Taming the Beast Called Winter Break (so it can help you slay the beast called Your Thesis Reading)

books_and_snow4_by_justkirav1_largeWhen I went home last December, it was the first time I’d been back to my hometown since August. The plan was to spend a couple of days seeing friends, playing video games, and petting my stunningly decrepit old cat, then hit the books with great intensity and seriously get the jump on my thesis. That didn’t really happen. At all. The glorious wallowing lasted several days past its planned expiration date, and by the time I got up the courage even to look at my reading list, the break was already close to 1/3 of the way over. As a result, I had to do the bulk of my reading here instead of knocking it out while I was here. So the first thing you might want to consider as you head off for winter break is:

1. Don’t lose ALL of your momentum from the quarter.

By now, you’ve become accustomed to a certain rhythm of work that’s carried you through the busiest parts of the quarter. When break hits and the pressure of immediate deadlines is suddenly removed, your instinct may be to forget about your work altogether, which is exactly what I did. My break would have been more productive (and ultimately more restful, too) if instead I had committed to doing just a little reading – an hour or two a day – right off the bat. The longer those books lie untouched in the corner, the more inertia you build up and the harder it becomes to force yourself to get started. Keep that inertia in check by sticking to a gentle but regular work schedule.

2. Do fun things!

You’d be amazed how quickly your work goes when it’s punctuated by active, energizing recreation. Build a snowman. Visit a museum. If weather and geography allow, go for a hike or a run. In the ensuing downtime, you can read a chapter or two of secondary literature over your hot chocolate and ulriksboller. For me, this proved to be a far more successful strategy than my initial wild oscillations between binge-lounging and purge-studying.

3. Don’t worry when your thesis starts to feel shaky.

As the break progresses, you’ll (hopefully) gain a wealth of new insight into your proposed topic and the questions it raises for you. If those questions add up to a genuine scholarly problem, then your winter reading process could well produce a growing sense that you actually have no idea what you’re talking about. Embrace that feeling. Approach each of your sources as much as possible on its own terms, and try to feel out the forces behind each author’s arguments. I went into winter break with what I thought was a reasonably clear sense of what I wanted to argue in my thesis, and I was inevitably reading my sources with an eye to how they could help or hinder that argument. Once I decided that I was an idiot and had no clue where I was going, I was freed up to read properly. The moments of instability and re-focusing are really what this break is all about – resist anxiety as much as possible when they occur.

Similarly, remember that some paths of inquiry will turn out to be dead ends, and this is not cause for regret. There is exactly one way to decide which routes are productive and which are not, and that’s to spend a lot of time reading and thinking about all of them. If you’re lucky, about half of the books/articles that you read during the break will end up in the bibliography section of your final thesis draft. It may be none. You can’t predict this ahead of time, so don’t sweat it.

4. Don’t Wait Around for Epiphanies.

You know that moment when you’re working and working and all of a sudden everything falls into place? It’s awesome. But don’t hold your breath. Many people (including me) go through their entire MAPH year without ever feeling one of those visceral breakthrough moments of clarity. And while it’s nice when you do have those experiences, you really don’t need them and you can drive yourself crazy if you imagine that their absence is some sort of intellectual failing. Often, what drives the research process isn’t intense moments of intellectual triumph, but rather the slow increase of empathy for the people you’re writing about/for/against. Gradually, you start to feel like their ideas are more and more accessible to you and it’s easier and easier to see them from the inside.

5. Be Ready to Come Back

After New Year’s, you have four days before winter quarter explodes into action. That means you can’t afford a luxurious transition back into Full-Time Student Mode. The last few days of break are your opportunity to make sure that (a) you’ve finished as much reading as possible before your coursework starts to distract from your thesis work; and (b) you’re accustomed to the strenuous work schedule that winter quarter will impose on you. Don’t let the quarter sneak up and hit you, because it can hit hard.

6. As Always: Trust Your Preceptor!

Your preceptor is the knower of all things (or at least, many many more things than you know). Their feedback on what to read is essential for the break. Many of you have been gathering lists of reading suggestions from faculty, and those lists may be starting to look positively looming. Run them by your preceptor! They’ll have helpful input on which texts will actually be relevant (or might be a good lead), and which texts sound super cool but actually might not be relevant to your project at all.

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