Exploring the Genre of the Dissertation

[This post was originally written for and published on the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus blog on April 9, 2012.]

During the hours that I assigned for my dissertation yesterday, I had a bit of a genre-identity crisis. I was editing and revising parts of a chapter in the morning when I discovered that I have been following no more than an idea *in my imagination* of what a dissertation should look like. Of course my prospectus outlined my chapters and my proposed argument, and has already been approved by my committee, but that piece of writing did not require me to think about the dissertation from within its draft or its guts.

I sought a model to consult — a concrete finished dissertation product to admire, toggle/flip through, and to orient my work in both form and content. Though I have read a small library of books and articles on the path to where I am now in my PhD, I have yet to read an entire dissertation. In fact, I haven’t even read a full dissertation chapter. In other words, yesterday I felt as though I was trying to compose a genre I knew nothing about and was not prepared to write. (Not true, I’ve since learned!)

The genre-identity crisis manifested in a swarm of questions. How much space should I allow to record the current critical conversation in which my argument intervenes? What belongs in a footnote and what belongs in my body paragraphs? Should my chapters be about 50 pages long and framed as long arguments/explorations of a single topic, or divisible into two articles of about 25 pages each, in order to make it easier to (try to) publish diss chapters as articles (the latter was my plan)? But is it prudent to write chapters as if they are articles, or multiple articles sewn together? How long should the arc of each chapter’s argument and investigation be? Why do I feel like I’m spelunking? Can I get away with writing shorter chapters that are the length of articles that I might submit to a peer-reviewed journal? In other words, what should the genre of the dissertation look like?

To prevent prolonged worrying and inefficiency during this busy part of the semester, I wrote to my dissertation committee co-chairs right away and posted some related questions on Twitter. I have received a collection of thoughtful and useful responses that I think are important to share.

I’m not writing a dissertation; I’m writing a book. This isn’t as pretentious as it sounds, I promise–I have no illusions about being able to produce a publication-quality book quite yet. However, I was advised to see the dissertation as the incunabulum, so to speak, of my first book project. “The dissertation,” I was told, “is a dead-end genre” and my future as scholar depends on my ability to write a good book. Furthermore, many scholars revise their dissertations to complete their first book project as a tenure-track professor.

Importantly, I was also cautioned against trying too hard to actually write a book –that is, a book both in form and content quality — while finishing my doctorate (see my disclaimer in the above paragraph). Efficiency and timely completion of my degree and entrance into the job market are important to me. While I strive to write a beautiful, organized dissertation that offers new ideas supported by a wealth of research in my field, I am also realistic about the time it would take (not to mention the learning curve) to do so as a proper book project and I’m cognizant of that fact that my funding will not last forever.

Numbers: The statistics I was given are the criteria for a book published by a university press: 75,000 to 90,000 words in length, and 4-6 chapters in length in addition to an introduction. Each chapter in typescript should run between 35-50 pages in length — I will lose about a third of my manuscript’s length when the book is typeset.

Chapters: Each chapter should focus on one major issue. Thus, it is unlikely that I will be able to derive two articles from a single chapter. Building this book project draft by thinking about each chapter as one slightly long article is a good idea, I was told. The difference between a chapter and an article is that a chapter allows for more exploration of a topic (so this is why I’ve been feeling a bit like an explorer, which I love).

Models: Find published books for models, not articles, dissertation chapters, or complete dissertations. These don’t necessarily need to be the books whose arguments I admire most–though they may be. Rather, they should be books that I would like my own book project to resemble when it is finished. The big questions are how do I want my project to resemble these works and how will my project differ?

The Department/Committee Factor: Each department has its own unique standards and each dissertation committee has its own set of expectations and criteria for what a good dissertation will accomplish within that department. These factors are more palpable during revision processes but it will pay off to consider them in advance as much as is possible and pragmatic. The expectations and precedents set by of the dept. and committee are also important when considering how to include or align work with digital projects or components of the dissertation. I do a lot of digital work on electronic texts and archives and will be putting a lot of careful thought into how my digital projects dialogue with my dissertation and how best to treat those projects to convey my argument and work as well as meet requirements.

Audience: One respondent on Twitter who is finishing her dissertation wrote that “a dissertation is for 3 people, a book has an audience.” At first, I found this depressing to say the least, but after some thought I have decided that I disagree and am therefore no longer depressed by this idea. Though the dissertation committee is the first audience that this project will see, it is not the only audience. As chapters will become articles and the work as a whole is an early draft of a book project, the dissertation’s components all “cook” together and will emerge to a larger readership than those on the dissertation team within the department. Furthermore, dissertation chapters are also the groundwork, potentially, for insightful conference papers as well as job talks.

Having solicited and received such useful advice, I have some reframing and planning to do with my current draft and I am on the hunt for five or so books that I hope to model my project on. What books would you pick as your models? How have you been conceiving of the form and content of your dissertation? As our department chair so cheerfully says, “Onward!”

Maze Image Credit: By xOneca (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_made_dense_labyrinth.png

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