exist but since there's always that niggling feeling in the back of one's mind that there's a book/article that one might have missed.

Historiann said...

A senior scholar once gave me a great piece of advice. He said, "Historiann, there are two kinds of historians: those who read books, and those who write books." (Stop me if I've told you this here before.)

IOW, yes: you could read everything and then some, but you can't contribute to the conversation if you don't close the books and start writing.

ABDMama said...

I appear to be in the minority. I was advised to write first and then go back and read. So I'm now revising, reading, and placing my argument into the larger scholarly conversation. I like doing it this way because I get to formulate my ideas first. I dislike it because it makes the revising process seem like it doesn't have an endpoint, since like you pointed out, there is always something to read.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I would like to get to where I can remember to do that!

sophylou said...

Oh, such an important lesson, and one I struggle with in different ways now, because I'm newly a subject librarian for history AND am also a historian (of the US), so when I'm asked to teach instruction sessions for upper-level research courses in East African history, modern Cuban history, the Ancient Near East... yaahhhh!

I am compensating for this by a) allowing myself not to know every single thing about East African history, modern Cuban history, etc. etc., but knowing that I know quite well how to learn about it... which is really at the core of what the students need to know, too.

and b) continuing to do my own historical research/writing, so that I'll know that there is something I DO in fact know a whole lot about.

FWIW, I was once told by one of my doctoral professors to start with reading, then start writing so that I could see what gaps I had, and then go back to reading to fill those gaps. Not always easy to put into practice, but good advice nevertheless.

oldgirlatuni said...

You couldn't have written this post at a more opportune time! I've been prevaricating with "machine gun" research for a couple of weeks now, and your post reminds me that I just need to get on and write the damn chapter!

Thank you. If anyone wants me, I'll be chained to a keyboard...

Jonathan Jarrett said...

A venerable professor I used to work with claims that there is a line in Aristotle he quotes on these occasions: "there exists a time when you have to draw a line". I think recognising this point is really important, but it's much easier to do when you've got outside considerations setting your timetable. May it write easily!

Oh, also, the obligatory transatlantic note:

This was before I figured out that anything less than an A-minus is a warning shot fired across a grad student bow. But it was a triumph at that moment, and that's how I will continue to treat it, thankyouverymuch.

That really messes up my US-trained students when they find that a B-equivalent is considered a good grade in the UK system and that First class is really hard to get, you know. Not your fault, obviously, but just a different voice.

(Blogger doesn't appear to be able to cope with OpenID again by now, but given what I'm saying, you know it's me.)

Anonymous said...

Ph.D. Girl,

Have you yet posted about the significance of grades in grad school?

I would like to know more about why anything less than an A- is disaster. I am a first-year MA student in English studies at a small, regional public university, and I made one B last semester(we do not have the +/- grading system). Does this mean I'm being gently told to give up?

Thank you.