Too Many Roads Diverged

It has been a while since I’ve written on this blog–partially because I’ve been ill and partially because I have been stuck in my own head. I had a difficult fall semester, and I spent much of the spring dealing with “symptoms of treatment.”

I feel like I’m at a crossroads in my dissertation writing process. It’s not that I haven’t been writing in general. I have been working with my various research teams to write up analyses of our data. In fact, as of next month, we’ll have two forthcoming pieces and two under review. This work feels very exciting to me and has touched on many of my areas of interest, including health and medical rhetoric, under-explored archives like Pinterest, genre studies, and writing in the disciplines. Although we each tend to bring separate chunks of writing together (i.e. we’re not writing in the same room very often, or even at the same time), writing collaboratively–even in this way–energizes me. Whenever I have a question or problem, I bounce it to one of my team members, who is excited to take on the challenge. My team members are brilliant and innovative; they enhance my seedling ideas and figure out how to say things I can’t yet articulate. I am so, so lucky to be working with them. 

However, in my single-authored writing (i.e. my dissertation), I am stuck at the level of analysis. Or is it the level of brainstorming? My process seems to go like this: I mull over an idea, figure out that it doesn’t work by researching it, come up with something else that works, figure out that that doesn’t work…and it goes on. I have materials to study, but I feel paralyzed when I can’t figure out how to use them to join conversations in my field(s). There are so many possible conversations to join, and I’m not sure which ones are the right ones. I research, jot down ideas, and research more…only to discover, time and time again, that my ideas are not cohering. Sometimes, my “intervention” seems so obvious that I can’t fathom how it will be an intervention at all. 

This terrible, self-hating process makes me feel like my dissertation isn’t “working” or worth writing. If there is no clear exigency, why take the time, physical energy, and emotional stamina to write? 

I keep rehashing all of the dissertation truisms in my head, but I’ve been picking them apart over and over again. For example: 

  • The dissertation is a marathon, so don’t try to sprint or make sense of everything before the time is right. And yet I’ve been looking at some of these materials for two years already. Why don’t I know what they mean? Why don’t I know what to say about them?
  • You don’t know what the dissertation is going to be about until you finish writing it. BUT I HAVE BEEN MULLING OVER IT AND TRYING TO WRITE IT FOR SO LONG ALREADY! WHY HAVEN’T I FIGURED IT OUT?

The irony, of course, is that right now my body is cooperating. I am feeling relatively stable and comfortable. The act of writing isn’t causing me physical pain like it does most of the time. So why can’t I write? Why can’t I think? Why aren’t things coming together?

Contemplating these esoteric questions probably isn’t helpful, but maybe I’ll feel better if I attempt to name the problems I’m encountering?

Problem #1: Critical Distance

Because I am (or once was–prior to beginning this dissertation…) so passionate about the rhetorics of Lyme Disease, it is difficult for me to analyze my archive of materials. As an ill person, I’ve often felt alone and silenced, and working on this project is one way of speaking back to that experience and, I hope, doing some good. However, I keep having experiences where I ask for a colleague’s perspective on something and they see something so obvious–and so critical–that I’ve completely missed. I am thankful every day for all of the brilliant people in my life, but sometimes when others point out the puzzle pieces which are “hidden” in plain sight, I feel humiliated. How could I have missed this? Why didn’t I notice this before? Why couldn’t I have come up with this frame? 

To use another idiom, I feel stupid when I can’t see the forest through the trees–my trees, trees that am supposed to know better than anyone else. Worse yet, I worry that writing this publicly suggests that I don’t appreciate all of the love and labor my colleagues, mentors, and partner have put into helping me with my dissertation. I do. I am so grateful for their support. But it seems like “real” scholars do it on their own. I know this isn’t really true and that I need to tell myself a different (and truer) story. (In general, I’ve found worrying to be an unproductive practice that I want to acknowledge but not engage constantly). Somehow, I think this is worsened by the fact that I’d like to consider myself a sort of expert on Lyme Disease, due to both my research and personal experiences. And yet these experiences with my colleagues suggest that I am far from an expert, and worse yet, that my expertise may be blinding me to what is obvious to everyone else. I’ve tried to put different pieces of the project on hold, buying myself time to mull over the materials and process my thoughts. But this percolating has taken me down what feels like many dead ends. As Robert Frost so famously wrote, “I took the [road] less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.” I guess he wasn’t talking about research?

Problem #2: Boundless (Yet Time Sensitive) Archives

I am researching Lyme Disease, which means that some of my research is nearly historical but most of it is happening right now and evolving as I type! Although it’s great that there are always new materials coming out, it’s also terrifying. Maybe someone will have already published on it before I finish. Maybe my materials will be too dated by the time they get published. Maybe they only matter in this moment. It’s hard to focus when I am constantly seeing new work on Lyme Disease. I should probably just stop looking–that would be one way to solve this problem. But that feels wrong, too. 

I need to make decisions–however arbitrary–to create a bounded project. For whatever reason, I find this to be an agonizing process. (Perhaps it has something to do with my think-research-reject problem described earlier). 

Problem #3: Failed Routines

I have read most of the main books about writing dissertations, and I feel like they haven’t worked for me. Specifically, none of them have adequately addressed how to write a dissertation and live with chronic illness at the same time. I was probably expecting too much–maybe that’s the book I should write! (JK NO NEW PROJECTS UNTIL THIS DISSERTATION CHAPTER IS DONE). In my experience, chronic illness amplifies many of the issues people tend to have with dissertation writing. It’s hard to set goals. Sometimes even writing for fifteen minutes a day is impossible because I’m in too much pain and need to conserve my energy for teaching. I’m very conscious of not prioritizing teaching over research, but on days when I’m feeling especially unwell and have little energy, I’m forced to make a choice about what must get done that day. If it’s a teaching day, that means my energy must be channeled toward teaching. I feel like a failure if I don’t meet goals I set for page lengths or progress–so I’ve stopped setting them. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. I set goals with my accountability group most weeks, but they don’t always have to do with writing (i.e. check in with advisor A about XYZ, send an email about getting some kind of information, etc.). Even my typical process of free-writing until something good comes up is producing more anxiety instead of soothing it. SIGH.

In the end, it’s probably better that I learn this lesson early: write as often as I can, wherever I am. Strangely, I’ve made good progress on my project during bus rides to campus and while sitting in doctor’s offices. But it doesn’t feel like enough. It’s better than nothing, of course, but I still need to produce more text so, if nothing else, I’ll have something to edit. As I tell my students, you can’t revise a blank page!

Problem #4: Scholarly Identity

Recently, I realized that I’m not who I thought I would be as a scholar. As an undergraduate, I learned about rhetoric through feminist rhetorical historiographers, so I imagined that my work would always be grounded in that tradition. My training at UNC-CH has been fantastic, but it wasn’t in feminist historiography. I’ve become a rhetoric of health and medicine scholar with investments in feminist rhetorical theory, disability studies, genre theory, life writing, and writing in the disciplines. My publications reflect these investments. Although I sometimes use historical research for context, I’m not a historian. For whatever reason, this makes me kind of sad. Maybe it’s not unusual, since the culture of imitation in academia is strong, but in any case, it’s not helping me move my dissertation forward. 

Okay, enough self-deprecation. Onward! 



Expecting the Knee

It’s 8:19am on a Monday morning in October. It’s still humid outside, or at least that’s what my throbbing left knee tells me. The top right quadrant is clearly inflamed–at least in my experience–and the pain is radiating around my knee and down into the soles of my feet. My left hip is irritated, too, and my right elbow also appears to be tender and throbbing. I am trying to ignore the pain. In fact, I should be thankful: in this chair, my back doesn’t seem to be acting up. I thought I would get some substantial work done this morning, since I imagined my tense back muscles might be calmed by sleep. But I didn’t expect the knee. I didn’t suspect that it would almost prevent me from getting out of bed this morning.

I’ve been waking early and working on my dissertation before my work on campus begins. 6:40am or 7:30am might seem late to some people, but it is still dark then and might as well be the middle of the night. I love hearing the birds tweet as I think about rhetoric and circulation and the maps, pins, logos, and other artifacts that have contributed to our cultural understanding of Lyme Disease. Most people I know complain about not having–re: taking–enough time to write their dissertations or books and whatever, their attention captured by email and social media and coffee and the bustle of campus life. I am taking the time, but what about these days when my misbehaving body co-opts it?

For the last week or two, I have been reading two texts closely: Laurie Gries’s Still Life with Rhetoric and Jonathan Buehl’s Assembling Arguments. I have been underlining and making notes in the margins and am finally ready to pull quotes (and my thoughts) together–at least the work I’ve done thus far. But now my back is talking to me and I suppose I should do my physical therapy exercises to quiet it down.

My mind is clear, even sharp in the mornings. I am ready to write and think but my body has its own agenda. Even though these texts speak to me, these other noises–the creaks in my knees, back, hips, and ankles–overpower the sounds. Regrettably, I must attend to them.

The Dissertation and the Flare

Perhaps once I finish this dissertation I can publish a picture book for other chronically ill dissertation writers. Like The Tortoise and the Hare, but funnier? The irony, of course, is that the lesson at the end is the same: slow and steady wins in (pretty much) every case. Or in the case of the dissertation, at least allows you to complete it and move on with your life.

I haven’t written on this research blog in almost four months because I spent the summer and the first month of the fall in a horrible flare. As I’m writing this, I am experiencing a stinging sensation from the sole of my foot to my calf and in the palm of my left hand through my thumb and am frantically scratching at them, hoping they’ll go away. I exhausted myself in the spring by taking my exams, defending my prospectus, and traveling to five states in five months. At first, I imagined that I was going to gain some sort of academic capital from being this worn out, but I assure you that I suffered instead. When I wasn’t working a few hours per day as a graduate research consultant for a summer course, I slept. I think I slept for most of the month of July and the first two weeks of August. Besides frantically submitting final versions of a few projects in progress, I went to the doctor, took photos of my cat, and laid on the couch or in bed. Things got worse when I stopped sleeping except during the accidental naps I caught each afternoon. School restarted and everything got worse. I was furious, frustrated, and ashamed. Small tasks like shopping for groceries and proofreading the last pieces of a manuscript felt overwhelming. It seemed like my body got in the way of any pleasure I pursued except for eating ice-cream.

Almost four months later, it seems like writing–the practice, craft, and skill that was most compromised by the flare–has become a mode of coping with the flare. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m still in the midst of Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis and just got to the part about dissertation writing and pleasure. When I worked as a graduate research assistant in July, I began to rethink my relationship with writing. Each day, the students began class by writing for five or ten minutes in response to a particular concept or question. I participated in these activities too, mostly to prove that I was engaged despite looking and feeling like an inflammation zombie. I wrote by hand most days, even though I rarely do so except to sign papers or write a note in the margin of a book. My hand cramps after a short time, which is physically painful, and remembering the joy of writing by hand sometimes upsets me. After a few days of this, however, I realized I had produced more words on a page than I had since revising my prospectus at the beginning of April. Even though I wasn’t writing about an academic project, I was still writing…and somehow that generated ideas about my academic projects, which I worked on occasionally but only in the absence of nausea, slight pain relief, etc…which was perhaps once a week for one hour. I attended class most days and read and learned along with the students. We discussed organizational strategies, word choice, wordiness, and other concepts I’d forgotten about. But mostly I’d forgotten that writing can be intensely joyful–even healing. James Pennebaker and his research teams have studied this phenomenon, but they are mostly interested in the act of writing as healing, whereas for me the craft of writing, revising, reorganizing, rethinking, and reexamining felt somehow restorative.

For most graduate students and professional writers, it seems like writing is a necessity and a source of insomnia-inducing, binge-eating stress. For me, the writing stress comes from an inability to maintain a routine due to chronic illness issues in addition to all of the typical writing issues people encounter: tangled ideas, murky arguments, persistent phone and Facebook checking, and the like. It is difficult to think and compose text when you are fighting a headache from the computer screen, can’t stop the shooting pains going from your knee to your right big toe, etc. I couldn’t even focus enough to read the highly recommended books about writing I’d checked out from the library. But somehow, in the creative nonfiction undergraduate writing classroom, I could write for five or ten minutes at a time. And in a time of terrible distress, it gave me hope. Perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that I am writing a dissertation because there are stories that I–as a researcher and in-group member–am able to access, interpret, and share with the larger public based on my status as a chronically-ill-and-medically-literate-and-rhetorically-attuned-scholar-in-training. With this realization, I reimagined my project to integrate research methods from the two subfields in which I have scholarly training: feminist rhetorical historiography (undergraduate) and rhetoric of health and medicine (graduate). This might seem like an insignificant step, since most dissertation writers must completely reframe their work for publication in peer-reviewed journal articles or single-authored monographs because no one wants anything directly from anyone’s dissertation. However, it made a huge difference for me because it made me feel like I could move forward. It somehow made (what felt like) an enormous project with completely new research methods routinized… I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. But it made me more comfortable with the project I proposed and helped me figure out a new framework, and I’m one of those people who hates writing without a framework….

It didn’t happen one day and most of it wasn’t magical, but these short, in-class writing exercises helped me believe Joan Bolker’s argument that you have to write your way into your dissertation–well, enough to start doing it. They helped me remember that writing about what I’m thinking is powerful but doesn’t have to be high-stakes. They helped me remember the sound of my own voice, which is something I took pride in and thought I’d lost along with my health. I am slowly realizing that I do know myself as a writer, a researcher, and an ill person. Some days are better than others. I’ve been trying to get up early and write three pages over a two-hour period since September 16th. This morning, I wrote six pages and finished a “zero draft” of my first dissertation chapter. Two days ago, I wrote three sentences and spent most of my session bargaining with my impatient cat and lower back pain. This schedule is intense, and I’m napping most afternoons to compensate and have been putting off grading papers because I’m exhausted by 3:00pm. But something is happening, and since there’s no predicting or changing my health, I guess that’s all I can hope for?

On Being Chronic (and Human)

Although the academic year ended nearly a month ago, it’s still hard for me to believe that summer is here. Unfortunately, this is because I am (still) exhausted. The end of the semester felt like a race against a million (mostly external) deadlines, like submitting my seminar paper, defending my prospectus, grading portfolios, submitting conference proposal and other application materials, etc. I tried to catch my breath after defending my prospectus and then after submitting my seminar paper, but there was more to do and I’d left too little time for myself to complete everything. I spent my two “free” days at home during the least three weeks of May cleaning, since my house was a disaster. (I mean, I needed to find and return some of my library books, which had racked up almost $40 in fines, scrub things down…things I’d been putting off for weeks or months. Ugh). And for some unknown and INCONVENIENT reason, I stopped sleeping at the beginning of May (due to stress?) and decided to move some of my medications around as a result…which of course caused sleeplessness/exhaustion, cold sweats, nightmares, and general malaise. This went on for about three weeks. I also over-scheduled myself, and during this three-week period I bounced between Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The worst part of everything was that I’d planned for the travel to be a kind of “vacation.”

I hate writing about this because I risk sounding whiny and dramatic. (Though I sense this is a tension that challenges other chronically ill people, too). I *did* enjoy a long weekend in Cape May, NJ tooling around with some of my best friends from college. I *did* have fun visiting with my parents and some of my UMD professors when I was in Maryland. I *did* enjoy my first Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) conference in Atlanta; I heard many smart presentations, made great #medrhet connections, and in general I was so glad I made the effort to attend. I *did* have one great beach day at Hilton Head with my grandparents and extended family over Memorial Day Weekend. (Yes, I’m the idiot who left sunny Atlanta/halfway through RSA to fly to Hilton Head Island as it was pelted by a tropical storm).

But it was really hard. In general, I–my body–felt terrible. My hips and knees ached. My appetite was off. My back was sore. My neck was stiff. My skin was oily and itchy and uncomfortable. I took my pain medication and still couldn’t get comfortable. Without sleep, and with sleep interrupted by night sweats and terrifying nightmares, I was a shell of myself. I tried to enjoy what I could of the “break” I’d scheduled for myself, but I felt like I was drowning.

All of this sounds so trite, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. I still kind of feel like I’m drowning.

But I’m taking a chance and writing about it on my research blog because it impacted my work, my thinking, my progress, and most significantly, my process. The worst part–the thing I’m most ashamed of–is that I submitted a very inadequate full draft of an essay that had been accepted for publication in a special issue of a journal. I received the edits at the end of December and was sure that I’d have plenty of time to expand the proposal. I worked on the proposal with one of my research teams, but I am the lead author. As February, March, and April passed, I knew I had the June 1st deadline hanging over my head and was sure that I’d get to it when school ended. I was sure there wasn’t much work to be done; the proposal was 6-ish pages and the final essay could be a maximum of 15 pages plus citations. Our argument was clear, and it was up to me to flesh it out. My wonderful, committed team offered to help at any/all stages of the writing process, but I postponed sharing my draft with them, waiting until I had more time to work on it. I wasn’t ready. The essay still wasn’t really ready when I submitted it–one minute after the 11:59pm deadline. The editors still accepted it, of course, but I’m so embarrassed. The work is sub-par, even sloppy. I didn’t get my thoughts together until the very, very end, even though I’d been thinking about the project on and off for months. I asked one of my wonderful English grad student friends from college to read what I had around 8:00pm the night it was due, so I did get a little feedback (which was extremely helpful and helped me refocus the argument). But I guess what I’m trying to say is that it wasn’t what I wanted.

I have heard that the “my work is never done” problem pervades academia and keeps smart people from submitting their work for review. This might be part of my issue, but I honestly don’t think that I submitted good work. It definitely wasn’t my best work, and I feel like I let my research team down. Of course, this wasn’t the final version of the essay, since the editors will send me back at least one more version before the essay goes to press. However, I know that the next edits are supposed to be finalizing copyedits, not major issues with the writing style or arguments, and I’m ashamed that I submitted work that isn’t really up to par.

I guess I should have asked for help, but I wasn’t sure how. With chronic illness, I never really know when a “flare” or issue with side-effects will come up or go away. It’s not even clear to me how bad the “flare” is until it’s over.

I’ve had chronic illness issues for so long that, for the most part, I’m done being embarrassed by what chronic illness does to my body. (The acne and sweating/freezing bring up a special brand of middle school shame, but I have blundered through the weight gain, bloating, nausea, pain, nightmares, and everything else with as much grace as I can muster). But to have it disrupt my writing and thinking process for a long-ish period of time is/was unbearable. I think I found it even more upsetting because I’d pulled through different illness episodes before without feeling like I’d failed at anything. In college, I did my senior thesis research in bed, wrote rhetorical analyses from my parents’ couch, and punctuated my work with naps, Ben & Jerry’s, and pills, changing my pajamas every few days. And yet I was successful despite all of these things. Of course, I also had every economic, familial, and cultural advantage, which cannot be underestimated. (Like in so many illness narratives, the white, upper-middle class feminine-presenting woman with generous economic and emotional support from her friends and family pulls through). But in any case, it made this particular episode even more depressing than ones I’d experienced previously.

Perhaps this is also because I’m now a writing teacher. I teach the writing process. I preach the writing process. (Well, the idea that there are many processes, some of which work better for different people, and that one goal of first-year composition is to find one or more processes and composing techniques that work for you). Still, I struggled to put words on a page–my low-bar but high-impact goal for moving my thinking and my projects forward. I guess this isn’t surprising since I struggled to figure out what state (mentally and/or geographically) I was waking up in, but my inability to follow a reasonable, long-range-planning writing process made me feel like a failure.

As a writer and researcher, this experience generated a number of questions for me. I am usually pleased when kairotic moments bring up new questions–questions that can help me begin to solve embodied, everyday problems–but instead, these questions are making me nervous. What happens when we fail at a/the writing process? How do chronically ill individuals negotiate collisions of academic deadlines and flare-ups and unexpected complications? How and when do chronically ill academics ask for help, extensions, or forgiveness? How and when do we explain ourselves (or not)? If, how, and/or when do we share information about our health issues in a professional context?

As my incisive partner frequently reminds me, I’m “only human”…whatever that means. 

But for now, it’s time to rest and recover.


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How to Write a Seminar Paper: Process Writing in Action!

It’s hard to believe, but this past week, I was in the midst of writing my last seminar paper. (HOORAY!) I have always found “seminar papers” to be an exhausting intellectual exercise that is relatively useless. (Yes, I’m using quotations because I think they’re a weird mutt genre that continues to unnecessarily confused graduate students). There are probably articles that discuss how you would go about writing one, but when I first started writing them, I wasn’t smart enough to do that kind of genre analysis/meta-level research. Instead, I suffered. I felt like I could never do enough research to support my claims and that I was just spewing sad, empty, graduate student spittle. Now that I’ve finished my exams and (successfully!) defended my prospectus, I am finding that my last seminar paper is SO MUCH EASIER TO WRITE than all of my other ones. I sense that this is because I’ve finally figured out the metacognitive “moves” that are required in such papers (and their final version, the humanities academic article): you have to “join the conversation“–have something to hang your argument on–in order to be successful.

Now, I’m not saying that this paper was easy to write. Not in the least. In fact, my final product only ended up being 12 pages plus a bibliography…which wasn’t quite the 20 my professor had in mind. I have been thinking about what to write for weeks and finally, in these last few days of the semester, had time to shove some thoughts on a page. For me, research and writing (and in this case, process writing) are interspersed. I read two things, I write down one idea. I read ten things, I try to put together a short summary of what all of the things mean or what they might mean for my project. I write down two questions, I google scholar search for some answers. And in case you’re wondering what that looks like, I attempted to document the process as it happened in this post!

Prior to Research/Writing Days (i.e. the entire semester): 

I used my exam list as a jumping off point. At first, when coming into the class, I thought I would want to write about scientific illustration in the renaissance and how it has changed/stayed the same today–and its continued rhetorical impact. About one month into the class, I started wondering if this was actually going to be an applicable topic; later on, after reading Vico (who uses an illustration at the beginning of his New Science and claims that it explains the entire book), I would find many good starting places, but something came up organically instead. While reading Sheridan via The Rhetorical Tradition, I noticed that Sheridan (and others–at the time, I couldn’t remember who) mention the “deaf man” when talking about rhetoric. I brought this up in class even though I wasn’t sure anyone else had noticed or would find it interesting. Thankfully, CL, our brilliant professor, had noticed and made an insightful comment that the figure of the “deaf man” was a sort of test about how rhetoric worked at that time–if even a “deaf” man could understand you, you were effective. I highlighted, bolded, and changed the color of my notes to signal that this was something I should remember as we got closer to paper submission.

This made me think about the issue of disability and rhetoricity, which I had also read about during my exams. In turn, I checked out a few books that I attempted to read cover-to-cover so that I could get a sense of the “conversation[s]” in progress to which I might respond. These books included: Jay Dolmage’s Disability Rhetoric, Margaret Price’s Mad at School, and Jordynn Jack’s Autism and Gender. I took notes and recorded a lot of quotes which seemed like they might be relevant.

Research/Writing Day 1: 

After CL’s comment, I decided that I wanted to join the conversation about rhetoric, rhetoricity, and disability and relate it to what was happening with Renaissance rhetoric. I first turned to a somewhat-often-cited article in the subfield by Catherine Prendergast, who uses the example of her friend with schizophrenia to argue that individuals with mental disabilities lack rhetoricity. Cynthia Leweiskci-Wilson, Katie Rose Guest Pryal, and others challenge this idea with their own responses; Leweiscki-Wilson says that rhetors with mental disabilities need to expand the definition of rhetoric and what “counts” as communication to make it possible for them to become rhetorical/gain rhetoricity. Pryal says that these rhetors may use different available means of persuasion. In any case, I found all of these related things by playing around on Google Scholar. I searched for “disability and rhetoricity,” “rhetoric and rhetoricity,” “disability rhetoric,” “faculty psychology,” and more. I knew about the Prendergast piece from my exams, so I used it as a point of departure for the rest of the rhetoricity research.

I also examined Dolmage’s bibliography in Disability Rhetoric, Prendergast’s bibliography in both of her chapters, and played the who-cites-who game to try to see who has written the most recent articles about disability, rhetoric, rhetoricity, and more. One of my other favorite games, the “citation game,” helped me decide which pieces to read first. (By the “citation game,” I mean using the “cited by” numbers that Google Scholar provides to see how many people have referenced a certain piece. I think this is an imperfect technique for a variety of reasons, which perhaps I’ll have time to explain later, but when I’m on a deadline, this technique reassures me that I’ve at least seen the titles of some of the most important works in a subfield.

I then went about pulling quotes–from things that I’m reading (i.e. scanning) via Google Scholar research as well as other things I’ve read before that new pieces prompted me to reread or think about. I also copy/pasted/cited quotes, which I put in a Notes document, that made me think about my dissertation project or that seemed like they might be helpful.

As always, research leads me to a variety of fruitful paths and dead ends. I looked at people’s CVs and personal websites (out of curiosity and to see if I’d missed a major publication that might help me), dissertations (for bibliographies and to see the latest work in the field), information for journals I might submit the eventual article version to, and more. Although sometimes I feel resentful that I’ve spent so much time exploring and not enough time putting smart words on a page, my weird Wikipedia-like knowledge sometimes comes in handy later. For example, I was trying to trace the trajectory of publishing in disability studies, and one of the ways I do this is to read people’s acknowledgements so that I can see who mentored them and who they’re friends with.

All of this made me think about Laurie Gries’s discussion of how things “become rhetorical” in her 2015 monograph. While Gries is talking about the Obama Hope image in particular, I think that there is an interesting piece there about the process of becoming–which I think happens for rhetors with disabilities because, historically, disability has been understood as a deficit and an individual problem; a defect that must be surmounted. I didn’t end up discussing Gries in the paper, but her idea of “becoming rhetorical” stuck with me as I tried to parse out the rhetoric/rhetoricity/disability thing.

Throughout the process, I read 5-10 book reviews to get a sense of if the book was worth tracking down. If the book was available in a “read online” version via UNC libraries, I skimmed it, but sometimes I still read the reviews to figure out which chapter(s) to focus on. I often keyword searched within these texts to see if terms like “renaissance” and “rhetoric” came together in the same spaces or if it was just coincidental. (Note: searches for the term “disability” were often fraught because if a Java program was “disabled” on a page, that got pulled up, too).

Part of my research process was also figuring out what was and was not easily available to me. For example, the Disability & Society journal is not available through UNC. I could look through it later and request articles, but I skipped it for now.

I came out of this with about 1.5 pages of notes, including significant quotes and an outline-ish thing. I also had a short bibliography to help me keep track of my sources, which I copy/pasted from Google Scholar.

From time to time, I also rechecked the assignment: How many pages? Are there any special goals I should keep in mind? Etc.

Research/Writing Day 2:

I copy/pasteed my work into a new document and review what I had done so far. What lines of inquiry seem to be the most fruitful? My notes/outline-ish thing have the making of an introduction, but I noticed that, based on what information I had, I wanted to revise some paragraphs into entire sections.

I played around with some quotes and assembled them into some kind of paragraphs–about 1.5 pages of the introduction. I tried to use language that was clear and unsophisticated–I can always go back and revise it later. For me, I don’t feel good about writing unless I have a strong set-up.

What’s weird, at least this time, is that I wrote in chronological order. I often find myself paralyzed if I don’t have an outline and a clear idea of what I want to say before I begin writing. I should do more free-writing–I know I should–but sometimes it makes me feel like my ideas are even messier than they are. Instead, I prefer consulting with friends and advisers if I’m a) completely confused and directionless and can’t even ask a question, and/or b) have a few possible directions and want feedback about which seems most promising.


Research/Writing Days 3-5:

I repeated the processes above and used the Pomodoro Technique to try to produce as much writing as possible without having an anxiety attack or aggravating my joints. As I was writing, I figured out that the *REAL* thing I want to focus on is how disability rhetoric helps us define and redefine rhetoric and rhetoricity in expansive ways, ultimately changing the character of rhetoric. The “deaf man” idea probably still can be worked into this, but I really need to go reread my primary texts again so that I can figure out if this is going to work. I submitted the paper with a sort of break in the middle in which I tried to piece together some of the renaissance rhetoric evidence…it was rough. I was trying to also think about imagination, which is something that becomes important in renaissance rhetoric and renaissance definitions of rhetoric, and how that speaks to disability studies, but I got stuck and tired. I ran out of steam.

In turn, I need to go back to this paper because I’m going to use it for the RSA Works-in-Progress workshop…but I would like to take a nap first. (Though it’s only 8:55am). Hmmm.

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Prospectus Success!

It has been over a month since I’ve written on this blog, and thanks to some higher power/luck, I BECAME A PhD CANDIDATE ON WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27TH!

But you might ask: What happened with your prospectus/dissertation proposal, that thing you spent so many weeks agonizing over? Well, to be honest, I got caught up in the day-to-day rush that always happens at the end of the semester and I took a break from my prospectus after submitting it to my committee for review.  Although the prospectus meeting is collaborative, it’s mainly a space for my committee to debate the viability of my project–and after I submitted my prospectus, I felt like I had no control over it. No ownership, even. Like all of my best work thus far, I knew it was going to be sort of co-authored! So I took a step back. My partner and I rejoined the YMCA. I watched Netflix and Hulu at night after work. I spent too many hours responding to those “I’m in a crisis”-end-of-semester emails. I hosted a huge Passover seder, ate dinner at my favorite restaurants, and planned some short vacations for the summer. I met with students, attended follow-up meetings for the interdisciplinary study I am working on, and went to trivia night with friends. I played with my cat, who is now more spoiled than ever and is demanding pets and trying to drink my tea as I type this. I didn’t return to my prospectus until the night before my prospectus defense…which was probably a bad idea, but I couldn’t bring myself to critique it again. I figured it would change a lot at the meeting, so it wouldn’t be helpful for me to overthink it instead of sleeping that night.

At the 1.5 hour meeting, my prospectus did change…but not as much as I expected. Going into the meeting, I was sure that my prospectus was a mess. Even though both of my advisers had read and commented on multiple drafts, I still felt unprepared. I was sure my committee would tear my revised prospectus apart and then stitch it back together. This happened with my first and second chapters, which I’m now going to combine…but my other chapters stayed somewhat the same. It turns out that my committee was not particularly compelled by my traditional rhetorical analysis chapter, in which I planned to examine scientific literature reviews to show how scientific knowledge about Lyme Disease (including naming) is constructed. At my oral exam/defense, my committee was worried that my project sounded too social science-y and not obviously rhetorical enough. However, at this meeting, the committee was excited by my use of innovative, interdisciplinary methods and encouraged me to keep them in the project. (Re: VISUAL ETHNOGRAPHY is here to stay!)

At the defense, one of the questions that my committee kept asking was, “What is this really about? Is this a dissertation about rhetoric? Lyme Disease? Illness identities? In what order do these things happen?” My one co-adviser has advocated that I make the book more about Lyme Disease, since the press that published her recent book about Autism told her that a text with a disease focus (vs. a rhetoric focus) would attract a larger audience. Her book is still about rhetoric, of course, but it forefronts Autism instead of rhetoric. After this meeting, it seems like my project is really about how health seekers construct illness identities, and that studying Lyme Disease communities is a case study of how that happens. I think.

There is still so much to panic about: How did I propose a dissertation with so many digital elements? What if the focus groups fail? How am I actually going to WRITE 200 pages that make sense? BUT, conveniently, I am giving myself a break for a week or two to focus on other tasks. Here’s the short list:

  1. Write and submit a seminar paper for my Communication class…which is due on Friday…and I haven’t written any words for it yet.
  2. Assist with WID training on 5/6.
  3. Assist with my TA class’s final exam conference on 5/6.
  4. Finish any final Writing Diabetes follow-up appointments (hopefully by 5/6).
  5. Help submit my group’s 4C17 proposal by 5/9.
  6. Write and submit a chapter (or something) for the RSA Embodied Rhetorics workshop I got into by 5/14. I was planning that this would be the same as my conference paper for COMM, but…???
  7. Finish revising, get feedback, and submit article accepted for the special issue of JMH to the editors by 6/1.

With that, I guess it’s time to start writing!

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Everything is Arbitrary

I submitted my prospectus to my dissertation co-advisers on Thursday, March 24th at 1:31am. Don’t tell my dad, but he was right: I did feel a sense of relief after submitting it…even though it’s only 14 pages long and the chapter outlines are practically one paragraph each (instead of a few solid pages each). As I alternated between almost hyperventilating and hiding under my bed, taking pictures of my adorable kitty, snacking, and writing words on the page, I had the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in months. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will help anything.

Everything is about my prospectus (and perhaps this entire process) is…


…which is why I’m having so much trouble making decisions about everything.

When I find myself in a high-stakes writing environment, I feel paralyzed until I have a clear outline and projected order of things. Then, I can begin…but the “real” work has already been done: I know what I’m going to write about, where different pieces are going to fit into the puzzle, and probably what the end result is. The trouble with my prospectus, so I’m finding, is that I’ve completed at least 20 different outlines of different versions of the project. I’ve moved pieces around, shifted ideas in and out. Everyone–#TeamRhetoric, #TeamSarah, etc.–was supportive and said that my ideas were great, so I played with different versions of the project but never stressed too much about it. And then came time to finally finish my prospectus. Which version was I going to use? Which one(s) were most promising? Which ones will help me achieve my ultimate goals for the project?

That’s the funny thing about prospectuses. You write them about projects you haven’t done yet, and even in their “final form,” they may serve no purpose other than to check a box that allows you to begin your dissertation project. It’s hard to plan a project you haven’t done yet. It’s hard to anticipate the results of research you haven’t conducted yet.

The moral of the story:

1) pick something; 2) move forward; and 3) revise as you go.

To me, this feels hard and terrible. Perhaps inappropriately so, but that’s been my experience. It’s hard to know how other people solve this problem. One possible way that I’ve surmised is to pick some topoi (cultural commonplaces), search for them in your archive, and switch them up if they’re not meaningful and/or theorize why they aren’t meaningful. In Margret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2011), she analyzes topoi such as “presence,” “participation,” “resistance,” and “collegiality” (21-22). Maybe she didn’t start with these exact topoi, but she probably had a few to begin with and discovered the others along the way. She analyzes a range of genres, such as published guidelines from MLA and APA and interviews with “independent” scholars, which probably informed her thinking/topoi selection. Similarly, when I was talking with one of my co-advisers a few weeks ago, she suggested that I mine the pinterest #chronicillness posts (there are thousands of them) using a particular frame like disability. That made that piece of the project seem a hundred times more manageable. (She was probably actually thinking about topoi since she’s written about them before, but that only occurred to me five seconds ago).

Whatever I decide…I have to decide SOMETHING. Maybe kitty can help?


Oriole “Kitty Queen” the cat sitting on a red fleece bathrobe next to my laptop on top of a black reclining chair. 


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Writing Anxiety: Part 8 Million

It is 9:39pm on a Monday. I need to write but I can’t. There are so many things I need to do. (Most importantly: FINISH MY PROSPECTUS. Which was supposed to happen last Sunday). As writer Katie Rose Guest Pryal put it in her latest article, “I feel stuck in a place, and I can’t break out.” (The irony, of course, is that I am writing this blog post. When I’m usually at this place, I quit while I’m ahead. I make some tea, read a book, get into bed early, maybe take some sleep medicine or a pain reliever, maybe stretch. But I have to finish. I HAVE TO FINISH.

Since my exams, I’ve been waiting for the *big* sigh of relief to come. I’ve been waiting to feel happy and light and as if I can actually relax. I’ve been waiting for my body to get back in sync. After I learned that I passed each of my exams, I had a momentary burst of happiness. (Except after my oral exam, but that’s a story for another time). I hoped they would stay, but they didn’t. I found the exam process physically and emotionally exhausting. I had not had so many (seemingly) unshakable doubts about my ability to succeed since applying to and beginning graduate school. My anxiety was through the roof–and so was my pain. Again, I was sure it would dissipate when things were over. But between the ever-changing temperature and constant humidity and varying amounts of movement I was doing during the day, things remained unpleasant.

Now, I don’t want to be overdramatic. I threw myself a party when my written exams were over and had a great time hanging out with my friends. I ate many delicious celebratory meals, tried to sleep in on a few mornings, and toasted my success with my favorite chai lattes from the Root Cellar. I adopted my troll/cat.  (See the photo below). I finally baked some cookies (triple chocolate chunk via Family Circle Magazine!) that didn’t come out flat and crumble into nothingness. And since I was sure that I was merely overwhelmed with my semester projects and classes and teaching, I comforted myself with the promise that I’d rest and catch up over spring break.

But here’s the kicker. Last week was spring break, and like so many of my colleagues, I DIDN’T FINISH ANYTHING. (Especially my prospectus). Nor did I rest, which is the worst part. Admittedly, my plans were partially derailed due to reasons outside of my control: my partner had a death in the family, so we had to travel 8 hours north for the funeral and drastically rearrange our schedules. We slept in three different beds in four nights, sat in hours of NJ-PA and MD-VA traffic, ate heavy meals, drank too much wine, and dealt with our families. Some of these things were wonderful, of course, but it was all very stressful and we were thrilled to sleep at home in our own best and reunite with our troll/cat last night. BUT STILL.

It’s true: I’m in a rush, and I know that’s adding extra pressure. My dissertation co-directors are will be on leave next semester, so I need to get my prospectus out the door ASAP so that I have a plan of attack and can work independently while they’re gone. (And let’s face it, I can’t have a prospectus defense meeting next month without a prospectus). As I write this blog  post, my left knee feels swollen and achy, my back is sore, my fingers are freezing…my whole body feels out of sync. Academic fields, and rhetoric in particular, have historically worked hard to write out the unstable, emotional, too-easily-persuaded body. I have been trying to ignore my body, but clearly that hasn’t been working…. So if nothing else, maybe writing about my body and acknowledging its role in my writing (or lack thereof) will somehow move me forward?

Onward! But first it’s time for some tea.


Gray and black-striped cat-like troll sitting on a multicolored couch from the early 1990s and staring affectionately at her “owner” (not pictured).  

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Write now? Or wait for later?

As I continue working on the prospectus, I’ve been rustling up more and more ideas for future articles and book chapters. Some of the ideas are pretty good–probably better (and/or more exciting) than some of my planned dissertation chapters. So when do I work on these other things?

Timing is key. If I want to go on the academic job market in fall 2017 and graduate by April 2018, I need to have a peer-reviewed journal article in one of our field’s best journals in press by the time I begin applying for jobs. Since the blind-review, review-and-resubmit process is rather time consuming, I have the best chance of making this happen if I send out two articles for review in August 2016. But the question remains: Do I try to write one of my dissertation chapters and shorten it into an article? Do I try to write up one of these other ideas for publication? Or both?

This conundrum, then, begs the question: How long will I take to write each dissertation chapter, and when do I plan to finish the dissertation?

I am not great at writing during the semester except when it’s forced. (Perhaps this is also because I’ve been in 2 classes of my own each semester on top of working with the HHIVE team, teaching my own class, TAing, working at my on-campus job, etc. Not all at the same time, but I’ve done at least 2-3 of these things at once since I started teaching last year). I know I’ll need to cut down on these other activities–and that’s my plan–but can I expect to be productive while I’m still teaching? And when I really feel the economic pinch from not taking on extra jobs, will I be able to maintain my focus? In general, I try to set myself mid-semester deadlines toe force myself to write. For example, I applied to the RSA Research Network Forum (and got in!) because I wanted to push myself to finish at least one dissertation chapter or article-length version of the chapter before June. Will this stress me out? DEFINITELY. But I’m not sure it would get done otherwise. I worry that it wouldn’t get one otherwise.

I guess it would be a good time to make a timeline for how I might complete this work?

  • April 2016 – complete COMM771 seminar paper, which can hopefully be edited and sent to a peer-reviewed journal this summer
  • May – complete Journal of Medical Humanities article (due June 1st); write article/chapter #1 for RNF at RSA
  • June – write article/dissertation chapter #2
  • July – write separate but related article; finish article/dissertation chapter #2;
  • August – submit chapter #1 or #2 as well as separate article to peer-reviewed journal
  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December – Chapter #3 due
  • January 2017
  • February
  • March
  • April – Chapter #4 due

Note: This will theoretically mean that I’ve completed the dissertation, but 

  • May – draft separate but related article
  • June – draft separate but related article
  • July – Job market materials…!!!!!

My challenge, of course, is that I have trouble writing until I have a clear plan about what I’m going to write about…and to complete the dissertation, I’ll probably have to write my way into it. But at least now I have a skeletal plan?

PS: Last night,  I got my first restful night of sleep in weeks! It’s amazing what low humidity can do for those of us with joint problems!


Ori, my gray striped kitty, stretched out and asleep. Her smiling kitty face is pressed up against my outstretched arm, and her little ams are crossed over mine, holding me captive and not allowing me to type quite as quickly. I’m glad that someone in our house gets restful sleep…

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Organizing My Dissertation Project

There are so many possible ways to conceptualize my dissertation project. It’s exciting to feel like there are so many possibilities, but it’s also overwhelming. What direction(s) do I want to go in? What’s my justification for making this choice? How will this choice frame the project in a useful way for the field? The issue is that I just need to pick SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be perfect–merely workable–so that I can finish the prospectus and submit it to my advisers…and I had planned to finish it yesterday. (Instead, I napped, played with my cat, and ate delicious pizza from the new pizza truck down the street. Relatively restful, but…yikes).

I’m a writer who likes to have a clear outline from the beginning, which is why I think I’m having so much trouble moving this forward. I know that I will likely change the outline and/or frameworks and quite possibly the chapters, too, but it’s practically impossible for me to start without some semblance of…something. (Also, my cat is high on catnip and making the weirdest sounds…. Not helpful). When my students find themselves in similar situations, I encourage them to “just pick SOMETHING” and get started, since the project is usually relative short in length and the timeframe for completing it is limited. My dissertation project is theoretically bounded, too, but it’s so much bigger and broader and feels like it means so much more. I’ll probably write about most of the same things regardless of the frame I choose, but…UGHHHHHH.

So here are some of my ideas for organizing things….

Idea #1: rhetorical research methods

Introduction: rhetoric of health and medicine –> LD is an interesting case study –> necessitates that we broaden archives and research methods

Chapter 1: “traditional” deep rhetorical analysis of alphabetic text – naming and constructing LD through peer-reviewed scientific journal articles; language = evidence

Chapter 2: visual rhetorical analysis – LD images; images = evidence

Chapter 3: rhetorical circulation studies – examining online social spaces where people with LD collaborate and strategize to  create community and get better care; moving beyond Gries’s circulation of one image to think about the construction/production/distribution of multiple (seemingly) static images; language and questions (?) = evidence

Note: Is this more of a virtual in situ study?

Chapter 4: semi-structured interviews – interview LD health seekers in the south (North Carolina) to learn about experience and possibility of disability identity; interview language and ideas = evidence


Idea #2: patient/activist vs. clinician-researcher/biomedical authority for learning about emergent illnesses

Introduction: rhetoric of health and medicine –> LD is an interesting case study –> construction of ethos –> evidence and authority (see ch. 7 of Segal’s Health and the Rhetoric of Medicine, 2005)

–> IDSA vs. ILADS discourse – the rhetorical problems with LD

Chapter 1: biomedical = what counts as evidence (maps, bull’s-eyes, ticks, spirochetes) vs. “subjective symptoms”

Chapter 2: biomedical = LLMDS – developing LD knowledge/authority through perceived “Lyme literacy”

(Note: not sure which archive I’m going to use here).

Chapter 3: patient/health-seeker = uninterrogated history of LD as a patient’s disease via Connecticut moms who reported it to the CDC and studied their ill neighbors and children; newspaper articles and popular publications (i.e. books by LD patients/witnesses)

Chapter 4: patient/health-seeker = crowdsourcing knowledge via online social networks; examining online social spaces where people with LD collaborate and strategize to  create community and get better care

Note: Putting patient/health seeker and clinician/researcher/biomedicine in opposition feels a little bit arbitrary or simplistic. 


Idea #3: stages of illness

Introduction: rhetoric of health and medicine –> LD is an interesting case study –> tells us a lot about rhetoric and emergent illnesses following the HIV/AIDS crisis

Chapter 1: diagnosis = rhetorical analysis of changing diagnostic guidelines

Chapter 2: treatment =naming and constructing LD through peer-reviewed scientific journal articles

Chapter 3: recovery = examining online social spaces where people with LD collaborate and strategize to  create community and get better care

Chapter 4:

A) prevention = visual analysis of LD prevention ephemera, such as posters and brochures? IDSA vs. ILADS materials?


B) disability = questioning the chronicity/permanence of the condition via interviews?


WHEW. So much to think about. Time for a cup of tea…or a nap….

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