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.