Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Prospectus Game

Ok, I'm going to steal one of my own comments and post it here, even though that might be cheezy. But first, a little background.

Do you remember trying to choose your dissertation topic? And then trying to actually write about it, without having done any research on it yet, in a plan/prospectus/proposal/project submission? I bet your answer was Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!MAKEITSTOPMAKEITSTOP NOOOOOO THE PAIN BURNING BURNING BURNING

or something like that. And if I've resurrected heinous, long-forcibly-repressed traumas, oops.

The point is, picking a dissertation topic and then actually explaining what you will do is hard. It's pretty much unlike what you do as an undergrad or even in the early stages of grad school. Dissertations are big unruly projects, so you ask different questions and give them different structures than seminar papers (and if you were one of those .02% of people who already knew their topic and then wrote chunks of the diss in all their required seminars: pththtthththth! Even the people I know who tried to do that ran into various unforeseen problems though.)

Our grad advisor at the time I was flailing about had a very simple metric to test our proto-dissertations by: you needed an X in a Y, where an X was a theme or issue or problematic, and Y was a contiguous field of texts. So, for example: nose-picking in eighteenth-century literature would be an X in a Y. Once you have this, you have your single-sentence dissertation blurb for at cocktail parties, assuming you go to the kind of boring cocktail parties where people actually ask you about dissertations.

I could say more about this step (including how it is nowhere near as "simple" as that grad advisor always claimed to write up) but instead I'll jump to the next stage, which is where you actually have to flesh out what parts of "eighteenth-century literature" you would be working on, what sort of archives or types of sources you would be exploring (ie are you looking at nose-picking in relation to science and medicine? the economy? gender? philosophies of the sublime?), and how would you justify 1) the study of your X at all and 2) the relevance of X, the necessity, to connect your X and your Y (plus the side point of "why are you studying X in Y time period and not Q time period?" which I am always being asked. Grr.) Suddenly, you need, if not an argument, then something that looks reasonably like one. You need verbs and connections and the ability to make large but not sweepingly large statements using more specific terms than "in mainstream society."

At a certain point, you have stared so long at the shreds of your proposal and a pile of books you don't even see anymore that you don't know up from down and feel completely crazy. WTF do I need to define? What can I assume my readers are familiar with? Everyone knows about the Great Pickers' Debate that ended with the murder of bookseller Mortimer G Whufflebottom of Grub Street, right? Do I need to explain why that's important? What about "literature"? Fuck! Do I have to define that? And meanwhile you are trying to figure out which version of heavily-annotated proposal draft pages go together because you dropped them, all 47 versions, and your advisor used the same color pen on all of them. What to do? What to change? I don't even have a clear picture of what I'm doing here anymore!

All of this is a long lead-up to me pointing out that Lucky Jane is going through this (from the advisor stage --- I hadn't really thought about how I must drive my advisor crazy from her perspective before, huh) and that I suggested that sometimes rewriting one's proposal or argument in a completely different format can help clarify your point or get you past writer's block. But really I was busy having fun trying to imagine things to translate a prospectus into.

So, let's play a prospectus game! What interesting and useful ways might you re-write a prospectus to get a different handle on it? Or, perhaps you are an evil and capricious advisor, or possibly more like the vengeful god of the old testament. In which case, what would be the most horrible or absurd or wrenchingly bizarre way you might command your minion to re-write a prospectus?

Here's what I have so far:

Could you write it out in heroic couplets?
As a dinner invitation and grocery list?
The opening statement of a murder trial? (hmm, are you presenting for the defense or the prosecution?)
The overture to a tragic opera?
A letter to a long-lost brother explaining what you've been up to?
Portray it through interpretive dance?
How about a zen koan?
Maybe paint it in a medieval tryptich?
A mathematical formula?
The proceedings of the Congressional hearings?
Assembly instructions for a futuristic widget?

I could probably come up with even more. But instead I turn it over to you! Please put suggestions in the comments. Impersonating sadistic, insane or completely-out-of-it thesis advisors is highly encouraged.


Dr. Crazy said...

Romance novel. Indeed, there are villains, damsels in distress, lots of sex.... Though, maybe that's just my dissertation?

Speaking of lots of sex, one could probably also do my diss as a letter to Penthouse Forum :)

Other options that are less... explicit (potentially):
cartoon or comic strip (though this would require drawing ability)
3-minute pop song

kermitthefrog said...

Vaudeville routine.

alternately, moving away from genres and into sadistic advisor territory:
Without using the letter "e."

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I can't believe I'm the first to suggest a limerick.

But my new piece of advice for such things is to write it first like you're trying to get someone smarter than you interested, than to rewrite that like you're trying to explain it to that one friend you have at parties who is very interested in everything but is slightly less astute.

Horace said...

Binary Code. Buwahahaha!

Dr. Virago said...

Medieval dream vision!
French bedroom satire!
Epistolary novel!

and, most appropriate of all...

Reality TV show!

Dr. Virago said...

Oops, I meant French bedroom *farce*. Sheesh. Back to grad school with me!

heu mihi said...

-personification allegory (actually, that would be kind of fun)
-etiquette manual
-prohibition tract

Lucky Jane said...

I don't need to impersonate a sadistic, insane, and completely-out-of-it advisor, but here's my two bits:

1) backwards and in invisible ink
2) to the tune of "My Favorite Things"

undine said...

How about Dr. Seuss?

I could not write it in a box.
I could not write it with a fox.
I could not write it here or there.
I could not write it anywhere.
I cannot write a prospectus.
I cannot write it, Sisyphus.

Tree of Knowledge said...

a dirge
in Latin
as an episode of Buffy
a whodunit
exercise routine

Dr. Brainiac said...

pig latin
flash cards
puppet show
troubleshooting manual

My much beloved and revered 2nd faculty reader said that a good topic could be measured in "giveashits," which is a measurement for the number of reasons people would give a shit about the outcome of the research. Love that guy.

Feminist Avatar said...

Abstract Expressionist painting.
Melted chocolate with fruit to dip.
Written in the linguistic and grammatical style of your subject.
As a letter to your lover.

We were told to 'identify the gap' when writing our proposal. So we had to show where the gap in current knowledge is and what we were going to do to fill it. (Thus fulfilling the 'give a shit' criteria).

Sisyphus said...

Oh, I love all of these! Though I notice most of you didn't clarify which were the fun ones and which the ones from a sadistic and insane advisor. ;)

Some of these I could actually _do_, too.

Dr. Brainiac, how many giveashits per proposal are necessary to have a successful project? heh.

Belle said...

Giveashits, definitely. As limericks.

Dr. Brainiac said...

The number of giveashits necessary for a successful proposal is in direct inverse proportion to the candidate's ability to bullshit his or her way through the process. More bullshit = fewer giveashits. Because my research was about explaining why the literature in my topic area was inconsistent, I only needed one really big giveashit, but it was the same giveashit five times over.

On top of that, to enhance the bullshit, I used a technique from my old sales career for the basic format: "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Then tell 'em. Then tell 'em what ya told 'em." It worked - and added valuable bullshit length to my giveashit, without adding girth, because let's face it, graduate school is girth-enducing enough on its own.