Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 1

Exactly one year ago I defended my dissertation. What really happened that afternoon is I sat with my committee in the English department’s windowless conference room for ninety minutes and had a conversation about my project. As I think about my frame of mind that day, I find it is best to describe this event as a conversation--not a “defense”--because, really, what happened is that we had a discussion about the ideas I was trying to articulate, what was working well and what could be working better, and what I wanted to do next. We talked and plotted several things for me to do in a revision, and that was it.

A year later I am in my first tenure-track job, teaching a handful of interesting courses, and--at the moment--preparing an application for a research grant that my university awards to pre-tenure professors, one that will allow me to devote next summer to writing. I am thinking about my dissertation because that is what I plan to work on this summer, which is to say I am now thinking about the next stage of its development. Specifically I am envisioning an article or two, research for a chapter I wanted to write but didn’t, as well as a book proposal. My task for this application is to articulate what tasks in particular (and realistically) I want to dedicate this time towards.

What I find fascinating, and what I will devote a short series of posts to for Constructing the Academy, is how my conceptualization of what a dissertation is has developed over the past several years. My own experience of writing a dissertation was relatively painless; I had good advisors, an interesting project, and a manageable writing schedule. I don’t mean to say I sailed through the process without any hiccups. I definitely felt stress from time to time, and I even had to throw out an entire chapter and rewrite it from scratch. But my experience was positive overall. This is the case, in part, because along the way I was able to foster the right set of attitudes about this thing called the dissertation itself. I use the plural here because I realized early in the process that I would have to periodically adjust my attitude about the work I was doing if I was going to be productive in my writing and efficient with my time.

To step back, what gets identified as a dissertation is (like everything else in the world) an object we apperceive, a thing that we must conceptualize. For this reason, it makes sense to foster the best attitudes that will help you apperceive what the dissertation is (and should be) at its various points of development. This is what these posts will be about: how we can productively imagine the work of a dissertation.

Let me stress that I hardly view myself as a master on this subject. The advice I plan to share in these posts represents an essayistic attempt to combine the many suggestions related to conceptualizing a dissertation that have been passed on to me by others. As mentioned above, right now I’m trying to figure out how best to imagine the next step in thinking about what to do with my own dissertation now that I’m in a job. So I look forward to hearing feedback, reading about your own experiences, and seeing if any of these ideas translate to the work all of you are doing.


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


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