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dissertation woes redux

In light of my sort of horrendous problem (ie, that a 2011 book has left me with nothing to say - because oh yes, come to find out, my plan to start with homilies instead since she discusses everything else is out, because she discusses my homilies too), I am in a horrible, horrible writing place.  The plan was to have two chapters to my committee by the end of the month.  At this point, since I have absolutely no plan for chapter two (I have nothing to say about AS ontology that hasn't been said now), I will be personally ok with only having one chapter to the committee by the end of hte month, though god only knows what this will do to the rest of my schedule and to the whole "finish diss in spring" plan.

I am trying really hard to stay positive and just keep writing, but this has made my natural tendency to go "I'm not ready to start writing yet because I still have fifteen more articles to read/three more monographs to outline/four more dissertations to obtain/one more dead language to learn/etc" even worse than usual.  But I also know that I never really know what I'm going to say/where I'm going to arrive until I am actually writing, like writing in such a way that i'm organizing things and making transitions (I have a "chapter one sandbox" file that is 23 single spaced pages of unconnected stuff, and it does not contain even one third of my marginalia from reading over the last year and a half, nor does it contain any translations, which take up lots of space, nor does it contain a definite, clean outline or argument.  I have countless bursts of thinking in notebook margins, text files, and post it notes that are scattered all over the freakin' living room and computer.  It will be the work of a solid week just to collect all of that, and that's optimistic, and that's even if I don't read another iota of secondary stuff or translate another line of OE.  I am messy as hell.  But I hope this means that if I actually start stringing things into proper prose form then something will emerge, some hail mary moment will happen.  I mean, it freakin' HAS TO.)

I guess a big stubmling block is that my starting place was going to be "everybody is framing the discussion in binary/dualistic terms, and here is how that doesn't work and here is how that framework/preconception helps us miss all this other stuff, and then here is some cool other stuff that we can think about in these new terms I'm framing."  I figured I'd arrive at something a little better than that after I actually started stringing paragraphs together.  But now I don't know how to start, because now everybody is NOT framing the discussion in binary/dualistic terms - this really important, brilliant book has just come out and I don't have time to thoroughly read and grok it before my draft needs to be done.  I just really don't know what the hell to do, but I MUST have a chapter draft this month, AND I have to give a conference paper on this chapter draft in less than a month.

So for the first time ever, really, in any research project, I actually had a pretty solid idea of where I was going before I got a bunch of stuff properly written.  I mean, I could tell you what I was going to argue, even though i was pretty sure I still had some surprises in store for myself that would emerge, and I had a bunch of loosely connected stuff I had to sort through and some of it would end up not fitting in.  But now, I cannot tell you what I am arguing or doing that has not already been done.

What in the hell do I DO?!

God, I wish I hadn't gotten my hands on that book until I had the stupid chapter actually written.  This has never happened to me when I've been so far along and invested in a project before.  And I don't even want to think about a writing sample right now for job applications - that is a whole 'nother freakout (and now, a not-insignificant problem.  I mean, my forthcoming thing is absolutely related to this work, but the version of it that is [supposedly] forthcoming [for a quarterly, the journal is taking *forever* to actually print it] has most of the medieval and most of the apocrypha and most of the theology stripped out of it, and it's been reframed to speak to a few current issues in early modern scholarship right now.  It seems silly to apply for medieval jobs wtih an early modern writing sample, but given that a lot of the prose I've already worked out in the form of the prospectus and assorted bits is now redundant and may not even be in the diss, I really don't have any other good options.  I guess I could dust off a Chaucer piece I have on the burner, but wouldn't it look screwed up NOT to send a writing sample from a diss?  Or am I being stupid? I mean, if the forthcoming article were on medieval *anything* I wouldn't sweat it if it weren't from the diss.  This will actually be in the diss, but it's the END of the diss, and a lot of other stuff that is not in great prose shape yet has to be polished first AND the piece slightly reframed in order to "fit" with the previous chapters.  Also, the Chaucer piece may actually be a piece of shit and/or dumb and/or ill-informed - I'm apparently no judge of my own writing at all.)

Please don't tell me to ask my advisor. I won't go into that in an unfiltered post, but that is not helpful advice.

Man this sucks.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 19th, 2011 01:27 pm (UTC)
I don't have any helpful advice, but am sending you good thoughts and a mental ass-kick aimed at your committee, who are batshit crazy for thinking you can assemble the materials to go on the job market *without*, it seems, anything resembling their full and engaged support.
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:31 am (UTC)
Advisor is WAY laid back and has this sort of "everything is going to be fine" attitude, about everything. But seriously. I don't think it's asking too much to meet to go over my translations with the one damned person on campus who can help me with them. Etc. He probably is sure they're fine etc, but we are just wired completely differently :/
Sep. 19th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
For me, writing the second chapter was the very worst, the ultimate nadir of dissertating, and I think it is for a lot of other people as well. (This was the point at which the bartenders not one, not two, but all three of my locals began the practice of pouring a Jameson for me as soon as I walked in the door, no order needed.) My advice, such as it is, would be to go back to the text, to start with the cool stuff and, once you've got that mapped out, see how it does or doesn't coincide with others' non-binary readings of the same material.

I've always loved the following quote from Barthes, and find in it a kind of imitable intellectual pragmatism: The Lacanian subject (for instance) never makes him think of Tokyo; but Tokyo makes him think of the Lacanian subject. This procedure is a constant one: he rarely starts from the idea in order to invent an image for it subsequently; he starts from a sensuous object, and then hopes to meet in his work with the possibility of finding an abstraction for it, levied on the intellectual cutlure of the moment: philosophy then is no more than a reservoir of particular images, of ideal fictions (he borrows objects, not reasonings). Mallarme speaks of "gestures of the idea": he finds the gesture first (expression of the body), then the idea (expression of the culture, of the intertext)."

YMMV, of course, but there was also this moment where, I realized, in important ways, the dissertation is not a public document, and it is OK for parts of it to suck or otherwise fail. A very fancy philosophy professor once told me, "just remember, it doesn't have to be original." I probably should have been offended, but at the time it felt very freeing.

Also, I think you do have to use a writing sample from the diss, but do you know where an early modern writing sample with an Old English research profile would fly really well? That postdoc you said you weren't going to apply to. If you want to chat more about writing samples (the one I used last year was on Spenser), ping me on facebook.
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
I would not care so much about the diss - "done not perfect" is my motto - but at least one chapter will be an important document in that it will be a writing sample. (Maybe). I mean, the Milton paper was supposedly one of the best things I've ever written, but it nevertheless took about a year to revise from seminar paper to article. A chapter completed a week before it becomes a writing sample is not likely to be very good.

I cannot figure out what postdoc you are referring to?
Sep. 20th, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
I may have misconstrued or misremembered something you wrote earlier, but I was thinking of the OE postdoc at Penn.

Anyway: I went out with a largely early modern writing sample, tweaked to play up medieval content as much as possible. It wasn't the end of the world, and it was certainly enough to pique some interest.
Sep. 19th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
I think it's okay that there's a book that agrees with your primary argument because you can talk about your stuff and point to the brilliant book that agrees and say 'see, I'm not crazy! X agrees! Now we must stop looking at these sources in such a binary way.'

Unless I'm totally misunderstanding what's going on here.
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:46 am (UTC)
It's just that I have nothing to say that she hasn't said. I mean, I no longer have an original thesis or an original reading or, at this point, even an angle where I can say "here's where I'm taking her reading further than she did." If I can't articulate what I'm saying that she hasn't said, then all I have is a book report / lit review. I mean, at first I thought she'd written my second chapter, the ontology one, and I could at least keep running with my homilies and say "here's how the homilies fit as well as the poetry she examines" and hopefully come up with a sliver or two beyond that too.

But then I got to the part of the book where she examined the same obscure homilies I've been slaving over for the past six weeks. So... I have nothing but a bunch of stuff that has been said and published already.
Sep. 20th, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's rough.

I wish I had some advice, but not knowing your field, I have no idea. I'm so sorry.
Sep. 20th, 2011 12:51 am (UTC)

Question... This book came out this year, right? Has it actually revolutionized the field dramatically in the time it's been out, such that no one is still using the duality thing? I mean, it doesn't seem like it's been long enough for all medievalists to drop their entrenched way of thinking and embrace this new angle. If I understand the timing correctly. Clearly I have no idea what I'm talking about. But academia is very divisive, right? I can't imagine everyone jumped ship right away.

... In which case, I don't think your argument is completely redundant. Also, and once again, I know nothing, but could you maybe look forward? Kind of "this work has redefined the field" and then maybe you could do your version of why the field was wrong, and how it should be, and then "and this is how it will affect/impact/inform our understanding and how it will change out work going forward"? When I get scooped, I look for what we call the "second-day story," i.e. advance it. But obvi my work is REALLY different from yours.

Sep. 20th, 2011 02:45 am (UTC)
No, you do know what you're talking about, and are correct that is has not had time to trickle everywhere yet, and in fact, that my panel is not likely to be full of people who have read it AND who are working on this stuff means that I may not be the target I fear I will be at the conference. But then again, it's possible the author of hte book will be there lol. But I need to be able to say *something* if somebody asks "what are you saying that the scholarship isn't already saying" and right now I do not have an answer. And even if nobody asks that question, it's my job to make sure I know what is being said around my topic.

I HAVE to find some "second day story" or angle - I just have not found it yet and am really having to hustle on a short fuse for it :/ Her book was *really* wide-ranging and it's also very dense and long. I'm sure there is an angle somewhere - I just do not know if I have time to locate it, latch on to it, and develop it :/ I mean, if it were just the diss, I think my committee would be pretty understanding - that something "scooped" me does not suddenly disappear the fact they approved my prospectus and advanced me to candidacy. Obviously I was right on the cutting edge of some shit - i just got beat to the punch. that I got beat by somebody who has had a PhD for a few years (never mind a better education with more "star pedigree") actually would make me feel pretty good - if I had more time to respond :( I just have to keep writing and hope I discover something in time.
Sep. 20th, 2011 03:42 am (UTC)

Well, since I'm on a roll... Can you send an email to Leslie Lockett -who I hate now on your behalf, for her impressive scholarship but also her alliterative name - and say something like "Hi, loved your book, I've been working on the same stuff and I admire the way you blah blah blah... I'm going to be at this blah blah conference, will you be there because I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee and talk about [obscure medieval stuff]." Then you'll know if she's going to be there. And possibly make a valuable contact. Who you don't even have to hate, because I'm totally doing it for you.

I have to say, obvi I don't know much about what you're working on, from what you've posted it sounds fascinating. Seriously. I wish I knew more about it - I'm pretty good at finding the second-day story.

LL can't discuss every major or interesting work during the relevant time period... Could your panel thingy be analyzing a work through the lens of this new way of thinking? If it would help you at all to bounce ideas off someone who knows very little about medieval lit but a lot about writing (and salvaging research) feel free to send me an email or FB message.

Sep. 28th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
Just incidentally, you keep saying "I don't knwo anything about your field" by way of disclaimer, but your perspective here has been very healthy and helpful, not only because I am my own biggest enemy when it comes to freaking out and not seeing the forest for the trees. And given that one of my major goals is to be able to produce prose that treats this stuff in depth and seriously *without* getting bogged down in language so highly specialized as to make it intimidating or too dense for an educated but non-specialist audience (not easy when talking about Augustine and cognitive linguistics and Aquinas, whose picture appears in the dictionary next to "intimidating philosophical discussions," I think you would be a fabulous reader for draftiness. You are just about my target audience (I don't mean for the diss, but in general - my future career in being the Carolyn Walker Bynum of AS Christianity who can point out all the really cool, weird, gross, fascinating, bizarre stuff about AS religion that nobody knows about because who in their right mind is stupid enough to pursue a path as an "anglo-saxonist" in this academic milieu and economy?! I want to write stuff that talks to interested, educated people who know stuff about other stuff and might be interested in knowing how this less-studied stuff fits in or doesn't.)

But must produce some draftiness first, sigh...
Sep. 24th, 2011 11:26 am (UTC)
recovery tactic
So for the first time ever, really, in any research project, I actually had a pretty solid idea of where I was going before I got a bunch of stuff properly written. I mean, I could tell you what I was going to argue, even though i was pretty sure I still had some surprises in store for myself that would emerge, and I had a bunch of loosely connected stuff I had to sort through and some of it would end up not fitting in. But now, I cannot tell you what I am arguing or doing that has not already been done.

What in the hell do I DO?!

God, I wish I hadn't gotten my hands on that book until I had the stupid chapter actually written.

This may sound like an awfully masochistic strategy, but if you're stuck anyway, maybe try writing some of the chapter you would have written. It may be that this calls out your thinking in a more realised way, gives you some basis to reposition yourself on the debates and realise that actually, you do have some different points of view that are worth staking out. And, on the get-the-damn-doctorate stakes, frankly, you just need a chapter. Write it and add a note at the beginning saying, "Similar arguments are expressed in Lockett 2011, which emerged too recently to be fully incorporated into this work" and move on. Because you cannot afford to be stuck at this stage, but maybe you can find some genuine K_navit reaction to Lockett's writing this way, other than panic I mean. There may be better approaches but if you haven't got one I'd try that. (I would of course: my solution to *everything* is to write stuff about it.)

As to the writing sample, I have always been told to use publications for this if I have one suitable, because it gives the panel some comfort that someone *else* saw good things in the piece. I don't know if that plays the same way in the US, and the tone in comments does suggest that a dissertation sample would be more usual for you guys, but maybe that is a rule based on people in your position not usually *having* publications?

A final thought: is anyone ever ready for the market? But the market is awful and getting worse, and there is no better practice for tangling with it than just getting on out there. As ever, if there's stuff it would be helpful for me to look over, pass it on, but for this I suspect you really want someone US-side.
Sep. 28th, 2011 02:36 am (UTC)
Re: recovery tactic
I finally met with my advisor today and he said "being published trumps focus of piece" BUT the Milton is too long for most of the apps :( I *may* be able to salvage that with a revision, and I may be able to frame a cover letter so that it explains how this chapter relates to the rest of the project, which is assuredly medieval. Maybe. It will end up being a question of time + where my head is between now and then + a good bit of chance, I imagine. Also I should get another piece out, of course, and a medieval one at that (though he did say skip Chretien - a committee will see that and say "this French piece has what to do with english lit?"). I think the bottom line is, nobody really knows what the hell makes committees make the decisions they make, and that is why all the advice conflicts.

You are right about the doctorate/chapter angle - and of course a hiring committee will not have read this book either. I appreciate the perspective - God knows that is the first thing i lose.

I had a minor breakthrough last night whicih came from shifting gears - i have been avoiding the augustine b/c I do not want to get bogged down in "orthodoxy" vs. "heterodoxy" and in fact want to argue that these are pretty wretched terms with which to frame the discussion. But I saw just one too many gross simplifications of Augustinian thinking which is always already "THE one single monolithic orthodox way of thinking of soul body relations" in so much scholarship on soul-body, and I just snapped. And I translated a few passages from the Confessions, and then I wrote nine pages. probably only four of them will make the final cut, but still - that was nice. And that was how Milton got written - Augustine mostly didn't amke the final cut, and Deleuze and Guattari got completely left out, but the piece couldnt' have been written had I not sat there and done all that reading and thinking with Augustine and bodies-without-organs.

So I realized that even though I don't think "Augustinian orthodoxy" is a proper thing against which to read this literature (not least of all because "Augustinian orthodoxy" is something of a myth, the way its deployed), the entire project of the Confessions illustrates a way of thinking about rational embodied being that these AS soul and body works are performing in miniature. The whole of the Confessions is a deliberate self-alienation, a fracturing of the self from itself, direct address to the soul here, a meditation on how the senses serve the mind or then the soul, which by the way is definitely NOT the unitary-I despite what so many ill-informed literary critics have said. it's a prolonged meditation on exactly the questions that my poets and homilists are so concerned with. It does not mean the soul hates the body - separability does not require separate existence and twoness (that is really threeness) does not = duality/dichotomy in the sense of intrinsically opposed terms -- and it does not result in a self that stays (or should stay) fractured, because the entire weight and trajectory of the work is always toward the future reunification of soul and body. But the self-aware christian must be able to look within and say "I am not identical with my body" in order to live an embodied, non-flesh-negating existence; the fracturing is a first step towards something else, toward a remaking - the soul speaks to the senseless flesh and asks aloud, "Ac hwæt do wit unc, þonne he unc hafað eedbyrded oþre siþe?" This is the trajectory even for the damned soul, for whom it is "too late."

And for that, I have Augustine to thank (and a really, really wretched article that was published in Exemplaria in the late 90s, which I am going to keep handy - whenever I feel bad about my own work, I am going to pull it out, read it, and remind myself that if this can get published, so can I.)

Fingers crossed on the rest. As always, thanks for chiming in - your perspective has so often been so valuable.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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