Over the past month, I’ve had the Thesis Completion Conversation with at least five different students at different stages of their studies. If you’ve ever advised a major research project, you’ve had this conversation. If you’ve ever undertaken a major research project, you’ve had this conversation. It’s the one that begins when a student walks into your office just before (or, more often, just after) missing an important deadline. He’s been having trouble finishing a draft because the results of his research were not what he had expected. He keeps finding new sources that he needs to address. Every question he answers begs two new questions. And being a perfectionist (this term never fails to come up), he’s just not happy with his writing style.
For the past ten years, I’ve given students who face this crisis the same advice my dissertation advisor gave to me eleven years ago, when I was the student in crisis. My advisor, Sander Gilman, is a magnificently prolific scholar, a great mentor, and a great teacher. And he shared what I think is the secret of his success with me. All we ever do, he told me, is write drafts. A conference paper is a draft of the article you hope to write. A dissertation is a draft of the book that will eventually emerge. And that book, in turn, is a draft of the book you wish you had the time and ability to write. The same logic can be applied to teaching: how many times have we finished a class session and realized that now we finally know how we ought to teach that material? If only we had known that fifty minutes earlier.
And yet here I was sitting at an almost blank computer screen for two hours attempting to write a blog post that I had promised my patient editor I would have ready for the launch of the new ProfPost, all the while watching the cursor move right-to-left almost as much as it moved left-to-right. A blog post, of all things! As any aficionado of the genre will tell you, they get suspicious when there are no typos, let alone complete thoughts and rounded out references. If you don’t spell the definite article “teh” at least once during the course of the post, your devotion to the principle of getting things out there raw and rapidly and letting the internet take over is suspect.
Enter my two sons, who were excited to show me a poster that they had discovered underneath one of the many piles of toys and crafts strewn throughout our house. I recognized the fellow on the poster immediately: a diminutive Italian man with a bushy mustache and an iconic red cap. I also recognized the phrase written underneath the picture immediately. It was written in jagged 8-bit type to remind me that I had been reading this phrase since I was a kid:
“THANK YOU MARIO! BUT OUR PRINCESS IS IN ANOTHER CASTLE!”
This famous line from the Super Mario Bros. games was just the advice I needed. It’s the same idea as always writing drafts, but viewed from a different angle. No matter how many barrels you jump over, no matter how many bricks you smash with your head, no matter how many gold coins you collect, when you get to the end of the level, the princess will always be in another castle. You won’t achieve the objective you started with. You won’t complete your initial mission. But you will gain and hone valuable skills along the way that you will later employ in your next project, which you can undertake on a higher level. That is a worthy achievement. I will continue to relay to students Sander Gilman’s wise advice about writing drafts. But I think that I will now add the advice that Mario and his family, friends, and foes have been teaching me for a quarter century (unbeknownst to them and me): The Princess is always in another castle. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t level up. And if we had rescued the Princess at the end of the first level, think about all of the skills that we would have failed to develop and all of the adventures that we would have foregone. Some levels are familiar to us and are therefore relatively easy to complete. Some are boss battles that we have to attempt numerous times before we figure out how to get through them. So go out and finish that draft. And then level up and start the process over again with a different objective, a greater challenge, and a bunch of new skills to meet that challenge.