Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Terror Curve: A Theory of Motivation, Accountability, and Writing

Riddle me this. Why does everyone start their PhD telling me that they're going to finish in four years, but no one does? Why does almost everyone finish their coursework on time, but then go two years without producing a dissertation chapter? Why do students with cogent and workable dissertation proposals utterly fail to write their dissertations?

The answer, I suggest, is largely structural rather than individual. I have ideas, ideas that have to do with structure and accountability, just like all my other ideas.

Let me present you with Morrison's Law of Academic Writing, as a chart. I drew it on a piece of paper:

Morrison's Law of Academic Writing
The vertical axis measures fear. The horizontal axis measures time. The blue line is the baseline fear of writing that most of us have--you know, the reason we scrub toilets instead of writing because we are more scared of writing than we are put off by unpleasant household cleaning tasks. The red line is deadline pressure, which grows in a non-linear fashion from "meh, I've got LOADS of time" to "BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS AND HAND ME THAT CASE OF RED BULL WE ARE WRITING A WHOLE BOOK TODAY, PEOPLE." I call this line, "The Terror Curve."

Writing happens where Baseline Fear and Deadline Fear intersect: this is the point for many writers where the fear of consequence for not writing exceed the fear or writing.

This is not ideal. If you want to get the writing started sooner, one of two things has to happen: either you reduce the base line of writing fear (which we've discussed, mostly by lowering your standards and cultivating a daily writing habit), or by dramatically accelerating the crisis points in the Terror Curve.

Consider coursework. Each seminar lasts a mere 12 weeks. Every single week, students have to show up in class, and demonstrate that they're read the material. Often, mid-semester, students have to produce a formal proposal for their final paper, and hand it in for grades. They might have to do an annotated bibliography a few weeks later, and then there is a hard deadline for the paper shortly after the semester ends. Courses usually culminate with a research paper, but the weekly reading deadlines, and scaffolded writing assignments mean there are lots of shorter and less dramatic Terror Curves, with lower stakes, that may in turn reduce the Baseline Writing Fear.

In chart form: Note how manageable this looks. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is lower because the stakes are lower. Note that writing happens at many points in the semester. Note that the Terror Peaks are not at very high fear threshold points.

The Terror Curve in coursework

But how do we organize dissertation writing? Proposal complete, students are set entirely loose, with an injunction to "write something" and then, when they deem that something is somehow ready in some way for some kind of feedback, to turn it in. The only real deadline is Dissertation Defense, which isn't a date until the thing is actually done, but there are other deadlines that are squishier or aspirational like "finish within four years."

Here is the dissertation in chart form. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear is high to start, because no one has written a dissertation before and doesn't know how, and also this is the Main Goal of the PhD. Note that the Terror Curve is dramatically bent -- the timeline, usually about two years, is very long, allowing for major non-writing to happen, with dramatic shooting up of terror level right at the end. The Baseline Writing Fear is usually much higher for the dissertation project than for any other writing the student has ever done, because it's not only a huge piece of writing, but in a genre the student has never written in before, with the added bonus of being incredibly high stakes.

The Terrifying Dissertation Curve

What I often see but wish I didn't is students writing the entire dissertation in the red zone of the terror curve: trying to do a whole dissertation in 6 months, rushing it, miserable, producing poor work. What I want to see is steadier writing, more enjoyably, with real time for revision and rethinking and savoring the process (really.)

So here is Morrison's Theory of Supervisory Terror. I am the terror curve for my students. Don't get me wrong! I'm not scary and I'm not mean. But I *am* the deadline that their work otherwise lacks. I push the moment of reckoning dramatically forward, and lower the stakes, so that the writing gets done sooner and better and more easily.

Map it like this:

Morrison's Theory of Supervisory Terror
Note particularly the shaded areas: these are zones of continuous writing. Note that the Baseline Writing Fear diminishes over time before rising again before the defense (a new hurdle, with new readers). Note that there are LOTS of little deadlines, and that the difference between the fear of writing and the fear of not writing are pretty short, which means less procrastination and fewer mood swings.

The details are unique to each student, and negotiated. Some students book regular office visits with me. Some send me writing every week that I don't read. Some produce detailed timelines of chapter deadlines and revision schedules. The key thing is, we determine what kind of push or prompt they need from me to ensure that they will stay accountable to their own projects.

It works at the program level too. Annual progress reports where students really account for their year of writing, and a meeting to make plans, that can work. Once-per-semester meetings with students beyond program limits, to discuss progress and celebrate it and plan it. Anything that lets students know that we expect them to get some writing done, and we will be discussing it sometime in the next couple of months makes it more likely that it becomes scarier NOT to write than it would be TO write.

Can I tell you? I failed more than one class in my undergrad because I just didn't write the essays. I didn't write them because I'm an anxious perfectionist with time management problems. This is why, incidentally, I like sit-down exams and in-class essays so much. Anyhow, these classes I failed usually had a mid-term essay, that I didn't hand in and was told to just hand it in whenever, and a final essay, that I also didn't hand in, because I still had to write the mid-term essay and I was full of shame and loathing. If the class also had a final exam, I would ace it, and then the prof would call me and wonder why why why I just didn't get the writing done, because I was obviously so damn smart and had clearly read and understood everything. When you fall so far behind, and no one is really holding you to it, it's easy to get rid of all the shame and fear by just not doing anything at all. I don't want my students to suffer like this. This is not an uncommon problem among academics.

Ultimately, it would be better if we wrote without fear. That comes, eventually, from making writing a habit, being steady, and seeing the results. Most of us don't get there without some training, and some practice, and that comes from accountability. We need more training and mentoring too, obviously, but a really easy piece is the accountability.

Oh -- about the charts? I was going to do them all fancy on the computer, but I didn't have time, because I need to finish this blog post and do some writing on my book chapter. My writing coach and I set a deadline, and it's only three weeks away ...

5 comments:

  1. All of this. I dig it so much. There's definitely something in outside writing collectives about mutual terror promotion, where people provide deadlines for each other.

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  2. This is fabulous. And it begs the question of why, oh why, oh why is training in supervision and in teaching people long-form writing not a mandatory thing for faculty? It is such a shame that supervisors are, like dissertation writers, largely left to their own devices and forced (or fail) to figure these things out for themselves. And the actual shame of not knowing how to supervise well, and of seeing one's students fail, has got to be nearly as bad (for people who care) as the shame of not producing any or good writing as a dissertator. Believe me when I say that I know how impossible it is to get faculty to do anything they don't want to do, but why is training in supervision not made a tenure requirement, or a requirement of getting a School of Graduate Studies appointment that enables one to supervise, across the board everywhere? It would go some way toward saving everyone some grief, and to reducing both the attrition and time-to-completion numbers. Instead, the universities I have worked most closely with are doing things like screwing around with funding in an effort to get people to finish in a timely fashion, when at least part of the problem is inadequate or absent supervision and a power dynamic that makes either managing up or changing supervisors both risky and scary.

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    1. Excellent point. At Waterloo we have a new training system in place for supervisors, which is better than before, where you became qualified to supervise by dint of having published something. That's how I qualified ... Yes, managing up is a terrible thing to ask students to do, but as you note, no one can get a faculty member to do what they don't want to. Ask me how I know. I think everyone has good intentions, but unreasonable expectations, or sometimes big blind spots, or sometimes they're the rare unicorn that somehow just sat down every day and wrote a whole dissertation.

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    2. As always, this is so very relevant: http://www.chronicle.com/blognetwork/researchcentered/2011/09/23/advanced-faculty-wrangling-techniques/

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  3. I like this post, and I think your charts are funny. I think it would be amazing if graduate programs provided students with more structure after the coursework phase, and also provided ways to reduce the fear. Mentorship from more senior students? Regular meeting times for students to talk about their work, while they're writing and planning? Ways to reduce the stigma of not writing and mental health challenges and isolation? I feel like these things, and more, could go SO FAR to improving student outcomes and experiences as well as completion times.

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