October 14th, 2010 / 5:30 pm

I Wrote a Dissertation and I Will Tell You All About It

I spent the past year and a half of my life writing a dissertation. It is about 250 pages long and is filled with thrilling news from the land of Foucault and Etienne Wenger and other such folk. For a long time, I thought my dissertation sucked but I had to defend it a few weeks ago and so I re-read it to remind myself of what I had said and I realized that it didn’t suck. It’s not publication ready, no dissertation ever is, but I’m excited about what I found in my research.

Writing a dissertation is a strange thing. When I first set about the task, I was certain it would be easy because I am arrogant and academic-related things come easily to me and I assumed that this would be one more thing that came easily. I could not have been more wrong. Writing the dissertation was the second hardest thing I’ve ever done, as it should be. It was a miserable, torturous endeavor. I was overwhelmed by the futility of all, conducting an overly ambitious research project, tying practice to theory, writing something fewer than 20 people will probably ever read, knowing ultimately, it wouldn’t be what I wanted it to be, feeling like I was stating the obvious rather than contributing unique scholarship. There were times when I genuinely thought, well, if all else fails, I can move home and work for the family business. That literally became an option. I entertained elaborate fantasies of hanging out with my mother, running errands with her at Costco, sunning on the lanai. Those fantasies got me through the darkest days, of which there were many.

I got the idea from my dissertation during the first week of my doctoral program. All the incoming Graduate Teaching Instructors had to take a two-week pedagogy seminar where we learned how to teach, what to expect in the classroom, how to work with students and the like. It was, for the most part, a great experience and one I needed. I had never taught before and could not really believe they were going to leave me alone and unsupervised, in a classroom, with 18-22 year olds. To say I was terrified, would be putting it mildly. I also have a pesky fear of public speaking. I was a mess. During one part of this seminar, we were told about the students at the university and  their writing skills. The students were, to my mind, framed in really troubling ways and by the end of the seminar, I had the impression that the students I would encounter in the classroom  were resistant, uninterested in writing, and incompetent as writers. My panic only grew because not only did I feel unprepared to teach, I felt even more unprepared to teach students who were framed as so illiterate they may as well have been remedial.

The semester began and I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall. I kept waiting to meet the students I had been warned about. That never happened. The students I found in my classroom were, well, college students. For the most part they were bright, engaged, hilarious, and really good writers. They weren’t perfect. They were 19 and came with all the baggage of people that age but the way they had been characterized in the pedagogy seminar was not only inaccurate, it felt unfair. My teaching career progressed and I never met the students I had heard about during those first two weeks. I started to wonder if it was just one university where students were framed so negatively as writers or if this rhetoric of students being unable to write was more pervasive. I conducted two surveys–one for students to see how they perceived themselves as writers and one for faculty to see how they talk about student writing both in and out of the classroom. I won’t bore you with my theoretical framework but I hypothesized that the ways in which faculty construct students as writers through formal and informal assessment (grading & gossip) create a self-fulfilling prophecy where students internalize the negative opinions faculty hold about their writing, in turn write poorly, which makes faculty denigrate student writing and on and on it goes. In my third chapter I included a very pretty graphic illustrating my hypothesis. I spent a lot of time on this model using Adobe Illustrator. It was nice to feel like I could accomplish a small, finite task. The page numbers are pretty spectacular too and if you’re interested in charts, I have more than fifty. I totally made Excel my bitch or Excel made me its bitch, depending on who you ask.

There’s a woman who attends almost every graduate defense and she asks the same question: “What did you learn while writing your dissertation?” I learned how not to conduct a large research study. I’m in the humanities, and even though my primary area is technical communication, I know not of statistics, data collection, margins of error, and so on. I muddled my way through dealing with data and it was overwhelming having all these responses and not quite knowing how to make sense of it all. In the end, I did manage to do something that was somewhat useful. There weren’t enough student responses (88) to make definitive conclusions but the student respondents were really confident about their writing and they believed their teachers think they are good writers which made the faculty responses that much more disappointing.  The faculty responses (247) generally confirmed what I have long suspected—faculty, everywhere, are bitter about student writing and, perhaps, unable to evaluate student writing fairly. After all the work, it was pretty gratifying to have some evidence that I was right in this regard. I love being right.

It was pretty depressing to see just how little faith faculty have in student writing, to see how faculty don’t believe students are prepared to write in the workplace and to see how faculty actively contribute to the notion that students are bad writers, both in and out of the classroom. In my final chapter, I likened the faculty penchant for decrying student writing to a fetish. I said that we caricature students and invoke a “brutal discourse of ridicule and control,” a phrase originally coined by Marguerite Helmers, all so faculty can reinforce the hierarchy of higher education, creating an impoverished community of practice that fails our students. At some point, when the trauma of the dissertation process fades, I will revisit this project, cast a wider net for my surveys, extend my inquiry to employers. In the meantime, I think it’s interesting to have some confirmation that there are real problems where writing instruction is concerned.

How did you spend your summer vacation?

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  1. Trueshit

      Ok, but my students are morons….

  2. Absurdist Media

      This is a great piece. I’d actually like to read your dissertation if you have a PDF. Well, skim it you know. I fell in love with Foucault my first semester of undergrad, but I ended up writing an MA thesis on Wittgenstein and got away from F a lot.

  3. Sean

      I am so happy you address the students-as-morons mythology. The students are 18! You were 18 once. I wish everyone could remember this.

  4. Amber

      I would love to read this and I’m not kidding. Send it to me if you get a chance–what a great, great topic.

  5. King Kong Bundy

      Here she goes again…

  6. Roxane

      I get frustrated with students but I get infinitely more frustrated by an education system that consistently treats students as morons and as problems that need to be solved. The way faculty completely forget what it was like to be 18 is pretty incredible.

  7. Justin RM

      How was the experience of defending your dissertation? I’d like to hear more about that.

  8. Mybutt

      Just want to mention Marguerite Helmers was my professor and that she is awesome. A pleasant surprise to see her mentioned here.

  9. Guest

      god undergrads amirite

  10. Trueshit

      Ok, but my students are morons….

  11. AmyWhipple

      I spent my summer *not* working on my thesis. I finished draft one at the end of April and put it away until last month. It was the best thing I’ve ever done.

      Also, congrats! I’m thinking more than twenty people will read this some day. That was always a hot topic for discussion where I went to undergrad. They would eat this up.

  12. deadgod

      One thing that always slayed me was teachers/Perfessers that were proud of being stingy with grades:

      ‘I don’t teach my students well enough for them to get high grades from me! What a bunch of maroons.’

  13. alexisorgera

      Roxane–thanks for this! I really like what you have to say about fetishizing student writing. Cool stuff. I work in a writing center (that’s my “full time” job) and also work with faculty who are trying to implement writing-as-learning in the classroom. I think many profs solely use grammar as the litmus test for “good” writing, would you agree?

  14. Amber

      I would love to read this and I’m not kidding. Send it to me if you get a chance–what a great, great topic.

  15. Roxane

      Justin, the experience was terrifying BUT I have to say, it ended up being pretty excellent. At my university, you give an hour long public presentation + Q/A session, and then you meet with your committee for an hour behind closed doors and they discuss your work with you. The biggest challenge was condensing such a large document into a 45 minute talk. I had so much to say so inevitably, important material was left out. My public presentation went really well and I felt like I said some interesting things. The audience was really engaged and they asked me some awesome questions. The second portion of the defense ended up being more of a conversation with my committee. One of my committee members asked me a really good question about the assumption that a university is a community of practice that gave me a lot to think about.

  16. Roxane

      Her book, “Writing Students,” is an integral part of my work. That’s pretty kick ass that you studied with her.

  17. Roxane

      Alexis, you are welcome. And yes, one of the key things I discuss in the section where I ask, “what is good writing” is that for all too many of us, good writing is mechanically sound prose. This is such a… terrible approach, in my opinion. This is not to say that good grammar is irrelevant but that there has to be a sincere recognition of the importance of good thinking.

  18. Roxane

      I can do that.

  19. christopher.

      How much of that negativity do you think might be attributed to the fact that however passionate and fulfilling teaching and professorship might be, it’s still a job, and the negativity that could be bred from that standard practice of everyone to find and discuss negativity in their jobs?

      For example, I’ve been a tech writer by trade, and though I don’t particularly get boners out over the profession, it’s really not a bad gig. But, generally when I’m talking about it, I focus on how boring it is to write, “Click the Print button,” over and over again. I don’t focus on how fun it was to be a part of completely reformatting our Online Help, or being a part of the committee to completely change our doc methodology. Conversation seems to naturally gravitate to the negative stuff for comic or conversational fodder.

  20. letters journal

      I think good writing and good thinking are totally different. I think one can write well but have no ideas or dumb ideas (bad thinking), and one can have cool ideas (good thinking) but write terribly.

  21. alexisorgera

      Yes, and I think this is why much academic writing is boring, inaccessible, and stilted. It’s because (see below) people think good writing and good thinking are mutually exclusive. Which is certainly not to say that they are one in the same. But I think if we demystified writing-as-thinking, we’d free up students to use papers as a playground for thinking–and maybe we’d even do this ourselves, rather than churning out junk that 2 people in the world will slog through. Maybe I’m being ambitious. Maybe.

  22. Roxane

      I agree, letters, but I also think it’s easier to help a student improve their writing than it is to teach good thinking.

  23. Roxane

      I agree, Alexis. I think we need to radically change how we approach writing instruction, across the curriculum. There’s a reason why most composition instructors hate what they do and why most composition students hate taking comp. It’s all too forced and manipulated.

  24. Roxane

      Chris, that’s definitely part of it. I analyzed the results using different filters and the longer faculty are in the profession, they less faith they have in student writing, probably because, hey, the job gets old. I also agree (and I talk about this in my dissertation), that there is camaraderie in the bitching about student writing. I don’t exempt myself from that in any way. At the same time, I think that increasingly, the discourse about student writing is becoming more pernicious.

  25. gavin

      I too would love to look at this. As someone who teaches 3-4 sections of freshmen comp a year (and used to teach a lot more) I fear that I have been guilty of perpetuating exactly the distrust of students you mention here. I would be very interested in not only looking at your work, but possibly sharing it with my colleagues. Anyway I could get ahold of it?

  26. letters journal


  27. JimG

      I so needed to read this. The PhD is really a mind game. I am doing a creative/critical, and I thought, shit, I write books of poetry, no problem. Well, the poetry was not that big of a deal. Poetry is what I do. I would have done it anyway. The critical work, on the other hand, has been a chore. I love it. I hate it. I feel I am cheating my topic. I don’t even know what my topic is. I remember what it is. I feel dumb. I feel smart. I feel like my life is not mine right now. This thing should be done soon. In the end though, it was a good project…. now please just let it be done.

  28. John Minichillo

      If the students knew how the professors talked about them, at lunch, on the departmental list-serve, in meetings–they’d be horrified. Hardly a month goes by and someone will post something “funny” from a student paper to the list-serve, then several profs will chime in with one from their own batch of papers. It really doesn’t help that we’re overworked underpaid and underappreciated, but people who require respect from students as a given should also give it back.

  29. MM

      Roxane: being a book-person, were you angered over the ugly pressing of your quacking-duck dissertation? I hate how clunky mine is. I was graced with the opportunity to visit the university bindery, but horrified to see how they sew these things.

      Also, and to all others: by writing a dissertation but also being artists, have you felt a responsibility to write a corollary, something with spangles, to parallel the terse lincoln-logs of academic factual clarity? I have not yet concocted any poetry about my microbiology work, but yearn for a cartoon or some other way to pleasurably take Roxane’s title, “i will tell you all about it!”, something worth waving around.

      I want to see these slick page numbers. What did you do that’s so different?

  30. Roxane

      I am waiting for the bound copies still but I’m pre-upset about it. Such a hideous thing, the way dissertations are printed and bound.

      As I was working on my diss, I read the diss of a retired faculty member who had incorporated poetry and other creative work into her dissertation and I thought, “Nice.” It would have been inappropriate for me to do that but yes, I have the urge to write a corollary that glitters like gold.

      The page numbers aren’t really that special or different but there’s a line involved and it’s not as boring as most page numbers I have seen. It’s the little victories that I have taken from the process.

  31. Matt

      interesting piece.

      I recommend Paolo Freire _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_