Relatively, More or Less

More and less are not distinct states, they define each other. When moving in either direction along the continuum, people feel the shift until the adjust to the new amount of whatever. This morning, I happened to notice the contrast.

Seven weeks ago, we arrived in Missouri, and there was a lot of uncertainty in front of me. I had a thesis to finish, a job to find, and a few weeks of reliance on the kindness of family. I felt like I was losing two things that I–and most Americans, I think–prize quite highly. There was less security in this new life, and little autonomy. I was depressed. As the weeks pass, though, I’m growing more comfortable with the situation.

Emily and I are still a long way from rock bottom. We’re in someone else’s house, but it’s better than I imagine homelessness would be. More importantly, it’s with family. Not the family I grew up with, but family is family. Even if the folklore is different, they love us just as much. I’ve turned in another draft of my thesis, and there’s a decent chance I’ve made the last set of major revisions. I’m almost done with that degree. I heard back from a job I applied to this morning. They didn’t say I got the job, or even an interview. They just said “We received your application for employment and we saw that you’re in Missouri.  Will you be moving to Chicago?”

Scarcity is a funny thing. I read the message, and I was excited. Sure, it could have been a lot more positive. But it was something. After weeks of nothing, something is a lot. Something is more. Maybe I’ll be in Chicago by the end of the summer.

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Why Grad School: How to Write a Thesis

In past posts I’ve mentioned the thesis process, but I never really spelled out what goes into a Plan A thesis. After a conversation with one of my friends at USU, I think it’s just about time to remedy that oversight. Before we get into the how, I’d like to look briefly at why. Why would someone write or not write a thesis in the first place?

The thesis is usually somewhere around seventy pages long. Like, 3-5 journal articles combined, plus an introduction and conclusion. Really, it’s like writing your own mini-issue of a journal in your field, but without the book reviews. They’re really helpful if you quite enjoy research, because they force you to start using it and contributing to your field in a large, active way. If you move on to a PhD program, you’ll have a great start on your dissertation. If not, you can still peel off a chapter and submit it to a journal, or turn the whole thing into your first book. If none of those appeal to you, see the original “Why Grad School” post and reconsider your life choices.

The prospect of writing a short book is simultaneously exciting and terrifying in differing amounts based on your temperament. As someone who had never reached a page limit in his life, I was personally 2% excited, 98% scared (I use that line enough I probably owe Owen Wilson royalties by now). But it’s a requirement for my department, I had a really good idea, and I still plan to turn mine into a book, so I went forth to write a thesis! Here’s how:

Step 0: Be in grad school, in a program that lets you write a thesis. If that is not an option, you want to write something else. The logic may apply, but the terminology may be different. Continue at your own risk.

Step 1: Have an idea. Come up with something in your discipline that you realize has never been studied, and find a way to study it. Or more likely, take something that’s been studied, and look at it in a different way. Or find a new set of methods to study a lot of things in your field. The sky’s kind of the limit here, but the goal is to find something you want to research in a way that nobody has ever researched it. For instance, my friend Heidi is looking at a lot of incomplete definitions of master, applying them to someone easily identifiable as a master craftstman, and making a brand new definition that doesn’t suck. My friend Jill is looking at laundry practices, setting up a case study of one of her friends that is a laundry artist, and finding the value in doing laundry well. I’m researching severed hands, and making a claim that they’re a symbol of humanity in folklore and pop culture. It’s all fun stuff, and each one of them has changed through time, but the core ideas stayed the same: craftsmen, laundry, severed hands.

Step 2: Find/make other people interested in your idea. You need to develop a committee of established academics who will sign off on your finished product, and help you take it from that original idea into a full thesis. Ideally, these should be people who are already familiar with some part of your project–the idea, the methods, the theories–and who you personally get along with. Sometimes that won’t work out. People you want on your committee won’t be able to serve on it, or aren’t interested, or you might find out you don’t get along with everyone as well as you thought; that’s okay. Life isn’t always easy, and neither are theses. You’ll be fine, just do the best you can, and get people excited and interested.

Step 3a: Read too much. Read other theses from your field, articles with methods you might use, books on your topic or related topics, and anything else you can get your hands on that might help in any way. Read everything that seems useful, and then read everything in their bibliographies that seem even slightly related. Read and read and read and read and read. You’re not going to use it all, but there’s no way of knowing what you will need until after you’ve read it, so KEEP READING. I don’t think I can stress that enough.

Step 3b: Take too many notes. When you’re doing all of that reading, take careful notes of everything that seems even slightly important. Quotes, paraphrase, summary, page numbers, everything you can think of. Use whatever method you want, whether that’s a text document, a series of index cards, a journal, sheets of paper used as bookmarks, or anything else that works. I switch between all of those, and that’s why I can never find the specific notes I need. If you can help it, don’t be like me; use a consolidated system. If you won’t be organized, at least write detailed annotated bibliography entries. You’ll probably need that for the next step, anyway.

Step 4: Write up a proposal. This might be the first writing you’ve done for the thesis. It’s your opportunity to describe everything that’s going to go down for the next few months (years?) of your life that relates to research. What is the topic? Why is that your topic? What else has been done? How is what you’re doing different? Why are you doing it differently? What is not your topic? What are you not doing? Which sources are you familiar with? Nothing in this project gets to be accidental. If something involves a choice, you have to make it intentionally. There are specific ways to order all of this information, and each department wants things done a little differently, but as long as you’re actively examining every aspect of your research, and setting clear boundaries, I bet you’ll be fine. Track down a good example or departmental guide if you don’t trust me. Hell, that’s probably a good idea anyway.

Step 5: Submit your proposal. Now that you’ve spent a while thinking, reading, and writing, give it to your committee. Now brace yourself. This is one of the last breaks you’ll get for a while.

Step 6: Revise your proposal. This depends on the program, the committee, and the individual, but you’ll probably need to do some editing. If not, skip down to the next step. There’s no shame in needing to revise a little at this step. There’s a lot to keep track of, and this is your committee’s opportunity to make sure you’re all on the same page. Fix what needs fixing, ask about anything that seems like it’ll take your project a direction you don’t want it to go. Don’t be afraid to put your foot down, but don’t be stubborn just because you’re confused or cranky. Return to step 5. Repeat as needed. If you get stuck in an endless loop, either find a new project or a new committee, and return to step 1 or 2 depending on which one you choose.

Step 7: The first defense. This is the first time you have a reason to feel stressed. It’s not a very good reason, but it is still a reason. You’re going to sit down in a room with your committee, and you’re all going to talk about the project together. Read over your proposal again, and look at the notes they’ve given you so far. Think about why they told you to make specific changes; those might come up. They’ll ask questions, you’ll answer them. They’ll express concerns, you’ll figure out how to address those in the final project. Take good notes, don’t be defensive, and you’ll be fine. Mine took less than an hour from start to finish, and that seems to be pretty standard at my university. If any paperwork is needed, make sure either you or your committee chair bring it along. Now that the proposal is finished, it’s time to start the real work!

Step 8: Write the thesis. Or, as my brain interpreted it, write more than you thought you ever could. Now, this doesn’t all have to be from scratch. Parts of the proposal can become some of the introduction. If you’ve written papers on the topic before, they might be the basis of a chapter or the entire paper. Whatever you already have done, you need to bring it all together and write a lot. Figure out what kind of schedule you can manage, and stick to it as much as you can. I personally found out that I can write really well between 8:00 AM and noon, but after that my focus was shot. If you’re a morning person, find a way to write in the morning. If you’re a night owl. find a way to write at night. Get down as much as you can, no matter how terrible or off-topic it might be. When you can’t write any more, lower your standards, and keep writing. I noticed that once I passed the 30 page mark, my pace slowed down dramatically. If that happens, give yourself weekly page deadlines. Some days will be better, some will be worse, just like with any other job, but you’ve got to keep going. Eventually you’ll have something that looks like the first draft of your thesis. Be happy, be proud, be aware it won’t look that way for long.

Step 9: Give it to the committee. It’s time for your committee chair to read it over. Don’t think about the project for a while. You deserve a break. Catch up on everything else in your life, because the calm won’t last forever.

Step 10: Revise the thesis. Just like with the proposal, you might be able to skip this step. I’ve never heard of such luck, but odds are someone has pulled it off. For the rest of us poor slobs, it’s time to meet with committee members and deal with a lot of red ink. The first draft was just a first draft, and now it’s time for the second one. There might be minor edits in word choice or formatting, or there may be massive sections your committee didn’t like. Try not to take it personally. Please don’t become another gun violence statistic, those guys make the rest of us look bad. First fix what your committee members suggested you fix, then read through the whole thing and fix what you think needs fixing. Then you can return to step 9, and repeat as needed. If you get caught in an endless loop, consider returning briefly to steps 1 or 2 again, but a few rounds of edits are pretty normal. I had three or four before I moved on to the next step.

Step 11: Defend the thesis. Sweet Christmas, you’re almost done. How sick of this project are you? I was having nightmares about severed hands by the time I got this far. Anyway, do you remember your proposal defense? Same thing, except now you have an even better idea of what you want to talk about, and your committee has found more issues to discuss. Hooray! Seriously though, people don’t really fail defenses. I think every Department has the horror story of the person who just never pulled it together, but it’s pretty rare. Take some deep breaths, walk in, and take more notes. Explain what needs explaining, accept that you’re the expert on your topic in the room, and act accordingly. Just like with the proposal, make sure someone’s got the requisite paperwork.

Step 12: Revise the thesis more. You thought you were done with this part, didn’t you? Realistically, that can happen. A few people in my class had really minor edits to make before they turned in the final project. I was not one of them, and I had to keep working. For me, revisions meant going all the way back to step 3 and reading a lot more. I didn’t even look at my paper for the month after my defense, I just went back to theory and immersed myself in a whole new way of thinking. Once you’ve learned everything new you need to learn, incorporate it into the paper. Address your committee’s notes again, and find some more of your own. You should have a pretty airtight piece of informative, argumentative writing by the time you’re done.

Step 13: Turn it in. This might be to department editors, or your committee, or publishers or whoever, but this might be the last set of changes you really need to make. Aren’t you excited? I’m at this step right now, waiting for some feedback from my chairperson. How long have you been working on this project? Six months? A year? Two? Imagine your thesis is a child for a few minutes; it’s probably taken up all of your free time and prevented you from sleeping, so the comparison is apt. How advanced would the thesis-baby be? Rolling over? Crawling? Walking or talking? Going to school? Yeah, there’s some perspective. Take another break and enjoy it.

Step 14: Final changes and publication. Whoever looked at it last time will probably have a few more little changes to make, so make those and move it along. Eventually you’ll be getting it published. At USU, that means getting it bound in the library and bringing the receipt to the school of Research and Graduate Studies. You did it! You’re done with your thesis! Wait for your diploma, and try to figure out what you’re going to do next. Prepare it for a journal? Turn it into a book? Burn it? All three? Whatever you decide, congratulations. You’re done.

Now you know, and you can’t say nobody ever warned you. Uncle Scott told you everything you need to know about writing a thesis.

Humor: At Least I Saved My Boots

As I was writing the last post, I realized that I don’t really write funny posts on here. I write witty or clever updates on facebook and twitter sometimes, and I make comic statements constantly. Most of my evaluations revolve around how I’m entertaining or fun, but that never made it over here to the blog, and I think it’s high time I do something about it. The following event features some low-brow themes and language if anyone’s sensitive. Names have been changed to protect public images, and details have been changed for the sake of entertainment.

“Hey, want to run over to the C-Store? I want some jerky.”

“Yeah, hold on a second. Let me put on my boots.”

Freshman year of college, this was a typical conversation between Mike and I. We mostly talked about video games or food. We might occasionally talk about a class, but those were rare. I’ve thought since then that our conversational priorities might have been an indication that I would end up with a 3.0 GPA, but you know what they say about hindsight.

We’d both graduated with fewer than 100 people in high school, and were both the “good kids.” So, naturally, college was a time to sleep late, slack off, and eat whatever we wanted. Since then, Mike has mastered the art of George Foreman grilling and microwave-steaming vegetables, whereas I have become a journeyman chef and baker. Before our current days of respective marital bliss, however, were long nights filled with 44 oz “buckets” of soda, chocolate donuts, and teriyaki-flavored jerky.

Yes, Mike and I were definitely taking good care of ourselves, and probably riding by in the express lane to heart attack junction. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t heart palpitation that changed our dietary habits.

“Dude? Boots?” he had asked, drumming his fingers on the door handle.

“Oh, right! Sorry, spaced out for a second. Besides, you can wait, Gordo. Isn’t this like your fifth bag of jerky in the last three days? You’re gonna mummify from all that salt.” I took my time, still hunting for where his girlfriend had kicked my boots yesterday.

“Shut it. Besides, I’m washing it down with a bucket every time, so I’m still getting plenty of fluids. Like you have any room to talk, Mister Half-A-Dozen-Brownies-A-Day.” He smirked at that.

“Hey now, my brownies are no worse than your chocolate donut things.”

He mumbled something that was meant to besmirch my mother’s honor, but I let it go. He looked hungry enough to start chewing on my arm. He was also a little bit paler than usual, but that was probably just a side effect of low blood sugar.  Still drumming his fingers, but more slowly now, a look of discomfort crept down his features. I asked “Mike? You seen my boots?”

Without saying a word, he hopped around my desk and grabbed for the bathroom door. The handle jiggled slightly, but wouldn’t turn. “Oh, forgot to tell you. James locked us out again.” I believe the look he gave me is the same look that made peoples’ heads explode in “Scanners.” He dashed rapidly past my desk, out the door and into the hallway. Moments later I heard the public bathroom door slam forcefully. His cell rang, so I grabbed it off his desk and answered “Mike’s cell phone, this is Scott speaking, how may I direct your call?”

“Scott? Where’s Mikey?” It was his mom. Of course.

“Hey Louise, he sprinted for the bathroom a minute ago. Food poisoning maybe? I dunno. I’ll have him give you a call when he’s available again, yeah?”

“That’ll be fine. Thank you Scott.”

“No problem.” Click.

I wandered down the hall toward the bathroom. “Mike? You good?” I laughed, knocking on the door. “Your mom called. I didn’t tell her you’d died this time, but you’re supposed to call her back after you’re done yurfing up your lunch.”

There was a brief pause before I heard a barely audible, “Uh, that might be a while. I ran into a snag. Oh God…” His voice was quiet, and he was slightly out of breath.

“What kind of snag? Is the door broken again?” It hadn’t been too long since one of the girls down the hall had been locked in there, but facilities had said they fixed the lock this time.

“No. I, uh. Christ, how do I say this. Well, you know how sometimes you just really have to go to the bathroom? Like, immediately?”

“Are you telling me you just shit yourself?” There was another pause, one that was very nearly punctuated by heavy laughter on my part.

“It was an endless torrent of doo-doo butter! It wouldn’t wait!”

At that point, I couldn’t help it anymore, and started laughing hysterically. “Okay, okay, What do you need, skidmark? New jeans? Underwear? Boots?” There was a shuffling noise from the bathroom, as well as the sound of something wet, like a boot getting pulled out of mud.

“No, boots are okay. But the other two would be cool. And a mop.”

“So, if I correctly interpreted that statement, you need underwear and jeans for you, and a mop for the floor? Is it safe to say you didn’t make it, then?” He peeked his head out the door at this point, looking like a sheet-white caricature of Jack Nicholson.

“And the walls.”

“What about the walls?”

“The mop. I need it for the walls, too. Just go!”

When a man asks you for fresh jeans and a mop, you can’t exactly say no. I certainly made fun of him for it later, though. So I went back to our room, got the supplies he’d asked for, and decided to toss in his cell phone, too. I’m not a brave man, and I didn’t look in the bathroom, but it smelled like wet lettuce, coffee grounds, and dead mice.

I went back to my room to play Super Smash Brothers for a while. Eventually he came back, looking haggard and smelling unpleasant, with the phone in one hand and the mop in the other. He sat down at his desk and stared silently into the middle distance for a few minutes before opening his phone. “Hey, Mom? Yeah, it’s me. No, it wasn’t food poisoning, I just really had to use the restroom.” The lines on his forehead deepened as his mother talked, and the muscles at the sides of his jaw hardened.

“Mom, look. I’m fine. But I need to get a new pair of jeans. Yeah. Yes, that’s what I meant when I said that I had to use the restroom. No, the laughing in the background is just Scott. Yes, he thinks it’s hilarious. I’m not sure why.”

He looked like he needed something to laugh about, so I contributed to the conversation. “I think it’s hilarious because a grown man lost control of his bowels and turned a public bathroom into a war zone.”

“He says—no, mom, I didn’t lose my wallet. Or my pocket watch. Yes, it was just the jeans, it’s really not that bad. I’d had those since like eighth grade anyway.  No, mom. My boots are fine. Yes, really. I know they’re brown, I double-checked and they really are okay. No, I couldn’t have saved them. Yes, I know that jeans are washable, thank you. You’re not understanding the sheer volume. It was like a war zone!”

He grinned at me, obviously pleased at his mother’s reaction. I piped in, “The least you could do is cite me on that, man. I DID bring you new jeans. I think that’s worth something. Also, maybe once you’re done on the phone you could take a shower? Just saying, it’s something to think about.”

Mike continued over me. The stony look on his face said that he was getting tired of discussing biological waste with the woman who had changed his diapers years ago.  “Mom, I have to go. Scott says the smell is filling the room, and making it unlivable in here. I know, you’re upset. But look at the bright side; at least I saved my boots.”

 

The art of living

I’ve ended up taking a lot of classes over the years because I needed something to round out my semester or to fill a vague requirement like a certain number of subject hours. As an undergrad, those were things like Cognitive Science, Folklore, or Young Adult Literature. I usually viewed them as necessary evils that had a lot of potential at the beginning of the semester, and they often became some of my favorite classes by the time Finals rolled around. I made friends and found passions, and the classes were usually pretty fun. Folk Art was another one of those classes. I didn’t end the semester much more interested in folk art than I had been in the first place, but I found a great definition that I’ve started to internalize into a major part of my personal philosophy. The actual definition is something about how “folk art is any functional item made to express aesthetic values of a community,” but drawn out over half a paragraph and with a half-dozen qualifiers. Somehow in my mind, that turned into this:

“Whatever you do, do it well and with intent.”

I know, it’s basic and common sense, but there’s a lot of basic common sense information out there, and a lot of it’s contradictory. This is just the bit that I know I need to work on in my own life. Most of the obstacles I’ve encountered over the last few years were because I ignored one of those two principles. Fighting with the thesis is because I just want to get the damn thing done. My committee convinced me to make some significant changes early on that I should have fought against harder. I didn’t fight with them because I just wanted to get the degree the easiest way possible. I wanted the degree because I need it as a minimum requirement to teach. I went to work as a cashier because I needed a paycheck. I started them all without any real intent other than finishing and doing the next thing. It’s an exhausting and shitty way to live, and I don’t recommend anyone go through motions for their own sake for very long.

Luckily, nothing can last forever. I found my intent and started trying about halfway through each issue. I started to see the value in some of the changes to the project. I started learning what I could in each class and supplementing it with research that I could bring into the classroom. I realized I could legitimately make a difference in people’s lives at the service desk (once I stopped listening to corporate directives to push store cards on people).

What I’m trying to say is this: I don’t expect my life to be analyzed with any sort of depth after I die, like scholars analyze quilts and weather vanes. But I want to live a folk art kind of life, the sort that brings functional and aesthetic benefits to the people in it. And if someone does analyze me in twenty, fifty, or a thousand years, maybe this post will be the key to understanding it.

Grad School WILL Break You

In an earlier post, “Why Grad School,” I discussed the pros and cons of a master’s program. There’s one con in particular that I want to explain a little more, one that the title of this post should have given away. When you first start grad school, you’ll probably feel good about yourself. There could be some anxiety involved, sure, and maybe you’ll be a little overwhelmed at first. Don’t worry about it, that’ll go away pretty quickly. After a few weeks, you’ll realize you’ve got this on lockdown. Teaching probably comes naturally, research should be second nature, and you’ve been writing so long you don’t even think about it anymore. That’s not a problem.

Once you get a handle on everything, you have to start teaching a new class. It’s probably similar to the old one, but you’ll be more or less on your own. Take your first year to learn from experienced lecturers. It’s also time to start on your thesis! You know how to write one of those, right? No, of course you don’t. I sure as heck didn’t, and it seems like that’s pretty much normal. But you’ll have a committee there to help you out. Eventually, you’ll manage to turn out a paper that’s somewhere between sixty and one hundred pages. Then you’ll submit it to that very same committee, and they’ll tear it to shreds. Don’t take it personally, it’s not like YOU suck, it’s just that your writing probably does. But you can keep revising and submitting until you finally have something you’re really proud to call your own.

Since I came here to USU, it’s become clear that I’m not cut out to be at a University. I know the basics of writing, I can research reasonably effectively, I can teach any curriculum set in front of me whether it’s from someone else or something that I’ve made myself. I kick ass in the writing center, with average scores around 4.5 out of five, and my student reviews are usually above average for our department. Now I’m finding out that I probably can’t write a thesis of a high enough quality to get my degree. In the classes I’m taking, I lost my 4.0 at the end of my second semester. I’m consistently frustrated with class discussions, which seem to revolve around debating and defining terms to the point that they’re no longer usable, and forcing classification on ideas to the point that they’re no longer effective models of reality.

Because I don’t belong in the world of scholarship, I can’t keep writing a blog for fellow scholars. I’ll try to resurrect this again in the coming months with a new focus, possibly something about life skills, or how to deal effectively with grief. Sorry guys, but I hope my experiences do some real good for any of you read this.

Ask for Broader Shoulders

This is not going to be a happy post. I’m talking about a part of my life that hurts, and I don’t want you to read it if you think it might be too difficult to read. I understand; it wasn’t very easy to write. You can stop now, and I’ll never know. There are just some things I needed to say, and I don’t know who I should say them to. So, they’re on here.

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