Wednesday, November 12, 2014

779 Research, Weeks 9 &10

I'm going to be sharing some notes here from my research into literary utopias and dystopias for coursework I'm working on at UW-M for my PhD. Why? Because it's the 21st century, baby, and otherwise all of this will just rattle off of the inside of my head or the walls of the library as I mumble words like "exegesis" and "hegemony" between the occasional forlorn, wordless wail. So gather 'round. Trust me, there's nothing out there in the rest of the internet except cat posters and Facebook invitations to parties in cities you don't live in.

Weeks 9 and 10: How Do I Even Finish This?

Until last week I was working under a cloud of pretty thick anxiety about how I was even going to be able to successfully complete the coursework left for the term in the time I had left. This term has gone by blindingly fast, despite the relentless workload, and the closer we rocket toward the term's end, the more panicky I had become about being able to execute two large term-projects in the remaining five weeks of class. 

Let me back up: there are a couple of factors at play here. 

1) I am a terrible multi-tasker. I can listen to an audiobook of a text while I commute or while I play video games with my son in order to accelerate my reading of a text or to keep using my brain while my body is required for things like washing dishes or folding laundry, but this is about the extent of what I can do. I can't, for example, write a lesson plan and listen to an audiobook at the same time, or read more than one text or draft more than one paper. I can't, for example, be listening to an audiobook of one text on my commute while reading a physical copy of a different text once I get where I'm going. The crosstalk is just too much; I lose focus instantly and details start to blend together. I've always been aware that I learn best when I could focus on a single task at a time.

2) I'm an incorrigible perfectionist and completist. I abhor "skimming" or "speed reading" texts, and I'd prefer foregoing meals or sleep in order to be assured that I haven't missed some important element of a text I'm supposed to read and understand. This is something new for graduate school. I was not like this in undergrad.

3) PhD coursework is fundamentally incompatible with these two characteristics. It frequently utilizes texts that are multi-dimensional, methodologically dense, and abstract. These texts defy a "complete" reading, in other words, and often repeated readings only further expose how impossible they are to encapsulate. Also, the texts we encounter are typically from a very different historical period than my own, and their interpretive history is often as deep and conflicted as their meaning. These texts are set into a reading schedule with a tempo that borders on the absurd. I've read, for example, five entire books in the last ten days, and half again as many loose theoretical and critical texts in the form of printed one-off articles. This is about as fast as my body will allow me to read, and I cannot do it indefinitely. Eye strain, postural stiffness and pain, and sheer exhaustion from too little sleep, too much driving, and too much caffeine will eventually catch up with me. But now I'm getting away from the point, which is simply this: the course readings aren't meant to be read in a binge-y, completist way and the format favors skimmers and multi-taskers, neither of which describe me as a scholar.

So what am I supposed to do? Crawl into the floor of my closet and pretend the end of the term isn't barreling at me faster than I can keep up? Okay, done. NOW what am I supposed to do?

Fortunately, one of my instructors took pity on us poor hopeless scholars and saw fit to remove a book from the reading list we had left, and I knew, before class was even over, how I was going to make all of this work. There were five books remaining between both classes for the rest of the term. Which I wouldn't even blink at normally, but were plenty worrisome considering I was expected to read them while also writing and creating two extensive research projects that need to be started as soon as possible. I knew that if I postponed my research for one more week I could buy myself enough time to finish all five novels and their associated critical readings in one week-long binge. Unhealthy? You should see the bags under my eyes. Sub-optimal learning experience? Eh, to some extent. Bellamy's Looking Backward and Wharton's House of Mirth didn't stick very hard in my consciousness, but it's difficult to say whether it's because I was reading them the way competitive eaters inhale hotdogs or because they just weren't all that memorable or relevant to my work. In either case, I've made my play to "defeat the reading list," which I'm coming to realize is a standard unspoken structural hurdle PhD students are expected to clear each term, and now I've got most of five weeks left to complete the two projects I'm working on. This still terrifies me, make no mistake: I'm very nervous that I've waited too long to start them and I probably couldn't do these subjects adequate justice if I had ten weeks left to work on them, but at least now I can see some path to the end of this sequence of coursework.

(On a related note, this is my 700th blog post! Holy smokes!)

No comments: