Thursday, May 22, 2008

To thine own self be true

Know Thyself.

These are some important principles for a dissertation writer to follow.
I was talking with a writer today about how she had shifted from waiting on the instructions from her committee, to telling them what she expected of them. That's a pivotal shift that comes when you begin to develop your own voice.

When you have your own voice things are different. "The pieces all fit together, and I see a reason for everything that I'm leaving in the draft," she said to me. If you see how your whole work fits together, and you have reasons for doing what you're doing, then you interact with your professors differently.

When we're searching and uncertain, a professor's instruction to do things differently is very hard to refuse--even if we perceive it to be some sort of arbitrary exercise of power.
When we've found our own voice, then we can simply evaluate the instruction with respect to our own voice. If it serves us, we have good reason to follow the instruction. And if it doesn't we have good grounds upon which to resist.

It is natural that our vision and voice are not as clear at the start of the project--we wouldn't be learning if there were no development. But the more we strive to know ourselves, and to understand how to use that knowledge to chart a course of action, the better placed we are to take charge of the project and to make it happen on our own terms.

I know that dissertations may not come out in the way we wanted. I know that our work can be invalidated by others--our professors, in particular. Can we be true to ourselves if we're being pushed in a different way?
I believe so. I do not believe that compromise is a betrayal of the self, though some compromises are. If we remain committed to our principles and to our own interests, while trying to remain open to new ideas and new learning that might challenge our old preconceptions, we can often find paths that satisfy our needs and the needs of others. I know that my dissertation is not exactly what I wanted it to be--but it's complete and it's filed and I am a doctor.
I learned a lot by making that compromise. The book that I had been envisioning has not yet come to fruition--perhaps because it was too ambitious, or perhaps just because I don't have support for that project like I did for the other. It's easy to think "once I'm a doctor, I won't be at the mercy of the whims of my professors." Yeah, sure. That may be true. But when you submit that journal article and it's returned with suggestions for revision, do you reject that? When the editor at the publishing house say they're only interested in your book if you revise it, what then?

I never understood how the saying "you can't have your cake and eat it, too" arose. It seems to me that you can only eat your cake if you have it. But that's beside the point. The idea behind the saying is that we can't have everything--and we can't. Compromising something to get something you want may be a sacrifice, but it is not a violation of yourself (or at least it need not be; you obviously don't want to be signing away your soul to the devil so you can complete your dissertation).

The better you know yourself, and the better you understand your interests, aims, needs and desires, the better your ability to guide the interaction with your professors. And this self-knowledge also allows compromises that (hopefully) give up the lesser issues in order to retain the greater.

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