Saturday, October 06, 2007

Writing Dissertations Faster

I'll be the first to admit it -- I rushed my dissertation a bit. I took my qualifying exams in August of 1998, and exactly three years later I defended. And two days after I defended, I started teaching at Lehigh.

Of course, there are good reasons for rushing a bit with an English dissertation. One of the biggest is exactly what is stated in this New York Times piece (which I presume many readers have already seen):

Fighting these trends, and stretching out the process, is the increased competition for jobs and research grants; in fields like English where faculty vacancies are scarce, students realize they must come up with original, significant topics. Nevertheless, education researchers like Barbara E. Lovitts, who has written a new book urging professors to clarify what they expect in dissertations; for example, to point out that professors “view the dissertation as a training exercise” and that students should stop trying for “a degree of perfection that’s unnecessary and unobtainable.” (link)

Of course, the pressure to come up with something original is not trivial. And elsewhere in the same article, it's pointed out that most Ph.D. programs in the humanities (including Lehigh's) require significant teaching commitments from their graduate students. It's hard to write a 200+ page dissertation while also teaching one, or even two classes a semester. Many students, especially those with young children or mortgages to pay, often find they also have to get teaching gigs during the summers to make ends meet. With such commitments, three years on a dissertation can easily become six, eight, or even ten.

Some students take forever to write because they're caught up in the quest for perfection. But far more end up as "tenured grad students" because these other commitments can make a serious focus on research quite difficult.

One of the increasingly popular methods for staying on track in English is the writing group:

Those who insist on dissertations are aware that they must reduce the loneliness that defeats so many scholars. Gregory Nicholson, completing his sixth and final year at Michigan State, was able to finish a 270-page dissertation on spatial environments in novels like Kerouac’s “On the Road” with relative efficiency because of a writing group where he thrashed out his work with other thesis writers.

“It’s easy, especially in our field, to feel isolated, and that tends to slow people down,” he said. “There’s no sense of belonging to an academic community.” (link)

I did not have this; it would have been helpful (indeed, it still might be helpful for me even now), though I do wonder about whether I could have found other dissertating students with whom I could have had productive conversations about work that was often only starting to be coherent.

One new tool for fighting academic isolation that I would suggest might be to find a sense of community online, by blogging the dissertation. It might sound anti-intuitive; several humanities scholar-bloggers I respect have argued that blogging under one's own name while still in grad school might do more harm than good. (The same folks have suggested you should watch out as junior faculty too! Oh well.) Perhaps graduate students interested in this track might get the benefit without the potential harm by blogging about their progress in the dissertation under a pseudonym?


SEK said...

There's one problem with blogging a dissertation under a pseudonym: if you have a genuinely original idea, you can't claim ownership of it were someone to, say, borrow a portion of it. As someone who is, roundaboutly, blogging his dissertation, I think it's critical that I retain control of my ideas -- the fact that I dominate the relevant Google searches is a comfort in this regard, inasmuch as anyone interested in learning more about potentially stolen ideas will quickly find their origin.

Amardeep said...

Scott, that's true. It would probably only be safe pseudonymously if the material were protected somehow -- limited to invited friends, perhaps. (Facebook?)

But then one potentially loses out on the pleasure (and non-trivial advantage) of being accidentally discovered by people of whom one was previously unaware.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I was in a dissertation writing group in my final year or two at Cornell; my recollection is that in some way, forming these groups was tied, for the school, to money from the Mellon Foundation. I did find it helpful: showing imperfect / incoherent work to others is a necessary part of the dissertation writing process, after all (now, as a supervisor myself, I struggle to get my own graduate students over their self-consciousness about passing along draft material to me). There were no other Victorianists in my group, and while in some ways it might have been helpful if there had been, as it was we gave each other 'informed outsider' insights and questions--again, helpful practice for future situations, and sometimes the source of serendipitous connections. The graduate program at my university now is much smaller, but I have been encouraging our grad students to come out of hiding and consider either real or virtual groups--Facebook is one option that does allow a bit of a privacy screen, even though as you say, it thus also blocks out the accidental discoveries and connections.

In my experience, isolation continues to be a problem well past the graduate student phase of academic life. As I've been belatedly learning, blogging has provided a sense of virtual community to plenty of academics--I wonder if they have any success carrying that more interactive, collaborative model of scholarly conversation back into the real hallways of their institutions? (You have both been blogging a long time--what has your experience been?)

demondoll said...


I actually found your Blog via Sepia Mutiny today.(I don't post much on there, but I did come to the last meetup in DC).

Anyway, I actually did my bachelor's in English Literature and am quite passionate about Postcolonial Literature. Therefore, I'm going to add your blog to my reading list. :-)

Take care,

Aswin said...

Blogging while dissertating was actually quite useful - for one thing, it forced me to write a little everyday. While I didn't sustain it throughout, I have started again. And having read your blog (and esp others in media/cultural studies), I'm sold on the idea of using a blog to work out ideas and keep on top of related interests.

The Constructivist said...

I actually did and am supposed to continue doing this for my dissertation-based book manuscript at Citizen of Somewhere Else, and someday soon I hope to actually continue doing it.

Nitasha said...

hmm.. agreed that blogging about dissertation is a nice idea that keeps you from being bored. When i was doing my graduate dissertation, this site helps me a lot. you guyz may too find it useful.

Johnny said...

Thats really a good idea and as one of commentator suggest, this well surely help you when you decide to publish your dissertation.

Julie said...

well for me its like double tension. First write for the project than write it for the blog..arrrghh. I cant do it. Although i use youtube to refresh my mind when i am doing some research hehe

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