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


  1. One variable to keep in mind as you approach the dissertation is how your committee envisions this project. For instance, some committees (or individual members of committees!) might view the dissertation as an exploratory process, while others might think of it as the first draft of a book that will eventually take shape.

    I wonder, Will, how you might factor in the personalities of a committee into this discussion?

  2. Yes, you absolutely have to take into account how your committee envisions what you are doing. In fact, this will be the focus of my next post. It can obviously be frustrating when committee members give you conflicting ideas about what the dissertation is...

    The chances are, in fact, that you will have conflicting conceptions from your committee. But at the end of the day, it is still YOUR dissertation...but again, I'll say more about this next week. For sure, this can be tricky business.

  3. I love your distinction, Will, between site of inquiry and site of performance. I wonder how many other facets of our field that distinction might apply to (conferences, teaching, faculty meetings, the job itself)

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