I’ve been spending the summer trying to get my dissertation proposal together, and I have some things to say about this process which some people may find interesting. I think that on this blog we talk a lot about theology, a bit about being in the professional academy, a smidgeon about going to the dentist, and not very much at all about being in graduate school (which we all are). So here goes.
After finishing my comprehensive exams in the spring, I thought that this summer, the summer of dissertation-proposal-ing, would be one of those rarefied, glorious times in which all of my ideas connect in my head in some beautiful, deeply edifying bundle of satisfaction and sweetness and light. My intellectual coming-of-age. I imagined this would be the case because I have had a dissertation topic for a long time now, proper Christian love of self from a systematic theology angle, so why wouldn’t things work?
Well, if you’re at the stage of this kind of advanced research and have only a kind of vague yet passionate and decently informed vision of your project, it turns out that the creative process can be merciless.
This is not everybody’s problem at the embryonic stages of dissertating, but in my case, I did not know how to concretize my argument and select the appropriate people with whom to have a theological dialogue (and in my defense, not very many Catholic theologians roughly contemporaneous to me have talked at great lengths about love of self). So I spent a good deal of time early in the summer kind of reading around and postulating excitedly about a new angle/idea each day. And I was going to tackle ALL the angles. I went on a book-checking-out binge from the library and now have hundreds of books scattered in my study and carrel. (It also doesn’t help that, now at Notre Dame, graduate students can request books that some poor undergraduates working at the library then get to retrieve and place on the first floor for your leisurely pick-up.) And I was going to read ALL the books.
My extremely patient and wise advisor Cathy Hilkert (Hi Cathy!) let me spin out for awhile but about halfway through the summer told me that I would not be having 12 different major thinkers in my dissertation. (But doesn’t it sound like a really good idea to have a dissertation which includes figures ranging from Augustine to Aquinas to Rahner to Derrida to Catherine Keller and maybe a bunch of other feminist theorists and theologians?!) She was then relatively relieved when I got the number down to five figures, but I still had a long way to go.
I then started talking to the rest of my committee and had to answer a bunch of difficult questions about the organization and structural integrity of my dissertation. This part of the process revealed to me that even my five-figure configuration was still too heterogeneous to work as a coherent piece of writing over the long haul. I was not particularly smiley in coming to this realization, especially with the dissertation proposal deadline looming. In fact, I think it was when I felt I had gotten about as focused as I was capable of getting for the proposal and then realized I still didn’t know what I was talking about, and that my argument had holes you could drive a truck through, that I hit the nadir of this process. I then spent about a month feeling totally aimless and unmotivated and like I had somehow irreparably damaged my chances of writing a good dissertation. I woke up every day knowing that I needed to be doing work, some work, any work, but I didn’t know what I was looking for, why I should be doing anything, or how things would ever come together. Suddenly I felt that cleaning the apartment and doing the laundry deserved massive amounts of my time, and, when I finally would crack a book, I would read a few pages and then for an indeterminate amount of time stare out the window. Or at the wall. I did this for many days, and many nights I went to bed feeling deeply uneasy.
But ultimately, with a lot of help, formal and informal, from my advisor, committee, husband, mother, and friends, I’ve finally come up with a three-figure dissertation that everybody is happy about (Augustine of Hippo, Teresa of Avila, and Sarah Coakley), and the proposal-writing/organizing is happening now. Most importantly, I am happy about this structure. I don’t know why or how I turned this little conceptual corner, but I suppose I maxed out on my despair quotient and just sat down one day and was able to think more clearly about what I wanted to say, in the simplest form possible. And something emerged. Is emerging.
I suppose it’s easier for me to make the following claim now that things are coming together in my head, but I think that this intellectual meandering, detouring, and doubling-back was important for me to go through this summer. I actually really always loved writing papers, and I have always had a lot of ideas and nascent arguments floating around in my head, but trying to think about what it takes to construct a 300-page project has really stretched me in ways I didn’t know I could or needed to be stretched. I think I’ve learned a lot about setting up a large-scale problem (for example, if I am talking about the problem of self-hatred in the introduction, how to do that in a theologically rich way that doesn’t ignore the sharpest intuitions of psychology but also doesn’t just become psychology-speak), the rhetorical and discursive techniques necessary to connect the figures in my dissertation in the right way (namely, deciding what each figure in my dissertation gives me in a necessary way, for my own account of love of self, while not turning a blind eye to their respective problems), and how to articulate my own position which is deeply informed by, but cannot be subsumed into, the perspectives of the figures in my dissertation.
So I guess this summer was a bit of redemptive suffering, the growing pains of transitioning from student to scholar. I don’t take it back, I don’t think.
And yet, I do regret one thing about this process. I highlight this thing for students, especially female students, who will be embarking on their own advanced research at some point. (I don’t think that women in graduate school necessarily and essentially have to deal with this problem more than their male counterparts, but empirically, I’ve noticed that women, at least at Notre Dame, do tend to struggle more, statistically, with the following issue.)
Maybe in some respects, when things were at their worst this summer, I just needed to feel as though there was no way to move forward, and keep going anyway. It’s character-building I suppose. At the same time, what made the creative process so bitter for me at certain points was that I stopped trusting my own intuitions about the matters at hand. I think certain (valid and helpful) critiques from some of my committee members got in my head in a debilitating way, and their voices eclipsed my own voice. So then any time I would make a provisional claim as part of my argument, I would immediately see the various problems with the claim and shoot it down before I even had a chance to develop it. This is a bad space to inhabit. I eventually convinced myself that I actually had no dissertation idea, and that everything I had thought was important to discuss/critique was actually fine the way it was, and that all the problems I saw with our contemporary discourse on love of self were not actually there, and that I was making a fuss over nothing.
So I’d like to say this, especially to women in graduate school: when your research stretches you beyond what you think you can handle and all you see are problems and weaknesses in your own argument, never ever, for one second, doubt the fundamental validity of your perspective. Even if you know your argument needs work, and you see the million complications that arise with any argument that is actually worth making, go with your gut and work it out from there, boldly. And go with what brings you joy, even if others, including the faculty helping you, don’t understand exactly what you’re doing. There will be a place for self-critique and the critiques of others, subsequently. But give yourself the space to think about what makes sense to you. Listen to others, but don’t ever let the voice of anybody else replace your own.
I say this probably also for myself, as I am sure I will hit rough patches in the next two years as I write my dissertation. Ah well. Let’s go forth and sin boldly.