The Happy Academic on Dissertating (10 years ago, more or less)

Both Collin and Johndan recently wrote thoughtful blog posts about the process of writing a dissertation and also reflections on their own dissertations. I’m not even going to pretend to really add anything too significant to that discussion; but these posts do remind me:

About ten years ago, I was in the midst of dealing with the nitty-gritty of my dissertation. I was largely done by mid-May, but according to the intro for the online version of my dissertation, I defended on June 12, 1996. Wow, ten years. Go figure.

In any event, in the spirit of unsolicited “happy academic” reflections and advice, I thought I’d pile on a bit about my experiences with writing a dissertation way back when.

  • From the very beginning, I had extremely modest goals with my dissertation. I recall one of my mentors at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I was in a graduate program in creative writing, telling me that if I wanted to go into a Ph.D. program, I should make every effort to go through it as quickly as possible. Even as clueless as I was back then, I knew that one of the key ways to do this was to keep my dissertation small and simple and doable. It was never even on the radar that my diss would be a brillant contribution to the field or even just the first draft of my first book. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with my advisor, Alice Calderonello, very early in the process where I said to her “My main goal with my dissertation is to finish it and finish it within a year.” Her response was “My main goal is that you finish and that you don’t embarass me or the institution.” And we were off.
  • In actually writing my dissertation, it turned out to be VERY helpful to have been trained as a “writer” in my MFA program. Which leads me to the absolute most important piece of advice I can offer to anyone working on a dissertation or a thesis: when you’re in the midst of writing, you have to do something with it every day. That “something” should be writing, reading, and/or research, but whatever it is, it has to be something. Some days, “doing something” means little more than just thumbing through the papers or scrolling through the word file– literally for 10 or 15 minutes. Obviously, if you only do this minimal browsing of your work, you’ll soon have a problem. But what I found was that when I skipped this step entirely– that is, when I took a day or two off from the thing to teach or work on other projects or whatever– it would take me more time to refamiliarize myself with it. If that makes sense. Anyway, I should also point out this is easier advice to give than to follow.
  • When I started my dissertation research, I remember a moment in the process where I had this horrifying feeling that my research topic was about everything, and thus it was going to be impossible. My advisor came to my aid on this one by reminding me of our mutual goals of finishing and keeping it simple. And I guess there are two lessons there: first, and most obviously, remember you aren’t writing about everything. Second, a good advisor is key. Also something that can be easier said than done.
  • The first parts of my diss, which are probably the best, were the most frustrating. I would write a chunk of a chapter or a chapter, pass it on to my advisor, and she would give me feedback, basically saying “not quite yet.” This apparently is the time-honored method. I was talking with my department head the other day– he was in Ph.D. studies I believe in the late 1960’s– and he described a similar process of giving chapters to his advisor, being told “not quite yet” again and again after each revision, and then, finally, apparently after he had suffered enough, being told “okay, now you’re done.”
  • For me, everything changed in the midst of writing chapter 3 because I was offered a tenure-track job. Then my advisor said, more or less, “just finish it.” This was probably good advice since the last thing anyone wants to do is start a tenure-track job without being done with the dissertation. And again, my mantra was and remains “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” At the same time, this is also why my diss is kind of mediocre in my mind.
  • I had some problems with the reader assigned by the graduate college to my submitted draft of the diss. See, at Bowling Green (and my sense this is typical), there was an office in the graduate college staffed mainly with graduate students who reviewed the formatting issues with all submitted dissertations and theses– margins, following an approved style sheet, etc. Somewhere along the line, my reviewer tried to exercise what I guess I would call too much editorial control. For example, this person was convinced that it was “bad MLA style” to have contractions, so I was asked to change all of my “don’t”s and “can’t”s. And then there was the argument about italics versus underlining: this person was convinced that MLA style did not allow for italics and that I had to change all of my italicized phrases (and I had a lot of them) to underlined phrases. Long story short, this was a frustrating and time-consuming argument that I won.
  • Shortly after I finished my diss, I put it up online; it’s been at different sites for about 10 years now. I did it mainly because I could and because I figured that more people would stumble across an electronic version of it than would ever come across it in the library. Somewhere along the line, it got linked to various databases and resources associated with rhetoric, portions of it have been assigned in classes, and it still gets over 100 hits a week. In other words, it is true in my experience that if you build it, they will come.
  • Still, I don’t think there’s much I can do with it now. Long story short: when I finished my diss 10 years ago and got on with my first tenure-track job, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to go back and even read my dissertation, let alone revise it. And besides that, Grusin and Bolter came out with their book Remediation, which talks about some of the things I talk about in a more sophisticated way than I do and which also uses the term “immediacy” in a slightly different way. But that’s all okay; I got out of the project what I needed.

Anyway, like Collin, I’ll wish to all the summer dissertation and thesis writers. And remember: just sit down and do it and it will all be fine.

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