May 24, 2006


Collin Brooke offers some useful advice to people working on dissertations, particularly his comments about thinking that anyone's dissertation is going to effect a tectonic change in their field.

And really, none of these things speak to the quality of a given dissertation (or lack thereof). It's tempting, I think, to go into the process thinking that this is your great contribution, and that by now, you've acquired the skills you need to in order to "join the profession." For me, this attitude resulted in a vast overestimation of what I needed to accomplish in my dissertation--the fact of the matter was and is that my dissertation did not "change the discipline," except in very indirect ways (and then only probably once my first book is finished).

When I was working on my dissertation, I thought the fields of rhet/comp and tech comm would suddenly sit up and say, "Damn, we've just been stooopid all this time. I'm glad Johndan showed us the light. Now we shall make him our King."

Sadly, I was wrong, both in terms of the results I expected and the profundity of my thoughts. Dissertations are a bizarre genre, and many things in that bizarre nature work against any lone grad student effecting real change. Notice that I'm not saying that grad students can't have paradigm shifting ideas, only that a dissertation is the completely wrong form for them to have any effect on the field. The whole lit review section is way messed up, designed more to display your knowledge than inform the reader. The artificial timeframe they're completed under doesn't allow you to pause for six months or a year if you need to (I think I can speak from experience in saying that completing book-length projects sometimes requires you to do nothing but just sit and think--and produce nothing that looks useful--for six months or a year or more sometimes). And committees frequently include members in areas outside of your specific interest, let alone your discipline. Face it: The dissertation, at best, is the zero draft of a book or handful of articles. In most cases, it's a learning experience, and something you might have to just file and move on from.

About a decade ago, at a rhet/comp party at Purdue just after I moved there, a couple of grad students gathered around the keg were sharing stories about how traumatic their dissertating experiences were. During a pause in the conversation, I stopped pumping the tap and said, "You don't ever get over it, either. I'm still recovering from my dissertation." Janice Lauer, in the middle of a different conversation about five feet away and about two years from retirement, wheeled around and said, "I'm still recovering from my dissertation."

So basically, I guess I'm saying there's not end in sight, and don't try to solve the world's problems in 300 double-spaced pages. Just get your degree (and "Pass Without Embarrassment"), then get on with the real work of solving the world's problems.

While I'm acting old and wise, I'll pass on some other bits of wisdom I've received:

1. In graduate school, Steve Loughrin-Sacco, the prof I was relying on to teach me enough French to pass my exams, said, "Keep your dissertation limited. I felt like I needed to do my whole life's work in that thing. Keep it simple. Find a tiny, but slightly important to deal with." He was right.

2. [And even more off-topic, but still related to grad students] Back in the 1990s, when I interviewed at Purdue for a Asst. Prof. job, after a long dinner in which Jim Berlin explained theories and experiences about gas station demographics and publicity (this conversation lasted more than an hour), in the parking lot he shook my hand, wished me luck, and said, "Always ask for more money. All they can do is say no." Words to live by when you're trapped in a capitalist society.

[via Collin vs. Blog]

Posted by johndanseven at May 24, 2006 12:48 AM