Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Long post about writer's block

This is adorable baby Gilly. Lisa, Gilly's mom and one of my favorite people, tells me that she doesn't have enough room in her apartment for a Dutch oven and therefore can't make Bittman's easy bread recipe. I wonder if the pot can't be substituted for something else? A quick google found people who use ceramic or pyrex dishes. Why not a pasta pot with a bunch of tinfoil? This kid is pretty damn special and will need some bread to gnaw sooner or later.

Getting this picture of Gilly up is about the only thing that has gone right today. I have been roaming around the apartment for the past few hours, trying in fits and starts to get some work done and not go to the gym, make cookies, or read the paper. I did read about that idiot governor of Illinois (what is up with these idiot savant governors in states with awesome senators?), and I did accidentally start some bread to rise. The bread really takes only minutes to do, but still. I tried for a combo of whole wheat, white, and out flour today. I was distracted and feeling angsty about work, so i threw in much more yeast that I needed -- like, twice as much. We'll see what happens.

I have an immense amount of dissertation work to do, and am still having trouble moving on it. This happens periodically, and usually ends in a spurt of productivity, but is always stressful and unpleasant. And this time it is lasting a long time. One advisor tells me that days like this you should expect to do one solid hour of work. That's fine, except that I have just two days a week that I can devote entirely to the dissertation -- so losing them stresses me out.

I have to clean and start working with five different and enormous administrative datasets. But I am balking at it because it will be really involved once I get going, and I still haven’t nailed down the final research questions for the survey section of the dissertation. I’ve figured out what I am going to focus on for the survey itself: the basics of where people say they want to live at the point they are issued a housing voucher, and why. This includes things like whether they like the quality of where they already live; if they feel attached to their neighborhoods because of ties to family or friends, services they rely on, their church—whatever; or if they feel they don’t have the wherewithal to face the process of moving, regardless of how much they like or dislike their current living situation. That part is direct enough, and really very little (if any) research focuses on that nuts and bolts type stuff, if you can believe it. Which seems odd for a program that relies on people to move themselves out of poverty and into “opportunity” neighborhoods.

Anyway, where I get overwhelmed is with the next part: I will know where people actually end up, details about the households themselves, and folks’ stated preferences for moving (to the extent that I ask the right questions!). So what do I want to test for at that point, or look at with all that data? And this begs the question of what should be driving what -- the survey driving the outcomes questions, or the outcomes questions driving the survey design?

I can look at descriptive stuff, like variations in move outcomes by group (for example by race, household size, people with wage income vs. people on welfare). Then I can look at variations in move outcomes by preferences and resources (do people who say they want to move actually do it? Do people who say they don’t know how to look for an apartment end up not moving, losing their voucher, or moving somewhere really similar to where they started?). I can test some hypotheses about the relationship between preferences and resources and outcomes. It gets hairy and has 15 sub-bullets to each question once I start to write it down, and becomes as rambling as this post. It is good to have a lot to work with, but I'm stalled.

I am tempted to dive into the data work and just plow ahead and deal later (even though at my defense I vowed to clean it all up now). I have to present at one agency in a week or so, and need to start reeling in the second agency asap. Then I can try and deal with the inevitable as it becomes more inevitable. I do think that I have the survey content where I can deal with it. Much more in there will just get burdensome (and maybe there should be less). This may be a recipe for disaster, or it may be par for the course – I don’t know. My growing and incredibly boring library of qualitative and survey methods books suggests that either could be the case. My advisor would like to see me narrow questions down and articulate them better, but also suggests issue after issue that would expand the scope (what about differences in information networks or access to information by language group? What about survey materials in different languages?). I’m not sure she sees the contradictions in that, but I definitely feel them. Expand and contract, expand and contract. So here I stand.

As a prize for myself for getting something – anything—done this week, I decided that I would make the anisette cookies that I miss so much from NYC. I can’t find a recipe yet, and I need to buy some anise extract or powder or seeds or booze or something, I guess—but I’ll figure it out after I manage to get something done with this dissertation standoff. I should make something to bring to my new book club meeting tomorrow night. I have carrots in the fridge, so maybe carrot cake or carrot zucchini bread.

Wish me luck.


  1. Hiya Martha

    Your post rang some bells with me! - it's painful, but keep going and do stuff even when you're stuck. Dogged persistence pays off in the end.
    I don't have detailed comments, but try to remember the big picture and focus on the core task. What are the most important points you want to make?
    Take care,
    All the best, Dave

  2. How do you make carrot zucchini cake? It sounds outrageous.