What I Wish I’d Known in Graduate School (Oscars Edition): Tim Johnson

http://www.i-do-photography.netBy Tim Johnson
Assistant Professor, University of Louisville

Number One:  “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it.” –  Ferris Bueller

I learned, over time, that the academic version of myself (the one that got me into graduate school) wasn’t necessarily a healthy or particularly productive human being. I procrastinated and called it perfectionism. I obsessed over minor points in papers while ignoring other allegedly important points like finishing sentences or writing conclusions that made sense to other humans. I didn’t eat right, slept intermittently, and drank coffee with impunity only to lose a day of writing because of a migraine. At the time, I told myself that I was just grinding the way graduate students should grind. As I look back, I was just losing sight of the bigger picture and, as a result, prioritizing really poorly.

In time, however, I figured out a process that worked for me (I highly suggest setting timers for how long to spend on student drafts and learning to ignore that little voice that says “maybe finding one more citation will fix this problem”) and that took recognizing that other elements in my life were more important than Ph.D/MA-related work. As a result, spending 40 minutes on a single student’s draft or not going outdoors for 48 hours while figuring out whether a literature review was rigorous enough started to feel ridiculous in the face of eating another meal with –a-roni in the title, having to reconstruct my life to look less like it was being run by a feral hedgehog every time my parents visited, or not fully enjoying a hiking trip with my wife. Suddenly, work got a lot easier.

At the same time, I think some of that process of self-discovery has to happen. Part of the graduate school process was learning to organize so that the productive, functional person showed up more often than the obsessive weirdo and then adjusting as needed (but never forget that that weirdo is lurking somewhere in the background, lest the bad habits return). So, I wish I had known to spend as much time working on myself as I spent applying myself to the work.

Number Two: “I’ll never let go, Jack” –Rose from Titanic (minutes later, she lets go)/”Let it Go” –Elsa from Frozen

Learn to finish a project and then send it (to someone/anyone). Graduate school can feel like an ephemeral place, at times. I spent so much time conversing with imaginary versions of thinkers and reviewers, I forgot the world of academia is actually populated by smart, dedicated people who shared my affinity for chatting about Englishy ideas and being productive while doing it. I treated conference presentations like they were journal submissions and journal submissions like they weren’t ready until I was sure my readers would react to them as if they were viewing the Arc of the Covenant in Indiana Jones (that is, that their faces would melt) or, for a less violent cultural reference, I had this Ralphy’s-fantasy-about-his-teacher-adoring-his-BB gun-essay-in-A-Christmas-Story mentality. Like Ralphy, I wrote a lot of B- material as a result.

Academic publishing works best as a collaborative process that uses peer review to get the work done (not to assess the work once it is already magnificent). Bring those points that you haven’t quite figured out right into the conference presentation, send the draft of an essay when you’re at 75% comfort level and see what anonymous reviewers have to say.

Otherwise, returning to the title metaphor, a project can feel like you’re floating in the middle of an ocean holding on to the frozen corpse of an idea that clearly is going to drag you down with it. Instead, let it go, let it go, be one with the wind and the stars.

In all seriousness, joining a writing group that met frequently was a real breakthrough in this regard. It made my ongoing draft work concrete, thinking through others’ projects helped me to get out of the tunnel-vision that often developed between me and my work, and I had people who could yell “send it!” at me when I got cold feet. I wish I had joined or started one of those groups from day one. If anyone wants to start one now, I’m game.

Number Three: “You’re going to have to write that down, because I’m not going to remember any of it” –God (from the Lego Movie)

Take notes, so many notes, and find a good note-taking software to do it with. I have forgotten so much of what I read and discussed during graduate school simply because I didn’t take the time to record what I found interesting or noteworthy in any useful fashion. During my exam prep-process, however, I started using Microsoft OneNote to record as much as I could and that was a real game changer. I still take and return to those notes to this day (they are searchable, which is amazing). As a bonus tip, and speaking of the Lego movie, I forgot way too often that, unlike a lot of people in the world, I get to do what I love every day and that’s pretty amazing. So, borrowing from Emmett of the Lego Movie, waking up every morning with the mentality that “everything is awesome” can have really positive effects—even if it is total denial. Here is a TedTalk that I like to watch every semester with my students that reminds me of this.

Generally, I am interested in rhetoric and writing as they intersect with the visual, economic, public, archival, and discourses of power. Specifically, I study the way large-scale (often economic) institutions present interesting points for examination in a variety of areas in rhetoric and composition. Some of the offshoots of these interests include projects looking into the role of bureaucratic institutions in shaping and using genres through a study of the recent changes to NIH grant proposals, how “Too Big To Fail” (particularly as it was performed during bailout hearings) serves as a sovereign discourse repositioning multinational corporations as sites where economic power structures challenge more traditional civic/political systems, and a look into the influences of institutional economic thinkers on Kenneth Burke’s philosophies of rhetoric.

My great white whale, however, is a book manuscript studying the motion picture work of Ford Motor Company. In it, the notion of Fordism is treated as an accumulated set of consubstantial discourses, articulated through Ford’s industrial films that accumulate into an immense case study for exploring the confluence of rhetoric, visual culture, and economic rationality.

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