Dissertation writing: inscribing a newly created “author in the text” while we create ourselves anew as academics

One of the issues new dissertation writers must address, but which is rarely if ever discussed, is the extent to which writing a dissertation (or, for that matter, any other text) involves creating a new self who is inscribed into the text. That “author-in-the-text” is not, of course, our complete selves nor does it in any way even remotely reflect the fullness of our various subjectivities. Rather, that author-in-the-text who successfully jumps the dissertation hurdle is the person who has proven that she can join the world of academia as a fully credentialed scholar, particularly in her chosen field. The subject she inscribes into her dissertation has a certain degree of confidence and authority, but she respects those who have come before her (e.g., in her literature review) and honors the members of her dissertation committee by demonstrating her knowledge of THEIR work, to the degree it is relevant to hers. The voice with which she speaks is knowledgeable of what has come before, but she has some new ideas and research to add to that. And she is able to take on the mantle of the scholar.

We all have many personas (or subjectivities), of course, who come out in different contexts. There is the persona who has fun with her friends and may in fact be a “stitch” — the “class clown,” so to speak. There is the lover, the friend, the spiritual person (if that is important to her), perhaps “the poet” or “artist,” and even the political activist. Then there are the subjectivities that accrue to us through our positions within race, gender, sex, ethnicity, ability, and class backgrounds (as well as other forms of intersubjectivity).

Although to some extent the “political activist” has been given some room to enter academic discourse (a very SMALL room), none of the other personas are admitted. And the subjectivities that we have acquired through our political and social positions remain suspect.

In the effort to eliminate those “verboten” subjectivities, all too often dissertators squeeze the very life out of their writing.

Those who enter academia from the margins come into that academic world as strangers to it. We have to learn a new language, a new way of thinking about the world, a new set of behavioral rules, and particularly a new set of rules for thinking and writing. It is all very strange to us. Flipping an analogy from Clifford Geertz, we are natives “going academic,” rather than academics “going native.” In the process of finding our way in this strange land, we become uncomfortable with it, long for our old ways of thinking and being in the world. Even if we have been academics before (such as I was when I got my master’s in English), when we enter into a field that is primarily sociological, we are often lost. Nothing looks familiar, and very little seems like fun. Why are we doing this? Why are we subjecting ourselves to this strange new world?

Note the word “subjecting.” When we identify ourselves as subjects — as subjects in a sentence, so to speak — we are at the helm, in control, the subjects of our destinies. We knew our old world. We knew how to be in it. We knew how to be subjects rather than objects.

But in order to become subjects in this new world we have to rewrite ourselves into the texts of our academic work. Coming from the margins is particularly difficult, because there is so much in academia that is an anathema to the cultural positions we once enjoyed. We have to be rational rather than intuitive. We have to write in a linear, logical way, using a new vocabulary and following a relatively confining “map.” We have to prove to those who hold the power that we are worthy subjects.

In order to do that, we have to SUBJECT ourselves to this new culture. We have to “go academic” and let go of our native culture. What seems completely rational from the point of view of our “native cultures” is denied by academia. If it is not relegated to the garbage heap, at the very least it is seen as “less than” the academic way of being in the world and thinking about it.

This can be a very painful process. We don’t want to let go of our native positions, nor should we. What would be the point of bringing people from the margins into the center if we end up being just like the people who are already there?

And so we struggle, constantly, with the urge to give up and walk away. The problem becomes: how do we maintain our original, native culture while we inscribe ourselves into our work as academics? Sometimes the process just hurts too much. It feels just too damn hard!

Renato Rosaldo, in the book, Culture and Truth, the Remaking of Social Analysis, offers a whole lot of permissions, most particularly because Rosaldo quotes from a wide variety of different kinds of texts to make his points. One of my biggest problems when I was writing my own dissertation was the feeling that I had to somehow legitimize what I have to say before I can say it. And often the problem is that what I have to say cannot be said within the normal rules of academic discourse.

Anya (my daughter) once gave me a book for Christmas, a collection of writings by women on war. One of the articles discusses how the techno-strategic discourse of nuclear defense excludes human subjects, makes nuclear missiles into the subjects that are to be “protected.” So that any reference to human subjects – the subjects of normal moral discourse – is illegitimate. The two forms of discourse are completely incompatible. The two have completely different referents. Within techno-strategic discourse, it is conceivable to have a “survivable” nuclear war, because the survivors are whatever nuclear weapons remain.

Rosaldo speaks of border crossings, of multiple cultural identities and subjectivities, of the insights that the powerless and subordinate may have into the powerful and dominant, of what the “weak” may have to say of the “strong.” Of incompatible narratives coexisting.

Clearly there are some narratives that must be buried. Some narratives are morally untenable.

I grew up as a nomad, with no particular community or set of identities, except, perhaps, for whatever community my family itself found in being different. There is a good deal about me that is “American,”’held onto tenuous indeed. However strong they may have been for her, they have not been passed on to her children.

I have no deep emotional ties to my own siblings. Though we have endured much trauma together.

I followed in my father’s footsteps, so to speak, in my adulthood. I have continued to be a nomad. I have refused roots; refused a history. I have sought freedom from my past. I am getting to be a bit old for that now.

Interestingly, in my search for freedom I also sought a community – a community of like-minded spirits. That community has been elusive. I touched it temporarily in Iowa City. A community of politically-committed intellectuals with imagination, striving to make sense of the world while trying to improve upon it. But it is impossible to find community in Iowa City because its population is so transient.

This is a rather roundabout way of getting to what I wanted to say about myself in the first place. And that is to my sense of intellectual homelessness. In a way I have repeated in my intellectual life the nomadic existence of my biography. I belong to no discipline. I stand in the border zones. Intellectually, I am like Rosaldo’s Chicano. Intellectually, I grew up in an Eden of art and literary studies, a writer of fiction, concerned with form, esthetics, beauty; I moved to the “real world” of journalism, history, sociology, anthropology; I’ve come back again to literary studies, armed with sociological and political concerns.

I suppose it is my intellectual homelessness that enables me to speak from the border zones, from the territory where the disciplines merge into one another. Borders have become my home. My home is wherever I am.

We have heard stories about the anthropologist “going native.” I wonder. Can a native “go anthropologist”? The anthropologist learns the language, ritual, customs, culture, of his/her subjects; then interprets them for an academic audience. Suppose we have a “native” learn the language, etc., of academia, and then return home to tell his/her community about the strange practices of academics. What could academics learn from such an exercise? Suppose an academic were to try to look at his/her own cultural practices from the point of view of his/her subjects of study?

Can the native “go academic” without losing his/her original identity? That is the question for those of us who have been at the margins and have entered academia, like Rosaldo as a Chicano, like nearly all women, and certainly all people of color. Learning academic discourse changes us; it makes the unthinkable thinkable. We have to acquire a different subject position, and that transforms us; yet we can never become one with the dominant class, one with Anglo-Eurpopean men. We no longer belong to the place where we came from; we will never find ourselves at the center, either – although it is questionable whether we desire that position anyway.

In some ways I think there is greater freedom in the margins. In order to be in the center you have to follow the rules that define the center. Becoming a critic automatically places you on the outside. Though of course there are centers of criticism, e.g., white Marxist males; in this case marginal positions are chosen by groups who otherwise occupy center stage. The difference is that marginalization here is a matter of choice; the men can return to the center at any time, are likely to be welcomed as prodigal sons.

Things fall apart.

The center cannot hold.

(Or something to that effect, from Yeats’s The Second Coming.)

What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The center is disintegrating, and that is scary to those who have always occupied it.

The academic writing from the margins in order to eventually locate herself in the center of academia is constantly engaged in a balancing act: she must hold onto the special subject positions that she has acquired from living in the margins in order to maintain the special viewpoints that she brings into academia, for what else is the point of diversity? At the same time, in order to take on the mantle of the “credentialed scholar,” she must speak in an alien voice. She has to “go academic” while at the same time holding fiercely onto the person she was before she entered the academy. It is a challenge fraught with peril.

And I think that this, often, is the source of greatest anxiety for those attempting to enter academia from the margins — an anxiety that can cripple at worst and “constipate” (in terms of the flow of writing) at best. The linguistic structures that emerge from this battle all to often are cramped, confusing, ambiguous, and convoluted; worst of all, the process can “kill” — at least, kill the will to go on.

Committee members and dissertation advisers are gatekeepers, and as such they must learn to watch for the ways in which those who enter the academy from the margins can be destroyed by it. That is, if they are truly committed to diversity.

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“Life in Balance” time management application

One of my brothers and I may be developing an application that will help people to not only organize the “getting and spending” and maintenance aspects of their lives, but also help people to work toward a “life in balance,” where they will be able to do more of what they WANT to do and less of what they believe they HAVE to do. Also important: a goal of this is to help creative and ADHD types translate more of their brilliant ideas into actual accomplishments. AND at the same time fulfill more of their spiritual and relationship needs. (Ok, so I am imagining something close to heaven…that’s just my crazy, highly imaginative brain at work.)

This is a very exciting project, and perhaps I am too eager (my brain imagines a world in which it has all already come to fruition, without any thought to the very real obstacles we will likely encounter along the way) to announce this. But I can hardly contain myself!

Please let me know if you would be interested in participating in testing the product as it is developed (oh I am SO “jumping the gun” on this! — I don’t even know if my brother can translate my ideas into code!).

I can’t give more details as this is a public page. But if you are a person who finds existing time/work/project management software (and the paper versions that preceded them) extremely frustrating and generally useless, this could be the very thing you need.

I can’t make any promises that this will actually come about. But knowing that there are lots of people interested can keep the incentive to work on this high at the top of my own “to do” lists.

If you are interested, please complete this survey. All questions are optional, including contact information. However, if you are interested in participating in beta tests of this application, you will need to supply your contact information and answer all questions.

You may also post general thoughts  about this idea below.

“Throwback Thursday: Back-to-School Beatitudes–10 Academic Survival Tips” (Crunk Feminist Collective)

Here is a terrific collection of academic survival tips for the “target audience” of my business and this blog from The Crunk Feminist Collective

Samples (QUOTED):

  • Be confident in your abilities.
    • If you feel like a fraud, you very likely are suffering from impostor syndrome, a chronic feeling of intellectual or personal inadequacy born of grandiose expectations about what it means to be competent. Women in particular suffer with this issue, but I argue that it is worse for women-of-color (particularly Blacks and Latinas) who labor under stereotypes of both racial and gender incompetence. The academy itself also creates grandiose expectations, given the general perception of academicians as hypercompetent people. Secret: Everybody that’s actin like they know, doesn’t really know. So ask your question. It’s probably not as stupid as you think. Now say this with me: “I’m smart enough, my work is important, and damn it, I’m gonna make it.”
  • Be patient with yourself.
    • Be patient with your own process of intellectual growth. You will get there and it will all come together. You aren’t supposed to know everything at the beginning. And you still won’t know everything at the end (of coursework, exams, the dissertation, life…).
    • Getting the actual degree isn’t about intellect. It is about sheer strength of will and dogged determination. “Damn it, I’m gonna walk out of here with that piece of paper if it’s the last cottonpickin’ thing I do.” That kind of thinking helps you to keep going after you’ve just been asked to revise a chapter for the third time, your committee member has failed to submit a letter of rec on time, and you feel like blowing something or someone up.
  • Be your own best advocate. Prioritize your own professional needs/goals.
    • You have not because you ask not.  You have to be willing to ask for what you need. You deserve transparency about the rules and procedures of your program, cordial treatment from faculty, staff and students, and a program that prepares you not only for the rigors of grad school but also for the job market (should you desire a career in academia).  But folks won’t hand it to you on a silver platter. You have to build relationships, ask questions, and make demands.
    • Figure out your writing process (the place [home, coffee shop, library], time [morning, afternoon, night], and conditions [background noise, total silence, cooler or warmer] under which you work best and try to create those conditions as frequently as possible during finals, qualifying exams, and dissertation.
    • Your self-advocacy will often be misperceived as aggression and anger, entitlement or selfishness. Don’t apologize. 

 

More here:

Throwback Thursday: Back-to-School Beatitudes–10 Academic Survival Tips”

Clients of Matrix Education and Editorial Services receive emotional support in each and every one of the areas identified by The Crunk. I have a weekly online support group for academics who have ADHD added to the challenges of non-traditional academic identities — i.e., people of color, LGBT, disabled, and other non-European-descendent-cisgender-male identities. This group currently meets Thursdays @ 5-6 p.m. Central through my Join.me technology (very easy to use), which allows screen sharing and recording (with your permission).

If/when I can gather three to four non-ADHD people interested in a support group that focuses on the issues specific to those non-traditional academic identities, I will create another group to be scheduled according to participants’ needs. The charge for this is $20 per person per one-hour session. If I have four people I will reserve one space for someone who needs to negotiate a lower fee.

Note: I am myself a white cisgender straight female, but my passion in life is to enable real social change by helping non-traditional academics to succeed and thrive. I have three identities that make ME non-traditional: I am ADHD myself, I am disabled in non-visible ways, and I have lived a lifetime of being “other” by virtue of surviving childhood sexual abuse. I know what it means to be invisible and to be judged by prejudice. In addition, I OWN the privileges that accrue to me by virtue of my whiteness and my status as middle class (despite low income) due to culture and education. And I am open to being called out when I do or say things that suggest I am unconscious of my privilege. I welcome being educated by my clients!

 

Coping with ADHD (part 1 — or is it 2? 3?)

I wrote this in response to someone who commented on my “Rhythms are the Best for Working,” post and decided it was long enough and worthwhile enough for me to make it a separate post.

Jonathan, I encourage you to CELEBRATE your ADHD as a quality that makes you stand out from the crowd. People with ADHD are generally very intelligent and have a wide variety of interests about which they can be equally intense. Instead of seeing it as a disability (except when you need support for it), see it as a “misfit” between your brain wiring and the expectations of a rigid world that likes “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

What I try to do is follow my interest for as long as I can, and then pick up the thread of something else when interest wanes. The trick is to keep track of all your various interests and have a way to remind you of all the work you’ve already done on as-yet incomplete projects. So when you run up against a blank wall, go back to your other projects and see if you can spark some interest in one of them again. If you keep going, eventually you will complete something!

I have been writing almost all of my life, and I have saved everything, whether on paper (earlier work) or electronically (I’ve had a computer since 1984). At 64 I decided I needed to go back to old work & pick up where I left off, writing an autobiography. Well, guess what? It is already 3/4ths written, between my journal entries, emails, facebook posts, completed autobiographical short stories (names changed, but otherwise, autobiography), novellas, fragments, and poems. Right now it’s a matter of bringing it all together, filling in the gaps, and planning the story I want to tell (which affects how I arrange the materials), and then writing an ending. These days my age is pressing on me — I’d better get this done now, or I will never do it. And so I find myself carving time out for it, whenever I can fit it in.

There will always be setbacks. For instance, in June 2010 my son-in-law committed suicide, and I chose to move closer to my grandchildren. This has caused a major upheaval in my life, as all moves do, but particularly moreso for people with ADHD and for people with my various chronic pain conditions.

Nonetheless, it is the experience of all of that that has brought be back to my writing as a way of healing.

Setbacks are barriers only if you allow them to be so. Setbacks can be stepping stones instead. You may have to step back for a while, but something will gestate if you allow it, and eventually you will be a better, stronger person, and a better writer!

Rhythms are the best for working

Rhythms are the best for working.
Break the rhythm and it’s like
starting cold: creak and puff and
grind away, write reams of garbage
until the garbage becomes
a lubricant. Lift that dead
arm you’ve been sleeping on. See
it sway and flop: half corpse you
are. The arm is useless. Paralyzed
for life. Can’t do it. Won’t work.
Imagine yourself dead: this
is it, kid. Body won’t work.
Feel it dissolve into the
sheets. It’s noon. Last time I looked
it was nine. I don’t remember
sleeping. The rhythms of the
world have gone awry. Who can
trust a clock
now?

That’s the first stanza of a poem I wrote, first draft, some time around 1976 or so. More than 36 years later I still have trouble establishing a rhythm for working.

There was a time, back when my daughter was an infant, that I did manage to do that for, oh, about 6 months, starting in September of 1973. She was just a year old. I was suffering from horrible migraine headaches, and decided that they were caused by the fact that I was not writing, since at the time I was full-time mom and had no time for myself. So I found a parent-participation day care center (the only one then that would take a child still in diapers) where I took her every Tuesday and Thursday (with every eighth day my day for required participation). I would load her up into the car and drive from Ontario (Calif.) to Claremont, deposit her there at 8:30, drive back home, sit down at the typewriter (a manual!) and pound away for a few hours, drive back to pick her up at noon, come back home, feed her lunch, put her down for a nap, and then write for another hour or so while she slept.

It worked very well for a while. During that time I wrote the first drafts or portions thereof of nearly everything that ended up in my masters’ thesis (a collection of my own short stories). But then I hit a wall. I would sit at the typewriter and nothing, absolutely nothing, would come. And of course, my daughter decided to change her schedule. No more naps after lunch, mom. Thanks anyway!

There were many other things that interfered, not the least of which was my crumbling marriage, and internal conflicts of which I was only dimly aware … it took me three decades to understand the forces that were driving me then.

I am now 64 years old; 65 next August. An age when most people are getting ready for retirement (although that is taking much longer these days in this economic climate). Because of the various health issues I’ve struggled with, I’ve not really had a career yet. This in spite of all the wonderful gifts I have. I know in good part, aside from my health issues, this is a result of being ADHD, a diagnosis I did not receive until age 45, a few years after I completed my PhD. I read Sari Solden’s Women with Attention Deficit Disorderon the hunch that ADHD could be a major factor in the struggles I have had throughout my life. I read chapter after chapter with tears in my eyes. Tears of recognition and relief. Most important in what I got out of all that was the realization that I was not somehow morally deficient. My inability to establish and maintain order in my life was not a character flaw. I was not a terrible wife and mother.

One of Solden’s key arguments is that women are expected to keep order in the home. They are expected to keep everyone else organized and on track. When they can’t, it’s a reflection on them as women. Women who don’t keep their family lives in order are defective as women. Their entire identities are at stake. If  you have a husband who demands order, and who responds to the lack of it by hitting you below the “emotional belt” with attacks on that very identity, reinforcing your own sense of inadequacy, you spiral downward. Not knowing that it is something you cannot help, that you were born this way and you can’t fix it without help, leaves you feeling worthless.

So reading Solden’s book came as a huge relief to me. At last I had an answer for the long years of feeling I was completely incompetent and a failure at being a woman, and particularly a wife.

I haven’t been a wife for more than three decades now, having divorced my second husband in 1984, turning instead to focus my attentions on becoming a college professor. It took me ten years to finally finish that PhD. Getting the ADHD diagnosis (I insisted that my psychiatrist send me to a specialist for that) helped also in understanding why it took me so long. I remember working three times as hard as my cohorts to get my assignments done. I had to read first, marking the texts, then go back and type verbatim sections from those texts as notes, then review those notes several times before I could get the gist of the material. Not because I was stupid (far from it — once my work was turned in, everyone thought it brilliant), but because I would read for a bit and then my mind would go wild with new ideas applying what I had just learned. Hour upon hour would be spent in these flights of fancy. The dissertation journal I kept at the time is chock full of materials for at least TEN dissertations!

Whenever I would go to talk to my adviser about my dissertation, he would always ask me, “which one”?

My filing cabinets are also full of kazillions of articles, creative non-fiction essays, short stories, poems, novel ideas, novel chapters (different novels), and the like. Not to mention all the ideas I would have for solving social problems, or practical problems with the various institutions I worked for, flitting about from job to job.

I am, indeed, an “idea person.” What I am not good is setting up and maintaining that rhythm for work that is absolutely essential to bring an idea to fruition, suitable for sharing with the world and (one hopes) resulting in financial remuneration.

So, in addition to providing this blog as a means for my clients to connect and to get help sorting through their own blocks with writing, I am hoping this will also help me work through my own.

I am going to try to set up a rhythm for my own writing, and I suggest that others who are struggling like me figure out how to do that as well. You can post a reply here, or those who have “author” status can create their own posts about the blocks you are up against.

My first big block is that I am up against a life that is in complete disarray, mostly due to health issues that keep getting in the way. At this point I can’t even commit myself to a particular time of day at which I would concentrate on my own writing. I need to start by committing myself to 15 minutes a day just planning what to do with the rest of my day, even if it doesn’t include my own writing!

What about YOU?

When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write!