Oops, I’ve changed my mind!

I defended my dissertation proposal in the fall of 2019 and was certain that it would provide me with a nice and tidy road-map of the next 1-2 years. I planned to frame my dissertation using Michael Saward’s “representative claim-making” approach and felt (overly) confident that I could translate this theory into a process for empirical analysis. There were other scholars in Europe working to develop a clear method for claims-making and I felt good knowing I’d be contributing to this discussion.

In the spring of 2021, however, I signed up to take a graduate seminar course with a new professor on Feminist Theory. As a fifth year graduate student, I had previously read many of the texts on the syllabus. I approached the class as a fun time to chat about some of my favorite topics, rather than a space where I had to memorize everything each author said. This was my first time taking a course with a trained political theorist and I was excited for the challenge. At the start of the semester I only saw myself as a comparativist who liked to dabble in feminist theory.

By the end of the course I considered myself a budding theorist and had found a new direction for my dissertation. It became apparent that the questions I had and the research I planned to conduct needed firmer theoretical foundations, and that my research would speak to both theorists and empiricists.

I first read portions of Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology in the spring of 2019 while I was teaching my first class. Her arguments about queerness being relational, and about our orientations towards objects and experience, immediately hit home. Over the next two years I would reference the book in conversation and return to its ideas on my own, but I didn’t feel confident or capable enough to apply the theory to my work. This book helped me to understand my own non-binary identity but I struggled to articulate its use as a research framework. This changed after the graduate theory seminar.

Advisors and professors will tell you that your proposal will change as you work on the dissertation but they don’t always provide guidance or support when it happens. For me, research is an extremely personal and emotional process. If I am drawn to a concept or have an affective response to an argument, it is usually going to show up in my own work at some point. I often begin my discussion of an article or book by describing how it made me feel. After spending two years developing a slow-burn love for Queer Phenomenology, I decided to take a dive into the deep end and re-write my theoretical framework using Ahmed’s argument.

The joy and inspiration came instantly. I re-wrote the chapter for my seminar final paper and presented it at a paper workshop where I received excellent feedback and support. I am now working on an article version of that paper, as well as writing my dissertation, and I find myself struggling to hold onto all of the ideas I have about my project. Changing your mind, or going in a different direction (even if it is just changing data sets) can feel daunting. As graduate students we are made to feel like our expertise is conditional and that we don’t have the skill-set to push our own intellectual boundaries and grow.

This is part of the myth of exceptionalism that permeates academic programs. The reality is, most of us hold enough knowledge after our comprehensive exams to be able to say a lot about our research interests, current events, and political science pedagogy. If I hadn’t been invited to submit this revised framework to a journal then I would probably have given up on it and returned to what I perceived as the ‘easier’ path. To my knowledge, there aren’t any others working on political representation using phenomenology and despite being published in 2006, Ahmed’s book has not been picked up by the feminist political science community.

These so-called ‘gaps’ are the motivation for finishing my work because they show that the discipline needs to experience an entirely new conversation about political representation. In a time when there are few academic jobs for qualitative scholars, I’ve gone as qualitative as can be; using discourse analysis and insisting that politics is shaped by things like the heterosexual matrix (Butler) and chromonormativity (Freeman). I was trained in a somewhat interdisciplinary program where we were required to take classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies department. I have participated in a year-long interdisciplinary research seminar with historians, sociologists, literary scholars, legal scholars, and even museum curators. These experiences have certainly made me into a different kind of political scientist, even if I don’t have a specific name for it yet.

Changing my mind, and pursuing a different theory from the one I originally started with, is a reflection of my own queer academic desires to remain fluid, open, and spread across a range of disciplines. As an LGBTQ politics scholar I encounter legal analyses, international relations, social movements, American political development, quantitative and survey work, etc. all within the discipline of political science. My subject area requires that I be well-versed and literate in a range of ways to conduct research and my own epistemological and ontological commitments push me beyond political science’s borders.

I share all of this in the hopes that another graduate student or junior scholar out there decides to take the leap with me. Changing your mind or going in a more creative direction can be extremely fulfilling and in a time when our academic futures remain so uncertain it seems pointless to waste these years on projects we aren’t excited and passionate about.

Writing & Dreaming Big

As graduate students we frequently hear the phrase “The best dissertation is the done dissertation”. It is said with a smile or a chuckle or a wink. Usually it comes from someone on your committee or a well-meaning friend. It is absolutely impossible to believe, however, after spending years criticizing other scholars for their research design, their writing, their theoretical developments, etc. Once you arrive at the dissertation stage, you’ve built up expectations that your dissertation will be the moment you can ‘dream big’ and go beyond whatever limitations those other scholars experienced that caused them to deliver imperfect work.

I struggle with this constantly. Nearly every time I try to work on my dissertation I hit this block. My work is deeply personal. As a queer, agender-trans person I’m writing about myself and not-myself in ways that press on me. Not everyone takes up research projects about their right to rights but for those of us who do the mental health toll of slogging through a dissertation is sometimes unbearable. I don’t believe people when they say that I just need to ‘finish’ my dissertation because I have been viewing my dissertation as a reflection of my queerness. In a way, it is, but mostly its actually just about demonstrating I know how to do a big research project.

I didn’t believe the ‘done dissertation’ line until twenty minutes ago when I looked up Roxane Gay’s dissertation on proquest. She wrote about the narrative of students being bad writers and did a bunch of surveys to figure out how that narrative functioned at her university. It is a really cool dissertation that has absolutely nothing to do with the writing that I know her for today: Bad Feminist and Hunger.

We are pressured to produce a dissertation that contains some type of publishable material so that in our first year as a VAP or (miraculously) an assistant professor we have research that we can send out as quickly as possible. The push to write a dissertation that will follow you for publication is directly connected to the corporate and hyper-productive requirements of today’s universities. I don’t think anyone explains this to you because many faculty want to prepare you for success which sometimes means ignoring the bad things so that you don’t get trapped in spirals of self-doubt or anger.

The unspoken reality is that graduate students are pressured at every moment, just like faculty are, to produce. Graduate school is not a time for exploration or learning. It is an environment where those who achieve mastery status the fastest are most likely to succeed–rewarded with funding, research opportunities, and eventually, jobs. My dissertation will be a product of this type of environment. It will also be a product of the education that I received and not necessarily reflective of the types of thinking I want to do in the next phase of my life. I have to learn to be okay with that even if its heartbreaking to realize that I’m just going to fall into the same imperfect status as everyone else.