Fighting Dissertation Isolation

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It’s been 4 years since I took a class at WMU. I actually had to look up my transcript to figure out when that seminar in “Monstrosity in Anglo-Saxon Literature” took place (Spring 2009). It’s been a while.

Since then, I’ve been struggling to finish my dissertation (I struggled to start it, as well. It’s mainly just been constant struggling, interrupted by periods of elation when I could compose more than a page at one sitting). I remember thinking, as I attempted to balance teaching and a three-course academic load during my Ph.D. program, that I just couldn’t WAIT to get my classes and comps out of the way, I couldn’t WAIT to have nothing else to do, just to sit in a room all by myself and just WRITE. My creative-critical self would emerge, long gestating and developing through years of coursework, and I would produce new insights on Anglo-Saxon poetry, all expressed in sophisticated and beautiful prose. After all, the dissertation had been brewing for years, just waiting for me to extract it. All I needed was quiet and time.

Yeah.

What I found is that while it’s liberating to be out from under regular reading assignments and research papers each semester, being out of the classroom and off on my own had an unexpected effect on my thinking and writing. Lacking a regular atmosphere of intellectual debate and exchange, a constant stream of sometimes relevant, sometimes irrelevant, always new and challenging theories and ideas, my academic speech and expression just sort of… atrophied. I fell into patterns of thinking and writing that didn’t feel graceful or intelligent, and I really started to hate writing my boring, inelegant, and (worst of all) unoriginal dissertation.

After several semesters of feeling that, somehow, the Ph.D. program had made me less intelligent and a WORSE writer than when I began, I attended my good friend’s dissertation defense (she wrote an interdisciplinary exploration of “The Pearl,” a gorgeous Middle English dream vision) Even though her research had nothing to do with my own, as she spoke I felt like I was “waking up,” scribbling marginalia to myself about possible additions and changes to my own current chapter. Finally, a breakthrough! After this, I found that when I DID attend academic events– dissertation defenses, conference presentations, research talks — my brain started to work in that old, familiar way. Sometimes my ideas were connected to what the speaker was actually speaking about, but more often not… just being in an environment of intellectual discussion seemed to activate a part of my brain that had gone to sleep after I stopped taking classes.

And therein lies the irony of the dissertation process, at least as I’ve experienced it: just when we want most to hide away in our carrels / offices / coffee shops / caves, waiting for inspiration to strike, we find that we need our colleagues and classmates the most. Maybe this is a problem with the Ph.D. program in general… it just doesn’t make sense to remove ourselves from academic discussion during the dissertation process, because that’s when those conversations are crucial.

It’s so easy to fall off the edge of the earth when you finish your program coursework and this isolation is magnified when the students who made up your cohort begin to graduate and leave town. So what is the dissertator to do? First, be aware and try to recognize when (and if) working in a vacuum is no longer working! If you find yourself in this situation– and if you are still within a reasonable distance of a university– try to re-immerse yourself in the academic atmosphere:

  • Take part in the Dissertation Cafe series offered by the Graduate Center for Research and Retention. Seating is limited, but the Cafe provides an opportunity for students to meet, share their work, and discuss the challenges of the dissertation process. Check out our EVENTS page for more info and to register
  • Look at upcoming schedules of classes for your department, and email around to see whether professors might allow you to audit or sit in on their seminars. In my case, my advisor was more than happy to have me join her class, and only asked that I be a regular visitor and not just drop in whenever. 
  • Join a discussion group hosted by your department, or by a university center. For example, the WMU Center for the Humanities hosts a number of interdisciplinary working groups for faculty and students during the year.
  • Join or start a “chapter-exchange” group with students from your program (or students far afield)… if you’re no longer living on or near campus, you can still read and exchange ideas over email, or share your work via GoogleDocs / GoogleDrive. There are also online discussion and study groups on networking sites like AcademicRoom that allow you to join a discussion with students and faculty in your field.
  • If your department offers a speakers series or colloquium in which visiting scholars, students, or faculty present their work to colleagues, attend and take part in the conversation. The same goes for your classmates and colleagues’ thesis and dissertation defenses… even if you are unfamiliar with their specific topic, seeing a friend defend his or her work will not only get you thinking in academic terms again, it will give you an idea of what you have to look forward to.

Leave a comment with your own strategies for fighting dissertation isolation!

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