LOL, Oh Grad School

April 19, 2011

It’s after 10 pm, and as I begin a huge assignment that’s due tomorrow, I have just come across a paper that I wrote for a class in the first two weeks of the grad program I am suddenly two weeks from completing. It’s sort of sad but funny to see just how far I have not come.

Rekindling the (Writing) Flame

In describing my relationship to writing, there are too many possible ways to begin; we share a passionate yet tumultuous history. I suppose I should skip the part where my first grade teacher allowed me to sit out during class lessons, encouraging me instead to cultivate my poetry and short stories. That I won first place in a local contest with the story of a princess who befriends her hero rather than marrying him doesn’t belong in a graduate level paper concerning academic writing. Yet I’d like to linger there a bit longer, savoring the memory of young love, when writing was fun, relaxed, and fulfilling, our bond not yet strained by the weight of high expectations, personal shortcomings, or outsiders seeking to control the terms of our relationship. Suffice to say somewhere along the way, those obstacles—those normal aspects of the education system—emerged, things cooled down, and the relationship became on-again, off-again, at times more serious than others but also never truly over. There’s been blogging, two years of consulting at the writing center, and a devastating failed honors thesis. Today, as a graduate student, I realize that it’s time we work out our differences and commit for the long run. That, or call it quits.

In Write to the Top!: How to Become a Prolific Academic, Carol A. Mullen and W. Brad Johnson encourage new academics to reconsider such troubled relationships to writing, and at least in my case, to recall those joyous early years, declaring, “It is time to start experiencing the act of writing as a soulful and meaning-generating activity” (5). They understand and effectively convey that a scholarly life not founded on this basic optimistic premise is a dismal one to be avoided at all costs. While they may not have taught me anything I didn’t already know (at least deep down) about myself as a writer and a student, Mullen and Johnson did force me to confront truths I’d rather ignore, while also inspiring me to take proactive steps toward improving on my weaknesses.

Indeed, most of the underlining and highlighting that occurred as I read this book was, unfortunately, in response to the authors’ uncomfortably accurate descriptions of those weaknesses—my tendency to “float” through the days without any real plan (8), work in distracting environments, prioritize less important obligations, and wait for the “perfect” opportunity to do my writing and other school work (7, 54). In other words, I procrastinate in a variety of modes. Yet more worrying to me are the deeper psychological issues that underlie these bad habits. In Write to the Top! procrastination is defined not only as the result of laziness (a fair assessment) but also hypersensitivity to failure and rejection. My heart sank as I recognized myself in their words. In particular, the following passage describing some academics’ lack of coping skills struck a chord. These scholars

react to rejection letters and other challenges as though they were direct threats to life and limb—their sympathetic nervous system kicks in, blood pressure spikes, and, on a physiological level, they are preparing to fight or run for their lives. (73)

High levels of anxiety are a regular part of life in my household, both stemming from and perpetuating my own debilitating procrastination. That doesn’t mean I never get anything done, as evidenced by my relatively strong academic record, but it does create a stressful environment in which I “write scared” (62), often working until the last possible minute and preventing myself from getting ahead on other important projects as well as from practicing thorough editing. “In the lexicon of human emotions, joy and anxiety are incompatible” (63), assert Mullen and Johnson. This was probably the most important statement for me in the entire book. I’ve only just begun the first semester of my graduate school experience at this university. I’d like to think I still have a chance to make the necessary adjustments in my life so that it is no longer ruled by anxiety.

Given that my most stressful experiences have involved unstructured independent studies, clearly the first step I should take is developing a somewhat detailed plan and sticking to it—something I have never actually attempted (instead, I write vague, overambitious to-do lists that are so unrealistic I inevitably disregard them completely). As cliché as it sounds, I am already looking forward to the three day weekend as an opportunity to reassess my syllabi, organize my workspace, and create a schedule I can actually follow.

Despite all this emphasis on my weaknesses, I actually feel confident about my writing (the hard part is getting started). As previously mentioned, I worked as a writing consultant during my junior and senior years of college, the greatest job I could have asked for during that time period. Helping other students with their work greatly strengthened my own relationship to writing, the ubiquitous writing center motto being “not better writing, better writers.” That is, consultants are not editors looking to “fix” a single piece of work. They are less concerned with what are called “local” issues such as grammar and spelling, focusing instead on “global” factors such as content, clarity, and the fundamental process of writing itself. Certainly it is easier for me to help someone else strengthen her or his writing than to produce my own high quality piece of work, but nonetheless, I believe my writing has benefited from tutoring others.

Importantly, I was not an English student and was never as savvy as many of my colleagues in terms of understanding proper comma placement, memorizing citation styles, or quoting Strunk and White. I cannot guarantee my writing isn’t dotted with local-level mistakes—or for that matter that I always “practice parsimony” (127). However, overall I am comfortable with my writing voice and usually enjoy sharing my work with others. I did just that in a pedagogy course this spring, where each student read her weekly “autocritographical” piece of writing out loud to the class. Intimidating at first, we all grew to enjoy this opportunity, and we concluded the semester by presenting our work as a panel in two separate (small-scale) conferences. Given that I am new to this school, I have not yet found a similar writing community, though my friends can attest that I am constantly writing about feminism online [note: this was back when I was an obsessive Facebook debater lol]. (This is usually helpful for keeping my creativity, intellect, and passion stimulated, but the heated debates that sometimes follow are time-consuming and only contribute to my procrastination). I look forward to opportunities for honing my writing skills in this program, especially since, until recently, I was an undergraduate student facing less rigorous standards of quality.

Initially I wanted to conclude this paper by envisioning my ideal day. Often, my life is so hectic and stressful that my days fly by in a blur, leaving me unsatisfied and anxious. The cycle is such that as soon as I wake up in the morning, I feel buried under the weight of my work—perhaps more so in these first two weeks of school than ever before. I hope that with some effort, I can give myself a fresh start on this graduate school experience. Yet as I began to describe what my “dream day” would look like—waking up early to a clean home, exercising, getting my school work done quickly, cooking healthy meals, and relaxing with my friends and dog—I realized that it seemed awfully similar to the fleeting New Year’s resolutions I have written time and again. Achieving such an organized, productive, and calm daily routine is my ultimate goal, but I know myself well enough to recognize how easily I fall into that trap of demanding perfection and adapting to nothing less. Since I could probably write an entirely different paper on my relationship to exercise, and still another describing my relationship to food, it is important that I set realistic goals. Still, I’d like to start by cleaning off my desk today, putting away the Doritos, and looking really closely at the assignments I have coming up so that I can budget my time accordingly. My relationship to writing is completely intertwined with my role as a new graduate student, and I know that my success depends on reconceptualizing the work I do so that writing (and reading, and learning in general) is joyful once again.

Work Cited

Johnson, W. Brad, and Carol A. Mullen. Write to the Top! How to Become a Prolific Academic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

2 Responses to “LOL, Oh Grad School”

  1. infitation Says:

    Let me just say that I can relate to this more than I can explain!

    “in response to the authors’ uncomfortably accurate descriptions of those weaknesses—my tendency to “float” through the days without any real plan (8), work in distracting environments, prioritize less important obligations, and wait for the “perfect” opportunity to do my writing and other school work (7, 54).”

    I do EVERY SINGLE one of those things on a daily basis! You accurately named this post for sure, because as I was reading this, reflecting on my own Grad School experiences, I most certainly LOL’ed!

  2. lavietoni Says:

    Haha, glad you LOL’ed, this wasn’t a typical kind of post on my blog. I think that book I read for the class really nailed it for a lot of people. (Of course, they also recommended a work ethic that was INSANE–like, work 24/7, even if you have kids, bring your laptop to their soccer games. No thank you.)

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