Jumping Back In: On taking a break and the fear of dissertating 0

So I haven’t blogged in over a year mainly because I not only didn’t have the time but also because I didn’t have much new to say and both are because of the same reason: small child.

In December of 2013 I gave birth to my beautiful Little Miss. I had just advanced to candidacy the summer before and had worked a bit on my dissertation during the Fall term while a Swann Foundation Fellow at the Library of Congress. But the trek to DC was difficult and uncomfortable while 7/8 months pregnant and I didn’t get quite as much work done as I had hoped. I was also working at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as an RA for that academic year as part of my funding package.

While I was able to get some dissertation work done in the Fall while at the Center, I had a very sneaky suspicion that during the Spring term, with a newborn, it was going to be difficult enough to get my Center work done, let alone try to get any work done on my dissertation.

So, I acknowledged that I was gonna take some time off from my dissertation. I gave myself through the summer to take a break. This was good for me in many ways. Not only did it give me time to bond with my daughter and figure out what my new work/life balance would be, but I was feeling a little burnt out. I felt that I had been going nonstop since I started my Masters 6 years prior and I needed some time to recharge and be able to come back to my project with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and interest.

That spring semester went great. I worked at the Center, I spent time with my Little Miss. The summer was even better and I got to enjoy my first summer in years without the stress of work or school. I planned my final research trip to California for August of 2014 as a way to get back into the research swing after my (personally agreed upon) break. But of course, life then intervened again and I was asked to teach two classes for the Fall 2014 term at GMU. One of them was a graduate level class in my field for high school teachers that was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I had never taught before, let alone two classes and that Fall was lost to course prep and grading. I managed to keep up a bit with my secondary research, especially since my graduate course was in my field but I didn’t get any real work done on my primary research for my project.

So, I vowed, after a year off, this Spring term I would get back into it. I HAD to do some serious work on the primary research for my project. I couldn’t move forward with anything until I had gathered all the stuff and done stuff to the stuff (mainly digital stuff).

And this is were the impetus for this post comes into play. While I was perfectly okay with the reasons and the time I took off after my Little Miss was born, I am angry and guilty about this past semester because I have no excuses. The course I teach is the same as last semester and I spent the break redoing it so I wouldn’t get bogged down in lecture prep every week. Also, my Little Miss is 1 year + old and didn’t require the same level of attention and all consuming time that she needed when she was younger. She had a routine, she was walking and playing by herself, her naps were regular and long, and she sleeps through the night.

So why am I still in the same place I was a year and a half ago when I advanced? Fear. I’m petrified to actually start REAL work on my dissertation.

I have a lot of digital work to do. And I can’t start writing anything until I do it. Because: I don’t have an argument yet. I have a theory, but no proof. I need to gather all the stuffs, and do digital stuffs to the stuffs before I know what the stuffs tell me and what my argument is.

So, fear #1: what if the stuffs tell me nothing. What if, after I’ve done all this work, and put in all this energy, my dissertation basically boils down to: so these other guys came to these conclusions in an analog “traditional” fashion and all my digital methodology shows is that they were right and I spent more time and effort than was needed to come to the same conclusion.

Then there’s the fact that I have no idea how to actually get my stuffs into the format that’s needed to then do the digital stuffs. I have to gather all these things (some of which available in digital format on ProQuest, some only available in microfilm) and then convert it to plain text before I apply the digital stuffs to my stuffs.

Fear #2: I have no idea how to do this. No one has done this before. There is no methodological guide to follow. And while this is exciting and interesting and challenging, it is petrifying.

Finally, once I get this dissertation done (because I swear it will be a when not an if) I’ve put my eggs in the academic job market of digital history. I’ve made my choices and plans so that when I go out onto the bleak and terrifying academic job market, I will be billing myself as a digital historian (dissertation, minor field in digital history, degree from GMU and three years working at the RRCHNM).

Fear #3: imposter syndrome. What if I’m not really a digital historian? What if I get a job and I completely fail because I don’t really have the necessary knowledge/skills to do this and be this kind of teacher? It’s the teaching aspect that really scares me. I have confidence that I’ll continue to be able to apply these methods to my research but being able to teach it? To be an expert to future minds (and in many cases my new colleagues) that really has me running down the imposter rabbit hole.

And here’s the thing. I know all of the above is insane. I know that even if my research isn’t as new and groundbreaking as I (and my advisor) hopes it will be, it will tell me something. It will not end up being a total piece of derivative drivel. I know that I can figure out how to get my stuffs in the format that I need it to be. It’ll take a long time and a lot of trial and error, but I know I’ll figure it out in the end. And I know that if I do ever get an academic job I’ll know more than I think do and just like how my first time teaching Western Civ last semester was a bit of a disaster, I learned from it and made changes and this semester is going much better, the same thing will apply to any courses I teach. And I’m not opposed to not going into academia and instead getting a job in the altac world.

And time’s run out. I received a fellowship through a university wide call to fund me for the summer so I don’t have to work and I can get some real traction on my project. At the end of the summer I have to submit a report of what I’ve accomplished in the time I’ve been funded and so does my advisor. So it’s go time. No more excuses, no more procrastination. Starting in May I have to buckle down and get stuff done.

So here’s my question for those of you who have gotten this far: how did/do you come back from a long break away from your research when the will is there but the habits are gone? How do you move past the irrational fear that’s been holding you back and get into the mindset of “Let’s do this!”? How do you move forward when you feel that so much is holding you in place?

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

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

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>