Last week I explored the use of metaphors as a tool for guiding how we orient ourselves and our research writing. This week is the first part of a two-part post on “feeling stuck”. Part 1 explores some experiences with feeling stuck, and Part 2 will outline some possible strategies for navigating stuckness.
In this post, I briefly explore a phenomenon that many graduate students are likely all too familiar with when it comes to their writing/research: feeling stuck—out of “flow”, paralysed, unable to continue or imagine a way forward, “stumped”, “stymied”, “blank”, desperate, blocked . . . however you describe it, you are not alone.
In fact, when I asked (via a survey) doctoral students across Canada whether they ever felt stuck in their writing/research, 78% of participants said “YES!”. Granted, this study was a small, exploratory study that consisted of a survey (N= 66), interviews (N=5), and focus groups (N=6), so it’s possible that I happened to meet the only doctoral students in Canada who experienced feeling stuck—but my practical experience with coaching doctoral students tells me otherwise.
Now, if I were you reading this, I’d have at least one response to this blog so far—something like, “Great, thanks. What does this tell me that I didn’t already know?” And, if I am being really honest, I’d probably click out of this window and return to finding funny pet posts that are “impossible to get through without smiling” (challenge accepted). So, before you hit CLOSE on this blog post, let me share a response to this question with the hope it will be of some help to you. And hey, if you’re feeling pretty stuck right now, hang in there.
Great, so other students experience feeling stuck. It’s normal. What does this tell me that I didn’t already know?
Nothing and a few things. One, how good are you at noticing when you are blocked or stuck? Do you notice immediately? Does it take a while? Do you know why you are stuck? Two, how are you with identifying possible pathways forward? Do you have a toolkit chock full of strategies that work? Have you tried everything and find nothing works? How long does it take you between (a) becoming aware that you are stuck, (b) identifying some possible pathways/strategies, and (c) actually doing the things you’ve identified? Three, do you tend to locate your experience of feeling stuck externally, meaning you see it as resulting from entirely outside forces? Or individually, meaning you see it as resulting from your own doing? Is it a combination of both?
Let me put it to you another way: so, you know you’re stuck. But how much do you actually know about how stuckness is showing up in your life right now?
There’s a lot we can learn from getting right up close to our experience(s) with stuckness and getting curious about them. We can pause to free-write for 10 minutes to reflect on some of the questions I’ve asked above, and perhaps even feel moved to respond to them. We can also learn from other student’s experiences—asking colleagues of ours and reading about what other doctoral students have to say. Like most things in life, there are many permutations and layers that can accompany feeling stuck. It’s good to get a sense of what dimension you’re experiencing (side note: this post and this post and this post and this post could be helpful). In the next section, I’ll share a few snippets from my previous research.
What do other doctoral students have to say?
When I asked participants about what stopped them from writing, many identified challenges with “self-consciousness and perfectionist voices in my head” (Public Affairs, Year 1); perfectionism (“Being a perfectionist can be a major roadblock”, Arts and Social Sciences, Year 2); as well as procrastination and a fear of failure:
“What always stops me from writing is the same thing that causes most procrastination, I think, which is an irrational fear of failure. It is hard to overcome this, especially when I have not been particularly successful in receiving awards” (Science, Year 3).
The presence of an internal censor, a fear of failure, perfectionism, and procrastination—these responses all correspond with literature on writing blocks (Boice, 1993). In a similar vein, Savin-Baden (2008) suggests that writers look more deeply into the obstacles they experienced, because they may find that the obstacles are located in graduate writers’ developing identities and in the concerns that relate to that. If this interests you, you can read this post by Pat Thomson on writing as identity work. You might also find this review of an activity from Helen Sword’s fantastic book on academic writing to be useful.
And although Savin-Baden (2008) also argues against the tendency to locate writing blocks and feelings of stuckness “outside” of ourselves, my own tendency toward wearing “sociocultural” lenses leads me to wonder about what influence, if any, the world(s) and positionalities we occupy (and how they interrelate with broader, prevailing “cultural” patterns) might have on our experiences with stuckness. Interestingly, also present in the data from my study—though admittedly to a lesser extent—were mentions of these external forces, such as supervision, funding/finances, health, and major life events (such as a birth or death). Unfortunately, I was unable to dig into these responses further, but they do lead me to ask about the extent to which it might be the case that “feeling stuck” is actually related to broader questions that relate to higher education practices, such as who fits in, who gets to move forward, and what impact these practices have on our writing (Breeze, 2018).
Boice, R. (1993). Writing blocks and tacit knowledge. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(1), 19–54.
Breeze, M. (2017). Imposter syndrome as public feeling. In Y. Taylor & K. Lahad (Eds.), Feeling academic in the neoliberal university: Feminist flights, fights, and failures (pp. 191-219). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Savin-Baden, M. (2008). Learning spaces: Creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life. New York, NY: Open University Press.