Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"In partial fulfillment of the requriements for the degree of..."

This phrase can be found on the title page of dissertations and theses.
As a book I was reading recently (Making the Implicit Explicit by Barbara E. Lovitts) suggests, this should indicate that the dissertation is not standing alone as the factor on which the candidate is judged.
And if signing off on the dissertation is the last hold the committee has and is equivalent to granting the degree, then it might be presumed that the faculty actually vary their standards for what is acceptable as a dissertation depending on their assessment of the worthiness of the student. (the logic here, if not derived from Lovitts, was certainly sparked by what she was saying.)

One could make an argument that this is ethically wrong, and that all dissertations should be held to the same standard. But I'm not sure that there isn't a good argument on the other side, too.

It has long been my opinion that this might be operating on an unconscious level: if your committee believes that you are capable of doing good work, then they will be predisposed to focus on the strengths of the work. If they believe that you are not up to snuff, they will look for problems. This kind of unconscious dynamic works in all of us.

This suggests that you can profit by taking actions that convince your readers of your worthiness; this includes work on the dissertation, but is not limited to such work. It is a point worth strategizing: what can you do that would make the committee believe that you are ready as a scholar?

I recommend Lovitts' book to any dissertation writer who wonders what the dissertation is supposed to accomplish and how they will be judged. I don't think it provides absolute answers because each professor is different, but I think it provides very good general direction.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I was watching a little of the television broadcast of the Australian Open last night and saw an interview with world #1 Jelena Jankovic, who had just lost. Jankovic was very courteous, giving a great deal of credit to her opponent. Seeing the interview made me think of what I had read of Jankovic--that she is extremely courteous, and that she also might not be quite the competitor that the really top players are--that what keeps her from really dominating is her head. By contrast Serena Williams is known for being ungenerous to her opponents in losses--she has the reputation for blaming a loss on her own play and not giving credit to her opponent.

Along these lines I was thinking about the figure-ground reversal I had recently discussed and the general success that we can create in our own lives.

Serena Williams is known for her competitive will--for her ability to play even better when the competitive stakes grow, and for her unwillingness to lose. How strongly is that competitive will related to her belief that it is her play that determines a win or loss? Is it easier to rally against an opponent if you think "wow, s/he's really good, maybe better than me" or "well, s/he's good, but if I were playing my game, s/he wouldn't have a chance"? It seems to me that one is much more likely to succeed if one believes that one can exert one's will to succeed.

When we view our projects, when we get discouraged, is that not a type of perspective in which we are surrendering our power?

If Edison was right in suggesting that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, doesn't this imply that we have to continue to believe in the validity of the inspiration through extensive struggles? We have to believe that the power to succeed lies in us.

Or, perhaps, we need to act on the premise that the power to succeed lies in us. Many writers struggle with believing that their writing is good enough--the emotion of belief may be hard to create, but we can still logically think through: "what would I do if I believed that I had the ability to finish?"

The character of plans made by one who is confident are radically different than the plans made by one who is expecting defeat. Different plans lead to different results. In addition to the emotional boost that accompanies confidence is also the difference in plans. I wonder whether the plans of the optimist might be more focused on the strengths of the individual, and thus will focus attention on the places where the richest opportunities are to be found?
How much does the pessimist look at weaknesses and thus make plans that fail to take advantage of places where the strengths lie?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bootlicking and Buddhism

Actually, I don't really know that Buddhism is what I'm going to talk about. But I was thinking about the difference between the internal world and the external world and what we create in those spheres.

By the internal, I mean our minds and bodies; by external, I mean all that stuff out there. Looking at the world with such ego-boundaries is not, I suppose, too Buddhist. But anyway...

I was talking with a friend who was angry at someone. This person had wronged him, by pretty much any standard of how people would judge the matter, but not exactly a grievous crime--certainly he was hale and hearty to tell the tale of how he was wronged. Now I've been wronged (and I've wronged others, too--nothing grievous, I hope), and I've been angry as result. It doesn't feel good. And I've been able to rekindle anger for old wrongs, too; that doesn't feel good either.

What I've been working with is too focus my attention on those things that provide me with the greatest opportunity to move forward. This means, on the one hand, not focusing my attention on the wrongs that I've suffered, and on the other, not necessarily airing my grievances against difficult people.

Which brings me to the first world of my title: bootlicking. When I was talking with my friend, I was thinking about a writer I've been working with whose chair makes snide comments and tends to obstruct the process--like the time she said "I'll submit a draft in two weeks; when do you think you'll be able to give feedback" and he said "in three months." Hopefully you will never have this kind of problem, but should you, what is the effective response?

For the long run it seems to me that the more important response is the internal one: what response protects your health and your ability to work? The response that looks to the future, the one that avoids the stress and anger, is the better.

What does this mean about the external response? It means that one is clear about what one is trying to get, and one tries to avoid getting caught up in proving that one is right. It's not that an injustice might not have occurred; it's just that that proving injustice, or discussing injustice places attention on things that rightly generate anger and stress. This means that responses to injustices are framed with equanimity and courtesy, and thus might appear to be bootlicking.

It should be noticed, of course, that there are times when an injustice must be addressed. A chair, for example, who regularly refuses to give feedback sooner than three months, and who does not want the writer to show the drafts to other readers until he has seen them, is obviously creating obstacles that need to be addressed. Something would need to be done to changes the feedback schedule, to get timely feedback. But even if action is needed, where does one direct one's attention? On the injustice? Or on finding a solution to the injustice?

The writer in question whose chair said that feedback would not be forthcoming for three months, submitted a draft on the schedule she had proposed. She ignored what he had said about schedule and just courteously requested feedback as quickly as possible; her chair apparently has promised feedback within six weeks, not three months.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I was thinking about writing as a practice, and as an exercise that builds ability even as you use it. I was thinking about the athletic metaphor and ways in which an understanding of athletic processes can shape understanding of similar aspects of writing. I was also thinking of music as another metaphor.

For both music and athletics, when one begins the exercise/practice, one begins with a warm up. No musician would begin a practice by trying to master the most difficult passage in her/his repertoire. No athlete would try to perform at the highest level without warming up first. But we sit down to write and expect to be able to write instantly.

There are differences between writing and athletics or music that might lead us to reject the need for a warmup: writing is not physical--you can't pull a muscle by writing too hard right away.

This is true, but isn't it also true that if we sit down to write and nothing happens in the first fifteen minutes we get frustrated? What if you had a writing warmup before you start in on the real work--a period in which you began to get used to the general process of putting your ideas in words, and the focus on your writing that is necessary to work on it.

Warmups should be easy; they should be done for the experience of doing them, not for the outcome--a musician plays scales not for the sake of playing the scales, but because the scales are a relatively easy way to begin the process of warming up the muscles and nervous system.

What could a writer use as a warmup? Almost anything--a list of things to work on after your writing period is over, or a list of things to work on during your writing period, or a note to a friend or anything that might be drawing your attention that you can work on for fifteen minutes as an attempt to get settled into the desk chair and into the writing state. You don't want to get absorbed in something that will take too much time, but if there is something distracting you, writing it down as something to return to when you're done with the writing might be one way to put it out of mind for the period of a few hours in which you're writing.
Writing something easy related to what you're working on might be a reasonable warmup, but you don't want it to be something that you're placing too much stock in--the warmup has to be easy to write--something that is free from judgement, something that is about getting started more than it is about production.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Books on writing

Have you ever read any books on writing?
Any books on dissertation writing?

Did they help?
What did you like about them?
What didn't you like?

I'm curious about books on writing. There are a lot of them; some of them are pretty good; some aren't. I haven't read that many, but it's my intention to read more and I'm just looking for recommendations.

I'm engaging in something of a research project. Partly I want to see if I can learn something new. Partly I want to see whether there are other people out there who are looking at the process the way I am. If there aren't, then there's a place in the literature for anything that I see that others don't. So I have to do my research.

I'm exploring the obvious channels--Amazon--but also wondering which are particularly good. There are too many options and I want to try to cull the best.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Figure-ground reversal (for real)

The basic phenomenon of figure-ground reversal is one in which there are two distinct ways in which to see an image. In famous examples, the same image can be seen in two different ways. For example we might see a vase, or we might see a pair of facing profiles.


Whatever we see, we see it one way at a time. We may be able to see the image in both ways, but we switch between them; we don't see both at the same time. I won't attempt a neurological explanation, but I don't doubt that there is one.

George Lakoff speaks of "biconceptualism"--the ability to use two different views of the world--which is a similar concept, but not visual. We can explain situations in different ways--for example, how does one respond to an enemy or one who has wronged you? The Bible says both to take retribution (an eye for an eye, etc.) and to treat that person with love (love your enemies). We can take these as two different models on how to deal with the same problem: we don't want someone to hurt us and ours repeatedly, so what do we do? The hawks say that the answer is to go to war; the doves say the answer is to seek other means to reduce the aggression.

So working with a writing project (or any project, really) one of the questions we're faced with is how to look at the situation: what view are we going to use. The examples above, and other simple examples, use binary comparisons, e.g., is the glass half full or half empty? But as a matter of practice, there are any number of different views that one can take of a subject. Horst Rittel, late professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that many problems that we face can be described in many different ways--"there is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem," he wrote--a wicked problem being what he called problems that did not suit the rationalistic problem-solving techniques of his time (I'm digressing a little here).

Think of what it means if there is no definitive formulation to a given problem. What if the problem is to get a dissertation done? Well that's one very general formulation. More specific formulations would be "to convince your professors that you're done" or "to write a great dissertation on my topic of study." These two formulations are distinct, though not mutually exclusive.

The other day Sarah asked for common flips that might occur to grad students or researchers. I mentioned one example: the flip between seeing the project as an expression of your own interests and your own wisdom, and seeing the project as an attempt to say what is necessary to please the professors.

Another flip might be between having too much research material and having too little. This, I think, afflicts a lot of people in the literature review sections, or in their work if they don't have a clearly defined research agenda, or if their project is open-ended, as a project in literature or history might be. At one moment a person can be saying "I have so much material that I have to read and organize that I'm overwhelmed." The next moment the same person might say "I need to do more research." Admittedly, these are perspectives that might reasonably co-exist--sometimes we do have too much material to handle and still have to acquire more, if, for example, a professor requested more--but from a pragmatic point of view, we can only act effectively on one of these perspectives at once: either we can try to get a better handle on the material we have, or we can try to gather more. Both courses might be productive, but vacillating between them is not.

I don't know that I can think of other specific perspective shifts that might be common to the graduate student writer, but I think that the writer who learns to deal with these shifts, and learns to manage the different perspectives is well-positioned to respond to the myriad different demands of the long-term research project.