Reflections

Graduate Students and Writing

author, blog, businesswomanSome book bloggers talk about being in reading slumps, but literature students can’t afford to be in reading slumps. We are forced to read all the time even though that doesn’t always help our productivity. We read multiple books at the same time, and we get hardly a break between reads to collect our thoughts. There, inevitably, comes a time when we have to choose between reading for class and reading and researching for final papers.

I am taking four courses this semester. I am assigned at least three books a week, and I am now beginning to do the research for a few of them. That means that I have to read secondary source material as well as the relevant critical theory.

I often envy PhD students in the UK who don’t take classes. They spend the entire 3 years of their PhD working on their thesis. However, I understand the value in knowing the French canon so that I can teach general literature courses.

Ironically, graduate students in the humanities don’t get nearly enough writing practice throughout the year. Most of the writing comes at the very end of each semester. Students are asked to produce well-written papers after months of minimal writing.

I played the classical guitar for most of my childhood. I hated practicing, so I usually practiced the night before my weekly lessons. A few times a year, I performed in student recitals. I would binge-practice a couple weeks before each recital. I would certainly have been a more accomplished musician if I had practiced daily.

Graduate students treat writing the way I treated classical music. They get very little practice during most of the semester, and then they’re asked to perform for all their classes during the few weeks at the start of December.

Small wonder then that so many ABD (all but dissertation) students suffer from writer’s block. They are not accustomed to writing on a regular basis, let alone for 6 hours a day.

Most of the last month leading up to the end of the semester is spent doing research for my final papers. I probably spent a week to a week-and-a-half writing the darn things.

I am not about to tell graduate programs how they should conduct their literature courses. I don’t even know what I would change. I have done graduate work at different institutions, so my observation about graduate writing is certainly not exclusive to the program I’m currently in. All American graduate students face this problem of trying to balance reading and writing throughout the semester.

I have a few ideas that I might try in the next few weeks to think on paper about the texts I’m studying. Anything is better than nothing. I will most likely not share my ideas on this blog for privacy reasons, but I will let you know how it all goes.

Graduate students don’t often think of themselves as writers. Indeed, they hardly write during the semester to feel the need to call themselves writers. We need to start calling ourselves writers. Someday, we will write a dissertation and (hopefully) send out book manuscripts for publication.

If you are a graduate student in the humanities, I encourage you to start thinking of yourself as a writer. If thinking of yourself as a writer makes you feel like an impostor, start writing short pieces a few times a week. You don’t have to go public with your writing, but you can’t say you’re a writer if you don’t write.

I certainly feel like an impostor. That’s why I started this daily writing habit. It’s hard coming up with post ideas. I don’t know what I will do in December. But, I do feel less intimidated by the idea of writing than I did in October.

7 thoughts on “Graduate Students and Writing”

  1. I have found that the more obscure a subject matter is, the easier it is to write more about, since one can spend more time explaining all the background info that may not be known to the reader. This might help when trying to figure out topics for your daily essay.

    1. That’s a great idea for a blog post. Presenting a topic for a general audience requires background info. I’ll see if I can do that with anything I’m currently reading. It would definitely help me summarize the theory I’m reading.

  2. Ironically, graduate students in the humanities don’t get nearly enough writing practice throughout the year.

    This sentence interests me! And I’m sure a creative writing degree does not get enough reading time? Writer to writer here: do you think its important that we find a balance? Should we read just as much as we write?

    1. I definitely think we should read just as much as we write. In my program, we read a lot of books, so I am satisfied with the amount of reading I do. I also read for fun. But in my experience, humanities courses downplay the importance of writing. I’m sure fiction authors in non-academic environments face the opposite challenge. They don’t read enough.

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