Wednesday, May 3, 2017

When to Ask for (Writing) Help in Graduate School

In grad school, reading for class, comprehensive exams, and for my dissertation was my favorite thing. I've been an avid reader since I was little, and the opportunity to sit down with interesting books was one of the major selling points of graduate school. Even when professors had assigned multiple books to read per week, or as my comps lists required 100+ books of reading, these were challenges I relished taking on.

Writing has been another story. I love to write - this blog is proof of that. And of course, I wouldn't have signed onto a Ph.D. program, knowing that 200+ pages of writing would be a necessary product of my education, if I wasn't passionate about writing. But writing can be difficult, and my early years of graduate school were spent slogging through writing assignments. It was hard to not take the comments personally - I remember one remarked that my writing was "baggy" and it took years to shake that. But, through returning to the keyboard again and again, I made progress, and made it successfully through the dissertation proposal.

But there was a moment during the dissertation writing process where it was clear that just because some sections of my dissertation were well-received, this was not universal, and I was urged to go back to the drawing board. This was excruciatingly painful: it was upsetting to see that I hadn't made as much progress as I had hoped. I feared this was a tipping point and a clear indication that I could wash out of graduate school without finishing the dissertation. But after a few days of wallowing (and yes, it was full-fledged wallowing: many tears while curled up in the fetal position), I knew I needed help. I couldn't just stubbornly push my way through this barrier alone. If I wanted to really achieve a break-through and ensure that I would eventually finish my dissertation, I needed to reach out to those who think about critical writing for a living.

I made an appointment to see Dr. Kevin Rulo, the director of our university's Writing Center. We worked through the main critiques of my chapter and together, brainstormed a plan for moving forward. This tipping point ultimately resulted in one of the great academic collaborations of my graduate education. Not knowing me that well, not knowing my subject matter all that well, but with a background that equipped him to effectively critique dissertations, Dr. Rulo would help me work on tweaking thesis statements and help me work through new ways to conceptualize the organization of a particular chapter. For an hour once a week (off and on - I think we met about 10 times), we'd talk and go back and forth on particular segments. I would only bring 3 pages to him at a time, but we would get a lot of mileage out of those 3 pages over the course of an hour. But more than that, we'd explore ideas for additional segments of each chapter and work carefully to tighten up my argument. These were rich, fascinating conversations that pushed my writing (and progress forward).

There is no shame in asking for help.

Let me repeat that it again, because I've had to assure myself of that many times.

There is no shame in asking for help.

A few years ago, I would've been embarrassed to admit that I was working with a professor in the Writing Center. Shouldn't I, as a Ph.D. candidate, be prepared to fly/write solo? No! Professors asks their colleagues to look over book chapters and article drafts. Writing is never an entirely solo endeavor. To expect good writing to emerge when written in a vacuum is futile: asking for criticism and feedback is a natural part of the process.

There is a popular saying: "a setback is a setup for a comeback," and I found this to be applicable in this instance. It's easier to say that in hindsight. But ultimately, by choosing to lean into the challenge, instead of running away from it, and working through the issues that had held my writing back, ultimately made my dissertation better. It loosened the knots that threatened to slow my progress, and instead, offered a sense of clarity that I longed for.

There is no shame in asking for help and that's clearer to me now. Asking for help and leaning into the challenges helped me earn those 3 precious letters: Ph.D.

No comments:

Post a Comment