Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 5

Whether you defend your dissertation in the spring or summer of your last year, or, like I did, in the fall of your last year (If you can defend in the fall, do it!), you'll probably be overwhelmed with other, more pressing work once the defense is over. You might be in the middle of a job search, which is a full-time job unto itself, or preparing for interviews, or planning a move. And once you figure out what's next after grad school, the pressing work becomes figuring out the ropes of your new school and department, getting to know everyone you can, and simply discovering a routine. Kristen Pond's current CtA series about the transition from graduate student to tenure-track professor nicely chronicles some of this labor.

The point I want to underscore here is that your dissertation takes a position on the proverbial backburner after you finish the thing. It has to, because other stuff demands your attention. But this is a good thing. It has been a little over a year since I defended my own dissertation, and I'm just now beginning to seriously plot what to do next with the project. While I can only speak for myself, I'm finding that this time away from my diss has been incredibly generative. For starters, it has allowed me to assess my other scholarly interests and work on projects related to those. I've also poured more attention into my teaching, which has been refreshing. While you shouldn't forget about your dissertation during this time, putting space between it and you will mean you can approach it after the break with fresh eyes.

Why you need to allow time to step away from your diss is because you become so close to it during your last year of school. You are so intimately familiar with its ideas that you need distance to establish the critical perspective with which you will eventually refine those ideas.

So what is your dissertation at this stage? Especially when you are ready to get back to it, how do your approach this document? I won't say too much about how to decide whether and what to publish. Perhaps the diss will become a book, or perhaps a series of articles. Regardless, before you plan specific projects you first need to examine the forest through the trees. That is, you have to think about your dissertation and ask, "so, what is this project about again?"

During a job search and throughout your transition away from the position of graduate student, your dissertation serves a utilitarian end as a stage prop. It is something you use along with teaching experience, letters of rec, publications, and the like to set the scene for what kind of scholar and teacher you are. One consequence of this professional staging is that your dissertation takes on a kind of liminal existence. It is something you have written, yes, but it is nevertheless an evolving text. You memorize the abstract, you perfect the 3-minute pitch, you have that one line summary. All of these help you land the job. But when you are finally in a job and ready to return to it, you have to reevaluate the dissertation in order to, as I say above, see the forest. You have to make yourself re-see the project in order to understand its borders and general terrain.

To help this re-seeing, I suggest the three following exercises:
1. Re-write your abstract. But this time, write the abstract not according to what is technically in the dissertation, nor what you have written before in a previous abstract, but according to what you think the dissertation does (or should do). In other words, don't go back and re-read your diss before you do this--just rely on memory and wishful thinking. You might find that what you think you do in the diss is what you didn't do (or didn't do well enough) and need to do in whatever iteration of the project comes next.

2. Then you should go back a re-read your dissertation. From there, make a list of the top 4-5 ideas or claims you make in the text. Really limit yourself here and identify what you see as your most important arguments. This doesn't mean that what doesn't make the list is insignificant. The point, though, is to capitalize on the dissertation's strengths. Don't focus too much on its weaknesses.

3. Even if you've already done this for the job search, make yourself come up with a one-sentence claim about why your project matters. One sentence.

These exercises can be used to help you see the dissertation in a fresh way. They also will provide direction you can utilize to decide what to do next with the thing. Your dissertation has helped you get a job, now you have to reassess this text and decide what it's really about, what are its most provocative claims, and what you want to do next.
Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com

Friday, November 25, 2011

Transition Series: Part Four

I thought it would be interesting when I sat down to write this fourth, and final, post about the transition from graduate student to faculty member to see what would pop up if I actually googled that phrase. I found quite a few great sites (some of those links appear below), but what I also found was a lot of similarity in the topics that were addressed. I doubt you are holding your breath here because I am sure you know exactly what those topics are: the importance of balancing research, teaching, and service, and how to be a professional in the field. Several of these sites were framed around the idea that these things will come as a great surprise to graduate students moving into a tenure-track position. The popularity of this framing device for disseminating advice was what actually surprised me.

Are graduate students really surprised by what it feels like to be a faculty member? Have I been caught off-guard by anything? Maybe I should just chalk this up to wonderful advisors who prepared me well, but I do not feel as though I have encountered much that I didn’t expect. Now, I’m not saying the transition has been easy, just because something isn’t “surprising” doesn’t mean it suddenly becomes easy. Here are some things that have not surprised me:

1) I feel like an imposter

2) it is hard to protect my writing time

3) there are politics in the department

4) the students are different

5) People treat you differently because of your title

6) it is lonelier being a faculty member than being a graduate student

7) the department expects different things from you as faculty than it expects from graduate students

I imagine these things sound about as obvious to you as they did to me. It’s still good to be aware of them, of course, but perhaps this rhetoric of the surprising and the unexpected drives this culture of needing to talk about the transition and adds to the mystique of being a faculty member. I did not think it at all strange when Matt asked me to contribute to this series (well, I thought it strange he asked me, but not that he was doing this series. Example of #1 above), but now that I have written a few posts and perused a few websites this morning I’m realizing that what I am writing about is not so much a transition, but the job itself.

Surely this is shaped by the institution you come from and the institution where you land that first job, so what I am saying here has to be taken with a grain of salt (or paprika, which is more fun to say). I would thus sum up the “transition from graduate student to faculty member” in this way:

You do what you did in graduate school, but with weightier implications

This is good news, right? Now, there is a lot of stuff crammed into that last bit, the “weightier implications.” But I’ll leave that for someone else to hash out, or for you to discover on your own when you land The Job.

What I will leave you with is the beautiful conundrum of being a Doctor in the Literature field:

You probably worked harder than most people in graduate programs, but you did it for the simple reason that you love to read. No magnanimous reasons that have to do with saving people’s lives, discovering epic cures, exploring uncharted territories, contributing to the greater good, etc. We are overly educated bibliophiles who, though we may outwardly shun any pretense to greatness, secretly believe we are saving the world. Now that’s a cool job.




Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What is a Dissertation? Part 4

In this post I will offer a few thoughts about how to imagine your dissertation when you are in the middle of writing it.

Before I proceed, let’s acknowledge that the design of a dissertation is heavily influenced by the conventions of your academic discipline. Dissertation writers in education and the social sciences, for example, usually follow a standard five-part chapter sequence: Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Results, and Conclusion/Discussion. Dissertations in fields related to English Studies, let’s say American Lit, might include an introductory chapter, a theory chapter, and then 2-4 additional chapters that offer close reading or interpretation of specific texts. In my own discipline, Rhetoric and Composition Studies, dissertation writers have greater leeway when it comes to design and chapter sequence, but it just depends on the topic.

Regardless of academic discipline, the point here is that if you are currently drafting the dissertation I’m going to assume you have an idea of chapter sequence, which is to say you probably have an outline for the dissertation you are writing. (You did get that prospectus approved, right?) This might be a very rough and tentative outline, but you should have one.

Now for another thesis about writing your dissertation as a kind of inquiry: Many of your best ideas emerge when you are engrossed in the writing itself, so make sure you are actually writing.

Okay, this isn’t really an argument because, well, most of us would probably agree that we often have to write in order to understand what we want to say. Simply put, we can only plan so much. And writing, the actual work of putting words on the page, is itself a way to discover things. The outline is a conceptual map, a rough list that tells us what to write before we begin. But the writing itself is the real work, because the writing itself is what leads to the completion of drafts. And at this stage in the process, getting drafts of chapters finished is your most important job.

There’s an aphorism with which most of us are familiar, and it goes like this: a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Perhaps this saying is reductive and too simplistic, but on a strategic level I agree with it. To slave away on a dissertation with no end in sight is pointless. Dissertations serve a number of purposes, of course, but if you are currently writing one, I imagine your primary goal is to graduate…to finish!

And the only way to move closer to a finished dissertation is to produce pages. And the only way to ensure that pages get produced is to have a writing schedule to which you are committed.

I’ll be a bit more direct here…

You need to complete full rough drafts of chapters so that you have texts to revise. As we all know, it often takes a couple drafts to properly articulate complex ideas and observations, and then it usually takes another revision or two to get the prose itself right. This means you shouldn’t spend too much time at any one point in a draft if it means you have to push back the schedule. Put a bit differently, don’t be overly concerned with getting everything right in a draft; instead focus on getting things right enough so that you can stay on schedule to finish the draft. You can focus on clarifying ideas and sharpening prose later, when it is time to revise specific chapter drafts.

When it comes to imagining this work, I like the image of a finish line on a track. The track here is the combination of your outline and the schedule you are following, and the various drafts you need to produce and revise are the hurdles. Again, I’m sticking with this aphorism that a good dissertation is a finished dissertation. So finish the “race” (I don’t like this metaphor but I guess it comes with the territory), set out a schedule for yourself, and make sure you are steadily moving towards the finish line.

As an example, here is a rough outline of the writing schedule I followed.

April 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 1
May 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 2

June 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 3

July 2010: Finish 1st draft of Chapter 4

August 2010: Finish 1st draft of Introduction

September - October 2010: First revision of full dissertation

November 1, 2010: Dissertation Defense

November 2010 - February 2011: Second revision of full dissertation

March 2011: Submit polished draft to Graduate School

You might see that my timeline is a little unconventional because I defended my dissertation during the fall of my last year, which was a deliberate attempt to make myself more marketable on the job front. I also wasn’t teaching in the summer, so I could write full-time. Regardless, I gave myself about six months to have a full draft of the dissertation. Yes, it would be (and it was!) a rough full draft, but by that point I had a clearer vision of what my dissertation was about (because I had a full draft), one much clearer than the vision I had before I started writing.

Anyway, in those summer months is when I really had to force myself to write. Here’s what those schedules more or less looked like:

Week 1: Organize notes, prioritize sources, draft a detailed outline for the chapter.

Weeks 2 & 3: Draft, draft, draft.

Week 4 (first half): Organize writing, revise, and edit text into a working draft; send to committee.

Week 4 (second half): Do nothing and relax.

Once you get a rhythm like this going, it really is possible to meet deadlines and cross those finish lines. For me, when I was in the thick of drafting I had to constantly keep one eye on the finish line, which evolved as the draft evolved. First it was that date at the end of the month when I was scheduled to send chapters to my committee. Then it was the date at the end of August when I would send them my first full draft, then it was the date of my dissertation defense.

Let me add one final idea before I close this post….

Don’t drag the process out. With a firm schedule and a good outline, you can write faster than you think. The goal is to get each draft to a place where you can go back and revise, so doesn’t it make better sense to make a schedule that allows plenty of time for more revisions? Yes, it can be intimidating to think you may be giving yourself only five or sixth months to write a first draft, but remember, you want a finished dissertation. That’s the goal, right?


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com

Friday, November 18, 2011

Transition Series: Part Three

The last couple posts on transitioning to tenure track have dealt with the mind-game of feeling like a tenure-track professor. I want to get a bit more practical here and offer a practice I use to help me balance all the things I need to do in a day. I feel as though this post does not fit squarely
within a “transitioning” series, as the problem of balancing is not something one takes on once you hit the tenure-track. However, it is something I have really focused on in the last few months, so for me, at least, this practice of planning is connected in some way with starting this new job.

Two Prefaces:

1) I have always been an obsessive planner, living in the future and fretting over the past (as in – fretting over what I did not get done last week). In fact, when I lived in the dorm as an undergraduate my hall mates used to joke that they always knew where to find me because my entire day was written out on a white board at the foot of my bed. They used to write “breath” in various places on my schedule because it seemed that if it wasn’t on my list I might forget to do it. So what I am proposing below is new to me because of the kind of plan it is.

2) I owe many of these ideas to Tanya and her blog.

Starting sometime this summer the “to do” list became so long and cluttered with various tasks, from menial things like “mail this birthday card” to monumental things like “set up the movers” that I quickly discovered my old way of having one list no longer sufficed.

Although I had lots of things I needed to do in one week as a graduate student, they somehow seemed all about equally important and generally took similar amounts of time (read for class A, read for class B, write my final papers, read for comp list, attend EGSA meeting, attend meeting with advisor, and so forth). Leaving one place and settling in another first alerted me to the need for “pyramid plans” (not to be confused with pyramid schemes). I had to develop several different layers of the to-do plan that incorporated a sense of varying priority levels and timelines. The pyramid plan consists of layers: the semester, the monthly & weekly, and the daily. Here is how I go about doing that:

At the beginning of each semester I create a “semester plan” that lists everything I want to accomplish in four categories: research, service, teaching, and personal. This list provides no detailed notes on any item. It might look something like this:

Fall 2011 Semester Plan

Research Goals

Book Project

Submit one article

RSA Proposal


NAVSA roundtable paper

Teaching Goals

Develop a website

Create paper assignments and exams

Course proposals for next fall


Join one department committee

Serve on one grad student thesis/diss committee


Get office set up

Plant a garden

This list is the largest layer of the pyramid; it is also the most basic and will form the foundation from which all the other lists are generated. One other element I like to add to this list is to divide some items into months, particularly where it makes sense. So, for example, I know the book project will be part of every month but for the conference papers I would section them off under “October” since they had to get written then for the conferences in late October and early November.

At the beginning of each month I look at my semester plan and decide what I will accomplish in that specific month. Some of that will already be designated (as in the conference papers) but other things become a decision you make during this planning session. So, for example, I could decide that November will be the month I work on a personal website.

I like for my semester level plan to be ambitious, knowing I probably won’t get to everything, but as I move down the pyramid the plans have to start getting more realistic. A monthly level plan might look like this:

Sept 5-9

Article: send rough draft to writing partner

RSA: finish reading sources and draft proposal

Book Project: read through chp 3, make notes for book revisions

Sept 12-16

Article: finish last bits of research & implement writing partner’s comments

RSA: polish draft, send off (due sept 16)

Book Project: read through chp 4, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Sept 19-23

Article: final revisions, send off

Conference: get back into visawus research

Goal this week: to get through at least one novel and some analysis of it, add one page to conference draft

Book Project: read through chp 5, make notes for book revisions

NAVSA: position paper

Goal this week: locate any useful sources and read them, get 2 pages of brainstorm draft

ATL application: finish

Sept 26-30:

Book Project: look over sample book proposals and start drafting yours, make specific action plan for revising each chapter (look at 1-2 chapter a day and have this done by the end of the week)

visawus. Read two library books checked out, 3 ebrary sources

navsa: start making yourself brainstorm, actually write something down! Look at Goffman sources

Once I have listed the specific things I want to get done that month, I then divide them up into weeks. Notice this is getting a little more specific, so instead of just listing “work on article” I might delineate a specific task like “send draft to writing partner.”

At the beginning of each week (for me this means either Sunday night or Monday morning) I sit down and look at what I had designated for that week as listed on my monthly level plan. As you can probably imagine by now, I create a list for that week and I get really specific. I have just recently discovered that it is more effective to allot time amounts rather than time slots to tasks. So for my weekly plan, one day’s plan might look like this:


Teach (2 hours)

Class prep & office hours (4 hours)

Write 2 pages of NAVSA draft (1 hour)

Look at book proposal samples (1 hour)

Read 2 sources for visawus paper (2 hours)

Finish final article draft revisions (2 hours)

Workout (1 hour)

I am still learning how much time certain tasks take, so I intentionally demonstrated what often happens to me when I first create a plan for one day of the week. This plan shows me working for 12 hours, and while it does include things like working out, there is not much time left in the day for things like dinner, getting to and from work, etc. But this is the beauty of creating a plan based on time allotments. Once I create this day-layer plan, I would quickly realize it’s not realistic. I can revise it by moving, say, the reading a source for the visawus paper to Thursday and that at least gives me a 10 hour day. Sometimes, I’ll admit, 10-hour days happen for me at least once a week. But if I’ve already scheduled a long day this week according to my plan, then I know I need to shuffle still more from this day to another. So I might also decide to do only one hour of article revisions and finish it up on Thursday and add in an hour of class prep time back into Monday which I realize was a much lighter day according to the plan I had created.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that the weekly plan becomes kind of like a game of shuffling tasks around like puzzle pieces until you get it all to fit together.This can take some time, but for me it is well worth it, primarily for two reasons:

*It holds me accountable to getting done what I set out to do

*It lets me feel guilt-free when I am not working.

I want to end this post with that last point: if being in a tenure-track job is exhilarating, it is that way primarily because, like a race-horse, you’ve just been let out of the starting gate and you are now racing around the track, the tenure-track that is. The narrative that we have been groomed to hear over the years of graduate school is that for the next 5 or 6 years of your life you should be harried, overwhelmed, stressed-out, and always working as you race around that track. I just don’t buy that (or refuse to and am in denial). A lot of the stress and worry that I’ve experienced in my first few months on the tenure track comes from feeling like I’m not doing enough. Anytime I feel that way now, however, I pull out my plan and, starting from the top level of the pyramid, I look at all that I will accomplish by the end of the semester, and then I glance at what I was supposed to do today. Did I do it? Yes! Then that means I can stop for the day because if I’ve followed the layering I outlined above, the tasks I laid out for today will lead me to accomplish all that I should this semester. And, by the way, that semester plan is connected to a 5-year plan so that I know what needs to happen each semester to make sure I am “doing enough” on the track we call tenure.

This has saved me countless evenings when I feel myself starting to fidget with guilt after I’ve been sitting for more than 5 minutes. I simply pull out my daily plan, re-confirm that I checked off my tasks and then there is absolutely no reason not to relax. Do I always stick to this plan? Of course not. I am still a terrible judge of how long things take so I am constantly revising the plan. In fact, I leave Saturday unplanned, knowing I always work a half-day Saturday. Whatever doesn’t get done mon-fri becomes the task I focus on for that half-day.

Keep in mind the plan is supposed to be freeing, so it can never become too rigid or else it just becomes another task. I never consider it failing if I don’t get to something on my list, so long as I resituate the plan to accommodate it. Obviously if this happens to often then you will start not meeting goals, but there should be enough flexibility in your schedule to accommodate minor schedule changes.

This also answers to those people balking at the idea of being so scheduled because they claim they went into this field because they could have flexible schedules. The kind of pyramid plan I have laid out here absolutely allows you to do that. Flexibility is one of the things I love about this job as well. Today is the perfect example. Justin works night shifts at the hospital, so sometimes there are really odd times of the week that we can actually spend time together. It just so happens that his sleep & work schedule meant that for the first half of Thursday we could spend some time together. When I got up this morning, then, I shifted all the tasks I planned to do this morning to Saturday afternoon. I spent a fun morning with my husband, guilt-free, in the middle of the week. I never could have done that if I didn’t have written down tangibly in front of me that I would still get all my work done this week even with taking Thursday morning off. It’s a beautiful thing.

So my biggest piece of advice? Create a plan that has layers to it – so you can get increasingly more specific and so that you can allot priorities to more important tasks (they get done in the first week of the month or during your biggest chunks of time, say).

And plan to plan. That’s right, schedule a time each week where you sit down and do this. The upshot to all this? You won’t be the horse running in front lathered and completely winded, nor the horse getting mud slung all over her in the back of the pack. You’ll be the horse running comfortably in the middle, hugging the rail, pacing herself, who makes her move perfectly on time at the finish line.


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at http://lumiacompositions.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 3

A dissertation is a dissertation, and you only write one.

This is a claim I developed in the previous post, which I used to make a distinction between conceptualizing the dissertation as a site for inquiry versus a site for performance. It is my belief that to understand a dissertation primarily in terms of inquiry is to counteract the negative effects of anxiety and apprehension that sometimes stymie dissertation writers.

In this post, I’ll address the work of imagining the dissertation before you actually begin to write the thing. Indeed, to imagine a dissertation seems most haphazard in the months before the work of writing actually begins. In a way this makes sense, because there is usually no shortage of advice on this matter.

For example, I remember as a graduate student listening to an assistant professor in the English department explain why we should want the dissertation to be our first book. At the time, his argument was persuasive. It basically boiled down to the assumption that we will have to write a book to get tenure, so why not write the dissertation as a book and enter a tenure-track job with most of the work already completed?

There are some obvious flaws to this argument. First, not all of us will have jobs where a book is required for tenure. Second, how can we write the dissertation as a book if we have never written a book, or, for that matter, a dissertation? In other words, does it mean something different to write the dissertation as a book opposed to, I don’t know, writing it as a dissertation? I could go on, but the dissertation-as-book conceptualization is a popular one. There are variations of this model, of course, but the fundamental problem with it is that I have never seen this happen. That is, I do not know anyone who has ever finished the dissertation only to turn around and drop a draft in the mail to a publisher. I will discuss this idea in more detail in a later post, but keep in mind that it is easier than ever to access dissertations electronically thanks to library indexing technology, so why would a press publish something that people can—in most cases—download for free with the click of a button?

Then there is the suggestion to envision a dissertation as a series of articles. I heard this many times, too, when I was preparing to write. It certainly makes sense to want to write a dissertation that will lead to a publication or two, so I won’t challenge this goal, but I will say that complications arise if you try to view each chapter as a stand-alone article. For one thing, part of the uniqueness of the dissertation genre is that arguments develop from chapter to chapter. Moreover, it often takes the work of writing the damn thing to get your dissertation draft to a place where you can actually see the value and efficacy of your ideas.

So is there another way to conceptualize your dissertation at this early stage of the game?

I remember having a freak-out moment in my first year of graduate school. I had just arrived at the frightening realization that I had no idea what I would (eventually) write a dissertation about. I went to a professor and confessed this sense of dread. How would I decide on a topic? My professor (who is famous for quelling such freak-out moments) told me to relax. Eventually I would identify a conversation I wanted to join, one I will have been listening to for awhile, and that’s how I will land on a topic: realizing I had something of value to add to an existing conversation.

So that’s what I offer here. Imagine your dissertation as a contribution to a conversation. Yes, this is something of a cliché (Kenneth Burke’s parlor analogy is quite famous) but this image continues to thrive because it is true.

So once you have a dissertation topic and are working on a prospectus, it helps to think about you dissertation as a way into a conversation. You are not an expert at this point, so the idea is to enter the conversation (whatever that conversation is about) so others will treat you as one who is serious about carrying the conversation forward. In more practical terms, using the concept of conversation might help you keep the dissertation grounded.

Think about it.

When you enter a conversation for the first time, your goal should not be to over-power the talk already going on. Nobody likes a blowhard. This means to think about your dissertation as a contribution to the talk. It is an “and” tacked on to something said earlier.

Also, new contributors to a conversation make connections that have not been previously articulated. For your dissertation, think about it as a way to show readers links between (and beyond) the existing literature, ones that open new paths for inquiry.

Finally, what keeps a conversation going is the identification of new things to talk about. In other words, you should not think of your dissertation as the last (or best) word on your topic. You should welcome those places where you might say “I don’t know” because this means more conversation is needed. No one expects a new member of the conversation to have every argument worked out perfectly. If this were the case, the conversation would already be over.

Just keep in mind that as a dissertation writer, you position yourself as someone who has something to add to an existing conversation. Yours in an initial contribution, though, so don’t be too forceful and know it is okay to claim questions you might not be in a position to fully answer. This, after all, is why the conversation exists.


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com

Friday, November 11, 2011

Transitions: Part Two

In part two of this transitions series I am taking up one element of academic life that has always been seen as an important aspect of professionalism-the conference-and sharing how my experience at two recent conferences as a tenure-track faculty actually felt quite different.

Scenario One: The Graduate Student

Bernice walks, mostly eyes down, along the corridor looking for the “Acorn Room.” On noting the nametag of a near passerby, she stops and gapes, mouth open, at the retreating back. Was that really just [insert name of famous scholar here]?? Bernice finally finds the Acorn Room and sits uncomfortably at the front table, wishing she were in the audience. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself one of the fortunate who was not asked any questions, and she flees the conference floor up to her room. She spends the rest of the weekend enjoying [insert city here, chosen as the conference location either for its obvious attractions or because the city could never hope to attract people otherwise]

Scenario Two: The TT

Bernice walks, looking at tags or faces for familiar names or people, along the corridor until she finds the “Acorn Room.” Along the way she stops to say hello to someone she met yesterday in panel 3. They chat a few moments, and then scatter to their respective sessions. As Bernice ducks into the room she notices [insert name of famous scholar] and stops to gape at the retreating back. After giving her paper, Bernice counts herself among the fortunate who get to answer several questions about her paper, take on some challenges to her ideas, and jot down some resources others share with her. Bernice leaves the session and joins a group of people to chat for a few minutes over coffee before heading to another panel.

Bernice’s experiences (which are eerily similar to my own; how strange) illustrate a few of the key differences between the conference experience as a graduate student and as tenure-track faculty. I am sure there are many graduate students who will read my description of how I approach conferences as a tenure-track faculty member and think that is already how they view conferences. To them, I would say Bravo! But for the rest of us who are slow to realize ourselves as professionals, I attempt to pinpoint some of the differences in attending a conference as a student and as a scholar.

Community: As a graduate student conferences were mostly a means to an end, namely a line on my CV. They were also a place to have a great time, but that was usually totally disconnected from the conference itself. In many ways, both of those things are still true now, but conferences have also become a vital source of community for me. I have never before felt the urge to go up and introduce myself to people, but in the two conferences I have been to this semester, I have done just that numerous times.

The banner of overwrought graduate student no longer forms the ties that bind me naturally to those down the hall. What I found, then, at my first conference as a tenure-track faculty member was that I wanted to be part of the British Literature community. The “ties that bind” had now become my field. I suppose this should have been true all along, but for me this revelation only happened when I no longer had my community of fellow cheap laborers (oops, I mean graduate students) to commiserate with.

Ideas: Even though I landed a job in an extremely vibrant and friendly department, it still seems like people walk around the halls in their own little bubble. Perhaps the simplest answer is that the stakes are higher now than in graduate school, and there isn’t the same room for intellectual play and the spontaneous exchange of ideas amidst the business of daily department life. My eagerness to attend panels and engage in discussions before, during, and after sessions at these two recent conferences was evidence, I believe, that this kind of engagement does not happen as organically on an everyday basis for tenure-track folk. The publish-or-perish motif of tenure-track necessitates grabbing onto an idea and stubbornly pursuing it at all costs. As a good friend and colleague recently said to me: Flailing isn't cool in that context and flailing is what makes learning great.

There doesn’t seem to be time for flailing on the tenure-clock. Except, perhaps, at conferences, which are the professions glorified water cooler break. Away from the immediate influence of meetings, department hierarchy, deadlines, conferences are a places to flail, to try out new ideas and see what others think. Certainly they still feel like a place to prove myself, as they did when I was a graduate student, but having gotten a job takes some of that pressure off. Sort of like getting published proves other people outside your department think your work is worthwhile, getting a job proves other people outside your graduate institution think you have something to offer. Conferences become less about proving yourself, to some extent, and more about truly sharing your work.

Professionalism: In bringing the above two points together, I come to my third – the sense of myself as part of a field. This is something I never had as a graduate student, and so I missed that aspect of the conference experience. I might mark the difference like this: whereas before I would peruse the book table displays to see if there were any titles relevant to my dissertation research, I now pay more attention to which publishers tend to produce books in what areas. The authors on the cover of those books have become people now, and I recognize how they developed a certain niche for themselves. I observe the trends that are happening in the field by seeing how many books have come out recently on certain topics. By observing the broad sweep of ideas, as well as their smaller nuances, I gain a sense of the pulse and breath of the field around me, and consequently of my place within it.

In short, conferences have become more than a line on my CV (though that is still an essential part of it as well. tick tock. tick tock). They are a place of community building and a way to feel the heartbeat of your chosen field. Although “networking” has an icky sound to it, and has probably left a bad taste in anyone’s mouth who has tried it before, I think it worth noting that network as a verb in the nineteenth century meant “To cover (something)” often used in the sense of a region being covered with railroads, ie the region was networked (OED). This definition can give a fresh twist to the role of conferences in the tenure-track life. Instead of the usual word “connect” networking may have more to do with this notion of “cover.” As in “I got you covered.” My new peeps have my back and we’re “tracking” together now. As in, hey, I got this man!


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at http://lumiacompositions.blogspot.com

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

What is a Dissertation? Part 2

I opened my first post by describing my dissertation defense as a conversation. By the end of the post I was discussing (sort of) why it matters how we conceptualize the dissertation at the various points of its development. I hope this second post will start to fill in the gaps.

I know scholars in the humanities are trained from the very beginning not to rely on generalization (especially bifurcation) when it comes to structuring an argument about something complex. I am going to break that rule here.

Now for a thesis of sorts:

How you conceptualize the writing of a dissertation at any given point will usually fall into one of two categories: it will either be a site of inquiry or it will be a site of performance.

Let me try to explain.

Unless you end up collecting multiple doctorates, you will only write one dissertation. I’ll say this again: You’ll only write one dissertation. Think about this for a moment; the dissertation is perhaps the only one-of-a-kind text you will compose as an academic. In graduate school we learn to write texts like seminar papers and project proposals and job letters. We might go on to write journal articles or academic monographs or research grants or keynote lectures. These genres of text in which we traffic as academics are ones we engage over and over again. The repetition is what allows us to think about something like a conference paper or a job letter as such. The very notion of a rhetorical situation for these genres presumes multiplicity (or at least similarity), and for this reason the dissertation is unlike anything else you have written or ever will write as an academic. There will be no dissertations on your vita because you only write one.

Now it is true that a dissertation might eventually turn into a book. Or parts of it might become a journal article or two, but this leads to my second point: Your dissertation is a dissertation. It’s not a book; it’s not a collection of articles; it’s not one, long seminar paper. It is a dissertation.

So what does this mean?

Well, for starters it means you will probably be a happier dissertation writer in the long run if you do not confuse the dissertation with all the other genres of texts I just mentioned. But now I’m starting to encroach on what I will discuss in the next post, so let me step back and get to my thesis from above.

When we parse and sort all the advice we get from others about conceptualizing the dissertation, two frames of mind usually emerge. The dissertation is a site to explore a subject, to test, to discover, to trace an inquiry. Or it is a site to mount a presentation, to exhibit, to demonstrate, to enact a performance. One frame of mind admits fallibility; the other lauds accuracy. One privileges experimentation; the other embraces results. One encourages curiosity, which might entail a certain level of clumsiness; the other demands declaration, which in general evades uncertainty.

So this is what I mean when I say we can view the dissertation as either a site of inquiry or a site of performance. Of course, in a lot of ways it is both of these things. We choose a dissertation subject because we are curious about it and want to explore where our writing takes us, but we also have to prove our chops with the dissertation—show others that we are capable of this kind of sustained scholarship. With that said, it is very difficult to balance these values simultaneously. Again, the dissertation is a dissertation and we only write one. So what do you want the dissertation to be?

I’m reminded of the psychologist Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit illustration. The picture reveals a duck and a rabbit, but we can only see one at a time. We know both images are present, but we can only apperceive one or the other. Your dissertation is much like this illustration. No doubt it is an important milestone in your academic development, and people will evaluate it. But it is only one document; it is a first try at something that, really, you’ll never do again—at least not in the same “dissertation” context.


If it is not obvious, I value the “inquiry” conceptualization. You might want to as well but not know how. So in the next post I will discuss what happens before the dissertation writing gets underway. But my advice from here forward will be focused on how to amplify the idea of inquiry in this work, because I strongly believe if you can fall back on curiosity and apperceive the dissertation pragmatically, the project will be enriching for what it is, a one-of-a-kind experience.


Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com

Friday, November 4, 2011

Transitions: Part One

I remember when I was a graduate student (oh so long ago) struggling with the vexed issue of whether or not to use the title “Dr.” when addressing my professors; if I didn’t know the professor, then of course they were Dr. whomever. The issue became sticky, though, if I knew them from the coffee shop where I worked and called customers by their first name. Would it be weird to say “Hi Joe” when he bought his coffee at 10 in the morning and then 4 hours later say “Hi Dr. Smith” when I was in his class? It was even a sticky issue when a professor directly said “you can just call me Susie.” Even with express permission, it made me uncomfortable to call my profs by their first name. Now I am the one telling students “Please just call me Kristen” knowing full well this might actually make them more uncomfortable than insisting they call me Dr. Pond.

Lest I appear as though I am some kind of saint who has no power ambitions whatsoever, let me clear the record and acknowledge that, sure, it’s nice to have people acknowledge you as “Dr.” in a field where that is the highest honor. I still to this day get a kick out of saying, “take out a piece of paper,” and then watching all my students do just that.

But the emphasis on titles in our field more than anything makes me uncomfortable. I think I get most uncomfortable when I realize that, in my experience, the people who insist on the importance of the title are either 1) male 2) white 3) older, or in some cases all three (but not always all three). I’ve been told that it is best that students, and in particular graduate students, call me doctor. This was the same sort of spiel I got when I first started teaching and was the same age as some of my students. The effort to distinguish myself at that point was through dress code, now it seems I’m to do so through my title.

What, exactly, is my title of Dr. proclaiming? If it has something to do with my knowledge base, then shouldn’t that become apparent through my interactions? If it has to do with my commitment to the field, then shouldn’t that become apparent through my service and research activities? If it is to announce that I have somehow arrived, well, I’m reminded at least once a week (okay, maybe more like once a day) through horrendous mistakes I make that this is simply not true.

So far I have found that it doesn’t matter if I tell students to just call me Kristen, at my current institution they will still call me Dr. Pond. So I’ve stopped making an issue of it; I simply introduce myself as Kristen and let them have it. I passed a graduate student on the four-floor winding staircase today (where, consequentially you’ll have your most important conversations. Stairwells and hallways are the make-it-or-break-it moments). The student flashed me a huge smile and said “Hi Kristen” and continued on his way. He was one of the students I met my first week here, back when I was still using my “call me Kristen” pitch. It has been nearly 10 weeks (so long I know) of consistently hearing “Dr. Pond” that I must admit I actually experienced a jolt and a strange disorientation. I glanced back over my shoulder; yes, in fact, that was a student!

Earlier that day in my 20th of about 50 student conferences this week, a student walked into my office after glancing at the nameplate on the door and said: “I had no idea you were a doctor.” Like the double rainbow guy, I inwardly threw up my hands in an existential crisis moment and wondered “what does this mean!?!” What was I not doing that led this student to think I wasn’t worthy of the title doctor??

These two instances, with their accumulative force of occurring on the same day, was an unwelcome awakening. How, in the space of just a couple months, had I shifted from being anxious about people calling me a doctor, to being anxious, or at least startled, when they didn’t?

There are a lot of insecurities with starting your first tenure-track job, and I think for me the quandary over my official title is emblematic of the perhaps less-glamorous side of landing your first tenure-track job. Matt has been gracious enough to invite me to share my experience, and in this short series on transitioning from graduate student to tenure-track professor I hope to offer some small tidbits of advice from someone way over her head in that very transition. But I also hope to open some topics for discussion that will challenge myself and students and professors of all rank. Because as I’m finding out, when you’ve crossed that strangely powerful line from graduate student to professor, it gets harder and harder to conjure the creative energy and prophetic vision that are so necessary for “constructing the academy” around thoughtful and self-aware practices.


Kristen Pond specializes in Victorian studies with an emphasis on the novel. Her current project examines forms of telling in the Victorian novel and their influence on the rhetoric of sympathy. Learn more about her transition from graduate student to tenure-track at http://lumiacompositions.blogspot.com