Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Length of the Journey

"No man ever knows enough about any art," says Ezra Pound. "I have seen young men with most brilliant endowment who have failed to consider the length of the journey." I thought about this when reading Jonathan's post about the "serious dissertation". It's a difficult piece of advice to give, both in general and in the specific case. Whether you say, "don't take it too seriously" or "take it seriously as hell", you are liable to be misunderstood, and then you'll undermine the joy that writing a dissertation can be.

I remember very clearly, early on in my PhD process, reading Jaqueline de Romilly's Magic and Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Though it had a very tangential relation to my project, I found its form very seductive. I immediately imagined my dissertation written in the same way. This was actually a somewhat odd idea since the book is a collection of lectures, but my point is just that I got the sense that I might write a very good little book and submit it as my dissertation.

The key to writing a satisfying dissertation is to focus your thesis (i.e., your result) so tightly that a well-written book can serve as a support for it. A dissertation really just is a step on the way to greater things, and you only have limited time to write it. Moreover, that time includes the effort of discovering what you want to say. It's important to make that discovery early.

This discovery, however, is also a decision. At some point you have to decide that you have learned enough to earn your PhD and now you must demonstrate this learning to your committee. Though you will of course have been writing all along, and even writing on parts of your dissertation, it's after that decision is made that your "seriousness" or ambition about your dissertation and, perhaps, your first book, can be determined.

Some conclusions can be supported by a well-organized argument, others need a long rambling work that goes in all sorts of directions and could never be a book and could, properly speaking, never be finished, so you just have to hand it in when you run out of time. When some people say "don't take it too seriously" they mean that you should just write that long, rambling unfocused dissertation, hand it in, and move on. But other people mean what I mean: find a small but significant thing to say. That is: don't take the depth or range of your conclusion too seriously (there'll be plenty of time to make a "major" discovery) but do take the task of demonstrating the quality of your reasoning ... and your writing ... seriously.

Scholarship is a long journey. You want to start off at a measured pace.


Anonymous said...

Thomas, thanks for this insight.
I haven't heard "don't take your dissertation too serously" explained quite this way before.
Makes sense.

Jonathan said...

Don't write in order to prove that you deserve the degree. Write in order to make your first contribution to knowledge. It might be a modest contribution, but it will contribute something. Don't approach the dissertation as an exam to be passed on the subject matter.

If it makes a contribution, then it will also prove that you deserve the degree. If it proves that you deserve the degree, but doesn't really contribute, then you are still a student but not yet a scholar.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's the point. The question of "seriousness" turns on the distinction between being a student and being a scholar.

But this is also where the problem of taking things too seriously arises. Sometimes the task of making an actual scholarly contribution can seem daunting (this normally stems from a misunderstanding of the task). I think that's what people mean when they helpfully remind PhD students that it is, ultimately, "just an exam".

Jonathan said...

It should seem daunting. It is a tall order. It depends really on whether the doctor will be a scholar subsequently or not. If it is a credential to which an exam attests, then so be it. My post was written for the alpha scholar.

Thomas said...

Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I meant "daunting" in the sense of "intimidating" and "discouraging". When the student gets intimidated by the task of making a scholarly contribution, s/he has misunderstood the task.

We agree that it's not the right response to tell them, "Don't worry, it's just an exam". The right response is to help them understand what contribution they might make.

At the more general level, I also think students who either can't or won't (for a variety of reasons) make a contribution should be given occasions reflect on their choice of career.

Jonathan said...

Yes, put another way, some should be intimidated but are not. Others shouldn't be intimidated but are.

Thomas said...

And in that formula, don't we have the whole problem of graduate education?