Post-#AcWriMo

Did everyone survive #AcWriMo? Did everyone know that they were inadvertently doing #AcWriMo and then someone mentioned it in their staff common room and they nodded along and said “oh yes, I am totally doing #AcWriMo” and then rushed to check what #AcWriMo was and signed up convinced that “this time, I am going to make it”?

I signed up for #AcWriMo only three days after it had started, so I have to say, I was not told by a colleague about it and then lied about doing it as the intro paragraph suggests. I did do it until the end – but I have to confess I have not gone back to the original website to introduce my results and kiss my biceps in the process for having achieved my objectives. I could have, but I was too lazy to do so. I went back to the list I had prepared in my notebook on the same day I signed up for it, saw that I achieved my minimum requirements, and then forgot about it. The job is done, so to speak, so why bother procrastinating over stats.

It was a good month for academic writing from a personal perspective, as the second day of December I submitted a substantial piece of the chapter I am writing. Supervisors were happy with it, and as usual, okay’d me to go ahead and just keep writing. I was also involved in two presentations, which I had to prepare specifically. Whilst the chapter is roughly about 8,000 words at the moment (with bibliography and all the footnotes, which means the actual text is probably no more than 6,000), the two presentations piled up to a total of 5,000 words. The total for November, then, is around 13k. I am happy with that. That was the whole point of #AcWriMo in essence: to write like there was no December.

The problem is, there IS a December. And just because you have writing your body weight in words for an entire month, that doesn’t grant you permission to stop writing on the first of December until the next marathon begins. I mean, you can. But it sort of defeats the purpose of it, much like losing to the bottom teams of a league due to lack of effort defeats the purpose of beating the top teams in epic battles.

I find it hard, however, to motivate myself to write after a big write-a-thon. With all the effort that surviving November took, and the good feedback that my supervisors have given me about my work, my body’s natural reaction is to bask on the smugness of success, and find good reasons not to do any work. “Oh, but I wrote 8,000 words in November, leave me alone”, my brain cries. “Even if I don’t write a single word for the next three weeks, I will still have an average of 4,000 words in a month”, well yes, brain, but this is not how it works. This only leads to guilt trips, brain, and you know this.

So two days ago, after having taken many, many days off, I decided to break the vicious circle of smugness, and started writing again. I am not sure I am succeeding at not “basking too much” on my smugness, but at least opening the document for a couple of hours, forcing myself to look at it and get the ideas flowing, I am doing better than not looking at it at all. Between the post-#AcWriMo deflation and the Christmas lull, I have made it into a really lazy December, so baby steps to correct that attitude is the best I can do right now. So that #AcWriMo actually serves a purpose and I don’t lose any points/words against bottom placed teams/non-Twitter frenzied academic writing branded months.

So that’s the plan for now!

Challenging one’s ideas

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in my home turf in Glasgow. It was a great opportunity to meet new scholars, renew and update my connections with scholars I already knew, and enjoy the terrible weather that G-town was putting out for us (“no, no, it’s not a gale force wind, this is just your average morning air, I promise!”). This was also my last chance to hang out with fellow Catalan scholars before the big move to Australia – next year is looking like a Skype videoconference presentation for me.

This was a much different experience to the other two conferences I attended in Manchester and Cork. First of all because, despite the fact I was not necessarily involved in the organisation of the event, being the only presenter from Glasgow, I took up host duties, like ensuring that the IT was working, giving general directions, and being the chair to two panels, which forced me to do something I rarely do in presentations – ask insightful questions! Second, because my presentation was slightly different than last year. Last year everyone loved my paper and there were no critical comments, only encouragement to talk more about the subject. This gave me an unrealistic sense of self-worth that was to be shattered only several months after, when the review of the article on which my presentation was based came back with tones of petty commentaries and a rejection note. But the presentation in itself was great, only it was almost a bucolic scenario that it took a while to get out from.

My presentation this year went well again, but I included some stronger, challenging ideas, mostly the product of knowing my topic better and being able to have a stance on it, and I knew that the way in which I chose to portray my findings and arguments could be contentious. And bang, they were. At question time, the initial questions were like last year’s: non-offensive, tell-me-more style. Then someone asked a question that critiqued the basis of my argument. Which is fair enough, there is not one size fits all when it comes to studying culture and literature: you are forced to take a ‘partisan’ position, and I am aware of that. His views were confronting mine, of course, but it was good for my development to attempt to counterbalance his point. I had to admit to the audience that he was right – because he was, to a certain extent. I felt very much challenged, but within a positive environment: it wasn’t as if he had stood up just to destroy my presentation. I thanked him and we moved on.

Later at lunch, he came to apologise for having put me in the spot, his argument being that he finds that “some of these conferences ask very bland questions, and I wanted to spark some saucy debate”. I knew it was all done in good spirits, and I wasn’t expecting an apology, but I suppose this is good, just to make sure that I took the question and the challenge in the right way. It is also good to keep up the academic relationship, as he belongs to my institution and he is a likely candidate to be my internal examiner. I spoke to my supervisor at lunch, and I told her that I thought the challenge was very positive, on the basis that now I know where he is at, theory-wise, so I can build my methodology chapter more mindfully, making sure I do not take things for granted, and that my arguments are convincing. My supervisor even said “you could come up with a particular terminology for this field based on a critique of the current methodology, which will give additional impact to your thesis”. This is somehow what I plan on doing, although I seriously doubt my terminology will change the world of Translation Studies – but without this challenge, I wouldn’t have thought of coming up with different, more well-rounded methodology.

Since that conference, I have been immersed in writing a chapter of the thesis that has little to do with this terminology, but I am coming up towards the moment in which I need to build the theoretical background in which my argument is based. And I look forward to developing my new, challenged ideas in an environment in which they can grow. And I can then expose them to the public again, and get them challenged, and move on from then.

Ps. I survived #AcWriMo with a whooping 8,000 words. But that’s material for another post!

Ode to the little things

I have been really busy in the last two weeks. I was in charge of organising the Careers Week at my school, which was a very rewarding experience, but also a very tiresome one. In the past two weeks, an event that occurs every year has also taken place, and as every other person living in Glasgow, I am still trying to adapt: no, it’s not frozen over yet, but British Summer Time is a goner. It would be fair to say that it was barely every here (summer, uncapitalised, that is), but long evenings and early mornings are better than nighttime at 4pm and darkness into mid-morning. Going back to GMT, the timings against AEDT, which is the ‘Summer Time’ equivalent in New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, meant that I was doomed to miss the How to Survive your PhD MOOC as it starts just as I am walking to work. Having so much to do meant that I also missed the main topic of discussion this week, which was love.

The Thesis Whisperer asked to show some love to an inanimate object that is really helping with your PhD. I find it hard to nominate just one. But I have a ‘band’ of helpers that are totally pulling me through some difficult moments, and I thought they deserved some recognition. So, in the same way as a lead singer would ‘sing’ praise for his/her band, there are some unusual suspects that need to be told ‘good job and thanks for sticking by’. In a non-patronising way, of course, something more poetic than “well, you cost a fortune”, “I own you”, or “thanks for not getting lost”.

The old farts

The notebook – or the concept of a ‘lab book’. I do not work in a lab, but at the very beginning of my PhD I heard the line “keep a lab book, and at some point in your res
earch, the lab book will keep you”. I completely understand that statement. From my very first year’s Pukka pad, to the recycled A4 jottas I kept returning to, to the nowadays more portable and ‘greener’ Leuchtturm 1917, which make me feel slightly more mature at times (must be the size and the type of notebook), all lab books have “kept me”. In all of them, I have not only written ideas that I had, plans, structures, and drawings of some sort, but I have also spoken to my former and future research self, in things as random yet as useful as my mood when coming up with these ideas. I feel there is a correlation between my mood (or the weather) and how productive I can be, and when trying to figure out where I am in my PhD, the notebooks have always saved the day.

notebook

The netbook. An old fella at the age of four (which seems ridiculously old for a piece of technological equipment), I purchased my netbook as I was writing my masters dissertation and my laptop had started failing. It was always a slow mover, and it still is, even though in recent times, I have given it Windows 10 and it seems to be going slightly faster. These days, I use my netbook for Shut Up and Write; it is easy enough to carry and to set up. I even use it around the house, when I can’t be bothered turning on the big computer. I also use it in the library, which is also a recent discovery. It has Scrivener and EndNote installed on it, and I am a proud owner. Many chapter chunks have been written thanks to its continued service.

netbook

Tablet and keyboard. It alternates with the netbook when I need to take long trips. It is great for note taking and thought generation. It is also great for watching stuff in bed, of course. It has every app and programme under the sun that I could need to sit down and write a little bit. Some great ideas have been generated through it.

tablet

Evernote. My literature review wouldn’t be written without it. Take a massive bow.

The new kids on the block

Write-o-meter. I love it, I freaking love it. And I have only been using it for less than a month. It is like it was made for me – daily word count and timer (pomodoro-style) included, plus you can keep track of your rewards. Every day I get to the office and I get a reminder that I need to write some words. And when I wake up in the morning and my brain is ready to rumble, it also helps me get going. Keeps me accountable without having to think too much. Love it, thanks.

writeometer1 writeometer2

The library. I have always been a library lover, but since I gave up my office space due to lack of use, level 5 (the postgrad level) in the library is my new hub. All it has really is wide desks, and power points, and as a person who goes there to write, that is really all you need. Whilst it is inconvenient because you can’t really check many books (logistics are complex), it is a great place to write. It is better than my work office, and it is nicer than most levels in the library. A recent finding, I hope it carries me home through the next few months.

postgrad study

And that is my band. My PhD wouldn’t be where it is today without my inanimate friends.

So, thank you!

MOOCing around

This post is long overdue but I have barely had a day off in weeks (or possibly months). It is mid afternoon now, I have been at the library this morning and done my fair share of writing and editing, and now I am home with my feet up – with some time for myself to spare. I wanted to write about our new-found love for learning thanks to MOOCs, and then focus a bit on the experience of being engaged in one on-going one (rather than creepily reading but never posting).

MOOC stands for Massively Open Online Course, and these days you can find a MOOC on pretty much anything: from writing style to programming, business skills to Spanish grammar. For hungry learners like myself and my wife, the invention of MOOCs is one of the best things to have ever happened since sliced bread. Whilst a Mongrel PhD (and hence having limited time for anything and everything), I love to read about pretty much anything that appears interesting. The latest book I’ve read is Freakonomics, and next in my list is Gut – and I won a Waterstones gift card at an event the other day, so I am confident that I will be reading about my stomach soon! And I am a Catalan and Russian literature scholar, so the fields could not be more far apart. Having the chance to do a MOOC in something right up my alley is definitely a joyous feeling.

In the last couple of weeks, following a MOOC has been a great way to enjoy rainy afternoons, and since winter is coming to Glasgow, I foresee more opportunities to work on this very soon. My wife is very interested in maths, so she has been doing some work with a pre-university algebra course. I have been working with two very different topics: The Science of Everyday Thinking, and How to Survive Your PhD. The latter is an obvious choice as it is run by The Thesis Whisperer and her elves, and I am pretty much a fan of her work. The former is perhaps a bit of an odd choice, but I am actually really enjoying it, and it has made me think a lot about some things I had assumed as a given, it’s challenging me to find some alternatives to a few ingrained yet ineffective practices, and of course, it has me longing for more books to read. My precious time, in tatters when thinking about all the books I want to read.

One of the great things about this course is that it is mainly about thinking: about how the mind works, and how we think we are in control of some things that we really have no control of (like some choices), and how our mind is capable of tricking us into certain perceptions. The challenge comes with accepting these inaccuracies, and trying harder to engage with our thinking selves – the ‘slow thinking’ that Dan Kahneman talks about in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (which is also in my wishlist). That stuff really fascinates me, so it comes at no surprise that I am really enjoying it.

The other course I am involved in, How to Survive Your PhD, really is a different matter altogether. The sense of community that it is creating is absolutely fantastic. There are many ways to get involved, and social media really makes it feel as it thousands of PhDs are talking in one big room, and all issues are shared and dealt with, and everyone feels free to tell their story. The latest content is on Confidence, and it mainly deals with the all too common Imposter Syndrome. I feel I know my fair share of that since I am self-funded and a part-timer, which already means I was not trusted from the very beginning that my research topic was going to be a valid contribution to my institution and/or the British funding body that did not fund me. No biggie. On the brighter side, I have received two very prestigious awards by the most important Catalan cultural body there is, so I trust my research is relevant and to the right standard to the right people. But it takes a big toll at times to deal with the fear that you’re not quite as good as everybody else. Then another issue I tend to have is overconfidence, to compensate for the bad thoughts that sometimes populate my mind, and I tend to forget that there should be a balance, and nothing is black or white. With time, anything is manageable. After three years of research and another two to come, I believe Resilience is already my second name.

To sum up, I am loving the MOOC experience, and I encourage everybody to give it a try. The least expected course might actually really engage your senses. As for my feelings towards How to Survive Your PhD, it is great to see that I am not the only Mongrel PhD out there. And we kick ass!

British summer failure, holidays and writing

For anyone’s interest, I have been on holiday. Mind you, it was a research trip to Barcelona, but it is really not my fault that it was sunny and hot and I ate plenty of cold meats and salads and got paraded around by my whole family (which is typical) like I am the Pope on the Pope-mobile. This is what normally happens anyway. This time at least I there to do specific research and I managed to escape some family plans on the back of having to do some study.

The research trip in itself was great. The sole purpose was to have a close look to a bunch of novels from the 1930s that obviously have not been reedited or retranslated and that are held at the main library of the Catalan world. This is pretty cool. I managed to get a hold of three of these novels (for current work purposes) and had a feeling of what the rest are about to help in the research I have to do and write in the next couple of months.

Coming back, however, I do have a bit of a feeling of detachment from what I was doing before going. What was I doing again? I have some fresh ideas that come from the time spent away, but I have almost no recollection about what my mind was stuck on before I went. I have been struggling in the past week to reconnect with my mind then, but that is not my main issue.

The Scottish/British summer has finally hit us, and the weather is completely miserable outside. For some reason I can’t explain, I have found it almost impossible to do any work in the mornings before going to work. I have chipped in at work, but I have not been at my office space for at least a month now. And it gets worse when I am not even willing to open the actual documents I am meant to be writing. I suppose it is because they are blank, as in, totally. Totally, emphatically blank. It’s not like I have a good idea to lead on with and then play around with – I have a tank of half-baked ideas that I have ‘artistically’ arranged in some random order and titles, but from there to actually writing a chapter or something similar… well, there is a fair trek.

This is especially demoralising because it is summer. Summer is the easier part of the year in my calendar. There are no basketball games in the middle, the courses aren’t running so emails are lower at this time of the year, there is more light in general, which means I sleep less and I work more, and it is the time when I need to catch up with things before the beginning of the year – in a way leaping to catch up with everyone who is on holiday or doing less so that in the overall of the year it seems as if I am working more. I am not demoralised (just yet), but I could certainly do with stepping up my game and seemingly my mind and body are really not following suit. This leads me towards writing paralysis and a bit of Valley of Shit I seem to be traversing at the moment.

I spoke to PhD in AVT at lunchtime and it seems we are all going through the similar stuff at this time of the year. Perhaps because the weather has been so terrible, or because there has been very little work done when the expectations were pretty optimistic, we all seem to be having an emotional rollercoaster sort of period. We are both in desperate need of the Thesis Whisperer’s MOOC, and a little bit of academic self-love. In our conversation today we sort of realised that the emotional rollercoaster is not really a period or a short state – it is more like the only possible package emotions come in when you work in academia. My cheery comment was: “Well, at least we are not brain surgeons”. It helps to put things into perspective.

So with my current holiday-writing-paralysis, and the failure that this summer represents weather-wise, I keep grinding through a little bit of writing, a little bit of reading at certain times. I am sure this is just a temporary bug, but whilst it lasts, I will be like the sad character in Inside Out. I know I’ll come out of it, eventually. But for now, a little bit of the Valley of Shit coming my way.