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Updates and Think-Alouds - Lara L. Schenck

Updates and Think-Alouds


On this page, I haphazardly record updates and free-write to help my thinking. Lately, the tone has been whiny. After some time goes by and the page gets long, I copy everything here into an “Updates” post. To see what I’m up to in less detail, read my Now page.


April 9, 2024 – A formula for academic argument writing

I don’t think this can be used anywhere, but this is a formula I came up with that I wanted to reference again, so I am pasting it here:

Topic sentence that says the main thing you want to get across. Some fact that says some of the main thing you want to say. Now, another, related fact, but there’s also this other way people see it. And, wow, here’s this other fact that relates to the other way people see it. This contradiction suggest some point I’m trying to make. Therefore, topic sentence with the main thing to get across, restated.

March 24, 2024 – What even is this website anymore / need to start on my book for real / who am I

I guess the way I update this website nowadays is not through blog posts. I never successfully had a regular blog post writing habit that lasted more than a couple of months, but I had enough time/energy to spare in earlier years that I ended up writing posts with relative frequency. Not the case anymore. So what is this site? Now, it seems that I have time during semester breaks, and I update the recurring pages – here, Now, Reading, and Compass – instead of writing a self contained post. I think a single post is a tough format for me right now because it’s such a short format? Maybe? Who cares? When am I going to start writing my book for real? Why am I ranting and to whom?

Anyway, I’m waiting to board a flight right now after SPRING BREAK 2024 WOOHOOO. One night we stayed up until 1am. Can you imagine?

Anyway, I probably need to update my website to be an Academic Website. An Academic Website is usually at least 1 year out of date, has a professional photo of the academic in their 30s that will be used until their 50s, has a link to a Google Scholar page and maybe a list of publications, a blurb that states the academic’s accomplishments and associated institutions, and – if it is a new academic – a link to a CV in PDF format. Of course there are variations, but that is the gist (with some snarky embellishments).

All that to say, I might become a professor, but I miss my software developer job. However, I have made the choice to take the path of attempting to fulfill my Personal Legend, whatever that means, and I think this path is probably an academic one. It could take a turn at any point though, time will tell.

Okay, about my book. Now, I don’t really know what it’s about. I mean, it was about CSS Algorithms, of course, and it still is, but that’s not the whole story anymore. I guess the whole story is about a reflective, moderately privileged white girl moving between US cities and identities. She tries to figure out What It All Means and What Is My Purpose through various initiatives and gradually determines 1) it’s some mixture of time, will, social, bodily, and environmental factors, and 2) it might not matter all that much (but at the same time, it matters a lot).

December 30, 2023 – Why do I feel so peaceful?

I haven’t written anything on here for a while – the end of the semester was intense, and I’m recuperating. I feel very peaceful right now, and my husband (who is watching two soccer games at once right now) said, what is making you feel so peaceful? I thought about it, and it is OBVIOUSLY because I took a full eight days of vacation where I didn’t do any work. I started working again on ONE project while at home staying in my mom’s house in cozy Pittsburgh, and I have no meetings or commitments other than work on that paper. These conditions are not possible to replicate at other times of the year, and I suspect I have to accept that.

Here is my experience of academic life so far, as a PhD student entering her fourth semester. Each semester, the pressure and workload steadily accumulate because I love what I am doing, I want to do more, and I feel like I can do it all. I’ll have several emotional meltdowns after the first month or so, that warn me of proximity to a breaking point. At each meltdown, hopefully, I’ll dig deep and find the reserves to keep going. With those reserves, I find momentary resolve and renewed motivation, and then things again start to accumulate until I get to the next meltdown. As the semester progresses, the meltdowns become breaking points, where I come face to face with the cognitive dissonance of the desire to produce work I think is good because I care and the realization that what matters is that I get it done, it doesn’t matter if I think its good. At the end of the semester, I realize it’s not actually the end, so I have to push to go on just a little more, and then probably a little more after that because I will forget to take care of some administrative tasks. Despite my incessant planning and capacity for project management, I will have grossly underestimated the work to be done, and my planning will have fallen apart because I am surviving at this point, not thriving. Then, the semester actually ends.

For the first couple of days of my break, I will feel destabilized and sort of lost, but after that, I’ll totally forget about whatever I was working on that was so important to me. I’ll remember and engage other interests, and I’ll think, working on art projects is so good for me, why don’t I make time for it? Why don’t I make time to cook sometimes and do the exercises I know will make me feel really good in my body? I start to truly relax. After about a week, though, I’ll start to miss the work, and I’ll remember that I really do care about it and really do enjoy it, and I start up again on a single project, finally able to have more control over my time and the ability to make a loose plan and stick to it. I won’t check my email or anything because “no one else is working”. It’s just me and my draft. I’ll finally give it the time and attention I’ve wanted to, and it feels so good. And I’ll remember the other things outside of work, and I’ll feel motivated to really try to do those this coming semester, too. This is where I am right now, and it is pretty blissful.

In a week or so, however, the semester will start again. The workload and pressure will accumulate more aggressively than they have yet because this semester is my qualifying exam. I don’t know what to do. I mean, I know what to do, and I know I’ll be fine, but I’m like, how can I maintain some of this peace and headspace? Everything is so important when I’m in the thick of it, and I feel that I have to work on everything every day. I feel frustrated and stuck, and I end up working on the weekends a lot, but I’ll actually enjoy it, because like now, on the weekend, “no one else is working”. So what do I do next semester? Do I try again to make plans and set new goals, only to again abandon them when I revert to survival mode? Or do I make no plans? Or do I make different plans? Or will AI save us because now we have AI assistants to help us handle the increased workload? (well, LOL)

What I do know is that, in my moments of meltdown, I access my reserves with this idea: “Lara, a PhD is hard. Garne ki na garne?” (do it or don’t do it?). And the answer has been, garne ta! (do it!!)

But now that I am reading what I wrote above, I realize these cycles of work accumulation and meltdown are no different than the experiences I had with work before I started a PhD. So sure, the PhD is harder than any other work I’ve done, but I have always allowed work to accumulate, and I have always subjected myself to the cognitive dissonance of how to do something that I feel is good and is also done. So yes, it’s ME…but it’s also the world. I’ve heard people talk about how the publishing and reviewing requirements in academia have continued to increase over the years, and the system is breaking because people are breaking. And I remember at my last developer job, the goal was always to “do more with less”. It never stops. And, the better I get at what I do, the higher my standards rise for what I consider is good.

I guess this is just my relationship with meaningful work. But things are changing. Work isn’t my only priority anymore, and, many times, it’s not my top priority. I guess the hard part is that people are my top priority, and for me, meaningful work involves people. So I don’t know. It’s really hard. But for now, I feel peaceful.

Sept. 15, 2023 – Thoughts on the complexity of non-promotable tasks in academia

Whew, this is a roller coaster month – I’m feeling some whiplash from the semester starting, and just going through some tough times. I feel like the PhD is hard for reasons I didn’t really expect. A wise person once told me that good things come out of what’s uncomfortable, and that is true. I think I’ve committed on continuing my current research trajectory which has evolved into career development, and through my “career development coordinating” activities at DataWorks, studying what are the problems with hiring in the tech sector. It’s more than just horrible technical interviews, and some of it might cut across hiring more generally, but some really is specific to tech jobs.

Anyway, one unexpected challenge in the PhD is realizing some of my thinking patterns and defense mechanism that served me in my developer job don’t serve me now in this job. For example, “as a woman in tech” I was always on the lookout to make sure I wasn’t doing too many nonpromotable tasks or taking on more emotional labor than I was being paid for and that was part of my job. I would always think about, what am I being paid to do, and don’t do more because it’s not for you, its for the company. I had this defensive about my contribution and my worth – even though I really liked my job, I would make sure I wasn’t giving more than was fair. It’s really different in academia because, as a graduate student, the whole premise is that you are doing exponentially more work than you are paid for. And, the kind of research I’ve chosen to do and that I still want to do, i.e., very applied, “action research” where you work with a community to solve real problems, is in some ways defined by all of the operational labor that is largely unacknowledged in any formal way. But, the investment I make in this largely unrecognized labor is directly related to my relationship with the community and the quality of the solution to the problem.

I mean, the defensive is still important there to make sure I am maintaining a home life, etc, and to make sure I’m doing work the contributes to my research track record, not others’, but it’s still not quite the same, e.g., it might not be your paper, but you’ll get your name on it, and you might learn something new and develop a relationship that’s really valuable for your work. Many tradeoffs.

Anyway, all this may evolve the further I get into my academic career, but yeah, just sharing something about the PhD that I didn’t foresee.

Aug. 23, 2023 – Temptation Bundling

Now I will go to a coffee shop for some “temptation bundling”, where I pair an difficult task with something I am generally tempted to do. For me, this is reading dense articles (difficult task) with a cappuccino and potentially a cookie (something I am generally tempted to do).

Aug. 19, 2023

Just published an update!

Previous Updates

These are collections of updates and think-alouds from the past!