Friday, October 03, 2008

More on Audience

I used yesterday morning's thoughts on your dissertation's audience in my "craft of research" seminar yesterday afternoon. One of the participants took me to task on the idea: surely, she said, a dissertation can't keep switching audiences? In fact, I found the position difficult to defend for a moment. After all, you do want the dissertation to read like a coherent whole.

So I think I need to modify my suggestion a bit. And that might make it too complicated to count as a rule of thumb. But here's a first stab at it. Your dissertation has a real audience: your committee and those peers who want to read it before your defense (if your system involves a public defense). You may also have some readers in the various hiring committees that you will pass through after you get your degree.

But you can't address these readers directly. If they don't get the sense that you are addressing some wider audience, your work simply won't seem competent. It will read like a term paper.

The first broadening of your implicit audience can, of course, be quite homogenous. You may be able to identify with an area of research constituted by a particular interdisciplinarity, a particular mix of theories and methods applied to a particular set of objects. It may be enough to write your thesis only to this group. In fact, even if you follow my advice and identify different audiences for each chapter, you should go back and "smoothen" your style so that readers in your area of research can follow each chapter without (ideally) noticing the underlying shifts among still wider audiences.

My advice is intended to focus the problem of writing the chapter—to identify the central task that you face in each chapter. And here it can help to construe your audience in a more specialized manner. It also lets you know when you have to mediate from an established discipline to the particular interdisciplinary constellation that defines your area.

It was good to have to defend this idea because it definitely has a limit. It may be much more useful to think of a primary and secondary audience for each chapter. Only the secondary audience changes. The primary audience is composed of the peers in your area. The secondary audience belongs to the disciplines (or other bodies of knowledge) that your inter-discipline brings together. You don't have to impress them enormously; but you do have to satisfy their minimum standards.

If you write about the organizational dynamics at Google, for example, you don't have to be whiz with computers, but you shouldn't appear completely ignorant about the history of the Internet. That may be a more useful way of thinking about the audience of your dissertation.

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