How I stopped worrying, and learnt to love Lent Term March 1, 2010Posted by dolorosa12 in life, uni.
Tags: cambridge, ccasnc, life
I don’t tend to do too well during Lent Term. It’s partly due to the lack of daylight, which by Australian winter standards is pathetic (10am to 4.30ish pm), and it’s partly due to the fact that Lent Term is when it starts to get serious, workwise. Last year, I went a little bit crazy, although it probably didn’t help that I spent about five weeks in the lead-up to Lent Term spending all my days alone in my room drinking various alcoholic beverages…
I spent most of this term being very tense. Every two weeks or so, I’d hand some work in to my supervisor, and every meeting she would say that it was not at a high enough standard. I started to despair, thinking that I was incapable of writing research at a level higher than an MPhil. At the same time, I was preparing for my first-ever conference paper, which caused the Return of Panic!Ronni, Now With Added Hysteria. My friends must’ve got very sick of me, as every time anyone asked how I was, I would launch into a litany of shrieking complaints about how terrified I was about the conference.
At some point, though, I realised I had to pull myself together. I had been having trouble writing in my room, so switched to working mainly in libraries and cafes, with excellent results. Every so often, I’ll get a psychological block about writing under certain circumstances (I’ll suddenly be incapable of writing on a computer, or in the University Library, or in the department common room), but I’ve found that if I simply change my writing circumstances (write by hand with a pen, move to a different library, try writing at a different time of day) I can unblock my writer’s block. That’s what I started doing. I worked in libraries in the morning, then came home, went for a run, ate lunch, and worked in cafes in the afternoon. I wrote everything by hand in exercise books, which meant a bit of extra work transcribing the writing, but it was worth it. I’m now sitting on 5000 words (as well as about 15,000 other words that aren’t really up to scratch).
But the best thing about those 5000 words? My supervisor said they were good, and that the new line of inquiry I’ve been following is a worthwhile topic. After she said that, I felt as if I were walking on air! The thing about my supervisor is that she expects a lot, and she’s fair but firm. This means that when she says my work is good, I can confidently expect it to need very little improvement. She reads everything thoroughly and won’t give empty compliments, so when she’s happy, I know it’s with good reason. She really gets what is meant by ‘constructive criticism’.
And what about the conference? Well, I was very frightened on the day. (My friend J and I, who were both giving our first papers, were sharing a hand-out for the talk before mine, and neither of us could hold the hand-out as our hands were shaking so much!) But the thing about me is that I have such a strong sense of shame that I’ll work hard to avoid being ashamed or embarrassed by anything. (When I was a child, it was even worse. It was fear that motivated me to study, because I was so terrified of making mistakes and having people think I was ‘stupid’. I managed to get through so many gymnastics competitions without a hitch – without falling or stumbling or slipping – because I would’ve been so ashamed to look bad in front of the judges.) It’s a handy trait to have, because although I’d prefer to be motivated solely out of love for my research, I think that fear is a stronger motivator. Thus, although I was freaked out about giving my paper, I was more terrified of giving it badly, and so I forced myself to speak with a well-modulated voice (having journalist parents is good training for this!), gesture with my hands, make eye-contact, make sure I was pronouncing the Irish words as correctly as I could manage and prepare for the sorts of questions that I felt people would ask.
Once I was done, I actually found I’d rather enjoyed the whole thing, and was looking forward to doing some more conferences. This chimes with my previous experiences of public speaking: I’m terrified the first time, but once I’ve done it, I rather enjoy it. I used to love giving tutorial presentations as an undergrad and high-school student.
[Look! Here’s my name on a real, live conference program! It’s in the PDF, and you can see me listed as one of the committee members for last year’s conference, when I helped organise it.]
I feel like I’ve jumped over a massive hurdle with this conference, and nothing will daunt me now until I move on from graduate conferences to conferences with a mixture of postgrads and academics. But that won’t be for a year or so.
My next big lot of work is my registration piece (10,000 words, plus my proposed chapter structure, plus an annotated bibliography, plus a report on training I’ve been doing, plus a mini-viva), which is coming up in just under two months. I’ve got all the necessary writing, but it’s not at a good enough standard yet. Oh well, that’s what the holidays are for!