It was the fall of 2007 and I could not write my dissertation. While I was perpetually busy, the pages never materialized. I was stuck.
In the fall of 2007, I too was starting my third year of full-time dissertation work and was stuck. I felt unmoored and unfocused and, more importantly, I suffered from a severe case of writing angst: How could I tell if I was making progress? What did it mean to have a “good” writing day? I wrestled with how to move forward because I often couldn’t tell where “forward” was, let alone if I was heading in that direction.
To be fair, we had met a couple years earlier at a History of Education Society Annual Meeting, but at the Spencer Foundation Conference in Los Angeles in the fall of 2007, we realized we shared more than a fellowship and a field. We were both struggling with the enormousness of the dissertation task, and were seeking strategies to help us structure –and survive — the process that could easily last the next 1-2 years of our lives. We didn’t know each other well, and while we were friendly, we were hardly friends. Looking back, each of us recognized in the other a similar kind of intellectual drive and a similar enthusiasm for life and for learning.
Daily morning sign-in.
From the outset, we began each day of our partnership with a morning email sign-in. As both of us worked mostly from home, we didn’t have the obvious “Now I’m at work and thus will begin work” structure to our working life, and the sign-in became our way of artificially creating that structure. Whether at 7 am (Natalia) or the more reasonable 9 am (Sarah), we announced to each other the moment our workday officially began. It was a public declaration (and, occasionally, confession) that we were sitting down to work. It also had the benefit of reminding us that we weren’t alone: even if we worked in different places in different cities, we were engaged in a common enterprise.
The morning sign-in email quickly evolved into a space for creating and sharing a daily schedule. Sometimes the schedule would be as loose as:
Morning: Work on Ch. 4
Afternoon: Work on Ch. 4
8-8:30: Reply to email
8:30-9:30: Review/edit stuff from yesterday
9:30-11:30:Draft new prose for Ch.3 middle
11:30-12: Walk to library and pickup books
12-1: Lunch with Jo
1:30-3:30 Draft new prose for Ch. 3 middle
3:30-5:30 Read books from library/Take notes on connections
The daily schedule also became a vehicle for goal setting, or more appropriately, goal managing. We both wanted to finish. Yesterday. And so the practice of breaking down the big goal (finishing) or even the smaller big goal (finishing chapter 4) was a necessary act of realism and sanity. We began to say things like “need to read these two new books and figure out how to incorporate them into my analysis.” Or “need to write three paragraphs that can bridge this section to that section.” This shift in precision and clarity in our goal setting allowed us to feel more in control of our progress. Moreover, by stating those goals publicly we knew there was another person aware of our intention. There was no punishment or disciplining for failing to meet the goal – and often goals weren’t met as new ideas generated unforeseen writing and new reading led to a hunt for additional sources. Still, by stating our small goals publicly in the morning, we gave ourselves enough focus to begin the work. (For more on the value of small goals, see Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Indeed, Sarah strongly suggests rereading the first three chapters at least once every six months of dissertation writing!)
Just as signing in to start the day was important, signing off to end the day brought necessary closure. It enabled us to say: “I did all I could do today and now it’s time to stop.” Sometimes we would send each other long emails celebrating what we learned or accomplished that day. Other times we would share our frustrations with what we hadn’t accomplished and write at length about what we needed to do the next day to remedy the situation. Usually, though, we were just too tired and bleary-eyed and so dashed off a quick: “I’m done for the day. Catch you on the flipside.”
When we embarked on our partnership, we thought the benefits would be pragmatic and concrete: less procrastination, more pages produced, hopefully with substantially less anxiety and more quality and organization to boot. We imagined our daily dispatches to be so structured that on the first day Natalia tentatively asked Sarah, “I think it would be a good idea to not only write what we accomplished, but also how we feel about what we accomplished and what lies ahead. Is that OK?” Revisiting those initial, formal emails, it is clear we could not fathom how much more we would derive from our partnership than a mere time management mechanism.
Before the partnership, to the extent we even thought about it, we both considered our writing processes abstract and opaque: it was the mysterious alchemy that somehow transformed an idea into the 35 pages that garnered the adviser’s approval to proceed to the next chapter and commence the mysterious process all over again. The structure of the daily schedule changed all that. Having to articulate exactly what we would be doing all day long, and about how much we could reasonably be expected to accomplish, forced us to think deliberately and precisely about our individual writing methodologies, and to identify best (and sometimes, worst) practices. Natalia hadn’t realized that for her, the most effective approach to a chapter was to make long conceptual outlines of 10-15 pages, then to insert quotes and references to digital archival notes, and then finally to “prose-i-fy” into a full-length chapter.
Today was productive- the outline has morphed into about 14 single spaced pp, with quotes slotted in and some prose. I think I’m (as usual) overestimating how much I need to “fill” the chapter, especially since this one covers so much ground. I’m going to finish getting thru my notes on the Mary Calderone papers tonight (most likely tomorrow) and then start stringing everything into prose… Enjoy the evening and congrats on productivity!
I’m embarrassed to say it was a day of veeeery low productivity. Took me forever to get rolling (to the extent I got rolling at all) on the chapter. What I did was collect all (probably not all, I’ll go thru again tomorrow) strategy notes for chap 8 and put them in one document. Yup, I just mean “put.” As in cut and paste. That’s it. Hey, it is SOMETHING, right?!
The more familiar we became with the details of each other’s working lives, the more invested we became in each other’s intellectual worlds. Prior to the partnership, our primary interlocutors about our dissertation progress were our advisers, our peers in our cohort, and the occasional writing group. But in one another, we found a consistently available perspective on not only our process but also on the specific intellectual questions with which we grappled. We enjoyed a circumstance virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t have a roommate or significant other in their field or program: constant access to someone who knew our project and our field, and who could knowledgeably and empathetically appreciate the particularities of the various epiphanies and problems we encountered along the way. We began to supplement our daily emails with occasional phone calls to comment on each other’s drafts, but there was something different – and differently valuable – in connecting with someone who could appreciate the raw, unpolished idea:
From: Sarah Manekin
To: natalia mehlman-petrzela
Sent: Jan 21, 2009 6:49 PM
Subject: big idea
Hey there, I’m signing off — gotta go to a dinner! — but wanted to share an interesting epiphany from today’s research/thinking… So remember how I was all into the idea that Lindsay was exporting Tuskegee style schooling to PR? Well, I FINALLY found stats that broke down enrollment figures by race/sex and it turns out that guess who was the majority in those Tuskegee-styled schools? WHITES! That’s right. Not only were the schools racially integrated, but the majority of students in both agricultural and industrial schools were white… How’s that for complicating our assumptions about race and education? Pretty cool… Ok, gotta run!
Natalia’s response to Sarah’s “big idea” epiphany, not twenty minutes later, reveals the least scholarly, but perhaps most fulfilling, unintended benefit of the partnership. We championed each other’s progress:
From: Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela
To: “Sarah Manekin”
Sent: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 7:04:58 PM
Subject: Re: big idea
Wow, that is so awesome. I guess you now know that race is def a major part of the chap 7 narrative! How satisfying to finally nail the LINK – YES! YES! YES!
Hey, I think you’re probably still off on vacation somewhere, but I’m writing to officially “sign-in” for diss day 1! The plan for today is to begin getting my head around ch. 7. I need to go back over my notes from the summer and the various reports I read to try and figure out where I was, what I was interested in doing, etc. The paper I proposed for the AERA conference contained a good bit of the big picture-type questions, but the specific goal for today is to get through that proposal and re-familiarize myself with the Brumbaugh and Lindsay material. I’ll probably go to the reports tomorrow. More than anything else, I need to remember that right now I just need to put words on a page, that I need to get stuff down on paper, that I just need to get started! Ok. Here goes…
I am back in action! We got back last night. General game plan is to re-engage with the interminable chapter 6. I am embarrassed at how long that one is dragging on. Don’t judge me, accountability partner!
When we initially told friends and colleagues about our accountability partnership, the responses ranged from admiration of our self-discipline to revulsion at what seemed like stultifying rigidity. Natalia’s mother, an academic and writer herself, was an early skeptic. She pointed out that the beauty of the writing process was the space to ruminate, to change course, to pick up a book that catches your eye, to go for a walk if it felt potentially more inspiring than sitting tethered to the laptop. She contended that imposing any sort of accountability rubric, and the attendant threat of “failing” that rubric, could only stand in the way of producing inspired work. Unquestionably, we gravitated toward each other and the experiment because we both thrive on organization and structure. It is crucial to remember, however, that there was never any “punishment” for failing to meet goals – which were all self-determined – and that our sign-off emails often reported that we had switched strategies or taken up an entirely different aspect of the project. The point was to do something, and to have someone to share it with. The writing process is, of course, foremost an individual, creative journey impossible to segment into a neat series of tasks; therein lies its beauty and its power. It can, however, be a daunting and solitary road, and our partnership enabled us to navigate that path together.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela completed her Ph.D. in History at Stanford University in 2009 and is Assistant Professor of Education Studies and History at the New School University. Sarah Manekin completed her Ph.D. in History at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and is a Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.
Sarah Manekin and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “The Accountability Partnership: Rendering the Solitary Social and Turning Mountains into Molehills,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010, http://writinghistory.wp.trincoll.edu/2010/10/06/manekin-mehlman-partnership/.