Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Crafting the Dissertation: December 2016 Update on Being Done (Kind of)

Earlier this morning I sent off chapter four, my Milton chapter, my penultimate chapter of rewriting my dissertation from scratch, off to my director.

So the total rewrite of the dissertation, the throw out over a year's worth of work and start over, is done.
Kind of.
Sort of.
I still have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite.
And all of it is still in rounds of revision with my director.

But the heavy lifting, the emotionally insane work of starting over and rethinking everything is finished.

I rewrote the dissertation in four months. Working, except for breaks, just one day a week on Saturdays. This forced schedule (forced by my full time job teaching high school and my TAship teaching an online Shakespeare class) had some interesting results.
  • It meant Saturdays were long days. From waking up to dark except for walking Nehi, I did not leave my desk. Whether inspiration struck or not, I was not allowed to leave my desk because it was the only day I had to work on things.
  • It also meant that ideas percolated the rest of the week. Several times I had thoughts and inspirations during the week that I'd write on a scrap piece of paper or Post-It and place on my desk during the week to revisit on Saturday.
  • My goal was one chapter per month and I met that goal. I met it mainly because I had very structured goals:
    • Week 1 was pull all the close readings for that month's chapter.
    • Week 2 was add the scholarly sources.
    • Week 3 was add introduction, conclusion, and footnotes.
    • Week 4 was last looks and done.
The schedule didn't always work. I was very sick for two weeks in November, so days I'd thought I'd have to get ahead (election day and Veteran's Day) were lost, as were those Saturdays.
I had also forgotten just how exhausting teaching high school full time was. I have been tired for months.
I was done with my high school teaching job 16 December, and thought I'd get more done before Christmas than I did. Mainly because chapter four, my Milton chapter needed a lot more time than I thought.

All this being said, one of the lessons of this summer's STUFF was not to be tied to arbitrary deadlines. So while I had a time management plan, when it went wrong or things took longer I didn't stress about it, choosing instead to do what was best for the dissertation.

As I was finishing this week I thought a lot about crafting the dissertation. There's a lot that gets said about just finishing, and that the best dissertation is a done dissertation and I get all of that. I am certainly ready to be done, to defend, graduate, move on. But I have seen very little about what it means to craft a dissertation. I did not focus on craft with the original dissertation for a couple of reasons. I was focused on getting done and I was focused on fixing other people's notes and lost sight of what I was making.

This dissertation is totally focused on craft. Part of this is that after being told I had to throw out and start over I had to focus on craft. I needed to build a complete outline for the re-write. And let me tell you, if you're just starting your dissertation please listen--- outlines are magic. They will force you to identify and track your argument. They will force you to ask yourself necessary questions. They will save you when you get lost. I needed to make sure that my arguments were clear so introductions, conclusions, and topic sentences that clearly signposted what I was doing became vital to my purpose. Each chapter had to have its own clear, articulated argument and each chapter had to interlock with each other. My dissertation actually makes three distinct arguments in each of the three chapters and then analyzes those arguments in Paradise Lost. I knew before I started the rewrite what I needed each chapter to do (and was still surprised hitting CH 4 that the focus, and my argument, was the infernal councils).

My new director also specifically MAKES me think about crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. She asks me questions about organization, word choice, WHY I chose to do certain things. And this is perhaps one of the biggest changes from the original.

This is MY dissertation.

My director has offered great advice, and support, suggestions of where another source or theory might help, and has asked questions to get me to clarify my thinking. She has offered suggestions for word choices or rephrasing. But the ideas in the dissertation, the argument, is all mine. One of the problems with the the original was that I got stuck in a loop of addressing notes, doing what notes told me to, trusting that they were correct. And I'm not saying they weren't (fog of war honestly prevents me from  knowing). But what I can say is that early on in the process of my first dissertation I lost my voice. I ceded it in the interest of giving what I thought others wanted, and more importantly, what was needed to pass.

I am even more grateful now that my committee did not let me go to defense in June. Not only would it not have passed, but I honestly believe now that I would not have been able to speak about the dissertation as it was not really my argument, my ideas.

I have made this dissertation my dissertation. I have built it. And the process of crafting it has made me better. My biggest fear after this summer was that I could not do this. That I lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to write the dissertation and earn my PhD. Sitting down to write the first chapter was one of the hardest things I've ever done. There was so much to overcome, both my own fears and depression, but also the almost crippling list of everything that was wrong with the original dissertation---no argument, too many texts, too much description, no argument, uneven interaction with secondary sources, wrong arguments or approaches, no clear methodology, too long, too bloated, no idea what you're saying here.
Sitting down with my director to get notes for that first chapter was terrifying. What if I hadn't fixed it? What if I proved, again, I couldn't do this?
Know what the biggest note was? Have you thought about swapping this section and this one, and putting this in a footnote. I gained a lot of my confidence back in that meeting. I also learned to internalize the notes. The organization of CH 2 and 3 was better. I didn't make the same mistakes. I learned to pay attention to the words, to hear my director's voice in my head as I revised, guiding me. I learned to anticipate the questions she would ask.
When we met about CH 3 the week before Christmas I was almost as nervous as that first chapter because it was the Shakespeare CH, and was the only chapter that contained anything close to the original. I was terrified that in revisiting some of the same texts I would replicate the same mistakes. Once again, I proved myself wrong.
Don't get me wrong- there are still notes. I still have to control F for contractions, and still have style to polish. There are things to be done.

But today I finished the last chapter. I fought with this chapter. I worried about this chapter. It took SO much longer than I thought it would. It scared me--If you suffer from imposter's syndrome I don't recommend studying Paradise Lost. But the lessons of the last few months served me well. When I was overwhelmed by the close readings I stopped and took the time to outline the entire chapter. I started small, looking at my close readings and seeing what the argument was (this was where the infernal council epiphany came from). I focused on crafting each sentence, each paragraph, each section and before I knew it I had finished.

I went through it a couple more times.
And then I sent it off to my director.

And I just stopped.

Because if you had told me in June, and the height of my anxiety and depression this summer that I ever would have been able to rewrite the dissertation and write something that I was proud of I would not have believed you. I have come a long way in just a few months. So I'm taking a bit to acknowledge that because it's a big deal. And I don't think we spend enough time stopping to acknowledge the things that are hard and then celebrating when we overcome them.

It's a contradiction of course to say I'm done. I'm staring at the next round of notes on CH 3 that I need to do. Now that I've drafted the whole thing, I have the introduction and conclusion to rewrite. Now that my director has the whole thing we'll focus on making sure I'm tracing throughlines and arguments through the whole thing. Plus the polishing, revising, tweaking that needs to happen over and over again.
So lots still to be done. But it still feels like this is a big deal.

I'm not exactly sure what happens next other than what I just wrote above. One thing I told myself this semester was that I was just going to do the work. I was not going to think past rewriting the dissertation. So I don't know how long this next portion will take. I don't know if I'll defend and graduate in the spring. We'll see.

But today is a good day.
And for now, that's enough.