skip this unless you’re writing a diss

As I’ve been working through this PhD, I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern: I like each phase a little better than the last. I thrived in course work, but suffered a little at the end of each semester when I had to spend a couple of weeks trying to make sense of 14 weeks of discussion and reading notes to build a paper.

Then came exams, and I decided that I liked exams better than course work. My rationale was this: the exam phase was all reading. That is, I could read, and read, and read as much I wanted to, and I was reading what I was interested in because my exam areas were *mine*. I made them, and I was invested in learning about them, and I reveled in the reading. Of course, at the end of it all (and it took me about a year-and-a-half from start to finish) I did have to write, but it was like ripping a band-aid off super-fast. The writing of the exams inhabited such a small time-portion of “the exam process” that it isn’t what I remember about it. I remember, fondly, the reading.

Now it’s the dissertation, the book-length researched argument. I’ve been writing on it for almost a year now (holy crap. I’m going to ignore that small detail). And I do love it. Because I feel like this is what I’ve been waiting to do since I got here: to revel in some thick writing-making.

To be sure, I didn’t always know that I’ve been waiting to do this. In fact, I think I just realized it in the last few days, when I was given a small directive by my advisors: make a little more sense, please–the chapters are not fitting together yet.

And after some mildly-frantic heuristic-making and outline building, I realized what the problem was: I’d been hoping that all the stuff I’d written so far would fall logically, neatly onto the minds of my readers in such a way that the argument would delicately but obviously appear in their brains without me having to actually, uh, argue it.

I had no thesis. No over-arching claim or theme even, to show readers what I was getting at.

Part of me said, “Well, you were saving it for the end!! Here’s four chapters of interesting material, here’s chapter five that is the grand finale of ‘How It All Fits!!'”

And the other smarter part of me said, “Hello? Is anybody in there?? You’ve been trying to get your OWN STUDENTS to EXPLICITLY ARTICULATE their own claims for weeks.”

So: what have I learned?? Dissertating is about making an argument. And it’s about NOT making an oblique, creatively meandering maybe-argument. It’s about a little bit of structural repetivity, a little bit of data-making and data-analysis, a little bit of gathering and summarizing existing scholarship, and a whole lot of showing how it all fits together. It must fit together.

And then: whatever the fit is, or however the fit works, is the argument.

I imagine that partially why I’ve resisted articulating an explicit argument is that attendant to such writing is responsibility. If I’m going to make an argument, I have to stand by it. I have to be invested in it. I have to allow it to be important to me. I must connect myself to it. I must commit to it.

And as a student (and my profs and advisors will all concur), I’m not much for commitment. There’s an authority move that happens when one commits to an argument that I’m only now becoming a little more comfortable with. I have to acknowledge that I am smart enough, entitled, even, to make an argument. And the humility of my student-hood, the presence of a bunch of really brilliant people that I work with and among, sometimes make my being “good-enough” a hard thing to admit.

What I realize now, just now, is that I have to make that allowance (even if it requires a little pretending) in order to get this project finished. I have to allow myself to be able to do it; I have to admit that I’m smart enough to do it.

I am, dammit. I am.

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3 thoughts on “skip this unless you’re writing a diss

  1. Wow. Except for the part about taking a year to write it (because we know I took a *wee* bit longer), that’s exactly what I would have said.

  2. “I imagine that partially why I’ve resisted articulating an explicit argument is that attendant to such writing is responsibility. If I’m going to make an argument, I have to stand by it. I have to be invested in it. I have to allow it to be important to me. I must connect myself to it. I must commit to it.”

    I think that is very true but, for me, only part of the story. I think the other half is that we often don’t really “find” our argument (that is find it enought to own it) until we have written. And sometimes it takes a lot of writing to get there. I think this is true of students as well as professors.

    For me I’ve gotten better at recognizing the process and I try to help students recognize it as well. However it doesn’t go away, at least not yet anyway.

  3. Do you not find that sometimes the essence of what you’re trying to say only reveals itself after you’ve written it? I realize this might not be a practical way to process a doctoral diss, but it sure is true!

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