Why Write Dissertations? Reflections Halfway Through Moscow

At long last, I find myself with a spare hour on a weekday evening here in Moscow to rise above the foam of dissertation churning and write something a bit more reflective. Since I last reflected on research here in Moscow, things have gotten busier, and better. I’ve made my way through a number of the reports written by Komsomol advisors in both southern Afghanistan (Helmand and Kandahar Provinces) throughout the 1980s, and I’m beginning to turn to turn to reading through and transcribe a number of the reports that their colleagues made from northern Afghanistan (provinces like Faryab, Balkh, and Jowzjan) and a bigger territory of real estate in the east of the country that I’m crudely grouping into one chapter – areas like Nuristan, Nangharhar Province, and Paktia Province, all of which are geographically close to one another but have seriously divergent ethnographic and economic histories.

There’s a lot to take in these days. Between reading and processing these reports and a busy schedule of interviews that has taken me everywhere from small villages an hour-and-a-half outside of Moscow to Volgograd, in southern Russia, I often barely find myself with enough time come 5 or 6 PM to call upon the German Lutheran austerity that I seem to have inherited from grandparents, purchase a venti black coffee somewhere, and get down to two or three hours of writing and editing of both new and existing dissertation material. Once the too-much-coffee-not-enough-food mix of giddiness sets in, it’s time to return home for a modest dinner, phone calls home, and, if your humble narrator is lucky, some blogging.

Beats Red Square any day for looks, but can you really build Communism there? The Shrine of Hazrat Ali, Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan.

Many times, however, I find myself asking, why am I doing this – or more precisely, why am I researching and writing in the way that I am? To put it more concretely, the maximum word limit for D.Phil. dissertations at Oxford is 100,000 words, including footnotes. That’s potentially over 300 pages for some disciplines, but given the archival nature of much of mainstream academic history today, and the wider range of archives and/or non-English materials that some more internationally-focused dissertations take on today, the words in those footnotes add up quickly. It becomes – or at least I find – a challenge to write not only concisely but also to write in a way that hedges off chunks of words for their own sake, to fit the magic 100,000 word limit. And that limit doesn’t just exist for the grace of one’s dissertation readers, who have to actually wade through the thing; at Oxford, D.Phils. which veer over the word limit won’t even be accepted.

Not only that, but looking at past examples of successful dissertations, the dissertation, as opposed to your average scholarly article or certainly an academic book, is usually heavily signposted in such a way as to make it almost impossible for a reader to lose her way. You know the prose: ‘this dissertation consists of five chapters. In Chapter One I shall ___. In Chapter Two I shall ____.’ And so on. C. Wright Mills or Daniel Boorstin it ain’t, but if the goal is to pass rather than impress stylistically, it does the job.

Put in other words, the dissertation, at least in the form that it’s developed into in early 21st century Anglo-American universities, is a rather strange bird. It’s a piece of writing really intended for no more than four or five people to read. Even though it belongs to university academic departments, its register is usually quite different from that of the traditional staples of the workmanlike academic CV, journal articles and books. Most university press representatives will go out of their way to insist that one of the first sins that they use to weed out potential academic book projects is whether it sounds too much like ‘just’ a revised dissertation. And maybe most glaringly, even as we supposedly now inhabit an age of ‘digital humanities’ and great advances in digital technology on the way humanists approach scholarship, the vast majority of dissertations are the equivalent of a fat kid at the scholarly middle school dance now populated by creative digital humanities projects: black and white, heavy, and read only with dread by supervisors and readers, to say nothing of the infinitesimally small number of non-academic readers who ever picks up old dissertations for pleasure reading.

Dissertations are to life as this penalty card is to Monopoly

Now, perhaps foolishly – I can confirm about four months from now – throughout much of this summer and fall, as I’ve been writing and re-writing chapters more with an eye towards making them good, rather than in adhering strictly to the overall 100,000 word limit, or the typical D.Phil. style. The way I see it, the D.Phil. should, at least for the aspiring author like your humble narrator, constitutes the equivalent of the ‘Do Not Pass “Go”‘ penalty card in the board game Monopoly. Ideally, as writers, we’re aiming to write books that are stylish, a pleasure to read, and engage not only with the latest scholarship, but also other authors (primarily but not exclusively non-fiction) writing in the English language today on the plane of elegance and intelligent writing. None of my current work is anywhere near there, but that’s why you keep writing and re-editing. And as a result, I’m ending up with far more words (and perhaps more troublingly, words in footnotes) than one knows what to do with, at least as far as formal requirements are concerned. Nor do Nunan’s Rules of Style quite correspond to dissertation-ese, either.

So what to do? I’m not crazy, I think: I’ve imposed a deadline of December 22nd, 2012 (the date I leave Moscow for glamorous Los Angeles) to stop writing anything more of what I’m thinking of as the ‘manuscript’ (i.e. the master version of my dissertation project). From that point on, until mid-March 2013, when I hope to submit the D.Phil. version, any engagement I have to do with the project has to be purely with the aim of selecting out, cutting, re-writing, and (to some extent) back-translating into dissertation-ese much of the content I’ve written thus far. Not all of this will be fun: structurally and logically, you can’t just select out the five best chapters of a nine-chapter manuscript, stick them together, and call it a dissertation. A smaller project demands a smaller, or at least different, argument, and some themes or geographical ambitions have to drop out entirely: less on Germany, less on Iran and Pakistan, more purely on the USSR and Afghanistan, in my case. This is all fine, and I’m looking forward to the focus of de-camping to an undisclosed location this spring to do some of the necessary editing to make it happen.

Still, as I sweat out the details for this, I think back to an op-ed that a former professor of mine, Anthony Grafton, wrote for The Daily Princetonian back in 2009, not to mention any countless number of similar articles and/or conversations that I’ve had with graduate student friends this past month in Moscow and elsewhere. Put simply, if we accept one of the basic problems of the academic job market today – not enough jobs, and certainly not enough good jobs – and many PhD programs in Britain, America, and elsewhere are unwilling to cut student enrollment or just accept fewer students, this creates an impossible situation. Some people may be foolish or obsessive enough to stick around for a depressing career of adjunct job after adjunct job in pursuit of their passion for obscure knowledge that excites neither publics nor other scholars. But for the rest of us who have some interest in starting a family, getting married, or feeling semi-dignified as friends move on and up from glamorous consulting gigs or business school, there’s always the sense that it might be a wise move to a) write projects that have some pretty easily-articulable concern at their core; b) learn exotic languages in hopes of future government work; or c) use academia as a platform to develop skills that might be useful elsewhere (which shouldn’t mean, as one colleague memorably put it at a meetup last week, getting ready to line up behind the hundreds of Museum Studies PhDs who can’t get a job).

PhDs in exchange for slapdash blogging (and perhaps a few substantial articles, too): wave of the future?

This is all fair enough. Some of the other graduate students that I’ve met in Moscow whose work – really, whose outlook – interests me the most are usually doing some combination of these three things. But I wonder: given the current job situation in academia – one hesitates to call it a ‘situation’ by now, surely? – does the dissertation in its current form constitute more of a hindrance than a help both to people who want to pursue an academic career as well as to those people looking for potential escape hatches? Clearly, there’s a dilemma of the idea of the PhD as being linked inextricably to the dissertation. But in a world where the idea of graduate students getting hired without their PhDs completed increasingly seems like a land before time, at least for 99% of graduate students, and where most academic jobs seem to really be interested in publications (not dissertations), does that really make sense? Do we need an idea of ‘dissertation’ separate from ‘manuscript’ at all?

And while the dissertation can often be a useful platform for developing other skills, I see nothing wrong about leaving open the option for those people crazy enough to learn, say, Pashto and Urdu, to spend their four to six years learning how to write more policy brief-type reports, or online exhibits, than cranking out the dependable 300-page paper whale. It seems like a win-win for both sides: PhD programs find ways to re-invent themselves as specialized training platforms for specialists with diverse skills and get the warm bodies they need to teach intro courses; twenty-somethings and younger thirty-somethings agree to gain said skills in exchange for a $20,000 check every year and the flexible schedule.

But we’re historians first, and linguists or digital presentation specialists second, one might object. That seems like an increasingly debatable proposition given the economics today, but accepting this argument at face value,  me, it seems like it might be more sensible to abandon the concept of dissertation as separate from ‘book’; some universities, like Cambridge in the UK are said to award post facto PhDs or the near-equivalent thereof to Cambridge alumni upon the presentation of a book that is deemed by a council of scholars to be up to snuff. Maybe instead of training young researchers to conform to the guidelines of a genre that they will only have to produce once in their life, and is totally useless outside of that one context, maybe universities would better serve students by focusing more on ‘writer development workshops’ rather than ‘dissertation development’ ones. All of this is to say nothing of outlets for other kinds of writing – long-form non-fiction, or the essay-cum-book review that you see in the pages of The New York Review of Books or other highfalutin journals.

This all said, I’ll be very happy on the day I can turn in my D.Phil. and even happier, hopefully by this next summer, when I can have it passed and become Dr. Nunan. But the whole process bears scrutinizing why I have to do the former (D.Phil.) in order to become the latter (Dr. So-and-So). I have more observations than I do potential solutions at this point, so this post ends more as a missive than as a manifesto. But it seems clear to me that the realities of the job market, and the kinds of writing and skills that we see more demand for today, may one day begin to decouple the PhD – dissertation link, and maybe even make the traditional dissertation history. As I look over my red ink-stained drafts, all I can say is the sooner, the better.


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