I wrote the entire first draft of my dissertation by hand. Here is a picture of the entire thing, every piece that eventually went into the finished product.
There is an obvious dig to be made here: I wrote a dissertation on ecology and literature, and here I was actually increasing my paper consumption. But in the end, writing by hand was more conducive to completing the project.
I decided to do my first drafts by hand when I was working on the papers for my oral exam to advance to PhD candidacy. My academic papers I had always written on a screen, but the things I had written for the drawer I did first by hand. I decided to try writing by hand to see if I could get more joy from the creative process that goes into essay writing and I found it satisfying enough that I continued the practice of handwriting for the dissertation.
There is, admittedly, a certain amount of vulgar romanticism at play here: pushing my pen across the paper and producing something that I could then hold in my hand brought a certain satisfaction over having done something creative, whereas the screen felt more alienating. There was a certain Wollust to writing by hand.
But writing by hand also had many practical benefits for the writing process. Being only able to cross out things allowed me to focus like never before on simply getting the ideas on the page. That also meant that I felt more liberty to try out certain ideas and lines of argumentation, even if much of it ended up on the cutting room floor. By the second half of the drafting process, I began noting the date of each section that I had written, which helped me track my own progress. And typing the document later meant that an extra round of editing was already built in to the process. Then there are the apparent cognitive benefits of writing by hand.
In the summer of 2013 I visited Wilhelm Raabe and Theodor Fontane’s archives in Braunschweig and the Berlin/Potsdam area respectively (photos and musings here!). Part of the value of the archive work was being able to see their handwritten manuscripts. Raabe’s were fairly clean, even the extent manuscript of Die Akten des Vogelsangs, which he labored on and corrected extensively, does not look like it went through that much revision and change. Fontane’s manuscripts could not be more different: he wrote all over the page in different kinds of ink, he wrote bits of his stories on the backs of letters, envelopes, or other scrap paper, and if he liked something and felt it belonged in a certain place, he would rip it out and glue it into the new section. The manuscripts are a perfect window into the origins of the novel, or they would be, if Fontane’s family hadn’t scattered so much of the archive to the wind.
In The Man without Qualities Robert Musil compares solving an intellectual problem to a dog with stick in his mouth trying to get through a narrow door: he turns and turns, and eventually the dog finds the right angle and manages to get the stick through. Trying to start a dissertation can feel very much like this, especially since for most people it is their first major academic undertaking.
The comparison may be cynical, but I found it relaxing, especially when I began the dissertation. In the weeks after I advanced to candidacy, I faced a period of uncertainty over how to approach the texts I wanted to write about. I was unsure of whether the topic I ended up writing about, realism and ecology, would be sustainable (so to speak). I tried getting around my doubts by first making the topic impossibly abstract, then coming up with a different topic altogether. I lost interest in that alternate topic halfway through writing the prospectus, had I tried to turn it into a dissertation the project surely would have fallen apart.
Reading more widely in ecocriticism gave me the confidence that I could talk about what I was planning to talk about, but getting started was as simple as putting my conceptual doubt aside for the moment and pushing the pen across the page. I started with the novel I had thought the most about up until that point, and began writing about the environment in that text. I had written almost half the dissertation before I began to have a sense of both the arguments and the stakes of the project, and much of what I wrote up until then looked something like the dog with the stick, turning this way and that in search of an angle. And that is how it should be. While it can be hard trying to pin a project down as one is generating the material, it was also gratifying to see a form finally emerge, and one that was, in fact, distinct from the hundred years of criticism that had accrued around my authors.
Note: This is the second in a series of reflections on my recently completed dissertation. The first is here.
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.