Thursday, December 11, 2008

Dissertation writing books and related stuff

A friend pointed out to me an article that looks at dissertation-writing self-help books:

The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing
Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson
Educational Researcher, Vol. 37, No. 8, 507-514 (2008)

The research is basically looking at the genre as a genre, so, not surprisingly, they make sweeping generalizations, but that's necessary for research anyway: even when we study a singular case (i.e., a case study), we have an eye to what that case can teach us about other cases. Freud's case studies, of course, provided the foundation that produced claims like "men face the oedipal complex; women have penis envy." I don't like careless use of generalizations, but I also recognize the necessity of being able to generalize (In his story "Funes the Memorious," Borges writes "To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.")

They make four main complaints against the genre as a whole; the books:
1. support/create an expert–novice relationship with readers,
2. reduce dissertation writing to a series of linear steps,
3. reveal hidden rules, and
4. assert a mix of certainty and fear to position readers "correctly."

I think the article was interesting, and if you're out shopping for a book on dissertation writing, it's worth the read, just for thinking points on what to look for.

Personally, I find it hard to avoid three of the four points in expository writing.
1. It is presumed that the author knows something that the reader doesn't. The point of expository writing is to reveal something important that may not have been seen before, e.g., the results of research, or an insight from introspection/theoretical development (in, for example, mathematics or philosophy).
3. It is presumed, as above, that something hidden will be revealed, and inasmuch as that which is revealed is presumed to be "true" or at least supported by good research, we are presumed to take it into account in future behavior--of course often the knowledge won't have an impact on future behavior but it may, in the right circumstances (e.g., research that classifies widgets in some manner will implicitly set up a structure that other research on widgets should use).
4. Assert a mix of certainty and fear: well, maybe expository writing doesn't explicitly play with this as much as the self-help genre does, but following the premise that an expository work is arguing for a specific description of how the world works, it necessarily carries with it some threat of bad things following from not following the author's view (e.g., to follow up the previous example, the widget-researcher who fails to use a "true" classification scheme will ultimately create useless research).

To a lesser extent we can find something like #2 in much expository writing, too. #2 is too specific--but if we replace "dissertation writing" with "operation of systems (whether prescriptive or descriptive)" for the sake of generalizing--we find that this claim is basically that we are attempting to explain how things work or how to accomplish things: we reduce the complexity to a set of instructions that the reader can (hopefully) follow.

So, without meaning to impugn the authors, who are writing expository work and therefore cannot avoid three of the four things they decry, here are examples from the article:
1. They position themselves as experts by virtue of both their theoretical apparatus and their described methodology.
2. (this one doesn't easily fit)
3. They assert hidden rules (which are, in this case, the inverse of the points they decry), and
4. They assert that there is a possibility that dissertation-writing books that do not follow their rules may do harm, and they contrast this to their authority as researchers (fear and certainty).

That being said, I think I agree with their basic points, especially point 2. One of the main theoretical premises of Horst Rittel about the design process was that it cannot be reduced to a series of steps. In my work as a writing coach, that is one principle that I believe in strongly.

As for the other points:
1. It is important--fundamental, in my view, that the researcher understand that the dissertation is about developing their own voice (as my many posts labeled "your voice" will attest). Therefore, the researcher has to learn that to make the dissertation work, they have to start asserting their own voice and following their internal guidance, rather than looking for an outside guide. After all, the dissertation is partly about being able to guide yourself through a major research project--that's supposedly what makes you eligible to be a researcher yourself.
2. We don't want to reduce processes to a simple set of steps for many reasons that I'm not going to discuss here.
3. Aspiring researchers and writers don't want to simply follow someone else's guidance--they want to test the ideas and see whether they work--it's not about following someone else's rules (as discussed in point 1), it's about learning to make your own.
4. All people should balance caution with boldness. We neither want to be so cautious that we are paralyzed, nor do we want to be so bold that we are rash or reckless. I'm not sure that any writer who wants to convince the reader of something is free from the implicit "if you don't believe me, your life will be worse." A self-help writer whose aim was to help people be fearless might write a book that never mentioned fear, that only looked at the results of studies that looked at how to improve courage and talked about techniques to promote courage, and still have hanging, unspoken in the background the fear-inducing "if you don't do as I say, you will be fearful."

No comments: