How and Why I choose my dissertation topic

Saturday, August 10th, 2013

During my comps reading this summer, I finally decided on the topic of my dissertation. It is no longer the idea I once had pre-Computers and Writing, though I think that stuff will definitely play a role and may end up to be one chapter, if my layout of chapter ideas is to be believed. (I like planning. Do not judge. I am also very flexible.) At any rate, I think the comps process has been incredibly useful to me so far since I’ve come up with a few arguments already for my dissertation, some useful sources to integrate, and I think I chose my areas of study wisely.

I thought about the different ideas I had for my dissertation for a long time because there is so much I am interested in that it is hard to choose. But I also know i had to pick something that A. I could do in a relatively short amount of time, so I didn’t want to take on too much that was completely new, B. I wanted to choose something that wasn’t too narrow, where I would be pegged as “oh, she is the one who does underwater basket weaving” and just leave it at that, and C. something I would enjoy since people do “peg” you based on your dissertation work, which makes sense because you have spent an enormous amount of time on that work.

Some ideas I considered involved looking at the pedagogy of other art degrees (a whole new field, really, and I don’t have time for that) and new media studies (this will play a role, but it is no longer the focus. Plus, again, I have to learn a whole new area along with the creative writing). While pedagogy and some aspects of new media will play a role, my dissertation will be focused on areas of critical theory, creative writing studies, and gender. I chose these things because of the A, B  and C considerations above. I felt I could get this done in a reasonable length of time, it didn’t strike me as as narrowly focused as underwater basket weaving (though let’s be honest and say most dissertations are narrow in focus, though interdisciplinary as well, which is helpful) and C. I would enjoy being seen as the person who does creative writing studies, pedagogy and gender.

Is this the right choice? Yes. Are other parties who have the potential to hire me going to agree? I don’t have any idea, but I hope so and I think I could make arguments toward their needs, as long as I choose which jobs to apply for wisely myself. I just want to write something where I could say something like “oh, you are looking for someone who does equity studies? Well, my work with creative writing and gender has taught me…”

I mean, I know the realities of the job market. I’ve read what Rebecca Schuman wrote about “thesis hatement.” (I usually console myself by repeating, “I teach writing. I teach professional writing. We will always need writing.”) I’ve read the articles by William Pannapacker AKA Thomas H. Benton and in fact they were assigned to us during my first semester in my program (I had honestly already read them. I knew the story. I knew that I was getting myself into some potentially hot water, but I am grateful the professor had everyone read those and talk about them in class). I follow someone on Twitter who tweets quite a bit about the suckitude of the academic job market and try not to take it to heart, but at least learn from it. I’ve also worked as an adjunct, as many have, and still have nightmares about canceled classes and faculty members suddenly deciding they want to teach my online world literature course, but I wouldn’t mind teaching composition II, would I? (Disclaimer: I like teaching composition. I do not like teaching composition online when you fill it with 40 students and I’m also teaching at another university and taking classes at a doctoral student. That semester was a nightmare.) I’ve read about alt-ac tracks and how to transfer “soft skills.” But I still want a teaching job, like hundreds of others out there. But I’ve also seen how bitter people can get, and I do not wish to be bitter, though I am sure no one sets out to be bitter.

So, in choosing my dissertation focus, I took the job market into consideration as well. I guess you could say that was my D. criterion.

Some people may read this and say, what a list of stupid reasons to choose a dissertation topic and maybe that is true. But passion and love don’t pay the bills or get you jobs all the time, either. What I can tell you is that I will enjoy the topic and enjoy writing it, though I know the whole process will have its moments of suckitude since I still very well remember my five to six hours a day writing my MA thesis, which came to five chapters. And, to be honest, I didn’t put the same level of thought into my MA thesis before I started writing it. I wanted to think about it more this time and luckily I had the luxury to do so. I suppose if nothing else, I can say I took the time to really consider my options and weigh them and I think weighed them well, considering the knowledge and experience I had at the time.

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