Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What I Do: Writing a Dissertation

Most of the people who read this blog know me personally--in the flesh, I mean--whether we see each other frequently or not, and many of the people who know me are utterly mystified by what I'm doing these days. Most of them know I am "writing" a "dissertation." As for what this "writing" looks like and what this "dissertation" involves, though, for many it's a little foggy. Today I've decided to pull back the heavy curtain (I imagine that it's velvet, and purple) and expose my daily life. And here's a promise: it will not be very fascinating.

"Writing" a "dissertation," for me, does not actually involve writing most days. Or rather, the writing isn't my own carefully crafted prose: I'm taking notes, drawing diagrams, scrawling barely legible ideas for later thought. Most days, my work is actually reading.

Here is how I read: bolt upright in a smallish research carrel on the second floor of the university library; lying on my back on the couch; sitting sideways in one of our two cheap but woefully uncomfy Ikea chairs; on the living room rug, crosslegged; elsewhere in the library. Sometimes I lie on my back holding a book over my face and do bicycle kicks (I read Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness like this), to combat the muscle atrophy that inevitably accompanies library research. When I'm doing serious reading, I need to sit up, though, so I can take proper notes.

The reading leads me into other reading: this is how research in the humanities works. Reading one book or article or chapter leads me, though its footnotes and citations, to scribble down references and chase them down in libraries and online, and then I go through another bout of reading. It opens up. This idea leads to another one, and so on. As you might imagine, this research could go on and on and on. At some point, one must stop oneself. I'm pretty bad at this part. Case in point: through most of January, February, and March, I have been working on Chapter 3, which concerns Toni Morrison. My dissertation looks at how contemporary women writers challenge some philosophical, theological, and feminist ethical views of suffering and self-sacrifice, so I've been doing a lot of research on womanist theory and theology. (Womanist theory may or may not be black feminist theory, depending on who you ask.) To that end, I have read around 60 books and articles--about a quarter of them full-length books, in addition to re-reading all of Morrison's novels and reviewing the research I've done on her work in the past (for two class presentations and three term papers, two of which I revised--twice--for journals).

Needless to say, when those of you who see me in the flesh think I seem a little distracted, it's because I am. My brain is full. If you squeeze me, I leak information. Seriously, try it.

I am reading all this material because I am seeking to say something new and important about how we make meaning with language, and literary language in particular. Even more particularly, I am seeking to say something about how contemporary literature exposes us, schools us, in certain ways of thinking and responding to ethical dilemmas in our wildly complex context.

So along with reading, I do a lot of thinking. Here is how I think: while washing dishes (though Josh often does this), hauling laundry up and down three flights of stairs, walking to and from campus, scrubbing the tub, coloring in coloring books, out loud to Josh at dinner or on the phone with (perhaps unlucky) friends, writing in journals, pacing the floor, playing piano, chopping vegetables, stirring vegetables, gazing out a window, half dozing before a night of sleep. I think in my brain, but also in computer documents and on sheets of newsprint with markers and in the various and sundry notebooks that occupy my spaces. Also, I go through phases with index cards.

And then, after lots of reading, and thinking, and mapping, and planning, I begin to write. Usually getting into this writing is agonizing. I do things to avoid it (like writing elaborate blog posts explaining how I do it). Once I start, I sort of fly, and all the thoughts gel, and I'm manically productive until a fifty-page chapter draft is finished. This may involve an unfortunate absence of hair-washing and real food, but it is always wonderful.

Then comes the work of revision. Toni Morrison claims this is her favorite part, but I sort of wonder if she lied.

For each chapter of my dissertation--which has six chapters, though many in the humanities have four or five--I repeat this process: reading, thinking, writing, revising. Each time, I have just an inkling of what I will argue, like a scientist's hypothesis, and I must search and struggle with the existing materials in order to come to my new thesis, my own contribution. It is exhausting, a very long process with little feedback or encouragement. But I have chosen this work--or it has chosen me. And while I should be honest and admit that I don't always love it (for instance: in the greyest months), I often do. Even more so, I love what it means, what it opens up, for when I've finished this project I will be able to revise it for publication, share it with the world. And when I've finished I will be credentialed to carry its insights into the classrooms as a professor, opening up the possibilites of imagination and justice to generations of students. This is a beautiful prospect. It keeps me going, even on the greyest of days.


  1. Thanks for this little view into your day-to-day. :) Personally, I like the revision phase as well, though, admittedly, I haven't written anything this academic or researchy in a very long time.

  2. HI Cindy, What comes to mind is: "You go Girl!" I wrote my thesis in the summer of 2009 and I never thought it would end. But it did and it is so wonderful when you receive the word--your thesis is accepted! I received great advise from a professor friend: work on it for 90 minute blocks and then--take a break! I found I got into this pattern and it helped. Bill Ayers told me, you are contributing to the intellectual conversation. So I hope your conversation goes well. Hang in there and let us know how it goes.

  3. dear cindy,
    i heart you. and your work.

    *hugs, hard enough for information to leak out*

  4. this is excellent. may I link to this post on my blog?

  5. Sarah, I actually sometimes enjoy revision, too.

    Thanks, Drew.

    Joseph, which Joseph are you?

    Liz -- leaking! Miss your real hugs!

    "Philosophotarian" (am I allowed to divulge your identity on the blogosphere?), link away!

  6. I don't know how I've fallen so behind on reading your blog, Cindy! I always love the five-sense Fs, & there is that gorgeous GMH coupled with gorgeous VVG, & this is just a beautiful essay. Thanks for leaking on me at Molly's Cupcakes! :-)