This week was about trying to get back in the swing of things after my post-orals pause. The big challenge has been to get a stable writing routine going. I haven’t been completely successful. It’s difficult not having immediate deadlines to work toward, and to only have a vague sense of the path I need to be taking as I inch dissertation-ward.
1. What is a dissertation prospectus?
I decided to focus my attention this week on wrapping my head around the dissertation prospectus. Every program’s definition of a dissertation proposal (as they’re usually called) vary substantially in terms of size, structure, and constraints. The GC English program has only a few guidelines:
- It must be under 10 pages, double spaced
- It must”provide a compact, concise blueprint for a dissertation by including:
- An overarching perspective on a specific project that can accommodate substantial inquiry;
- A brief description of path-making commentary immediately relevant to the project;
- A series of chapter titles and thumbnail descriptions of them.”
- and, it must have a working bibliography.
Beyond these basic parameters, the genre is quite open. In some ways this is encouraging, because I could imagine checking these boxes in any number of ways. However, I know better. Open prompts are nice in structured work environments, where help and guidance is easily available. But when not paired with structure–like when I have nothing but free time and nobody checking in on me–they’re the express route way into the mud pit.
What the program has provided here is a menu–generated by the client who will do the eating, a list of what they expect to be served. What I want is a recipe–generated by the chefs who will do the cooking, a list of the major ingredients and the essential techniques for preparing them. The recipe and the menu are related, of course. But there’s a big difference between ordering a cheese soufflé and making one.
This semester, I joined on to a dissertation workshop, in part because I wanted to see how other apprentice chefs are doing their cooking. It’s no credit, and fairly low intensity in terms of time commitment, but I’m hoping it will help get things moving on my writing. In our first feedback session, we ended up talking about our writing goals for the semester, which, for most people, included drafting a prospectus. We were all desperate for recipes. The professor leading the workshop seemed hesitant to give one, so he gave us only some general proportions:
- 5 – 6 your summary of previous scholarship, identifying the gap you will fill, and explaining how you will fill that gap
- 3 – 4 pages for your chapter summaries, each chapter focusing on an “object”
This breakdown helped a bit: rather than simply naming the things on the plate, it describes plating and portion size. It still doesn’t tell me what to do with the whisk in my hand, however. I understand why there aren’t a lot of recipes out there. We’re all doing different sorts of projects, and we all have wildly different writing practices. One model won’t fit everyone.
I decided I wanted to do some more digging to figure out what kind of recipe would work for me. So, first, I had to eat.
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2. Reverse-engineering a Dissertation Prospectus
I put out a call among my more advanced colleagues, asking them to send me copies of their accepted prospectuses for me to study. I limited myself to folks who work in my area of English, composition and rhetoric.
Each of the three studies works with Comp/rhet methodologies ranging from ethnography of a writing center to quantitative analysis of our field’s published research. These projects are quite far from the kinds of literature-focused studies the other folks in my dissertation workshop are doing. They are, however, very close to the kind of mixed-method, interdisciplinary study I’m working on.
I read through each of the prospectuses, creating a reverse outline for each paragraph, noting the overall function of the paragraph, the ways citations were deployed, and the way they discussed the project. Here is a visual representation of my data:
[Note: This data is in now way scientific. Sizes of things are guestimated to give rough proportions.]
As you can see, none of these three prospectuses follow the plating arrangement recommendations of the dissertation workshop director. Two of them (A and C), in fact, devote over 2/3rds of their time to discussing the chapters. One of them (B), discusses the chapters almost not at all, instead devoting most of the draft to methodology talk and shoving a very speculative chapter outline into a single paragraph in the “conclusion” section.
A and B both take the approach of providing a very quick chapter overview somewhere in the first third, near the end of the introduction section. They then devote the rest of the prospectus to an in-depth talk through of the chapters, for each chapter summarizing key scholarship that lays the groundwork for that particular chunk of the analysis.
By the half way point of the prospectus, the focus shifts from what scholars have said to what the researcher hopes to do with the data that will be gathered; naturally the mood shifts from indicative to subjunctive, from what X or Y says in the literature to what the researcher hopes to do or thinks might happen.
Model A is the outlier here: Rather than getting all the secondary references out of the way early, each chapter description includes a citation to a foundational study from which the author derives on principle or key word that is the focus of that chapter. Essentially, a call-and-response format, where the call comes from one important researcher, and the response comes from the researcher’s attempt to use/expand that researcher’s method.
In some ways, Model A comes off as less confident, because it is shorn up by scholarship every step of the way, compared with B and C, which devote more effort to describing their own original research design. A feels more grounded and safe, where B and C feel more experimental and speculative. I wonder what these different approaches say about where the authors were in terms of their data-gathering processes . . . I wonder where I’ll end up falling on this spectrum . . . .
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3. Revised ingredient list
Of course, looking at products won’t tell me exactly how they’re made. Still it helped me get a better sense of the ingredients I’m going to need to actually prepare my dissertation prospectus. So, to make a prospectus, it looks like I’ll need the following:
1. A few citations that attest to the field’s (or general) interest in my topic: these can be from popular or scholarly sources, but they should make the topic seem current and important.
2. A paragraph of enticing, broadly phrased questions that folks in my field want answered–to be deployed at the end of the intro and the beginning of the conclusion.
3. A description of the object of study I have chosen and what makes it unique.
4. A narrative of my data-gathering and analysis process, broken into four or five speculative steps.
5. Two or three big citations that justify my methodology. These can come from outside comp/rhet proper, especially when using social-science-influenced methodologies. These are citations as models.
6. Four or five smaller citations that establish a gap in other studies: these come from other comp/rhet studies that are similar in some way to my own, but that leave an opening for my study as a corrective/extension. I only need to mention these, not explore them as models here. These are citations as clamor.
7. A paragraph of enticing speculative uses for the answers my study will produce. These are to be deployed in the conclusion, but also hinted at at the end of each step of the research/analysis chunks.
Some of these things I have; some of these things I don’t.
Based on all this thinking, I’ve decided that my next step should be to break these sections down and tackle them one by one, perhaps devoting a week a piece to each of them. First, I think, will be the object of study. I need to be contacting more interview subjects and looking over the archival materials I’ve started gathering, so this feels like a section that is still a bit out of my reach, but, with a little stretching, within my grasp. And it should pave the way toward the methodology stuff, which is my shakiest territory.
Any of you cooking along with me at home? Feel free to share your recipes here.