By Christy Pottroff
Free Time is so Appealing
For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my "Texts & Contexts" course. I don't have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It's a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth-century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student in English, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.
The Intimidating Blank Page
An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: Could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?
Online Dissertation Writing Group
A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire, Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond.
The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn't critique one another's writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e., read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan).
Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.
Collaborating with Google Docs
The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member's goals. Here's our group's template:
Please use the template provided and fill in your own daily goals and accomplishments. Feel free to cheer each other on, and/or intersperse entries with motivational memes. No judgments, only motivation and positivity! Together we can make this Spring Break WORTH SOMETHING.
TEMPLATE (please cut and past your own underneath)
Broad goals for break:
Goals 3.16 (Mon):
Goals 3.17 (Tues):
Goals 3.18 (Wed):
Goals 3.19 (Thurs):
Goals 3.20 (Fri):
Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with each other's goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.
At the end of each day, I set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.
Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them.
What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group's institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don't know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn't advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.
Manage time, set goals, and work with others using simple online tools
Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it's not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the Internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you'll use your time and hold one another accountable.