Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's time I participate in my own research study.

At this point, I cannot be sure of what my research project is. The reason for this uncertainty is that I do not yet have an approved research proposal on file with the Office of Graduate Studies. Of course, the only way to have a research proposal is to devote a large chunk of life to creating one, which means making some plans about the topic, creating a research design, and then trying to make a convincing argument that the project is both worthwhile and feasible. Thus I operate under the assumption that my research plan, or something very close to it, will eventually be approved. I try not to dwell on the possibility that either my committee or the OGS will laugh me out of the room for considering this topic, and that they will relegate my many pages of academic writing into their electronic round file, and tell me to either start over or give it up altogether.  
That said, I am reasonably certain that my project will involve encouraging students to set weekly goals, plan their study time, and then monitor themselves, recording whether the goals were met and the planned study sessions actually occurred, reflecting each week upon what went well, what didn’t go well, and how to improve their studying process.
Since both my own intuition and the scholarly research support the notion that goal-setting, planning, self-monitoring and reflection have the potential to improve achievement, wouldn’t it also make sense for me to do these things? How can I, in good conscience, conduct a research study asking students to set weekly goals and schedule their time without being willing to do so myself? The remarkable (and sad!) thing is that this thought did not occur to me before. I have, of course, known that I should set goals and subgoals and schedule my time, and I have occasionally made half-hearted attempts to do so. At some level, I have engaged in self-monitoring and reflection—I know myself well enough to know when I am not doing things well (as demonstrated by my tendency to duck around corners when I see a certain beloved colleague coming down the hall—I just know JoeMc will ask about my dissertation!)
But today was the first time I was struck by my parallel position to the students who will participate in my study, and by the utter hypocrisy of asking them to set goals and plan when I myself have so much room for improvement in that area.  
I now embark on a mission to create weekly action plans to accompany my good intentions, and then to write down how well I carry out those plans. So, well-wishing friends, I give you permission to quiz me about my planning and my follow-through. If I disappear from this blog for a while, you’ll probably know the answer!!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why writing is like running

1) It works best if you do it in small amounts regularly for a while before trying to do a large amount all at once.

2) Many find it helpful to keep a log of the activity, tracking hours spent or amount accomplished (counting miles or words, for example.)

3) Even those of us with no natural talent can do it.

4) Both are primarily solitary activities. Others can cheer us on our way, but if we need them to motivate us or keep us company, we probably won’t stick with it.

5) To be successful, you must do it even when you don’t want to.

6) If you make yourself do it even when you don’t want to, you may find that you occasionally enjoy it. 

7) Quantity helps a lot: Significant progress can be made simply by spending a large number of hours on the activity over a long period of time.

8) Quantity is not enough: To reach one’s potential requires a plan and a focus on quality.

9) Both require a long-term perspective….don’t expect instant gratification.

10) If you avoid the activity for a month, you will not be able to start where you left off, but you won’t have to start from zero either.

11) People who are good at it can make it look easy—but it’s not.

12) If you really want to do it, you must schedule it and protect that time as an important appointment.

13) Goals, like races and dissertations, are helpful to some, but not everyone needs them.

14) Technology is a nice tool, but it’s fun to occasionally leave it behind. So if it’s been a while since you’ve scribbled on a yellow pad or gone for a run without your Garmin, give it a try!   

Friday, June 24, 2011

Teacher knows best (or, Why am I so stubborn?)

Last week was a writing disaster. Though I had been honest in my intention to write daily, or at least nearly daily, I only wrote a couple of times, and during those times I was half asleep. I sent my confession and my nearly nonexistent writing log to my wonderful accountability partner, who encouraged me that I was not a total failure and assured me that I would make more progress when summer school was over. As pleasant as it is to hear such encouragement, I know that this is not the answer: if I wait until I have large blocks of time to write, I will never finish. I cannot count on a sabbatical or a summer off to be the salvation of my dissertation. I must find a way to work writing and research into my everyday life.

So, writing must become part of life…..not just an obstacle that must be overcome so that life can begin. I have adding a column to my writing log: “scheduled?” A “Yes” in the column means that I actually put my writing session on my calendar and showed up to write at the scheduled time. This is not some new, brilliant idea that just occurred to me. This is the first thing that Professor Goodson told us during my first writing workshop: Schedule your writing time and protect it! I have agreed in theory with the concept of scheduling and protecting my writing time, and I have occasionally pretended to do so, but the brutal truth is that I’ve never really done it. When I have scheduled myself to write, I have not protected that time as if it were an important appointment (which it is). Usually I haven’t even pretended to schedule it…I have given my research the leftovers of my time. When the other tasks of the day are done, I “try” to write. Didn’t Yoda say something about there being no “try”? This has resulted in a large number of low-quality writing minutes—instead of targeting my writing task to the most essential current need and focusing on that task with intensity, I often chose a writing task which would add 30 minutes to my writing log as painlessly as possible. Such writing would be fine occasionally, is certainly far better than nothing, and in fact has brought me well on my way to an approvable research proposal. But I am deceiving myself if I think continuing in this manner will produce anything of value.  

Why did I sing the praises of the writing workshops while ignoring the most important advice contained in them? Why did I think I was so special that I could do this my way? Why did I ignore the advice of the expert writers? My writing professor is not the only one who told me to schedule and protect my writing time—all the authors of the writing books say the same thing. I get frustrated when my math students ignore all my advice about how to succeed in their math classes—why do they ask me for advice if they don’t plan to follow it? If they do not have a history of succeeding in math, why do they think their method of studying for math will work better than the methods suggested by their instructor? Yet I am just like them.

I have occasionally considered commencing a blog, but it seemed a silly hobby for someone who has such a hard time getting herself to write. However, I have begun it in hopes that (1) a public commitment to become a productive writer will motivate me to become one, and (2) writing for fun, about writing, teaching, or life, will help me to overcome my distaste for writing and learn to actually enjoy it.

Now, off to bed. I must be up in the morning in time for my writing appointment!  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A blog is born

Yes, I just created a blog! What was I thinking? Do I actually think I have time for another hobby? No, I do not. I certainly do not need to add yet another activity that will divert precious time and energy from my work on my dissertation. However, it is my hope that this blog will do just the opposite--that it will help me to become what I have finally realized I must become:  a WRITER.

I have been keeping my writing log, and "trying" (whatever that means exactly) to write regularly. These efforts have resulted in significant progress during the last year. However, I have finally realized that they will not be enough--maybe if I keep pecking away at the research and writing, I will eventually do enough of both to graduate, but probably not. I need to completely change my mindset. I have wasted enough time lamenting that grad school is hard, and that I can't wait to finish the dissertation so that life can begin. No, life began a long time ago, and it is still going on now, grad school or no. Instead of waiting for this phase of life to finally be over, I must learn to embrace the process, the writing, and the research project.

This blog is part of an effort to do just that. I hope it will help to remind me just how blessed I am to have the opportunity to work on a PhD degree. This is the only dissertation I will write in my entire life, and I want to find joy in it--not just joy when it is finally done, but joy in watching it come to life, grow, change, and hopefully make some small contribution to the world. Through the process, I also need to grow--and in the right ways, not in increased negativity, frustration and whining.

So, well-wishing friends, please watch this space and feel free to give me a motivational kick in the rear whenever you feel I need it. Enjoy!