Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reflections by Elena Lawrick Ph.D.

[One of the great things about being a graduate student is the friendships you make along the way. It is true that, as you approach your graduation you see your friends move on one by one. These are the people who share your travails, offer you their shoulders when you want to cry and celebrate your little victories with you, and of course, you feel happy for them--and maybe a little sorry for yourself knowing that life is not going to be the same without them around. 
Anyway, it's no use getting sentimental now, this narrative is from a dear friend that completed her Ph.D, though I'm sure we will always be there for each other wherever we end up. I cannot thank Elena enough for her support and encouragement over the years. When I asked her for her reflections about graduate student to be posted here, she again did not turn me down and she kindly accepted to be a guest writer for my blog. Thank you very much Elena! You give us all, who are still struggling to get our degrees, hope, the hope that it can be done.]

Elena Lawrick, Ph.D.
Reflecting on my experiences as a doctoral student, I’ve come to appreciate the interconnectedness between reading, thinking, and writing. Even before the grad school, I was aware that reading and writing are sine qua nons of a scholarly career. But I come from an academic culture which emphasizes learning from reading the major works in the discipline. In that academic culture writing is perceived as an assessment tool (i.e., a written artifact providing a proof that one has read a significant number of “important” books to justify her/his academic status), rather than a “thinking” tool (i.e., a process by which one’s own understanding evolves). Therefore, for me, coming to grips with this difference was an initial challenge. I don’t think I even became conscious of this difference during my first two semesters. I clearly remember the feeling of complete sensory deprivation I experienced when writing my first three term papers. It felt like walking through pitch-black darkness. “What is the right format? How can I fill in those 20 pages? There is no way I can meet the deadline…” These are only some of the fearful thoughts rushing through my mind. The concern that “I don’t sound ‘smart’ enough” was the worst. At that point, I did not feel whatsoever that my knowledge and thinking are evolving through the papers I was working on. But it was, of course. I just wasn’t aware of it yet. Slowly but surely, the initial fears and concerns grew into a more conscientious process of engaging with reading and then writing and then more thinking and more writing. Have I eventually come to appreciate the “thinking through writing” process?  I have, sometime by the end of my third semester into the studies.
For me, writing has become somewhat similar to a magic spell opening the door to the treasures hidden so deeply in my mind that I am not even aware of them. Unfortunately, this spell does not come easy. My writing process is messy and painful, largely because I have an uncontrollable attachment to every single word I put on the computer screen and thus resist to let it go for the sake of conciseness. Writing is torturous. Have you ever read a German philosophical book in which a sentence is a half-page long and the meaning is hidden behind layers and layers of philosophical detours? That’s the tradition I was raised in. And here I am, teaching scholarly writing in American English that emphasizes the absolute opposite: clarity and conciseness. In which, FYI, I have become a true believer. So every time I write I have to resolve an existential conflict between the two academic writing traditions of which I am a child. The great news, however, is that at the end of this torturous self-discovery through writing, I feel blissful: My thoughts are finally shaped into something--hopefully--intellectually engaging.
You, my friend, may be of a different kind. It is possible that your writing hours are not filled with self-doubt and you have never felt insecure when reading your reflection papers in class or expecting a professor’s feedback on your term paper. Over the course of my five-year PhD training, however, I observed how every single what-appeared-to-be confident graduate student-writer got all nervous when reading their journals in class.
I was –and still is—blessed to have the amazing mentors who looked for “pearls” in my imperfect papers rather than focused on weaknesses. Trusting me to work out the mechanics of academic writing, they valued my engagement with relevant scholarship and the design and implementation of my studies. I can hardly underestimate how essential it is to have academic mentors genuinely interested in your thoughts and ideas. Otherwise, those five or more years of your life you spend in graduate school might be filled with frustration.
For me, the biggest lesson to learn during my doctoral studies is to appreciate those self-doubts and insecurities, for they challenge me to think harder, to try new genres, and, at the end of the day, to become a better academic. So, if writing is not your thing, if you hate every moment of it, you’d better come to grips with the idea that academic writing is a key to your survival and success in graduate school and start loving it. As did I.

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