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

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