The Benefits of Blogging in Graduate School

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I’ve been blogging for a little over two months now, so I think it’s about time I—and, by extension, so-inclined readers—take a step back and analyze this project.

When I started SDMS, my primary goal was to stimulate my scholarly writing. If for no other reason, this is the reason that this blog will live to see another month. And another, and another…

I honestly believe that most graduate students, but especially those graduate students who have a genuine passion for writing, should have a blog, even if they only post to it bi-monthly.

When I blog, my overall productivity goes up. Writing about something that isn’t AIDS or corpses puts me in a “work” headspace without also starting my day off in (let’s face it) the most depressing way possible.

Blogging takes time, but in its own curious way, it’s also a time saver. If I’ve been active on SMDS during the week I sit down to work on, say, an application essay, my sense of overwhelm around said essay diminishes.

The minute I feel dread setting in, all I have to say to myself is “Dude, it’s a two page essay… that’s, like, ONE blog post. I write those things every freaking day, and I do them in an hour. Chill.”

Now, does an application essay actually take me an hour to write? Not a chance. But that’s not the point. The point is that producing creative content on a daily basis is helping me get over the initial psychological barriers that I—that we all—face when justifying our work to others.

I’ll confess, I didn’t go into this little experiment entirely blind. I spent all four of my college years writing and running Bryn Mawr and Haverford College’s shared newspaper of record, The Bi-College News.

The website's changed a bit, and I don't know any of the writers anymore, but I'll always have a soft spot for "The Bi-College News."

The website’s changed a bit, and I don’t know any of the writers anymore, but I’ll always have a soft spot for “The Bi-College News.”

The Bi-Co News was a big commitment. Originally I’d only planned to write the occasional opinion piece, but by second semester of my sophomore year I the Managing Editor (read: second in command) of the whole enchilada. After a year and a half in that position, I did a brief stint as Editor in Chief, a run cut short in part by medical issues, and in part by my discovery that I really didn’t like being Editor in Chief. During my two year reign at the top of the totem poll I was putting anywhere from twenty to forty hours of every week (unpaid, mind you) into that newspaper.

Was I a walking, talking bucket of stress? Yes, yes I was. But I was also, much to my surprise, a better historian. No longer did I pride myself on being obtuse, or spending more time on an essay assignment than my friends had. The long hours spent working on The Bi-Co forced me to strip away at least some of the pretense, and make an argument, already. The clock was ticking. I had to learn how to think fast.

I took a five-year break from literary journalism (which I had come to think of as more self-indulgent than practical) to focus on becoming a fancy academic who produces fancy academic writing.

I now wonder how much better my academic prose—and my blogging—would be if I had budgeted the time to be a complete writer.

SMDS is essentially The Bi-College News 2.0, only with a much smaller staff, a non-existent budget, and self-imposed deadlines. Sometimes the little voice in my head tells me I’m being more self-indulgent than practical. The me that’s actually matured in the past five years knows, however, that the time I put into blogging is time I’m investing not only into my mental health and creative side, but also into the craft of writing history.

The medium itself might not work for everybody—I certainly know those for whom an epic Facebook post probably does what SMDS does for me—but I think we need to see more graduate students writing for public consumption on a regular basis. Now that I’m two months in, and non-academic writing has become a daily habit, I don’t know what I’d do without it.

If you love writing, you need to be writing… even if nobody’s reading.

Lucky for me, some of you ARE reading. I’m thrilled to have your support, and want to keep it!

Since SMDS isn’t going anywhere any time soon, I’d really like to hear from my readers. What kind of posts do you most enjoy? What could you do without? Are there any topics you wish I’d cover that I’ve not yet touched on? Hit up the comments section and let me know what you want, and I’ll do my best to provide it!

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

 

 

 

 

The Return of the Jedi (NYPL Edition)

I can't be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I'm a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

I can’t be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I’m a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

Apologies for the (almost) two day long radio silence. I honestly believe that time moves more quickly in New York City, and—“rebel” that I am—I respond by becoming a tired, slower version of myself. I was born in New York State, but did most of my growing up in North Carolina, and I imagine the resulting conflict is as biological as it is cultural. But anyway.

I haven’t spent much time in the archives yet, but Ihave seen enough to tell you that this trip is teaching me a very valuable lesson. It sounds silly for an historian to say this, but I’m learning not to underestimate the importance of time. A lot can happen in a year.

I was in these exact same archives last August, and—after a solid week of searching—walked away with nothing but doubt. I wasn’t seeing anything in the archive that proved or disproved the theory I’d been working with, and a personal friend and former member of ACT UP made it inescapably clear that I probably wasn’t going to find what I was looking for. Instead of seeing the situation for what it was, I gritted my teeth and flew back to California, determined to make something out of nothing. Hardcore denial.

That’s not the way I usually operate. For better (and occasionally for worse), I’m very calculating when it comes to my scholarship. I don’t waste time. If my archive gives me lemons, I normally cut my losses, make lemonade, and run to the next topic as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, my trip to New York happened mere days after a major family trauma, one I continue to deal with even now. I found myself in New York City, hundreds of miles away from home, brokenhearted and recovering from a horrendous cold. I had not yet embraced the idea that therapy can be a form of preventative care, so I hadn’t established a relationship with a counselor. I was a mess. Growing up, my scholarship was my shield; whenever something bad happened, I put my head in a book and thought the trouble away. Even if the world was falling down around me, I could always count on my brain, until last August. I’d hit a dead end in my research, but I simply couldn’t accept it, because it made me feel like a failure. Clearheaded, historian Andrea knows that dead ends are a natural and productive part of the research process, but in my grief and exhaustion, the worst case scenario prevailed.

The aforementioned denial delayed the inevitable, but I did eventually give up on my dissertation project. It was the hardest choice I’ve ever made as a scholar, but when I finally told my committee that I would not be writing the dissertation that I’d defended mere weeks previous, I felt about fifty pounds lighter. Once I opened myself up to new and interesting ideas, they came quickly. The ideas came so quickly, in fact, that a five minute conversation with one of my committee members spawned a whole new dissertation project, one that I still wake up every day excited to work on.

Even though I knew I was here to research a different topic, I must admit there was a part of me the dreaded coming back. What if the archive disappointed me again? I named my blog the freakin’ Six Million Dollar Scholar, and it wasn’t intended to be ironic. What if my triumphant return to the New York Public Library was a bust?

Good news folks: I don’t have to answer that question. Thus far, the archives have been incredibly good to me. Within a few hours of arriving at the archive, I’d filled all the folders I arrived with. That means I’ve found more in a couple hours this time around than I found in a week last year. I had tremendous faith in my new dissertation topic going into this trip, but all the evidence I’m collecting now tells me that—in addition to finding a project that has the potential to be awesome—I’ve “tapped a vein” in the archive that will continue to serve me well long after the dissertation is over.

In future posts I’ll actually discuss some of the incredible things I’m seeing, but for now I just wanted to revel in the fact that the same place that made me question my intellectual worth a year ago is validating me now.

What a difference a year can make.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Six Million Dollar Scholar

Those who know me know I’m not short on confidence, but—like so many female academics—I’ve recently been finding myself struggling with imposter syndrome for the first time in my intellectual life. Before this year, I was that rare breed of graduate student who never looked back. I knew I’d made the right decision in coming to UC Irvine. At a broader level, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I belonged in academia. I felt it in my bones. It’s funny, because I didn’t feel that way at all when I applied to grad school, but the same experiences that eroded the confidence of my peers during those early years pumped me up. “Are you not entertained?” I’d shout throughout the halls of ivory tower. I was Spartacus, but with books and articles, not blood and sand.

Then I began the dissertation stage of my career. More accurately, the dissertation stage of my career started me: started me questioning my intellect, my research, my goals… everything. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that my poor little dissertation doesn’t deserve all the blame, I was also weathering a major family tragedy that both brought on a wave of depression and at the exact same moment forced me to take stock of my life. Not a particularly unusual cocktail, but certainly not a desirable one either. In my limited experience, depressed people aren’t the best at self-evaluation). For the first time in my life, my scholarship began to suffer. The self-doubt in which I was mired was bleeding onto the pages I wrote. I have some wonderful cheerleaders in the UCI History Department faculty, and knowing that, for the first time (at least to my knowledge), I was disappointing them, helped me realize that I needed to reset. But how? How do I leave my “grad student imposter” identity behind and become the “Six Million Dollar Scholar”?

I’m not 100% sure yet, but I do know this:

I can rebuild myself. I have the technology. I can make myself better than I was. Better, stronger, faster.

I’ll add “happier” to that list. I’ve realized that the key to a productive and fulfilling scholarly life comes—at least partially—from being content with one’s life outside academia. And so, starting December 31st of 2013, I began making multiple incremental changes to my life. Those changes—which I’ll discuss in detail in future posts—are really beginning to add up. By practicing radical self-care of the Audre Lorde variety, I’m finding it much easier to live a life of the mind. I’m happier, more resilient, and more committed than ever to getting my Ph.D. and landing the job of my dreams.

This blog is one of the more drastic changes I’m making in my life this year, which explains why this first post is coming in July, not January. I really needed to psych myself up to launch this particular project. I’ve wanted to blog for the longest time, but something’s always held me back: I’m not interesting enough, I won’t have the time, I might make a huge mistake and nuke all my job prospects, I don’t know how to use a computer, etc.

I may well be boring, and yes, sometimes blogging is going to take time away from other more valuable things, but guess what? I have both good judgment AND a content management system! I’m just going to do this already. If other people read it, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, that’s cool too.

So there you have it. I’m laying the foundation and starting to rebuild. I’m well on my way to being the Six Million Dollar Scholar.