My Week in Dissertation Heaven

Behind Nmachika is the beautiful Lake Mendota

Behind Nmachika is the beautiful Lake Mendota

By Nmachika Nwakaego Nwokeabia.When I found out that the UW-Madison’s Writing Center was offering a dissertation writing camp (or, as I fondly call it, a dissertation boot camp) during this past summer, I knew I had to apply for it. I was obsessed with my dissertation, and this was yet another way for me to shower my dissertation with love.

To prove my dedication to my dissertation I wrote every single day (often waking up at 4:00 AM and racing straight to the computer to put down my crispest, freshest thoughts), joined every virtual and real-life writing group I came across, pestered colleagues with my groundbreaking ruminations, and religiously practiced the BIC method during periods of writer’s block; yet all I had to show for my hard work was a directionless, unwieldy, unmanageable, intimidating  100-page monstrosity of a chapter that only seemed to grow by the day. I was in deep trouble, and if anything could help me, it was the Writing Center.

I was no stranger to the Writing Center. I had worked as a Writing Center tutor for several years and knew what a wonderful place it was for beginning, intermediate, and advanced writers. I had witnessed firsthand the magic that could happen during Writing Center conferences, when a sudden bolt— or sometimes a gradual wave—of clarity would come upon a student’s face as they suddenly realized how to take their paper to the next level.

Yet I seldom went to the Writing Center with my own dissertation. I wasn’t worried that Writing Center tutors would not understand my literary analysis of 21st century Nigerian writing (though what I had written was hardly comprehensible even to me); I was afraid to show anybody my disaster of a chapter and even less inclined to talk about how isolating, confusing, and difficult the dissertation writing process was for me. I was convinced that my difficulty with my dissertation was a case of unrequited love, and if only I showered my dissertation with love it would love me back. Until then, I vowed to keep the lopsided relationship to myself, at least until things got better.

When I told my sister in Virginia of my early summer dissertation boot camp plans, she thought it meant that I would be hunched over a computer while a camp sergeant (perhaps my advisor?) stood behind me, drilling nonstop instructions into my ears. “Oh, wow,” she exclaimed, not realizing that my dissertation writing crisis warranted such drastic intervention. After I explained that boot camp was just a structured, supportive environment for dissertators from across the campus she sort of relaxed. “What a brilliant idea,” she said.

I found out a few weeks later that I had gotten into the week-long boot camp (one of three camps offered during the summer of 2012, including a six-week camp), and I was ecstatic.

tan_suitecaseA week before camp, I began preparing the same way I would for a long-awaited international trip: I graded all my students’ papers and turned in their final grades, read my primary texts for the chapters I intended to work on, prepared my food for a week, informed my friends that I would be unavailable, ran all my important errands and postponed all others, and announced excitedly to everybody I met (who looked at me quizzically and no doubt assumed I had gone mad) that I would be going to boot camp to work on my dissertation.

The week of boot camp was like every other week except that I could dedicate myself completely, wholly, unconditionally, and lovingly to my dissertation. Our coordinators, John Bradley and Nancy Linh Karls, who were experienced with managing dissertation boot camps and who wrote about a past one here, had already prepped us on the schedule and expectations beforehand, and every morning and afternoon their warm smiles, encouraging words, and tireless work made dissertation writing a joy.

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

In my boot camp class were social scientists just returned from international fieldwork; philosophers working on existential, mindboggling questions; political scientists waging war on the page; newly minted dissertators yet to pen a word; and a few fellow English literature graduate students and Writing Center tutors who, perhaps, struggled with undiagnosed verbosity. It seemed like virtually every discipline and writing style in the social sciences and humanities was represented.

We all came to boot camp with different concerns and expectations. All of us wanted to make progress on our dissertations. Some, like me, did not struggle with motivation but wanted to improve their productivity and efficiency. Others had been writing their dissertations remotely and were eager to join a supportive community of writers. Others, still, wanted to know how to reignite the passion that they once had for their dissertations.

At 8:00 AM every single day we began with a short check-in session when we set goals for the day and discussed them in small groups. Then, we moved to our individual work stations: some overlooking the beautifully serene Lake Mendota; others, like mine, confined to the austere, quiet Writing Center Computer classroom (I really took the boot camp theme to heart). At lunchtime we could attend optional 30 minute workshops—where  John and Nancy and even Brad, our Writing Center director, offered stimulating topics on using technology, managing time effectively, and improving style—or we could have lunch elsewhere on campus so long as we returned in time for the afternoon writing session.  After lunch we reconvened again to check-in and would finally end at 3:45pm and meet again to wrap up the day.

Throughout the day we could move about as we needed to, and boy did I move. I spent most of my time writing in short bursts of about 10 to 15 minutes after which I would walk around nervously, find other boot camp participants to chat with, stop by the break room to refill on coffee and snacks, take a short bathroom break or a prolonged 15-minute break to chat with one of the Writing Center tutors. I never realized how much I could accomplish if I focused intensely for only 15 minutes at a time and I didn’t realize how much walking helped me break the monotony of writing. Instead of the long, stationary yet discursive internet breaks I took while writing pre-boot camp, I learned to take short, managed walking breaks of about three to five minutes.

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

Dissertation campers, summer 2011

I also developed a healthier attitude about my writing process. No longer did I think that I had betrayed my dissertation if I could not make my morning writing time because I overslept or chose to read instead: I discovered I was not necessarily a morning writer as much as I was a writer who needed a little “warm up” time before I could begin writing. Boot camp taught me that I could write at any time of the day.

The most important lesson I learned from boot camp, however, was how to set goals. I had previously relied on word count goals to measure my dissertation writing progress. After boot camp, I learned to combine word count with process goals. That is, I had to write purposefully, and not aimlessly, when trying to fulfill my daily word count quota. I also learned a wonderful system for setting achievable, as opposed to impossible, goals.

At the end of boot camp week I produced another 100 pages for two separate chapters and felt much better about revisiting and revising that unwieldy 100-page chapter. It’s now down to about 80 pages.
Many people talk about dissertation boot camps as providing dissertators with the structure, environment, and community to help them work on their dissertations, but for me, the boot camp experience was nothing short of heavenly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *