Sunday, October 28, 2007

Choose Your Identity

I don’t do things in the abstract. Ironic, considering how much I love theory. But for me, I need concrete examples, models, texts, things. I am far more intrigued by the mechanics of, say, eighteenth century nosepicking devices, than platonic ideals or taxonomies of poetic forms. Material things, with their heft and density and smells, count for far more with me than disembodied or universalized concepts. Hell, I am distrustful of universals, grand narratives, blanket pronouncements and bombastic generalized advice. Yes, I understand the irony here.

Before I return to my earlier topic of applying to grad school and talking about money, I’m going to tell a little story of what my advisor told me. I don’t know if it would help people to hear this earlier or later, whether it would help them to decide about grad school or impart too much information and stress too early, but it worked for me. And it’s what I’ve got.

When I officially asked my advisor to be my dissertation advisor, I only had the vaguest outlines of a topic. So vague, that I could tell it to her in a couple sentences. “Mmm,” she said. “Interesting.” Then she asked me a couple basic questions --- when? how? etc., but I had already exhausted my knowledge of the topic with those first couple of sentences, and I had no clue what my argument would be or where it would go. In fact, I was stumped. I had no clue what to do next or how to start researching my project, what a dissertation prospectus should look like or what I needed to do and what I needed to know in order to write one.

Instead of telling me where to go, what to do, how to start writing about it, my advisor told me to go wander ______, the largest bookstore in town. “What shelves do you like?” she asked, “Someday, this project will be a book and it will mark what kind of scholar you are. Where do you want to be shelved?”

She took a critical work off her own shelves and turned it over in front of me. “What key words will be up here?” She pointed to the category titles running along the top of the back cover. “What will this say?” Indicating the author’s one-line bio. “What methodologies, what theories, will appear on the back? If you were going to write the back blurb, what would it say?”

To be honest, this was partially exciting and partially terrifying.

And overwhelming. But concrete --- I could see books I cited and see publishing lines I liked, and suddenly I had models to think about and work from. I had my advisor’s book, and my advisor herself to model myself against. I didn’t have much of an answer then, and truthfully, I don’t have anything thought out at the level of “blurb” now. But in the back of my mind I had something I could always be thinking about, working on. It seemed very much a process of incremental improvement and clarifying. Every book I picked up, I was conscious as I began my dissertation research, was a potential model or a rejected one.

This process has been helpful to me in thinking through my own work --- would it be helpful at the front end of grad school? For choosing a program and the process of applying? I still have no fucking clue what should go into a statement of purpose or what they should focus on. But if the point of grad school is to discover what sort of scholar you will be and what sort of scholar they will mold you into, then perhaps thinking about this early on will help.

To close with a story from another prof here, who would clearly be named Dr. Crazy if that moniker weren’t already in use in the blogosphere, this prof ---- let’s say Dr. Nonsequitur ---- used to always blurt out in response any random comment I’d make, “That’s your second book.” Once, looking at the 5 of us TAs in the front of the lecture hall, Prof Nonsequitur told the undergraduates, “Your TAs are so smart. You look at them and see people; I see a whole bookshelf of future ideas.”

I have to admit that felt kinda nice. I wonder what the back of all those books will say?


Anonymous said...

that is such a wonderful compliment from prof. Nonsequitur!

and some of the books you point to i recognize from my own shelves, how exciting!

Dr. Crazy said...

You know, I think I'm more in line with Dr. Nonsequitur's way of thinking. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in graduate school is that the dissertation would not be my identity as a scholar - it would be the beginning of my life as a scholar. I would, over the course of a career, explore plenty of other ideas - not necessarily within my dissertation area - and my dissertation would never be *who I am* - indeed, it would be just one point on an intellectual trajectory.

On the one hand, I think that the advice your adviser gave you is good because it is concrete, but on the other, I think it does put a lot of pressure on what a dissertation can and should be. Not all dissertations are books nor will they ever be.

And do you need to know what sort of scholar you are or will become upon entering grad school? My thought is that if you did, there'd be no point in going to grad school. You know, I had a vague idea going into the PhD that I'd like to do either 19th or 20th century literature. I know, narrow, right? Couldn't even decide on British or American. I knew vaguely that I'd probably be interested in working on things to do with gender/sexuality. I didn't know who I would want to work with, and I chose the program I picked based on which was best, which offered me a full ride, and which was nicest in their interactions with me (another great piece of advice to follow - go where they treat you well during the admissions process, because it's all downhill from there).

But so I didn't have a *clue* when I began my PhD program 10 years ago who I'd be today, with 4 years clocked on the tenure track. I just knew that I had a passion for the subject and that I thought I'd be good at it. I knew I'd rather spend a life thinking about things that I believe matter than working for the weekend. And I was a little naive and stupid :) But I think those might be the only things one needs at the start of grad school - and resiliency, don't forget that, too.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Not all dissertations are books nor will they ever be.

Yes. That's what I was going to say, except you've said it more succinctly. (I have to admit that it drives me nuts when faculty from my grad program assume that I'm going to turn the diss into a book, because unless I end up in a place where I have to write a book for tenure, I'm going to do no such thing.)

Belle said...

Yes yes yes. The beginning of your life as a scholar. Great viewpoint. My diss changed course several times as I discovered the do-able vs the undoable. What I discovered doing my research was nothing like what I'd sold it as to the various mentors; the end result was a surpise to them all. But it's very me and my methodology.

I love the validation of 'where do you want your book to be?' And the implications of that validation. I love the 'bookshelf of future ideas' for the same reason.

gwoertendyke said...

i agree with everyone, but i want to rally around prof. nonsequitor's pedagogy, because not only does it suggest deep regard for the budding scholar, but also deep regard for the process of intellectual work.

i think it is both stultifying and liberating to imagine your dissertation a book: the first because it often means you feel inadquate for the job; the latter because it means you force yourself to reconsider the shape of the diss throughout.

as it turns out, my diss is being revised into a book and its basic frame, methodology, and theoretic trajectory (and sources, for that matter) are in place. was it always so? god no. i wrote my first chapter thinking it the first and it is now the third, and for the book, it will be split into two chapters.

nobody knows what their blurb will be when they begin, but it is inspiring to be asked. it suggests a belief in you. it suggests a finite process. and it suggests that this painful unknowing period is as important as the later knowing.

lovely example, sis.

Horace said...

Another thing to remember is that even if your diss topic makes its way into a book, the diss itself will likely not look much like the book. I'm in that revision process now, and I had no idea that the central argument of my book would arrive in the form of an answer to a question during my dissertation defense.

While your advisor's questions are useful exercises, and the idea of looking at your research as models to embrace and reject are things that in slightly different forms helped me conceive of my project and of myself as a professional, they aren't and can't be measurements for understanding your own work in the dissertation.

Great series of posts by the way. I'm thinking of using them to key an update of the compendium.

Sisyphus said...

True, true, all --- all you who are working on the transition from diss. to book will have far more to say than I would, as I haven't finished. But that process seems to be important in the gradual move towards imagining yourself to be a professor, a scholar --- my first thought was actually, "I can write a book? And I'll be doing it as a professor? Oh. What _kind_ of professor, I wonder?"

Over on that livejournal applying to grad school thing everyone is complaining about not knowing how to write a statement of purpose and saying "at least, once I do this, I'll be home free and never have to think about it again and live happily ever after!" Um, no. Speaking as someone who wrote a prospectus and then job letters/abstract and is watching other people on the blogosphere struggle through books and tenure files and reflective statements of their own, this isn't a one-off shot here; it's more the standard of the profession.

And this can be paralyzing, true --- the first book in my field I pulled off my shelves was an area-changing monster that took the author 25 years to write. (I took pics of theory books instead of books in my field to be all sneaky and anonymous, but actually they are not as interesting on the back as the clear "it was a dissertation now it is a book" books.) So yeah, there needs to be additional discussion of what's "doable" and a "good done dissertation" and what's a book, but it seems a nice start of thinking yourself as a scholar. My one, crushed, daisy petal if you will.

undine said...

What a good, interesting way of looking at this!