The Rhetoric of Composition: How We Talk When We Talk About Dissertations

Uncategorized / Tuesday, March 29th, 2016
Rick Ness is a PhD Candidate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison and a writing center tutor. Rick has led graduate writer’s groups and has co-taught the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp. His research focuses on the simultaneous emergence of British Romantic literature and biopolitical, medicalized societies.

By Rick Ness –

Last January, I co-taught The Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp with Nancy Lynn Karls and Neil Simpkins. During the camp I was perusing the collection of dissertation guide books in the Writing Center, and I noticed some common visual and verbal metaphors: mountains, journeys, and light bulbs (and while technically not a metaphor, a towering stack of books is a popular image).

51fE1-KHQKL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Then I did an Amazon search for “dissertation writing” and found more mountains, journeys, and light bulbs (and towering stacks of books). I also noticed another popular metaphor: survival. 51MhgyAxgxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
Some top selling titles in this vein include 101 Tips for Planning, Writing, and Surviving Your Dissertation; The Dissertation Survival Kit; How to Complete and Survive Your Dissertation; and Surviving Your Dissertation, the latter featuring a picture of a life preserver floating in a vast sea with no dry land in sight. Another title that caught my attention was Detox your Writing: Strategies for Doctoral Researchers. 51SL47MBSoL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_As useful as this book promises to be, is a metaphor for illness and drug rehab was a tad hyperbolic? Perhaps comparisons to life-threatening expeditions have increased our metaphoric tolerance so much that we need to amp up the intensity.

Later that week I googled “dissertation writing camps” because I was curious to see what other universities were doing. I got several results, although they weren’t for dissertation camps exactly—all of the them, except for one, were “boot camps.” I also came across an Inside Higher Ed blog on dissertation boot camps. It featured a photo of an actual boot camp and wrote, “we’re all in this together, and it’s nice to know there are others in the trenches with us.” Of course, these books, blogs, and boot camps are extremely valuable resources for PhD candidates. But I’m wondering if this sort of visual and verbal rhetoric is more likely to intimidate than to encourage. There are many ways to talk about writing, yet associations with grueling military trials and threats to our survival seem to dominate perceptions of what it means to write a dissertation.

Is Perception Reality?

Are these just harmless figures of speech? Perhaps. Or should we entertain the possibility that this language perpetuates unhelpful perceptions of dissertating that might affect one’s confidence about their ability to finish? Do these survivalist and militaristic metaphors reflect the fact that PhD attrition rates are so high—50% on average and closer to 65% in the humanities—or that finishing a dissertation takes so long—an average of 9 years in the humanities, 7.7 years in the social sciences, and 6.7 in the physical sciences (at the University I attended prior to UW, the English PhD candidates quipped about something called “The Ten Year Club”…it was not an exclusive club). Or do they contribute to these dreary numbers?

Of course there are many factors that can explain these grim statistics: family and teaching obligations, strained relations with committees, money, bleak job prospects, etc. Some attrition is fine and arguably good—many decide that the academic lifestyle isn’t for them. But attrition is less fine if students leave feeling defeated. And is the specter of defeat helped by rhetoric that reinforces the sense that finishing a dissertation is an overwhelming and exhausting ordeal in which the odds are stacked against you? Marine_recruits_learn_basic_combat_skills_on_Parris_Island_150609-M-VP563-202Perhaps this perception contributes to procrastination—procrastination that can kill the progress of a dissertation. And do we want to think of those who successfully complete their dissertations as merely surviving rather than thriving? Should Writing Centers avoid this rhetoric? Maybe dissertating should be treated as another part of one’s daily routine, like lesson planning or teaching, rather than a grueling endurance trial or a dangerous expedition that might kill you. Writing a dissertation is an isolating activity, so when we do make it social, why not use more welcoming language?

I suggest that survivalist and militaristic metaphors are not helping. Language that repeatedly associates writing with survival, combat training, or drug rehab can be a psychological impediment. What I find interesting is that the content of some of these books doesn’t even necessarily reflect the tropes on their covers. But whether or not this is “just marketing,” the covers nevertheless project those perceptions. Slide1As helpful as guide books and boot camps can be, they can ironically create barriers by engendering the sense that writing a dissertation has to be an overwhelming and unpleasant experience. Language that hyperbolizes the stressful aspects of dissertating makes it easier for dissertators to become intimidated and lose confidence. This language can also lead one to view the dissertation as a barrier between themselves and their career rather than a bridge that leads to it.

A Case Study

During the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp, Nancy, Neil, and I led workshops and goal setting sessions and held one-on-one conferences with the dissertators. The more I got to know them, the more I noticed that, among this super smart group of highly motivated and experienced dissertators, few seemed to have much practice thinking about the craft of writing; that is, thinking about writing as writing as opposed to just writing on their topic. But departments generally don’t encourage dissertators to think this way. As a result, many dissertators just write however they write, and they don’t think about writing habits—scheduling blocks of daily writing time, short term goal setting, and time management. Dissertator’s are also not encouraged enough to reflect on who they are as writers—at what time of day and in what environment are they most productive? How much can they reasonably expect to produce in a day, a week, or a month? Do they have a voice and a style?

Participants in the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp, January 2015
Participants in the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp, January 2015

While the dissertators had a week to write, the camp wasn’t treated like a strenuous marathon. The day was fluidly paced and broken up into manageable chunks; we focused on short term goal setting, productive habits, and self-reflection. And the majority of students accomplished significantly more than they expected. Dissertators, on average, produced between 6,000 and 7,000 words, or around twenty-five pages. About half wrote entire chapters. And that was in five days. For a lot of students, that’s a semester’s worth of work. 58% reported that their overall writing ability improved. As a result, confidence rose tremendously, and I believe that the intimidating rhetoric surrounding the dissertation can at least partly explain these illuminating statistics:


Confidence Levels of Dissertation Campers (Click to Enlarge)
Confidence Levels of Dissertation Campers (Click to Enlarge)

During the camp, the dissertators were not stressed. They were relaxed, and those slated to defend this Spring felt confident about it. They built community and camaraderie and even formed some writing groups on their own. And they did not feel like they were scaling Mount Everest, “surviving” an arduous expedition, or suffering through a military training exercise. It was, in fact, a pleasurable experience. Dissertators were producing substantive work in a field that fascinates them. In fact, a couple of students mentioned how the camp reacquainted them with what they love about their field, something too often eclipsed by the difficulties of graduate school. At least for that week, the militaristic and survivalist mindset that reinforces those difficulties seemed to have been voted off the island.

In the feedback questionnaire at the end of the camp, the most valuable takeaway mentioned by most dissertators was the importance of setting short term, attainable goals. Why? Because it showed them that finishing a dissertation is very doable—not easy, but doable. Moreover, knowledge of this doability was a significant motivating factor and confidence builder. My sense is that, prior to the camp, most of the dissertators had to some degree internalized the intimidating tropes of militarism and survival because so many of them lacked confidence. And a lot of them thought about their projects on a rather large and—if you will—mountainous scale, thinking in terms of chapters or whole dissertations rather than daily and weekly goals. Mountain, military, and survival tropes do not cultivate healthy and realistic approaches to finishing a dissertation. They emphasize the macro, which is overwhelming, instead of the micro, which is manageable. So what’s in a name? Does it matter whether we call them camps or boot camps? Does it matter if we associate dissertating with militarism or a fight for survival? Does it matter if we call a writing center a center or a lab or a literacy center? We make concerted efforts to dispel the remediation stigma that writing centers often have. As for the dissertation, perhaps we should try to reframe our language and turn metaphorical barriers into bridges.

*Note to reader: we enthusiastically encourage you to offer new dissertation metaphors in the comments section. Thanks for reading.

9 Replies to “The Rhetoric of Composition: How We Talk When We Talk About Dissertations”

  1. Thanks, Rick, for this thoughtful foray into the territory of dissertation-writing metaphors. And thanks, too, for the view into the dissertation camp you recently co-taught with Nancy and Neil. Those militaristic and survivalist metaphors are about being tough, about struggle and enemies, conquering, winning. For some people, this could be useful, although equally useful — still about being “tough” and winning — could be sports metaphors. (I’m sure “marathon” has been used in relation to dissertation writing.)

    At the risk of being too “soft” (not tough), what about some imagery about growing? What if we thought of dissertation-writing as a kind of garden or crop to sow, tend, and harvest? Or the language of food and cooking could be motivational — appropriate snacks could be worked in — each chapter with its own flavors or particular preparation needs, each writing session devoured.

  2. Thanks for this post, Rick. I agree that the majority of dissertation ‘help’ writing guides out there play upon these tropes of ‘survival’ and military ‘discipline.’ And while I haven’t participated in one of these ‘camps’ or ‘boot camps’ myself, I’ve had a colleague outside of the English department who remarked once that the name ‘camp’ is puerile and appears infantilizing. Yet I wonder, as you mentioned in your post – what’s in a name, after all? Given that, as you note, metaphors of ‘survival’ etc. are prevalent in this genre of writing, wouldn’t, presumably, someone who is in a PhD program and is prepped by coursework to the point of being ready to write a dissertation be capable enough of recognizing that these are mere metaphors? In other words, I’m presuming here that anyone who does pick up such a book is, even if in need of help for dissertation writing, would take the metaphor with a heavy pinch of salt. While I’m not saying that rhetoric has no possible effect on the internalization of images, etc., in this particular case, I wonder about the extent to which any capable PhD student would internalize such images without approaching this genre of literature with a degree of skepticism first.

  3. The Dissertation Workshops seem like they offer an incredible opportunity to make time and space for writing. Setting writing goals and holding one another accountable are such valuable habits. I would like to incorporate these habits into my writing practice–particularly when a large project seems unsurmountable or I find progress difficulty to track. I look forward to formalizing these routines by participating in the future!

  4. Thanks, Rick, for a provocative post that calls attention to negative metaphors about writing and graduate school. As a person who once upon a time participated in a “boot camp” experience that was supposed to be as realistic as possible, I find the boot camp metaphor off-putting, to put it mildly. On the one hand, I think some would claim boot camp is supposed to foster close-knit trust relationships among future soldiers (at quite a high cost), but even this aspect of the metaphor is completely different than what graduate school can be like – isolating. I agree the metaphor isn’t helping. Not to mention that to succeed at boot camp, all you have to do is not quit – it’s more complicated in grad school.

    I like Mary’s metaphor of gardening or growing something – there’s risk involved, but also a lot of patience and menial day-to-day labor. I might also propose a metaphor like an apprenticeship or a guild structure. I think that’s kind of the idea behind producing something like a “master’s” thesis. Perhaps a historian of apprenticeships would scare me off from the idea (and I know apprentice law wasn’t exactly pretty at times), but once again I like the idea of learning a craft from someone who’s work you take as a model but also diverge from.

  5. Thank you for this great post, Rick! I hadn’t really thought much before about how the metaphor of survival has crept in to our rhetoric surrounding dissertation writing. I agree that “no pain, no gain” is perhaps not the most productive way to look at our work and is potentially harmful. I think it makes it sound like we write a dissertation all by ourselves, which is not the case even if we do have spend hours alone at our keyboards. I know that feeling isolated has certainly harmed my progress at times.

    As someone who has been lucky enough to attend a Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertator’s Camp and made some terrific progress there, I have to say I am ready to embrace a metaphor – but of summer camp, not boot camp. (Unfortunately, since it was a day camp, I spent hours sewing labels on all my stuff for nothing. And nobody’s bed got short-sheeted.) Anyway, perhaps this idea of camp is a little infantile, but I did benefit from the community building aspect of camp, and stepped out of my comfort zone to really examine my process. It is about, as you mention, getting re-acquainted with our fields and remembering why we love our work – perhaps a way of pushing the reset button and trying new things with new people? The term “Writer’s Retreat” always sounds so much more appealing, but it sounds a little easy and potentially isolating as well. For me, being able to talk to other dissertations and WC instructors during the camp was key to being productive.

  6. Thanks for the fascinating post, Rick. While I definitely see the potential problems with rhetorically making a dissertation into combat or something that needs to be survived, I wonder if the more innocent connection at play (at least with the militaristic rhetoric) is discipline. In your post, you mention “scheduling blocks of daily writing time, short term goal setting, and time management” as writing habits for dissertators to cultivate, and I can’t help but thinking that the resonance with the military is not so much with fighting but with routine.

    I understand that your post is drawing attention to other, negative connotations in the rhetoric you’ve identified, but I’m wondering if you can maintain the necessary discipline of writing a dissertation while giving up the associations with combat and survival. And perhaps Mary’s growth metaphor is one avenue to do so since there is a discipline in raising plants (watering, weeding, feeding, etc…).

  7. […] Last January, I co-taught The Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camp with Nancy Lynn Karls and Neil Simpkins. During the camp I was perusing the collection of dissertation guide books in the Writing Center, and I noticed some common visual and verbal metaphors: mountains, journeys, and light bulbs (and while technically not a metaphor, a towering stack of books is a popular image). Then I did an Amazon search for “dissertation writing” and found more mountains, journeys, and light bulbs (and towering stacks of books). I also noticed another popular metaphor: survival. (click here to continue reading) […]

Comments are closed.