Paige Morgan

What I learned while finishing my dissertation

Now that I’ve turned in the dissertation, and while I’m prepping for the defense, I think I need to spend some time actually processing it — publicly, as well as privately. This is the first of what I anticipate will be a few posts doing so.

My dissertation director’s most common response to my work at this point is to say that my writing is highly condensed. At the beginning, hearing that was very confusing, because I didn’t feel like I knew how to unpack, or uncondense, without becoming unclear. Now I’m more able to do that — which is to say that I hope to say more about all of the following topics at greater length in the coming months, and identifying them here is the first step.

A minor, but important disclaimer: the following are true for me. I strongly suspect that they are true for some other people as well, but probably not true for everyone, and I don’t want to imply otherwise. (There are way too many articles generalizing from a single person’s experience to many, and they cause more trouble than they’re worth.)

1. Laying the groundwork to help readers understand an argument is just as important as presenting the new/flashy/sexy content. It took me a long time to grasp this — and then, having grasped it, to understand what it meant I needed to write. And the dissertation really is about groundwork for a future book, or for future articles. Without explaining the groundwork, it wasn’t merely difficult for my chair to grasp my argument’s significance; it was also difficult for me to feel confident enough to be assertive — not to mention that my discussions tended to be so tightly focused on a single work that I couldn’t telescope between the single work and a bigger picture.

A friend in the department thinks that this is because grad students are often trained to tear down structures to find a single kernel of knowledge, and close read with such intense focus that they have trouble putting information together to build a larger structure, i.e., a dissertation. I suspect she’s right. I also think that the practice of writing conference papers/abstracts and even seminar papers often leads students to always strive to be exciting, when in fact, a dissertation’s content is hardly meant to be one flashbulb of excitement after another. It can’t be — and if it were, it probably wouldn’t be good preparation for a book.

 

2. I feel more confident as a writer when I’m writing in a semi-public/public space. As a result, one of the most important components of figuring out chapter narratives was talking about them on Facebook to anyone who cared to listen. Usually, this took the form of me posting a status update like this one: “I’m going to natter on about William Shenstone and merit in the comments below; feel free to interject or ignore as you like.” Sometimes people would join in and ask questions or say that things sounded interesting as soon as I started; other times, I was essentially talking to myself. The fact that I knew that people might be following along was incredibly useful for helping me think about how my information needed to be arranged — and that was singularly important as I figured out the genre of the 50-page chapter, as opposed to the 8-10 page conference paper or the 15-20 page seminar paper. I also think it helped me remember that even academic writing is still meant to communicate with other humans, and to find a balance between dry-as-dust and, well, writing any of the highly emotional internet dialects. Marshall Brown was an excellent mentor to have in terms of writing voice, because he’s so good at it — and I spent plenty of time looking at his signposts and asides — but being able to post on Facebook was how I really started to find my own voice.
 I think that this is why no writing group ever really gelled for me — my few brushes with them involved reading each other’s writing, and for me, talking things out live was almost more important. And indeed, it helped that Facebook allowed me to extemporize, but to do so in a way that left a record behind.

 

3. Agency matters. I’ve spoken about this elsewhere, and I’m planning to say even more before too long. I doubt I would have ever finished this dissertation had it not been for my involvement with the Demystifying Digital Humanities project, which gave me a considerable amount of agency. Even though the dissertation and DMDH are completely separate subjects. Early on in the dissertation, I didn’t really understand that I lacked agency — mainly, I knew that I was terrified. Specifically, I had a hard time imagining myself as making a meaningful contribution to academic knowledge. That fear wasn’t simply about my grasp of eighteenth-century poetry. It also grew out of the visible general anxieties about academic publishing, the job market, and uncertainties about departmental responsibilities.
Put simply (because I know I have more to say on this!): The worse the job climate and the more confusion about the role of the university, the more fear; the more fear, the less agency; and the less agency, the harder it is to write.

 

4. Academics can be harder on themselves than is helpful. One of the most reassuring pieces of writing advice that I received from a committee member was that the format of a chapter could be, essentially: “I’m going to explore topic x from three perspectives; 1; 2; 3; by doing this, I have learned/shown that …” In this format, being overly simple is absolutely essential. And it’s a great format, not only for collecting and laying groundwork, but also, for helping graduate students become comfortable with the genre of a chapter. Being told that I could keep things simple and easy helped reassure me — and the end result was that I was able to delve into some fairly complex material.
My graduate program doesn’t currently have written guidelines for what a dissertation chapter looks like. I’m fairly certain that if we did, then nowhere in them would be advice that graduate students keep any aspect of the diss simple and easy. But rigor can be counterproductive. That’s not only true for departmental guidelines, but for individual writers as well, and learning how to articulate what will make you happy, rather than simply setting astronomical expectations, is an important skill.

5. I am able write my way out of seemingly impossible situations in my research. There have been several points in the last few years — some in the last few months! — where my arguments and data have seemed to be in an impossible tangle that I feared would never resolve itself. I have felt as though all my efforts to break up information into manageable portions that would be clear to readers were useless, and only making things worse. Those moments (those small eternities) are utterly horrid. And I have discovered that I can get through them. I don’t usually get through via sudden egress or a Eureka! moment — at least, not right at first. Instead, I find one small point to focus on, and then another, and another, and so on. Sometimes there’s eventually a lovely flash of sudden insight — but it might come a few weeks — or months — after I trudged through the horrid part.

As strange as it might seem, I’ve come to appreciate — to treasure! — those small eternities, because they have become my adamantine certainty that I am able to handle challenging subjects. I know that now in a way that transcends merely typing the words in the previous sentence. It is part of my identity — as much a part as any of the specific knowledge that I’ve gained about eighteenth century poetry and economics.

A while ago — I’m not quite sure when, or where — I heard an anecdote that culminated in the phrase “Commit, and the rest will follow.” When I heard it, my first thought was “yes, but how do I commit? I’m already writing daily, and I’m not sure I’m getting anywhere.” Now, having finally finished the dissertation, I think that being able to reflect on the most rotten parts of the process was what made that commitment possible. I suspect that my memories of the rotten parts might even be more important than the praise.

 

6. Write things down. Keep records.  I don’t mean back up your research in six different places (though you should!). Instead, this is a convenient way of ending this post, because in a few months, in a year, in ten years, I may well need to be reminded of any and all of these things, whether because I’m working on difficult tasks, or mentoring people who are. More immediately, though, identifying these insights is a way of choosing what I want to write more about. There are so many topics — but I can’t commit to them all, and rather than letting them swirl around me like gnats on a warm evening, I have to choose. And knowing what I have chosen allows me to move forward, and choose more.

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