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!

Useful procrastination(?)

I jotted down some thoughts about what I wanted to do today this morning.

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I felt good with myself because it included two things I desperately need to do: read and write. Reading I have been very good at lately. I have never really been. But in the last two weeks I have been awesome. I have started to feel I am reading so much and so well just so I don’t have to go into point two of that mini to-do list: writing. I need to write – but everything, right now, seems more appealing. I am, however, not the first person to be in this particular mind loop, judging by the stuff on Shit Academics Say.

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It’s Thursday, and the weather outside, by Glasgow standards, is pretty nice – 13 degrees and clear, sunny skies. I went for lunch and had a long, productive conversation with PhD in AVT, who had just been at a workshop this morning.

Now being at a workshop is dangerous – awesome but unproductive ideas can come to you at any time after you leave the classroom. We discussed a few topics all related to research – mainly related to writing (or to not writing). We have fiddled about with the idea of setting up our own Shut up and write group, but we seem to be still quite immobile as a group – ideas are good, action on them is slow.

The idea that came up from our conversation was to set up a Peer Feedback Group, as a counterpoint to the SU&W idea. We went through all the specific points, and even discussed smaller details when one of our colleagues pointed at particular pitfalls in our plan. So it’s fair to say that what was set up for an afternoon of potential writing (mind you, perhaps one sentence or two), it has now cascaded into putting together a proposal for both our colleagues and the school about our writing group ideas.

This is fantastic, of course. But how much of a distraction is it? Are we awesome at organising communal things or we are just very good at procrastinating?

I am a self-confessed PhD/research-blog-reader. I love reading about research, as opposed to doing any. I love books about reading, and #phdchat and #acwri discussions. Again, as opposed to writing any sort of research. I feel this might be a bit odd (like loving books on literary criticism but not reading any actual literature), but I suppose that if I want to make a career out of this, it’s good to be informed. I am also a keen early adopter of new techniques. If anyone tells me to try something different with my research, I will – even if that implies taking an entire afternoon changing references from one bibliographic system into another. In some ways doing something new, in a different way, is like having a new toy, only in an academic-y, boring environment.

This obsession for new articles to read and new things to try is, in a way, a massive procrastinating factor of mine. I know this. I have assumed the fact that, some times, I just need to read another post about writing or note taking so that I can try it again and see if it works this time. I enjoy this form of procrastination more than dwelling on Facebook or watching videos of cats. It’s terrible. Yet I cannot avoid it.

Does knowing more about the perks of doing research help me do any good research at all? Well, this is a bit of a difficult point to argue. It’s like the old adage of if you can’t do it, teach it. Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. In certain days, it can definitely get in the way. I try my best to focus on the actual research but there are days that only cats on the internet will occupy my brain span. It’s just the way it is. There’s no point in fighting it at times. What I know, though, is that at least I have a wider knowledge of what is expected of me, and what is involved in conducting research, and hence all the acquired knowledge has guided me towards getting certain things done correctly over the past two and a half years. Or else I have spent some really entertained afternoons pretending I am doing actual research, which is also cool.

I don’t know if our ideas for a Shut up and write and Peer feedback group will work out the way we want to, but certainly they are good initiatives to tackle a problem that me and PhD in AVT seem to have. Which is summarized so well again by Shit Academics Say.

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#alwaysamongrel

Snack writing

I thought I would use the next twenty minutes of the day productively and perhaps attempt to produce a blog post on snack writing by snack writing it. I suppose it would make no sense for me to sit down for hours at an end thinking about what to write on snack writing whilst being hypocritical about the inception of the post. So I have decided to go full pelt and go with the flow.

I thought about writing on snack writing again after that rather productive #acwri Twitter conversation. There is plenty of advice out there about writing, and given what it was said on that Twitter conversation, there is no such a thing as bad advice – only advice that does not really work for you and attempts to be prescriptive, rather than helpful. Let me explain myself. The other day I went to a Time Management workshop, and a colleague of mine said he felt terrible with his schedule. He wakes up late and does some work, and then most of his productivity happens from 10pm until 3am. He thinks this is not “normal” and wants to change it, “so as to feel like a normal PhD”, but he does not know how. The issue I can see here is that there is not such a thing as “normal”. If working like that works for him (productively and all), then so be it, do it that way. There is no shame on that because I myself only get to work productively from 7 until 9 (with breakfast with my wife and walk to work included in that period). The rest of the day is a waste for productivity, so provided you know when you work best and then go ahead with it, no one can really judge you.

It’s the same about writing. I wish I had time to sit down on my chair and mull over slow cooked sentences for hours. But that has never been the case. Even when I was a full time student I worked semi-full time hours – there is just no way I could do any extended writing. Now, as a part time, snack writing is the only choice I have. I am not sad about this, I am very relieved – because it works, for me at least. I normally have about 45 minutes in the morning before breakfast. I can write fast, but I also use this time to think. Almost slowly. I make sure that I know exactly what I want to get done through the day.

Some days are excellent – yesterday, for example. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the night before, so I woke up and straight away I was plugged in. I typed 250 words in 45 minutes, which is not a lot, but it was sufficient for what I was doing – it was even connected with the previous content of the chapter, so there will be minimal editing to do there. I was pretty pleased with myself and I thought that another 250 words would make me happy – if I was properly plugged in later in the day. At 815 I leave the house and make it to my office space between 830-845 (depending on how late I left the house in the first place). Yesterday, I got to my office space at 835. I thought “awesome, I have 25 minutes!” (Which translates into “Yay! One full pomodoro!”). I opened my notebook and kept writing following the same bit I was writing about before breakfast. I pulled two pages, which felt really good. When I got to work, I typed everything up whilst sorting out my emails. Turns out I wrote 497 words (with a few editions) in that 25 minute bit! For a total of almost 750 words! At 930 yesterday, I could already bask on the glory of having over-achieved what I set myself to do. Boom.

This is not always like this, and on days like, for example, today, I have to remind myself that productivity in one snack bite does not necessarily mean productivity in all of them. Today I hand wrote a page – so that will be between 200 and 300 words. It’s not bad but of course I want more. However, this is true of every sort of writing – even if you are writing for 8 hours straight, some days you will be more or less productive, or it will be more or less difficult to get going. That is just the nature of writing. I don’t think it changes with snack writing or long-period-on-the-chair writing.

I have always had a distracted nature, even when I could afford 8 hours of continuous writing, so I think that embracing the concept of writing in short bursts was an easy step for me. I understand, however, that is not for everybody. As I said before, writing advice can only be useful if it’s advice and not prescription. I cannot focus for too long on the same task without looking for an interruption, but I am sure other people have stronger natures and can stay at it for longer – or maybe not.

I think snack writing is something that everyone should try every once in a while, because it definitely puts you in a limited pressure situation, and blocks out every other priority or distraction. At times we are thinking too much about other things associated to research (I need to write that paper, I need to read that article, how am I going to do that presentation?, I don’t know anything about X topic and I probably should), so a short burst of writing acts like that headpiece they put on horses so that they can only look ahead: it gives you tunnel vision for a short period of time, and then it’s only you, your laptop, your writing and your target. There is nothing else other than that. And once it’s over you can zoom out and understand where that piece of massive writing you just did fits within your main work. And then feel awesome, not because you have written a lot, but because you have written!

The recipe is to do this every day at least once for a long period of time – snack writing is not binge writing, so beware! Self-complacency is the worst that can happen after a really productive session of snack or freewriting… Shake it off, shake it off now! Remember that the word count resets every day and set yourself a target to aim at, even if you’re not going to use all the words at the end.

And to end this, some math:

How many words do you think you can write in 15 minutes? And in 30 minutes?

Can you write 50 words in 15 minutes? Surely you can write up to 300 in 15 minutes, but let’s keep it realistic. Let’s go for 50. If you write 50 words a day (excluding weekends), you’ll get 13,000 a year. Enough for a chapter? Or an article?

Writing 100 will get you 26,000. And 200 a day will smash your numbers to 52,000 a year. That is if you only fit one snack writing session a day. Imagine the word count if you had two or three…

I think I will go back to my previous statement of the only bad advice on writing is not writing at all. After that, try every and see how it works. And as part of the experiment, writing this post took two snacking bits, that amounted to about 40 minutes. Worth a try, huh?