Advice from Professors: Productivity and the Creative Process

Inspiration is a fleeting thing, especially in graduate school. At any given moment, grad students are juggling class deadlines, pressures to publish, and the soul-crushing existential crisis that is the imposter syndrome. In the face of all of that, it seems damn near impossible to pound out eight thousand words critiquing the male gaze in the latest episode of Game of Thrones. And yet, every day, scholars tackle projects large and small.

This semester, your editors decided to turn to the experts, our own faculty, for advice on how to get the creative juices flowing without drowning in all of the high standards and expectations of the job. Check after the jump for how some of our very own professors tackle their problems with creativity and inspiration.

What’s your creative process? Under what conditions do you produce your best work? How/when are you most productive? How do you manage challenges to your productivity? How do you maintain momentum and motivation during the course of a project? 

Mady Segal

Mady Segal

One of the tips I have for writing may be a surprising one, but it works for me and many others.  We have a tendency to leave our writing when we hit a rough patch and don’t know what to do next.  That makes it hard to get back to it because you know you were stumped.  My suggestion is to leave your writing when you know exactly what you want to do next.  Write some notes to yourself on where you are going next. Then leave the work. You’ll know you can ease right back into it, so you won’t procrastinate as much!

I used to hate writing.  I loved conducting research and finding things out.  I hated writing it up. With years of practice, I’m amazed that I actually enjoy writing now! That goes for sociological writing, fiction writing, and even sending letters to friends and family. Yes, some of us old-fashioned types still send letters, but I must admit I often write the letter and then send it in an e-mail.

I used to be a perfectionist about writing of all kinds.  Now I am demonstrating my attempt to lighten up on myself by not going over this message and editing it multiple times.  I think it’s good enough for the purpose and I know it’s keeping me from some work I have to do. (But I have proofread it!)

Mady Segal

Reeve Vanneman

Reeve Vanneman

I most often get new ideas or new words to better express old ideas while walking to and from the office from the College Park Metro (that’s when I composed this!). Psychologists tell us that new insights come best when we aren’t concentrating fully on an issue but can let our brains wander around various ideas floating around in the back of our minds.  Walking to or from the office, I am thinking about work but am not especially focused so that leaves room for new combinations.  Interestingly, this does not happen driving to work.  I guess I end up focusing too much on the jerk in the next lane about to cut me off in order to think much about sociology.

Reeve Vanneman

Stanley Presser

Stanley Presser

Presser’s Productivity Prescription

Most of us are familiar with writer’s block: the point at which we spin our wheels without making any progress.  No matter how much one tries to solve the problem, a solution eludes us.  A good way to deal with writer’s block is to work on two tasks at the same time — not literally simultaneously, as there is compelling evidence that multi-tasking interferes with performance, but rather having a second task to switch to as soon as writer’s block sets in.  The second task might be another paper or project or another section or chapter of the same paper or project.  Switching to the second task as soon as it is clear you are spinning your wheels accomplishes two ends.  First, it enables you to waste less time, as you make progress on the second task.  Second, when you return to the original task (for instance, when you again run into writer’s block, but now on the second task), you look at it from a fresh perspective (sometimes informed by having worked on the second task) and thus are much more apt to solve the problem that initially led to the block.

-Stanley Presser

Kris Marsh

Kris Marsh

My creative process is to write, and write some more when a new idea comes to mind. The first thing I do is write all that I know, want to know and do not know about the topic. Sometimes this process can yield well over 20 pages. I then step away from the document and bounce my ideas off of both academics and non-academics. After talking and gaining multiple points of view, I am ready to revisit the “brain dump” document – as one graduate student calls the process. I revise the document and then turn to the literature to fill in the gaps and provide the theoretical framework for the paper.

I find that my best work is produced when I am excited about a topic. Therefore, I am very reluctant to take on projects that do NOT move me because it would be a disservice to the project and the potential collaborator(s) as well as myself. I am most productive on a Monday morning, which I term “Mental Health Monday.” I call my Mondays that because I use Mondays as my writing day and my day to decompress from the weekend while preparing for the upcoming week. If I have a successful “Mental Health Monday” it keeps me balanced and sets the tone for a productive week. If the beginning of my week lacks a  “Mental Health Monday” my productivity is often challenged until the next “Mental Health Monday.”

My initial excitement will often carry me through the course of a project. If my excitement begins to waver, the notion of getting my work out to a broader audience carries me the rest of the way to the finish line.

-Kris Marsh

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