Writing a dissertation feels different for a lot of reasons, but I’ve been thinking about one in particular. Lately I’ve been enjoying some kinder, gentler feelings about writing that recall my classroom practices but not my “professional” writing style, which is, like most English majors, mostly critical.
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with my friend, Shannon. She’s an English major at a nearby university. During the school year, we get together to read/study/grouse about once a week, sometimes more. Before I continue, I should mention that Shannon is what the university calls a “non-traditional student,” which translates to “she’s not entering the university fresh out of high school.” Shannon is very bright. She’ll probably pursue a graduate degree in film studies, so English is a good choice. In a perfect world, Shannon would be able to focus on the conventions of various genres of writing and storytelling. However…
One of Shannon’s complaints about school centers on the inane writing assignments she is asked to complete. “Analyze the significance of the tree in Jane Eyre.” Or, “Choose one chapter of Joseph Andrews and convince your readers that it contains all of the main themes of the novel.” Or, “Write an assertion (that’s really what they call it) about what you believe to be the most important plot point. Make sure to use lots of textual evidence to support your argument.”
Not the most inspiring of prompts, you see. They ask students to “critique” the texts they’re reading, but they do not ask them to do anything with the text. The emphasis is on analysis rather than invention.
I’ve seen Shannon’s notes from class, I’ve read her “freewrites,” and I’ve talked with her about her reading—it’s clear that she knows the material back and forth. However, when it comes time to write, she often struggles to fulfill the page requirement. (Seriously, five pages about the stupid tree in Jane Eyre? Give me a break…who would want to write that much??) A prompt that asked Shannon to create a new context for the story of Jane Eyre would be perfect. “Revise the story of Jane Eyre for a modern audience, changing only one or two elements of the story.” (Think Emma to Clueless.) Or, “rewrite a chapter from JE for a modern film version. Include details about setting, character development, dialogue.” Both papers could still incorporate an argument, but it would be more of a “here are the reasons this revision is relevant/significant”.
In order to respond to these prompts, students would have to know the text, so teachers would have a means of evaluating the students’ interaction with and understanding of the material. However, students would also have an opportunity to engage with the text on a more creative, even collaborative, level.
While I was musing on Shannon’s problem, I realized that I no longer feel the need to critique my texts in the same way that I have in the past. So many of my seminar papers began with me challenging another author on his or her interpretation of a text, problem, or issue. Writing was an antagonistic, critical, analytic enterprise. I often felt that I had to tear down the critic before I could float my own ideas.
But now, as I begin this dissertation, I don’t think of composing in the same way. I mean, I still disagree with some of the interpretations I’m reading, but I’m only thinking about those differences as ways to frame my discussion. I find myself thinking about ways that I can use these other interpretations to buttress my own ideas about what I’m reading, or ways that these other authors can support me as I try to explain myself. The whole process feels more creative and collaborative rather than so argumentative. In the same way that asking a student to develop one of her own ideas using an existing text (Jane Eyre as modern social commentary, for example), this new approach allows me to see the similarities between my project and other projects and to emphasize the similarities for my own purposes.
I’ll write more on this topic in the future. For now, I’m still trying to find ways to explain what I feel. Shannon’s issue seemed like a good way to open the discussion for me. Perhaps the difference is that I have more control over how the dissertation turns out. Or maybe it’s the fact that I came up with my own question, so I can answer it in any way I want (rather than having a question posed to me and being asked to demonstrate my knowledge in a five-page response.) I don’t know yet…
But it feels great to envision my work as a part of a collaborative conversation (pardon the cliché) and less like a vitriolic talk radio shouting match wherein I better have my proof or I’ll get an F.