Sunday, November 23, 2008

Losing its Luster

When we have something that we're working on for a long time, it can begin to lose its luster. What seemed interesting when it was new, becomes less interesting as its familiarity increases.
I've been facing that with this blog recently; I just haven't felt like I had something new to say that I really wanted to say. and I haven't felt like I had anything that I really wanted to say that I wanted to try saying again in a new way...or at least not in a new way in this blog.

But what to do when it's your dissertation project?
The key, it seems, is to keep the project seeming new by learning constantly. That may not seem to be likely or possible with something that you have been working on consistently for a long time, but realistically, we can learn something new, even about the familiar if we are seeking new insight and new wisdom.

When you're an academic and a writer, there are any new things to learn. The do not always lie in the plane that one expects: when writing a large project, for example, one can learn about the subject itself (as expected), but one can also learn about managing projects and about writing, not to mention the possibility that we can learn about ourselves and learn to better control our emotions and our thoughts so that we can be more productive, and so that we can gain the greatest value from those abilities that we have.

None of these things are easy to learn. Indeed, learning is usually associated with some level of difficulty--without difficulty are we really learning, or are we just storing a little bit of new information? But it is in the learning that we can see the project in a new way, and through that new vision, we can find a new spark of interest--or even we can begin to find some of the luster that was lost as the project became familiar.

In a way the academic writer should have an easy time learning new things--that is, in fact, the purpose of research--to learn. What a shame, then, that so many academic writers have lost sight of the reasons that they began their projects.

I got a card from a writer recently that said "we've been working together for a year now; thank you!" There was a part of me that was a little embarrassed, because I thought when we started working together that she had a good chance of finishing within a year, and she thought that there was no way that she could bear to work on the project for more than six months longer. But that's an incomplete story, too. Her aim is now finishing in the spring, and she's confident that she will. Because the project has regained the luster that she had once seen. Instead of facing the project with resentment for the work that needs to be done, as she did when we began working together, now she is excited about the project, and almost every time we speak she tells me about some additional work that she wants to integrate into the project. To grossly simplify, I attribute this to the fact that she has come to find a deeper appreciation for the value of her own work--not just for what she hoped to accomplish with it, but also she sees the depth of her analysis and how that analysis fits into a larger academic discourse that connects her with other writers. One key during the process was that she found (at least) two writers whose work helped her see a new value in her own work--a value that was new to her.

Projects lose their luster; that's natural. As the saying goes: variety is the spice of life. And where there is little variety, there is bland boredom. With a large project like a dissertation, we cannot introduce variety into the project by changing the project itself, so we have to seek a finer-grain of variety--we can see the change of our own ideas as we develop in our sophistication of both thought and expression (the two are not unrelated).

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