The dissertation that keeps on giving

I find myself going back to my dissertation all the time. My first reaction is always to wish I’d had it professionally edited. Once I move past that, though, I realize how much the dissertation itself, as different from (though related to) the process, continues to influence and reflect my thinking. Perhaps for those who have been at this academic game for awhile, this realization might elicit the “Um, well, of course…” reaction. Dissertations are supposed to serve that purpose, right? As Dr. Goldstein said in Qualitative Research, ‘Dissertations are the basement of your academic career, not the pinnacle. You need to do them to build the rest, but they aren’t the prettiest and certainly are the best work you’ll ever do.’

All that said, I’m relishing my own moment of realization that the document I spent the better part of 3 years growing is proving its usefulness four years down the road.

The specific impetus for this ah-ha is a section of my dissertation where I hash out the history of English as a discipline, drawing on largely on Applebee, Myers (pdf), and Smith, and specifically on Berlin (pdf) and Hillocks as they look at writing. This thinking is proving useful again as I revise and refine the keynote I gave at Old Dominion. Why do we teach the way we do? While there are all kinds of immediate and pressing reasons–state standards, principal’s mandates, student populations, budgetary constraints, etc.–there are also disciplinary histories. The teaching of writing sits on the intersection of all kinds of those histories: English, English language arts, composition, rhetoric, literacy. So the “Why do we teach writing the way we do?” is as much about testing culture as it is about the various paths that individuals have charted through these intersecting disciplinary boundaries and what they bring to a particular classroom, department, school, and district. And all the people who they work with, or have gone before them, who also have their own paths and ideas. So, it’s complicated.

In this complication, though, I default to re-examining history. Answers can often be found there, and while it may be cliche, we should pay attention. For me, I also remember as a teacher having very little sense of this history. I just never learned the history of my discipline because, as a novice, I was more concerned with how I was going to occupy students for 45 minutes and, hopefully, teach them something. Now, as someone growing into the role of expert, I realize the value of knowing this history to that I can be strategic in how I respond to any given policy, mandate, or tone shift.

And I take on this stance of looking to history and the past to remind myself where I was and the thinking that led me to the particular document that is my dissertation.  It helps me ground my own thinking as I range here and there.  Anyway, I’m enjoying my dissertation with all it’s wobbles and bumps. And I’m enjoying revising bits of it into new things.

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