Dissertation writing: inscribing a newly created “author in the text” while we create ourselves anew as academics

One of the issues new dissertation writers must address, but which is rarely if ever discussed, is the extent to which writing a dissertation (or, for that matter, any other text) involves creating a new self who is inscribed into the text. That “author-in-the-text” is not, of course, our complete selves nor does it in any way even remotely reflect the fullness of our various subjectivities. Rather, that author-in-the-text who successfully jumps the dissertation hurdle is the person who has proven that she can join the world of academia as a fully credentialed scholar, particularly in her chosen field. The subject she inscribes into her dissertation has a certain degree of confidence and authority, but she respects those who have come before her (e.g., in her literature review) and honors the members of her dissertation committee by demonstrating her knowledge of THEIR work, to the degree it is relevant to hers. The voice with which she speaks is knowledgeable of what has come before, but she has some new ideas and research to add to that. And she is able to take on the mantle of the scholar.

We all have many personas (or subjectivities), of course, who come out in different contexts. There is the persona who has fun with her friends and may in fact be a “stitch” — the “class clown,” so to speak. There is the lover, the friend, the spiritual person (if that is important to her), perhaps “the poet” or “artist,” and even the political activist. Then there are the subjectivities that accrue to us through our positions within race, gender, sex, ethnicity, ability, and class backgrounds (as well as other forms of intersubjectivity).

Although to some extent the “political activist” has been given some room to enter academic discourse (a very SMALL room), none of the other personas are admitted. And the subjectivities that we have acquired through our political and social positions remain suspect.

In the effort to eliminate those “verboten” subjectivities, all too often dissertators squeeze the very life out of their writing.

Those who enter academia from the margins come into that academic world as strangers to it. We have to learn a new language, a new way of thinking about the world, a new set of behavioral rules, and particularly a new set of rules for thinking and writing. It is all very strange to us. Flipping an analogy from Clifford Geertz, we are natives “going academic,” rather than academics “going native.” In the process of finding our way in this strange land, we become uncomfortable with it, long for our old ways of thinking and being in the world. Even if we have been academics before (such as I was when I got my master’s in English), when we enter into a field that is primarily sociological, we are often lost. Nothing looks familiar, and very little seems like fun. Why are we doing this? Why are we subjecting ourselves to this strange new world?

Note the word “subjecting.” When we identify ourselves as subjects — as subjects in a sentence, so to speak — we are at the helm, in control, the subjects of our destinies. We knew our old world. We knew how to be in it. We knew how to be subjects rather than objects.

But in order to become subjects in this new world we have to rewrite ourselves into the texts of our academic work. Coming from the margins is particularly difficult, because there is so much in academia that is an anathema to the cultural positions we once enjoyed. We have to be rational rather than intuitive. We have to write in a linear, logical way, using a new vocabulary and following a relatively confining “map.” We have to prove to those who hold the power that we are worthy subjects.

In order to do that, we have to SUBJECT ourselves to this new culture. We have to “go academic” and let go of our native culture. What seems completely rational from the point of view of our “native cultures” is denied by academia. If it is not relegated to the garbage heap, at the very least it is seen as “less than” the academic way of being in the world and thinking about it.

This can be a very painful process. We don’t want to let go of our native positions, nor should we. What would be the point of bringing people from the margins into the center if we end up being just like the people who are already there?

And so we struggle, constantly, with the urge to give up and walk away. The problem becomes: how do we maintain our original, native culture while we inscribe ourselves into our work as academics? Sometimes the process just hurts too much. It feels just too damn hard!

Renato Rosaldo, in the book, Culture and Truth, the Remaking of Social Analysis, offers a whole lot of permissions, most particularly because Rosaldo quotes from a wide variety of different kinds of texts to make his points. One of my biggest problems when I was writing my own dissertation was the feeling that I had to somehow legitimize what I have to say before I can say it. And often the problem is that what I have to say cannot be said within the normal rules of academic discourse.

Anya (my daughter) once gave me a book for Christmas, a collection of writings by women on war. One of the articles discusses how the techno-strategic discourse of nuclear defense excludes human subjects, makes nuclear missiles into the subjects that are to be “protected.” So that any reference to human subjects – the subjects of normal moral discourse – is illegitimate. The two forms of discourse are completely incompatible. The two have completely different referents. Within techno-strategic discourse, it is conceivable to have a “survivable” nuclear war, because the survivors are whatever nuclear weapons remain.

Rosaldo speaks of border crossings, of multiple cultural identities and subjectivities, of the insights that the powerless and subordinate may have into the powerful and dominant, of what the “weak” may have to say of the “strong.” Of incompatible narratives coexisting.

Clearly there are some narratives that must be buried. Some narratives are morally untenable.

I grew up as a nomad, with no particular community or set of identities, except, perhaps, for whatever community my family itself found in being different. There is a good deal about me that is “American,”’held onto tenuous indeed. However strong they may have been for her, they have not been passed on to her children.

I have no deep emotional ties to my own siblings. Though we have endured much trauma together.

I followed in my father’s footsteps, so to speak, in my adulthood. I have continued to be a nomad. I have refused roots; refused a history. I have sought freedom from my past. I am getting to be a bit old for that now.

Interestingly, in my search for freedom I also sought a community – a community of like-minded spirits. That community has been elusive. I touched it temporarily in Iowa City. A community of politically-committed intellectuals with imagination, striving to make sense of the world while trying to improve upon it. But it is impossible to find community in Iowa City because its population is so transient.

This is a rather roundabout way of getting to what I wanted to say about myself in the first place. And that is to my sense of intellectual homelessness. In a way I have repeated in my intellectual life the nomadic existence of my biography. I belong to no discipline. I stand in the border zones. Intellectually, I am like Rosaldo’s Chicano. Intellectually, I grew up in an Eden of art and literary studies, a writer of fiction, concerned with form, esthetics, beauty; I moved to the “real world” of journalism, history, sociology, anthropology; I’ve come back again to literary studies, armed with sociological and political concerns.

I suppose it is my intellectual homelessness that enables me to speak from the border zones, from the territory where the disciplines merge into one another. Borders have become my home. My home is wherever I am.

We have heard stories about the anthropologist “going native.” I wonder. Can a native “go anthropologist”? The anthropologist learns the language, ritual, customs, culture, of his/her subjects; then interprets them for an academic audience. Suppose we have a “native” learn the language, etc., of academia, and then return home to tell his/her community about the strange practices of academics. What could academics learn from such an exercise? Suppose an academic were to try to look at his/her own cultural practices from the point of view of his/her subjects of study?

Can the native “go academic” without losing his/her original identity? That is the question for those of us who have been at the margins and have entered academia, like Rosaldo as a Chicano, like nearly all women, and certainly all people of color. Learning academic discourse changes us; it makes the unthinkable thinkable. We have to acquire a different subject position, and that transforms us; yet we can never become one with the dominant class, one with Anglo-Eurpopean men. We no longer belong to the place where we came from; we will never find ourselves at the center, either – although it is questionable whether we desire that position anyway.

In some ways I think there is greater freedom in the margins. In order to be in the center you have to follow the rules that define the center. Becoming a critic automatically places you on the outside. Though of course there are centers of criticism, e.g., white Marxist males; in this case marginal positions are chosen by groups who otherwise occupy center stage. The difference is that marginalization here is a matter of choice; the men can return to the center at any time, are likely to be welcomed as prodigal sons.

Things fall apart.

The center cannot hold.

(Or something to that effect, from Yeats’s The Second Coming.)

What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The center is disintegrating, and that is scary to those who have always occupied it.

The academic writing from the margins in order to eventually locate herself in the center of academia is constantly engaged in a balancing act: she must hold onto the special subject positions that she has acquired from living in the margins in order to maintain the special viewpoints that she brings into academia, for what else is the point of diversity? At the same time, in order to take on the mantle of the “credentialed scholar,” she must speak in an alien voice. She has to “go academic” while at the same time holding fiercely onto the person she was before she entered the academy. It is a challenge fraught with peril.

And I think that this, often, is the source of greatest anxiety for those attempting to enter academia from the margins — an anxiety that can cripple at worst and “constipate” (in terms of the flow of writing) at best. The linguistic structures that emerge from this battle all to often are cramped, confusing, ambiguous, and convoluted; worst of all, the process can “kill” — at least, kill the will to go on.

Committee members and dissertation advisers are gatekeepers, and as such they must learn to watch for the ways in which those who enter the academy from the margins can be destroyed by it. That is, if they are truly committed to diversity.


The importance of being stingy with the word “important”…

One way to improve your writing — please banish the word “importance” and all its variations from your vocabulary. Every once in a while the word and its cohorts might have a place, but for the most part it is empty and it says absolutely nothing.

Instead of CLAIMING value for a finding (or whatever else you are saying is important), DEMONSTRATE it.

Example from a client:

  • In addition, all three pedagogical projects are characterized by an articulated personal investment in the process. The importance of an articulated personal investment in the material was characteristic of all three pedagogical projects.

Which I changed to:

  • We all used a variety of approaches to enunciating or deflecting attention away from elements of our identities as a part of the pedagogical project.

This not only eliminated the word “important,” it also eliminated a lot of excess verbiage.

A variation, using one of the “cohorts” of “important”:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, is a major contribution to the field.

Which I changed to:

  • Documenting these experiences, challenges, and our reflections on them, using detailed portraits, revealed new insights into the body as text in the classroom.

Notice how “revealed new insights” makes clear what the contribution is, DEMONSTRATING the contribution, rather than merely CLAIMING it.

Now obviously there are going to be times when the word or similar words are appropriate. Another example from the same author:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

An interchangeable word would have been “significant” or “major.” But there’s another word that I believe serves the purpose better: “salient.” “Salient” means “most noticeable.” It has a more specific connotation than “important.” In this case the word “important” wouldn’t be wrong, but rather not quite as precise as “salient.”

Here is an occasion where the word “important” fits:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very important, particularly for students of color.

Still, another way to say it would be:

  • Similarly, I find sharing my experiences as a student to be very helpful to others, particularly for students of color.

It is the “helpfulness” of the sharing that makes it important.


  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as an important theme among the cases.

This is one I’ve let slide by. But consider this instead:

  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged repeatedly throughout the interviews.


  • Language and self-identification regarding sexual orientation and gender expression emerged as a constant theme throughout the interviews.

These latter two, though only slightly different from the original, still avoid the repetition of the word. Most important (grin), is that it reserves the word important to be used when it truly is important!