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    Sobriquet 65.3: A Few Parting Words

    Monday, April 26, 2010
    Note: Since Blogger's free off-site publishing program is about to suspend operations, and because I have completed this blog's goal of chronicling my journey from A.B.D. to Ph.D., this post will likely be the final piece of material published as part of the blog project.

    As a final post, I thought it would be nice to address a few of the more frequently-asked questions I have received while working on my dissertation, so, without any further ballyhoo, here you go:

    What is the single most important bit of advice you can give someone about to write his or her own dissertation?
    I would have to say that getting oneself into the habit of working regularly is, by far, the most important thing anyone can do when writing a dissertation. For some people, especially those without teaching duties or other vocational or familial obligations, taking a 9-5 approach to the whole ordeal and working forty hours a week works well. I suspect such a schedule would have driven me batty, even if I did not have five classes to teach every semester. For me, I found doing one task each day, whether it be reading an article or a few pages in a novel, transcribing notes, outlining a bit of the chapter, or writing a page or two, worked very well. Now, I worked seven days a week, every day, for over two years, which resulted in a pretty severe case of burn-out, but it did work. If I set out to do it all over again, I would probably work at least one off day into my schedule each week. The key, of course, is finding a schedule that works for you and sticking with it. The ability to delay gratification, too, is very important because you will not finish your dissertation overnight. You have to be able to work every day -- or nearly every day -- with the belief that, even when it doesn't feel that way, what you're doing will eventually result in a degree. I found that limiting myself to doing a tiny bit of work each day enabled me to focus on the step in front of me rather than the whole staircase, or even the particular flight of stairs I was climbing. This often helped keep my stress at a manageable level all the way through.

    Why write a blog?
    Well, for me, blogging was a motivation for keeping up with my work. I didn't want to fail publicly, so I decided to start the blog. Over time, though, I found that it provided me with a way to organize my summaries of and ideas about various critical essays, so I began blogging about the the Coetzee criticism I encountered in order to help myself stay on top of things. Interestingly, a number of Coetzee scholars have found the blog to be a useful tool in sorting through the vast sea of critical material surrounding the author's fiction, so I eventually found additional motivation in trying to maintain a quality resource for my fellow students of Coetzee.

    Are you an expert on Coetzee?
    I have written a dissertation on the author, focusing on the fiction of the 1990s, for which I have read a good deal of literary criticism. Whether this fact makes me an expert or not really depends on your definition of an expert. Despite the fact that I have been called "a rockstar in J.M. Coetzee scholarship," I would hesitate to use such a definitive-sounding label. If anything, I would call myself a student of Coetzee.

    What is best thing you have gotten out of blogging?
    Other than manage to write a dissertation, I would have to say the most satisfying consequence of the whole blog project is having networked with Coetzee critics around the world. As a direct result of my blog, I have been invited to write articles for scholarly publications, been mentioned in major studies of Coetzee, made friends (including the person who ended up serving as the outside reader on my dissertation committee), and become part of a community of readers and writers. Put differently, my blog helped turn what could have been a very lonely endeavor into a social one.

    Why didn't you publish anything about your own research?
    Well, for one, my dissertation was a work-in-progress, so I didn't want to say anything that I might later want to amend. Furthermore, the amount of time it would take for me to write lengthy, analytical posts simply exceeded the amount of time I had to blog. Of course, graduate students are cautioned against sharing their ideas before their dissertations are published because, unfortunately, plagiarism is a very real problem and tales of graduate students having their ideas stolen by unscrupulous students and even professors echo throughout the halls of Academia, so we're kind of instructed to keep things under wraps anyway. It's a shame, really, because I suspect that blogging one's dissertation or other scholarship as one writes it could actually encourage some truly amazing collaborative work. Maybe in the future, someone will blog an entire dissertation and the comments will become an integral part of the whole document...

    What advice would you give a prospective English grad student?
    Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Right now, the are far more Ph.D.s than there are professorships and a disarmingly high percentage of brilliant scholars cannot find full-time academic jobs. Unless you get into a school that pays your tuition and provides you with a stipend, you will likely incur a lot of debt and there is no guaranteed employment at the end of the line to help pay off that debt. If these realities do not deter you, then grad school can be a very positive experience.

    What is going to happen to the dissertation blog now that you're finished?
    It's going to stay right where it is. I am honored by the amount of interest the blog has generated among Coetzee scholars and I will leave it online, in its current form, for the use of any future scholars interested in what I have here.

    Thanks again to everyone for reading this weblog and helping me as I struggled to write my dissertation. You may contact me at email (at) sobriquetmagazine.com.

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    ____________________________________________
    I just wanted to write a quick post to thank all of the people who have read this blog, especially those of you who have been so kind as to offer your encouragement by sending emails and posting comments. I have already thanked Minxy, who has been, by far, the most supportive reader Sobriquet Magazine has had over the past few years, but I would now like to take the time to thank everyone else: you have helped make something I often felt was impossible possible. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

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    ____________________________________________
    I am now Dr. Erik Grayson.

    On April 9, I successfully defended my dissertation on J. M. Coetzee.

    Although I had spent the better part of a month worrying about the defense, the actual event was anything but stressful. In fact, I would characterize the general tone of the defense as warm and celebratory. I was fortunate to have a fairly large crowd of supporters (including my parents, the ever-supportive Minxy, a couple of former colleagues and classmates, and, touchingly, several of my former students) in attendance. My best friend even travelled over a thousand miles to be there.

    The biggest surprise, for me, was the overwhelmingly positive response of my committee members to the document I had spent so much time fretting over. I was stunned to learn that my dissertation had been nominated for a university-wide award and I was humbled by the assessments of my work as being of a very high quality. The general feedback was that I really ought to add a couple of chapters on Coetzee's fiction prior to Age of Iron and following Disgrace and seek out a publisher. I'm still trying to process it all.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, March 21, 2010
    I have spent the first few weeks of the post-dissertation era trying to figure out what one does when one is not writing a dissertation.

    Given how tremendously burnt-out I was when I finished the dissertation, I spent a few days vegging out, playing Sim City, and taking care of some minor editing. Once I recuperated a bit, I began taking care of some of the more tedious dissertation-related activities: formatting, printing, photocopying, mailing, and filling in paperwork. Now, after a couple of weeks, I am beginning to find myself craving projects again, which is good. I'm still a bit resistant to the idea of jumping headlong into another large-scale scholarly endeavor, but I intend to. For the time being, though, I want to focus on some of the things I relegated to the sidelines while writing the dissertation.

    Of course, I still have my defense ahead of me. And that's no small thing. So I have been -- and will continue -- working on my dissertation topic for the foreseeable future.

    In other Coetzee-related news, my chapter on teaching Disgrace in an existentially-focused literature course will appear in the MLA's upcoming volume, Approaches to Teaching Coetzee's Disgrace and Other Novels. Also, Modern Fiction Studies will be publishing my review of Stephen Mulhall's The Wounded Animal: J. M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy. I wrote each of these while working on my Disgrace chapter last summer, so it's nice to see that some of the work I produced during that time come to light.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 28, 2010
    I received an email from my dissertation supervisor this evening informing me that the introduction I'd sent her late last week meets with her approval and that, as of 6:02 post meridiem this 28th day of February, 2010, my dissertation on J. M. Coetzee is complete. This is not to say that I do not have some polishing left to do; I have several typos to fix and some formatting yet to do, but the actual writing of the dissertation is behind me.

    Since there remains a good deal for me to say about the whole experience and because I have been asked to write a little bit about what I have learned about graduate school and dissertation-writing, this will not be the final post I make to the blog. I would like to devote some real time and energy to recording and sharing my observations on the dissertation and the blog project -- and I will do so in relatively short order.

    Tonight, though, I really want to thank my friend, Minxy, for having been such a tremendous support the entire time I have been blogging my way through my dissertation.

    On December 13, 2007, three days after I began my blog project, and before my dissertation had become a single-author study, I sent the following message to a few dozen friends and acquaintances:
    Dear friends,

    I am writing with a rather odd request, but one I hope a few of you will accept:

    I have decided to blog my way through my dissertation. My logic is this: if I make regular posts to my blog and give myself small assignments knowing my friends are watching me, I figure I will get more done. Basically, I am requesting peer pressure. Knowing that you're expecting me to be productive will help me be productive, so read my website, link to it from your website(s), tell your friends, tell your enemies, whatever...just make me feel like someone expects me to do a bit of work every day. Please be the proverbial carrot for this mule!

    Here's the address: www.sobriquetmagazine.com. The project begins with the post numbered 37.1
    While a handful of my friends have regularly visited the blog, and although I have picked up a few readers over time as people researching Coetzee stumbled upon this website, Minxy has been, by far, my most consistent reader and commenter. Day-in and day-out, through the excruciatingly boring periods during which I posted little more than "I transcribed notes today" for weeks on end, Minxy has always been there to cheer me on.

    And I needed that cheering. In the early days, especially, before a forced routine became habit, it really helped me to know that someone would check in on me to make sure I'd done a little bit of work. Now, more than two years later, when people are commending me on my dedication, I want to take a few seconds to thank Minxy for her dedication. It's a rare friend that will say "I've got your back" and, for literally twenty-seven months, have your back.

    So, thank you, Minxy, from the bottom of my heart. I honestly cannot imagine having written this dissertation without you.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of Summertime. Because, you know, it'll be fun to read Coetzee for fun.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, February 20, 2010
    After a fairly lengthy bout with distraction, I finally settled into a writing groove late Friday evening and now, three or four hours later, I find myself at a remarkably interesting place to be. I am, quite literally, staring the end of my dissertation in the face. Somehow, without really realizing it, I wrote my way through what I had assumed would be the most difficult part of the introduction (the section for which I spent the better part of two months reading) in a comparatively brief stretch of time and am approaching what I had assumed would be the easiest part as I would confront an extraordinarily difficult undertaking, even by dissertation standards. It's odd.

    At any rate, I may or may not get any writing done tomorrow, though I would certainly like to do so. Rather than jump right into the matter, I think I will do a bit of review and some additional pre-writing so that I can do justice to a subject about which I actually care a very great deal. I do not know how long the review/pre-writing process will take (I would not be surprised if it took a few hours or a few days), but I hope I can get some more writing done this weekend. If I do, all I will have left to do for this draft will be to introduce the four chapters I have already written. Then, amazingly, there's a single paragraph to be added to my conclusion and . . . well . . . and then I will be finished.

    For tomorrow: Prepare for the last part of the penultimate mini-section and, if possible, begin writing it.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 18, 2010
    Although it has been about a week since I last posted anything, I have continued working on the dissertation each day and, as of this evening, am currently writing the penultimate mini-section of my introduction. I had a few days where I needed to prioritize certain non-dissertation aspects of my life, which actually turned out to have a positive impact on my dissertation. By having a legitimate reason (or, rather, legitimate reasons) to lighten my workload, I seemed able to get a bit of much-needed mental rest and, although I have a few doubts about what I did end up writing this evening, I felt clearer-headed and more confident than I have in quite some time and I think I can made some significant progress over the next few days. I do anticipate encountering a theoretical knot I will have to untangle towards the end of the mini-section but, by the time I get there, I imagine I will have made enough progress to make spending some time with that problem seem less like a problem and more like a justified break in the action.

    For tomorrow: Write or prep.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 11, 2010
    I've had a busy couple of days. I finished the second mini-section of my introduction late last night (or, rather, early this morning) and spent some time this afternoon reading over the many, many notes that I took in December and January. I anticipate spending another day or two on this preparatory phase and then, if all goes well, I should begin the third mini-section as early as the end of this weekend.

    In dissertation-related news -- indeed, in dissertation blog-related news -- I recently discovered, quite by accident, that Carrol Clarkson mentions my blog project in a rather lengthy endnote in her recently-published study, J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices, which I promptly ordered a few days ago. Still, with curiosity eating away at me, I did a "Look Inside This Book" search, and was delighted to see that Carrol described my blog as "an invaluable resource for Coetzee scholars."

    I am truly humbled by Carrol's generous assessment of this blog and I sincerely hope that it continues to be a worthwhile place for Coetzee scholars to visit. Indeed, while I am nearing the conclusion of my dissertation and, consequentially, the conclusion of this particular endeavor, I fully intend to keep the blog and its archives available on the Sobriquet Magazine website.

    For tomorrow: Read and prepare for the next mini-section.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 8, 2010
    I managed to squeeze out a tiny bit more writing this evening and, again, I am not sure how I feel about it. Some of what I have written strikes me as decent, even solid scholarship, but I cannot help but shake the feeling that, at least in a few places, what I have written is superfluous. True, I am introducing my subject, so contextualizing my study will necessarily take me beyond that subject. Still, I feel uneasy about some stuff I've been working with, even though, in reality, it's probably not that bad at all.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 7, 2010
    I had a really hard time getting myself out of bed this morning. In fact, I had a hard time getting myself to do much of anything today: I struggled to get out of bed, I took nearly two hours to get myself out of my apartment once I had gotten out of bed, and I had a difficult time focusing on my reading when I got myself to the cafe at which I had hoped to make a bit of progress. In the end, I did manage to get a tiny bit of writing done, most of which seems at least consistent, quality-wise, with what I have been writing lately. I was actually planning on writing some more before going to bed tonight but, after having composed a few lines, I find myself too sleepy to maintain the sort of focus I would need to produce anything worth reading, so I am going to call it a night fairly early and try to use tomorrow to get some more work done.

    As I have mentioned several times previously, I am really struggling with the introduction. I continue to find myself disoriented by a mode of writing that is both similar to and different from the sort of prose I've been writing all along. It is academic, of course, so I am still in scholar-mode, but it is also less critical, which means I have to shift gear to a more general form of writing that, at times, feels alien to me. I mean, I am used to doing lots and lots of very specific research and analysis in preparation for my writing and, while the introduction certainly requires both, the type of research and mode of analysis are just different enough to disorient me a bit. The other very big problem I have been having is that I am so profoundly burnt out (this is the perfective "burnt out" now, which should be distinguished from the less total "burned out") that even the simplest of tasks (reading over criticism, prewriting, taking notes) have become excruciating ordeals for me.

    Then again, I keep reminding myself, my supervisor has rather explicitly told me that I need not devote nearly as much preparation time nor as much mental energy on the introduction because, as I have said, the very mode of writing does not demand the same sort of rigor with which I approached previously-written (i.e., subsequent) chapters. But this knowledge causes problems for me, too: I cannot seem to avoid taking the same approach as I have been taking all along yet I lack the energy to do so.

    But I am trying.

    For tomorrow: Write or prep.

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