Sarah Manekin and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “The Accountability Partnership: Rendering the Solitary Social and Turning Mountains into Molehills”


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In 2007, we, Sarah and Natalia, were two Spencer Pre-Doctoral Fellows struggling to write the dissertations that stood between us and our Ph.D.s in History. Studying different centuries and working in distant cities, we were both frustrated with our lack of writing progress and desperate to find strategies that could help. So we decided to experiment with an “accountability partnership.”  Never could we have predicted how well our experiment would work.  But, three years later, we can honestly say that our partnership sustained us through two job searches, two moves, two articles, one engagement, one baby, and, most importantly, two dissertations.
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This is the story of how we did it together and some of the lessons we learned along the way.
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Natalia:
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.
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Such stagnation and massive procrastination felt totally new. Thus far, graduate school had been a series of formidable but manageable challenges.  I had of course started late on my share of reading assignments and seminar papers and worried whether I would “get it all done” for oral exams while TA-ing and beginning my research.  I had even wondered whether it was a wise decision to devote most of my twenties to getting a degree for which even the best jobs paid less than I had made in my first job out of college. Yet despite these inevitable detours and doubts, I had always finished the book, written the paper, and passed the exams.  I even managed to keep my spirits high enough to do it all with a sense of purpose, often even with joyous gratitude for being able to spend these years reading, writing, and discussing the historical questions which animated the rich intellectual journey I knew I was so lucky to be able to pursue.
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The first few months of my dedicated writing time passed without my finishing so much as a complete chapter draft I was proud of, yet without any apparent consequence: my funding checks kept appearing in my bank account, my family, friends, and even colleagues continued to believe my weak assurances that “things were moving along great,” and my boxes of archival documents remained untouched beside my desk. For the first time in my five years of graduate school, I began to doubt my ability to complete the Ph.D.  I also began to yearn for an interruption to what was becoming an unproductive and unfulfilling pattern: the fewer pages I produced, the greater my doubts that I had the power to do anything else. As I realized how solitary, amorphous, and apparently interminable the writing endeavor could be, I also knew that if I wanted to complete my dissertation at all, much less with any of the passion and enthusiasm that had led me to the project in the first place, I needed to find a way to do it differently. And then I met Sarah.
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Sarah:
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.
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Seeking a reprieve from my computer screen, I went to meet a friend for coffee and she shared with me the new writing strategy she had adapted from her father’s engineering lab. Each week, the researchers at her father’s lab wrote detailed reports of what they had accomplished, how they’d spent their time, and what next steps they needed to follow to achieve their goals.  Recognizing the weekly reports as a valuable strategy for charting progress, my friend had spoken with her father about replicating those weekly write-ups.  Each week, she promised to send her father an “accountability report” of what she had accomplished and where she was headed.
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The idea resonated with me. I needed a mechanism to reassure myself that I was getting somewhere, that the days I spent reading over archival notes and muddling over sentences and paragraphs constituted progress.  I needed some of the structures that a more typical “day job” provided: start and stop times, deadlines, colleagues.  And I needed to make my work public, not in the sense of applying for more conferences and fellowships, but in the sense that I needed to find a way out of my own internal monologues to tell somebody that I was going to do something. I’m a social person, and I needed to find away to make writing my dissertation a more collective endeavor. And then I met Natalia.
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The Partners:
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.
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At the Spencer Conference, Sarah sketched out the “accountability partnership” she had envisioned based on her friend’s “weekly reports”, and we devised some basic ground rules and committed to launch the endeavor as soon as we returned home. By the end of the conversation, we could barely wait to put our system to the test.
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***
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The Partnership
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.
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Daily Schedules
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:
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Morning: Work on Ch. 4
Lunch
Afternoon: Work on Ch. 4

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But even that schedule was useful, especially for Sarah, because it brought a basic structure to the workday and a reminder that the workday would end. Sometimes, though, the schedules were far more detailed:
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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
5:30-6 email

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This kind of specificity helped us find the gaps in our day and how to make the most of them.  Sarah realized fairly early on that she liked writing in the mornings but that by mid-afternoon her attention waned considerably.  As a result, Sarah’s schedules usually protected the mornings for writing time and put less creative-intensive activities later in the day.  For Natalia, the recognition that she would be spending large chunks of any given day on subways in Manhattan enabled her to see “subway time” as the perfect time for revising and editing drafts.
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As our friendship evolved, we began to be more honest about our daily schedules.  Doctor’s appointments and hair appointments, trips to the gym and lunches with friends began to appear in our emails. And after we got over our initial embarrassment (“I didn’t want you to know that I was such an exercise freak!”), we began to realize that our schedules could be a tool to manage the competing priorities that pulled us from our work.  We learned quickly that it’s impossible to write if your day is filled with meetings, errands, talks, and yoga classes.  At the same time, we needed to do those things too, and the schedule helped us see where we could consolidate trips and use the gaps between our other commitments.
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Manageable Goals
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!)
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Signoff
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.”
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But we found that regardless of how we signed off, the value was in doing it. Part of our goal of feeling less overwhelmed required that we learn how to walk away from the work, even when the work wasn’t finished.  We knew it would be there the next day. And we knew that our accountability partner would be there too.
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***
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Unintended Consequences
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.
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Bringing Transparency to the Writing Process
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.
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Emails like this were evidence of a precise series of steps Natalia adopted to move through a chapter, and were lessons of how to streamline the process for each ensuing chapter:
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Hey!
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!
:-) Natalia

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Being able to distill these distinct steps made it far easier to get started on writing, and also to maximize the stray hour or two of the day that had previously been easily written off as “too little time to get anything done.”
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One day Natalia wrote sheepishly:
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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?!

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She hadn’t even “written” anything, but because she knew she had time and energy enough to complete this one, manageable piece of the process, she could move forward, even in this small way.
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Intellectual Sounding Board
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:
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From: Sarah Manekin
To: natalia mehlman-petrzela
Sent: Jan 21, 2009 6:49 PM
Subject: big idea

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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!

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Champion Extraordinaire
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:
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From: Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela
To: “Sarah Manekin”
Sent: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 7:04:58 PM
Subject: Re: big idea

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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!

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These kinds of connections – brief, frequent, and unfiltered – were the fuel that energized us to take on one challenge after another. They reminded us that there was someone else out there to check in with, to share in celebrating the milestones that were far too minor to merit telling our advisers or even the effort of explaining to our partners or friends who probably wouldn’t “get it”. Celebrating these triumphs together, however tiny they might be, inspired us to persevere.
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Having a champion just a click away also made it easier to reengage after long absences from our work, whether those absences were due to vacations, teaching, or changes in life circumstance.  “Re-entry” was a lot easier with the knowledge that we could just pick up the conversation with our accountability partner.
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Here is Sarah during winter vacation:
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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…

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Especially when time away, or even a missed deadline, made re-engaging with writing seem overwhelming, uninspiring, and far too easy to keep putting off, we had created a light, playful space for even the most guilt-ridden procrastinator.
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From: nmehlman@stanford.edu
To: smanekin@sas.upenn.edu
Subject: hi!

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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!

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As these latter emails demonstrate, what began as a tentative, online experiment in time management and productivity became a central part of our writing lives, helping us over the daily hurdles of writer’s block and isolation.  In the process, our partnership developed into one of the most important intellectual relationships (and friendships) of our graduate school years, and our dissertations and lives are surely all the better for it.
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In Sum
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.
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With the dissertations behind us and our energies focused on our full-time teaching jobs, our accountability partnership has necessarily waned. We remain very close friends, of course, and we summon up our strategies when we’re working on articles or applications and need a little boost. But for the most part it exists as part of the “how I got through grad school” narrative.
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Still, it resurfaces occasionally in surprising new ways.  In a wonderful twist of fate, Sarah has stumbled into a new “accountability group” at Johns Hopkins, in which a small number of young faculty have forged a writing group based on the concept of supporting writers engaged in the writing process. Unlike traditional groups where members gather every month to read a chapter of one another’s work to critique the work in progress. Our group does that AND adds a different layer. We meet every two weeks and, at each meeting, we talk about the process of writing.  At the conclusion, we state an intention for what we will accomplish before the subsequent meeting.  These goals range from writing a first draft of a fellowship application to taking a dissertation chapter off the shelf and “blowing it up” to begin the process of revising for manuscript.  And while this new group is quite different from what Natalia and Sarah worked out—no daily schedules, no twice-a-day emails—at its core it’s the same: it breaks the writing process down into discrete parts; it sets smaller, more manageable goals, and it enables collaboration and support in taking the small steps that ultimately amount to a finished product. Each of those acts requires courage – to begin something new, to face something old and start over – and we continue to choose to develop that courage with the support of an “accountability partnership.”
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About the authors:
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.
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How to cite this page:
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/.
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Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

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2 Responses to “Sarah Manekin and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “The Accountability Partnership: Rendering the Solitary Social and Turning Mountains into Molehills””

Michelle Purdy says:

I found this very refreshing to read Sarah and Natalia; thank you for sharing. I agree that having individuals with whom you can share your process is absolutely necessary. I applaud you two for the daily check-ins; indeed you have benefited from unintended consequences.

In my early stages of research and writing I relied on my department’s Graduate Student Research Roundtable to help me stay focused, and then in the last couple of years I have found being able to share my research findings and writing updates with a few friends/colleagues (sometimes as often on a daily or weekly basis) in casual conversations to provide energy and motivation for moving forward. I have also learned that I must be intentional in setting goals and sharing updates (even when I do not meet all of my goals). Additionally, I agree that it is important to stay real about all the other areas of life we juggle while writing. Being able to talk about my life holistically with a few close friends/colleagues has been invaluable.

Again, thank you for sharing; I think many graduate students would benefit by adopting your model. Are there other ways in which you encourage graduate students to develop such trust among one another?

Jen Seltz says:

A close friend from grad school and I have worked out a similar structure over the last several years; it worked for finishing dissertations, articles, and now (hopefully) manuscripts. We set weekly goals and then report back on how and whether we met them. It has been a good way to measure whether initial goals for the week, or day, or month turn out to be realistic, and also a good low-stakes way to keep up a running conversation on both content and form.