Joys and Demands

Putting down a few thoughts about my own dissertation phase transition seems
inevitably to scatter, prone to it’s early, the
many-directions-remain-a-possibility starburst, like the gust-thrown seeds from
a maturing dandelion blossom. Small chances; their taking hold remains
undetermined.

That’s a excessively florid way of saying that these are days of starts and
stops. The prospectus and hearing determine certain aspects of the project.
The approximate plan gains approval, wins assent to move ahead. But
what, exactly, comes next? More reading? Tentative, provisional writing?
Conversation? Research activity? Yes, all of it. What proportions or
ratios among them? How do certain streams merge, diverge, overshadow the
others?

Advice varies. I won’t run through all of it now. Instead, I want to list a
few of the things that crowd together under the canopy of "dissertating."

  • Re-reading inspirational materials. Mulling over the few items in a highly selective gathering, a store of kick-start ideas and favorite theori(es/sts). Not writing by inspiration alone, but
    reading as inspirational (i.e., the stuff that, when reading, makes you want
    to tell someone about it, makes you want to shout; reading that excites,
    because not all of it does).
  • Conversation with committee members and mentors. Ongoing.
    Invaluable. A must.
  • Note-keeping, list-making, and drawing (cluster graphs, etc.).
  • Writing, drafting–where page counts begin to accumulate.
  • Elimination (or e-liminal) reading. Thresholds: how much of this
    will the dissertation tolerate? A speculative game, trailing maybe-this?
    down the tapering, increasingly overgrown (forgotten? never-trodden?)
    pathways suggested by mentors, allies, and other Friends of the Project.
    Offered in a spirit of generosity, such assemblages might contribute, but
    more likely much of it will not, not directly or explicitly. A line
    from my prospectus hearing on May 14: "Expect to read 100 times more than
    you will end up using or citing."
  • Conversation with colleagues, fellow dissertators, and interested
    others. On vacation, among family: "Tell us about your dissertation."
  • Staring off in the distance.
  • Refining the data. Combing through what has been collected and assembled already.
    Tuning and sorting. Working through the research processes still needed
    for specific sections of the project.

These (and others I have forgotten and, therefore, neglected for now) are
processually interrelated, co-occurring, and complex. The combination of
activities, I’m beginning to understand, can’t be fully understood on the front
end as if scripted or even fully advisable (measured like a recipe). This is
what we mean by inquiry, no? This is what we mean by the dissertation as a
best attempt, a practice book, and so on. This half-understood, undecidable
how-to
is the hard part at the phase transition spanning from exams to such
riveting opening sentences as "In society today, rhetoric and composition…."
So–no shock-you-off-your-seat surprise in this–I’m still learning the project,
still trying to handle it each and every day, and finding daily affirmation as
much in "Let no fears, inhibitions, or apprehensions stand in its way" as from
the aphorisms that emphasize pleasure, as in "Demand of yourself, among many
other reasonable things, that writing the dissertation be a labor of love (at
least intense like)" or "Remember to enjoy it."