Productivity Down Here

Originally published at Stillwater Historians, February 21, 2012.  Links likely outdated.

I was making my daily rounds of the blogs I value today and was impressed yet again by the latest post at the Tenured Radical.  As her blog’s moniker indicates, Claire Potter is a senior scholar–well-published, highly regarded, full professor, the whole shooting match.  But one of her frequent themes is the challenge of balancing responsibilities in an effort to remain (or become) productive.  I like that.  It brings to mind one of my early posts from last summer: Process and Procrastination.  Potter reminds us, as my advisor did lo so many months ago, that the way we go about our work is not necessarily something that we sort out in grad school and apply to the rest of our professional lives.  Process is something that is deeply personal and ever contingent upon our family roles, other professional obligations, sub-disciplines, source bases, and a million other factors that make us the people and practitioners that we are.  And thus it is ever evolving, ideally in ways that better reconcile productivity and life.

So I thought I’d offer some musings on the subject so nicely articulated by the Tenured Radical, but from my borrowed desk in the corner office of the Computer Science building where I’ve been plunked for the term of my Fulbright.  I am neither tenured, nor gainfully employed, nor as close to finishing my dissertation as I’d really wanted to be by now.  And thus, while the themes resonate and I take much of value from the TR, the view is rather different from beneath my rock than from her panoramic scene atop the academic heap.  So here’s my senior grad student/junior scholar adaptation/supplement to TR’s fine beginning:

Stay plugged in.  There is a widely held notion among grad students that in order to write your dissertation you need to disappear, either literally or figuratively, from the life of your department.  The department holds too many distractions, dramas, and obligations for you to spend the necessary time on your own work.  I’ve felt this impulse myself, and have, to an extent, disappeared.  But once you do, the support networks are gone, and the interactions that keep you thinking about the discipline in important ways, also fade away.  Then you are truly alone.  Staying involved in the day-to-day of your department or campus can keep you in an important rhythm.  The timeline of semesters, also, has imprinted itself on you such that you will be productive at certain times if you keep yourself tied to it, even if you have no course-related responsibilities.  Divorce yourself from that calendar and you are just floating around with no immediate need to get anything done, and no deadlines to compel you.

 An empty plate may not be the answer.  My friends will attest to how adamantly I sought to “clear my plate.”  After serving on committees and coordinating events and teaching classes and doing collaborative research projects and so forth, I decided that all of this was getting in the way of my dissertation–which of course I construed at the outset to be a far bigger gorilla than it is.  So I needed to brush it all away, say no to everything, and wipe the slate clean to focus on the singular project.  What I discovered though was that the teaching, the event planning, and the committee discussions all fueled a creativity and a level of thinking that got pretty well dumped with the bath water.  As TR points out, writing is writing and writing more makes you write more.  Writing lectures is in some ways mechanical work, but for me it’s quite inspiring.  And even writing a lecture about Watergate will give me ideas that push my thinking about 19th century fisheries to new places.  The better solution for me would have been to force better time management upon myself (something I have spent 36 years resisting) and find ways to do these things simultaneously.  Plus, at such an early stage of an academic career, eschewing opportunities may not prove wise.

 Don’t write the seminal work.  I’ve spoken to WAY too many grad students who believe that the purpose of the dissertation is to write the seminal work on their topic.  The result is projects that take a decade to complete, and dissertations that clear 600, 700, 800 pages.  That is, to my admittedly addled mind, simultaneously stupid and arrogant.  First of all, if anyone on your committee is actually expecting a work that redefines the whole field, then they should be hauled out and shot for expecting from you what they have probably never produced themselves.  The purpose should be to demonstrate that you can play.  That you can master the literature of your field, apply it, and add original research to it to say something new.  And after that, is it defensible?  If you’re trying to write the perfect work of a discipline to which you are still a novice, you’re setting yourself up for intellectual paralysis.

Be active.  My uncle recently shared an article on Facebook about what sitting does to the body, and the health risks that accompany the “seated” lifestyle.  It was supposed to be horrifying, and it worked!  I don’t even want to get into heart disease and all that–something will get us all.  But I’ve found that maintaining a level of activity has been one of the real challenges of grad school.  The work and the climate of my region conspire to make inactivity an all too easy alternative.  Inactivity and the cruel metabolic changes that accompany your 30s can remarkably quickly result in weight gain.  Add that to your intellectual frustrations either with the work or your lack of it, and you’ve got an evil brew and a one-way ticket to rampant, spiraling self-loathing.  I’m not saying you need to go to the gym.  I hate the gym–everything about it.  But you do need to create some degree of blood flow.  Walk the dog, take the kids to the park, something to clear your head and move around between books, outlines, drafts, and grading papers.  The benefits are not only physical.  I always find that the more active my body is, the more active my mind is as well.

 Redefine ”waste”.  I’m always wasting time.  This is what I’ve told myself by way of torture for years.  I don’t get things done because I’m wasting time.  Every so often though I go through these periods of enormous productivity.  My last one produced three chapters in ten days.  That may sound amazing, but when you unpack it, did I really produce three chapters in ten days?  Of course not.  The work of organizing the ideas, compiling the sources, raking it about in my head, turning it over, talking about it, debating themes with colleagues, outlining, and ultimately writing took months.  Upon months.  At the end of which I wrote for ten days.  But for most of that preceding period I chastised myself relentlessly for wasting time!  The moral is, become comfortable with activities that don’t feel or seem to be immediately productive.  I’m not there yet, I freely admit, but I’m getting better.

 Write other things.  I’ve learned to stop thinking of my blog writing as time away from my real writing.  Writing on the blog enables me to write in a somewhat more unplugged voice, and to write more quickly.  I also keep a very garbled and inconsistent journal file on my desktop that I type into when I can’t get my thoughts refined well enough for the chapter I’m working on.  And of course now there is the troublesome but inevitable and important matter of cover letters to be written.  The other asset to staying plugged in, as described above, is that you are invariably tapping out emails, proposals, funding requests, and all other manner of communications.  All of it serves to coordinate your brain and your fingers in useful ways and stimulate dissertation and/or journal article progress.  The more funding you seek, the more proposals you write, and the more frequently you have to think about ways of articulating your project.  This pays dividends even if you don’t get the grant or fellowship you’re seeking.

 Know yourself.  TR makes her time early in the morning.  I stay up late at night.  She doesn’t go out much.  I like to go out whenever I can, assuming I’m with company that doesn’t mind me doing a chorus and three verses about fisheries and resource management–in exchange for feedback on whatever they’re working on.  Like her I find that writing more tends to involve reading less–though at my stage in my career I would imagine my misgivings about that to be greater.

I’ll conclude with a word about going to class unprepared–because I would imagine that many an idealistic grad student might bristle at the notion (as suggested by TR), particularly as proposed by a senior scholar.  I actually couldn’t agree more, but I would substitute under-prepared for unprepared.  It takes a degree of comfort and confidence in your knowledge of your material and in your skills as an instructor, but some of my best classroom experiences have resulted from going to class deliberately under-prepared.  It does not, as it may appear on the surface, represent a simple subordination of teaching responsibilities to research and writing obligations.  Often it makes the students feel more involved and allows for greater interaction and the ability to speculate openly about connections and relationships that wouldn’t appear in a more tightly honed lecture or carefully planned discussion.  And it often opens the door to working your own research into your teaching, which makes you seem more human, more passionate, and more akin to your students–grappling with sets of ideas you haven’t entirely resolved yet.  We should have the confidence to let students see our own struggle, and set aside any air of omniscience that may accompany the role of instructor.

What do you do to make yourself productive?