Today is the First Day of the Rest of my Dissertation…

Again. Sound familiar? It should.

So, here I am — back in the Cage at the library after parking the dissertation by the side of the road for most of the past academic year (with a brief and disastrous pit-stop at the Conference Paper Cafe). I simply couldn’t manage the dissertation and my first year of teaching. So, I consciously decided last fall to stop working on it and start it back up in the summer. And, now, I find, it is summer and I’m pretty much regretting that decision, despite the necessity of it.

I took the month of May off to recover and visit family, and the rest of last week to clean what I could of the house. I managed to vacuum and mop the living room, dining room, and kitchen for the first time since Christmas (Really. I’m not exaggerating here — as I vacuumed, I was sucking up pine needles from the Christmas tree…), but gave up when I hit the upstairs bedroom and study. My study is knee-deep in files and books and academic junk mail and knitting supplies and discarded clothes and more files. I’ve no idea what is in there. It’s pretty scary. So scary, the dissertation seemed like a less scary thing to face. Which is saying a LOT, because that mfthing is awfully darn scary. I’m also in the Cage battling the dissertation rather than battling the mess in the study because our house is completely sealed in plastic, rendering it about 100 degrees with 200% humidity inside, while two guys in HAZMAT suits are semi-industriously grinding the lead paint off of the outside of the house with power tools that sound remarkably like dentists’ drills. Not a great happy, calm working environment for sorting through your physical and emotional baggage.

So, here I sit in the Cage, which, after my palatial office is strangely small and quaint, surrounded by pictures and doo-dads and cartoons (like The Far Side where the kitchen is thrashed and the woman is dead on the ground and the book she was cooking from says “recipes for disaster” and the ubiquitous Graduate School is Hell by Matt Groening) and books and files and systems and inspirational handwritten post-its (“Own it, it’s yours … the rest is just noise,” “This is an important story to tell, it is your job just to tell it,” “Courage,” “The Finish Line is a Shifty Thing”) that all meant something really important to me once. Now, I’m not sure what any of this is and being here just feels like I’m regressing. Maybe that is a good thing — an indication that I’ve grown beyond this space, and my role as a graduate student and into my role as a professor. Maybe I can translate this feeling into inspiration to finish.

And, yet as I sit here, I find that I’m not inspired. Rather, I’m a little pissed off and bitter that yet again, I’m STARTING this thing. It feels like I’m always starting the dissertation, always starting over from scratch. I absolutely know without a doubt that I’m always starting the thing because I am always STOPPING it, so yes, it is my own damned fault. But, that doesn’t make it any more fun to start again. Histgrad recently wrote this great post reflecting on how she completed her dissertation. She said that the single most important thing for finishing is momentum — you will never finish if you don’t keep it moving along. I’ve clearly violated that rule. Now, I have to get that big sisyphusian rock rolling again back up that hill hoping that this time it will roll down the other side.

So, that’s the state of Stewgad’s emotional crap around the dissertation. What is the state of the dissertation itself?

I haven’t got a clue. I have no idea what it says, what I was thinking when I last wrote it, what my ideas are, or even if I have ideas. My sources are a mess. I’ve no idea what is in the 8-10 crates full of legal-sized photocopies from archives, or in the thousands of electronic sources stowed away on the hard drive. And I feel like I haven’t read a history book on my subject in about 10 years. So, I’m feeling a little behind the times on the literature. Let’s see, is there anything else? Oh yeah, I haven’t written an academic word in 9 months, so I pretty much forget how to do it.

So, the question is, how do I begin (again) to get back into it, to build the momentum?

I thought I’d start this process out by reading the whole draft of the Dissertation. All 300-something pages of it. When I oh- so-casually mentioned this in the car the other night to Spousal Unit after salsa dancing class, he firmly, but kindly suggested that I try biting off a smaller bit of the project so that I don’t get overwhelmed and stuck and therefore thrown back into the fear/paralysis/depression spiral. My first response was denial. Who, me?? Paralyzed? Afraid? Depressed? Nah. I don’t know what he’s talking about. Next response, indignation. I NEVER… Third response, realism. OK, well, perhaps maybe I do have a slight tendency to get depressed paralyzed with fear when I deal with the Dissertation.

Given that Spousal Unit knows me pretty darn well, I think I’ll take his advice and take on a few little tasks a day for the next few days.

Today, I will:

1. Organize the Cage — Figure out what is here, what isn’t, what I need here, what I don’t.

2. Read Chapter 3. Make KIND notes to myself about things that I could work on.

3. Constantly remind myself whenever I feel afraid of this thing that, as Histgrad told me on the phone the other day, at this point in my life and career, the dissertation is just paperwork. Tedious paperwork that I need to get done in order to move on.

That’s all for today, folks. Tune in tomorrow for more adventures in Stewgad Dissertationland.

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7 responses to “Today is the First Day of the Rest of my Dissertation…

  1. I’d be pretty overwhelmed with 300 pages too. Good luck with your fresh start!

  2. Alright now–you can do this!! Glad to see you back in DissertationLand!!

  3. Professor Bastard

    For what it’s worth, I’ve found going back and reading earlier chapters in my novel to virtually guarantee not moving forward on the book. Too much I want to fuss with, and in any case, for me, it’s easier and more fun to tweak what’s already on the page than to storm the walls of the blank page again.

    Also, try to remember how momentum is built: be starting again, anywhere really, and Just. Keeping. On.

  4. Welcome back! The first step is getting started. It sounds like you have a plan. I wish you much success in returning to disserationland.

  5. I’ll be getting more seriously into my dissertation soon myself, so reading this has been encouraging to me. (Something I bet you never imagined would be possible!)

  6. I love the idea that the dissertation is just paperwork.

  7. Welcome back. Go for it! You are on your way>>>> >>>>> >>>>> >>>>>> >>>>>> >>>>> >>>> (these are little momentums) >>>>> >>>>> >>>>

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