November 13, 2020 | Narrative
report from a pilgrimage-in-progress
on academic endeavors and anxiety monsters
First comes the doom. The certainty of looming danger, of knowing you’re in over your head. It’s a full-bodied anxiety tickling in your bones. It’s the feeling of sitting on a plane, watching the world recede below you and knowing that yes, this is really happening. Only you’ve never seen your destination and suddenly, though you booked the trip so cheerfully, you’re not so sure if you’ll like it there—or if you’ll be able to survive at all.
Then you hear a ping. Someone has sent you a text and you momentarily lose yourself in the sweet oblivion of social media. When you come back, the Word document on your laptop screen no longer screams like a white void of annihilation; rather, it looks reassuringly ordinary. It’s just writing a thesis. Why the drama?
When I signed up back in February to write a Bachelor’s thesis, the tasks at hand—find a general area of interest, find a reader, obtain a letter of recommendation—were simple, clear-cut, and decidedly achievable. I did not conceive of them as the beginning of a journey which, I thought, lay far ahead—all the way in August. Looking back, I think of myself much like the medieval pilgrim who, having never travelled further than a day’s walk, gladly sets off without the slightest ability to fathom a distance as great as the one from Central Europe to Jerusalem. The process of actually writing the thesis I was preparing for seemed so distant that I could not even envision the outline of the beast and allowed myself to blissfully ignore its existence.
And then it was August. Through the wisdom and guidance of my two mentors, the esteemed Dr. Koch, thesis advisor par excellence, and Umberto Eco, author of Come si fa una tesi di laurea (How to Write a Thesis), published originally in Italian in 1977 and in English, for the first time, in 2015, I had slowly crawled over the summer towards the beast. Now I was close enough to perceive, for the first time, its colossal shape against the morning mist. The doom settled in.
When you start writing a thesis you do not actually start writing a thesis. What you do instead is read. First, you read (or watch, in my case) whatever source material you are working with. Then, you read library catalogues and database search results and the works cited pages of more distinguished thinkers in order to compile your own bibliography. Then, if you’re me, you go back to reading Umberto Eco for a while because the research is very scary and exhausting. Finally, at long last, you sit down and you start writing—not the beast itself, of course, but the first in a seemingly never-ending series of ephemeral outlines constructing the foundation of your thesis.
During this time, I felt the mist clearing more and more each day. The beast finally took shape, and I discovered that yes, it could be slain. I planned out my schedule for the year, experienced the first semblances of interesting thought, and felt accomplished every time I added another intriguing title to my reading list. My confidence, though frail, was renewed.
On the other hand, simply discovering the beast could be slain did not necessarily mean I felt up to the task. With every waft of mist I cleared, another gruesome detail of the monster’s statue emerged. A fuller grasp of what was to come translated not only into confidence but, more immediately, into a slew of new tasks on my to-do list. Pilgrim-me had met her first troupe of returning travelers and, though they assured the possibility of success, they also reminded her how long the path really is.
Unlike many others, I am lucky enough that my choice to write a thesis is entirely my own. I chose to attempt the monstrous not just to make up for my meek, single humanities major, nor simply in the hopes that the “Honors” designation on my degree would lower my chances of sponging off my parents for the next decade. Rather, I’m writing a thesis because I truly want to (“although who is it that wants when I want, what is the I, bla bla bla,” as my favorite Instagram artist @avocado_ibuprofen puts it).
I want to delve into a single subject so deeply that I’m able to produce fifty pages of writing about it. I crave to show myself that I can accomplish a task of this nature. I enjoy the idea of one day holding tangible proof of my hard work. When Umberto tells his students that writing a thesis is a great privilege, a soul-shaping experience of personal growth, I roll my eyes, but I believe him. Also, my thesis is about superhero movies, so I really can’t complain.
For better or worse, I could no longer dwell in the knowledge of the monster. I had to move on with my research and start reading the contents of my bibliography, a part of the process which has proven to be an emotional high point so far. Because the thesis proposal proceedings had taken place last spring and, therefore, had to be sandwiched into a full semester’s workload, I did not have the time to know the depths of my topic when I selected it. Expecting a pool, I dove headfirst into the water and found myself in an ocean.
Unless you are completely uninterested in the subject of your thesis (in which case—why do you wish to torture yourself?) this chapter of the journey is bound to be electrifying. Even when you encounter, as you surely will, one of the occasional boring and/or useless texts (they are not always one and the same), the task naturally lends itself to feeling both productive and entertaining. Learning is fun, but it is also usually accompanied by hard work: memorizing, analyzing, abstracting, regurgitating. This was not the case here, or at least it didn’t feel like it. The beast is large enough to give you months dedicated to learning only. Researching my topic makes me a happy little sponge, soaking up information to be used much later in the more arduous activity of actually drafting my argument. Consequently, I move (it is the chapter I still find myself in) in great strides and high spirits.
And yet, whenever I finish a reading and take a look at what is left to do before (gasp!) the first-draft-of-first-chapter-deadline in December, the sense of doom returns. No matter how thoroughly I plan, how efficiently I manage my time, the monster won’t stop breathing down my neck. Even though I believe, tentatively, that this path I have drawn in the mist is the right one, and that I am far enough along on it, it seems impossible to see the future of my project right now. Thanks to mentorship and a decent work ethic I know how this monumental task could, theoretically, be accomplished—but I am thoroughly unable to visualize the finished work.
To be sure, this is the nature of the beast. Everyone’s Bachelor’s thesis is their first one, and as long as the year 2020 doesn’t somehow overturn the concept of time entirely, the future will remain unknowable to all of us. Nonetheless, we manage to give it some semblance of predictability every time we plan an event. My graduation this coming May, for example, has for years been a reliable signpost in the fog. Only graduation is now happening in April, and I don’t know whether it will be a pompous weekend of celebration or a pathetic little Zoom conference. I also don’t know if my family will be able to enter the U.S. to come see it, even if it does take place in the real world, nor do I know whether Prof. Dr. Thesis Advisor and I will ever meet in person again, and I don’t know which jobs to apply for this spring and maybe all of them just in case and wouldn’t it be better to go to grad school in this economy and do I even want to live in New England in this country on this continent?!
iMessage gently redirects my attention and I am reminded that I live in the present. The point is, looking into the future, even by as little as a month, feels like a task of enormous mental effort right now. It’s pretty hard to see myself standing over the beast’s carcass in April.
In those moments when the white void of the Word document screams loudest, a strange thing happens. The beast turns around and smiles at me. The world is burning and drowning and possibly going to fascist shit—but my thesis lives on in my laptop, waiting to be written, as millions of theses have been waiting to be written for what seems like millions of years. In those moments, the beast reminds me that the journey is not just a future accomplishment, but a present condition. I am right here, writing my thesis, and if I’m lucky, one day, I’ll have done much more interesting things than having weekly existential crises over what is mostly a learning exercise resulting in a very long and mediocre paper.