Friday, January 14, 2011

Through hell and back: the downs and ups of one dissertation chapter (part 1).

Hey, look! It's a finished dissertation chapter!

From the top:

And from the side:

But hey, wait a minute. Neither of those are the finished chapter, which is a compact 77 pages, tucked into my director's briefcase with a bottle of single malt that I brought back from London.*

It's been in the works for about 6 months, this chapter, by some measurements; longer, if you consider that it's a close companion to the chapter that came before it. By those standards, it's been maturing for 11 months or so. And in the middle, I took a couple of months where I was working on a grant project that was only loosely related. I don't have any illusions that turning the chapter in today makes it done; in fact, as I told M, my director, there are some specific areas where I know it can be improved. But it's at the point where I could hand it off to M and be fairly confident that the chapter accomplishes a large chunk of what I want it to, and in the areas where it's weaker, either my intentions will be clear, or the fact that they're not really clear won't destroy the strength of the whole chapter.

I wanted to write about it while the experience was still fresh (I just turned it in today!) both for my own records, and in case other people who wander in to this blog want to know what one person's experience of writing a diss chapter was like. I ran into a classmate a couple years behind me in the mailroom this afternoon -- he's just starting to write, and hearing that I had just turned mine in, he said "Huh. So they can actually get finished?" And because I am not an asshole, I said they could, but not without recounting a bit of my hair-tearing and gnashing of teeth.

Disclaimer: all these experiences are mine, and may not apply to anyone else's dissertation chapter.

For a while, M and I were looking at the chapter as mainly important as the companion to a flashy chapter that came before it, proposing an unusual reading of a once-popular poem, backed up carefully with plenty of historical research. Chapter 2 dealt with a handful of poems, ranging from the canonical-but-not-read-anymore to the obscure-to-all-but-academics to the obscure-even-to-most-academics., and their genre. It was meant to be the natural extension of the argument in Chapter 1, applying to the neglected genre of the once-popular poem. I don't know why I thought it would be a quick pounding of the keys to get it done, though maybe it was just eagerness to get the chapter done -- after all, getting the first one done had been a struggle, both because the argument dealt with two fields (lit and econ.) and because part of the time, while working on it, I'd been unknowingly struggling with celiac disease.

But I thought I had it; I put together a 3 page abstract of the thing before leaving for England for the summer. I did manage to spend some time on it while there, but it was flat; so flat that if I'd written it and given it to M, I think he would have described it as bland. And nothing more.



It's not what you want a dissertation chapter to be. And it wouldn't have been a good support for the previous chapter -- if I'd let it stay bland, I fear it would have undermined the previous, more ambitious chapter, and suggested that the argument it presented was little more than an anachronistic gimmick.

So I wrote. I read the three poems I wanted to write about in detail over and over; I read criticism, and history, and economics, and sociology, often feeling as though none of the criticism (from whichever discipline) was making any lasting impression. I had a 6x9 Moleskine notebook, and I wrote in that, day in, day out. A lot of days, I think I hit 1000 words; but not all. I used the Pomodoro method. I stayed away from FB and Twitter (mostly).

It felt like I got nowhere.
I wrote notes that were brief terse phrases: "connect _________ with __________." Does Scholar B's concern apply here? To what effect?"
I wrote lists arranging the various components of the chapter and its arguments. And where the subarguments fit in. I drew arrows between certain main and sub arguments just to make sure I remembered the potential connections between them. Sometimes, because I felt prone to forgetting, I scribbled furious notes in the margins of my moleskine, reminding myself not to forget vital points of connection. I didn't forget them, mostly, but I didn't manage to do anything with them, either. During this time, I was working from approximately 10 in the morning to 8 at night on this, some days, and some more like 4-8, having spent the other part of the day on grant work.

Now, in hindsight, I can see that the stuff I was mulling over was useful, that it was almost certainly the basis that allowed me to make the leaps that I've made, especially in the last month. At the time, it felt like nothing, and that felt terrible, and I wanted to beat myself up for not knowing more about econ than I do, while I simultaneously reminded myself that self-flagellation would accomplish nothing. I wrote letters to friends and mentors, not to send, but to attempt to explain what I was trying to do, in the hope that it would help me make it clear in more formal academic language what I was trying to do. I think I had about 30 typewritten pages by the end of summer, and about 20 handwritten ones.

I came back to the states from England at summer's end, feeling fairly embarrassed about not having produced a finished chapter. M was invaluably neutral, both encouraging and non-threatening without giving any sense of coddling. I got down to work, both in terms of the chapter and prepping for teaching a new class. I read more primary sources. I read more secondary sources. I tried to make sure that the argument that I was trying to work with in terms of secondary crit matched up with the readings of the poems. It did, but it still felt flat.

So I worked, meaning that I read, and write, and tried to be tolerant of my writing when I was writing clumsily, because eloquence wasn’t the point at this stage. Sometimes, this worked well, but sometimes, I’d come back and look at something I’d written a few weeks or days (or months) earlier, and be appalled at the sloppiness of it.

My writing process is a little odd (compared to the way it worked when I was just writing 8-10 or 12-15 page papers), in that I often have a main Word document with the current draft of the chapter, and then as it progresses, I tend to draft in separate TextEdit documents, often almost freewriting, but sometimes veering into more formal language when I realize how I want to get a point across. Sometimes, sections of these documents end up pasted into the main dissertation, but often they don’t. Some of them are me actually thinking, and some are like the short papers that graduate professors often ask students to write as a way of “teaching” the assigned readers. I’ve grown really attached to this style, whether I’m using Scrivener (which I’ve done for one chapter) or just using TextEdit, and saving documents in a folder. I like Scrivener, but the font and formatting issues sometimes drive me nuts – or to put it differently, sometimes I really like composing in plain text. I also, much of the time, feel like I can’t think straight unless I’m writing, rather than typing.

I held lengthy, detailed dialogues with the authors of criticism in the margins of their pages. I marked things with bookdarts. I made diagrams mapping the congruence of ideas between the texts, and the criticism.

I worked on the chapter most of the time, which means that when I wasn’t planning lessons, I was peering at my notes, or rereading Barbara Herrnstein Smith, or E.P. Thompson, or simply trying to sit still and think. I videochatted with the SEL each night; and he was valiantly supportive and caring, meaning that he asked me good questions and listened to me try to talk through the argument, and encouraged me to go to bed, rather than try to subsist on 3 hours of sleep a night (noting, as I recall, that Margaret Thatcher had claimed that she was able to do so (but implying, was she really who I wanted to emulate? No.)). I wrote letters to the SEL in response to his questions, also unsent, and one of them, dated 26 September, became a document that I went back to again, later, as I was trying to sort things out.

At the end of September, one night, at about two in the morning, the imaginary dialogue that I was having with one of my economic critics suddenly clicked into place, and I knew I’d realized something important. I filled three or four single-spaced pages in my Moleskine, and noted on Facebook that what I thought the chapter really needed was for me to be gutsy and risk-taking both in terms of the lit-crit argument and the economic argument. (And that is certainly true. But one of the most unfamiliar parts of dissertating is understanding the larger and smaller arguments that fit together in the chapter, and how they fit together. I thought at the time that I was almost done, and yet I obviously, absolutely wasn’t.

If I could go back and tell myself one single thing, it would be a reminder that a dissertation chapter is made up of arguments linked and nested like matryoshka dolls, and that finding a piece of the argument is occasion for celebration. Instead, I treated it like the buzzer indicating the start of the Final Jeopardy round, meaning that I had 3 days to finish (my arbitrary estimate of the 5 minute FJ in terms of chapter writing) – and then became terribly angry and dejected when I didn’t manage to follow through. I thought I was betraying my director, my SEL (whom I excitedly told that I was close to being done over and over again), and most of all, myself. And this experience really colored the 4 months of writing that followed, such that, on New Year’s Eve, I thought (and rejected) writing a Facebook status about wishing that I could spend less of 2011 feeling utterly incompetent.

It was not that bad, by the end of 2010. In fact, it was getting a lot better. But because I hadn't grasped the matryoshka concept, I felt rotten about not having finished, instead of feeling good about having climbed this far up the slope of the chapter.

That is the foremost thing I'm going to attempt to remember as I move forward with the next chapters.

* I hadn't actually intended to give them both to him at the same time, but like I told him, it's a long chapter, and will take a little while to consume The whiskey will take longer to consume, and it's the better quality object.

1 comment:

  1. Consider me a very impressed admirer of your work.