Papers and Procrastination

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by Rachel Robinson

There are few things more intimidating to a student (or, for that matter, any writer) than a blank page. Sometimes, the empty screen staring back at you can appear to reflect your state of mind: empty. At this point in the writing process it’s common to feel overwhelmed IMG_0647at the amount of work still to be done, and simply thinking about the due date doesn’t necessarily make the ideas or writing any better. As philosophy students, writing papers is something that we’re familiar with, yet that doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally fall prey to the beast that is procrastination. As a former Peer Tutor at the Write Place at King’s College at UWO, and as someone who’s written her fair share of papers, here are a few ideas to help you cope with the temptation to wait until tomorrow to work on that assignment.

  • Brainstorm. Before trying to write down anything formal, begin by writing everything that you know about the topic at hand. Set a time limit – say, 15 minutes – and in that time write down any possible ideas and trains of thought that occur to you about the topic. Don’t worry about the spelling, grammar or sentence structure at this point in time – the idea is just to get your mind thinking and engaged with the topic.
  • Look at your brainstorming. You will (hopefully!) be surprised at how much you already know about the topic, and what great potential some of those ideas have. Sometimes, just seeing that you have an opinion can be encouraging, even if you don’t end up using all of your rough work.
  • Pay attention to when you get your ideas. Sometimes, our best ideas for papers come to us during our down-time. For example, I find that brushing my teeth is often when I have a major idea for a paper, and I have to write it down on a post-it afterwards so that I don’t forget it later on. This doesn’t mean that it’s alright to spend days just waiting for inspiration – often we don’t have that kind of luxury. Rather, I mean to take time away from your work so that your mind can renew itself, instead of just obsessing over how little you feel that you’ve accomplished.
  • Similar to the previous point: write down your ideas when they come to you! Too many times we’ll say something interesting or useful in conversation, and then forget what it was when it’s time to write. Literally writing down your idea, instead of just making a mental note of it, will make it easier to remember later on when you’re at the computer.
  • Set up a schedule for writing – and actually stick to it. You probably know your writing style, and how many pages or words you can comfortably write per day. Do your best to set aside some time each day for writing, and don’t worry if it isn’t your best possible work. During the writing period, it’s important just to organize and explain your project in your own words. Having a daily goal to accomplish will help to make sure that the paper is being worked on, and not being neglected until the last day. If possible, write at the same time each day, when you’re at your most focused. This is habit-forming, and your mind will know to write during that period.
  • When possible, wait a day in between writing your first draft and editing it. The mind needs time to step away from the project, and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
  • Leave ample time for proof-reading. While proof-reading isn’t the most exciting part of the writing process, it is definitely necessary. This is the time to be harsh with your work. Read each sentence out loud (or, better yet, have someone else read the work out to you) and make sure that what you intend to say is actually what you’ve written down.

Living Philosophically: A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Guenther

by Rachel Robinson

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a restful winter break, and are re-energized for this new semester. As we begin to get back to work, it’s helpful to remember that philosophy is a way of being engaged in the world. To that end, young philosophers such as ourselves can look to people who are socially and politically active in their own communities, such as Dr. Lisa Guenther.

In November, one of our speaker series featured prominent philosopher Dr. Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the books, The Gift of the Other: Levinas And The Politics of Reproduction and Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. After her presentation on solitary confinement, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Guenther about her experiences as a socially and politically active philosopher. As you may recall, the first blog piece was about philosophy as a conversation about the world. Dr. Guenther is therefore an exemplary model of someone whose engagement with philosophy extends beyond the so-called Ivory Tower of academia, and is instead highly active in her own community.

The terms “public intellectual” and “social philosopher” are resisted by some and embraced by others. I believe that these phrases evoke an individual who uses their philosophical knowledge and research to contribute to their social and political environments. It is with this view in mind that I do not hesitate to suggest that Dr. Guenther is a social philosopher. As the focus of Dr. Guenther’s current work is on solitary confinement, she has served on ethics committees, contributed to podcasts on the CBC and volunteers at a penitentiary in Nashville, TN.

When I asked Dr. Guenther whether she felt a responsibility to be engaged in her community, the response I received was highly Levinasian and therefore quite compelling. Dr.  Guenther explained, “due to the nature of my research [on solitary confinement], I felt an ethical obligation to be in conversation with people in prison. This led me to volunteer to facilitate a discussion group at a local prison. The unit where the prison chaplain placed me is a death row unit, so this raised the stakes of the conversation.” She states that, “I don’t write about the men in our group! My work on solitary confinement is based on interviews, etc. done by anthropologists, psychologists, etc. The discussion group is something different: a group for conversation, collaboration, and support. I did write one blog post about my experience in the discussion group, but I try to maintain a (semi-permeable) boundary between my writing ABOUT prisons and my collaboration WITH prisoners:  http://www.newappsblog.com/2013/01/reading-plato-on-death-row.html.”

Dr. Guenther is an advocate for finding a balance between the philosophical conversation and concrete action. Rather than abandoning the philosophical conversation, there is an enhanced need for striking a middle ground between thinking and doing. Dr. Guenther’s insight is invaluable for young philosophers. How do we find the balance between reading our philosophy texts, and actually engaging with the world around us?

Furthermore, with whom can we have philosophical conversations? How do we make our research more accessible to those outside the field? Part of Dr. Guenther’s volunteer work at the penitentiary involves a reading group with inmates. I wonder about the conversations that take place during that time, and how interesting it must be to discuss philosophy and literature with people who have vastly different educational and economic backgrounds. Perhaps part of living an examined life means that we need to re-evaluate what it means to do philosophy, and how we can use our interests and skills to play an active part in the world in which we live.