Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sample Literacy Narrative: Recognizing a Dissertation Error

Students, please find below a draft of an example of the kind of writing expected from you in your literacy narrative, as discussed here. When formatted for submission as a paper (which it currently is not, owing to the differences in media), it is of approximately three and a third pages in length, comfortably within what is acceptable for your own submissions.

One of the things expected of those in the professoriate is that they will publish books, the first of which for those professing in the humanities is usually revision and expansion of the dissertation.  It might seem counter-intuitive to need to do so; the dissertation is supposed to be a capstone experience in which a scholar demonstrates the ability to make an original contribution to human knowledge.  It is supposed to be a highly polished product of years of intensive study and research, thoroughly vetted by several already-established professors, and defended in an open forum from the attacks of colleagues and the occasional departmental enemy.  To think it is not good enough boggles the mind--yet it is the case that dissertations need revision.

I have been at slow work on my own, poring once again over the pages that I pored over for years on the way to earning my doctorate, reading again the words I have written.  In doing so, it occurred to me that I ought to follow up on one of the footnotes in my dissertation.  The note seemed to be a good idea for a paper, and I need to get more papers written so that my students appear the better for having studied under my kind tutelage, and so I began to do a bit of research to see if the idea voiced in it, an idea proceeding from one of the major assertions of the analysis underlying my second dissertation chapter, would work.  And I found to my dismay that it did not; I had used something fundamentally wrong to support a full chapter of my dissertation.

The realization embarrassed me greatly, and in that shame, I began again to question my worth.  Had I wasted the years spent in study (a question already too much prevalent among those who study the humanities)?  Had the time reading deeply and putting words together well and revising those words against the sometimes harsh comments of my committee members been for nothing?  Had I been promoted out of pity or out of political concerns rather than because of my merits as a scholar?  Was I a fraud to think that I have any expertise in literature?  Did I deserve to get to do what I do, to enjoy what is still in some senses a privileged position as a professor of the humanities?  My head reeled with such questions and began to range to darker ones yet, and hope began to flee from me.

The development of new knowledge begins with questions, however, and those I asked myself in a frenetic approach to despair began to lead me to other ideas.  Perhaps, if my receipt of the degree was political, I was used, but used to an end worth achieving.  Perhaps my committee had not noticed the error because even my faulty knowledge in the field surpassed their own--and they are mighty among scholars, so that it is no small thing to stand above them in even so small a way and so limited a set of circumstances.  Perhaps the error had escaped attention because it was overshadowed by the other points of proof in the chapter and in the dissertation as a whole, and if it is the case that my other work was so good, I have every right to take pride and be confident in it.

That pride, though, ought to motivate me not to rest easy upon success, but to build upon it and thus come to enjoy more success.  If my dissertation is deficient, I have a place in which to improve.  If the avenue through which I had thought to develop new knowledge and understanding is closed, its pavement torn up to expose the pipes as corroding away, I can turn to find an alternate route, one that may well offer better scenery or a shorter trip than that to which I had become accustomed.  Exploring it will help me to better know the geography of the texts I study, and that cannot but improve my ability to conduct work in the field.

Emboldened by such thoughts, I considered the matter further (although I note with some chagrin that the consideration interfered with my work on revising the dissertation).  In recognizing the error, I was reminded that no work of human writing is ever truly finished; there is always more to be said, always more to be discovered, and so no statement of learning ever truly concludes.  Even if I cease to work on a project, another may take it up, responding to what I write as my writing responds to that which others do.  Improvement is always possible, and there is some comfort in recalling that.  Certainly, such comfort upbuoyed me as I regarded my dissertation.

Too, I found a strange solace in the reminder to be humble.  I exulted in the completion of my dissertation; I shouted for joy when I sent the final draft of it to my committee members, and I danced in jubilation when they said to me over the phone (for I defended my dissertation remotely from New York City to my graduate school in southwest Louisiana) "Congratulations, Dr. Elliott."  It was fitting that I do so; I had labored on it long, and the labor was not easy, for I had to secure the approval of four professors, and their opinions were neither kindly couched nor always in accord with one another.  Yet I needed to remember that the dissertation is only one thing, one small part of the human knowledge I had advanced; more was already known than I will ever know, and certainly there is more to add to it.  And against that awesome truth, even while celebration is at times warranted, humility is appropriate.

As I think on the matter again while I write about it, a notion related to that of humility occurs to me: the error is a useful piece of my teaching.  Since my earliest childhood, I have known that I am supposed to be in the classroom, whether in the seats or standing in front of them.  There are times as an instructor that I have looked out over my students and felt the power my hard-won knowledge gives me over them.  I fall too easily into condemnation of them because I approach the world from the perspective of my study; the recognition of error serves to remind me that I am still very much learning, and so I ought to have a little more compassion for those who have not struggled to do so for so long as I have and are therefore not yet where I now stand.  It also serves to show my students that the process of revision is one all who will write must perform.  I am not exempt from it despite my graduate degrees in English and years of experience teaching writing, so they who have yet to do such things should not think that they are themselves removed from the need to improve their work.  And it allows me to model one of the many things I hope my students learn from my instruction; with luck, my doing so may at some point serve as a guide for their own labors in that regard.

Even in its deficiency, then, the dissertation has worked to better me as a scholar.  I have a focus for the development of new knowledge because of it, and I can improve upon how I disseminate that knowledge.  Thus, I address both of the scholar's tasks and hopefully make things better for those who will follow after me.

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