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

Posted by @ 5:30 pm on October 14th, 2010

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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