Monday, July 30, 2012

Blocker Building

(This is Stop #9 in the Texas A&M Building Writing Tour, my attempt to motivate myself on my dissertation by writing in every campus building before I graduate.)  

This week’s writing session in Blocker was all about accountability. Last week, I confessed to my writing group that I’d been in rather a rut with my writing and research. I had been so focused on getting my proposal and IRB documents approved, that I didn’t know what to do with myself after those were done. I’ve been piddling around, working a little on one thing, then a little on another, with no plan whatsoever. My writing streak now stands at 205 days, but half of my recent sessions have been completely useless. 

So, when a new friend from my writing group offered his services as an accountability partner, how could I refuse? Refusal would prove that I like whining about being completely unproductive, but am unwilling to do anything about it. 

So, we scheduled a meeting, showed up, and talked through my overwhelming pile of articles/projects/tasks. We decided a reasonable goal would be to write at least 2 hours per day, alternating days between my systematic review article and my mixed methods research study. He suggested taking weekends off, but I told him I was too immature and untrustworthy for that—taking a weekend off would derail me completely.

On Monday, I am supposed to email him my writing log, and tell him I completed several short but important dissertation-related tasks. If I don’t do them, or if I fail to write, I must confess. When I think of an accountability partner, I think of “tough love”—someone who is willing to chew me out and tell me to get my act together. However, I suspect that’s just what I will not get from Charles—if I don’t follow through on my writing commitments, he will probably say, “good job”, ask politely what happened, and trust that my own sense of shame will kick in and get me back on track. 

After our planning session, we wrote for 39 minutes in the first floor computer lab. For my photo, I considered the drink table by the entrance. (Drinks are not allowed, so everyone leaves them on a table, and picks them up when they leave. I put a green sticky note on my bottle, so I wouldn’t accidentally grab the wrong one. Apparently no one else worried about this, as I saw no other marked bottles). 

But no, I couldn’t waste my one photograph on a drink table. I had to photograph the lab itself, with my accountability partner Charles included for no extra charge. 

For the record, the Blocker building was the impetus behind my original building-writing goal, which was to finish my dissertation before A&M finished any new buildings. If you discover you are unlikely to reach a goal, it is always wise to forget the original goal, well before you fail to reach it, and replace it with a more reasonable goal…exactly what I’ve done. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Computing Services Center

Today’s writing session in the Computing Services Center is a bittersweet one. You see, this may be the last building writing session for my faithful Gateway computer.

A recent scare, followed by two unsuccessful attempts at upgrading the operating system to Windows 7, forced me to face an unwelcome truth: my laptop needed a major operation. Without a clean install of a new operating system, it would continue to go downhill, crashing more and more often. Eventually, there would be a crash so deep it would be unable to recover.

Before agreeing to any invasive procedure, a wise person calculates all options, weighing risk and reward. I calculated that by the time my dissertation was finished, Gateway would be 7 years old, far beyond the functional life expectancy for a laptop. At five, it’s already a senior citizen. So, instead of risking a catastrophic failure, possibly during the height of data collection and analysis, I decided to let it retire with dignity.

Trust me, I did not make this decision lightly. For five years, this computer has been my steadfast companion, sharing my joys and trials. It has been a solid workhorse, doing everything I asked and more. As my only computer, it has written math tests, class papers, my research proposal, and my IRB documents. With its stylus and flip-around tablet, it made scores of math videos for my students. It has stored hundreds of journal articles without complaint, never nagging me about when I was actually going to read them. It keeps running, even when filled with popcorn crumbs and cat hair. It has instilled in me valuable habits, like saving every two minutes and making multiple backups.

Yes, it has its little quirks, including the bright blue screen that pops up without warning, the annoying Windows Mail program (Windows Vista won’t run Outlook), and the sausage-shaped battery that runs along the back edge. Right now, these just don’t bother me much. The prospect of death or extended absence has a way of transforming aggravating habits into endearing character qualities.

Sadly, my trusty workhorse is being replaced by a slick, shiny, fast new steed. The Gateway will be retired to pasture, to spend its remaining years in leisure. Perhaps I will take it for a ride every once in a while, just to stretch its legs and recall old times. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t replace it with another tablet. This way, whenever I have the need to sign a letter, scribble out a math problem, or make a quick video, I can trot out the Gateway. Part-time work will not only make it feel useful, but will probably extend its life. Total inactivity almost never has good results. 

I must now move on, and focus on properly setting up and equipping my new laptop. So, I visited the Computing Services Center to pick up Microsoft Office Professional Suite, made available to students for an amazing price of $20. (Thank you, Texas A&M!) Perhaps there are advantages to spending a decade in grad school after all. For now, the software is just leased—if I leave the university, I must return it or face piracy charges. If I ever finish my dissertation and graduate, I will own it free and clear. I shouldn’t need any more motivation to graduate, but every little bit helps!

The lobby where I wrote. The gentleman who owned the office said no, there was no story behind the bird. He chose it simply because it was pretty. He was right! (But the hand sanitizer dispenser needs to move over a couple feet. Better to obscure a non-working water fountain than a pretty green bird!)

I know, I know, the rules say I'm only allowed one photo per building. But as far as I'm concerned, that only applies to photos of the building. So, here are some more....

My old friend and my new friend.

The Commons

(Posted nearly two weeks retroactively, because I was swamped with summer school and didn’t get around to removing the photo from my phone.)

Friday’s building was the Commons. I chose it because I was on a very tight schedule and needed a not-yet-written-in building close to a legal parking lot. In the summers, TAMU grants all permit-holders the privilege of parking in several close-in locations. So, I try to think of my $275 Lot 50 permit as a free tour pass, my ticket into places normally off limits to a lowly graduate student. The Southside Parking Garage is my favorite summer parking place, and the Commons is the closest non-dorm building.  

The Commons connects four dormitories, much like the crossbar of a letter H. In it are food outlets, mailboxes, and equipment for rest and recreation. Due to poor planning, I ate lunch on the road, instead of taste-testing the Commons food offerings. Eating there would have meant a difficult decision…do I try the Common Denominator grill (because it’s such a great name)?  Or do I try the Chick-Fil-A Express, to learn whether it has the same level of outstanding service as the freestanding Chick-Fil-A’s?

I may have to revisit the Commons after August. I suspect the Commons in Fall and the Commons in Summer are so drastically different that they really should count as separate buildings. Perhaps on my next visit, the sea of empty pool tables will be overrun by hordes of boisterous freshmen. Perhaps my next Commons writing session won’t be so quiet and peaceful that I could easily mistake my environment for a library instead of a dorm.

On this summer Friday, I found myself wishing for more time, as the Commons was a very pleasant place to write. I was rather proud of myself—instead of spending my writing session writing about the Commons, I spent it doing an initial database search and writing up my search terms and results. (Yes, finally, a building tour stop is filled with useful dissertation-related writing. Hooray!)