Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Bout with Academic Paralysis

If I were afraid of nothing, imagine how much more productive I would be. For me, fear is almost a paralyzing force, and it's one that I deal with in particular around academics. I think it's been that way ever since I was in high school. Sometimes I'm fearful even when I need to write about things I'm "good" at doing. I don't get it. Is it a fear of making an error? I doubt it - even as a pianist I was never too worried about being technically "perfect" all the time.

Fortunately, Academic Paralysis (AP) (hey, I just made up that construct!) has always been a temporary thing for me. One of the reasons I started this blog was to attempt to overcome this fear. I think it's worked to a point. When I finally start writing a paper (and I usually start later than I "should"), nine times out of ten it goes rather swiftly and ends with a decent-to-good result. An older and wiser colleague has said to me: Shooting for the stars is admirable, but you don't always need to hit the target to still be "good." It's excellent advice, and I should listen to her more.

I guess I fear the start of the dissertation proposal. I fear being alone without guidance, and I fear I'll drift too far down the wrong path and will never be able to swim back upstream. I realize these are probably not irrational fears: I imagine many other doc students go through a similar experience. It's just that this has been the longest case of AP that I've experienced do date.

I bet that many of these feelings of AP stem from the fact that my most trusted writing advisor and editor -- my father -- died unexpectedly about two years ago, during my second year in this doctoral program. The way he went was generous to him and horribly unfair to the rest of us still left. Basically, his heart just stopped one afternoon. On the one hand: write me that ticket! No major long-term illness traveling down a narrow road of disease or discomfort. On the other hand: his death left lots of un-finished business which he wouldn't care for very much. During the first year-and-a-half in this program I pictured the dissertation-writing process looking somewhat like: 1) write a draft of a dissertation chapter, 2) pass it onto Dad, 3) wait for him to rip me a new one with his feedback (as usual), and 4) off I'd go to write another draft with the end product being of thorough detail and succinct grammar. I'm feeling a little lost without that built-in structure in place. Dad operated with a nice blend of logic, organization, and philosophy in his work (I'll never know why he worked in sales and not academia), and I do miss his presence in my life.

I guess I need to keep the present day in mind. First, "life happens" and there isn't much I can do to control these events. The show must go on. Next, DC is turning out to be a fantastic sounding board for research ideas, and I know I'm very fortunate for that good relationship. Wife is always supportive and wonderful, and she's also a good editor too. Pink and a couple of other colleagues are trustworthy types who aren't afraid to argue with me about concepts and ideas. Argumentation was the way I would negotiate discussions with Dad, so finding this spirit in a couple of colleagues is good for me (and is probably not nearly as annoying as it was at times with Dad!). Hopefully things will start clicking again very soon.


Cousin Dave said...

You know you can always email me copy, if you need another semi-critical eye on your paralyzed prose.

Joe said...

Boy, do I ever have a strong case of AP. And I think you've summed up one of the reasons for it very well... "if I don't start, I can never start wrong." As though there's a tax on eraser use.

I find I procrastinate big projects by trying to think them all the way through in my head, instead of just jumping in and sketching out whatever I can. but, like you, once I get the sketch started, things usually roll out pretty well. (Assuming I can limit my scope and find the dang end, but that's another issue...)

And if you ever want some copy-editing from someone who basically considers himself in educational administration, let me know...

Rob said...

Thanks as always, Cousin.

And Joe, while I don't wish this on anyone else, I'm glad to hear of a kindred spirit on this issue.