The Dissertation As Teacher

A…provocative article was published today at the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Dissertation Can No Longer Be Defended.”  The article is premised on a pretty flimsy claim: that “The dissertation is broken. Many scholars agree.  So now what?”

The author never actually makes it clear that “many scholars” agree with her premise.  She cites examples of a few innovative new dissertation formats in the digital humanities, and also cites examples of improved CUNY fellowship package that helps graduate students focus on research rather than TAing.  Those are two very different things.  Better fellowship packages help promote stronger traditional dissertations.  Innovative formats, particularly when they play an augmenting role, are no direct challenge to the dissertation.  (If a dissertation committee opposes your innovative proposal, they quite possibly have a point!)  And speaking as a still-pretty-new faculty member (I defended my dissertation in 2009), I’ve never once heard from a scholar who felt that the dissertation as a whole was “broken.”

Speaking for myself, the process of writing a dissertation was the centerpiece of my graduate experience.  It took me about two and a half years to write the damn thing.   It was far from perfect, though I hardly realized it at the time.  But the finished product was far less important than the process.  Writing a dissertation forced me to learn the habits of a successful academic, which are wholly different than the habits of a successful graduate student.

In my early graduate years, my attention was divided between coursework and the Sierra Club Board of Directors.  The object of my distraction was unique, but most of my peers had their own life-priority outside of The Literature.  I often found myself reading for class on redeye flights, and writing seminar papers during the lunch breaks of weekend meetings.  I developed a set of work habits that let me live in both worlds, though the work in both of them suffered as a result.  They were the habits of a successful graduate student, doing enough to pass classes and leave a decent impression on potential mentors/letter writers/dissertation advisors.

Then it came time for me to write a dissertation.  Instead of a 30-35 page paper, I was staring at a 300-350 page manuscript. It felt foreign. It was a gaping abyss.  None of my previous experiences prepared me for it.  The defining feature of the dissertation, in fact, was that it was too big.  I simply couldn’t use my old hacks and workarounds to get this thing written.  I had to create new ones.

In the early months, I got a little lost.  I had a big idea.  It was too big, and I didn’t quite know that yet.  I let myself stew about and get nothing done.  I watched a lot of sitcoms.  A few meetings with my advisor got me out of that rut.  I settled on a related project that was more manageable in scale — big, but not too big.

Once I had a clear research topic, I still didn’t know what to do next.  I had to learn.  I had to figure out how to break a large project down into meaningful pieces.  I had to learn how to self-motivate, constructing a plan each day for what I was going to get done.  I had to learn how to revise — unlike those seminar papers, the endpoint of these writing sessions went beyond a graded assignment.  I had to learn how to set deadlines for myself, and build a work schedule that encouraged day-to-day productivity on a project that I knew would be years in the making.

None of this was easy.  But neither was it a “hazing ritual,” as today’s Chronicle article suggests.  The endpoint of the dissertation is a large document (or a collection of smaller articles, depending on the norms of your subfield) that an audience of three people find acceptable.  As the old saying goes, “the best dissertation is a done dissertation.” The process of reaching that endpoint molds you into an actual working academic, though.

I reap the benefits of that process every day.  At GW this semester, I’m teaching two graduate courses.  I also have prep hours and office hours, along with faculty meetings.  Those are pretty much fixed on my schedule.  But the rest of the time is self-directed.  I am expected to maintain an active research agenda, but no one tells me what, where, when, or how to conduct that research.  Some of my projects involve coauthors.  Some are independent.  Some are as short as a blog post.  Others will stretch across another 300-350 pages.  I succeed or fail as an academic based on my ability to create in vast, unstructured time allotments. It is the same gaping abyss that I first stared into 7 years ago.  But this time, I’ve been there before.

This isn’t to say that dissertation committees should oppose evolution of the final product.  Scholarly work changes, dissertations can change too.  But the dissertation isn’t “broken.”  It works exactly the way it is supposed to.  It is long, and challenging, and serves as a major hurdle to entry into professional academia.  There is room to adjust the slope and angle of that hurdle.  There is room for graduate programs to rethink how they support people as they approach it.  But I can honestly say that writing a dissertation was the single best preparation I had for life in academia.

I suspect the goal of the Chronicle article was to attract pageviews, rather than defend a genuine argument.  Mission accomplished, I certainly wouldn’t have penned a lengthy response if any of these points were acknowledged by the article.  But in attacking the dissertation in such a haphazard manner, it seems the author is incidentally attacking all of academia.  My friend C.W. Anderson once remarked that ours is the last profession paid to “think slowly.”  I believe that’s a social good; we ought to have segments of society that mull things over.  The dissertation socializes us into the profession, forcing us to develop the right habits.  That shouldn’t change any time soon.