Saturday, January 31, 2015

Writing a Dissertation

If you asked me today whether I would put myself through the ordeal of writing a dissertation again, I would tell you to ask again in six months. That is when this soul-sucking process should be nearing its completion. Things may look different with the advantage of hindsight.

I can’t say with confidence today what I will tell you in six months. And that is an occasion for some soul-searching.

For those on the outside looking in, writing a liberal arts dissertation goes something like as follows. You have a collection of somebody else’s writings. You want to understand what that person wrote and why they wrote what they wrote. This goes beyond simply reiterating arguments. You analyze how one idea fits with another and/or implies still another, and you figure out what is assumed to make the arguments in the first place. And then you write it up so that other people understand why spending all the time that you did trying to understand and why it was a worthwhile endeavour.

In the process, you will have read some things over a hundred times. Other things you may only have glanced at once. And you will be plagued by the thought that you missed something important, something obvious, something a monkey would have seen.

That is not all. You will write certain things over and over and over again, trying to get the wording just right. You will wonder whether this section of the chapters makes sense coming before or after that section of the chapter. You will dread the thought of moving it around, because that means you have to rewrite the transition paragraphs.

When you are done, you will hold your life thus far, the sum of your efforts, your life’s work—even your life’s worth—in your hands, amounting to a small bundle of sheets, roughly 250–300 pages in total.

Did I mention that the group of people you write this document for is very small?

They can’t pay you enough for this shit. Not nearly.

Nor do they.

I cannot claim complete ignorance about the trials and tribulations that come with writing a dissertation. But now that I am in the thick of things, I can see that the view from the outside and the view from the inside are not in any final sense commensurable. The externals look much the same (the time, the effort, the faraway space-cadet look) regardless whether you are on the outside looking in or on the inside looking out. However, the externals can only tell half the story—and not the important half.

The only good analogies that I can come up with for the experience of writing a dissertation are falling in love or believing in God. The dissertation may be talked about, even in the liberal arts these days, as the product of a lengthy program of research. Granted there is something to this characterization: it is far more programmatic than most anything else persons will write. But it is also of a much more personal endeavor than can be allowed by the language of the natural sciences. The dissertation writer (i.e. me) chooses to study something that interests them. They search for ‘ways’ into their materials. They look for interpretive ‘keys’ to unlock their meaning. They contrive summaries and illustrations to convey their message. Through it all, they will find themselves drawn along by some essential quality. And they must find a way to communicate its character to others.

This is very much, in fact, like the experience of falling in love or believing in God. Unless one shares these experience, the essential quality is almost impossible to convey. (Not that this has deterred philosophers and poets from trying.)

The experience of love provides the more straight-forward example. Love between two persons cannot be forced, though it can be nurtured over time. It is the ‘deepest’ part of one person in conversation with the ‘deepest’ part of another person. The superficial evidences of love, the stuff that other people get to see likes hand-holding, smiling, looks of concern, and even frustrations that visibly boil over, necessarily fail to do any justice to the experience.

The experience of love can also be deeply alienating. If you fail to understand the basic motivations behind my thinking or feeling as I do about the one I love, then you and I are not likely to see eye to eye. This is likely to be occasion for pain and/or separation. Belief in God, or more generally belief in the divine, functions in much the same way. (Not without reason has it been said that God is love.) The quality of a person’s belief and/or disbelief in God is ultimately only communicable with person’s who believes on similar terms. To believe very differently very easily creates the conditions for mistrust, or even animosity.

But there is a significant difference between loving another person or believing in God and writing a dissertation. With a dissertation, one contends, not with other persons, but with your own self.

The experience is thoroughly disagreeable. There are words on the page. They are your words (or, in this case, my words). But they are not saying quite what you want them say. The mental image in your head has become blurred in the transition from thoughts to words on a page. Not completely lost, of course. The outline remains vaguely discernible. But the sentences and paragraphs on the page don’t cohere like they did in your head.

My experience has been that the further I get into the material—reading, taking notes, writing, re-writing, etc.—the more I become susceptible to irrational outbursts at imagined foes. If the words on the page don’t quite look like the thoughts in my head, my first, unbidden response is usually to find blame with someone else. For example: one of the other persons who works on the same material that I am working on. I disagree with them, but I can’t quite express in words why it is they are wrong. So anger flares up at them, provoked by my own inability to express my thoughts in words.

Think about it in this way. Someone who is writing a dissertation is carrying around in their head images and impressions of many other people, who they are trying to weave together into a coherent picture (usually of one person in particular). In those moments they are not actually reading or writing or doing something other obviously productive thing—the sort of stuff the rest of the world thinks is productive—titanic battles are being waged, often just below the surface of their conscious attention.

That is why someone who is writing a dissertation stalks around rooms aimlessly, can’t quite meet your eyes, or is generally morose all the time. They are engaged in mock battles with images of other persons. But those other persons turn out to be your own self; or, in this case, myself.

As I said earlier, a soul-sucking process.