dissertation writing in a pandemic

some thoughts

It has been nearly a year since I updated this blog with anything, and wow has a lot changed in that time frame. I passed my comprehensive exams with high marks all around (whew!) and I won a teaching award at the end of the spring 2020 semester. That award means more to me than the exams; to know that my student(s) nominated me as the world crumbled around us due to the Covid-19 pandemic continues to fuel my current work. As a new semester begins, and I begin work on my dissertation in earnest, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what writing looks and feels like right now.

My days were once filled with school: moving from classroom to office, checking in with friends and faculty, going to the rec center and browsing the stacks at the library. Since March, however, I have done none of those things. My time has been spent traversing my apartment in circles, shoulder in smooch like the narrator of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper.” Unlike her, however, the writing has not come. The deep, desperate desire to get words onto the page (particularly after exams) dissipated into nothingness. I could blame anxiety. Or depression. Or any number of other things that have gone wrong (hello, regular migraines). However, I realized today (quite literally today), that part of writing a dissertation, pandemic or not, is simply learning how to write for a living as an academic.

Two people in the last week have made some mention to me that no one reads dissertations. Perhaps that isn’t true for those contributing research in medicine or other science-y things, but it seems that humanities dissertations are exercises in brutal self-punishment and hoop-jumping for committee members. Maybe that’s true for some folks, but I can’t let that be true for me. Thankfully, I have supportive and thoughtful committee members, but I also know that defining the exigency of any project (outside my own interest in it) is a challenge. I need my work to contribute to the wider world in some meaningful way. If it isn’t, what’s the point?

That question—what’s the point?—has been the driving force behind my dissertation blues. Sort of like asking about the meaning of life, I’ve come to (mostly) accept no great answer will dawn on me some morning. So, where to go from here: what is the meaning of a dissertation if nobody is going to read it?

And that’s what finally brought me to start writing (as of today): the dissertation is a practice, a way of being, a wild exploration. It is an archive of thoughts, a gathering of disparate strands of material that have shaped my brain over 30 years. It is an exercise in gathering those strands, wandering down well-trodden paths where others have left markers, for many folks have written dissertations before me and many will after. Yet the practice itself will reveal something, even a kernel, of a new being.

plain spiral bound notebook with pencil notes indicating Dissertation, with keywords willful, materialism, sediment, affective, objects, hope, gathering, potential. Followed by abbreviated notes from Ahmed, Willful Subjects.
The proof the diss has begun! [with a big space for keywords + notes]