Rules exist for a reason. They give us guidelines to follow, and they show us how to get from point A to point B with minimal fuss. They keep order and prevent society from falling into chaos. At least, most of them do.
Some of them don’t. Some rules restrict us, blind us to possibilities, and prevent creativity. I see this all the time when teaching students to write. They have had the five paragraph essay format drilled into them so deeply that they can’t comprehend any other ways to write; they can’t even conceive that there ARE other ways. They know the rules of writing, and they have to follow them, even though it makes them hate writing papers. They know they are constrained, they know they’re in a cage, but since they can’t see the bars, they can’t escape.
I consider that to be a part of my job. I show them the bars, show them the door, and help them find other ways. In other words, I teach my students how to break the rules.
This way of looking at it really appeals to the rebel in me, but I’ve seen that this is really how I think. Circumventing rules is the way I work.
My prospectus won’t be approved until probably the end of May. If I’m unlucky, it may not even be approved until the beginning of the next academic year. By the rules, I should be waiting to work on my dissertation until the prospectus is approved. So I should be sitting around and maybe researching, hoping that eventually I’ll be able to move forward.
I work on my dissertation all the time. So far, only on the first two chapters, where I introduce my argument and present my literature review, but when those are finished, I’ll move on. I’ll move on the same way I moved on to my prospectus before I was officially told my exams were passed.
But that’s not the only rule I’m breaking. I’m writing the dissertation with a certain level of narrative that I think is unusual, maybe even against the rules. But not against the rules as in breaking them. Against the rules as in circumventing them. I’ve seen some academic works where serious, difficult concepts were presented in story form. It’s nothing new; Plato did it, after all. But it seems that people generally are opposed to these things. So I break those rules.
I also don’t work like other people do. I don’t spend eight hours a day working on my dissertation. I focus on it when I can, but mostly I leave it to ruminate in the back of my head while I do other things. I don’t read book after book and rant and rave about how fantastic scholars are. Other people do this, but that’s not how I work. I work my own way, and trying to change that just makes me miserable.
It’s a lesson that was hard to learn, but one I had to teach myself, just as I teach my students: If I don’t like the way I’ve always been told things should be done, I have to find the bars of my cage and figure out a different way, a way that works for me.
And I’ve got 20 pages of a dissertation that support the idea that it DOES, in fact, work. For me.