Saturday, May 28, 2005

Initiation Rites

William Germano's book on the vagaries of turning a dissertation into a book does so in the best possible way: a brilliant excursion into the sociology of knowledge. Here are some pithy excerpts:

"The average dissertation wears its confidence and its insecurity in equal measure.

That mixture of diffidence and bravura shows up in almost all doctoral work. When a dissertation crosses my desk, I usually want to grab it by its metaphorical lapels and give it a good shake. “You know something!” I would say if it could hear me. “Now tell it to us in language we can understand!” ..... The recalcitrant garden-variety dissertation—lips sealed, secrets intact—will find a readership among two hundred library collections at best. Most won’t make it even that far, but linger at the ready in electronic format waiting for some brave soul to call for a download or a photocopy.

It’s hard to pick up a dissertation and hear its author’s voice. Dissertations don’t pipe up. Like the kid in the choir who’s afraid she cannot carry a tune and doesn’t want to be found out, the dissertation makes as small a sound as possible. Often that sound is heard by a committee of from three to five scholars, and no one else. Revising a dissertation is partly a matter of making the writer’s text speak up.

But what is it about the dissertation that makes it so unlikely that it can be made to speak? One senior scholar, veteran of many dissertation committees, cheerfully told me that the doctoral thesis was, at heart, a paranoid genre. “You’re writing it to protect yourself,” the professor observed, and meaning, too, that you are therefore not writing in order to create as bold and imaginative a work as possible. The dissertation is always looking over its shoulder. If you’re writing in literary studies, for example, your dissertation may be looking backward to be sure it’s safe from Foucault, Freud, Butler, and Bhabha, not that any of these worthies are threatening either you or your thesis in any way. To disarm your deities, you cite, paraphrase, and incorporate the ideas of leading scholars now at work. You pour libations to the loudest of the influential dead. The more you do this, the more difficult it becomes to see where your own work ends and the ideas of the Masters begin, so thoroughly has your writing absorbed a way of expressing itself. Then there are the scholars who sit on your dissertation committee. They may not be famous, but for the moment they are the Kindly Ones—the Eumenides—and you will want them on your side. These are natural responses to authority, to one’s teachers, to those who will pass judgment on your work. All this looking over the shoulder may be good for self-protection, but it gets between you and the book you would like to be writing....

As they are bandied about by scholars, journalists, and the academic reading public, the words “thesis,” “hypothesis,” “theory,” and “idea” have become hopelessly entangled. In the Great Age of Theory, that heady period from the late sixties through the late nineties, many a modest idea came packaged as a Theory, with bona fide credentials leading back to Continental masters. The humanities yearned for the authority of abstraction. The social sciences were hardly immune—many of the most important theorists, such as Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, came from the social science world. If theory aspired to a condition of intellectual purity, or inspired thousands of scholars to do so, it was a condition impossible to sustain for long. Theories of everything sprang up, with a concreteness that made it possible for a reader to connect a Big Abstract Franco-German Idea with educational practice in Illinois or the use of personal pronouns in Shakespeare’s late plays.

As theory became the queen of disciplines, it seemed that every young scholar was under the double obligation not only to come up with a theory, but to do it in a way that was—truly, madly, deeply—theoretical. A good idea might be an embarrassment when what was wanted was a highly philosophical examination of the subject, enriched with the work of German and French thinkers. “As Foucault has said,” “According to Hegel,” “As Derrida has written,” became the incipits of much academic writing, both at the professorial and graduate student levels. Theory meant many things to many people.

Even today, many dissertations fall into the trap of making claims too grand for the evidence mustered by the author. All too often, a small and perceptive idea is dressed up in clothes two sizes too large and trotted out as a theory. Publishers understand that a graduate student needs to demonstrate what he or she knows. But the book that a dissertation hopes to become won’t work if it appears to be a cottage built somewhere on the rolling estate of another scholar’s work. It would be healthy if dissertations could be entitled “My Footnotes to Jameson” or “Two Small Thoughts about Bretton Woods”—healthy, honest even, but unlikely to win the author a job.

A thesis is a work of scholarship and argumentation, and its primary function is to demonstrate that you are able to undertake professional-level work. It isn’t necessarily professional-level work in itself, though sometimes it can come close to that. Much is made about the idea of the writer’s “thesis”—the argument within the dissertation—as if each of the new Ph.D.’s created each year were expected to come up with a blinding insight. It was never so. Most dissertations have been written on the shoulders of giants. Many do even less, and just step on the giants’ toes. A wise dissertation director once counseled a naive graduate student that the dissertation would be the last piece of his student writing, not his first professional work. (It was good advice, and I’ve never regretted him giving it to me.) Every editor at a scholarly publishing house knows this, and most dissertation directors know it, too.

A dissertation demonstrates technical competence more often than an original theory or a genuine argument. This is, in fact, another of those open secrets of academic publishing: a book doesn’t actually need an original theory. It’s often more than enough to synthesize a range of ideas or perspectives, as long as one can do it in a way that creates a new perspective (your own) and provides the reader with further insights into an interesting problem. As academic publishers know, the first book manuscript will try to make claims it can’t fulfill. Your book does need a controlling idea, though. A thesis isn’t a hypothesis. Back in junior high, when the scientific method first came into view, most of us tested ideas on the order of “My hypothesis is that a dry leaf will burn faster than a green one.” Or “Snails will eat pizza.” We learned something about method, even when the green leaf failed to burn and the snails ignored the half onion, half extra-cheese. The first hypothesis was proven true, the second false. A doctoral thesis doesn’t test an idea in the same way. You couldn’t, for example, write a dissertation that tested the validity of the idea that terrestrial mollusks will consume fast food; there are better things for a biologist to be working on, and the result isn’t likely to be something that would make a book. You could challenge someone else’s thesis—for example, the art historian Millard Meiss’s idea that the plague in fourteenth-century Italy changed the way painters represented God. But in challenging it, you had better come up with a conclusion that takes exception to Meiss. It won’t do to “test” the thesis and conclude that Meiss was right. And you can’t posit a dubious idea merely to test it and find it wrong. “Dickens was the least popular British novelist of the nineteenth century.” This is false, and there isn’t any point in “testing” it merely to prove that the idea is groundless. I’ve offered examples that are intentionally exaggerated, but a more uncomfortable scenario might concern the thesis that argues an intelligent point badly, draws false inferences from good data, or builds a structure on a few readings as if they could by themselves map your universe of possibilities.

Some dissertations wrestle with their origins. Can you outmaneuver your famous dissertation director? Challenge the dominant paradigm in your field? Attack the work of the chair of the most important department in your discipline? Any of these forays will create controversy, and controversy isn’t necessarily bad. But it doesn’t mean that a dissertation that gets you into hot water within your field is automatically one that will be publishable as a book. Sometimes a young scholar needs to stage certain arguments in order to break free of powerful influences, and sometimes that will be liberating for the writer. But the contentious dissertation isn’t de facto more publishable than one that picks no academic quarrels.

A thesis is an argument, not a proposition to be tested. A doctoral thesis, however, is quite often not an argument at all, but only a very small part of a bigger argument taking place in one’s discipline or in American society or in culture more broadly. There’s a tension here between the imperative to be creative and the need to take a place in the larger conversation that is one’s scholarly field. A good dissertation director will skillfully guide a graduate student to a dissertation project that will give her the opportunity to show her stuff and not fall off a cliff or get stuck in a corner.

A good academic idea is connected to what has gone before it, modest in acknowledging the work on which it depends, but fresh. It’s not necessary for the idea to be startling or implausible on page 1, wrestling for the reader’s consent, and winning it by a fall on page 350. An idea for a book can be quiet, noisy, insidious, overheated, cool, revisionist, radical, counterintuitive, restorative, synthetic. Ideas are as different as the minds they inhabit. Some writers find it terribly hard to say what their idea is. “If you want to know what I have to say, read the manuscript!” a frustrated author declares. In a sense, that author is right—if you want to know what a writer has to say, read her thoroughly and with care. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to summarize her work or to find in it something we are happy to call her '“idea.” Your idea may be a massive corrective—think of the work on Stalin’s Russia made possible by declassified documents—or a study that looks at St. Paul’s well-studied writings in what Dickinson calls “a certain slant of light,” finding nuances and making small connections because you were there, thinking, at a certain moment. I keep an Ansel Adams poster in my office. More than we admit, books are like photographs, possible only because the camera and the eye were fortunate to be somewhere at the very moment when the clouds held their shape just long enough." (William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, The University of Chicago Press: 2005).


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