From Rachna: Here’s another article contributed by my colleague, Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D. I hope you enjoy it~
In my earlier post about the dissertation, I told you about the question I asked one of my committee members before I started work on my dissertation. Months later, I made another trip to his office with a request. This time, I had four chapters of my dissertation with me. I knew that I had a solid thesis and was onto something significant. But I also knew that there was something fundamentally wrong with the chapters I had written.
I told him that I knew that the chapters were not working and I didn’t know why. I asked if he would read them and tell me what was wrong. He told me to leave the chapters and come back in a week. And so, a week later, I sat in his office and had one of the most insightful, helpful, and affirming conversations of my life.
He started off by saying: "I have read your writing and know that you can write. However, YOU are not in these pages."
I said: "I feel so constrained by the dissertation genre."
Most dissertations in my field begin with a history of the problem followed by a chapter on method. In addition, I was writing about a particular book, and so I was analyzing the book in order.
He replied: "There is no such thing as a ‘dissertation genre.’ A dissertation is anything your committee allows you to get away with."
I said: "Really?"
He answered: "Really. You are a strong writer and an original thinker. You can do it your way. You don’t have to begin with a statement of the problem and statement of method. You can put that stuff in your last chapter, if you want. And you don’t want to let the order of the text you are writing about determine the order of your text. You are not writing a commentary, you are writing a thesis."
And then he got to the heart of the matter. He said: "Your problem is that you are not thinking argumentatively."
He didn’t explain what he meant by that, but I understood.
The conversation was short. Somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes, but I left the office with two incredibly powerful gifts.
The first gift was permission to do it my way. I didn’t have to turn out another deadly dull dissertation, shaped by previous work on the topic.
The second gift was a very precise, very direct statement of what was wrong with my chapters. Not only did he identify what was wrong with what I had written, he did it in a way that empowered and affirmed me.
When I got home, I put those four chapters on the top of my filing cabinet on the opposite side of my room, and sat down at my desk with a new question.
I think I even said it out loud: "Art told me that the problem with my dissertation is that I am not thinking argumentatively. So, what is the argument?"
And with that question, I started over, with no outline, and no strategy other than a thesis and two powerful questions: "What is the argument?" "What is enough?"
That was in mid-June. I had already scheduled my dissertation defense for late August, which meant I had to turn in my dissertation by mid-August. The signed papers were in the Dean’s office, the room was reserved, and all five members of my committee had agreed to be present. And all five members of my committee were going to be away for most of the summer, in far-flung places including Sweden, Egypt, and Indonesia.
Armed with these two questions and a thesis that evolved as I wrote, I completed the entire dissertation within six weeks. After my defense, my committee passed it without revision. Later, it was published as a distinguished dissertation. (If you are interested, it is available on Amazon.)
During my final revision, I retrieved the four chapters from the top of the filing cabinet, and glanced through them, to see if there was anything I wanted to use. At that point, they were simply useless relics.
One of my writing teachers, Hal Zina Bennett, claims that the more particular the story, the more universal it becomes. Although this story is about my own experience, the wisdom within the story gets to the heart of why so many people get so stuck in writing dissertations. In my next two posts, I’ll return to the two critical gifts that Art give me on that June day. "Do it your way." And: "Your problem is that you are not thinking argumentatively."
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.