Quick question: how do you write a Ph.D. dissertation when the last thing it seems you have time for in graduate school is writing a dissertation? I’m still not sure I can answer that all the way, but I’ll share a few bits of advice that I’ve mulled over since starting my graduate program—and gratefully attribute what follows to the mentors who helped me along the way.
Learn to make the BASST (The Bold Assertive Statement by the Scholar Thinking)
Attributed to Julie Ellison
When I was in the early stages of writing my dissertation, I had to practice making bold, assertive claims that move clearly from A to B. The instructions: go home, go to the mirror, stare yourself in the eye, and articulate a series of declarative sentences—with conviction! What’s fun is that you can practice with completely nonsensical statements: “In the early Republic, the water balloon was a crucial matrix for contesting modes of finger-painting.” Or: “Whether or not she co-authored Blood Meridian, Cyndi Lauper re-centered the American novel on questions of restrictive shoe-lacing.” It can get whackier than that, but it helped me to get a sense of what an argument sounds like, at a purely syntactic and stylistic level. Also, it taught me how to keep up a confident façade at a point when I wasn’t convinced that I was even in a position to make any claim at all!
Define your archive
Attributed to Mary C. Kelley
When you’re writing your prospectus and planning a sequence of chapters, think first about how you define your archive for each of them. Whether your archive is an actual collection in a library somewhere, a set of movies, or a series of interviews, it is important to map your chapters onto what exact texts you’re going to make claims about. This will help you to plan the actual work involved in the project (simply knowing roughly how many key text you’re going to have to grapple with), and it will establish common ground between you and your advisers as you’re starting a new scholarly conversation.
The donut and the hole
Attributed to Scott Richard Lyons and Philip J. Deloria
In my first year of coursework, I would often come to class ready to talk about how great the article or monograph was that we read, only to be surprised when my classmates found all kinds of critical flaws that I had somehow missed. What was I doing wrong? I thought that book was super-smart! I soon found that our class conversations typically focused on what was “missing” in the book—what the author was not doing and what critical questions they ignored. So I got into the habit of doing the same thing: focusing my reading on the possible critiques I could make in terms of what I thought other scholars had failed to do.
Now, it’s important to build our own claims partly on what we think is a “gap” in the existing discourse and on the productive critique of other scholars. But it’s also useful to remember that behind the books and articles we read are real people with lives, histories, families, and pets of their own, whose publications sometimes represent a decade of commitment to an intellectual project. This does not mean we should hold back our criticism—indeed, to do so would be unproductive and perhaps even academically dishonest. But as we make our critiques of other scholars, we might remind ourselves that we may meet that person someday on a conference panel, at a reception, or (yes!) during a job interview. And then we’re faced with the question of whether we’d make our critiques the same way we did from behind our word processor!
Thinking about this in relation to my own dissertation, I think I simply would have learned more had I focused my reading less on what I thought other scholars didn’t do, and more on questions that would have better empowered me to think about my own project: “What is this scholar contributing? What are the stakes of their project, and how do they define the scope of it? And how do they pull this off, as a thinker and a writer?” To paraphrase David Lynch, there’s the donut and the hole. Keep your eye on the donut, not the hole.
Bottlenecks and hoops
Ok, this one’s just from me.
A PhD program has many bottleneck moments; for me, these were the second-year review, the preliminary exams, the prospectus defense, and the dissertation defense. Moments like these can feel like you’re just being asked to jump through institutional hoops, and they can cause great stress because we know we have to do well. But by the time I got to my prospectus defense, I had learned to appreciate these bottleneck moments more positively: they are also opportunities to claim a little more ownership over your own project. A chance to generate some buzz and excitement among faculty about what you’re doing. To show off a little bit! And ultimately, taking these bottleneck moments and turning them into your own performance is a useful training ground for the job market, when you’ll spend much of your daily energy preparing for exactly such performances!
Frank Kelderman is an Assistant Professor who specializes in Native American literatures, with an emphasis on nineteenth-century writing and oratory. At the University of Louisville he teaches courses in Native American, early American, and multi-ethnic American literatures.