Monday, September 13, 2004


Dissertation dialectics

"Every dialectical movement terminates with a synthesis, but not every synthesis brings the dialectical process to a stop ..." Peter Singer, in Hegel

Thesis (1): The dissertation is just a degree requirement. It is a hoop that you must jump through in order to receive those extra letters behind your name. In that sense, it is like an undergraduate senior thesis; something to check off in order to graduate from being a graduate student. Think of it as a really, really big term paper.

Antithesis (1): The dissertation is a job requirement. Upon it rests your fate as a professional academic; your career hinges on the quality of this work. It is therefore unlike anything you ever wrote as an undergraduate, or as a graduate student, for that matter. This is not something that only your professor will read, or something for which you will receive a grade in the registrar's office, or a simple requirement for graduation. This will not simply be filed away. Your future co-workers will read this, too; indeed, they will decide whether to be your co-workers on the basis of the work you produced as a student. So you are not really a student, even though you are; you are already at work, and this is the first big project you must complete. It is a hoop to jump through, but not just a hoop for a degree. This hoop is for the job and the career. Think of it more like a flaming hoop.

Synthesis (1): The dissertation is for a degree and a job. It is the beginning and the end. The end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end. It is a hoop, but one in a continuing series of hoops that stretches far beyond graduation and terminates only in tenure. Your job is not only to earn the degree in the first place, but to continue to validate that degree after the fact. So school is your job, and the job will be school. The junior student is a scholar, and the junior scholar is a student. This is what it means to be a professional academic. It is hoops all the way down.

Thesis (2): The dissertation is just a draft. When you "finish" the dissertation, it will be turned into a book. So even the completed work is a draft of another work. That means what you are writing now--the fragments of chapters, the halting lines, the provisional remarks--are only drafts of a draft of a draft that will, at the final stage, still be a rough draft for the book.

Antithesis (2): The dissertation is a book. Given the constraints of the tenure clock and the teaching load you will have upon graduation, you will not have time to write the book from scratch that you need to jump through the tenure hoops. So large parts of the dissertation will remain intact in the book, on which also depends your professional career. Do not treat lightly what you write, even now, because it is a book in the making. These are not scraps of ideas; this is scholarship.

Synthesis (2): The dissertation is both a draft and a book. And what are books, if not simply widely circulated drafts? Despite their apparent finality, scholarship is impossible without the foundational assumption that the final word is never said. All books are drafts to be criticized and possibly revised. Your dissertation is therefore a private book; your book will be merely a more widely publicized and more finely tuned draft. The book, too, is but the end of the beginning. It is drafts all the way down.

Collective Improvisation:
I have a headache now, thanks. :)

Posted by Blogger JM on 9/14/2004 11:14:00 PM : Permalink  

I tend to have that effect on people.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 9/15/2004 10:10:00 AM : Permalink  

It was, really, one of the most dismal posts I've ever seen. And I don't even think you can blame it on the Hegel.

Posted by Blogger Jason Kuznicki on 9/15/2004 05:11:00 PM : Permalink  

Sorry, Jason. On some days, the dissertation brings out the dark side. But what's really twisted about me is that I intended the post to show some light at the end of the tunnel. For me, the idea that it is hoops and drafts all the way down can sometimes be dismal, but at other times it can lighten the gravity of this particular hoop and this particular draft. It's dismal and heartening, and so the dialectic goes on ...

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 9/15/2004 11:31:00 PM : Permalink  

I finished my dissertation by working backwards. I had the final due date in mind -- graduation -- then moved backwards. Approval by the graduate school, signatures, defense, final chapters. It is a full time job, I recall getting up in the morning, putting on a pot of coffee, and burying myself in it for the full day. But looking back on it (almost 10 yrs now) I really thrived and I look forward to writing another book in the near future. 

Posted by Sean M.

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