Monday 19 May 2014

The Barn Hunter's Foolproof Guide to Thesis Writing

From prairie vistas... Windows Vista, the Barn Hunter's daily work venue has changed. Just kidding about the Windows Vista thing, I am actually serious about completing this thesis without irreplaceable data loss along the way.

I have already failed my earlier promise to write a weekly post. Last week I was planning to write a post, but all I would have to write about is how I hadn't got started on my thesis yet, and I was too embarrassed to do that. So I did it this week. But, I can also add the happy news that I finally did get started, and even made some real progress. In the meantime, I've also picked up a sweet summer job, found a thesis-writing office (thanks to the lovely Eldene Schmidt), cleaned out two closets and mastered a bun recipe. The Barn Hunter is back in business.

So, first of all, what is a thesis? I could probably use a reminder myself, so I'll peruse the Oxford Dictionary of Current English to see what it has to say.

thesis /thee-siss/ n. 1. a statement or theory put forward to be supported or proved. 2. a long piece of written work involving personal research, written as part of a university degree.

The thing I'm working on now is the second definition, though it must also contain the first definition. A thesis within a thesis. There's a lot of pressure invovled with these things. When I first began gradaute school, I really did not believe I had the ability to pull it off. I'm still a bit doubtful, but now that Ive started, I realise that, as difficult as it is, it's not quite as insurmountable as I had initially imagined. Really, a thesis is just five term papers all mashed together to support one main thesis. That's it. Easy.  I've got the information to do it, now I've just got to do it. And that's the hard part.

I think most graduate students have lofty visions of writing an amazing thesis that will have all professors in the department falling over themselves with praise, and publishing presses beating down the door. It is seen as a sort of culmination, a cherry on top to the work of graduate school. In a way it is, but in another way it's just another exercise to slog through on the way to earning that heavyweight piece of paper that says Master on it. We all want to feel like we have actually mastered something. I'm realising that it's sort of human to feel that way, and we better give up on actually achieving it if we ever want to have some peace of mind.

My friend Teresa has said to me on multiple occasions, "the only good thesis is a done thesis." My former professor and good friend Dr. Allison Fizzard told me just recently that "perfection is the enemy of good." So, I'm learning to let go of my grand visions and simply sit down and start typing away. Which brings me to the point of this whole post: how to write a thesis, barn hunter style.

I have three excellent and brilliant friends working on their theses right now as well. They reached their writing stage before me because my trip to England last year meant my research was pushed back. Thus, I had friends who had already gone through the proposal stage before I did, friends who talked me off the cliff. These are Meghann, PhD candidate, and Noah and Claire, my fellow MA cohort pals.

Like most graduate students, I have a giant case of imposter's syndrome, and spend a lot of my time wondering why they ever let me into graduate school. I've always believed that I don't do things the proper, scholarly way. Watching my friends work on their theses made me even more convinced of that. They do things properly. They have organised notes, they read all their sources beforehand and have very neat post-it notes marking each place they want to cite, they have diligent working habits. I possess none of these skills, and was starting to really panic about it. Then, my supervisor said something along the lines of: "it's your thesis, you can write it however you want." And then the epiphany struck. When it's done, no one will know how I got to that point, so I can just write it as haphazardly as I've written every other academic paper.

And so, without any further ado, here is the Barn Hunter's Foolproof Guide to Thesis Writing

1. Sit and stare into space for at least an hour before doing anything else.
2. Mentally berate yourself for being a failed academic and a mediocre human being.
3. Open your word processor.
4. Fiddle around finding appropriate tunes - usually classical a la Ralph Vaughan Williams and/or Vivaldi mixed in with some flavour of the week rock/pop playlists. 
5. Write like a wild thing possessed by the Furies, urged on by the Muses and guided by Hermes. This will last for approximately twenty minutes.
6. Assess the results: several paragraphs of single spaced drivel.
7. Surf around on the internet mindlessly for no less than one hour.
8. Repeat steps 5 and 6.
9. Emerge into the sunshine for a brisk walk.
10. Repeat steps 5 through 10.

That's my daily agenda. Also, there is to be no chronological progress. Open whichever chapter you feel like writing about, and just start typing. When bored of that particular topic, switch to another chapter.

When writing a thesis, it's important to set goals and deadlines for yourself. Even someone as disogranised as I am needs that bit of structure. When I first began, I had goals of "Chapter ___ complete by _____." But then I realised I wouldn't write like that. I just can't. I have to be disorganised and half crazy for anything good to come out. And so now my goal is simply to write five pages per day/twenty pages per week. I'm aiming for a 150 page thesis, including photos and diagrams, so that means that I should be on course to finish by the end of the summer.

Goal: 20 pages per week
Progress for week of May 12-18th: 13 pages. 

So, yeah, I didn't make it last week. But that's okay! I only actually worked for two full days last week due to some extenuating circumstances, some legitimate and some just me being a procrastinator. I am happy with thirteen pages last week. Next time I post, it should be at least 33 pages. Until's another picture of a barn.

This barn west of Radville is the only barn with an existing silo in my region. It was once used as a feedlot in the 1960s. Photo October 31, 2013.