|Publisher:||Utah State University Press|
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About the Author
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Love, Beauty, and Truth
On Finding a Dissertation Topic
Lynn Z. Bloom
I've just returned from a storybook wedding: a beautiful bride in a long white dress married Prince Charming on an autumn afternoon ablaze with colored leaves, the couple embraced in love articulated by grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, and of course each other, wedded also to an egalitarian future of true love forever. Because they've lived together for a while, they understand many of the dimensions of this partnership, but not all — for who can know everything at the outset of a work continually in progress? Yet they are optimistically committed to the work — and play — that will make the rough places smooth and this dream come true.
Love. There are significant parallels between this romantic account — which may sound like a fairy tale but I believe, based on my own marriage of fifty-eight years, that fairy tales can come true — and writing a dissertation. For finding a dissertation topic — alluring, enticing, worth the effort of penetrating its mysteries and understanding its nuances — is like finding the right person to marry. You have agency in your choice, and you will want to pick the one you love the most. From among many possibilities, you've selected the one that most appeals to you, one in which you're pleased to make a huge investment.
If you're not happy about your topic, delighted with its potential, able to turn it around and around in the light to admire its many facets, then stop right here and scour the terrain until you find another that lights your fire. The beauty you find in the topic will lead you to love it, and your enthusiasm will inspire your committee. Is it new? Exciting? Is it generative in intellectual possibilities, in potential for publication and further research? Do you want to commit to a relationship with it?
Love will keep you wedded to this project for the long haul until you finish, driven by passion for the topic itself and for the enterprise — the exploration, ingenuity, and work involved. As in a marriage, you will need to love your project beyond measure because there will be times of frustration and irritation, when the research is not working out as smoothly as you'd anticipated, when you'd like to throw it out the window and walk away. Unlike marriage, which expects a lifetime commitment, a research project requires a realistic timetable. Although you can get a ballpark sense of the time involved from your experience in writing a typical twenty-page term paper, a dissertation will require more time than merely multiplying the time spent on each chapter. Each part has to fit into the whole, and building both the infrastructure (such as refining and explaining the methodology, or providing a comprehensive bibliography) and the superstructure (integrating all the separate parts) takes additional time.
We tend to underestimate the time a long project will take. Especially if the topic is cutting-edge, and when new sources — written, material, more ethereal — pop up daily, if not hourly, online, in the culture, among people with a stake in the project — as subjects, committee members, colleagues, specialists, statisticians. Fidelity to your topic can help to keep you from the primrose path of wayward romance; every new thread in the research web takes time and, however enticing, following tangential strands can lead you astray.
Beauty. In your dissertation you are not aiming for perfection but for elegant beauty — always capable of improvement but good enough to remain attractive and to get the job done. "We must labor to be beautiful," said Yeats, whose aesthetic in "Adam's Curse" also underlies the work of the doctoral student. Conscientious advisors will help their students to see the beauty in doable projects that can be completed in a predictably finite time. In helping my doctoral students to get through and get out expeditiously, I advise them to plan their research time starting with the ending date.
When do you want to finish? Then, how long will it take to do the research? To write each chapter? To revise the total? To have the work reviewed, and possibly revised again? I encourage them: estimate the amount of time the project will take. Double it. You may by now be in the ballpark; if not, add 25 percent more. You will find beauty by observing that ending date, which is likely to be determined by funding; when will your TAship or research support run out? Every delay will be costly in terms of job market timing and income forgone. If necessary, pare down the scope of your research to keep within the time frame. Stick to the main point, the principal supporting evidence or analysis. You can explore the interesting byways later on.
Short books of 70,000–80,000 words — under 200 pages — represent university presses' current ideal of beauty. A svelte configuration for your own research, five main chapters, max, plus an introduction and a conclusion will keep that work on the runway. Every chapter you don't write is a chapter you don't have to research or revise, joining the lineup of beautiful potential topics for later investigation. Beauty is always a work in progress.
Truth. Mark Twain understood "You can't pray a lie." When Huck Finn realizes that the hunt for the fugitive slave is proceeding as he and Jim are "a-floating along" the Mississippi, "talking and singing and laughing," he thinks he should turn Jim in: "I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing," but "deep down in me I knowed it was a lie," "the words wouldn't come," "my heart warn't right." He examines the evidence, "But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind." He decides, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," inadvertently making the morally right decision, one that he understands deep in his heart. So he is able to "take up wickedness again," beginning by going "to work and stealing Jim out of slavery again" — a source of pleasure, power, and ingenuity.
Dissertation writers, too, need to be honest with themselves. Once upon a time — this is a cautionary tale — a good friend was trying to write her dissertation amid the responsibilities and distractions of running a household with a husband in medical residency, three rambunctious little children, teaching composition, and a gourmet cook's perfectionism that made even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches look as if they'd leapt off the pages of a cookbook. She wanted to write about Swift, her foremost literary love, but in those pre-internet days when library searches took weeks and months to nail down the minutiae, she needed a way to get through and get out before the end of the century, then forty years away. To research an eighteenth-century topic would take at least two years and unaffordable trips to England.
So she sought what she always called "a quick and dirty" dissertation topic, one she didn't love. She figured that the less she had invested in it the more easily she'd stick to the topic's straight and narrow and the sooner she'd finish. She settled for what she considered a ho-hum topic, serviceable but not, in her eyes, beautiful — an analysis of James Branch Cabell's fictional county of Poictesme, her advisor's passion but not her own. Despite some pressure from the advisor to ventriloquize his ideas, she never finished. She could not pray that lie. She couldn't bring herself to give enough time to Cabell's never-never land while spending her best efforts on the real world she loved the most — family, teaching, and cooking. Finally she simply stopped writing.
In fact she had another choice. She could have selected a smaller slice of the subject she loved for her dissertation and nibbled away at other portions of the larger Swiftian topic after she finished. Her first words on the topic — staking out the territory, capturing the beauty and truth she loved — didn't have to be her last. Nor do yours.
Research, like the rest of life, moves on; there will be a lifetime to fall in love with new topics, irresistibly beautiful, and to pursue them in the quest for truth.CHAPTER 2
Sit Down and Write, Get Up and Move
Gesa E. Kirsch
When you sit by a pond or a slowly winding stream, the city's impatient tempo drains away, and from the corners of the mind, thoughts come out and sun themselves.
— Lorus Milne and Margery Milne
Pairing these two activities — sitting down to write, getting up to move — has been very productive for me, no matter the writing task or stage of a project at hand.
Sit Down and Write. When I start a new writing project, whether it is a conference paper, essay, article, book chapter, grant proposal, or research report, I give myself permission to write quickly, without stopping, editing, or censoring the thoughts that emerge, just as I often ask my students to begin with freewriting when they explore a new topic. I draw inspiration from writers like Julia Cameron, Peter Elbow, Natalie Goldberg, and Donald Murray, who encourage us to "show up at the page" with pen and paper, allowing ourselves be surprised by what appears in front of us.
When I sit down to write, I jot down phrases, list ideas, misspell words, ramble a bit, jump around, omit transitions, write fragments, break all the rules. I write even when I know that I still have a lot of reading to do, when I do not know what colleagues have said on a subject, when I still have much to learn. I like to get initial thoughts and ideas onto the page to see what excites me about a topic, why I care about the subject matter, what questions emerge, what speculative answers I might offer, why I think the research at hand is worth investigating. Giving myself permission to write early, before an exhaustive literature review, gives me freedom to explore, find my passion, change directions, rethink my position, and later on, to engage more deeply with the authors I will read on the subject matter.
My word choice above was deliberate; I still like to start with pen and paper for exploratory drafts, allowing me to write anywhere, anytime, at the spur of the moment. The simplicity of these two items offers a distraction-free approach; I can avoid format and font choices, autocorrect features, illuminated screens and, most centrally, the temptation to connect to the internet. There is now compelling research that shows that handwriting is a different cognitive process than typing; the former appears to challenge the mind to synthesize, organize, and prioritize in ways that keyboarding does not (for a summary of this research, see Hotz 2016; May 2014). Moreover, I like to set boundaries for technology, limiting interruptions; therefore, I mute all my devices at all times — no beeping, chiming, chirping, or vibrating. When I sit down to write, I protect my time and space, keeping distractions to a minimum.
For a second iteration of my writing, I usually do move to the computer, often energized by freewriting, notes by my side, ready to elaborate, develop a point, articulate an idea, refine questions. All the while, I still aim to observe with interest, not judgment, the writing that unfolds (keeping the internal critic and editor at bay).
Lately, I have been setting a timer for forty-five minutes, enough time to allow me to generate quite a bit of text, hone in on a revision, or tackle an editing or proofreading task. That amount of time goes by quickly but can be quite productive, I find. If I sit still for more than an hour or two, I have discovered, I tend to lose momentum, focus, and energy; hence my need to move.
Get Up and Move. Once my timer rings, I get up and move. If it's late in the morning, I'll head out for a short run, take a brisk walk (around campus or my neighborhood), or attend the occasional yoga class. Any of these activities can do wonders: it gets my blood flowing and lungs pumping, brings oxygen to my body, gives me new energy, and lifts my mood. Some of my runs/walks are social, others solo, allowing me to clear my head and observe my environment — the shoreline along the Charles River, the traffic roaring in the distance, the blue sky overhead, fellow runners and walkers enjoying the outdoors. Or, on a rainy day like this morning, I walk with umbrella in hand, feeling the mist on my skin, listening to cars splashing water from puddles, observing other walkers, bundled up tightly, leaning into the wind, the umbrella a shield for all that may come their way. At other times of the year, I listen to the snow crunching underfoot, observe the muted winter tones — gray, white, and black — of a New England cityscape, or squint my eyes against the sun hanging low on the horizon, even at noon time, on a winter's day. As the epigraph by Lorus and Margery Milne suggests, spending time outside can greatly contribute to creativity, insight, and inspiration.
I love getting out of doors, but when time pressures don't permit a small excursion, I still get up, walk a bit, stretch, climb the stairs, or attend to a task that gets me out of my chair for fifteen minutes to a half hour. After a brief break, I'll set the timer again, refreshed and clear-headed, ready for another writing session. Suddenly I know exactly what I need to do next, how to organize my thoughts, how to proceed.
And so it goes: two short focused writing sessions with some movement in between are all that's necessary to keep me motivated and productive. It does not take all day, not even half a day; all it takes is blocking out some time in my calendar, writing regularly for some amount of time most every day. I have learned that I do my best writing in the mornings, but I remain flexible, writing whenever I can claim forty or fifty minutes. As long as I schedule writing sessions several days a week, my projects move along; I am close enough to the writing, the research questions, and the ideas to know where I have left off and what to do next. I can maintain momentum, excited to return to my work in progress.
Coda: Often and Early. I distinctly remember my surprise when, more than two decades ago, a well-published, highly successful woman professor told me during an interview that she reserved weekends for things other than academic work (I published this interview as part of a larger study, Women Writing the Academy [Kirsch 1994]). Inspired by this fine advice, I learned early in my career to reserve weekends "for other things." Hence, I have come to recognize the importance of writing regularly, at least several times a week. It's kept my life balanced and productive, the academic work only one aspect of my rich lived experience. Robert Boice, the well-known psychologist and professor who studied the writing habits of academic faculty members, offers this sound advice: "Writing, in usual practice, need be nothing more than a modest daily priority, one that ranks well below more important priorities like social life and exercising. Unrealistic priorities and goals, like most New Year's resolutions, typically fail and torment" (1994: 239).CHAPTER 3
Andrea Abernethy Lunsford
It was 1976. I was a graduate student at Ohio State in the midst of dissertation research and writing when I got a request from a publisher to review the manuscript of a book called Errors and Expectations. I kept reading the note over and over again: surely it wasn't meant for me. Mina Shaughnessy was a hero to me (and lots of others); I had read everything of hers I could get my hands on and been influenced in my dissertation research by what she had to say about students she dubbed "basic writers." Review her manuscript? Yikes!
Eventually I pulled myself together and agreed to write a review. Then I read the manuscript, taking mountains of notes and being carried away by her argument: that students whose prose appeared "hopeless" (in her colleagues' words) were in fact working within the language system as they understood it. Teachers needed to listen to students, to hear the logic they were adhering to, to understand literally where they were coming from in their writing before jumping to the conclusion that they were hopeless, illiterate, "not college material." What a breath of fresh air in the atmosphere created by the "Johnny [and Jane] Can't Write" furor of the mid-1970s!
I remember sitting on my sofa with the manuscript, inspired by its message and in awe of its author, and feeling writer's block or something very much like it. I kept trying to begin ... and then trying again. And again. Nothing seemed to work; my brain felt frozen. Then I took drastic measures. I gave myself an ultimatum: "Get with it, girl," I said to myself. "This is a task you can do, and you are not going to get up from this sofa until you have written two pages. I don't care how long it takes — no time for a glass of tea. No bathroom breaks." I sat there for quite a while, musing and daydreaming, but then I began imagining myself talking to Shaughnessy about what she had written, asking her questions and even hazarding answers to some of them, passing the conversational ball back and forth. And finally I began to write. Imagining a conversation turned out to be the way for me to engage with the manuscript and with Shaughnessy herself, not as a professional compared to me, a wet-behind-the-ears graduate student, not as someone whose work awed me, but as someone I just wanted to talk to, engage with, learn from and with. So I wrote the review and sent it off — no great shakes, but I felt satisfied, not to mention relieved.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Explanation Points"
Copyright © 2019 University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents
Introduction John R. Gallagher and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss,
Section 1: Getting Started: Inventing, Brainstorming, and Managing,
1. Love, Beauty, and Truth: On Finding a Dissertation Topic Lynn Z. Bloom,
2. Sit Down and Write, Get Up and Move Gesa E. Kirsch,
3. Double Dipping Andrea Abernethy Lunsford,
4. The Importance of Stories Nancy G. Barrón,
5. Overcoming the Clinandrium Conundrum Carrie Strand Tebeau,
6. You Can Do That in Rhetoric and Composition Byron Hawk,
7. What's Interesting? Originality and Its Discontents John Trimbur,
8. Start with What You Know Ashanka Kumari,
9. Believe in Yourself and in Your Ability to Join Public and Scholarly Conversations Heidi A. McKee,
10. Refine Your Rhetorical Exigence Naomi Silver,
11. Be a Content Strategist Michael J. Faris,
12. Storyboarding Your Writing Projects Chris M. Anson,
13. Invention and Arrangement while Driving: Writing for the Commute Jim Ridolfo,
14. Chip Away Cruz Medina,
15. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Research Hour Ellen Barton,
16. Keeping with and Thinking Through: On Maintaining a Daily Work Log Jody Shipka,
17. Timing Matters: Focus on Achievable Tasks Michael Baumann,
18. A WPA/First-Time Mom's Guide to Producing the First Book for Tenure Staci Perryman-Clark,
19. Community Writing: From Classroom to Workplace and Back Stephen A. Bernhardt,
20. Not a Draft but Materials Joseph Harris,
21. You Will Not Be Able to Stay Home: Quantitative Research in Writing Studies Norbert Elliot,
22. Practicing WHIMSY Jenn Fishman,
23. Trust the Process Kathleen Blake Yancey,
Section 2: Getting Feedback: Sharing Drafts, Collaborating, and (Re)Developing,
24. Writing Is/as Communal Trixie G. Smith,
25. Publishing as a PhD Student by Building Knowledge across Communities Laura Gonzales,
26. If You Are Going to Collaborate: Three Considerations Joan Mullin,
27. From Chapter to Article with Collaborative Planning Linda Flower,
28. What's the Way In? Some Lessons and Considerations about Inventing as a Collaborative Team, from a Collaborative Team Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter,
29. Planning the Perfect Heist: On the Importance of Assembling a Team of Specialists in Your Writing Group Ben McCorkle,
30. "Okay, Your Turn": A Dialogue on Collaboration and Editing Kyle D. Stedman and Courtney S. Danforth,
31. Conference to Publication Pipeline: Making Work Work for You Katie Manthey,
32. Be Open to Feedback: Separate Yourself from Your Writing Janice Cools,
33. Embrace the Opposition Asao B. Inoue,
34. To Heed or Not to Heed: Evaluating Advice Marcia Bost,
35. Feedback from Two Sides Amber Buck,
36. The When of Submitting and Publication John R. Gallagher and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss,
Section 3: Finding a Foothold: Identifying Audiences, Targeting Presses, and Situating Scholarly Fit,
37. Be Brave and Be Bold Shirley Rose,
38. Queer/ed Research: Disrupting the Unending Conversation Jacqueline Rhodes,
39. Remixing the Dissertation Jason Palmeri,
40. Read the Journals, Then Move the Field Kristine Blair,
41. Listen for a While, Then Put in Your O(a)r David Blakesley,
42. Locate First, Invent Second William Duffy,
43. Selecting a Journal Erin Jensen,
44. It's All about Fit: Finding Your Particular Publication Kathryn Comer,
45. What's the Payoff? Marilyn M. Cooper,
46. Achieving Visibility through Strategic Publication Christie Toth and Darin L. Jensen,
47. U Can Haz Fair Use! Timothy R. Amidon,
48. Open or Closed? Observations on Open-Access Publishers Mike Palmquist,
49. Text/Design/Code: Advice on Developing and Producing a Scholarly Webtext Douglas Eyman,
50. Speak to Others as You Would Like Them to Speak to You Craig Cotich,
51. Read Like a Writer, Write for Your Reader Troy Hicks,
52. Editing Texts, Editing Careers Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber,
53. Creating a Conversation in the Field through Editing Mya Poe,
Section 4: Getting (More and Different Types of) Feedback: Navigating Reviewers and Understanding Editorial Responses,
54. Coming to Terms with the Inevitability of Epic Failure; or, Once More unto the Breach Ryan Skinnell,
55. Rejection: It's Not the Last Step Heather Lettner-Rust,
56. "I Am Recommending That the Editor Reject This Submission" Patrick Sullivan,
57. Pester Editors Politely James J. Brown Jr.,
58. From Editors with Love ... or Maybe Not so Much! Lilian W. Mina,
59. What's the Way Forward? Some Lessons and Considerations about Revising from Feedback as a Collaborative Team, from a Collaborative Team Bump Halbritter and Julie Lindquist,
60. Don't Take Editorial Advice — Use It Bruce Horner,
61. Revise and Resubmit! But How? Sarah Kornfield,
62. From Resistance to Revision: Staging a Response to a "Revise and Resubmit" Jessica Enoch,
63. Prioritizing Reviewer Comments for a "Revise and Resubmit" Request Gabriel Cutrufello,
64. Managing Reviewer and Editorial Feedback Rebecca E. Burnett,
65. Investigate, Target, Implement, Persevere: Understanding the Academic Publishing Process through Editors' Eyes Tara Lockhart, Brenda Glascott, Justin Lewis, Holly Middleton, Juli Parrish, and Chris Warnick,
66. From Fear to Collaboration: Working with Academic Journal/Series Editors Steve Parks,
67. Ruthless, Fussy, Alert: A Quick Guide to Copyediting Christina M. LaVecchia, Janine Morris, and Laura R. Micciche,
68. After the Acceptance Barbara L'Eplattenier and Lisa Mastrangelo,
Section 5: Moving On,
69. The Ten-Year Plan Laurie Gries,
70. Aiming for After: Doing Time-Consuming Projects with a Sense of an Ending Douglas Hesse,
71. Publishing Is a Beginning Joyce Carter,
72. Your Book Has Arrived! Now What? Kim Hensley Owens,
73. Pursue Meaningful Projects: Learn to Keep Learning Ellen Cushman,
74. Don't Do Anything You Can't Write About Jeffrey T. Grabill,
75. Conversational Publications Jeff Rice,
76. It's Never Done: Rethinking Post-Publication Donna LeCourt,
77. After the End Sid Dobrin,