Re-reading an Article I’ve Published

For this week’s class students are reading an article (chapter) I recently wrote for New Directions for Student Services. The issue is titled, “Supporting and Supervising Mid-Level Professionals.” My chapter is “Developing a Philosophy of Supervision: One Step Toward Self-Authorship.” The theoretical framework for the chapter is Marcia Baxter Magolda‘s work on self-authorship*.

As I re-read the chapter, I had many moments where I thought, “Wow! I wrote that? How nice.” I also had moments where I thought, “Ugh…did I write that sentence?” and wondered how I could go edit something that’s already been published. Ha-ha-ha. A couple of words repeated too closely together,  a couple of awkward sentences. But, overall, a sense of satisfaction that the chapter came together so nicely and that Baxter Magolda’s work was the perfect foundation.

*A succint overview of her theory is provided by Florida State University: http://studentdevelopmenttheory.wordpress.com/self-authorship-and-transitions/

For those interested, you can contact me for a copy of my chapter. If you’d like to review the entire issue of New Directions, it’s the Winter 2011 issue (no. 136) pusblished by Wiley Periodicals and published on-line in Wiley Online Library.

Acts of Gratitude

When my sisters and I were very young our mother instilled in us an ethic of gratitude through the writing of thank you notes. Because she was often driven by a sense of obligation and duty, her insistence that we write thank you notes was, I’m sure, more about obligation but, ultimately, did help me understand at a deeper level the importance of appreciating what others have done. As a child my thank you notes were in response to gifts I received for my birthday and on Christmas. I imagine they were worded something like:

Dear __________:

Thank you for the _______________. I really like it.

Love, Delores

At some point, and unfortunately I don’t recall when, my thank you notes transitioned from simple thank you notes for gifts to notes of appreciation for the gift where I would try to tell the giver not only that I liked the gift but something more about how I might use it, when I would wear it, and so on. Or if I received a pen, I would write the letter using that pen. Similarly, if I was given beautiful stationery, the note of appreciation would be the first thing written on that paper.

As an adult, I started writing notes to thank people for random things: to acknowledge a good presentation I attended, to share my appreciation for an extra effort someone made, to thank someone for taking on and completing an especially challenging project. In the age of e-mail I would sometimes write a well thought-out note and send it electronically, but I knew that, for me, there was something more intimate about taking pen to paper. Perhaps it’s how I felt when I received a handwritten note of appreciation that convinced me to continue handwriting notes even when an electronic note might be more convenient.

I love shopping for note cards. The pleasure of searching for a particular size, shape, and design combined with the thought of filling the blank cards with sentiments of thanks is an inspiration in itself. Before I write a note, I go through the many blank cards I have as I think about the person I’m writing to. Does this card fit the sentiment as well as the person? No…not quite right. Then, ah, yes, this is the perfect card. The next decision involves the pen. Which of my (many) pens fits the thoughts I want to convey?

Then the writing begins. In A Simple Act of Gratitude, John Kralik suggests writing a draft of the message first. I admit that I almost never write a draft of  a thank you note. I just start writing on the card thinking that the sentiments as they flow from my heart and head are best delivered as they occur to me. However, there have been moments when I’ve re-read a note and observed that it didn’t flow quite as smoothly as I had hoped. Still, even then I typically don’t revise it. I just go with what I’ve written. I may consider writing some rough drafts of future notes to see how that feels. There’s an art to writing a note of appreciation or gratitude. In other crafts (writing an essay, a blog, crocheting a scarf, creating a ceramic pot), we often work on a draft/first effort before creating the final one. It doesn’t seem like a bad idea to linger over the note a bit longer, writing a draft, and ensuring that it conveys the sentiment I had hoped.

Writing thank you notes/notes of appreciation and gratitude help lift me outside of myself. I like to focus entirely on the receiver when writing a note. I like the simplicity of the note.  Again as Krakin noted, it’s the brevity of the note that causes the writer to pay attention to what matters, on what one wants to say. The content of the note is all about the intended recipient. Thus, as the writer, I’m less likely to slip into a focus on myself. I like this. People like to be appreciated, this is true. And there’s something magical about putting all of our gratitude out into the universe.

Anchorage to Nome

In my previous post I mentioned the Iditarod metaphor — one I’ve chosen to talk with students about the challenges of completing a dissertation. In using this metaphor, I wanted to emphasize that when we undertake a major endeavor that we’ve never attempted before, there’s a lot to learn. Oddly, we don’t always give ourselves room to learn. Instead we make assume that we should know how to do something, even if it’s the first time we’ve ever done it.

So in talking about the dissertation, I asked them to consider the Iditarod: What would your expectations be about (1) preparation, (2) essential equipment, and (3) skill development if you were to participate in the Iditarod? Most people readily acknowledge they would need to practice & train for the event; they would need the right equipment; they would need maps, compasses, and a support team; they would need to take some practice runs; they would make mistakes; they might crash on the course, but would need to pick themselves up again; they would need patience, stamina, nourishment, and, did we mention a support team?

The thing with a doctoral program is that it looks a whole lot like other things we’ve done before — namely, go to school. We go to class, we read, we write papers, and we discuss things. Because these activities look like other things we’ve done before, we often underestimate just how different the overall experience is. A doctoral program requires a student to think differently, to be a co-creator of knowledge, to be guided toward new understandings, to develop a high tolerance for ambiguity, and to rely less on personal experiences & opinions and more on research to build an argument. In our classroom settings, most students adjust pretty quickly to this environment and it’s really fun to watch students as they deepen their thinking, change their approach to learning, and become more curious about intellectual abstractions.

Scholarly writing takes more practice. Developing the skills to write differently is a more arduous journey. But, it sort of looks like writing we’ve done before and as students we rely on what we know. It’s difficult to teach this writing so the faculty begin early by providing examples of good writing, noting how others use research to develop their arguments, how good writers link arguments together and build a foundation for their own research. I often tell students that I wish I could say that writing gets easier. Some days it does seem to click into place, but I don’t think it’s ever easy. It’s hard work. It takes practice, preparation, more practice, some rough drafts, a few crashes along the way, and also some victories.

Although I used the Iditarod metaphor initially to describe the dissertation journey, it seems an apt metaphor for the entire journey of completing a doctorate. The dissertation is the last leg of the race, but only one part of it. There’s a lot of work on the way just to reach that point. And there’s a lot of learning and growth along the way.

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At the end of the class last summer I gave each of the students a small gnome — a symbolic link to the Iditarod which begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome. The gnome was to remind them of their goal and to enjoy the adveneture. A student from the class has had a lot of fun incorporating the metaphor into her dissertation experience. She recently sent this photo: