The Dreaded Dissertation: What I Learned

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It’s that little thing at the back of every undergraduate arts student’s mind: the dreaded dissertation. You find yourself at a Fresher’s Fair in the grand halls of some ancient university, poring over a prospectus for your dream course. There’s that word ‘Assessment’ and then, if you follow down the page, the words ‘Senior Honours’ and ‘Dissertation’. The percentage, length and allotted time period will vary between universities and courses. From my experience, it seems English Literature is fairly unique in its allocation of just one semester to complete your 8-10,000 word dissertation. Most other people I’ve spoken to tend to get two semesters, from September to March/April, to write their academic ‘masterpiece’.

Well, it’s not really a masterpiece, is it? It’s basically just several essays woven into an extended argument. Sounds simple enough. The trick is, they all say, to find a topic you really love and stick with it – if you manage that, then writing and researching will be a breeze. For some people, this part is easy. They’ve been waiting their entire degree to write about queer tropes in Medieval dream visions, the gender politics of Harry Potter, or, as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood prepares to write her thesis on in The Bell Jar, twin motifs in Finnegans Wake. For others, picking a topic is perhaps the hardest bit. I fell into the latter category. The advice we are always given is read as much as you can. Devour everything. Make notes, talk to lecturers. So in my junior honours year, I picked the courses that I suspected would be most up my street: American Literature 1900-Present, Modern Literature 1890-1945, Modern Literature 1945-Present and Literary Theory. All courses I would highly recommend to anyone in second/third year thinking ahead to picking next year’s honour’s courses. I suppose the whole time I was tracing vague themes that threaded themselves through my favourite books on these courses: textual effects of the uncanny, pastoral modes, madness, poststructuralist subjectivity, psychoanalysis, psychogeography, as much Derrida as I could even slightly get my head around.

In the end, my dissertation interest fell on technology, as I was seduced by a very strange novel on my 1945-Present course: Tom McCarthy’s C. In a way, it’s an encyclopaedic novel which picks up on all of my favourite themes. A novel which, at the level of both form and content, weaves together questions of modernity, the avant-garde, wireless technology and theories of networked society and subjectivity. It’s a novel haunted by the flickering presences of insects, war, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Ballard, Marinetti; a novel which inhales and exhales as many intertexts as it can possibly breathe in. A novel which disturbs with its themes of incest and violence, its lack of a strong sense of humanist ‘character’, but enlightens with mini-lectures on entomology, Egyptian history, the workings of various technologies. There are also bouts of dark humour that keep you sane throughout the narrative, along with its beautifully crafted imagery. McCarthy cleverly invokes the emergent technological communications of the early twentieth century to comment on our present condition in a world saturated with wireless signals and the ever-present dominion of the Internet, which is not really external to us but rather an inherent web through which we live our daily lives and experience our desires.

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We had to submit our dissertation prospectus right after our exam period in May of this year. That was a stressful time; even though these prospectuses aren’t binding, it’s still difficult to come up with a semi-logical argument and assemblage of texts when your brain is still fried from months of exam revision. Still, it’s good that we were forced to think about it early. I spent the first couple of months of summer rereading my primary texts and thinking about some ideas I wanted to develop. By August, once I’d returned from seeing family in England, I suddenly hit panic station. In a month or so, I’d be returning to uni and then it would be a matter of weeks before the deadline. I thought of all the things that might threaten my ability to complete the deadline in that time. Being called for Jury service, work, deadlines for my other course that semester (Modern American Women’s Writing), a freak spell of perishing weather, my laptop dying, losing my pen-drive, falling into the dark pits of writer’s block or depression – the worries dragged on. Thankfully, these things either didn’t happen, or only happened to a perfectly manageable degree. In fact, it turned out to be possibly my favourite semester at uni.

You see, there’s something very rewarding and liberating in being charged with your own project. There are no specific guidelines for your particular topic: aside from the annotated bibliography and the final submission, you set your own deadlines; you decide the scope of your topic, the texts you want to read; you aren’t harrowed by the prospect of a final exam which may necessitate the memorising of quotes from every last piece you find yourself reading. Of course, it varies from supervisor to supervisor your experience of all these things. They are there to give you advice, to offer you ideas for further reading, but everyone goes about it in different ways.

So throughout August and September, while we were being blessed with an unusually bright summer, I found myself in the pits of the library almost every day, trying to get my head around all the theory I was planning to use. I read countless journal articles, chapters from monographs, books on or by the likes of Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Stiegler. Interviews with all my chosen authors. I jotted down pages and pages of notes, filling up a little sparkly notebook I’d bought to encourage me to get started early. My bibliography was already totting up nicely with tons of references. I was putting together a plan. It felt good, to feel motivated enough to work this hard.

Luckily, I managed to keep the momentum up throughout the semester. I wrote the dissertation originally split into three large chapters, the first two comparing various texts and the third focusing on C. It was easy to write (early mornings in the library or in bed) with my personal harsh deadlines always in mind. If I finished the thing early, I could breathe easy again. Fuelled on green tea and Dairy Milk chocolate, I got most of my dissertation written by Reading Week (mid-way through term). The problem was, my word count had gotten waaaaaay out of hand. I thought this was okay; just write now, edit later. But it’s kind of impossible to cut out as many words as I had. I tried rewriting the middle chapter over Reading Week and all I succeeded in was cutting the odd paragraph and making my prose sound better; there was still some serious trimming to be done. I went to my supervisor and pleaded my word count woes. Her excellent advice was to pick one – just one – chapter and stick with that. Now that’s a terrifying thought when you’ve just spent four months researching and writing on four primary texts that you’re no longer going to use. Nevertheless, it was something I had to do; I felt that to condense my argument as it was would jeopardise the quality of my analysis. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-work my discarded material for a Masters. It’s a thing we all have to go through as Lit students, getting the balance between variety and depth. Fitting in both theory and close reading. In the end, I chose my third chapter on C and completely rewrote it with smaller chapters. Time will tell if that worked out okay.

Sometimes I think back to the process of dissertation writing we went through in sixth year at school, writing our Advanced Higher dissertations. Admittedly, they were half the size: English Lit at 4500 words, Modern Studies at 5000. You got all year to write them and in theory, there were more opportunities for help. Still, although I worked consistently throughout the year on both, there was still that last-minute panic dash to sort out small things: referencing problems, formatting issues, those evil little things that you think will be okay but come back to bite you. I remember the day before the Modern Studies one was to be handed in, my teacher phoned my mobile to tell me he just opened it to read and noticed that there were footnotes missing, or just floating around my document. So I had to get the bus back from college and traipse into the school that night at six o’clock to fix it. Similarly, last Tuesday night I found myself at five to six (and I needed to be somewhere else at six) in a tizzy at the library, surrounded by heaps of messed up paper and broken hopes. I thought I’d finished it, proofread it fifteen times (and got others to proofread it) but reading it again I was still finding things that had mysteriously disappeared, moved, or simply needed replacing. The bibliography giving me the wrong page numbers. Queue a mad dash from my computer to the library printers (over and over) as I kept replacing the mistake-ridden pages. This day was perhaps the most stressful in five months of working on the dissertation. No kidding, give yourself as much time as possible for formatting and proofreading. Word processors will be the death of me.

Maybe this is all hyperbole; after all, I got my dissertation in over a week early. What a great feeling, although it’s only now that it’s hitting me. It’s hard to grasp how much of your mind is occupied by your dissertation until you’ve done one yourself. Until you’ve handed it in. Even now, I still get names and references flashing through my mind and I worry did I put that in the bibliography? did I remember to mention this theory? where did that quote go? It’s really difficult to let it go.

Nonetheless, it’s not all fear and stress. In the end, I loved my topic and can really see myself going back to it, rewriting and expanding it in the future. Your dissertation is one of the most satisfying pieces of work you’ll ever produce at uni. Scrolling through the finished document, it feels good to see all that prose stretched out over many pages, and know that it’s all yours. You wrote it. You should be proud of that, no matter what mark you get. Sure, there will be times when you want to hide under your bed or a desk in the library and cry, when you want to fling your books out the window or delete every last silly word you have written, but in the end you have to break through the pain and just get it written. Accept it and let it go. If you get writer’s block, spend ten minutes free writing on anything at all that’s irrelevant to your dissertation. The weird person sitting opposite you in the library, for example. This should help to get your ‘writer’s flow’ back. Moreover, chocolate helps (indeed proves invaluable), as does a supportive friend (and/or flatmate). There’s a warm sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst fourth year English students, particularly as the dissertation is such a lonesome project, so it helps to talk to someone about your ideas. Also, obviously, as everyone always says, a good topic makes for a good dissertation. But either way, it will be okay. You have to learn to be good with timekeeping, to narrow your argument and find ways of connecting and condensing it. All very useful skills for any kind of future critical writing you might engage with. And out of all the stress, the feeling of finishing your dissertation makes all the hard work worth it. So to anyone who has any kind of dissertation to write either this year or next, I say don’t dread it, but look forward to it.

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