Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Go Back to the Text

To this point in my dissertation process, I have run up against a number of difficulties that are not out of the ordinary for someone tackling a project of this scope for the first time. But there is one battle that I continue to fight over and over again, even though I have been conscious of it since the first draft of my first chapter. I call it "the framing/theory battle."

What happens is this: I find myself spending way too much time and energy framing/theorizing my analysis of whatever primary text I am analyzing to the point that the primary text itself gets lost in the shuffle. I have had the great fortune to work with a committee and with other readers who remind me to "go back to the text."

When I go back to the primary text (and this might look different for all of us depending on our discipline) I always find that things break loose. By that I mean that the primary text always breaks up my mental log jam because it is inevitably the source of the idea I'm trying to work out through a host of other theoretical/historical/philosophical sources.

Going back to the primary text usually involves identifying the most important passages that I'm analyzing, and then writing close readings of those passages. Next, I map out those specific passages in relation to the larger text as a whole. Finally, I go back to whatever I'm writing (usually chapters right now) and pretend like the primary text IS my frame and slowly layer in the theory, history, philosophy, sociology, whatever.

Without fail, I will end up rewriting the actual prose I produce as a result of going back to the text. BUT without going back to the text I find that I wouldn't have produced much prose anyways.

Go back to the text, it's holding everything else up anyway!


  1. You have an uncanny way of always putting your finger on the very problem that I am dealing with/navigating at any one moment. Thanks for the sage advice!

  2. What great advice Matt! It seems like this is also a good strategy to keep your voice as the primary one in the writing process, instead of letting it get lost among the other critics and theorists. This will save you a lot of trouble down the road when you'll have to untangle your voice from theirs anyways if you turn the diss into a book (as I'm discovering).