Category Archives: Writing

Momentum, Writing and State Change

This is a common feeling for graduate students:

We don’t know quite how to do what we know we’re supposed to do, or we fear we can’t do it ‘well enough’, and so we end up doing nothing much at all. Sure, we write here and there, we are making ‘progress’. But we fall far short of the potential of which we (and our advisors) know we are capable.

I read recently a great piece in Inside Higher Ed about why graduate students have such a hard time writing their dissertations. It boiled down to this:
1) we don’t know what we’re supposed to actually be producing (i.e. the form)
2) we are paralyzed by perfectionism (i.e. the practice)
3) we don’t have the support we need and end up berating ourselves for numbers 1 and 2… (i.e. the community)

Thanks to my advisor and the support of my PAGE network, I actually think a lot about (#1). I have read other people’s dissertations, have explored non-conventional dissertations, and have a clear sketch of the form I want my dissertation to have, when complete. The form is there, and I seemingly know what I need to do to get there. However, what I have learned is that the process by which my advisor and other graduate students have told me in order to produce that form does not really work for me. I’ve adapted to false starts, feelings of failure, and doubting my entire project, all because I hadn’t yet found the process that worked for me in producing the form. Over the last few months, I’ve started piecing together the right process for me.

Through the same avenues, I feel surprisingly supported in this work. My advisor is (amazingly) approachable, reminding me not to be ‘oppressed by my data’. Similarly, I have many graduate student peers in and outside of my department, within UW and beyond, to whom I can reach out to for help. And when it comes to sharing stories about projects and unhelpful work habits, my non-academic friends are also an incredible resource. I have also sought out enough personal resources to recognize and name many of my habits, but this sometimes isn’t enough.

At the end of the day, all of this support, training and awareness of form is quite useless if the practice isn’t there. The Inside Higher Ed article points out that writing comes from practice. 30 minutes a day, sit yourself down in the chair and write. At the bare minimum. Do this.

Well, sure. Sounds easy enough.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about all that we do to get ourselves primed, or poorly primed, for that ‘sit down and write’ moment.

How many other thoughts do I have in my brain? Am I cycling through my to-do list? Does my brain even know how to prioritize what comes of higher importance? I may *think* I am working productively when I sit down to work, but am I actually?

One of my academic mentors shared with me her writing habits. On days she’s not teaching first, she carves out her mornings, doesn’t check email, sits down with a strong cup of coffee, and writes for 4 hours. End of story.

I know that such a habit wouldn’t quite work for me (I need to start my morning with stretching and physical therapy, or else my whole day will be shot and I’ll be in pain and unable to focus…)

But this practice, of knowing what works, is something all of us graduate students could be better at. Priming ourselves to work might be mockingly be called a ‘life hack’, but I tend to think of it this way: if I’m choosing to commit myself to a project (in this case, finishing my dissertation), why wouldn’t I want to show up 100% each time I want to make progress?) How can I change my state so that I’m most ready to work?

What follows are some simple questions:
1) What are my actual goals (big picture, with the diss, today, this hour…)
2) What patterns usually sabotage me in meeting these goals?
3) What can I do to optimize the time I’m going to spend meeting these goals?

A dear friend of mine shared his ‘priming’ exercises, which involved breath exercises, music, and a cold shower. I’m not sure those specific ones will be what I choose, but I love this notion. If something feels worth doing, if it aligns with my values, and I know it will help me achieve a goal (in this case, finishing my dissertation in the ambitious timeline I have set, with energy to still live a full, healthy and curious life among my community), then ‘priming’ is not just a necessary thing. I actually owe it to myself to set myself up for a strong writing practice.

So, in broad daylight, to be accountable to this space, I’m committing to learning what priming exercises work for me, and developing a more consistent and efficient writing practice. I owe it to the work, and I owe it to myself.

Revising and resubmitting

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks, I must say. Some very high highs and some very low lows. Not one to focus on the negative, I will share some of the highlights.

– I nailed down a spot to volunteer in the kitchen at a really nifty local music festival on a magical island. I can share my knowledge of cooking for a crowd, and feed many amazing musicians over the course of 3 days.

– I went on a most epic hike up to and along the High Divide, a little-traveled pass at the top of the North Cascades. It took 3 miles of 3500 feet of elevation gain to get there, but man oh man, was it worth it. We ate lunch staring out at Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan, two of the loveliest mountains I’ve seen. Hiking down 2 miles of 2500+ feet (aka, a 2-mile long squat), has left me pretty tired for days.

– So many friends have been visiting or in town! College friends, college professors, and many new friends, to boot! Our house has had people coming and going, coming and going, for well over a week now. It keeps it feeling alive.

– And, last but not least, my first journal article was accepted with minor revision! Yippee!

Which leads me to: revision! You rascal, you’re so surprisingly tricky! Even though the reviews of my manuscript were all-in-all quite positive (no one batting me down, tearing my argument to pieces, telling me I don’t know how to write…), it was still surprisingly hard to incorporate comments. My thinking has evolved so much since I wrote this piece, even though it’s only been a few months. Mainly, it’s because the piece draws on work that is a year old.

I imagine this is a common thing I will run into in academic writing: how do you write about old work and stay true to where the argument came from, even during revision? For instance, I’ve been doing all of this reading on empowerment. And while the article talks about empowerment, it is not a critique of empowerment per se. It is a critique of nonprofits and poverty governance structures. It has been hard to edit my empowerment brain and keep it out of this piece for now. No need to muddy an already complex argument. I’ll save the empowerment critique for a paper I’m writing with one of my colleagues.

Interestingly, though, once I just started putting everything on paper and incorporating everything, it made it easier to edit. The editor requested a version with ‘tracked changes’, which made the whole piece very overwhelming to work on and edit-as-I-go. So, after responding to all of the suggestions as best I could, I went section by section, editing back down to cohesive arguments, being aware of word limit and over-citing.

And now it’s off to people I trust to give me feedback! That’s a fun part: look at the original, look at the reviewer’s suggestions, look at the revised manuscript — like a puzzle! Does it fit together? Did I solve it?

However, this also means that it is back to the genealogy soon. I have friends in town the next few days, then a getaway to the San Juan Islands for one night, and then it’s off to the music festival, and shortly after that, Peru! Not a lot of time to get work done. But enough time to keep collecting books, figure out a plan for the year, start to look for grant sources, think about putting together a syllabus for a new class, organize the fall colloquium series, keep planning Eat for Equity events, and, you know, cook, exercise, sleep, read, see friends and family — all that good stuff.

A goal for the next few work days: prioritize 3 books to get a good handle on. One from each ‘genre’ of empowerment literature. Skim these, take notes, summarize. Start to think about a gap. Start to practice recitation by reading these against relational poverty studies. I think that is my task, really. Not to apply relational poverty studies things after the fact, but to read it into the work I’m doing right now. In fact, this will be incredibly helpful for a paper I’ve been scheming with a colleague, that will look at ‘relational empowerment’ – how the term has been used, and what critical GIS / feminist geography / relational poverty studies can bring to that term. Pretty neat!

Closing thought: I’ve been reading a lot of academic blogs this week. On how to be a better ‘whole-person’ academic, on the importance of respect in the female academic blogosphere, and in general, on how to get your voice out into the world. I’ve also been doing some blogging for non-academic sources. I think it is probably time for me to start cultivating this a bit more intentionally. Get my ideas out there. Get people to read this blog. Start a twitter account. Follow people who inspire me intellectually. Post what I’m reading. Link to donor activism and social justice work. Connect the multiple branches of my public/academic/social life in a way that I’ve been resisting for a while. Either way, I gotta keep reading these other fine folks. They certainly add a level of inspiration that can be hard to find while sitting alone at one’s desk, readin’, writin’ and pontificatin’.

One month in.

It has been one month of summer ‘vacation’ – one week of full-on, no-work, sleep-til-10 vacation, and three weeks of summer – sleep-til-8, have slow, luxurious mornings, attempt some school work for a few hours (or not), do one or more of the following activities the rest of the day: garden, run, see friends, cook, clean my house, yoga, see a movie, volunteer, plan eat for equity, go on walks, read a book, nap, swim. Not bad.

I am at the point of this genealogy project where I think it is necessary to check in and reflect on where I am at, what I have learned, what new questions have been raised.

There are a few core themes or findings so far that I think will guide the questions I bring to the rest of the project:
— the way we think about empowerment is based on how we think about power —
— empowerment, broadly speaking, is either seen as something ‘given to’ or something ‘taken’. this difference will impact where the responsibility for empowerment lies —
— management and organizational communication studies go ga-ga over empowerment, and while their conceptualizations are about productivity, efficiency, and worker satisfaction, much of the language appears in the nonprofit world —

I am balancing the multiple meanings that appear in different genres and disciplines, practicing ‘recitation’ (Hemmings, 2012) to put multiple scholars in conversation with one another. The findings in management and business studies, for instance, see empowerment as a process begun by an employer. It is the responsibility of those with power (primarily supervisors) to make sure that power is made available to their subordinates (primarily, employees). They must create conditions that foster non-hierarchical relations of power, and that allow all employees to feel they have input on decision making processes (interesting side note, as I indicated in an earlier post, this is often called self-efficacy. less about your actual ability to make change, but your perceived ability to change your circumstances).

On the other side of things, women’s empowerment movements, often traced to gender and development (GAD) movements, sought to improve the experiences of women in the global South who experienced increased marginalization at multiple scale of the family, village, city, state or nation. Much of the early women’s empowerment work (Dingo, 2012) recognized that women’s marginalization was not limited to economic terms, or singular indicators of poverty. Instead, there were broader social, cultural, political and economic constructs that yielded women as more marginal to their male counterparts. And, of course, women’s experiences were exacerbated through other factors such as religion, class, caste, physical ability, age, literacy, and health. In this lineage of empowerment, power is to be taken by more marginalized groups, through consciousness-raising, social movements, and larger efforts for transformative justice that do not stop with individual women, but work to make more just social and political contexts.

These two uses and conceptualizations of ’empowerment’ seem disparate at first. In fact, as I indicated above, they are almost incommensurable, due to their different understandings of power and where power originates. But, in some ways, I am beginning to see how the nonprofit sector is an area where these two conflicting understandings of empowerment come together. In fact, I wonder if  nonprofits can be seen as spaces of transmission where empowerment is enacted, understood, performed, practiced, translated, learned, passed down, codified, internalized, projected, critiqued… the actions are quite endless, really. Much of my understanding of this concept is informed by Policy Mobilities (McCann and Ward 2012, Temenos and McCann 2012) and feminist transnational rhetoric studies (Dingo, 2012). Different parties bring their own understandings of rhetoric, discourse, language to the organizations in which they participate. The way these get inscribed into practices is so interesting to me, and could be a way that more supervisor/subordinate understandings of empowerment find translation alongside more social movement / pedagogy of the oppressed practices. Finally, I am interested in putting these two parallel fields into conversation (or re-citing them) with relational poverty studies, social movement theory, and feminist scholar activism.

My most recent beacon of hope in this whole project comes from the insights of relational poverty studies and feminist social theory.  I often can see the cynical ways that donors transmit hegemonic neoliberal notions of successful, responsible citizen-subject-hood to youth participants. What if, rather than propagate status quo subjectivities, donors, volunteers, staff and participants come together to work towards understanding oppression, privilege, systemic issues of justice, in order to better see how they all  can be / are working towards systemic change. This is lofty, yes. But. It is a way that donors, (or those with more power, in a conventional sense) are actually empowered to see their ability to change the system we live in. This is the work that Resource Generation and Social Justice Fund Northwest undertake.

So, some thoughts for now. I am going to continue reading some of the early writings on empowerment from each of these fields to really get into its lineages. See what I can tease apart. How I might be able to find new combinations, recitations and conceptualizations that map onto nonprofit work in (new) ways.

Another month, here we go!