Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Crafting the Dissertation: December 2016 Update on Being Done (Kind of)

Earlier this morning I sent off chapter four, my Milton chapter, my penultimate chapter of rewriting my dissertation from scratch, off to my director.

So the total rewrite of the dissertation, the throw out over a year's worth of work and start over, is done.
Kind of.
Sort of.
Maybe.
I still have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite.
And all of it is still in rounds of revision with my director.

But the heavy lifting, the emotionally insane work of starting over and rethinking everything is finished.

I rewrote the dissertation in four months. Working, except for breaks, just one day a week on Saturdays. This forced schedule (forced by my full time job teaching high school and my TAship teaching an online Shakespeare class) had some interesting results.
  • It meant Saturdays were long days. From waking up to dark except for walking Nehi, I did not leave my desk. Whether inspiration struck or not, I was not allowed to leave my desk because it was the only day I had to work on things.
  • It also meant that ideas percolated the rest of the week. Several times I had thoughts and inspirations during the week that I'd write on a scrap piece of paper or Post-It and place on my desk during the week to revisit on Saturday.
  • My goal was one chapter per month and I met that goal. I met it mainly because I had very structured goals:
    • Week 1 was pull all the close readings for that month's chapter.
    • Week 2 was add the scholarly sources.
    • Week 3 was add introduction, conclusion, and footnotes.
    • Week 4 was last looks and done.
The schedule didn't always work. I was very sick for two weeks in November, so days I'd thought I'd have to get ahead (election day and Veteran's Day) were lost, as were those Saturdays.
I had also forgotten just how exhausting teaching high school full time was. I have been tired for months.
I was done with my high school teaching job 16 December, and thought I'd get more done before Christmas than I did. Mainly because chapter four, my Milton chapter needed a lot more time than I thought.

All this being said, one of the lessons of this summer's STUFF was not to be tied to arbitrary deadlines. So while I had a time management plan, when it went wrong or things took longer I didn't stress about it, choosing instead to do what was best for the dissertation.


As I was finishing this week I thought a lot about crafting the dissertation. There's a lot that gets said about just finishing, and that the best dissertation is a done dissertation and I get all of that. I am certainly ready to be done, to defend, graduate, move on. But I have seen very little about what it means to craft a dissertation. I did not focus on craft with the original dissertation for a couple of reasons. I was focused on getting done and I was focused on fixing other people's notes and lost sight of what I was making.

This dissertation is totally focused on craft. Part of this is that after being told I had to throw out and start over I had to focus on craft. I needed to build a complete outline for the re-write. And let me tell you, if you're just starting your dissertation please listen--- outlines are magic. They will force you to identify and track your argument. They will force you to ask yourself necessary questions. They will save you when you get lost. I needed to make sure that my arguments were clear so introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences that clearly signposted what I was doing became vital to my purpose. Each chapter had to have its own clear, articulated argument and each chapter had to interlock with each other. My dissertation actually makes three distinct arguments in each of the three chapters and then analyzes those arguments in Paradise Lost. I knew before I started the rewrite what I needed each chapter to do (and was still surprised hitting CH 4 that the focus, and my argument, was the infernal councils).

My new director also specifically MAKES me think about crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. She asks me questions about organization, word choice, WHY I chose to do certain things. And this is perhaps one of the biggest changes from the original.

This is MY dissertation.

My director has offered great advice, and support, suggestions of where another source or theory might help, and has asked questions to get me to clarify my thinking. She has offered suggestions for word choices or rephrasing. But the ideas in the dissertation, the argument, is all mine. One of the problems with the the original was that I got stuck in a loop of addressing notes, doing what notes told me to, trusting that they were correct. And I'm not saying they weren't (fog of war honestly prevents me from  knowing). But what I can say is that early on in the process of my first dissertation I lost my voice. I ceded it in the interest of giving what I thought others wanted, and more importantly, what was needed to pass.

I am even more grateful now that my committee did not let me go to defense in June. Not only would it not have passed, but I honestly believe now that I would not have been able to speak about the dissertation as it was not really my argument, my ideas.

I have made this dissertation my dissertation. I have built it. And the process of crafting it has made me better. My biggest fear after this summer was that I could not do this. That I lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to write the dissertation and earn my PhD. Sitting down to write the first chapter was one of the hardest things I've ever done. There was so much to overcome, both my own fears and depression, but also the almost crippling list of everything that was wrong with the original dissertation---no argument, too many texts, too much description, no argument, uneven interaction with secondary sources, wrong arguments or approaches, no clear methodology, too long, too bloated, no idea what you're saying here.
Sitting down with my director to get notes for that first chapter was terrifying. What if I hadn't fixed it? What if I proved, again, I couldn't do this?
Know what the biggest note was? Have you thought about swapping this section and this one, and putting this in a footnote. I gained a lot of my confidence back in that meeting. I also learned to internalize the notes. The organization of CH 2 and 3 was better. I didn't make the same mistakes. I learned to pay attention to the words, to hear my director's voice in my head as I revised, guiding me. I learned to anticipate the questions she would ask.
When we met about CH 3 the week before Christmas I was almost as nervous as that first chapter because it was the Shakespeare CH, and was the only chapter that contained anything close to the original. I was terrified that in revisiting some of the same texts I would replicate the same mistakes. Once again, I proved myself wrong.
Don't get me wrong- there are still notes. I still have to control F for contractions, and still have style to polish. There are things to be done.

But today I finished the last chapter. I fought with this chapter. I worried about this chapter. It took SO much longer than I thought it would. It scared me--If you suffer from imposter's syndrome I don't recommend studying Paradise Lost. But the lessons of the last few months served me well. When I was overwhelmed by the close readings I stopped and took the time to outline the entire chapter. I started small, looking at my close readings and seeing what the argument was (this was where the infernal council epiphany came from). I focused on crafting each sentence, each paragraph, each section and before I knew it I had finished.

I went through it a couple more times.
And then I sent it off to my director.

And I just stopped.

Because if you had told me in June, and the height of my anxiety and depression this summer that I ever would have been able to rewrite the dissertation and write something that I was proud of I would not have believed you. I have come a long way in just a few months. So I'm taking a bit to acknowledge that because it's a big deal. And I don't think we spend enough time stopping to acknowledge the things that are hard and then celebrating when we overcome them.

It's a contradiction of course to say I'm done. I'm staring at the next round of notes on CH 3 that I need to do. Now that I've drafted the whole thing, I have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite. Now that my director has the whole thing we'll focus on making sure I'm tracing throughlines and arguments through the whole thing. Plus the polishing, revising, tweaking that needs to happen over and over again.
So lots still to be done. But it still feels like this is a big deal.

I'm not exactly sure what happens next other than what I just wrote above. One thing I told myself this semester was that I was just going to do the work. I was not going to think past rewriting the dissertation. So I don't know how long this next portion will take. I don't know if I'll defend and graduate in the spring. We'll see.

But today is a good day.
And for now, that's enough.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Checking In- Dissertation Progress as of November 2016

I've had some people ask me how revisions on the dissertation are going. So I thought I'd take a few minutes and update you all.
As of today I have completed second round revisions on chapter 1 ("Devilish Leaders and Resisting Role Models in William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum Anglorum") and chapter 2 ("Parliament is Demonic: The Lesson and Context of Þe Deulis Perlament"). I'm meeting my goal of completing one chapter a month. It's getting a little tricky now because I'm juggling drafting the chapters with also revising notes from previous chapters, but I'm trying to time management it all.

My new director is great. Since I'm writing a chapter a month we're meeting about a week after she gets the chapter to go over it. It means a lot that she sets aside 2-3 hours each time to go over things with me. It also really helps that she gets drafts turned around to me so quickly. So far it's a process that's working well. For the most part the notes are minor and I seem to have internalized and corrected the major issues from the initial debacle. The new dissertation has a clear argument (YEAH!), both within the chapters and the diss as a whole. As a result the dissertation is leaner, and more focused. I was really worried after sending her chapter 1, worried I couldn't do this at all, worried that there were just so many things to fix. But each chapter I finish and get positive feedback on I feel more confident and better about it all.

The last couple of weeks have been a little rough--- I've been sick so I'm a little behind on my schedule/goal of one chapter per month. But this month I'm on chapter 3, my Shakespeare chapter, which is actually the only part of the previous dissertation that I can use any of so it's not the start from scratch that the other two chapters have been. I also have a five day weekend coming up where I can play catch up so I think I'll be fine.

That just leaves the penultimate Milton chapter, chapter four, for December.
The first three chapters each deal with an element (devilish leaders, demonic parliament, internal rebels) that I will then revisit and analyze in Paradise Lost.
My high school is finished 16 December, so my goal is to finish chapter 4, address the chapter 3 notes, and draft the intro and conclusion over the break. So a complete draft by the end of the year.

The next steps will wholly depend on how second and third drafts of the dissertation go, and we'll just have to wait and see on all that.

So that's the update. I hope everyone is well, and I hope too that it won't be too long before I have the time to come back and participate in my online communities!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A New Approach to a Paper Assignment

I have not had the time to blog lately about either the dissertation or teaching but I just tried something in my online early Shakespeare class that I'm really proud of and wanted to share.

I usually assign several large assignments:
  • a 2-3 page close reading
  • a 5-6 page thematic paper
  • a presentation on a single topic or theme
  • a final paper or project
I tell the students that mastering the close reading is important, which is why we spend eight weeks practicing these skills before the first paper, and the thematic and final papers build on close reading.
I also tell them that the presentation should be a way of exploring things they might want to write on later.
In the past, many students have chosen to write final papers, but I have a lot of education majors/future teachers in my classes so many in the past have elected to create lessons plans for their final projects. Honestly, the projects are always my favorite part.

This semester I noticed that a lot of students seemed to be struggling with front loading assignments on how to write a large analytical paper. So I changed the thematic paper assignment to this:
Thematic Paper Project
Directions: This paper has several parts. You will submit all of them together in a single Word document, but in this order. Please clearly title/label each piece and insert a page break between parts.
Project Piece
Possible Points
  • Annotated bibliographies of your two secondary sources
    • Proper Works Cited full citation
    • Under the citation one paragraph (6-10 sentences) where you evaluate the argument (does it agree or disagree with your thesis? How could you use this source?) and specifically refer to the article
15 points
  • Organizer of paper which includes:
    • You may use the sample provided in the course or not
    • Thesis that tells me what theme you’re analyzing in the two or more plays AND what you’re analyzing ABOUT them
    • What two (or more) plays you’re analyzing
    • Specific textual evidence from those plays that shows that theme
    • Explanation of HOW that evidence shows that theme
15 points
  • Introduction that outlines the entire paper
    • Title of paper that gives me a clue what the paper is about
    • Thesis
    • Mention of all subtopics your paper would cover
    • Conclusion
20 points
  • One sample body paragraph that includes:
    • Topic sentence
    • Close reading(s) in support of theme
    • Explanation of HOW that evidence shows that theme
    • Conclusion/transition
30 points
  • Properly formatted works cited page
10 points
  • Paper should be MLA formatted
    • 1” margins
    • Double spaced
    • Correct parenthetical citation (Author’s last name page #)
    • Times New Roman 12
5 points
  • Submitted as one document
5 points

The deadline for this is this Saturday but I've had some students submit early and a couple of early reactions. Students have done better on this assignment. I asked students to write in the submit box what they thought of this process and all said they found it helpful.
As a result I think this is what I'll do from now on. I'm also going to give my students the option to write this paper in full as their final paper if they want. I'm also going to give them the option of submitting this process for a new topic for their final.
From what I've seen, this change in assignment addresses a lot of the issues I wanted.
It still doesn't address problems my students have with the close reading- describing and summarizing versus analyzing, but I think I'll redesign some of the smaller build up assignments to do that. 
All in all I'm really happy with this and the students' reactions, so I wanted to share!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

I'm Not Back...An Extended Hiatus


As some of you may have noticed, I have not been my normal chatty, super-posting self. And I won't be in the near future, so I wanted to write a short explanation.

For those of you not caught up on summer events-
  • I did not defend my dissertation in June. I did not graduate. Instead, I am starting over, and not just revising the dissertation but completely throwing it out, setting it on fire, and rewriting the dissertation. From scratch.
  • I can tell you this summer that I came really close to quitting. A lot of things, not just my PhD program.
  • With no face to face support system, everyone gone for summer, I found myself floundering on many levels. 
  • So I retreated a bit into hermitage in order to take stock, find my footing, figure out my next steps. You know, the normal cliches.
After two months, this is what I know:
  • What I wrote was an interesting literary survey of the devil in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to Paradise Lost
    • A survey is not an argument, it is not a dissertation.
    • It certainly has a lot of information, and I have lots of stuff for future projects, but it's not going to get that Dr. in front of my name.
  • So a summer of soul searching, multiple crying jags, break downs, radical decisions, calls for help no one answered, and a lot of meetings later,  I have a revision plan/outline for a new dissertation.
    • This revision plan has a clear argument. Each chapter has an argument. Each chapter builds on the previous, with the final chapter's argument interlocking with each previous chapter.
    • This is a leaner dissertation, four chapters instead of six. Each chapter only focuses on 1-2 primary documents instead of 20-30.  Size-wise it will be probably be a little more than half the size of the original. More importantly, it does what a dissertation should.
    • While the dissertation is still on the devil in English literature, I'm trimmed or dumped a lot of the things weighing it down. Folklore and my original methodology is interesting, and still what I want to explore in the future, but it's not in the dissertation, neither is a lot of the interdisciplinary work I originally wanted to do. This is okay. The dissertation is my ticket into this world. It doesn't have to do everything I want to do in my entire career.
  • I know people have written about how isolating writing the dissertation can be. So have I. But I realized this summer that I was really, totally, on my own. And it took me most of the summer to not just internalize that but find a way forward from that.
I have a rough plan for HOW and WHEN I'm going to complete these chapters but I'm not married to it if notes, revisions, the work requires something else. This summer sort of cured me of that.
I'd like to draft one chapter a month, with the goal of having a complete rough draft of this new dissertation by the end of the year (so by January). But past that, I couldn't tell you. At least now I can see a way forward. I do feel as one committee member said, that once I figured out my argument, since I'd done all this reading, research, and work, much of the rest would fall together. I hope that all means that I'm on the right track. I trust too that my committee will guide me if not.

So certainly a lot of this contributed to my social media withdrawal.
But a lot more of it is practical.

I reported to my high school teaching job 5 August. Students reported 11 August.
I leave for work at 630a and I am at work from 7a until 230 or 3p. I teach five classes. My classes are bigger this year with mostly 30+ students. We also this year have had it  recommended that we give an assignment per week, with at least one assignment given every two weeks, so there's a lot of grading to do.
I had one week of this before I started teaching my online early Shakespeare class for my university this semester (which covers my tuition, and with the late notice of everything this summer, I'm happy to have it). There are currently 73 students in it, and I do not have a TA. However, I designed and taught this class this past spring, and made some changes based on student feedback this summer, so I feel good about it. The first week went well. Last semester the class started with 75 with a 5 student wait list but the class dropped quite a bit by the end. I was told this was the norm. But I also took some steps to make the course more accessible, and barring that, asked students to check with me before dropping. We'll see.
Right now scheduling and organizing is key. Lucky for me organization and color-coding is my superpower because every day, every hour is scheduled and set aside for specific things.
  • I have Monday through Friday during my school day to work on my high school stuff, so lesson planning, grading, etc. I'm aiming for getting it all done during the school day, but we'll see. 
    • I answer/check emails all day from my online course and once I get home I log onto my online class and grade daily so that it doesn't get out of hand.
  • Saturdays I have set aside for dissertation work (week 1 close reading for chapter, week 2 interact with/add secondary sources, week 3 write chapter intro and conclusion, add footnotes, week 4 final revisions). The good news is that the last year was not wasted. While I can only use about five pages out of the original 333 page dissertation, the research, the scope, the knowledge I gained has made writing the revision plan, and hopefully the writing, easier.
  • Sundays I grade in my online course, post the announcement of weekly reminders for week. Since I don't have a TA, I probably won't get their bigger papers graded and turned around in a day like I did spring semester and this summer. But I'll get it done as soon as I can, and I think I've scheduled the bigger papers where it will be okay. I'm letting myself off the hook with this because I know of no other professor who turns papers around in a day.
So, I am busy.
I am scheduled within an inch of my life.
Because of this I'm a little worried about hiccups- small things could have big impacts if they mess up. For example, the grad student I hired to come let Nehi out (she's crate trained) during the day quit with 3 days notice, so I'm scrambling a bit with that. I also have been horribly sick this past week so working when I just wanted to sleep was hard. When it's just you everything is harder. But I'm working on it.

I've tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, of things I really have to focus on, that matters, and what doesn't. Certainly in my personal life, the events of this summer made that easy. People who revealed themselves to be fair weather friends were easily cut from my life. If you can't be there for me during a crisis, then I don't need you.
I do feel better about myself than I have in a long time. I proved to myself that I could survive anything. I can do anything. I had forgotten that. I believe in myself again. And I am happy with myself. I have found my balance.
This is not to say things are always easy.
I love teaching high school, and am enjoying my school and my students. But I miss working from home. I miss spending most of my time with Nehi. I miss the flexibility of that schedule. I am sure I will miss participating in department events at my university that I won't have time for. I will miss submitting to conferences and participating in conferences I've attended for years but can't just now. I'm just going to one this year, #Kzoo17, because I can't afford more money-wise and I can't afford the time off from my teaching job.  I will admit that while this workload is a lot, the trade off is I am not worried about money, which I find has eliminated a lot of other stresses I had last year.

And all of this brings me to my hiatus.

I love Twitter and blogging. I love that  people who have read my blog about my grad school and dissertating experience have found it helpful. I love the community of Twitter, the sharing of ideas, the networking, the people. But this summer I realized a couple of things. The first is, I was looking to social media for answers, and help, and support that I needed, and I realized this summer that the help I needed was not to be found on social media. Not because people aren't nice or interested. But everyone has their own lives, their own priorities, their own stuff. I needed to find my own answers. My own support. And since I don't have a face to face support network I needed to be that for myself. This means I have to put myself first because no one else is.
Also, others have said this before, but Tweeting, blogging, a social media presence, requires a certain environment, a privilege in your life to be able to do it and do it well. I don't believe either is something you can dip your toe in and have it be meaningful. It's time consuming. It takes daily work to cultivate these conversations and relationships, to be aware of the ongoing conversations, to read all the references, the comments, the posts. And I just don't have that time right now.

I'm not deleting accounts or anything.
I get emails when people message me, and I appreciate those of you who have reached out to check on me.
I have a roundtable at #Kzoo with a deadline in September, so I've posted reminders to the CFP. I'm sure when #Kzoo17 does roll around I'll be tweeting and sharing as conference time allows.
But for now I need to focus on balancing my multiple jobs and workloads and on making sure I get through this all.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

My Revision Plan and Working My Way Through Failure

It's 21 July.
I return to my high school teaching job in two weeks.
I've on version four of my revision plan.
It's been a rough summer.
I now realize that out of my 333 page dissertation (not including bibliography/appendices and feel free to insert a joke here about being half a devil) that I can use maybe (maybe) 5 pages. There's a small bit about Owain Glyndŵr from 1 Henry IV and Macbeth that I can use. The close reading on Satan and animals in Paradise Lost is okay. The rest is crap.

Kind of.

The fact is most of the work I did on devil texts in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to the Restoration will now be relegated to a single sentence in an introduction or explanatory footnotes that show I know this other stuff exists. So the work was valuable. But valuable in the "learn how to do long division and show your work so you can later do it in your head" way.

I was advised back in June that the dissertation did not require revision, it required a complete re-visioning of the topic.
I admit that I was not sure what this meant exactly or what this would look like.
But I honestly did not want to look stupid by asking. I already felt stupid enough.

At first I thought that I could just rearrange the dissertation thematically and change some things.
But then a committee member met with me and just kept asking "what are you arguing?" And as I struggled to answer that question (ashamedly), I realized it was because the dissertation did not have one. There was no clear argument, not in the dissertation as a whole, and not in the individual chapters.

Now, I think I now understand why.
A key scholar for me is Jeffrey Burton Russell and his lifetime of work on the devil. But here's the problem. While my dissertation could be considered interdisciplinary, I am an English PhD. So using a historian's work as my model was a foundational issue. Russell lists just about every appearance of the devil in history, tracing the timeline. And my dissertation did the same thing. The problem is that's not analysis. That's not an argument. I also stated that I was applying Dundes' psychoanalytical, folkloric methodology. The problem here was that I was using his later career case studies as a model and that was untenable for an English dissertation.
So my methodological foundation was flawed and the rest just compounded these initial issues.

I do believe in interdisciplinary work. I do believe in applying folkloric studies more to English literature. I do believe in challenging periodization.
But I realized too that these are the arguments of a lifetime.
I don't have to make them all in the dissertation.
This is what academic careers are for. I literally have enough material from my diss research to last years, decades. 
I forgot a key lesson:

Dissertations are marathons not sprints.

But it's hard to realize that the dissertation you spent a year working, and almost ten years thinking about and researching is crap and needs to be completely thrown out. It's the equivalent of tossing years of possessions and letting go of all the emotional baggage that goes with that (which incidentally I've also been doing the last few years).

Now, with almost two months of hindsight, I think I have some better perspective.
The first thought is just how little higher ed or graduate education prepares you for these types of setbacks. I got a lot of supporting noises from people this summer. I received little real, practical, "here's where you go from here, you can do this" help. In some ways I get it, part of this process is PROVING you have an argument, PROVING you can do this, that you have a contribution to the field. So someone can't hand that to you. But I have no problems telling you that I was not only depressed this summer but has initially had  serious thoughts of self-harm. 
And no one noticed.
I did not ask for help because honestly, I didn't think there was any help to be had.
"You'll be fine" from friends did not cut it. And as grateful as I was for my social media support network, it was just not the same as a face to face support network, which I don't have. 
As with so much with grad school, I had to find my own way through and it took most of the last two months to do it. Last week I almost lost all the ground and confidence I thought I had regained. Once I dumped the thematic idea of revision not re-vision, I worked on a revision plan I thought showed  growth. It did not. In any way. And I spent most of that day crying in my office, thinking I had obviously proven I couldn't do this, so I should just make my peace with the fact that I was a high school teacher and that was it. When I said that because of all of this I had a hard time seeing any future I heard I'm sorry you feel that way.

I didn't mean so much that I didn't think I HAD a future, or even that I don't think I could BE a professor, I meant more that after the last year, of believing one thing and reality being something else, it just seemed better not to set goals. Or deadlines. Or expectations.

When you're drowning, it's really hard to remember that you know how to swim. 
I mean, I thought I was graduating. I applied to teaching jobs out of state under this assumption. I was planning a move out of state.  I took a full time job under that assumption. I envisioned a whole life that was "after the PhD" and what that looked like. I successfully met with book editors about #DevilDiss. On a personal note, I was bragging to everyone about graduating. People made travel plans. I was already looking so far beyond the defense...
And all of this contributed to just how hard the news that I would not be defending and graduating hit me.
Don't get me wrong, at this point, I do not disagree with a single note or piece of feedback about the dissertation. I get it. But that's a mind thing. And much of the above is not.

We write in the abstract a lot about how isolating a PhD program can be, and dissertating in particular, is- you're not on campus as much, you're working all the time, you're sitting at your desk, staring at a screen. But I don't think we talk enough about what this isolation looks like in reality. What the short and long-term effects are. 
So what does all this mean?
  • It means I return to my full time high school teaching job in two weeks.
  • It means I'm spending those two weeks trying to finish my revision plan. Which I feel good about.
    • Originally, these were all the works in the diss (highlighted). Now it only includes the unhighlighted works.
    • The dissertation has an overarching argument and each chapter does too.
      • This meant cutting a proposed chapter on pamphlets, which made me sad because the independent research I did on the devil in pamphlets is some of the most original work and I am really proud of it. But it doesn't fit the argument of the dissertation.
    • The current set of texts is lean, and hopefully, more focused.
      • This next week the goal is take this working document and expand it into the revision plan.
      • I feel good about the focus on the primary texts and the scholarship, but am nervous about having to write a paragraph for each that shows the heavy analytical lifting of that chapter without having written anything.
  • I'm also trying to focus on the fact that the things I've had to cut from the dissertation will make good future projects and ideas. I'm trying to see the dissertation as the beginning of a career and not an end point.
    • I'd like to rework the pamphlet stuff and publish it because I do think it's original and valuable work.
    • I'd like to revisit some of these texts through a folkloric lens.
    • I think in another form the material in my original dissertation in a reworked form would make a good encyclopedia of every devil appearance in English popular literature.
So I guess you could say that I have made my peace this summer with where I am. 
And I have a rough idea of how I'll work this school year juggling everything. It helps (I guess) that I can't afford any conferences except Kzoo in the spring which I'm splurging on. So there's focus. I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to get some medieval and early modern publications on a CV that is currently folklore and pop-culture heavy.

But I'm not making any plans. I'm not thinking- oh I'll finish this by...
Or this time next year...
Or I'm aiming for X... 
Or even entertaining any ideas about defense or graduation.
In short,
I can tell you that this point my eventual defense and graduation will not be a celebration. I do not plan on inviting anyone. At this point I wouldn't even tell anyone. I would only tell people once it was done. Because I honestly...I can't go through this again.
I would be grateful just to be done. Because as much as I see the notes, and have worked hard to fix them, and want the work to be done, I just need to be done.
I just need to survive. Get through. Finish.
So that's where I am.
Feel free to share any brilliant or inspirational ideas for getting through.

Prepping for the School Year Fall 2016 Edition

Each summer I spend a lot of time reflecting not only on the past year but on new steps or tactics for the new year.
This year will be a bit different, and a bit of a challenge. I am still TAing for UNM, teaching the online Early Shakespeare class I built this past spring. But I'm also teaching high school full time. And completely rewriting my dissertation. This seems daunting. Until I realize for two years I taught high school full time, was department chair, taught at the local community college, taught online, and still presented at conferences and published. So I can do this.
It's just gonna suck.

My routines, my organization will be a big help.
But admit that when I looked at my online Early Shakespeare class I did look at the work load. In the end of semester evaluations some students said they thought the practice assignments were "high-schooly" and "busy work." Pedagogically I have them because they are low-stakes practice assignments for the skills needed for the larger assignments. But I get that a lot of students take online classes because they are busy, working, parents, and juggling a lot. So I went in and made most of those assignments optional. They'll count as extra credit under participation. I didn't change the assignments but I added language about why I made them and thought they were important.
I guiding question I think is important to ask about any class we teach is- what are we fighting over? And is the fight worth it?
Do I think these practice assignments are valuable? Yes, it's why they're there.
Is it worth fighting over? No.
So students that do them will do better. And I've told them that.
But I will not spend time fighting with students over it.

The syllabus scavenger hunt seemed to work really well this summer, so I added it to the fall class.
The scavenger hunt seemed to fix a lot of the "it's in the syllabus" questions we all struggle with. But I'm always looking for improvements, so I wrote this Note About Our Syllabus.
The more I teach the more important I think it is that we not only present things to our students but that we're more transparent about WHY we do the things we do.

In addition, I've added language to the syllabus about the required tech. I don't require anything weird or unusual but there were a couple of issues that came up last spring, so honestly this is CYA language now.

I'm also reading Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School by Starr Sackstein.

Now, the longer I teach, the more I back away from grades. This summer I moved a lot of grades to just Complete/Incomplete and told the students that the feedback was important. 
I much rather just give feedback on papers not grades.
I tried a couple of years ago to go gradeless. I gave students the option to not receive grades throughout the semester, just check ins and feedback, and then a well-discussed final grade. 

No one did it.

I get it, knowing where you stand may not be great but it is comforting and it is known. But I like new ideas, so I'm reading this to see if there are ideas I can work into my classes as they are now.

BUT, I also had an interesting thought on Twitter based on a tweet by JJ Cohen.

So I joking made the statement that my new amended grading policy would only be stickers, gifs, and feedback.
Was a total joke.
But IF we give grades, for various reasons, mostly our and our students' comfort, is there a way to CHANGE how we give them and more importantly, how they are received? Most of us see grades as a form of feedback. But I think often students see them, have negative reactions, and this then shades their work and progress moving forward.
I woke up the next morning and wondered what this would look like. I couldn't get the thought out of my head. So I made this.
Now, I have no idea if this would work. Some people have less of a sense of humor than me I've found. In fact last semester a student complained about my use of gifs and memes in the course. So there's no way I'd make this required. But I am thinking about making it an option.
Students would make their own grid, supply how they want their grade, and then I'd give feedback.
Maybe it works. Maybe not. We'll see.

So I know it's a few weeks, for some of you a month, before you go back to school or are thinking about prepping for the new semester.
But I wanted to share some things:

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Writer's Notebooks

When I first started teaching in Brooklyn in September 2001 one of the first teaching professional development workshops I attended was for Writer's Notebooks. I tried it with my students, but one more notebook, with state testing, and underperforming students with little support at home, and little to no money for extra notebooks, it was just one more thing and I admit when it became difficult, I dropped it in lieu of other resources.

But I was hooked. The artistic approach, the fact that it was a step away from journaling and focusing on often negative experiences, the scrapbook option, and the encouragement to copy and paste things into it and then respond to these things, find inspiration in them, all of this appealed to me.

So since 2001, I have kept writer's notebooks.
Some are very focused, every page filled, very productive. Other ones I've abandoned with pages half-empty when I just felt like I needed a new start. I prefer the black, blank artist spiral notebooks because so  much of my notebooks have a scrapbook feel, but I've used others. One key feature of the writer's notebook though is making it your own which I do mostly by decorating my covers.

In my high school classroom I use interactive notebooks which I love and I find that there's a lot of overlap in how I approach them both. The personalization, the ownership of the materials, and the arts and craft approach. In fact sometimes students complain about doing art in English class. But I think it's good to stretch them. I tell them (much like my Mom used to say with vegetables) that they don't have to like it but they have to TRY it.

I'm currently on #23 in fifteen years (seen here with the original book we were given at the PD workshop). My new favorite thing is to use self-created Avery stickers to decorate my books (these look funny because I was out of black toner so I had to sub in blue and everything printed funny for weeks).
Yesterday a few Twitter colleagues were posting about their attempts at or revisions of the new bullet journal approach. I think the analog push is a little over-the-top, but that's fine. I've looked at it and it's a little too rigid for me. For myself I know that not sticking to the rigid pages and table of contents would make me feel bad and I'd feel like I had to redo the whole thing.
Plus, between my filo-fax and writer's notebook they performed these same functions.
I use the filo-fax to track day-to-day to do, appointments, and writing deadlines, that sort of things. I used to use and LOVED James Burke's Teacher Daybook as it was a planner and lesson planner in one, so was perfect for tracking everything. Plus it was spiraled. So pretty much perfect in every way. But despite the fact that they discontinued the paper Teacher Daybook a few years ago, a lot of the resources that were in it are available online, and I still use a lot of them.

I use my writer's notebook for a lot of reasons and uses. I journal some in it, although I try to keep it more positive and not a place to just complain because I do believe that focus can become self-fulfilling. I do use tabs to mark pages I reference a lot like budget, books to read, wish list, and dissertation to do.

Here are some of my sample pages from the writer's notebook I'm in now:
This page shows brainstorming I had in reaction to Kevin Gannon's semester blogging project. These pages helped me think through how I could adapt it, and apply it in my early Shakespeare class.
These pages are color coded, as much of my work is. I found out this summer I would not be defending my dissertation this summer as I thought so these were some initial notes trying to make sense of a new timeline. It's not (probably) what I'll end up doing or what is approved, but in those first days trying to apply some order was helpful and comforting.
I wrote a chapter for an edited collection on superheroes. My chapter argues that Captain America is a proletariat hero. I wrote it last summer and when Avengers came out I had to add an addendum. When Civil War came out, I had to add a small bit at the end of the chapter as well. Here are my notes, my ticker, and the poster image. My writer's notebooks end up very scrapbookey, it's one of the things I love best about it.
Back in May there was a conversation on Twitter about medieval(ist) tattoos which became a conversation about how medieval narratives are written on the body. I wrote a blog post about it and we submitted a roundtable proposal for #Kzoo17 on Medieval(ist) Bodies and Boundaries which was accepted and I'm very excited about.

Here are my initial thoughts on what I'd present on. The St. Catherine is a revisit/later addition. And that's one of the things I love best about the writer's notebook approach-- that a main component is to constantly revisit your writing, to add and comment on it in different colors and with fresh eyes. Since the #Kzoo17 is a roundtable it will be a shorter piece than a normal conference paper. So I may gesture to the other saints, but think I want to focus on how female saints' stories are written on their bodies through torture and how to connect this to how women now use tattoos as agency.
Since Catherine is my patron saint, and confirmation name, I think I'll focus on her. I chose her because she wins through argument, which I always loved, and takes everything thrown at her. Hence the addition of her on these pages. I'm sure I'll revisit it again between now and then and have more to add as I get closer to actually writing the paper and presentation for the roundtable.

Because I have a photographic memory I can easily remember where something is in 23 notebooks because I remember what the cover looked like and what the page looked like so it's still easy for me to find things if I need to go back to old notebooks for reference.

As I shared on Twitter, I tend to view my filofax and writer's notebook as HERE AND NOW organizing. I use Google Calendar for long term, recurring reminders like bills. But I use other forms of organization as well:
  • I keep my conference papers, dissertation drafts, and all my teaching resources in Google Docs.
    • I copy and rename each semester so it's easy to track.
    • This also makes things easy to share resources with students and colleagues.
    • Once I send a dissertation chapter off for approval/editing I download it to Dropbox and share that with the date in the title.
  • I store syllabus ideas (not yet taught) and old syllabus from classes I've taken in One Note.
  • I also use One Note for more long term planning- future articles, books, etc.
    • I tend to think of One Note as more of an archive, there if I need it but not commonly used.
I wish I could integrate writer's notebooks into classes more. I've tried (and failed) several times. The one time it kind of worked was when I taught a first year composition class that was paired with an acting class. They used it for both, and I used it to encourage their creative side and to apply this to their writing. Usually this class was made up of fine arts majors, specifically theatre majors and I think this would have worked better if this class had that demographic. But due to low enrollment, this class was not restricted and was instead closer to a normal first year composition class.
I think part of the reason it worked as well as it did was because we used them in conjunction with my use of Lynda Barry's Syllabus. Which I continue to think about how to work into classes and my approach. I think using this and samples form my own writer's notebooks helped them to "see" what I was looking for.

Googling writer's notebooks will give you a lot resources but here are some of the links I like:
If you're able to integrate them into either your high school or college classes, I'd love to hear how you use them and your successes, failures, or improvements!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Changing How I (Re)Write for the Dissertation

I've been thinking a lot the last few weeks not just about what I write but about how I write.

I've refocused or rather reclarified that my work is not Milton work, or medieval work, or early modern work, but rather applies a folkloric lens to all of these things. Reexamines and reconsiders the folkloric figures within these texts and the cultural work they do, how they are the vehicle for the fears, anxieties, and desires of the folk at any given historical and cultural moment.

This clarification has helped me focus as I consider my dissertation rewrite on the fact that it is not a Milton dissertation but a Devil dissertation.
I've written before that I've struggled with this issue, and I thought I had fixed this with the help of using my hashtag (#DevilDiss) to focus but apparently not.

So in thinking about the how I write I have to consider what processes I need to strip away because they distract from the product, the goal, of the writing. That being said, I have a lot of things that work for me that I continue to use.

I am a visual person so I still find sketching and planning ideas out on my office whiteboard in different colors very helpful.
For similar reasons I find color coding notes, highlighting, and even colored paper drafts helpful. It helps if I can tell just by looking at something WHAT it is. 
My dissertation notes are in blue so my pen ink is blue, my Post-Its are blue, my main highlighter is blue. This may seem silly. Except I do not have the luxury of just writing my dissertation. I also have to teach my classes for UNM and teach high school. 
I'm not currently working on any articles for publication, and cannot really afford to attend conferences so I don't have other projects I'm working on but in the past color coding has helped me track all of these projects.

One of the first things I had to do in approaching this re-vision of the dissertation was reread, cut, and start thinking about reorganizing.
So I cut.
And as I read it seemed to me that the argument I wanted to make would most clearly be made according to themes. So that was how I roughly approached the rereading, using color coding to mark passages according to theme (visual rhetoric, religious Others, women, rebellion). This also allowed me to cut anything that didn't contribute to these arguments.
Once this was done I copied and pasted everything into new Google Docs. Then I printed them out. And for the last couple of weeks I've been rereading, and rewriting, these documents.  
I find myself in a bit of a chicken-egg situation.
I need to figure out how I'm preconceiving the dissertation, while not locking myself into ideas. But I don't know how to reconceptualize and revision the dissertation UNLESS I write out the argument, reshape it, throw stuff out. In a lot of ways this way be a lot of work for nothing. I won't know if something works or doesn't until I do it, and if it doesn't then I have spent a lot of time on useless work.
I have had a committee member very helpfully point out a couple of things I'm keeping in mind. One was that they sat down with me and went through sample chapters with me, showing me models of what they thought would help, footnotes, intros, that type of thing. They also showed me the outline feature in Word.
I don't know how I never knew about this, but it's this super cool tool (under View, Outline) that shows you the first line of every paragraph. It's a great way to check that your topic sentence is making an argument. For me this was the main thing I have to fix with the dissertation-- arguing not listing or describing so this is very helpful. Several people on Twitter have also shared the idea of reverse outlining which I'd never heard of but am looking forward to using once I finish reworking.

Having samples to look at is also helpful. While it won't be an exact model, it does help. I have another meeting in a couple of weeks and I hope to share some rough work to see if I'm on the right track.

I do not have a writing group. I admit to getting a bit pissy when people suggest this as an end all, be all answer. One, it assumes people all make friends, have cohort, have access, social skills to have these groups. Not all of us do. But I am reaching the point where I do need some feedback on what I'm doing, so I'm struggling a bit with that. I have had a couple of people offer to read some preliminary work, which is helpful but I do think I need some more long term, sustained help. But I'm trying to think of different ways to work through this.

For the first three drafts of my dissertation I kept notebooks. I divided these notebooks into chapter sections and then used them to track ideas, jot down notes about callbacks and throughlines.
I felt as though these notebooks were really helpful. I made notes, I printed out images that I found helpful. I could outline arguments and subtopics for reference so I can track things through.
But while they were helpful for making notes about content they were not super helpful for helping with argument. So I'm super conscious of that as I use my new notebook. I'm still using it to track things, and scrapbook ideas, and outline arguments, but I am more focused on the argument.
What I've ended up using so far is a combination of approaches-- a new notebook (still divided by chapters), a working outline of chapters and subtopics, color coded timelines to track primary texts, legal pads for writing insert notes, and my color coded printed draft (we're on pink because this is the second go around with this re-visioning).
As I reread and re-vision and rewrite I plan on adding the key secondary scholarship to this (in a different color of course) so I can make sure that I'm engaging in what I should be.

I'm using many of my familiar habits and tools in new ways. And it's one thing that I think maybe we don't talk about enough. Lots of people say that for most people the dissertation is the largest project they've ever undertaken. And it is for me.

I guess what  has really struck me this last month is how DIFFERENT writing this is from other things I've written. I've shared before how I was taught to write conference papers as a way to focus on MY argument, and then add secondary scholarship to turn it into an article. I've used blog posts --> book chapters in a similar way. This has always helped me make sure my argument was the focus and didn't get lost or buried. But this was how I tried to write the first three drafts of the dissertation and this process failed me.

For me trying to apply this shorter writing approach to the bigger project just didn't work. I'm not sure exactly why but I think I became overwhelmed with trying to prove I'd read everything I was supposed to. With inserting sources. With interacting with some and not others. Any dissertation has a huge scope, but by attempting a chronological history of the devil from the 10th century to the 17th made it bloated and beyond enormous. And I lacked the tools for sorting through, organizing, and creating an argument from all of this information. For me the chronology was also weak because I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist. So the first chapter, my foundational chapter, had huge holes and weaknesses because while I was examining devil figures in Anglo-Saxon texts, me not being an Anglo-Saxonist weakened an already weak argument. There are also issues with trying to apply a historicist lens to these texts, or make arguments about popular literature, the list goes on and on. So one reason for the switch to a thematic approach to chapters, and then building the argument within those chapters chronologically is that it fixes a lot of the original, inherent weaknesses in my argument by both eliminating them and folding them into chapters that work better.
So I sidestep problematic arguments about Grendel as devil (he totally is thought) and instead just focus on the actual devils that appear in Juliana, Guthlac, and Christ and Satan, and Genesis. I drop arguments about what is and is not popular literature and instead frame the texts I use as case studies. Hopefully too showing how female saints interact with the devil from the Anglo-Saxon period up through Margery Kempe shows a throughline in the tradition.

There are of course possible pitfalls to this approach, and not every one is a fan. Correlation does not imply causation. I have to be careful too of applying patterns where there are none. And as one committee member said, the thematic approach is harder to write. All that being said, this is where I'm taking it for now because as an approach it eliminates a lot of core issues. I really believe this thematic, versus chronological, approach is better.
But even if it's not, I'm still rewriting to focus on argument, which could then be rearranged. It's really about what my committee will approve. 
But we'll see.

So I'm trying new approaches, and trying to use tools that I have used in the past in new ways to try and make sense of all of this.

While this is helpful and I feel making progress, I also admit to still feeling very lost. Because I have lost all confidence that I know what I'm doing, that my content and/or writing is any good. While I am trying to feel confident that my argument and approach is valid, I don't know it is.

On top of all of, well everything, the last almost month, is the very real fact that I cannot see my future anymore.
A year, six months, even three months ago I had a very clear idea of what I was doing. I was teaching high school to pay bills while I re-applied for college jobs. I was presenting at conferences. I was branding myself. I was making me and my work known. I had a publication plan. While much was uncertain, the steps I was taking, and what I was working towards was not.

I was initially told that there was no way I could go on the job market this year and I admit while this should be the thing that worries me most (I can't rewrite this in a year? Two? I have two years of limbo to look forward to?) it's not. It no longer worries me because I cannot see anything in front of me. I cannot see any future for me. I can't see past 5 August when I return to my high school teaching job. I have no idea what my future holds, what steps I need to take, or what work needs to be done. I just have no idea. About anything.
In some ways letting go of any concerns about deadlines is freeing. I can focus on the work I'm trying to do rather than tying myself into knots trying to do something by a certain time. But it's mostly terrifying. Terrifying because I worry that the reason I cannot see my future, my way out, is because I don't have one.
But for now I'm just trying to put one foot in front of the other until I no longer have to think about putting one foot in front of the other.