Mentoring, Teaching

On Meaningful Dialogue and “Being-With”

Today I participated in my first dissertation group meeting of the semester. As always, the experience of being in it reminds me of the pleasures of intellectual collaboration, especially coming out of a long winter break punctuated by slow, torturous attempts to get myself to “really” write. Although today’s conversation centered around two specific (and super exciting) prospectuses, what I found most exhilarating about the discussion was the affective energy it generated, which felt something like José Muñoz’s sense of “being-with.”

This feeling of togetherness, I believe, comes from a shared stake in meaningful dialogue, making the conversation matter to the people’s whose work we engage, but also to ourselves- the questions that pique our curiosities and drive our research. The best discussions for me are the ones where I not only contribute something useful to push someone else’s thinking, but also where I am pushed and pulled in return. This post is an attempt to capture the ineffable quality of these kinds of dialogues, which happen all too infrequently. Here are a few of the things today’s conversation invited me to reflect on more deeply:

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Strategies for Staying Focused on Dissertation Writing

As the semester begins to really hit its stride, I often find myself getting sidetracked from dissertation writing with student groups, fellowship applications, committee service, research, and day-to-day life. This post, which is yet another way of hitting pause on actual “dissertating,” will hopefully still be a productive form of self-accounting- a reminder that I do have strategies in place for staying focused and generating written material. It might even be useful to you, so here are some things that help me:

Devising a realistic writing schedule. I  have found that blocking out concrete blocks of time during your work week and treating those hours like classes that you simply cannot miss is a helpful way of staying on track. The “realistic” part of this strategy is also key- you need to take into account that certain days will be busier than others depending on your work and personal commitments, so maybe you can dedicate 4 hours on Wednesdays, but only 2 on Fridays. (Some people also establish a set number of pages or words to measure productivity- I’ve tried this in the past, but discovered that not meeting these quotas can cause even greater stress and anxiety. Instead, by counting hours rather than pages, at least I feel a sense of accomplishment for putting in the time).

Keeping a research journal. Mine is a small spiral notebook that I try to keep with me always so I can record random thoughts and sudden sparks of inspiration. This journal is also what I turn to when I hit a roadblock in my dissertation- I use it to free-write, brainstorm ideas, and reflect on the development of my project. It’s different from the book I use to write notes for class  because I really want it to be a space for thinking through my research.

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Writing about the Dissertation

As I prepare for dissertation workshops and fellowship applications in the fall, I am reminded of this important piece of mentoring advice:

Don’t just write your dissertation, but write about it and often.

Writing about your project can be frustrating, unnerving, and even painful, but I have found that it keeps me grounded- it forces me to think about the stakes of my work and reminds me of who I am speaking to, which can be incredibly energizing. In light of this, I have decided to share some of the writing “about” my  dissertation that Duncan Faherty (Associate Professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY)  invited us to complete for the American Studies dissertation workshop I am taking this fall. As always, it took me longer than expected to complete (and is of course far from perfect), but it did get me thinking about my project and the challenge of communicating it to others who might not be familiar with my topic or areas of research.

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