Dissertating, Doubting, and Doing It Anyway
As anyone who has tried knows well, dissertating is a doubt-laden enterprise. Such was certainly my experience. The dissertation I defended in 2011, “Enlightening the Land of Midnight: Peter Slovtsov, Ivan Kalashnikov, and the Saga of Russian Siberia,” explores the lives, service careers, and close friendship between Siberia’s first native-born historian (Slovtsov, 1767-1843) and novelist (Kalashnikov, 1797-1863), using the two men as tour guides of sorts to the Russian Empire during its “apogee” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Although I am now knee-deep in revising the manuscript for publication—another doubt-laden enterprise—I remain fairly content with the major choices I made while writing the dissertation. For that reason, I thought I might share some of my experiences as a doubting dissertator here in the hope that they might offer some perspective and encouragement to those dissertating through doubts today.
Ed. Note: For Jessica Peyton-Roberts’ review of Mark Soderstrom’s dissertation (Ohio State University 2011), please click here.
Before passing my candidacy exams, I was a good graduate student. I pored over the major texts in my field. I figured out how to apply for grants in ways that made clear the significance—even policy relevance, as grant applications so often called for—of my research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Siberia. I plotted the ways in which my research findings would fill yawning “gaps” in our understanding of Russian history, while sharpening conclusions of recent scholarship on the history of Russia as a multiethnic, multiconfessional empire.
And then I began my archival research. Gathering materials in Irkutsk for what I thought would be a dissertation about that town and its role in governing the Russian Empire’s easternmost reaches, I was disappointed with the sources available in the local archive. Most of the key documents from the period in which I was most interested, it turned out, had been lost in an 1879 fire, while many of those that survived were too covered in fungus to be legible (or so the archivist’s explanatory notes to my rejected file requests claimed). My most interesting “find” during that trip came not at the archive, but in a used bookstore, where I happened upon a ten-ruble perestroika-era collection of Kalashnikov’s fiction. I soon found myself leaving my original dissertation idea behind and embarking on a wild-goose chase for the personal papers of Kalashnikov and Slovtsov, not really knowing where that might lead.
After passing my candidacy exams I adopted other unplanned reading habits. For one, I started to read The Chronicle of Higher Education more regularly, along with education pieces in The New York Times and other sources. Article after ominous article spotlighted deep challenges facing higher education, whether massive levels of student debt, ballooning tuition rates, the rise of for-profit institutions, the adjunctification of the faculty, or ways in which online education will transform the university. Taken together, they presented a troubling picture.
My reading in history—my field of graduate study—was similarly disorienting. I dug into my archival sources, which turned out to be fascinating, but secondary works in imperial Russian history caught my attention less and less. I was drawn instead to books of two types. On the one hand were microhistories on times and places far removed from my research. Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre was one of the books that captured my imagination when I was an undergraduate, and I continued to admire microhistories for the insights they can offer on the “on the ground” realities beneath the sweeping narratives of history. I also enjoyed the excellent storytelling they often showcase. Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age was particularly memorable in this respect. On the other hand were books on global history, which I was reading to bolster my teaching of survey courses at Ohio State University. I was captivated by the grand scope of these works—a refreshing departure from the monographic reading typically done in the process of dissertating.
Good graduate student that I was, however, I had the feeling that these different reading impulses were somehow wrong—or at least detrimental to writing my dissertation. And judging by some of the talk I heard at conferences, they were. But judging by that same talk, one could get the impression that the purpose of writing a dissertation is to figure out what the handful of cutting-edge monographs in one’s corner of the larger field are doing and then find a way to expand and challenge the pictures those monographs paint.
Such thoughts in mind, I wondered how I might present my research in prose. As I became better acquainted with Slovtsov and Kalashnikov through the paper trails they left behind, I was most struck by the personal drama of their friendship and the fascinating details I found in my sources. How could I share the intriguing stories and details, present them in an accessible and interesting way, and still make significant contributions to the scholarly literature?
As I saw it at the time, there were two dissertations I could write with the research I had done. Dissertation A was the familiar model: a thematic monograph. Having studied the archival remains of Siberia’s first native-born novelist and historian, respectively, I could use their lives and careers as tsarist bureaucrats and writers to analyze topics of provincial governance, empire, town life, education and literature. Dissertation B was the dissertation I wanted to write: a microhistorical dual biography that sought to understand the close personal friendship between these two men and, while using that friendship to illuminate broader themes, was no less concerned with presenting their story in an accessible, engrossing narrative.
After a year of to-ing and fro-ing, I committed to Dissertation B. I found the writing process went far more smoothly after I made this decision. What surprised me more was the encouragement I received from colleagues in the field. Graduate training does not prompt one to dissertate in narrative form, but colleagues and mentors applauded my choice to present my research in this way. The Ohio Academy of History even selected the dissertation for its annual Dissertation Award. Despite, in other words, being a dissertation about what must seem to a non-specialist as an almost comically arcane topic—long-dead Siberian bureaucrats—it nevertheless managed to interest readers outside the field of Russian history.
These experiences leave me convinced that, when navigating the doubts of dissertating, it is worthwhile both to 1) take initial impulses seriously and 2) consider writing for a wider audience than the one that graduate training accustoms us to imagine. In the end, I wrote the dissertation that I had wanted to write all along. But the disciplining process of graduate school made me hesitant to get on with doing that, prompting me to think too frequently about nay-saying scholarly bogeymen. These are real, of course, but I think doubt-laden dissertators worry about them far too much—and about potential readers too little. William Germano makes the point well in a recent essay, telling titled “Do We Dare Write for Readers?”:
The academic book—especially that first academic book—is often conceived of as a snow globe. It’s carefully constructed to be a perfect little world, its main purpose to be admired. There’s a glass wall that separates the contents from the reader. That construction is not accident [sic].
Within the realm of the snow globe, every authority on the subject has been cited or pacified. Look inside and find a perfect, tidy, improbable world where no questions are asked, or invited. Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism. […]
Academe has been in the snow-globe business for years. The problem here is not the specificity of research but the intention of the finished product. Inward-looking, careful to a fault, our monographs have been content to speak to other monographs rather than to real, human readers.
A friend (incidentally, the commissioning editor of this Talking Shop piece) and I sometimes joke when we meet at conferences that it would be nice to see more history written “in the post-argumentarian vein.” It’s not that arguments are disposable or unimportant. (I do like to imagine, after all, that the Russian Empire looks a bit differently after someone sees it through Slovtsov’s and Kalashnikov’s lives as I describe them.) Instead, the point is simply that focusing on arguments and their place within a scholarly literature to the exclusion of other considerations—style, voice, organization, and audience among them—can stifle reader interest and, with it, the impact of the final product. That such considerations are not always given their due in graduate school should not lead a doubting dissertator to imagine that they are any less vital.
Department of History
Image: Renoir, La Songeuse. Wikimedia Commons.
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Very interesting, makes me reevaluate who my audience is, and why I’m writing a certain piece.