Monday, January 24, 2011

Some thoughts on writing the dissertation

You might have noticed that my blogging has fallen off of late. I am still trying to adjust to my new schedule this semester, and blogging has been the first causality. As I organize my life in better ways, I am sure that my blogging will pick up. Now, to the post.

Tim Morton has been doing a series of advice posts on writing the dissertation. You can find them here, and they are worth reading. I wanted to add in some things from a current dissertation writer.
So far, so true from what Tim has been saying. Getting over the idea that you are writing your first book has been the hardest thing for me. Not only has my adviser been telling me this since almost the first day I ever met him (he didn't realize he was my adviser at that time). It also helped reading some dissertations that became books I also read (for reasons that include legitimate academic ones, I read both Jason Wirth's dissertation and Matt Calarco's. I've also read the books they eventually informed. While similar enough to understand their filiation, they were also different enough to really hammer in that these are two different products). With all of that, on some level I still had been thinking of my dissertation as my book-to-be. It was until about a month ago, when the tension between the first part of the dissertation and the second part of the dissertation (for those who are interested in some details, read this) was too much conceptually for me. Not too much for the same dissertation, but two much to be one book. What will almost certainly happen is that the dissertation will provide the framework and raw research for two different book projects, rather than the one.
Another issue of the dissertation is the balance between writing and researching. I'm the sort of scholar who happily spends many hours in archives, who enjoys taking a weekend to track down the origins of a particular phrase, etc. I've always been the sort of intellectual who befriends the small, marginal, asides in work. The dissertation really allows me to wallow in mode. Switching to a writing mode, and at some point ending the perpetual research has been hard. Focus on exactly what the dissertation looks like, and the goals I want to accomplish has been the biggest helps in this regard.
Marketability is the last thing I want to talk about, here. One of the weird things that emerges for anyone who engages in interdisciplinary work is that despite the tendency of your work to often generate excitement among diverse people, is that it is often hard to translate that excitement in proving you are engaged in a disciplinary intellectual adventure. There is a desire, at times, to put your dissertation in a sort of disciplinary drag. I don't have much to say here, I am bad at that. On some level, a dissertation has got to be thought of as a vehicle to help you get a job, and ignoring that seems like a bad idea. On the other hand, the degree of how to do that and in what ways are not something I can speak to.

I should probably take the time to break off a few chapters and try to get them published.