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I Can Get In, I Can’t Get Out: A Final Reflection on Dissertation Boot Camp

Boot Camp has become like my phantom limb. Or else maybe I’m like some worker who has risen at the same time every day for 40 years and keeps getting up, getting dressed, and going through the motions of a left-behind business once they’ve retired. I’m writing this from the Harry Potter room at Douglas Library. That’s right: I woke up the morning after Dissertation Boot Camp was over, on a Saturday, and I wound up taking myself back out of sheer force of a habit I forged in only four days. I realized two things today as I debated about what to do (knowing that I needed to spend at least some time working today, and also wanted to work out): 1.) not having a plan is the enemy of productivity and the enemy of enjoying one’s work; 2.) Boot Camp gave me that plan. And since I have never worked a day in a campus library, I have no memories about what this room is like, what it’s for, what working on campus is like, etc. before the past four days, during which I had every need and detail taken care of so as to clear a path for me to write. So really what I mean is that Boot Camp gave me that plan all wrapped up with the affective and cognitive associations with a place – the vaulted, nave-like Harry Potter room, with the stained glass windows, oak furniture, and brass lamps I’ve come to adore – that are, in terms of working, nothing less than ideal. Once the library closes, I’ll nip across the way to the gym, and skipping Sunday to accommodate traditional brunch and visiting plans, I’ll do it all again the next day.

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If you’re curious, in four days I started and finished a 20-page section (exclusive of references), and got it polished (revised, footnoted, cited, and referenced). I think I must have been at exactly the right writing stage to maximize an opportunity like this. Colette Steer, (Manager Recruitment & Events, School of Graduate Studies, and all around dynamo), and the rest of Team Boot Camp will be sending out a survey about our experiences shortly, and I will be interested to see if there is a question on it that seeks to find out what stage of writing (a hard thing to describe let alone quantify) participants were at when they began and maybe what the correlation is with their output (also hard to specify).

Here are a few minor epiphanies that have clarified certain aspects of academic labour – and other mental labour – over the past few days:

  • There are no workshops on “how to follow,” “how to be an effective follower,” or de rigeur CV statements about your superior qualities of obedience. In fact, there appears to be no truly parallel antonym for “leadership.” In a culture obsessed with self-making, one which sees social contributions as stemming primarily from individual achievements, there is very little to incentivize (let alone romanticize) adhering to a structure. But there is joy in service to a cause, or an ideal, or even the personages who represent them. Part of the beauty of my experience over the past four days has been to eliminate the tyranny of choice – I would get up at a set time, get dressed in professional attire, reach the bus stop at 8:13, arrive on campus at 8:30, have half an hour to stretch my legs and get set up with refreshments while anticipating a group meeting at 9, knowing that I would have fingertips to keys by 9:30, and so on and so forth. What this amounted to was that we made our labour a matter of participating in society by remaining accountable to strict rules that we had agreed to, and yet, here we were, dozens of researchers working on original scholarship more productively than ever because we had agreed to cede a measure of control. Qualities of leadership and…followship (?)…are far from mutually exclusive.
  • What the conditions described above amounted to were fairly sterile experimental conditions. I noticed fluctuations in my mood, body, and thinking better here – and thus was more able to respond appropriately – because there were so few confounding variables. I stopped checking the time much because I didn’t need to; it wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I felt much clearer-headed.
  • Clear thinking, constant conditions, and a consistent group of people (I don’t know if there was any attrition) with a largely inverted social contract (see my previous post on “peer pressure”) revealed something else about socially navigating our professional worlds. Specifically, it was about social awkwardness. I would watch an even distribution of people get up to visit the snack stations, printer, washroom, etc. throughout our working periods, or mill about at lunch, or depart and the day’s end. On the times when I hung back rather than joining a group, I realized (something of) why social situations can feel so uneasy or intimidating even when they’re not: seeing people appear to behave in concert can be disconcerting because you perceive it as coordinated action when it is really only emergent. Coordinated action for which you have not received the memo (or invitation, or choreography, or what have you). Notably, the coordinated activity of inanimate things or things with otherwise impaired agency (on a Western view, this has traditionally included other-than-human animals, too) is a well worn horror trope.

On one of the days when we talked as a group about how write with a view to finishing a thesis, we discussed impediments to getting done, like the inner critic whose voice nourishes feelings of fraudulence: “I can get in. I can’t get out,” I thought, mentally quoting the parsimonious phrase of Joshua Homme. It may have been that some of us started Boot Camp this week thinking that way about our degree programs – “I was good enough to get admitted, but there’s no way I’m going to get a degree.” Thankfully that was not my starting point, but my ending point can be summarized by the same phrase, with the gloss instead that having started this routine with these working habits, I can’t – or don’t want to – stop.

 

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