Eat Your Veggies

16Aug07

As I return to work on my dissertation after seven weeks off, I can’t help but rethink my approach. Not just my what-to-do-each-day approach, but my larger mental approach to the whole idea of a dissertation.

Mostly, I just see it as work. It’s a big pile of vegetables sitting on my plate, and I am the kid who can’t get have her ice cream until she’s finished them. Oh, I’m allowed to leave the table. But no ice cream, ever, until I finish that veggie heap, even if it takes years. All I can do, then, is just take a bite here, a bite there.

Each chapter proceeds in this way: I spend a few days organizing my bibliography and requesting all materials from the library and/or printing the articles from one of the hundred or so academic databases to which I have access. Then I start reading, in chronological order, all of the sources I’ve procured, taking notes on white legal pads as I work. Once I’m done, I create an outline of everything I’ve read, which I then must turn into an outline of my chapter. Then I write. The reading and outlining usually takes about two to three times as long as the writing. Then I send the draft on to my advisor and sometimes my whole committee and await their comments. In the meantime, I start in on the next chapter. I haven’t gotten to any revising yet, but that will come after all the chapters are drafted.

What I’m noticing this week, though, is how little I think of this process as a learning process. Rather, it feels more like an evidence-gathering process. I am an information-gobbling machine, spitting out key bits in the form of bulleted notes and numbered outlines and then doing my best form of magic on it all to create new information and propose new ideas. I think less in terms of learning everything I can about, say, metaphor and metonymy (the chapter I’m currently working on deals with these terms) and more in terms of getting through all the relevant literature on said topics.

And thus: I am nothing without my notes. If you asked me right now what Rene Dirven says about the difference between metonymy and metaphor, I would eke out a lame explanation, making sure to use key words so as to seem smart. Really, though, I won’t learn what Dirven says until I get to the writing stage, and even then I will only learn it if I need to in order to make one of my own arguments.

I’m sure I am exaggerating. I’m sure that my grad school peers would tell me I’m being crazy. I’m one of the ones, they’d say, who processes what she reads and is uniquely able to distill it down. But maybe I only do that for them, when I’m in class or have to write something for public consumption. Maybe that’s why I learn this stuff when I get to the writing phase but not the reading/note-taking phase.

Surely after months of researching metaphor and metonymy I should have a better handle on it. I shouldn’t have to cobble together a chapter from my notes but should own the material (as we say in the biz) so that I can just go forth into my own ideas with confidence and the ability to explain the work that has come before me better than I feel like I can.

This is, of course, why they make us defend our dissertations. It’s at the defense that someone will finally ask me, “What does Dirven say is the difference between metaphor and metonymy?” And I will have to know. I’ll have to answer, and relying on key words and soundbites won’t cut it. I’ll have to show that I haven’t just pieced together bits of things I’ve read and then made up my own ideas out of some other fabric.

And now my dissertation’s gone from being a pile of vegetables to a patchwork quilt. Now if only it could as easily transform itself into a thick stack of completed pages. Oh, if only.

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