I’m staring down the barrel of an end of semester shotgun and find myself the least prepared for the work I have yet to do in all my varied and long career in academia. For some reason, I just have not been able to get a solid grasp on any of my paper topics for my classes and now is the time I need to be writing, not researching or reading but that’s about all I can do since my brain doesn’t seem able to fix upon a singular, solid thesis to pursue in any of my classes.
It’s a frustrating feeling. And frightening as all hell. We are talking about single digit days before I have to turn in an 8-10 page proposal for an article length article, and only a week after that, I need to have my Shakespeare paper in good shape, followed by my Formation of the America’s paper. It’s not so much that I haven’t started writing that’s the problem (although I really wanted to be in a position to begin writing this weekend), its that I am still flailing around and don’t feel like I have anything of interest or import to say in the areas I’m working in.
Have you ever come up against the end of the semester and felt utterly lost in terms of your seminar work? If so, please let me know because I’m hitting my head against a wall these days . . . and that’s not helping all that much.
I have just started writing a book review for my Materials & Methods class and realized, after making an outline, that I would be much better off if I had actually written that outline before reading the entire book. The next time I do a review (or present on a book for a class), I think I’m going to take a slightly different tack than my usual practice of reading the whole book, making notes in the book as I go, then returning to those notes to help me compose my thoughts and make a fuller set of notes. Instead, I think I’ll read the introduction and get a sense of what the author’s project is, what his/her materials and theories are, and the overall structure of the book first. Then I’ll create an outline of how I think a review of that material ought to be organized, whether thematically, chapter by chapter, etc. As I read the book, I can fill in the outline as I go with pertinent information, quotes, criticisms, etc. That way, when I finish the book, I’ll actually have most of the review in place and will only have to shape that material instead of going back and starting all over again trying to remind myself of the intricacies of the argument or evidence.
Grad students often find themselves mired in a swamp of language that includes jargon particular to their area of study, neologisms created by whoever the star academics might be at the moment, and the need to, sometimes (though less often that probably occurs), coin their own words that communicate with an exactness that might be missing from more pedestrian or oft-used words. Which is why this essay about what constitutes a “word” and why dictating by fiat that “x is not a word,” holds no intellectual weight is a great read.
Neologisms, jargon, and words that shift function (e.g. verbings) attract particular condemnation. New words can seem ugly, pointless, or ridiculous at first, but over time, many have snuck into standard usage. I’m not arguing for the default acceptance of all newcomers, but by tolerating them long enough to assess them without prejudice, we can reorient(ate) ourselves to new linguistic possibilities. Peevers: criticise pet-hate words if you must, but don’t assume that you’re right and that people who use them are lesser beings. Repressive lexi-quibbling overlooks the fact that language is fiercely playful and productive. It invites our creativity. Wordnik’s Erin McKean put it succinctly: “If it seems wordish, use it.”(From ‘Not a word’ is not an argument « Sentence first)
Certainly, as writers, academics should strive for clarity of communication over obfuscation and jargon. However, as writers, communicators, and humans, we should never be afraid to coin a term, or create a word that helps us communicate our ideas regardless of what those who ordain themselves “word police” may say.