Do the Write Thing

Occasionally when I’m shirking my duties I start doing random Google searches using search terms to the effect of “How to survive grad school,” and “PhD success rates,” and “Avoiding madness during PhD program.” Sometimes I actually conduct searches for job openings, but that usually just depresses and overwhelms me, so then I revert back to the comforting kind of you-can-do-it advice that you see on black-bordered posters in office buildings. Tonight I found a blog post by a professor at the University of Utah, and it struck me. Here’s what he has to say about writing.

“Generally, grad students don’t arrive with the ability to communicate well. This is a skill that they forge in grad school. The sooner acquired, the better.

Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You’ll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers [for your classes, I believe he means].

Assuming negligible practice writing for public consumption before graduate school, if you take six years to get through grad school, you can hit 10,000 hours by writing about 5 hours a day. (Toward the end of a Ph.D., it’s not uncommon to break 12 hours of writing in a day.)

That’s why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don’t even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters.”

As a second year doctoral student, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should be writing. Ideally, I’m writing manuscripts for publication. They might be theoretical, they might be analyses of research, they might be ruminations on methodology. Doesn’t matter. But best case scenario, I’m pumping out drafts and submitting them to journals and conferences.

The second-best case scenario is that, if I’m not getting polished manuscripts together, at least I’m doing personal written explorations of my topic. I’m writing “around” my ideas, so that better ideas form and solidify. Of course, to supplement my exploratory writing I’m also spending “10 to 15 hours a week” in the library, doing independent research on my topic (the quotation marks are thanks to my adviser who indicated that, if I’m not engaging in such copious amounts of extracurricular research, then… well, I’m not quite measuring up).

The reality? I’m struggling to get out of the lower tiers of the hierarchy of needs. Daily survival is the name of the game. Taking 9-10 credits, teaching 3, and working part-time in an administrative office (the latter two duties pay for the first), I find it difficult to even cook DINNER on a regular basis. Some days, I literally run out of my apartment and don’t stop until I get home: run to the bus, run to class, run to a meeting, run to class. The thought of writing for hours a day just, ya know, for it’s own sake, seems… laughable.

But I guess I must have intuited the necessity of putting words together whenever I can find a small pocket of time. I did create this blog, didn’t I? It might even be a bit relaxing, taking a break from work just to write about whatever (don’t tell my alter-ego, Productive Megan I said that, though– she already thinks I’m such a slacker).

Ok. 1 down. 9,999 to go.

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Reading and Teaching Mockingbird

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” -Scout Finch

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was twelve. The last time I read it, I was 32. I swear, it gets better every time. I think one of the biggest perks of being an English teacher is getting to read and teach this novel over and over again (though having only taught it twice now, I could be wrong about this– maybe some teachers who have taught the novel 20 times have a different story).

But this year my co-teacher Lisa and I worried that she and I might be the last generation to adore the book– after all, the pedagogy text we’re teaching out of tells us that many members of the Millenial Generation are not passionate about the same literature as their forebears. Even, apparently, To Kill a Mockingbird is leaving young readers cold. The prospect made me sad. But, since I teach a group of students who are not only Millenials, but will be teaching our nation’s youth in the next few years, I decided to meet their tepid responses to the novel with fortitude.

Luckily, I was as wrong as can be. The hour and fifteen minutes we spent talking about the novel was far too short. Everyone was thrilled by it, wanted to interpret it, wanted to join the conversation. The book just begs to be talked about: Scout’s witty prescience, Maycomb’s hilarious inhabitants, Atticus’s infinite wisdom.

Lisa, who was taking charge that day, had a great activity. Everyone was assigned a character for whom they had to make a poster (I got ol’ Mrs. Dubose). On that poster we had to write a quote describing that character’s physical appearance, a quote that defined that character’s essence, and a statement either in the student’s own words or excerpted from the novel about why that character was so important to the story. Then we taped our posters to the wall, and did a “Gallery Walk” (a classroom activity that can fit many circumstances and grade levels– we as doctoral students even do them in our own classes), where we walk around and read other people’s posters. We can take notes on the quotes people chose, or chat about the poster with those standing near us. Then after a while we return to our seats and discuss what we learned. I learned how Harper Lee uses sight and vision in the novel– Atticus’s glasses, and his being “the deadest shot in Maycomb County” stuck out to me for the first time. I love when my students teach me new things.

So, happily, To Kill a Mockingbird is still going strong. In a wonderful documentary I watched about the novel, Hey Boo, I learned that the book has sold 50 million copies and is still one of the most widely taught books (it’s also one of the most widely banned ones!). But I suppose it will one day fall out of favor. Indeed, I hope that as Americans we will not always need to grapple with the issues that Lee presents in such a beautiful, wrenching way: racism, classism, sexism. Still, I hope I’m no longer in the classroom when students don’t need this book anymore.

If it’s been a while since you read To Kill a Mockingbird, I dare you to pick it up and read the first page. Before you know it, you’ll be reading the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last words– and thanking me.