Dissertation Productivity

Princeton has recently given its graduate students free membership to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. This online community offers support for academics in many forms, and I have just participated in one of their 14-day writing challenges. The goal was to incite us to write for at least 30 minutes a day, so that we could see that even a minimal amount of work could lead to large accomplishments after two weeks. However, I had already developed these habits much earlier.

Beginning with my research year in Paris, when my days were no longer structured by seminars and I had satisfied all departmental requirements before the dissertation defense, I honed specific strategies to define goals and accomplish them:

  1. Collaboration: While writing a dissertation is individual work, writing with others makes a huge difference. I try to schedule regular writing sessions with fellow scholars no matter where I happen to be. Working on individual projects together is not only good for mental health, but also allows us all to be more productive.
  2. Clear goals: The best part of the challenge was that it asked us to define specific writing goals at the beginning of each week. I took a very specific approach, breaking up larger projects into smaller chunks that I knew I could accomplish on specific days. In fact, I was able to finish this entire website in those two weeks, as well as almost completing my chapter 2 chapter draft! For defining goals, I have found that the “pomotodo” app on my phone is a comprehensive to-do list combined with a timer. I found that dividing my work into different tasks and measuring how much time I spent on each helped me understand my overall process.
  3. Habit forming: Although I already wrote for far more than 30 minutes a day before this challenge, habit forming is key to real productivity. One of the best ways I found to build the habit was the mental jump from evaluating my productivity in terms of actual production. Once I began to count reading books, spending time in archives, going to museum exhibitions, watching documentaries — essentially anything remotely related to my work — as my work itself, I was already on my way to being more productive. I also began to understand my own process more, what times I write the most effectively and what times I would be better off reading and taking notes. I can always be getting some sort of work done, but that work is better if I prioritize well.

McGraw Teaching Seminar: Connecting Online and Classroom Environments / Writing Teaching Statements

For introducing us to the subtle art of writing teaching statements, the McGraw staff “flipped” the classroom, giving us an extremely structured online lesson to introduce us to the expectations that lie behind this essential pedagogical document. While I found the experience to be productive, the concept of the flipped lecture as it was presented to us raised a series of questions to me that were unrelated to the teaching statement.

  1. While the online lecture they provided was professionally recorded and expertly designed, I failed to see exactly how this “flipped” lecture was actually flipped. This was not ordinarily a lecture-based class, but had always functioned as some form of individual readings or homework as well as outside group activities in order to prepare us for an extremely interactive discussion-based class. While the “flipped” lecture here did not assign us mandatory readings as usual, how was the video lecture fundamentally different from assigning readings? We watched the video, carried out the mini assignments along the way, and came to class with drafts and ideas to further discussion.
  2. This question had a simple answer that only raised more questions: the difference between this video lecture and the readings we had formerly been assigned was that this video was extremely structured. We watched a certain segment of the lecture, and then had a focused activity that helped us to put into action what we had just absorbed passively.
  3. I began to wonder, are humanities classes already flipped? This teaching seminar was not a “humanities” class in the strict sense, but it seemed to be already flipped. The only major difference between the flipped lecture and a traditional one is that the video provided immediate and structured activities for us to do.
  4. What if, rather than focusing on flipping classes in the sense that students watch a video at home, we could instead focus on structuring the work they do at home as well as structuring what is done in the classroom. In my experience teaching French language classes, I focused far less on what I assigned students outside of the classroom than what I hoped to accomplish in the classroom, as those 50 minutes represented their only real chance at an immersion experience. When I assign a film to watch, I focus on preparing them in the classroom before they watch it, arming them with the cultural background and specific vocabulary that will allow them to make the most of the 2-3 hours as well as bring back a productive conversation in the classroom.
  5. I thought back to my study abroad experience. The French university system, I had been told, encourages autonomy. Very little was done in the classroom, but very little was assigned. Students were implicitly aware that they either needed to structure their work on their own, or they would just squeeze by in the classroom. The American system is quite different. Everything is explicitly stated, and students as a result do not structure their own work.
  6. When designing my syllabus for the seminar, I attempted (and am still refining) how to best structure the work outside of the classroom to encourage students who are just making the jump from French language coursework to more advanced classes conducted entirely in French to structure their own work productively. I am hoping to continue to nuance this idea, enriching my pedagogy by structuring work both in and out of the classroom.