>When dissertation directors have too much power

>Sorry for the long silence. Crazy holiday travel schedule + frantically getting ready for the semester + stupidly becoming addicted to TimeWasteBook = a blogger’s absence.

Anyway, I’m back in Rust Belt, enjoying the peace and quiet caused by a snowy weekend before the semester begins. So while Bullock makes us a new TV/Entertainment stand in his workshop, I’m catching up with all things electronic. Heck, even Pippi’s quiet and mellow. She’s dozing on the window seat that Bullock made for, occasionally looking up to watch the snow fall. Soon we’ll be out there shoveling again, but for now I have time to write a SUBSTANTIVE post. Really!

So while I was at MLA, having a good time on my part since I was neither being interviewed nor giving a paper, I was also feeling great sympathy for all those people on the market — including the 14 we were interviewing — and picking up on the crazy-stress vibe in the main conference hotels. (Btw, do you ever get the feeling that *everyone* is staring at you when you walk into those lobbies? Maybe they are, since everyone is looking for the people they’re meeting, but it makes me feel really weird.) I was also hearing everyone’s stories — successes, disappointments, frustrations, and triumphs — as well as the stories they’d heard. And one of those is what inspired the title of this post.

A friend and I were talking about whether our respective hiring committees were afraid of ABDs not finishing in time, and if we tended to prefer people with the PhD in hand or a set defense date, or whatever. And that brought up a story of a friend of this friend, whose dissertation director wouldn’t let the person file his dissertation, year after year, for about three years running. And so the person kept going out on the market as an ABD and not getting many bites and not getting a job. When the director finally let the person file, he got an embarrassment of riches in the interview department, more than one campus visit, and a job. (There were, of course, a couple of articles published in there, too.)

According to my friend — or according to her friend, the one who was prevented from filing — the reason the director wouldn’t let his student file wasn’t because the diss wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough to be a diss. Rather, it was because it wasn’t good enough to be a book. He thought he was doing his student a favor, getting him to shape it into a book while still a student, rather than once the tenure clock started running. I have to say that when I was a grad student, I kind of thought that way, too, and so did some of my friends, especially those of us who had one or more years of dissertation fellowship. But now I think that’s messed up.

Here’s why. A graduate student on fellowship or working an assistantship makes peanuts. An assistant professor, even at the most poorly paying school, makes a lot more. But it’s not just about a couple of years of higher salary. A graduate student making peanuts isn’t paying off her credit card bills; she’s accruing interest on them. A graduate student isn’t contributing to her retirement account, and so is not only losing that year’s contributions, but also the earnings it accrues (okay, okay, let’s leave aside the tens of thousands of dollars my TIAA-CREF account lost this particular year). Add just those two things together and the financial difference is exponentially greater than just the amount of salary difference. Then there’s the fact that if you’re a professor getting any kind of raise or merit pay or cost of living adjustment — or even summer school pay — it’s likely based on your base pay. A graduate student is losing out on years of having that base pay and having it increase each year. The graduate student is likely also not saving for a down-payment on a house, saving for her kid’s college fund, or, for that matter, saving at all. Such investments and savings also (ideally) accrue value over time (again, let’s leave aside the current financial and real estate markets for the moment).

But it’s not just about money. There’s social and professional status and general self respect involved, too. I can’t begin to explain what a difference it made to my sense of authority in the classroom just to be a lecturer with a Ph.D. versus a grad student in my own grad program. Faculty treated me differently — I got invited to the secret faculty party! — and so did the students. Teaching upper division courses rather than lower div ones also went a long way to making me feel like I had some real expertise and authority in my subject. And even before I got the tenure track job, my family felt like they could stop worrying about me for once — I was finally no longer a student. It even influenced my personal life; you get a better reaction from strangers when you say “I teach at such and such a place” than you do when you say “I’m a Ph.D. student at such and such a place.”

And there’s still more that’s problematic about the dissertation director who expects a finished book rather than a dissertation, and its a problem that affects more than his individual student. First of all, a circumstance like this is an abuse of power. While it’s different in degree from the spouse who won’t let his partner have her own life, it’s not that different in kind. And the student in such cases likely acts like the abused spoused: she internalizes the “it’s for your own good” justification; she can’t bring herself to leave and start all over again (whether that means something as drastic as leaving academia or just switching advisors); and she probably tells herself that she’s partly/mostly to blame – if only she’d just write a better book. I’ve seen people who had such directors still have doubts about themselves and their work years later and it affects their productivity.

But more troubling — or perhaps just troubling on a greater scale — is the impact such expectations have on the discipline and academia in general. If dissertaton directors keep expecting more of the dissertation, hiring committees can expect more of applicants — perhaps a book contract from an ABD. And if hiring committees are expecting more, T&P committees will expect yet more — it’s two books for tenure at some places now. It’s utter madness. I know some of the directors doing this are probably justifying by thinking that they’re only preparing their charges for these increasing expectations. But isn’t it a mutually supporting system? If those of us on hiring committees see these superhuman grad students with book deals, aren’t we going to expect more of our applicants, consciously or unconsciously? So it doesn’t stop only with those of us on that end of things — the dissertation directors have to stop having such high expectations, too. I don’t think a dissertation that’s just a dissertation and one article is too much to ask of a student, or too little to make them look ready for the profession (and, in fact, I think the craft of the journal article is one that needs to be taught more explicitly in graduate school — but that’s a post for another day). But keeping your student from graduating because his dissertation isn’t yet a book is damaging to both the student and the profession.

Let me close with two quick case studies. One is me. The other is someone who graduated from college at the same time I did — indeed, from the very same college. I took three years off from school before going back for the Ph.D., and she went straight to grad school, so you’d think that this other person and I would be about 3 years apart in our “academic age,” wouldn’t you? But no, I just got tenure last year and she’s a full professor now. I think she may even have an endowed chair. Of course, there are a lot of differences between the two of us that accounts for part of this (for one, she’s a workaholic, which she herself admits). But a big chunk of that difference is that she actually finished the Ph.D. in 5 years — even doing field work for part of it — because she had a director who thought of a dissertation as a dissertation. My once-peer wrote a 150 page dissertation (in a “wordy” field – not a math or hard science). I wrote a 450 page behemoth for a director who didn’t exactly expect a finished book — and certainly didn’t keep me from graduating (I did a lot of that myself) — but did have pretty high expectations, and often referred to the thing as a book. Though to be fair, he often said things like “this is something you’ll want to think about more when you turn this into a book.” So I didn’t have the kind of director I’m troubled by in this post. But I also didn’t have the kind that my one time peer did. And I think that’s made a lot of difference in our career and life trajectories.

The profession as a whole — and especially those fields where we write books — needs actively to rethink what we expect of Ph.D. students, because the state of the market right now and in the future is likely to drive us all into more insane expectations if we don’t start setting some reasonable limits now.

>What’s the role of the outside reader?

>Here’s a question that I think any of my readers who have been involved with a Ph.D. dissertation or M.A. thesis committee — for their own or others — can address.

What do you think the role of the “outside” reader is (that is, the person who’s either at another university or in another department)?

I’m on two committees gearing up for defenses soon. And in both cases, I was either brought in late as a replacement or else haven’t otherwise been involved in the writing in progress. And as far as *I’m* concerned that’s fine. I see my role as largely formal: I’m there to keep the “inside” people honest, and make sure wacky things aren’t going on. In the committee where I’ve been involved longer, I’ve also made reading suggestions, in part because the work really does overlap with my own field and knowledge, and the other committee members really didn’t know much about it. And actually, in the other case, it overlaps with literary studies as well, but other knowledgeable people have been involved, and I was only brought in this summer when the dissertation was already largely done. In that case, I think any advice I’d have to give would be way too late.

So, in both cases, I’ll show up for the defense and ask some questions to tease out things that maybe weren’t fully addressed in the writing, and some others that are kind of big picture and disciplinary (‘how is this an X discipline work and not a literary studies work?’ is probably something I’ll ask both of them, since both really do overlap with literary studies). But I’m not looking to stymie or fail them, or expect them to suddenly meet *my* expectations. I’m the outside reader, after all, not the director.

But one of the students involved — the one whose committee I didn’t join (as a replacement) until right before I left for the UK and who’s already largely done with the project — *wants* my feedback. I’m thinking of explaining to her what I see as my role — a pro forma one, especially given the circumstances — and assuring her that I won’t pull anything at the defense. If her director will sign off on the diss and pass her, so will I. Do you think that’s fair? I barely have time to read the thing, let alone give detailed feedback.

But in more ideal circumstances — where one is brought in from the beginning — what is the role of the outside reader?

>On keeping a research journal

>In response to my rambling post below on how my dissertation became a book, What Now? brought up something worth responding to on the front page. She wrote in the comments:

I was particularly interested to read that you do your research upfront and then turn to the writing, since I just made the decision this weekend that I’ve been trying to write too soon and need to step back and immerse myself in research for awhile. And this is counter to some writing gurus who say “Write before you’re ready.”

It’s true that I tend to frontload the research and do the “real” writing closer to the end of the process, and I’m one of those people who likes to get the whole argument in her head before she writes, at least in outline form. I find that then I write pretty quickly. However, I do a lot of other kinds of writing throughout the process. First of all, when I’m taking notes, I write questions and responses to the scholars I’m reading. Things like “This is compelling, but what about…?” That way my process really does take the form of a conversation with the scholars. That sometimes happens with the primary texts, too. There’s a name in the attestation of ownership of the manuscript I’m currently working on, which I have circled in my printout of the microfilm. Next to it I’ve written, “Who are you?”

So there’s that kind of short-form writing. And I also keep a “work-in-progress” or research journal, and in that I write longer-form but informal essays on ideas I have during the research. Sometimes they start with questions such as “Could I say…?” or “What if I argued…?” Sometimes they’re about texts I’m teaching or reading in other contexts which might have something to say about the current project, and so I do a kind of reading response to save for future reference. I don’t always turn back to what I’ve written, but the process of writing, I think, helps me test ideas and keeps them more actively in my thought than just thinking about them would. It’s because of such a journal that my dissertation project changed from issue X in texts A & B to issue Y in them. And I did go back to that journal for my reading of one particular segment of those texts. So it has real, concrete value, as well as process and practice value.

I realize as I write this that these kinds of writing — marginal notations, notes, journals, reading response — are exactly the kind of things that Writing Across the Curriculum experts urge us to put into practice in our WAC (and non-WAC) courses. I never had WAC courses as an undergrad nor taught them as a graduate student, but somehow I’ve been using WAC methods in my own writing all along. Huh. Who knew? I must remember to bring this up in my WAC courses, to show students that this isn’t just cant, that regular writing practice of all forms does actually help you think through writing.

So, yes, I save the “formal” writing for later in the process, but really, I’m writing all along.

>From dissertation to book: a saga (but not in the medieval sense)

>Last week, Dr. Crazy wrote a narrative of the process that got her from her dissertation to her new book deal (congratulations, Dr. C!) and asked others to chime in with their narratives and advice. (She’s been answered as well by jbj at The Salt-Box.) There are elements of my story that are similar to Crazy’s, but with enough difference that I’ll give you my narrative. Much of the advice that Crazy and jbj both give is advice I would repeat (and some I wish I’d had).

Like Dr. C, I think I should start back with the dissertation process because that’s where the book started, and also like Dr. C., I always thought of it as a book (though I did cull parts for a couple of articles first). This is not the case with everyone. Bullock has a friend in rhet/comp who wrote a pretty quick, get-it-done style dissertation and then wrote something completely different for her first book. And maybe there are literature folks like that, too, but both Bullock and I turned our dissertations into our first books (he’s in a humanities-like part of the social sciences). In fact, we both had dissertation directors who referred to our dissertations as “the book.” If Bullock had a blog, he could tell you his story; I’ll stick to mine. My director, who is a generous and kind man, but also very private, non-confrontational, and a little shy, was a very hands-off kind of director. I think he really, sincerely believed in letting his students “find their bliss” so that they wouldn’t become reproductions of him. In the long run that seems to have worked for him and his students because his former students are an astonishingly accomplished, impressive, academically famous lot, but also very different from each other in their approaches to literature and scholarship. A little more direction – deadlines, for example – might have gotten me out a year earlier, but otherwise I respond pretty well to that sort of freedom. When it came time to submit things to him, that’s when he gave his full and careful attention to everything I wrote. Everything. In that way, he was an exacting task-master, but like Crazy’s director, he hit that sweet spot between fully-fledged “real” book and dissertation on its way to the book. He often wrote comments in the margins that asked questions or suggested I consider such-and-such, but then added, “You don’t need to do this now, but you’ll need to take it into consideration for the book.”

But that’s all after I started writing chapters. Let me go back a bit to the process that got me there, because I think that’s worth considering in this narrative, too. I’m kind of weirdly practical when it comes to deciding on things like areas of specialization and dissertation topics. I became a medievalist because I thought I’d have more to contribute to the scholarly conversation than in my other areas of interest where I loved the literature but didn’t have much new to say about it. When I love something too much, I have a hard time writing about it. For instance, I may never write anything about either Gawain and the Green Knight or Chaucer. So when I was fishing for texts and topics for the diss, I went to the texts that puzzled and interested me, that I had questions about rather than emotional attachments to. I think Bardiac has mentioned somewhere on her blog that when she teaches first year undergraduates how to do research, she emphasizes that the best research starts with a good question, one you don’t know the answer to. That’s something I’m going to emphasize with my juniors and seniors when we discuss how to do research, and it’s definitely something I somehow kind of knew when I started into my own research, although I didn’t express it to myself so directly. Instead, I started with the texts I was curious about, that I had questions about, and did MLA Bibliography searches on them to see what other scholars were talking about and if they’d answered these questions. In doing that, I realized one of the texts – or rather, set of texts — had had much less written on it than the others, despite being pretty canonical, and no one seemed to be writing on the questions I had about it. So that’s how I figured out a plan of action for beginning my research. I had texts I was interested in and had questions about, and I found that no one was really talking about the topic my questions addressed, even though I thought it was pretty obvious and important.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Really? That’s all you did to come up with your dissertation/book topic and argument?” No, of course not. See, originally, my questions were about issue X in texts A & B, but as I started doing my research I realized that issue X was not really what these texts were all about. Plus, the way I was thinking about issue X, I soon realized, was really ahistorical. But luckily, the research I was doing gave me new inspiration and I realized that the questions that I really should be asking were about issue Y – although X still had something to do with Y, so all that research on X wasn’t useless.

That whole process – of researching and refining my topic and the argument that eventually would come out of it – took about a year, at the end of which I produced a 40-page prospectus of the dissertation/book it would become, complete with chapter breakdowns and sample readings of selected parts of texts A & B for each of those mini-chapters. At my graduate institution, we defend the prospectus rather than the finished dissertation, which seems like a totally humane thing to do, since there’s a lot more room to change things at the prospectus stage. But I suppose that if I’d had a dissertation defense, I might have had a better sense of what needed to be done to make it into a book. Still, the ways in which even the dissertation changed from prospectus to finished dissertation at least prepared me for being able to chuck out whole ideas and segments when I revised the dissertation into the book. Because, see, that prospectus originally outlined 5 chapters, but in the end I wrote only 4, folding the idea of the fifth chapter into the work as a whole. Call the subject of that proposed chapter issue Z, because I realized, during the research and writing process, that it really was a separate issue, with separate theories and history, although I think it played a part in shaping issue Y. So, from an original idea about issue X on texts A & B, then a proposal about issue Y and Z in texts A & B, the dissertation became a work on issue Y on texts A & B, with some intertwined forays into the cultural matrix that is X, Y, and Z. Oh, and at one point there was going to be some discussion of text-group C – a different genre that I thought was perhaps shaping issue Y in texts A & B – but it became pretty obvious that that had the same problems as issue Z: different theories and histories plus a separate genre of texts. I had to focus.

Ultimately, after that prospectus defense, it took me another two years to research and write the dissertation. Most of the first year was about research, the next year about writing, both of them on dissertations fellowships. Yeah, it really shouldn’t have taken me so long. Actually, the first chapter was the longest to write. When I went on the market the first time, in the fall of my last year of graduate school (the second time I was finished and had a lectureship), I had two chapters written by MLA. And then from January to filing in August, I wrote the final two chapters and revised and polished the whole thing. So basically, it took me about 12+ months to get the first two chapters done and half the time to get the next two written and the whole thing revised. Again, it was that first chapter that was the real bitch, and I want to tell you about that, because it’s also key to how I turned the diss into the book.

As I started writing the first chapter, I encountered the problem that many a first time scholar encounters: I wanted to include everything I knew. And after all that research on issue X, I didn’t want to let it go, even though I was now doing issue Y. Anyway, as I was writing that first chapter – which was the new historicist, cultural contexts, reading-the-documents kind of chapter – it kept growing and growing and growing into the Chapter That Would Not End. When it reached 120 pages (!!) I told my director about its length and he suggested that I turn parts of it into an appendix if I couldn’t bear to let it go. He added that someday that would be a good repository of knowledge if I needed to turn to it in revising the book. So that’s what I did.

Some of the following chapters were pretty long, too, but not nearly as gargantuan as that first beast was. But also, they came much, much, faster in the writing, especially by chapters 3 and 4. Although I’m not nearly as speedy a writer as Crazy is, my writing process is similar. I spend a lot of time doing the research and conceptualizing the thing as a whole before writing, so that when it comes down to the writing, I know where I’m going. Also, I don’t angst over individual turns of phrase or sentences in the initial writing – I save that for later, for revisions. So my screenwriting neighbor and I would have these daily writing contests in which we announced our page tallies at the end of the day. We decided that a page of my text was worth ten of his, given the margins and the spacing and imaginative process of a screenplay versus the density of argument of a dissertation. One day I came out at 5pm (our deadline) and announced that I had written ten pages. “Damn!” he said, “That’s worth a whole screenplay!”

Anyway, in the end, I had a ridiculously long dissertation with an appendix of “stuff I just couldn’t cut” that came to nearly 500 pages. Clearly it was not ready to be published as is! I let it sit for my first year on the TT job and turned to it the next summer. I got a research award from my university to revise it into a book, and I took the six-week salary award seriously, making editing and revising my full-time job for those weeks. Here’s what I did with that appendix: anytime a footnote in a chapter said “See Appendix,” I decided if my close reading of the historical documents was necessary for the argument I was making and, if it was, I folded that bit into the main text. If the stuff in the Appendix was just a paraphrase or quotation of someone else’s work, all I kept was the footnote to them. The rest I chucked. And I set aside that first chapter and re-read the following chapters, trying to decide how much of that first chapter was needed to make sense of the following one. And I tried to pair down chapters 2 and 3, which were also pretty overwhelmingly large. And through all of this, I tried to use other recent books on texts A & B to guide me from dissertation to book. I didn’t know about Germano’s From Dissertation to Book, unfortunately, but I’ve always done a pretty good job using others’ work as models to imitate. I think imitation is a powerful tool for learning, in fact; it’s certainly how many a writer honed his or her craft. Sure, it can veer into the repetitious and the parodic and the tiresome. But the conventions of any genre, including the academic book, come from the texts themselves in conversation with and reflection of others like them, not from some set of “rules” out “there” in the sphere of the Forms of Genre.

I should say that throughout this, I had no explicit advice from my former director or committee member, other than those mightily helpful notes my director left me about what needed to be considered when it became a book. I’m not upset about this in the least. Like I said, he lets his students follow their bliss, and he also seems to believe that when they leave the nest they need to find their own way. He’s a bit like my own mother that way, and so it’s a style I respond to and understand. I think it’s part of the reason why I can throw myself into some project and just decide I have to do something, as in “OK, now I have to turn this into a book,” etc. I’m surprised I didn’t look for a book like Germano’s, though, since whenever my mom wanted to know how to do something she went to the library and found a book about it. Heck, when I decided to start running and training for marathons, I got a book, too! (Seriously: The Runner’s Handbook. Love it.)

After that initial process of revising, that’s when I said, “OK, now to get this thing published.” I knew it wasn’t totally finished, but I’d done as much as I could, and now I needed an editor or a reader to tell me what else it might require. So I started talking to the book editors at conference book exhibits. I brought along a newly-written one-page abstract of the book and an offprint of an article that came from material in one of the chapters, as well as a copy of my CV. Some of them took that material; some of them gave me their proposal forms; some of them asked me to send a formal query letter; none of the editors gave me all that much concrete advice. But one of them really interviewed me – as if for a TT job – which I totally wasn’t prepared for. He asked and said things such as “How is your book different from So-and-So’s book?” (which, btw, is a cultural history book on issue Y – why does everyone think I’m a historian???) and “Why do you think the field needs your book?” and “Convince me it’s not just a slightly more polished version of your dissertation.” He scared me. But he also taught me a little of what to expect when publishers looked at my proposals. In the end, I got two rejections from the presses who’d taken my materials at the conference as informal proposals/queries, and they were nice rejections, but they didn’t give much feedback. So other than Scary Editor’s interview, I was back at square one, still hoping at least to get the book to the reader stage and not knowing exactly why I was getting rejected and if it had to do with my topic and ideas or just with economics, luck, and timing.

And then a friend told me about the presses that give “advance contracts,” where the press gives you a contract based on a very detailed proposal, and then sends your completed manuscript to a reader. There’s a clause in the contract that gives them the right to reject the book based on the reader’s report, so it’s still a peer-reviewed book. And one of my friends pointed me to one press in particular with the reputation for working quickly. At the time I was in my second year on the tenure track, so I thought that sounded like a great idea. If worse comes to worst, I thought, and I get rejected after all that, I’ll have a reader report showing me how to improve the book and I’ll also know how to ‘sell’ it through the proposal process.

Y’all know this story ends happily, so I’ll just hit the highlights here. The acquisitions editor and the series editor (the academic with her name on the series in which my book appears) both gave me tons of feedback on the initial proposal I sent them, the form for which I got from their website. (The web is an excellent source of information in this process as most presses have a page all about their submissions process.) They were clearly interested and wanted the proposal to be the best it could be for the pitch to the board. Writing and revising that proposal also helped me further shape the final book, since there would be more editing down the road. I got the contract ultimately, which included a due date six or nine months away (I forget which) at which point I was supposed to provide them with the final manuscript, post peer-review. So that meant I had to get the manuscript ready for peer review pronto. This made me glad I’d already done some revision prior to submitting proposals, but there was still more to be done, since the press had a strict 90,000 word limit (including notes) and my book was currently about 110,000 words, I think. So more text came out, in addition to the stuff I’d taken out earlier. (When I started getting down to those final 1000 words or so, I started changing phrases like “the R of Q” to “Q’s R,” I was that desperate.) And then I shipped it off to the press to send it to the reader.

And then the reader’s report came back, with only about a month and half before the deadline. And it was mixed. And there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing. But I defended the book to the series editor where I thought the reader was actually mistaken, and I promised the changes that s/he was probably right about. And the series editor was convinced. And I was on leave from teaching and I write quickly, so it was do-able. And all was good.

And so I sent off the final manuscript. And I waited. A year later I got the copy-edited version. Now, there was correspondence in between, so it’s not like my publisher disappeared on me. For whatever reason, my book was pushed back a year – probably for budgetary reasons, I imagine. Well, so much for the fast-moving press, but still, had they rejected me after the reader’s report, that was only my third year on the tenure track and I would’ve had time to find another publisher, since I’d only exhausted three possibilities. And if the press had stayed on the original plan, I would’ve been trying to see my way through the production process while my mom was in and out of the hospital, slowly dying, and that would’ve been disastrous. So the delay ended up a good thing, too.

And now I’ve got an Amazon page of my own. And two scholars I admire – one a rising star, another an established figure of renown – have blurbed the book, and soon I’ll have the proofs to review. And in June there will be a real book to hold in my hands, not quite 5 years after I filed the dissertation.

And that’s how my dissertation became a book.