The Dissertation Writing Institute began its eighth year on May 4th when Dr. Anne Gere and the Sweetland Center for Writing welcomed 24 new fellows for the eight-week Spring term. Sweetland faculty graciously surrender their offices to house fellows, and since the program expanded in 2008, the English Department has supplied the additional 12 offices on the 4th and 5th floor of Angell Hall. To date, the DWI has hosted 126 graduate students at various stages of writing their dissertations so that they can focus their time and attention – 9am to 3pm, five days a week — on this critical work.
This season’s fellows divided into two groups of twelve — one led by my colleague Paul Barron, one by myself — and set immediately to work. Fellows unpack and spread out materials in their temporary homes with focused time to dedicate to the work of writing: drafting, mapping, outlining and re-outlining, revising and rewriting — sometimes just staring, churning, thinking — valuable time for the exhaustive work of a dissertation. The Institute privileges these six hours each day for these dissertation writers to concentrate their attentions on their projects. The program stresses the routine of writing; the consistent, persistent work of drafting and revising is necessary to actualize these complex, intricate projects. At heart, the dissertation is a kind of mystery for the writer, as most writing can be, with several “aha” moments along the way, and the writer always in pursuit — finding, shaping, and refining sustained thought.
The work required of writing at the dissertation level is especially fraught with uncertainty as writers struggle to parse their precise meaning as they enter into wider scholarly discourses. These audience issues are pivotal, but often unnamed for dissertation writers. In my initial meetings with fellows we spend a little time discussing and defining their audience-level concerns. The two most pressing audiences for dissertators might appear obvious but are worth identifying: 1) the immediate committee members who will read and someday approve the dissertation; and 2) the wider disciplinary audience which these writers hope to engage. Sometimes it is a committee member’s working style that can stress and complicate audience issues (for instance, some committee members want to see a “complete draft” or “finished chapter,” while others won’t read it till its “done” — terms that might get better defined). Dissertation writers can also be pushed and pulled by audience concerns within their fields, for instance, the social historian on the committee wants more social history, while the institutional historian on the committee wants more institutional history. How does the writer manage both concerns? How does the dissertation writer choose?
These audience issues get even murkier when the interdisciplinary nature of the project — often the project’s essential and distinguishing feature — allows writers to combine distinct disciplines while still requiring that they fulfill the disciplinary norms of particular fields. How does the anthropologist make effective use of textual film analysis or the biologist tell an ecological history? For dissertation writers, just as in other writing, identifying audience helps the writer make several critical decisions: what does my audience already know, what do I need to explain to them, what do I most want to communicate to them, and finally what voice, language, style, and format will best reach them. Making more conscious choices considering audience helps the writer make the many decisions needed to finish these lengthy projects. Over the last eight years, one of my repeated refrains to dissertators is to keep making decisions, so that each decision leads to the next — a questioning and answering process that began at the very outset of a project and one that will ultimately impel its progress and completion.
Centering the practice of writing
A good part of the Dissertation Writing Institute’s success has been to provide the space and atmosphere that allows dissertators to focus on the practice of writing — from the perspective of creating, generating, developing, refining — and on the premise that writing itself is a way to think, sort, and work through this complex, knotty territory. In her essay, “How Writing Leads to Thinking (And not the other way around)” Lynn Hunt shares similar strategies as a scholar in history. The Institute hopes to fasten writers to the habit of writing on a daily and consistent basis, that through a dedicated practice of writing the dissertator becomes in fullest possession of their arguments and can write with the authority needed to explicitly guide their readers.
Not surprisingly, grad students welcome this opportunity to spend some quality time with their projects. In the halls of the Sweetland Center these first weeks I’ve heard fellows talk about a renewed sense of their projects’ hopes. After all, few graduate students embark on these lengthy ventures lightly, or on a whim. The task requires dedication, devotion, determination, persistence, and a good measure of creative intelligence and passion. Graduate students are motivated to finish, and the Dissertation Writing Institute hopes to create a space and encourage an approach that will propel the substantial progress needed to complete successful dissertations.