How I Wrote My Dissertation

March 19, 2007

The title of this column is the title of a manuscript three of us dreamed up some eight years ago. I liked the "how-I-spent-my-summer-vacation" jangle of the words, suggesting something at once so obvious as to be dumb and so dumb as to seem clever. Narrative essays on how a group of people actually wrote their dissertations! Who would have thought? And yet, who could not have thought? The very idea seemed to fit into a mood of exploring all sorts of unconsidered academic practices, a few seemingly invisible.

So we drew up a call for papers. Meanwhile, my two colleagues set about writing their own narratives, as we all canvassed our friends. Gradually, contributions appeared. Organizing principles took shape. Editing began. We actually had a manuscript! Not all of the contributions were as strong as we'd hoped. But most were. And at least the whole didn't suffer from a problem I had been warned plagues all essay collections: sounding as if each essay has been written in the same voice.

Finally, the existential moment drew nigh -- the pitch to a publisher. I began with one whose senior editor I chanced to know. He called for the manuscript, he secured a reader. Was our idea actually going to see the light of published day? Could the process be so smooth? Alas, no. The reader was cool. The idea, it seemed, was interesting. But not all the individual contributions were up to it (excepting a couple of the ones I thought weakest, though including a couple I thought strongest). Worse, the manuscript needed the sort of heft that can only be provided by big names.

This last objection especially maddened me. A section of our introductory rationale explicitly addressed this question. None of us believed in big names for this project because writing a dissertation abides in the profession as something you do in order to get past it (and ideally on to the next stage, publication as a book). The only people who would be interested in writing about how they wrote their dissertations would be people who were not destined to be "names."

The subsequent fate of this manuscript is simply told. It never got published. It never even got a reading from another publisher. Was our pitch letter unsatisfactory? Was the whole idea just a non-starter? In my pitch experience, you never know why, if a publisher's door doesn't swing open. Your manuscript is "just not right for our list." This is usually as specific as a letter of response will be, although sometimes there will be something additional about financial exegencies, worthy manuscripts, and the parlous state of academic publishing today, not to say life itself.

I tell this story for a complicated knot of reasons, having to do with a belief in the power of narrative, a horror of wasted effort, and an acquiescence to the enduring prospect of rejection in professional life. The nice thing about writing a dissertation -- as opposed to writing about writing it -- is that it appears at first to swing free of any of these things, beginning with the fact that nobody ever reads of not successfully writing a dissertation; to write one is perforce to complete it -- and to defend it successfully and finally to receive the doctorate.

What if you fail, and then attempt to write about it? Does anybody actually do this? Whether or no, good luck trying to publish it. Bad enough to try concerning a successful dissertation. Although an account of an unsuccessful one might reveal more about the conditions of writing a dissertation in the first place -- according to a logic whereby failure (or defeat) reveals more about success than success (or victory) itself -- the whole power of the disciplinary narrative embedded in the dissertation is that you complete it, period. Then, perhaps, an individual story begins, albeit again one only possible to relate as a story of success; "How I Wrote My Book," though, is less promising a title than "How I Wrote My Dissertation."

Yet I continue to believe that a narrative -- carefully conceived, creatively organized, and searchingly set out-- about virtually anything possesses an undeniable power of its own. Moreover, some of the best narratives have to do with subjects heretofore disdained, marginalized, or suppressed. Within academic life, a narrative of how you wrote your dissertation constitutes, I think, one of those subjects. How else to demonstrate why to date the story of actual dissertation writing appears to be such an unworthy one?

It's long been a fancy of mine that anything to do with dissertations participates very deeply and mysteriously with waste. Even to complete one efficiently is to have had to keep at bay all manner of false starts, misconceived research, sloppy organization, and other things dissertated flesh is heir to, including inflexible dissertation committees and absent dissertation directors. It's as if to begin in the first place is to have to ignore all this. Many can't. These include people who get to dissertation stage and stop as well as those who never get started.

Another fancy: How I Wrote My Dissertation failed as a project in part because it aimed to explore the waste implicit in writing a dissertation. This was not our intention. (Nor was it the purpose of any of the individual essays.) Yet one reason the very subject appears unworthy is because it cannot avoid bringing to light factors that the profession prefers be suppressed. These include everything from how much time the writing of a dissertation actually takes to how idle is the relation between the completed doctoral degree and a job -- any job.

Writing a dissertation is of course in large part a ritual. It was a ritual when the research it takes to write one could still be expected to inaugurate a scholarly career. Today, when even those who still have some legitimate claim to such a career (because of their institutional pedigree or the disciplinary networks of their directors) can easily wind up as adjuncts, the research seems more hollow than ever. How I Wrote My Dissertation becomes Why I Wrote My Dissertation -- and the reasons emerge as so individual or distinctive (at least this was so in our collection) that ritual efficacy itself is threatened.

Everybody in higher education has an investment in maintaining this efficacy, which is ostensibly so crucial that it cannot be exposed to the vicissitudes of personal experience, as any personal narrative is bound to do. Indeed, personal experience lies at one end of a division encompassing the whole of academic life, at the other end being impersonal professional authority. This authority can of course be questioned -- and personally -- at many levels. But there are levels below which no questioning goes.

A dissertation apparently occupies one of these levels. We don't care Why I Wrote Mine because we care so much instead about the dissertation itself -- whether as the means of authorized entry into a career in higher education or just as a criterion for sorting out prospective adjuncts in terms of their highest degrees. To care about the dissertation is not to care why you or anybody else either did or didn't write one. To care about the dissertation means to believe that even the individual waste involved in writing one can be in some way recuperated.

Curiously, not one of the contributors to How I Wrote My Dissertation would disagree with the last statement. (As I once secretly hoped a few would.) To each, writing a dissertation was worth it, even if it took too long, cost too much, and did or didn't matter with respect to a job. Yet, alas, in the public forum that only publication can command, everybody got rejected together anyway. This brings me to a final point: rejection itself. You've got to be prepared for it in professional life -- the article you can't get published, the class with which you can't connect, the tenure you are denied, the position for which you not got an interview. Arguably, in the construction of a career, the dissertation represents its initial moment, because a dissertation can be rejected.

How I Wrote My Dissertation didn't -- or doesn't -- disturb this moment. And yet in presuming to tell a group of individual stories of how dissertations were accepted, the manuscript does implicitly comport with another story, about how each one could have been rejected. Once more, I think, it is apparently central to the profession that the actual basis of rejection or acceptance not be explored too closely, lest the line between the two grow indistinct or arbitrary. (Was this why the publisher's reader called for narratives of "names," as if to guarantee the boundary?) Part of caring about the importance of a dissertation means upholding both the standards it presumes and the integrity of these standards.

Nobody wants to hear about rejection. Not only because it is always judged to smack of "sour grapes," but because virtually each time rejection threatens to edge up uncomfortably beside acceptance -- and then, although all is not lost, much might well become confounded. The profession after all is full of people who have been rejected in some significant way. (Or in the case of people who choose not to attempt to write a dissertation, effectively self-rejected.) We teach right alongside them. They are part of who we are. No, they are who we are, whether, for starters, we have written dissertations or not. But we don't know many of their -- our -- stories, especially those that courted, or continue to court, rejection.

I've lost touch with the majority of the contributors (and one of the editors) to How I Wrote My Dissertation. I don't know if the rejection of our manuscript bothers any of them; most of the rest I do know seem to have forgotten about it or at least don't bring it up. Why bother? Anyway, in academic publishing, collections of essays especially constitute a crapshoot. (At the moment, I have, let's see, four respective essays with four proposed collections, and haven't so much as heard from the editors of two for a couple of years.) You lose, you move on. What else to say? Not all rejection is worth pondering. Not all rejection is worth narrating.

There are two reasons for offering something of mine. One is that the subject of the rejection marks perhaps the profoundest disconnect in higher education between a professionally authorized project (writing a dissertation) and a personally imagined one (writing about how you wrote it). The second reason follows from the first: Anything to do with dissertations -- ranging from how their content has changed or how they are monitored though what functions they serve -- occupies one of the great mystified spaces. It is mystified because it is uncontested. And it is uncontested, I believe, because it is still not subject to narrative.

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