Recently I defended my dissertation. The defense was a milestone in a long process that was ultimately very satisfying. Years of thinking and writing went into it, and I see in it the many happy moments of discovery and insight that happened along the way. There was also plenty of drudgery: the hours at the copier, the mental energy spent over single sentences or phrases, the never-ending quest for just the right iron clad word that would perfectly capture the Ding an sich. And on a personal note, like any book length project the dissertation accompanied me in one form or another through all of the life that happened from the first day of graduate school until now with my first academic position.
As a genre of writing a dissertation is a very unusual beast. It’s as long as a book, and like a book, it tells a story about its material, one that could also be told a different way. But a dissertation (at least in the American academy) is not a book, and it’s other things besides a study of a given object. It’s a document that proves that one can generate original research. It’s a way of carving out a scholarly space for oneself and building a professional identity: in creating it one stakes a claim in a discipline and in a conversation within that discipline. The odd thing about the dissertation, in other words, is that while it’s a piece of original scholarship, it very much serves a bureaucratic, gate-keeping purpose. And while it caps off anywhere from five to ten years in graduate school, it is also a point of departure for future work.
At least, that’s the theory. The contemporary politics of higher education mean that the career path for which the dissertation prepares one will be closed to most of those who manage to actually write a dissertation. But these realities are already well documented, and so I recuse myself for the purposes of this post. Except to say this: the ultimate value of the dissertation was that I answered a question for myself, and I was fortunate to be able to do it in a framework that allowed me to take maximum joy in the process.
Note: This will be the first in a series of posts on the writing of my dissertation.