For graduate students, returning checked out library books is a ritual central to the process of moving out of town. Measured by the fact that I used my backpack and a couple of canvass bags – and not suitcases – to complete this ritual last week, I feel I paced myself pretty well. I still felt a twinge of unease, however, as I returned Max Weber’s Economy and Society.I had checked this book out of the library about a year ago. At that point I was working on my dissertation proposal and wanted to dig to the base of some of the social science theory I was/am dealing with. But time was tight, and the luxury of reading Weber fell victim to the need to write the proposal itself and get a draft to my committee. And so this two-volume classic sat on my bookshelf, a testament to a task taken up with the best of intentions, but never even remotely completely.
As I returned this book which had sat around the apartment unread for the better part of a year, I had to ask myself if I had just not done anything during that time. Had my dissertation just stood still over the last year?
I think this sense of time standing still is not uncommon among PhD students, especially those who are ABD, and maybe among the people who know them too. Does it ever seem like the answer to the question “So when will you be done?” hasn’t changed in years? How long does it take to write a dissertation anyways? Leaving unread books on your shelf for over a year can’t help speed things a long, can it?
But looking back, time hasn’t just stood still for me. At this time last year, I was just getting ready to send a draft of my proposal to my committee so we could set a date for the defense, the last hurdle before getting ABD. I hadn’t even submitted the first of my fellowship applications, let alone gotten the good news that I had funding for a year in China. Since I checked out Economy and Society, I’ve completed over half of my teaching requirements, taken another year of Japanese, etc.
One of the things I’ve found as a graduate student is that measuring my progress on a day-by-day or even week-by-week basis can be maddening. Even when I feel I’ve been productive, it can feel like just a small drop in an infinitely large bucket. If I look at what I’ve done over the past month or year, though, I can start to trace significant developments in my work. The irony, then, is that while thinking long term can seem scary at first, I actually find it to be a useful retreat from the daily and mundane.
Now I’m headed overseas for a year of archival research. I’m leaving Weber behind, but I’m taking all the valuable preparatory work I’ve done with me. Even though there have been a quite few days that have felt like running in place, I know I’m in a much better position now than I was year ago to do the work I need to in the archives. I hope a year from now I’ll be able to say the same thing about writing the dissertation.