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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

The Accountability Partnership: Writing and Surviving in the Digital Age (Spring 2012 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In 2007, we, Sarah and Natalia, were struggling to write the dissertations that stood between us and our Ph.D.s in History. Studying different centuries and working in distant cities, we were both frustrated with our lack of writing progress and desperate to find strategies that could help. So we decided to experiment with an “accountability partnership.” For the next two years, we sent each other daily emails that contained our goals for the day, a tentative schedule for how we would achieve those goals, and the occasional rambling reflection on the particular analytical question that had us in knots. Over the course of that two-year period, we kept each other on task, modeled for each other perseverance and life balance, and inspired each other to continue forward on the long marathon that constitutes completing a dissertation.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Now that our dissertations have been securely filed and our careers have moved ahead, we can reflect on our partnership, what it meant, and why it worked. What have we concluded? That our accountability partnership was a digital age writing strategy worth analyzing and sharing.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In this essay, we present that strategy and offer some reflections on how it advances the possibilities for collaboration in writing history. We place our self-designed, daily, online accountability partnership at the center of our analysis, but rather than simply presenting what we did and why it helped, we examine the wider “writing guides” literature to enable a richer discussion of the strategies that can be deployed to facilitate success. In general, we found that this literature is perfectly maddening, largely banal and incomplete… and mostly dead right. And yet as much as is written on the topic, we found the advice largely insufficient to address the experiences of novice writers in the digital age. Moreover, we discovered in our writing strategy a rich possibility for shared enterprise, an experience too often assumed to be absent from the pursuit of historical scholarship.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For as long as young scholars have labored over dissertations and first books, they have wrestled with identifying a research question, finding sources, organizing their ideas, and explaining those ideas in smooth, elegant prose. These intellectual and organizational practices form the core of our craft and are commonly accepted as the sources of our struggles. Historians and scholars across the ages have developed a wide range of strategies to move forward with their work. As the essays in this collection reveal, however, the digital age has changed how we research and what we find; it has changed how we access sources and compile bibliographies, and it has changed how we compose our ideas. This volume makes a strong case for the necessity of rethinking some of the intellectual and organizational challenges of our craft and presents strategies for navigating them.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Yet for us, it was the emotional and psychological challenges of dissertation writing that proved most vexing, and it is difficult to know the extent to which the digital age has altered those challenges.1 Young scholars such as ourselves are increasingly “digital natives” and, therefore, can’t really compare our experience to anything else.2 Yet almost every one of us – digital native or neophyte – has experienced those moments when the demons of self-doubt arise and the prospect of sitting down to write feels increasingly unfathomable; we have also experienced the utter isolation and anxiety such emotions evoke. So the question animating our essay resonates with those posed in most essays presented here.  Seeking to understand how the digital age has changed the process of writing history, our experience with the “accountability partnership” leads us to ask how we can best harness technology to address the overwhelming feelings of isolation and anxiety often attendant to the task of writing and to question the assumption that historical writing and research is an inherently solitary process.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We developed our accountability partnership based on our innate sense of why we were struggling and what we thought could help.  Yet, unbeknownst to us, a wide range of support mechanisms – packaged in forms ranging from self-help books to coaching sessions to boot camps – already existed to support the dissertators who valiantly resist joining the nearly one-quarter to one-third of humanities and social science students in the United States who fail to complete their doctoral degrees.3 Apparently, we learned as we explored this literature, legions of ABDs (All But Dissertation candidates) out there were just like us: they too felt the gravity of the “rules changing” in the transition from diligent students in coursework to young scholars expected to generate original research.4 Others also felt stymied by the solitude of the dissertation endeavor and by the total freedom to do… nothing (or at least to “procrastinate productively,” undertaking discrete tasks that bestow the down-pat sense of accomplishment working on a major piece of writing fails to provide). This curious little niche of America’s $12-billion dollar self-help industry characterizes “the internal world” of most dissertators as filled with “self-doubt, anxiety, fear, procrastination, perfectionism, and other unwanted experiences,” and affirmed that our sense of guilt about spending any time away from our dissertations, or even away from worrying about our dissertations, was hardly unique.5

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Geared to assist any and all dissertators survive thesis writing, these wide-ranging supports vary in their emphases. Some coaches and scholars highlight problems of efficiency and execution while others focus on emotional and psychological obstacles, but all offer similar strategies for achieving success. Ritualized practice is one mainstay of the literature. Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day underscores the daily, consistent effort necessary to churn out what Anne Lamott has famously called “a shitty first draft.”6 Dissertation boot camps multiplying on august campuses such as the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton are primarily mechanisms for making students “show up” to write every day, intellectually and physically.7 All guides emphasize setting goals that are smaller and more attainable than the elusive and daunting “finish the dissertation.” Texts that privilege the emotional and psychological dimensions of novice writers’ experience counsel abandoning “negative thoughts” and “self-flagellation” in order to “enjoy the journey” and the inherent “pleasures” of dissertation writing.8 Completing a successful dissertation, the argument goes, is predicated upon practicing “self-care” and “nurture” (e.g., exercise, leisure, and proper eating) in order to escape the “quagmire of self-doubt” which plagues so many graduate students.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 So did our accountability partnership reinvent the wheel? Some might say yes: the literature clearly suggests that almost everyone in our situation feels as we did, and that many of the very strategies we “invented” had already been mapped out for and marketed to the dissertation-writing crowd. In the main, the books offered sound, if highly commonsensical, advice; and, in general terms, our partnership followed those broad contours. But the personal online partnership we cultivated offered crucial elements books and boot camps lacked.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 First of all, the literature feels incomplete and unsatisfying for what scholars of American self-help traditions have identified as a hallmark of the genre: they oversimplify complex problems and offer reductive solutions.9 Titles such as Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day employ facile quantification; the author herself admits that she doesn’t actually know anyone who has completed a dissertation by writing so little, but that the title evokes the daily commitment the task requires (and was certain to “get the reader’s attention”).10 Similarly, “surefire” tips and universal solutions fill the dissertation advice literature, and diminish its power. Peg Boyle Single‘s Demystifying Dissertation Writing is billed as a “streamlined process from choice of topic to final text,” and boasts a glossy image of a light bulb turning into a laptop morphing into a book, suggesting that a finished project is the inevitable outcome of following her steps to success.11 While the steps are many, vary depending on scholar and topic, and require consistent commitment, they are portrayed as a sure-fire way to achieve results. Boot camps, one of the newest arrivals on the scene, suggest that laziness is all that stands in the way of a completed dissertation and invoke a drill-sergeant mentality in promising to turn “slackers into scholars.”12 As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out in her critique of the “bright-siding” of American culture, the ever-growing “business of motivation” naively presupposes dutiful work unconditionally leads to success and imparts advice on how to do so with annoying sunniness.13

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Second, the literature all but overlooked much of what made our partnership uniquely successful: our online relationship. This is in part due to the rapid pace of innovation in our digital age.  Bolker’s 1998 volume contains an appendix titled “How the Computer Revolution Affects You and Your Dissertation,” and almost quaintly enumerates the “disadvantages of the computer,” seriously contemplating the possibility that a dissertator might write her manuscript in longhand.14 Authors writing more recently point out the benefits and pitfalls of a computer for organization and procrastination, respectively: the ability to file and reference notes and drafts is unparalleled, although so are the possibilities for spending hours in the universe of online media, music, and messaging. Single’s book comes closest to the type of strategy we devised, as she briefly mentions that the “real-time” experience of instant-messaging a writing partner improves accountability. But as a group, none of these writing guides consider that a one-on-one online relationship could be crucial to motivating a struggling dissertator to sit down each day to write and, ultimately, to complete a dissertation.15

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Finally, we can’t help but think that the literature suffers from the fundamental disconnect common to all forms of advice: it’s often easier said than done. Before we met, we knew what we had to do to complete our dissertations. (We knew we should work consistently and tackle small chunks, for example.) But there is a difference between “knowing you should floss every day and actually doing it,” as one of our friends likes to say. We needed each other – another person engaged in a parallel endeavor, with an understanding of the particularities of writing a dissertation in history, and with a comparable sensibility about life and work – to get mutually inspired to do the proverbial flossing. And to motivate each other to do so in a way that was genuine, personal, and sufficiently rigorous to hold the other person accountable.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 At its core, our partnership was effective because we turned out to be excellent virtual partners in a field not commonly considered collaborative. A dissertation in history is unique from many other disciplines: it is not merely a “write-up” of research findings; instead, it is a single-author-generated book-length exposition of a narrow topic, requiring primary and secondary evidence, close analysis, and narrative skill. For these reasons, history dissertators can expect to spend three to five years researching and writing in great solitude. Moreover, as History Departments today are characterized by increasing specialization as well as shrinking graduate programs, there seem to be fewer people around who share one’s specific intellectual interests, increasing the sense of isolation. For these reasons, our largely online relationship was especially beneficial. We were friendly but not really friends; we knew each other from conferences and worked in the same field, but we attended different graduate schools, lived in different cities, and studied different time periods. This distance gave us necessary space: we didn’t compete for advisor attention or internal departmental kudos nor did we try to “scoop” each other with archival finds or analytical insights. Still, we found in each other an interlocutor whose work was more intellectually related to our own than that of anyone on our home campuses. We understood each other’s process and project in a way we would not if one were writing on medieval illuminated manuscripts and the other an ethnography about contemporary inner-city youth. These affinities made the “virtual office” we shared a particularly necessary haven, especially as we wrote far from our home campuses, a common circumstance for young scholars.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We were also good partners because we shared a commitment to academic professionalism, yet we were willing to look beyond academia for models that would enable us to meet our scholarly goals. The very title we gave to our relationship, “accountability partners,” reeks of a corporate model that is anathema to many academics. Evoking measurable outcomes, deadlines, and time clocks, the idea of accountability runs counter to the freedom and limitless inquiry that many academics consider essential to the life of the mind. Even Natalia’s mother, a comparative literature professor, dismissed our plan as needlessly binding us to a structure that would limit our creativity. Yet we saw scholarly utility in the corporate world’s use of deadlines and schedules and borrowed those strategies in the service of our academic goals.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Our willingness to seek out other models also led us in a different, albeit similarly “unscholarly” path: a concern for wellness. We recognized in each other a desire to live healthy, balanced lives, lives that contained time for exercise and community service, good food and good friends. Although those features may seem more conducive to graduate school life than those aspects we borrowed from corporate culture, too often for too many academics, they are jettisoned in the rush to read more books, write more pages and drink more coffee. We found in each other someone who validated our desire to live a life that was attentive to wellness, and it enabled us to recognize and validate that value in ourselves.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The second core reason why our partnership worked is that we devised a support structure that made sense to us and served what we perceived to be our needs. We created a sense of accountability through regular, online interactions that structured our day and fueled the setting of manageable goals. We began each day with a morning email “sign-in.” As both of us worked mostly from home, the sign-in became our way of creating a structured work environment. Whether at 7:00 am (Natalia) or the more reasonable 9:00 am (Sarah), we announced to each other the moment our workday officially began, and we set forward a series of intentions about what we hoped to accomplish that day.  Just as signing-in to start the day was important, signing-off brought necessary closure. It enabled us to say: “I did all I could do today and now it’s time to stop.” Sometimes we would send each other long emails celebrating what we learned that day. Other times we would share our frustrations with what we hadn’t accomplished and write at length about what we needed to do the next day to remedy the situation. Usually, though, we dashed off a quick: “I’m done for the day.” But we found that regardless of how we signed-off, the value was in doing it. Part of our goal of feeling less overwhelmed required that we learn how to walk away from the work, even when the work wasn’t finished. We knew it would be there the next day. And we knew that our accountability partner would be there too.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As important as the signing-in and signing-out was to our sense of accountability and structure, the act of emailing a daily schedule enabled us to break down our large writing goals into more manageable parts.  The morning sign-in email quickly evolved into a space for creating and sharing a daily schedule.  Sometimes the schedule would be as loose as:

Morning: Work on Ch. 4
Lunch
Afternoon: Work on Ch. 4

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Sometimes, though, the schedules were far more detailed:

8-8:30: Reply to email
8:30-9:30: Review/edit stuff from yesterday
9:30-11:30: Draft new prose for Ch. 3 middle
11:30-12: Walk to library and pick up books
12-1: Lunch
1:30-3:30 Draft new prose for Ch. 3 middle
3:30-5:30 Read books from library/Take notes on connections
5:30-6 email

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In either case, the task of creating a schedule required us to think through the most important work that we needed to accomplish and present a period of time that we wanted to devote to it.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The daily schedule also became a vehicle for goal setting, or more appropriately, goal managing.  The practice of breaking down the big goal (finishing) or even the smaller big goal (finishing ch. 4) was a necessary act of realism and sanity. Over time, we began to say things like “need to read these two new books and figure out how to incorporate them into my analysis.” Or “need to write three paragraphs that can bridge this section to that section.” This shift in precision and clarity in our goal setting allowed us to feel more in control of our progress. In Bird by Bird, Lamott reveals that she keeps an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk as a reminder to herself to keep her writing ambitions limited. “[A]ll I have to do,” she explains, “is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”16 So much of what makes writing a dissertation or book manuscript difficult is the sense that it needs to be finished. Yesterday. Lamott reminds us that no one sits down and writes a book in one fell swoop; it takes daily efforts to compile one-inch chunks of prose. For us, sharing our small goals with our partner forced us to articulate that one-inch frame on a daily basis. Moreover, by stating those goals to each other we knew there was another person aware of our intention. There was no punishment or disciplining for failing to meet the goal – and often goals were not met as new ideas generated unforeseen writing and new reading generated a hunt for unforeseen sources. Still, by stating our small goals in the morning, we gave ourselves enough focus to begin the work.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Central to that focus was the act of writing the email. Unlike phone conversations that can spin off topic or personal to-do lists that can be jotted down and easily tossed, emailing your partner a schedule requires typing. Thus it necessarily invites revision, reflection and the type of intentionality that is essential for effective thinking. Emailing each other our plan for the day required us to think about what we needed to accomplish and gave us space to write, revise and rework until we felt comfortable with that plan.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 At the time we launched our partnership, email and digital communication in general had become so widespread that it already inspired criticism as “supplanting human connection” and fostering a modern-day anomie, as Sherry Turkle would observe.17 Interestingly, however, the peculiar circumstance of writing a history dissertation –  near solitude being normative – actually meant that our email correspondence forged a powerful interpersonal connection, rather than weakly mimicking one. Turkle’s oft-cited assumption that our increasing tendency to email and text rather than speak in person or by phone “dials down human contact” didn’t apply in a situation in which little or no human contact, digital or otherwise, is considered the norm.18

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As important as forging a personal connection, the act of emailing our goals also freed us from guilt about engaging in life pursuits beyond the dissertation. Writing out our daily schedule allowed us to carve out discrete periods not only to exercise, eat, and email, but also to nurture a pregnancy, engineer a major move, create a private tutoring business and complete a fitness certification, not to mention see friends and date. The transparency of our daily emails showed that neither of us was the “only one” who had other commitments and interests beyond our dissertations. By alleviating the guilt so many graduate students feel about existing as anything other than a dissertator, we engaged more passionately and productively in all aspects of our lives, including as scholars. Alison Miller describes how during graduate school her “sense of entitlement to. . .experience pleasure quickly dwindled as the demands of academic life mounted.”19 The accountability partnership disrupted that disempowering cycle and enabled us to undertake our dissertations – and the rest of our lives – with greater pleasure than if we had ventured out alone.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Our experience suggests that the virtual component is essential to a writing partnership in the digital age. For one thing, the online relationship doesn’t involve a physical meeting time or place or even the need to be on the same schedules. We could – and did – sign in or out at wildly different times, and our work patterns never interfered with each other. This created necessary boundaries between our workdays; we were not affected by each other’s doctor’s appointments or trips to the gym. We were also protected from interferences like phone calls. One can (theoretically) work for hours without checking email, and so while the other person is “virtually there” they don’t interfere in the actual writing process. In other words, the online aspect of our partnership enabled us to be the solitary, independent scholars we are while, at the same time, offering us virtual and ever-present support and accountability.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Writing a dissertation is hard, and while the general advice literature is largely right, it is woefully incomplete, missing the unprecedented context of the digital age and the singularity of individual intellectual and emotional situations. No existing text acknowledges the burst of motivation that comes from sharing a breakthrough with someone who understands your work, the sense of duty created by knowing someone is waiting for you to check in every morning and to check out every evening, or how much more rewarding the process of writing a dissertation can be when this partner is a respected colleague and, eventually, friend.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The digital age provides necessary help for young scholars wrestling with the challenges of writing a history dissertation. We have found this help not in the form of fancy new software, but in a relatively old technology that can be altered by the intentionality of how we’re using it. Email has been around for decades and has certainly been eclipsed by other forms of social media in terms of hipness and hotness. However as a direct, personal tool of virtual communication and writing support, traditional email is still without peer. It enables daily communication that is flexible, personal, immediate and non-invasive, and it requires a deliberate act of writing that spurs thinking and enables revision. Perhaps most importantly, email enables intellectual colleagues of similar goals and temperaments to work together across vast distances, reducing the isolation of academic writing while fostering a rich, supportive collaboration.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We are aware that the strategy we present here risks its own kind of reductive, banal generalization or that some might write it off as a unique result of a unique friendship. But what we’re hoping to suggest is the value and opportunity in creating a virtual writing partnership that suits the needs of the participants themselves. For us, that meant a daily online partnership; others might prefer to work with a small group or establish weekly, rather than daily, check-ins. There is a wide-array of options. The main point, as we see it, is that technology can and should be used to facilitate the writing process in ways that are necessary and important. And we hope that essays such as this can spur conversations among graduate students and their advisors about successful writing strategies and challenge the assumption that producing a dissertation in history need be a solitary process. Academia’s anxiety about talking about individual writing processes can and should be tackled as a means to bring about greater intellectual freedom, discovery and, ultimately, success.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the authors: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is assistant professor of Education Studies and History at the New School University in New York City. She is currently working on a book entitled Origins of the Culture Wars: Sex, Language, and the Creation of Contemporary Conservatism. She received her Ph.D. in History from Stanford University in 2009.  Sarah Manekin is currently a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral fellow, and is on leave from Johns Hopkins University. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009.

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2. Others address these questions, often building on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), based largely on research conducted before the digital age. For example: Barry Wellman, et al., “Does the Internet Increase, Decrease, or Supplement Social Capital?” American Behavioral Scientist, November 2001, vol. 45, No. 3, 436-455; Homero Gil de Zuniga, “The Mediating Path to a Stronger Citizenship: Online and Offline Networks, Weak Ties, and Civic Engagement,” Communication Research, June 2011, Vol. 38, No 3, 397-421; Keith Hampton, et al, “Social Isolation and New Technology: How the Internet and Mobile Phones Impact Americans’ Social Networks,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, November 2009, http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/18–Social-Isolation-and-New-Technology.aspx.
  3. Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol. 9, No. 5, 2001.
  4. Peg Boyle Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing: A Streamlined Process from Choice of Topic to Final Text (New York: Stylus Publishing, 2009), 10.
  5. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 2.
  6. Alison B. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All! How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on With Your Life (New York: American Psychological Association, 2008), 19, 74.
  7. Joan Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (New York: Henry Holt, 1998); Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), 22.
  8. See more about “Dissertation Boot Camp” at the Graduate Student Center, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.gsc.upenn.edu/navdiss/bootcamp.php, and Princeton Writing Program, Princeton University, http://www.princeton.edu/writing/university/bootcamps/dissertation.
  9. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation, 20.
  10. Stephen Starker, Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002).
  11. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation, xvi. Other examples include the bestsellers such as Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997); Wendy Stehling Drumm, Thin Thighs in 30 Days (New York: Bantam Books, 1982).
  12. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 20.
  13. “Dissertation Boot Camp,” Graduate Student Center, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.gsc.upenn.edu/navdiss/bootcamp.php.
  14. Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (New York: Henry Holt, 2009).
  15. Bolker, Writing Your Dissertation, 155.
  16. Single, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, 152.
  17. Lamott, Bird by Bird, 17-18.
  18. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), passim.
  19. Turkle, Alone Together, 15.
  20. Miller, Finish Your Dissertation, 157.
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