I’m Binge-Reading Again! | Grad School and Writing

adult, blur, booksThe binge-reading-only part of the semester is about to end in a few weeks. I just feel it in my bones. Soon, I will have to add binge-writing to an already full workload. This semester, I have three 20-page term papers due on the same day, plus a Master’s exam with an oral and a written component!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. But because I am interested in becoming a scholar, I am also concerned about how what I am learning will help me long-term.

On the one hand, I understand why we are assigned so much reading. Professors expect students to have a basic knowledge of the course texts before class so that lecture-time can be spent analyzing themes or learning related theory. I am glad that my MA exam this April will require me to know the major works of the French canon because professors need to have a generalist knowledge of their field.

But reading is not always the best use of my time.

There are so many 16th century, 18th century, or 20th century texts that I should know, but no graduate student has the time to read everything that is considered “canon” for a given century or sub-field.

The problem, as I see it, is that reading is NOT scholarship. It is only the prerequisite of scholarship. No hiring committee cares how many books a candidate has read but how many major conference talks she has given, how many peer-reviewed articles she has published, and whether or not her dissertation is being turned into a book. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I can’t write or do good research, I am not a scholar.

In the American graduate education system, not enough time is spent writing and revising. We try to do all of the research for our term papers during the last month of the semester, all while trying to keep up with the weekly readings. I am currently binge-reading without a goal because I know that I will not be writing about most of the texts that I am assigned.

Published authors know that writing is rewriting, but graduate students only learn about the revision process in the last years of their program, when they suddenly have to learn how to write a 300-page dissertation.

Writing papers may be every graduate student’s least favorite activity (mine included), but it is also the most important activity. I wish graduate programs would encourage students to make writing a habit.


Writing Introductions

I probably spent about three hours today writing a 450-word introduction for a 15-page paper due next Thursday. This isn’t the first time that it has taken me so long to write an introduction. For longer papers, I usually start with a key scene in the text that demonstrates my argument. French literature tends to love the mise-en-abyme narrative technique, so I often know what passage to start with. Still, it takes me forever to determine the structure for my introductions. How should I transition between the scene and the thesis statement? What exactly does the scene show? In the paper I’m currently writing, I will be referencing the face-to-face philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In the novel, the face is the locus of orientalist discourse. French and Algerian companies exploit images of Idriss’ face to sell products. La goutte d’or by Michel Tournier hits you over the head with its anti-orientalist message. I’ve been told that Tournier wanted to be a philosopher.

Introductions are hard because they are so important. The first few paragraphs of a paper are the most important because they set the tone. They help prepare the reader for what’s to come. The introduction is also important because it must grab the reader’s attention. In graduate school, the reader is the professor. She may or may not read the entire paper before giving it a grade, so the introduction matters a lot.

Finally, introductions are hard to write because arguments are hard to formulate. What am I trying to show in this paper? Why should the reader care? Questions such as these are hard to answer in a few sentences.

I was reminded today that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about even though I had marked many important passages and had identified key themes. I knew the basics of Levinas’ philosophy and could apply it to certain scenes in Tournier’s novel, but I couldn’t explain why it mattered in the context of the book’s overarching message. I wrote and deleted sentences for hours before settling for an argument that I think is acceptable. I will probably revise it again after writing the body of the paper.

Good introductions signal good papers. They also remind the writer to stay on point. A professor once told me that it often takes him weeks to write a strong introduction. Well, I certainly don’t have weeks to write this paper, but I don’t regret spending three hours to write a decent introduction. I’m sure the rest of the paper will be easier to write, now that I know my argument.


I Blogged Every Day in November!

computer, hand, laptop

So today is the last day of my “Write 500 Words a Day” blogging challenge. I made it 🙂

I would like to reflect a bit on my experience. The hardest part of daily blogging is coming up with new ideas every single day. I wrote on a diverse range of book-related topics. Perhaps, that’s why readers haven’t been bored by my content (from what I gather, anyway). But I don’t always have interesting ideas. Even though I came across a lot of thought-provoking content in my school books, I often chose to write about “easier” things. I enjoy reflecting on themes in the books I read, but such reflections are definitely the most time-consuming posts to write. I’d rather vent about my day.

My readers probably learned more about me in the past month than ever before. I certainly don’t regret anything I’ve posted, but I am aware of this shift, and so should you if you are an aspiring daily blogger. Because I want to keep my blog book-related, I will not be continuing daily blogging in December. I will certainly blog regularly. But I am not interested in making public every last detail of my life.

Above all, this challenge taught me discipline. I had to write every day, even when I didn’t feel like it. Some of my posts were written at 1:30 am. Not ideal, since I’m a morning person. But I did it anyway. No one who is successful works only when he/she feels like it. Success requires discipline. Writers have to develop a writing habit.

I consider myself a writer because I am a graduate student in the humanities. I am not simply a professional reader. I encourage all graduate students to start a daily writing discipline and to consider themselves writers. Not all writers are novelists. If you want to know why I call myself a writer, read my recent post on writing in graduate school.

Although I will not be daily blogging in December, I will continue to write 500 words a day. Most of my writing will admittedly be school-related. I have a number of term papers due at the end of the semester. Writing 500 words a day is probably not enough to reach my word counts, but it’s the writing habit that matters. How many students binge-write their papers a few days before they’re due? I am not accustomed to writing drafts, but no one writes a good paper on their first try. I would like to have the time to rewrite my papers if need be, but that’s definitely a long-term goal that I may not meet in December.

Finally, I will try to schedule in my daily writing in the late morning when I’m the most awake and have the most free-time. We often tell ourselves that we will get to an activity when we have the time, but we never have the time. We have to purposefully make the time. I am not a great writer, but I now feel a need to write every day. I accomplished a self-directed and self-imposed project. I feel motivated to try new things.


On Graduate School (again!)

Every Thanksgiving, I intend to catch up with my work but I never do. I read a few things, but only one book was course-related. Tomorrow, my colleagues will also complain that they didn’t get anything done during the break. But it was an American holiday. I got to spend some much-needed time with my family.

I returned an hour ago from the Philadelphia airport. Thankfully, I caught the last trolley for the night. I forgot that public transportation is limited on Sunday nights. Although I can’t say that I have jet lag, flying always makes me tired, no matter how short the flight. I am also extra-alert during security and on public transportation. You never know who you’ll encounter.

But I’m back.

And now, I have a million and one pages to write by the end of the December. I’m glad that I have been writing daily for the past few weeks because I need the self-motivation to write every day in December. Of course, I am still in the planning phase. I barely know what topic I will be writing about, let alone what sources to cite. The writing marathon occurs during the last few weeks of each semester. I’ve been doing one for years, but this year’s will be the hardest one yet. NaNoWriMo participants don’t have to edit their writing, but graduate students have to write 15-25 pages for multiple classes AND write them well.

Marathon writing just doesn’t seem very efficient or practical. Why are we assigned so many books?

The truth is that I’m kind of tired of taking courses. I just want to start my dissertation research already. Most of us can learn from reading lists. It’s impossible to balance the writing marathon with regular coursework. Texts are still assigned during the last few weeks of classes. Of course, no one can balance everything. Something has to give. What matters more? Writing final papers or reading an assigned book that will never appear on an MA or a PhD exam list?

I know. I know. I’m complaining. Courses aren’t completely useless. I’m just frustrated by the inefficiency of the American graduate system.

Undergrads need to pass courses so that they can obtain a degree. Their professional development mostly occurs in the workforce. They are thrown into the “real” world with some skills and basic knowledge of their field. Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are supposed to receive their professional development in graduate school. Isn’t that why we get a master’s or a doctorate?

Programs should emphasize writing throughout the semester. Writers improve through practice. Humanities students are supposed to be writers. Maybe English students have more training in that area than foreign language students, but I am increasingly alarmed by the number of fifth and sixth year students who have never published a paper. I worry that graduate programs are so course-centered that they are blind to the academic market. In a publish-or-die industry, graduate programs should train their students to publish their work. Students should also be encouraged to write for non-university publications.

True, graduate students are adults. They need to be self-driven. But graduate schools should also care about the professional development of their students. We are more than cheap labor.


Creating Self-Motivation

To remain motivated in my day-to-day life, I try to perform actions during the week that remind me that I have the capacity for self-control. Take this blog post, for example. It’s currently 12:30 am, but I just began writing my 500 words for the day. I will count this post for Sunday because I haven’t slept yet. I could skip a day, accept my failure, and resume the daily writing challenge tomorrow. But I won’t because I gain self-confidence whenever I successfully complete a personal challenge, however small.

In our lives, we often feel controlled by others. We have to obey the rules others set for us. But when we set our own rules, we become our own masters. I love the feeling of having completed the goals I set for myself; I feel like I can do anything. Our friends and coworkers can motivate us, but our greatest motivation can only come from within. We have to be our own motivators. I have to truly believe that I have the ability to overcome my weaknesses otherwise I will give up on my goals. I need this conviction after I have received harsh criticism or when I feel overwhelmed by deadlines.

I have decided to write this post because I want that feeling of satisfaction of having completed a challenge I set for myself. On November 30, I will be proud of my small accomplishment. Not only will I be less intimidated by the idea of writing, but I will have more self-control. Self-control contributes to our personal freedom when we know why we are abstaining from something or taking up something. I know why I have taken up this writing challenge. It’s an exercise with many benefits and few drawbacks.

There are other ways you can develop self-control and the resulting self-motivation. You could finally complete the household tasks you have put off for the past month. You could commit to a weekly exercise schedule. Or maybe you’re like me and you never exercise, so you decide to exercise twice a week for a month. Choose a task and complete it. The feeling of having completed a task is the best feeling in the world. When I face obstacles in other aspects of my life, my past achievements remind me that I have the capacity to overcome any obstacles in my path.

The millennial generation is popularly known as the “snowflake generation”. We grew up with external motivators. We received trophies for participating in sports games and smelly stickers for average grades. Because we are accustomed to receiving motivation from external sources, we are easily disheartened when we don’t receive positive feedback for something we’ve done. We interpret silence as criticism even though we know that it is unreasonable to expect constant praise in our lives. My generation, especially, needs to learn to develop self-motivation because people don’t praise you all the time in the “real world”. You have to learn to move on from failure and try again.

So many of us search outside of ourselves for motivation, but we need to convince ourselves that we have what it takes to tackle the large projects in our lives.

It’s 1:30 am. I have completed my daily word count.


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.


Aiming for 80%

Hank Green, one of the two Vlog Brothers, recently made a video answering a question he often gets from fans: “What is the secret to your productivity?” I have never read a John Green book nor am I subscribed to the vlogbrothers channel. I found the video while searching for motivational content on YouTube.

Hank is highly productive because he doesn’t aim for perfection. Instead, he aims for a B (80%) and refuses to try for a higher “grade”.  Perfectionists have low productivity because they are never satisfied with anything they attempt. A novelist who aims at perfection may never get past the first paragraph.

I think Hank’s advice is excellent! As a PhD student, I never have enough time to do everything that I’m assigned. I have already completed a Master’s, so I know from experience that you don’t need to read every book with 100% concentration. Some books (namely the books you choose to write your term papers on or the ones that appear on your Master’s exam) are more important than others. You struggle to keep your head above water.

Unfortunately, I am a perfectionist when it comes to writing term papers. I write a paragraph in the time most students take to write a draft. (Ok, I’m exaggerating, but only a little.) I want the first draft to be a masterpiece. I would be more productive if I didn’t aim for perfection in the first draft. Subsequent drafts would be much easier to produce, and my 80% would be easier to attain.

While it’s true that an 80% in graduate school is a terrible grade, Hank’s advice is for perfectionists who have set insanely high standards for themselves. After all, even the best graduate paper is not ready for publication. The 80% goal is less intimidating than a goal of 100%. I feel inspired to try new things and start new projects if I have an 80% goal.

Behind Hank’s advice is the unstated assumption that humans like to make excuses for why they haven’t completed a project. “I haven’t written a novel because I am not a good writer”. But no one becomes a good writer without writing, and no one who begins writing is already a good writer. To improve, you have to start somewhere.

Hank doesn’t mention time management, but I think that an 80% goal should be coupled with good time management skills. I can only accept a sloppy first draft if I have enough time to rewrite it. I may be a perfectionist, but I don’t have the best time management. I fool myself into thinking that I can write a perfect paper in a couple days. Waiting until the end adds to my stress because I know that I have to get the paper right the first time.

I am trying to juggle multiple projects at the same time, but I am glad that I started daily blogging. It is teaching me to “just do it”. I feel less intimidated by the idea of writing. The perfectionist mindset has hurt my writing productivity. I don’t write anything when I worry that my posts won’t be perfect. But if the goal is 80%, well, I can do that!