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

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