THE ART AND
SCIENCE OF AVOIDING THE DISSERTATION
Higgins, Northern Illinois University
pencils could not be sharper. My house could not be cleaner. My students have
never been better taught, and I even have all the grading caught up. Although
I have spent many hours at the library and have amassed an impressive array (if
I do say so myself) of research, I still find myself staring at a blank computer
screen. You might say I have writer's block, and it will eventually clear, but
I know this condition as a specialized form of that malady. There is a symptom
I didn't mention- I go to any lengths to avoid my dissertation director in the
hallways of the English Department. I have a bad case of Dissertation Avoidance
Complex or the dreaded DAC.
as I like to think of it, comes to most who pass the rigors of doctoral pre-lims
and enter into the suddenly self-dependent world of the writing of the almighty
dissertation. We all know that we have one more step in the process to complete.
Most of us in English, as we are well-trained writers, do not even dread the writing
itself. Rather, the avoidance comes with the actual starting of the project. I
think that a whole complex of excuses, real and imagined, come into play at that
point of the process.
my case, I think I worked so hard and worried so much about the exams themselves
that I just couldn't expend more energy to begin the writing process. My mind
and spirit are a bit bruised from three long years of coursework beyond the Master's
degree as well as another long year spent preparing for exams. In the courts,
pleading mental anguish reaps big monetary awards; in the English department,
mental anguish is an accepted part of the process. My professors (other than the
aforementioned director) smile and nod when they ask how the dissertation is coming,
and I begin to talk of the weather, or an upcoming conference, or an article I
am working on--anything but the dissertation. They murmur encouragement when I
speak at length on the wonders of the research I have accomplished. And then they
ask the dreaded question. When do you hope to finish? Finish, I think? Finish?
I haven't even started!
is a sneaky disease. It can be hidden in so many ways. I can find solid reasons
to coach my daughter' s softball team. (You may want to substitute niece or nephew
or another sport.) Why, I spent months volunteering for community groups that
were functioning just fine without my help but which I was convinced could not
go on without me. I told myself that I had neglected my family and my community
for so many years while in grad school that I must now give them the quality time
they had missed. My family and my community probably just wished I would go back
to writing and leave them in peace.
a Teaching Assistant, I have had to teach continually more advanced levels of
courses while accomplishing my own research and writing. Although I love my students,
they have become unwitting participants in my syndrome. I can no longer justify
to myself taking a month to turn graded papers back to them. I have learned, as
my studies have progressed, to be a much more effective teacher. I have learned
the value of preparation. I have learned the effectiveness as a learning tool
of the well-graded paper with extensive comments. Besides, all that grading and
preparation time gives me a wonderful excuse not to work on my dissertation. In
my DAC-muddled mind, it is a win-win situation.
the throes of DAC, I could even avoid actual writing by finding dissertation-related
tasks that kept me from the real work. While working on my prospectus for the
project, I could always find a new angle I had not considered. I could always
find solace in the library stacks and the new and exciting materials (probably
irrelevant) I was finding. I could find a new critic who shed new light on my
subject, and whom I could not ignore and must read exhaustively. I could wait
a couple of extra weeks while interlibrary loan found that obscure book without
which I could not begin. In short, everything became more important than actually
writing a real dissertation.
process of the dissertation is a sort of bildungsroman of its own. 'Mat's a big
English term I learned while I was in the library stacks lost in a DAC daze. It
means a coming of age story, and that is exactly what the process of dissertation
is meant to be. It is a coming of age in the profession of English. I have taught;
I have read and researched; I have written so many twenty-page papers my head
is foggy with the thought; and I should be ready to enter the ranks of those who
have gone before me on the same path. Perhaps that thought is part of what makes
me stall. Am I really ready? Am I good enough? Have I read enough? I know my answers
should be yes, but then I always meet another grad student who has read more,
written more, presented more, and I rush back to my computer to re-work that prospectus
one more time.
all, I want this dissertation to be perfect. I know that I am a great writer,
just waiting to emerge into the academic spotlight. In my head, I have written
and re-written the whole thing many times. I have added and rearranged chapters.
I have thought of new, brilliant transitional passages. I know if I really start,
the whole thing will just begin to flow like a stream cut loose from its swollen
banks. Or so I believe in my DAC delirium. In reality, my computer file marked
"disschptr1" V is still blank.
is also the question of the part-time job. Whether it involves adjunct teaching
at local community colleges, writing for businesses, editing for publishers, or
even working at the local public library, the part-time job is both a necessity
and a curse for most graduate students. Many departments tell us we cannot hold
jobs other than our teaching assignments. It is the most open secret in the department
that most of us do have part-time jobs despite these warnings. In their wisdom,
these well-meaning graduate directors and department chairs know that working
extra hours will just compound the more serious symptoms of DAC. I suspect they
know from their own like experiences. The reality of the situation, however, comes
down to paychecks inadequate to pay the rent and the utilities every month. Food,
beyond ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese, becomes a luxury. I have been in
grad school for almost seven years now. The economic facts of my family don't
allow me to subsist on only the TA salary. I have, at one time or another, held
each of the jobs mentioned. I could not have stayed in grad school without them.
In the worst of my DAC days, however, I used the paycheck excuse to do anything
but write my dissertation. I picked up some wonderful business writing jobs, and
I worked extra shifts at the library for anyone who asked. I reveled in the extra
paychecks, but shortsightedly ignored the larger one waiting for me if I can just
me to the jobs prospects in the teaching of college English. They are certainly
not great. The longer I stay in the womb of my friendly English department, the
longer I avoid the fray. The realities of the profession dictate that we must
pad those vitas with publications and presentations. Even if we do, though, we
will have a tough fight for a real tenure-track job. I cling to the vestiges of
DAC in part to avoid the confrontations I know lie ahead. At a certain point,
the writing of articles (including the one you are reading) becomes part of the
complex. Although I need these credits on my vita, the more I send out, the longer
I can avoid writing that other thing I should be writing instead.
is, however, hope. I have begun to shake off this dreaded, cursed disease and
begun actual writing. I have quit avoiding my dissertation director and started
meeting his deadlines. My family has told me I must finish, or they will be forced
to take drastic action -- like my colleague's wife who actually moved out and
left him until he finished. I have gotten beyond sharpening pencils and doing
research, and begun to pull all of it together into a coherent whole. I have done
all these things because I have realized that putting it off only postpones the
inevitable, and I am really ready to move on. But the bottom line? The thing I
dread more than writing my dissertation is another year, or even two, as a graduate
student with a graduate student's income. That fact, in itself, has given me the
fresh motivation to leave my state of DAC and take my place in the profession
for which I have worked for so long and which I believe I now deserve -- as soon
as I actually finish my dissertation.
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