Sunday, October 12, 2008

George Lakoff's suggestions for finishing a dissertation

I take a lot of notes and write a lot in many different files that get put aside for one reason or another. I was going through old files recently, looking to see what had been forgotten. Among other things I found some notes that I made to a dissertation writer about four years ago. The notes reported a conversation I had had with George Lakoff, professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at Berkeley.

Lakoff makes six points. Following the six points are the notes that I wrote to the writer, who had written a complete draft that had been deemed unsatisfactory by her committee.

(Aug. 2004) Yesterday afternoon I ran into a professor I used to work with.
He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was helping people who were trying to finish their dissertations.
He offered me his advice of what he tells his students: and here it is in a nutshell--three main points and three lesser points. I may have forgotten something, but most of what he said agreed with beliefs I held anyway (I was his student, after all).

Here are his recommendations:

1) It’s not you. It’s just a piece of work.
2) It’s just the first step.
3) Tell a story

Additional suggestions:
1) make it so it can be your book
2) make it 200 – 250 pages
3) avoid jargon

For a moment, I want to just focus on point 1 in the first list: It's not you. The dissertation is just a project you're working with. You've worked with it longer than any other project in your life, but it's just a project. If you wrote a five page paper and thought it needed to be rewritten, you'd rewrite it. But with the dissertation there's the thought "I spent four months writing that draft/section/chapter." The dissertation is still only a project. Suggestions about the dissertation are not a reflection on you, but rather on how to change your project, so that you can get it done.

You have grown and learned during the process of writing. The efforts that went into writing that draft have shaped you, have helped you grow. If all the copies of your dissertation were destroyed and you had to write it from the blank page, you still would not be working from scratch but from a wealth of knowledge gained through the project. And that wealth of knowledge would help you write a new version better.

Well, thankfully, you don't have to write from scratch, but still, don't let attachment to the products of your past labors stand in the way of taking advantage of what you learned from those labors.
That note only really addressed the first of the six points. But points two and three deserve equal discussion. The last three points--the lesser points--are mostly self-explanatory.

I don't want to get into too much writing here, since I want to go back to seeing what the excavation of the depths of my disk drive has to offer.

Briefly, then. Point 2: The dissertation is just a first step on a career. Whether you are writing to become an academic (as Lakoff assumed), or writing to gain a credential, the dissertation is only a step in a career path. Take the step quickly. Point 3: I don't know quite how to interpret this, or to paraphrase it quickly. This is probably a gross injustice, but: Give the work a sense of direction and flow; guide the reader through the discussion in a way that helps the reader see the scope of the work (just as in a story, we can follow the whole of the work).

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