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.

Advertisements

Respect (and honor) your process

Tonight I was conversing with one of my clients who’s finally found her way through the tunnel she was in when we first started. As I told her, to be perfectly honest, if it had not been for what I know about the psychology of writing and learning to write (after decades of working with people at various levels of skill), I would have responded to her first drafts with something like “Who let you into graduate school?” Her work appeared to be about the level of a first year student in need of remedial instruction. And it would have been easy to dismiss the job and say “sorry, I don’t think you are cut out for this.” As, apparently, other faculty have implied. But I knew there had to be something deeper going on. You don’t get to that point in graduate school without being smart.

And then there was the topic of her dissertation, about what African American women students have to deal with, particularly the isolation, and being bombarded with cultural images telling them that they will never have what it takes.

I knew something deep was going on here, and we had to track it down and work through it.

And we have. Much of it has to do with the process she must go through in order to learn the material and apply it. This is very much like the process I had to go through with my then undiagnosed ADHD, where it took me forever to do the same work other classmates did in no time. (Though, to be quite honest, their end result often was nowhere near as good as mine, as reflected in my receiving my department’s award for Outstanding Doctoral Student in Research.)

She said she felt embarrassed about the work she had submitted earlier. I said, no! Don’t be embarrassed about it.  Don’t let yourself get bogged down in that self-criticism. Respect and honor your process. Clearly there are some people who will not understand, and from them you need to hide your process. But don’t let their lack of understanding give you something to beat yourself up over.

That’s how you work your way into another block.

Equally important, I saw how she was bound up in the very same conditions about which she was writing, in the same way that another client of mine who is facing blank page panic. Both of them must deal with not only all the conditions that lead the rest of us to have that panic; they must also deal with the cultural images telling them that they as black women aren’t cut out for academia.

All the more reason to respect and honor the process. This is how you get where you need to go.

A Room of Our Own — new writing support weblog

I created a shared weblog titled “A Room of Our Own” in order to help my clients stay on track with their academic writing by getting support from others struggling with the same difficulties. Clients are encouraged to share their troubles and their triumphs as they negotiate their way through the academic maze, which sometimes seems designed to frustrate and destroy hopes and dreams.

This blog is private. That is, whatever is shared here can be read only by the administrator, Georgia NeSmith (sole proprietor of Matrix Editorial Services) and other participating authors. Authors are invited individually and personally. Additional viewers may be invited with the permission of other participants. Viewers may comment on posts but may not create posts.

Because it is private, I cannot post a link here. Anyone who wishes to participate (it is open to non-clients as well) may go to my contact page here and select the writing support group radio button. Tell more about yourself in the description box.

Participation is limited to 15. Subscription fees are as follows:

Every client of Matrix Editorial Services is invited to participate in “A Room of Our Own” as an author free of charge for six months or until graduation, whichever comes first. Authors are allowed to create their own posts, categories, and tags.

After six months (or after graduation) you may continue to participate for a subscription fee of $15 per month until graduation or an additional six months, whichever comes first.

In addition, writers who do not require editorial services but want the benefits of a writing support group may join for free for three months, after which they must pay a fee of $25 per month if they wish to continue.

Currently the site is “bare bones” but eventually many resources will be added, and the site will be organized to ensure participants can easily track categories of information relevant to them.

If you wish to participate please

The joys of being an editor

Today I am in awe of the performance of one of my clients whose revision of her final dissertation chapter is such a vast improvement over her original that it brings tears to my eyes.

It is often all too easy for editors to become utterly frustrated with fixing all the little things that are wrong, and to lose sight of the big picture.

If  someone has been admitted to a graduate school and has reached the point of writing that dissertation, clearly that person has the capacity to perform well. Early versions of the dissertation may hide that capacity underneath the students’ struggle to find her own authority and personal voice, especially when the text contains a significant number of minor errors.

The editor’s job is to look past all those little frustrating things to help the client find the diamond in the rough, waiting for the right chisel and vision of possibility. Once that happens, everything else falls into place. The empowered voice takes over and suddenly the student’s contribution to scholarship becomes clear.

Of course, the pleasure I derive from seeing that happen is the same joy I always felt when I was a teacher and a student made substantial progress in any of my courses. There’s nothing like it!

Writing the Introduction

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

The first draft of most dissertations seems to be very similar: the student is trying to demonstrate competence in all the major literature in any way remotely connected to his or her study. This is not only unnecessary, it is annoying for the average reader.

The Introduction or introductory chapter is often rambling and extensive, leaving the reader who is interested in the actual subject of the research feeling very frustrated. Get to the point! one wants to shout. The literature review and methods sections continue in the same vein.

This is perhaps most characteristic of the qualitative study. Unlike quantitative studies, which have very specific expectations for how one is to proceed, qualitative studies have no predetermined methodology or research design. Often, especially in certain fields for which qualitative studies have only begun to be accepted, there is still the need to JUSTIFY doing qualitative instead of quantitative research. And very often one needs to review and integrate large bodies of literature from outside the field, literature unfamiliar to many readers WITHIN the field. All too often that leads the writer to spend way too much time covering that literature before you get to your actual study. There are huge bodies of potentially relevant literature, and it is difficult to distinguish among literature that

  • 1) sets up the background for the study,
  • 2) provides the theoretical framework that
  •        a) justifies taking a qualitative approach,
  •        b) defines the acceptable parameters for the study, and
  •        c) enables interpretation of the data.

I find that  good deal of the material presented in first chapters is “front-loaded” — i.e., it more properly belongs to the literature review or methodology sections, or even the study section where the researcher explicates what is perceived to be occurring in the data.

The introduction to a dissertation must do the following, and the following ALONE:

  1. It identifies, locates, and justifies your study within your field. It demonstrates that your study attends to something entirely new, never examined before in the field.
  2. It states the specific problem that your study is to address, a problem not heretofore addressed by previous studies
  3. It states the research questions to be addressed by your specific study
  4.  It states the methods to be used
  5. And finally, it outlines the chapters to come.

The introduction answers the following questions:

  • What is the problem? Why do I study this issue? Why should it be solved?
  • Who will benefit the most from this piece of writing? What is the contribution?
  • What is my purpose?
  • What are my methods?
  • What can the reader expect in the subsequent chapters?

Except for an overview of the literature that needed to demonstrate that the study at hand is unique and adds important NEW understanding to the existing literature, the major literature reviews are saved for the literature review and/or to the methodology sections.

The introductory chapter of a dissertation is much like that first paragraph in the old “five paragraph theme”: essentially, you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. The big difference is that you must also demonstrate that the study about to be read is unique and makes a major contribution to the field in which it is located. .

I will discuss the literature review and the methodology sections in separate posts.

Returning to the scholar

I’ve been going back over letters, journal entries, and emails that I wrote in the early 90s, when I first started teaching full time, my one and only full time, tenure track job, at SUNY Brockport. There is so much hope in them, so many high expectations, so many naive perceptions about my position there. How little I knew about the forces arrayed against me, how my penchant for speaking my mind would come back to haunt me later. And then, of course, there are the early signs of the illness that would ultimately take it all away.

There are also musings about my dissertation, a great deal of which never made it into the actual work, but still have substance and value. Of course I had to take on such a heavy-duty subject: theories of agency, and how they undergird approaches to studying journalism history. One note records my having been told that one of the papers I presented at AEJMC was all the buzz in the history division, and it was being used in graduate courses. The paper was a chapter from my dissertation, which was still in progress at the time.

And yet, I’ve never published that dissertation. Except online on my own, now deleted website. I figured I’d never go back to it. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around all the work that would be required for that. I felt I’d lost the scholar in me and would never be able to get her back.

But working with others on their dissertations has reminded me of how much I loved this work before, and sent me back to reviewing my own. I’ve also been planning to write about some of my experiences in hopes of helping others — material, at least, for blog posts, and that’s what sent me back to the old notes and letters. I wrote some pretty lively and detailed letters back then, so I have an engaging record of that time. And the brain cells are popping again.

I am beginning to see possibilities again. Maybe I can publish that dissertation.