21 July 2010

Stress and Moodiness

I've been sort-of hard at work on my dissertation this week and last; sort-of hard at the socialising, too.  We have a draft due on Friday and I'm having a hard time getting the words onto paper. 

Unfortunately, I often have writer's block when it comes to submitting work to be graded.  This is still a relatively new problem for me.  In 2006, I had what can only be called (pathetic as this sounds) a traumatic grading experience.  It was the final paper for a class I had been doing very well in.  The professor who had previously been quite supportive and quite enthusiastic about the work I had done really did not like my final paper.  I, on the assumption that she would like it as much as the rest of my work, was careless about picking up the draft from her in a timely fashion.  It was the end of the semester, which is always a very busy time, and so I didn't get it back from her until about six hours before our exam period, during which she had decided we would present and discuss our papers instead of sitting an exam.  Clearly, this was not the best decision on my part but I do think that I was reasonably justified in expecting that, on the whole, any comments would be largely positive.  What I got instead was a barrage of mixed justified criticism and emotional hogwash.  It's not on to accuse someone of being species-ist in a ten page paper; it is acceptable to say that soemthing is too much of an assertion and not enough of an argument. 

The difficulty for me was that the argument and the idea behind the paper are objectively good.  I have had many good discussions about it, I have even had that very same paper accepted for a conference.  That class was the first class I had ever had with that particular professor and over the years I learned more about her.  I learned that she (being an arch second-wave feminist) really hates logic and thinks that it can only ever be used to oppress people.  My paper was based around a deductive logical argument and contained the word logic in the title.  I have learned, particularly from hearing more of her own work, that she is very invested in essential notions about sex and gender and really believes that women (have to) do philosophy in a significantly different way because they are women.  My paper was intended to be critical and possibly destructive about essentialist notions of sex and gender.  Knowing more about the way she looks at the world, I can see that she must have experienced that paper as a personal attack, designed to oppress her, written by a female student who obviously was a sex traitor for using logic and saying that women are not necessarily different from men.  From that point of view, it would have been philosophically coherent for her to react emotionally to my paper, rather than to try to argue against it or be objective about the merits of its content.

I am quite logically convinced that she is in the wrong, that the paper - while far from perfect - is not the fundamentally flawed piece of drivel she tried to make it out to be.  However, I only know this and it is hard to convince myself that she was wrong on the level of psychological belief or felt truth.  Thus, I continue to have writer's block and it continues to make life hard for me from time to time.  Whatever the merits of my paper, it was wrong and unprofessional of her to attack me in that way; I understand now that she felt that I had attacked her and that she was responding in kind BUT I didn't attack her, I attacked an idea and she knows it.  She just reacted in an ideological way to what I was saying.  She reacted in a way that I believe is a betrayal of the social contract between a teacher and a student, and a way that is an unhelpful disruption of the norms, ethos and mores of a university.  If she's that committed to that particular variety of second-wave feminism, then what is she doing teaching at a university?  They're definitely and demonstrably tools of male oppression in much the same way as logic!  She has a right to her beliefs about the world and the right to act on them and I have a corresponding duty to respect that; however, I have a right to my beliefs about the world and a right to act on them and she has a corresponding duty to respect that!

The whole experience has had some benefit.  It really deepened my understanding of how to practise philosophy and how to read another person's work and how to disagree and why philosophers disagree with one another in the way that they do (i.e. respectfully).  I am still having a hard time, however, with the writer's block.  It has gotten much, much better over the years - so much better.  I'm sure it will continue to get easier.  It is not, however, gone.  When a deadline gets close, I experience a lot of negative stress.  It's the kind of stress that comes tinged with self-loathing and self-harm ideation and this makes it very hard for me to work.

On a year to year basis (though not necessarily on a day to day one), I have been on an upward trajectory since I was in hospital a little more than three years ago.  Having an accurate diagnosis has helped me to understand what to look for symptom-wise and all that looking has helped me become increasingly familiar and accurate in understanding what's going on with me by what I'm thinking and what I feel, both emotionally and physiologically.  This familiarity in turn has given me an increased ability to look after myself well and effectively.  I have learned some ways to help myself get over or past various psychological stumbling blocks and how to deal with the stubborn symptoms that are really not under my control.  I'm far from perfect at it - the logical possibility of my ever being perfect at it is close to zero - but I'm much better than random and much better than I used to be.  This writer's block seems to be one of those things that I have some control over - limited control but susceptible to improvement. 

This week, the stress of writing through the self-loathing is pushing me towards the serious kind of moodiness.  It will be okay - it will be over soon and then it will be as though it never happened, or so I keep telling myself.  Nevertheless, I'll get to go through it again but a bit worse at the end of next month when the final paper is due and I'm going to be job hunting between now and then, which is usually a stressful and rather discouraging activity.  I'm also going back to visit the family for a week and this means long haul flying and jet lag which has, historically, set me off mood-wise.  That's an unusual number of risk factors and it worries me a bit.

Anyhow, I'm really curious as to what other people do to cope with things like this, especially writer's block.  I would really like to get rid of it.  Even if it isn't something you've done but rather something that happened, I would be very appreciative if you'd tell me about it.  What I've been able to do so far specifically for the writer's block is to just carry on writing through the teeth of it, look back on and analyse what happened and what it was that upset me and why it might have happened, seeking other people's opinions on the work (e.g. entering it for and presenting it at a conference) and letting time pass.  And I started this blog - really.  It seemed like having another reason to write and a different audience might help, as it has indeed done. 

This isn't the best post I've ever written - in fact, I suspect it's a bit boring; sorry about that - but this is a subject much on my mind at the moment.  Back to the word-arranging grind, now.


  1. I haven't had an experience quite so awful with writing for school, but I'll offer what I do anyway. I just write. I turn off spell check and grammar check (because I can't not go back and fix every little thing if I see those red and green underlines). I write even if it is utter crap and I know that I am going to delete most of it. I think that the primary benefit of this is that I'm turning over my thoughts in my head and organizing them in different ways and eventually I find a useful way of arranging them that will help me with the overall paper (as opposed to all the writing that I end up deleting). Sometimes I write a bunch of different outlines, brainstorming how to organize my ideas, which is more formal than writing crap. Sometimes I talk to myself, explaining my ideas and refuting possible arguments, which is less formal.

    Now that I've written that, I realize it is all about organization, which tends to be where I get stuck (though not really an area where my writing struggles). But all of those methods also help me suss out more evidence/examples, it helps me see where I need more evidence/examples, it helps me balance things out and decide what to exclude.

    My biggest problem tends to be that I can be overly pithy and not explain things fully enough for people who are not inside my head. But it is hard for me to figure out what it is that needs more explanation sometimes.

  2. That professor sounds like a prize idiot, quite frankly. It seems like you've already got it quite well worked out on an intellectual level but, for what it's worth, you're right to realise that you were in the right and she was in the wrong. I'm actually quite angry on your behalf - as your teacher she had a duty of pastoral care towards you, and even if she felt justified in heavily criticising your work, she should still have had a care for your well-being in the way she did it.

    In terms of writer's block, if I'm up against a deadline then, like you, I just try to grit my teeth and keep writing. I find that re-reading the section I'm working on fairly frequently can be quite a big help, in that it helps to build up a head of steam that I can use to push me through the next couple of sentences. Occasionally, if I'm really badly blocked, I'll skip ahead to the next stage of the argument and write that before coming back to fill in the gaps - i find it easier to write something if i know both where it's come from and where it's going to.

    I hope you find a way through the stresses and strains that you have ahead of you - but i'm also sure you will. :o)

    Take care,

  3. @notpollyanna

    "My biggest problem tends to be that I can be overly pithy and not explain things fully enough for people who are not inside my head."

    I have that issue, too. Or I'll realise that I need to explain but get frustrated trying to do it because it feels (not always but sometimes) tedious.


    It's nice to hear from another person that it's not unreasonable for me to be upset! Thank you.

    @both of you and everyone in general

    Happily, I seem to have got through the experience. Yay! I didn't get as much finished as I hoped but I did write one section I was rather pleased with - the writing was rather indifferent but I'm pleased with the example I came up with trying to explain what I mean by saying that psychiatric diagnosis is or at least can be logically equivocal. Personally quite pleased with the way the argument for the whole paper is developing and developing indigestion as I think this which means that I'm worried. See, this is the root of the problem, perhaps - I feel like I can no longer trust my own judgement when it comes to my academic writing. Ha! I was quite pleased with the paper I talked about in the above post, too. I'll bet that is it. I really hate it when I have to enter into situations that are known to me but which don't make sense to me. If it's unknown and doesn't make sense, it can be confusing but it doesn't distress me in the same way. Academic writing is definitely a situation which is known to me - I've done lots of it - but of course if I can't trust my own judgement, then how can I make sense of it? Especially considering how solitary an endeavour it is. If I feel that I can't tell whether any given sentence is a good sentence or not, then how am I to make all the needed sentences? Making sentences requires making decisions and without criteria, one cannot make decisions. One cannot make decisions if one doubts one's own judgement, either.

    I'd lay money that that's the root of it. Hurray! I love puzzling these things out.

    This is going to be a post length comment - I think I have post draft typing + exhaustion correlated, um, as they say, diarrhea* of the mouth. Or perhaps of the keyboard.

    * I know that's spelt different in British but it's the one spelling difference I've never been consistently able to master. There's an extra 'o' in it somewhere. But where?