Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Not Really a Marathon

A blog called The Thesis Whisperer was recently pointed out to me. I haven't looked at it closely, but I'll be reading it regularly for a while before I recommend it. I'm sure it's a good place to go to discover that you're not alone, especially when you're struggling with your dissertation. One post caught my eye immediately. It suggested that writing a thesis is not a sprint, it's a marathon.

As a metaphorical adjustment to a particular attitude about writing, it's probably going to help some people. But if we think it through, it's not really a very good analogy. No one is really a "sprinter"; and writing a dissertation is nothing like running a marathon. Importantly, for a metaphorical purposes, very few dissertation writers actually do either (sprint or run marathons). So to say that writing a dissertation is "like" these things is really to compare something writers (presumably) have a distorted view of with something they know very little about. It is true that Haruki Murakami runs marathons and that he compares running to writing, but he does not say that writing a novel is like running a marathon. What he says is: "Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day" (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, p. 69ff., my emphasis.)

Here's Ben's explication of the analogy at the Thesis Whisperer, which seems initially plausible.

...writing a dissertation is a lot like running a marathon. They are both endurance events, they last a long time and they require a consistent and carefully calculated amount of effort to complete them and not burn out.

But writing a dissertation is a not a single "event" and really doesn't require "consistent" effort. Certainly not the kind of effort that you have a finite amount of energy for at the beginning of the process (which is what it is: a process not an event). It's a long term project that you work on in bits and pieces, in fact, one paragraph at a time. It doesn't really take endurance because you will be taking regular breaks and you'll be recharging your energy every day. Consider: in order to run a marathon safely you have to be in good shape when you begin, but when you begin to work on your dissertation you can be as out of shape as you like. If you do it right, however, you'll be in shape when you finish. If you run a marathon without being in shape, by contrast, you're likely to hurt yourself.

Writing a dissertation, then, is, if anything, like training for a marathon. And here's the good news. As some fitness experts will tell you, running a marathon is not actually healthy. It's the preparation for the marathon, the regular training, running up to a half-marathon that actually improves your health. It's not actually an "endurance event". A little bit of work every day will do. Running the marathon itself wears you down; it makes you less healthy. There is an episode in Murakami's book when he's running an ultra-marathon that makes this point. I'll write about that on Tuesday.


Anonymous said...

[Thomas, you can remove this comment/question from the thread if you want. I couldn't find your email address on the blog, and so I am posting my question here.]

Dear Thomas,

I am a graduate student in Sociology in the top 20-ranked department in the U.S.

Needless to say, I am a fan of your blog. I have a writing question that has been bugging me for a while.

I don't know if you are familiar with Graff & Birkenstein's "They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing", but in the book, the authors provide various structural templates for writing good sentences (and sometimes paragraphs) in academic papers. E.g., "On the one hand, XXX says ____, but on the other hand yyy says_____________."

My question pertains to the similar theme. I am trying to find a good set of structural templates (on a sentence level) for writing something that I find very cumbersome/awkward every time I try to write it in a lit review section of a paper:

Suppose I want to convey the following information:

XXX argued that A>B, B>C, C>D, D>E, E>F, F>G, and, therefore, A>G.

Imagine that each of these A>B, B>C, ... items is a fairly long idea to develop as a stand-alone argument.

Then, one way to write the above would be:

XXX argued A>B.

XXX argued B>C.

XXX argued C>D.


And, therefore, XXX argued that A>G.

But this sounds very disjointed and repetitive.

Perhaps, I could write it like this:

XXX argued A>B, which is thought to be >C.

D, on the other hand, was said to be >C.

In the meantime, XXX claimed that E>D.

... blah blah.

But, this sounds just as bad, and even worse, just wordy...

So, I am wondering if there is a good "move" (template-like) that you use to convey the idea above efficiently and seamlessly.

Thank you,

Grad student

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about a dissertation not being a single event; rather, it is the training for one that is most like the dissertation process. One could then extend the metaphor to include all the peripheral factors (good nutrion, psyching oneself up, building stamina, fitting it into one's regular life, etc.) that contribute to ones success.

Thomas said...

@Athena: yes, and there's not really even an "event" you're training for, except a "life" in scholarship. (A novelist would not say that the reception that is helf on the occasion of the publication of the novel is the "event" the writing was training for.)

@Grad student: I can see the difficulty but it would be easier to work with in a specific case. After all, in general, your logic doesn't actually hold.

Consider: you are saying "XXX argued that if A then B and if B then .... G." Now, how are you continuing that? Are you going to say, "Therefore, if A then G," or "Therefore, XXX argued that if A then G"?

Neither claim is supported by your reasoning. It's only if XXX is right about everything that "If A then G" follows. (So you'd have to argue that, i.e., XXX's rightness, too.) And it's simply not true that XXX argues that if A then G.

If you want to make that latter claim you have to commit XXX to a logical consequence of his or her views that he or she may not be aware of or, initially, feel committed to.

If you keep in mind that you're committing someone to a conclusion, it might make it easier to write about. That is, YOU are making an argument here, not just reporting someone else's.

You are either using XXX's arguments to show that if A then G, or showing that XXX's other views commits XXX to the position that if A then G.

In this abstract way, that may not be very helpful. But if you send me the passage in question, I'll anonymize it and, if I can make a useful contribution, post it to the blog.

mail me at thomas at basboell dot com.

(BTW, thanks for pointing out that my email is not readily available. I've fixed that now.)