Friday, July 09, 2010

Academic Self-Loathing

I don't know if this is an "official" diagnosis or not, but that's what I'm calling my mood these days. Once upon a time, before the defense of my dissertation in April, I used to think I was a decent writer, thinker, and student. Now, not so much. I keep thinking that I'm over it [the defense] and that I've shaken the feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy that it left me with, but clearly that's not the case.

My previous impressions about my academic abilities were based on good grades, positive feedback, etc, etc. Of course, once one gets to graduate school, everyone has good grades and positive feedback. Everyone is smart, even though a few rise to the top of the pile and get awards, accolades, etc. As I wrote my dissertation, I received the kind of feedback from my advisor that lent me to think that my writing was good and my ideas were, at least, interesting. I never thought of my project as groundbreaking or spectacular, but I knew (and still know) there's a space for it in my field. There's definitely a niche for my work, and I can only hope and pray that one day I'll get to fill it with a published version of my dissertation.

After the defense, however, I was left feeling pretty much like shit about my writing (BTW: my advisor said nothing that contributed to this feeling). Some of the errors that made it onto the copies my committee members read had already been corrected by the time I defended. There were three weeks in between the time I submitted it to them and the time I defended. I got the impression that it was more important to give them that reading time than it was to keep looking for/correcting typos, grammatical errors, etc., so I turned it over to them while I kept proofreading. And, I faced the consequences of that in my defense. At one point, I just looked down at my watch and prayed that it would be over.

The good news (according to my advisor, who could see that I needed some moral support) was that everyone "bought" the argument. The problems were issues of style, tone, organization, and development. That's a lot of problems folks. So now, I'm doubting everything. I'm trying to move on to a new project, and I'm thinking to myself, "This idea isn't good enough. Surely someone's already said that. This isn't going to go anywhere" and so forth.... Maybe part of it is due to the fact that the new project is really new. That is, I've spent the last 5 years working on English women's comedy between 1670 and 1722, and now I'm working on the memoirs of a woman who was born in Italy, educated in France, and spent a great deal of time in the English court of Charles II. I'm looking at a text that's both memoir and travel narrative and attending to issues related to the material culture of authorship. Yeah, not exactly comfortable territory for me these days...

I feel so completely uncertain about my initial thoughts that I'm even hesitant to pass them along to my advisor. I really don't know what to do here...I'm wondering if some of this is normal, but something tells me that this is *not* something everyone goes through.

16 comments:

Lilian said...

OK, where to start? Maybe the timing of it is different for each one of us because of scheduling reasons, etc, but I TOTALLY know what you're talking about and I went through it on and off during the whole time I was writing my dissertation. I have so much to write about this subject that I'll try to touch on only a few things. I hope it helps somehow.

This whole self-loathing issue and doubting whether anything I write is any good didn't surface during/after my defense because it had been rehashed ad nauseam in the months leading to it. That's why my committee didn't receive a final copy of the dissertation until like, the night before the defense -- I know! horrible! But they had all received all the previous drafts and the content hadn't changed that much.

My advisor was not helpful AT ALL throughout the whole process. He only corrected typos, spelling, mechanical errors and not content, so that was not my problem. As for style and, most importantly, content, however, I had a committee member who was a veritable tyrant! She killed me 100 times over destroying my arguments, asking for countless other sources and, in the end, making my dissertation 100 times stronger because of that.

I'm so sorry that you had to experience that kind of criticism during your defense. Did the committee know that what they had was a rough draft and that you wanted them to have the content and not necessarily the form?

We all have style problems. I just hated when my advisor kept on blaming it on English being my second language when everyone, even native speakers encounter the same difficulties.

I hope you can find a way to gain your self-confidence again and let go of the self-loathing. But I totally understand why you feel this way, it's inevitable. You've been through a lot. I hope my comment helps a bit. I'll be back to "talk" more over the comments if you feel like it.

M said...

I do think this is somewhat typical. I had a slightly different experience with mine--a fairly friendly defense. In fact, two of my committee members praised my diss b/c I had made an argument work that they weren't convinced would work. But I didn't get the feedback on style and organization that you did. Consequently when I started rereading parts of it recently I saw a lot of problems, not in argument but in structure and repetitiveness, stuff I feel like they should have caught and asked me to change before it went to the thesis office. So I'm angry that I'm going to look like a big idiot if anyone ever reads it.

Focus on the fact that your argument and research were good, A. You can improve the other stuff.

與發 said...

友誼能增進快樂,減少痛苦............................................................

Anastasia said...

I am adrift in a sea of what am I supposed to be doing and all my ideas are dumb at the moment. The thing about my defense is that they praise the readability of my dissertation. I say what I mean, I say it one time, and then I'm done. But they also told me that it was insufficiently complex, flat, undernuanced blah blah whatever. And then one of them said that if I made it more "complex" I'd lose my readability. So I'm stuck. My strength is that I say what I mean with great clarity and brevity and my weakness is that I say what I mean clearly and briefly enough that there isn't any of that vague quality they like to call nuance.

Meh, I say. Just meh.

陳韋夏陳韋夏益東富益東富 said...

Say not all that you know, believe not all that you hear.............................................................

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AcadeMama said...

First, WTF with the random spambot comments??

Lillian: I had bouts of it during the writing process, but my advisor generally gave me good feedback. She never used negative words, but rather would simply point out areas that might not be clear to my readers or questions that would be raised, or she'd catch an occasional contradiction...In terms of my actual writing, she said it was clear and easy to follow. This is one of the reasons I was so taken aback my some aspects of the defense. You're right, though, about some questions, etc. leading to a better dissertation. I think what may end up happening in my case is that their comments (the regular members didn't ask for any major revisions before they approved it) will result in this being a much stronger book proposal. In fact, my advisor said I didn't have a defense, but rather I got reader reviews on a manuscript from peers in the field. That was supposed to make me feel better.

I don't think the member realized that many of the corrections had been made already, but I felt like any attempt to explain would not have been taken well. I appreciate you sharing your experience, though...It amazes me sometimes just how different each person's process is.

M: Oy, I hope nobody ever reads this work in its dissertation form!

Anastasia: I completely get that double-edged sword. I'm sorry your adrift, but I'm sure your ideas aren't dumb. Is there some sort of writing group in your department that you can use to workshop your material? I know this is one of the things that I would really benefit from in my program, but it just doesn't (and can't really)exist.

吳婷婷 said...

認識自己,是發現妳的真性格、掌握妳的命運、創照你前程的根源。......................................................

賴淑貞賴淑貞 said...

人因夢想而偉大,要堅持自己的理想哦!..................................................................

Intlxpatr said...

Part of it is just the nature of the academic world. It's not unlike when you hire someone to inspect a house you are about to buy - and you get a book of things that need taking care of. You are paying them to find things wrong.

Dissertation committees often feel they are obligated to find things you need to improve, otherwise, why would they exist?

Not to mention professional jealousy, normal human small-mindedness, etc.

I am totally intrigued by your new topic. It sounds like something you could jump into and get lost (a good thing!) and come up with original insights and conclusions. Maybe you'll end up writing a hugely successful popular historical fiction novel, earn enough money to laugh and tell them to take their academic snobbery and go . . . jump in a lake, or something.

Meanwhile, hang on to who you are. It isn't always easy, but your balance will be back soon. Your dissertation was accepted, and you are now Dr. AcadeMama, aren't you? :-)

Intlxpatr said...

PS - YOU own your blog. You can go to your comments section and get rid of those spammers, just eliminate their comments! It discourages them and they don't come back. (New ones come :-( )

莊雅和莊雅和莊雅和 said...

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