Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Presenting a Dissertation

There comes a time when every Ph.D. must present the contents of their dissertation.

Yes, this is as bad as it sounds. A dissertation can run from 250 to 300 double-spaced pages of text and upwards from there. At 300 words per page, that come out anywhere between 75,000 to 90,000 words or more. They aren't nice words either. A dissertation is a peculiar sort of technical writing that involves talking at the same thing from a wide variety of perspective. It is an ugly process, whose only product is cumbersome, laborious sentences, cobbled together paragraphs, inaptly named sub-sections, and on, and on, and on.

Presenting a dissertation is a rather different beast. Here one's ability to summarize matters. Why did they (in this case, me) write on topic X? What did I find interesting about topic X? More to the point: what will other people find interesting in topic X? And the kicker: what should other people take away from my dissertation? Succinct summaries are the order of the day. Time is money, and the rest of the world has very little of either.

Such questions are the bane of every Ph.D.'s existence. Most have to fight hard, I suspect, to stifle feelings of resentment about having to justify their dissertation at all. The academic's temptation is as it has always been: intellectual vanity. The temptation is visited doubly on the Ph.D., who at best is an academic in training. Like the accredited academic, they live in the space between ideas in a person's head and words on a page. But unlike accredited academic, they have not yet anything to actually be proud of.

The academic of 10, 15, or 20 years or more is justifiably proud of something. They have tangible accomplishments to point at. They did this, or wrote that. The Ph.D. only has thoughts, words, and maybe a few short papers, which, if they had more time, they could tidy up for publication. But in the larger scheme of things, they have nothing at all.

And this can be profoundly unsettling, and is probably mildly unsettling most of the time. The Ph.D. is bound to look around them at their accomplished supervisors. They will look a little further afield at friends, old and new, who have found gainful employment engaged in other non-academic things. Then look down at their own hands to see very little at all. The reason, of course, is that there actually is nothing in their hands. No degree (except for a undergraduate and a Masters, but who is counting those these days?), so no sale-able skillset (even if they are actually able to do things, like mentor students, teach classes, edit papers or articles, write), and no immediate prospect for income. Nothing that can be translated into an equivalent material value; nothing that can objectively justifies the price tag of the education. Not a damn thing.

Well, you say, that is what the presentation of the dissertation is about. That is why you pour years of your life--your blood, sweat, and tears, all your 'treasure'--into writing the dissertation. So that it can be...monetized.

But just think about what you are saying. All of that work needs to be compressed into a few short, snappy sentences, which might, just might, pique someone's interest. Like the proverbial rich man who has a better chance of going through the eye of needle than into the kingdom of heaven, the Ph.D. student's prospects never seemed so dismal.

Feelings of angst aside, there is an important moment of truth in the need to present one's dissertation. The reason why one presents one's dissertation is ready-to-hand. The academic-in-training (in this case, myself) needs to remind themselves of this for time to time. The academic life may be a life spent reading articles and books 99.999998% of the world will never even hear of. The academic may engage in conversations with other academics that are utterly unintelligible even to an educated audience. The academic nonetheless must communicate their work in some way to someone, anyone--just not to no one.

I will indulge my academic training for a moment. Ancient Greek philosophers made a lot of use of the term logos. The term meant something along the lines of 'reason' or 'rationality.' It referred both to ideas and words; that is, both to the ideas floating around in a person's head and the words they use to communicate those same ideas to other people.

The upshot of the dual-meaning was that you could have a rational (or logical) discussion with another person so long as recognized that there was an intrinsic connection between the ideas and the words used to communicate them. If other people were unable to make sense of your words, it might be that you were talking irrationally (or illogically). Or it might simply mean that you had spent a sufficient amount of time explaining yourself. The discussion would have to continue in order to clarify exactly where the difficulty lay. If other people were able to make sense of your words for themselves, then thoughts and words were in alignment. The discussion could come to an end. It had achieved its logos, its reason.

Refusing to present the contents of one's dissertation, in light of the Ancient Greek example, would amount to being irrational. Feeling resentment about having to justify the contents of their dissertation, while understandable, would also be irrational. One ultimate aim of a dissertation is not to develop a private language that unintelligible to everyone but yourself. You do your academic work in order to communicate its results--not to everyone, of course, but at the very least to a small groups of someones.

The point may seem a small and insignificant. Ask yourself a question, though, about how many people go about their days doing what they doing, without a thought about what it means to/for other people.

Most people, I suspect. Including aspiring academics. Would that more would do so.

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