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Writing My Dissertation with Slackers

May 5, 2015

This spring, I successfully finished my Ph.D. in history at Duke through the daily support of an online community of other dissertating graduate students. We gathered around the credo that a dissertation just needs to be “good enough.”

Appropriately, our online writing group convenes on a communication platform called Slack. Dubbing myself a “slacker” has a double meaning. To be sure, it is a form of self-admonishment when I am not as disciplined as I would hope or I miss a deadline. But it is also an aspiration to let go of perfectionist standards that often do more harm than good. It is a reminder that a dissertation only has to be good enough.

Here’s how it works. We initially connected through the Center for Philosophy, Arts and Literature, which sponsors writing groups for graduate students. We study and work at Duke and UNC; live in Durham, Amsterdam, and many places in between; and hail from a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Some of us have never met face to face; some of us are tight friends in real life. We show up on Slack (imagine an embellished chat room) to discuss our progress, set goals, vent our frustrations, and exchange moral support. We log our obstacles and accomplishments in real time while we write. Many of us use the Pomodoro Technique, chiming in on timed intervals. We do not exchange our writing and rarely discuss the content of our work. The objective of the group is to help sustain our writing practices over the course of the A.B.D. stage of graduate school.

Traditional writing groups and boot camps (Duke’s new Language, Arts + Media Program ran a monthly boot camp this year; UNC hosts a Dissertation Writing Boot Camp) have served me well at various points in my Ph.D. program. But a virtual support group had a few advantages when I found myself in desperate need of some camaraderie on the home stretch:

  1. Flexibility. A writing group can easily come to feel like just another obligation. But our loosely structured virtual community feels more like a space where people come and go freely. It is available 24/7. There is no forcing schedules to align; being out of residence is not an issue.
  2. Anonymity. Our group is not strictly anonymous. But it does afford a degree of obscurity that takes the edge off of the competition and professional anxieties that come with grad school. On Slack, we are out of the view of colleagues and committee members.
  3. Accountability. Announcing goals to my fellow slackers has been the perfect middle ground between fictional, self-imposed deadlines and high-stakes, external deadlines. If I say publicly that I am going to write four pomodoros tomorrow, I am more likely to show up and do the work.
  4. Momentum. Sitting down and getting started is often the biggest hurdle on any given writing day. When I log in to our writing group, someone is either already there working, or has left a record of their work session earlier that day (or perhaps late the previous night). Sometimes the stars align and all of us are working at once. Either way, we create a running tab of our work, which provides a catalyst to get going.
  5. Support. I cannot emphasize enough how much it helps to feel like I have comrades with me in the writing trenches. Watching other people struggle, struggle some more, and then succeed has been an education in goal setting, work habits, and plain endurance.

While I am the first person in our group to graduate (my dissertation was indeed good enough!), I still log on regularly to work. Some people need the hum of a coffee shop to write; I need a virtual community to sustain my writing practice.

Author

Georgia Paige Welch

Georgia Paige Welch

Graduating Ph.D.

Georgia Paige Welch earned her Ph.D. in History with a certificate in Feminist Studies at Duke. She researches state formation and social movements in the late twentieth century United States. Her dissertation about the trans-Alaska oil pipeline examined transformations in liberalism, gender, and economic citizenship during the 1970s. She is currently a Reference Intern at the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. You can learn more about her work at http://georgiapaigewelch.wordpress.com/.

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