Saturday, May 2, 2009

DUDE! I'm writing a dissertation.

I'm on dissertation leave this year. Which means I don't have to teach and I get funded it sit around and write my dissertation. I've had several people ask me questions ranging from "So, what do you do all day?" to "When will you be finished?" to "How do you like not having a real job?".

I know they all mean well, but the questions are annoying because (1) I don't know how to answer them and (2) Dude! I'm writing a dissertation!

The truth is it is hard to describe the dissertation process -- the drafting, the revising, the re-writing, the reading, the re-reading, the thinking, the pondering, the mulling over, the re-writing, the hair-pulling, the brain-hurting, the re-re-re-revising. It is hard to say "I work on my dissertation X hours a day" because there are times when I feel like I'm "working" only when I'm typing and producing pages. But there is so much intangible, unquantifiable work that goes into it before and after and during that process that it gets hard to keep track of.

Sometimes I feel like I'm working on my dissertation 24 hours a day because it is that knot in between my should blades that never goes away. On better days, I feel like I put in a good 4-6 hours of work -- reading, writing, rereading, and re-writing -- and if I thought about it for another second my brain would start leaking out my ears. Sometimes I'm doing well if I can sit in front of the computer and not think about anything but the damn dissertation for an hour -- and that hour can be more productive than the 6 I put in the day before.

So because it is virtually impossible for me to explain how I write a dissertation (other than slowly and painfully), I thought I would explain what a dissertation is. Or what my dissertation is. In hopes of also answering the unspoken question that most of you who know me have probably wondered but tactfully left unspoken: Why the hell is it taking you so long?

A dissertation is a book-length study. For me, it is a book-length study of literary criticism. In normal person speak:

I am writing somewhere between 200 and 250 pages. Double spaced. 12 point font. (I use Garamond instead of Times New Roman.)

I am writing about four different Victorian novels that range from 437 pages (Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret) to 989 pages (Charles Dickens's Bleak House). Or somewhere in between (George Eliot's Daniel Deronda is 811 pages, Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone is 472).

I have one chapter on each of these novels. So far my longest chapter is 60 pages on Daniel Deronda. My shortest chapter is 40 pages on Bleak House. Lady Audley's Secret is 50 pages and I'm still working on The Moonstone, but I am planning on it being about 40 pages. In addition to the 190 pages that will be my chapters, I have to write an introduction (about 20 pages) and a conclusion (who knows? I'm hoping for short -- like 10-15).

Before I write these chapters, I have to read. I've read each of these novels at least 3 times over the course of writing the dissertation. I have to go back to the novels to pull out particular passages and quotes that are relevant and do a close reading and analysis of them, paying attention to the way the storyline and the language, sentence structure, and themes all support my argument.

I also have to read books and articles people have already published about the novels. I have to account for people who write about different aspects of the novel, even if it is not my main interest. So I need to make sure I know what historicists say, what feminists say, what psychoanalytic critics say, etc. I also need to make sure to read people who are talking about the same thing I am and I have to address their arguments in my chapter -- agree, disagree, or (more likely) quibble with something small and attempt to branch off in a new direction with a glimmer of originality.

I also need to read biographies about their authors. Contemporary reviews that were published in 19th-century periodicals. Britain's political and social history, including art and science. And published collections of journals and personal correspondence from the authors.

I am writing about the way science gets imagined in these novels. For my particular topic, this means that I have to read what other scholars have already written about science, about Darwin, about empiricism, and intuition, and the supernatural in the nineteenth-century. I also have to read nineteenth-century thinkers like George Henry Lewes, Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, and John Stuart Mill, and nineteenth-century scientists like William B. Carpenter, John Elliotson, Charles Darwin, and John Tyndall.

Empirical science (meaning that all facts are observable and -- like Newtonian science -- everything in the world can be reduced to its mechanical basis) is the "popular" notion of Victorian science (for humanists like Matthew Arnold and for a lot of modern-day scholars too). That is how most people imagined it and that is the way it usually gets portrayed in Victorian novels. The truth is, though, that most nineteenth-century scientists did not consider themselves empiricists or postivists.

The novelists that I'm writing about use science in their novels as though it is empirical and they typically describe the world as though we can learn all we need to know from historical and material contexts. At the same time, their narratives are often interrupted by moments or events that seem supernatural or at least metaphysical (premonitions, intuition, dreams, etc.)

So in my dissertation, I'm suggesting that because these novelists were writing in the middle of a century of change (legal and political reforms, the industrial revolution, mass literacy, Darwinian biology and scientific progress), their novels try to address these dramatic shifts between traditional authority (church, aristocracy, government) and new authorities (science, the middle-class, industrialism). Using both empirical science and intuition is their way of questioning how we should read the world. Should we read it empirically, assuming that ugly people are bad and pretty people are good? Can we count on eye-witnesses? Does circumstantial evidence always lead to the truth? Or should we trust these shaky moments of insight and intuition that cannot be accounted for empirically? Do dreams tell us the truth ? OR can we devise a system of reading the world that considers both the empirical and the intuitive as legitimate reading methods?

(Little Mac is intrigued. Literature! It's fascinating!)

I use the four novels I'm focusing on to look at the ways different authors -- who were each very popular in their time -- present ideas about reading the world scientifically and intuitively.

So as I begin to actually write, I have to cite what other critics have said and explain how my reading is slightly different. I have to obsessively make sure I am never unintentionally plagiarizing someone else's ideas or phrases. And I have to string it all together in a coherent narrative that doesn't let my own use of certain words get too slippery. Ideally, I refrain from getting too wordy or repetitive. I have to go back and check for the very things I preach to my own students about -- topic sentences and transitions! And mostly I have to make sure I am actually arguing something and try not to come off as an idiot.

My friend Keya says that she thinks completing a PhD is one of the most personally fulfilling things that one can accomplish. I hope that is true because it's sure not looking like it's going to be professionally advantageous! But I do believe it. It's a long a frustrating and confusing process. Sometimes I feel like I am jumping through hoops (footnote: See So&So for further discussion of Such&Such blah blah blah). But I do get to work in the quiet rustle of the library or on the comfort of my futon with my dog snuggled up next to me or in a coffee shop. I do have the luxury of spending time really thinking about ideas and searching for the perfect words to express them (even if I rarely find those words). And there are moments when I find myself totally immersed in the letters that Charles Dickens and G. H. Lewes wrote to each other and I am amazed and delighted to discover that as Dickens was publishing Bleak House serially, it is entirely likely that he actually wrote part of the next chapter that was published as a rebuttal to Lewes in their argument about the scientific plausibility of spontaneous combustion!

So I love novels and I love history; in that sense, I love what I do.

In the sense that I can have totally unproductive days, that I can spend hours and hours writing three pages that I will later cut from chapter, that most people in the world haven't read the novels I'm writing about, that I have less than a 50% chance of landing a tenure-track job, that the world of academic publishing is shrinking and that so much of what gets published is boring; I don't so much love what I do.

But I've come too far to go back now.

(my office)

I'm not sure if it is love for Victorian novels, a desire to finish what I've started, an idealistic notion that the humanities are truly significant, or pure stubbornness that keeps me going (I'd guess 60% stubbornness, 40% the other stuff). But I am going to get this dissertation written, come hell or high water. I can't promise it will be fabulous, but I can promise it will get finished.

And the sense of accomplishment, that moment when I can stand with my finished dissertation in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other... Yeah. It will be totally worth it.

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