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Diss-appointments

For the second year in a row, in our program, I'm supervising our Summer Dissertation Writing Group, a group that meets every other week over the summer to give our dissertators a little more community, a place to bring drafts, and most importantly, some structure for their summer. Speaking as someone who does this almost annually, I know that it's easy to let most of the summer slip by, particularly when there's a big project looming. Gradually, this group is becoming a program event, as I encourage students not yet dissertating to join us as readers, in part to give them some idea of what to expect when it comes to their capstone project.

One byproduct of this is that I spend some time in the early summer every year thinking specifically about dissertations. I almost left this as a comment over there, but Parts-n-Pieces has a post today about reading a disappointing dissertation. To wit,

Yesterday afternoon I read a dissertation-- all 120 pages of it-- and it was crap. Really. Crap. And a few times I was quite horrified by what I was reading. Really. Horrified. Offended, even.

Now, it wouldn't be exactly ethical for me to talk about dissertations, given that I've only been sitting on committees for a few years now. I don't want to say something about them, and have colleagues worried that I'm talking about their work in this way. So let me say a couple of things about my own dissertation, instead.

One thing that I don't think I understood at the time is that the dissertation is to the book much like the seminar paper is to the journal article. In an ideal world, I would have made a living wage as a grad student, and I wouldn't have felt pressured to find a job so quickly (I finished in 3 and a half years), and this pressure wouldn't have transferred in part to my committee. In an ideal world, a dissertation would be approved only when it was at least good. Mine wasn't. It was good enough, and while there are still parts of it that don't embarrass me, they are only parts of it. The only way that external factors don't enter into the process is if the student can afford (economically, psychologically) to take enough time, and if that time is used really well. This was not the case for me, and speaking as someone who's witnessed (up close or at a distance) dozens of these processes, I can say that it's pretty rare. Just as it's pretty rare that you would simply send out a seminar paper for publication (although I've read a few such as a reviewer), I think it's rare to find dissertations that are "book-quality."

In itself, though, this is not a horrible thing. I'm nearing the end of my first manuscript, and honestly, I'm glad that it's taken me as long as it has. I feel as though I'm ready now, almost ten years out from graduate school, to say something book-length to my colleagues. I know for a fact that I was not ready to do so when I was writing my dissertation.

As I've written this book, I have no question, however, about my ability to write a book-length project. I'm not saying that it's been easy, but I don't doubt that I'm capable of doing it. That's no small advantage.

Dissertations also are a great source of practice for the student in terms of working with a group of readers, responding to multiple sets of comments, and even having to negotiate multiple perspectives, each of which is a common feature of the manuscript review process. The important difference, of course, is that your diss committee has a stake in your success and will want to see you succeed, ultimately. I understand that this is not everyone's experience with the process, but I think it common enough that this is the case.

You might have guessed this was coming: the dissertation is also training for the rhythm of the scholarly writing life, which is much different than writing seminar papers (read, read, read, read, purge) or comprehensive exams (an even more extreme version of the event model). I've written before about how graduate faculty aren't perhaps as good about explicitly teaching this different rhythm as we could be, but I am also somewhat embarrassed to admit that, as a student of writing studies who had spent 6-7 years teaching people to write, I was kind of stupid when it came to my own dissertation writing. All of the things that I had taught my students about the writing process? It took me way too long to figure out that those things also applied to my own writing.

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).

In short, I think that the dissertation was an incredibly important stage for me as a scholar, writer, and colleague, but honestly, it wasn't for any of the reasons that I thought it would be at the time. I don't think any of us try to do mediocre work in our dissertations--I know that that wasn't my goal. But I also know that at the time, that dissertation, mediocre as it seems to me now, was what I was capable of at the time. And that's true, I think, for most of us.

When I teach courses on technology, I usually employ a standard that I think of as T+1. That is, regardless of where each student starts, I want them to push themselves to the next stage. I think that this is what the dissertation accomplishes as well; it pushes the student and gets them closer to being able to write a book-length work, B+1. For some rare students, B+1 is enough to get them to the point of being able to send out a manuscript. For most of us, though, it takes longer, B+5 or B+10.

Yeah, that's me hanging out there at around B+29. But that first +1 helped me get started on the journey to 29, and so, as weak as my dissertation was/is, I'm as grateful for that part of my education as I am for anything else about grad school.

That is all. Good luck to all you summer dissertators...

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Comments

Nice stuff Collin. Much appreciated. Boice, in his work on blocking and procrastination in junior academics, talks extensively about how the tacit realities of producing work as academics is not readily shared by senior faculty. So read purge gets mapped onto work life realities-- and production realities-- that are incompatible, as well as tendency to envision a project as more than it needs to be or can be given specific constraints.

Thanks for being so open about what you've done and do-- it's very reassuring.

Thanks for posting this, Collin. I feel a little bad now having judged that person's work as harshly as I did. I understand that a dissertation is what it is, and I didn't mean to be quite so snarky. What concerned me about this person's dissertation were the racist overtones to the work, that this person was literacy's answer to . . . well, to lots of issues.

I like the idea of a dissertation (writing) group. Maybe we can start one down here, and the group can be a place to talk about these diss-appointments, to contextualize them.

Yes. Good break-down.
"I think that this is what the dissertation accomplishes as well; it pushes the student and gets them closer to being able to write"

And to finally have internalized a number of points, ideas, positions, and so on so that further writing changes one's self and the process of one's writing. My director used to say that the diss is a "practice book." The odds of it being good are very low. I have to agree with that. My diss was only "good" for me. It isn't good as a document to be shared and quoted from. It taught me how to do a certain kind of writing - for book length projects as you note - but in general.

The other thing your post suggests is that we hopefully keep getting better as writers. I feel I do. The diss is part of the process of learning how to write.

Reading this makes me feel so much better about all that I have ahead of me. I often think about the way that we work within the read and purge model. It is so hard to read, read read, and then write within that space where you know you can’t possibly do a good job given the time constraints. Perhaps even more intimidating is the idea that once you have passed your exams you will be “exposed? as someone who is exactly where you say most dissertators are: strong in some ways and still developing in many others. Knowing that few dissertations become books, and that it’s okay to be B+29 is a relief; it makes the future a lot less intimidating.

Well, at least I didn't go into the diss thinking it was going to be great. :) It's a hurdle--a pretty high one--but still just a hurdle. I think one of the things that drives me crazy about writing the diss is that it's *not* a book. It's a genre in and of itself. I would never write this thing the way I am if I were writing a book.

One thing I've loved about reading blogs is reading other people's writing processes (now there's a book for you). It's interesting to see people's similarities and differences. And to see that it's long and arduous a lot of the time.

Here's hoping I get to B+ something. :)

Yeah, nice. A lot of your advice helped me through the diss. And now that I'm at that B+? stage, I'm in a new introspective mode. I'll post about it later. Just can't do it right now--that's how much I'm questioning this +? stage.

I'm thinking of that Sleepnumber commercial: "What's *my* B+ number?"

I really appreciate this post - it's still easy sometimes for me to think that everyone else managed to write books for/as their dissertations, and I'm just the one slow person who didn't. Even though like you, I know that I certainly didn't have as much to say/worth saying when I wrote the diss as I do now. The diss really is a learning experience, and it was a valuable one for me, but it still feels like there are so many pressures in the profession that it's supposed to be more. I sometimes think that there are two kinds of dissertations - ones in which the topic was handed to a student, which tend to be discrete, manageable, and easy to convert to a book, and those in which the student worked out the topic on their own, which tend not to translate easily into books but, I think, perhaps ironically teach the student much more about how to write - or more importantly, conceive of - a book. Though I realize this dichotomy is probably simplistic (the green-eyed monster in me is always trying to see the downside in people publishing their disses quickly and easily!).

You remind me that while I was writing the dissertation I was constantly reading and revising and figuring out how to write. I think that period of time was one of my best as a writing teacher (I was clearing out a lot of old file drawers today). So I need to remember and/or start writing to be that teacher again. thanks for articulating it.

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