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Dissertation Reflections

Whew! On Sunday, as scheduled, I turned in revisions of chapters 1, 2, and 3 of my dissertation to my adviser. Now on to work on revisions of chapters 4, 5, and the conclusion, which I'll turn in on July 6.

After getting this round of comments from my adviser*, another set of revisions of the whole dissertation, then submit it to the other readers on the committee, get their comments, do another set of revisions, then hopefully it'll be ready to defend.

So, while I know I'm not completely finished with it yet, it honestly is almost a polished, done deal, and I now feel qualified to say a little bit about the dissertation writing process. This past year I've been on a fellowship, and I can't say how much that helped. I'm certain I wouldn't have gotten this far without it.

Also, I have to admit that those books really do work. I had my doubts; I didn't think that anything would come out of all those freewriting sessions, but it does. Even just typing out some blockquotes you might want to use and rearranging them is something. That's what I did a lot: I put in quotations along with little placeholder notes to myself. Those were my zero drafts, basically strings of quotations followed by to-do lists ("Be sure to bring in Heilbrun; connect it to what Warnick says about ethos," "write definition of trackback," "summarize Lazere's argument here; show how it's relevant," etc.). It was a start, though, and that helped. And it's true what Anne Lamott says; no one ever has to see those drafts.

I also did lots of exercises related to my dissertation. For example, when I was having trouble figuring out how to work my responses from my interviews into my chapters, as an exercise, I decided to take all my questions and group them under headings that corresponded to my chapter topics. As another exercise, I did Toulmin schema of a lot of different claims I encountered in my research, both in the blog posts and the scholarly sources, like so:

Initial Enthymeme: Women aren't interested in politics; they're interested in babies, fashion and celebrity gossip.

Claim: Women aren't interested in politics

Reason: because they're interested in babies, fashion and celebrity gossip

Warrant: 1. Someone who is interested in babies, fashion, and celebrity gossip couldn't also be interested in politics; 2. {Politics} and {babies, fashion, and celebrity gossip} are mutually exclusive.

It was as though I was always jabbing my dissertation, saying, "Can you feel it when I do this?"

"Can you feel it when I do this?"

"Can you feel it when I do THIS?"

That's me on the left, by the way.

Public accountability helped, too, like that "Write/Exercise" block I had on my sidebar for a while. I'm going to bring that back soon, but right now I'm doing so much writing that it's hard to keep track of it. For now, I'll bring back just the exercise part. I joined Ladies' Workout Express a week or so ago, so I've been doing a lot of exercising as well. I also formed a dissertation writing group that met biweekly this past academic year. That, too, helped a lot, and I'd recommend it.

My dissertation approach, then, has consisted of:

  1. Breaking writing down into small modules of around a couple of pages each
  2. Doing planning drafts that were, literally, blockquotes and to-do lists
  3. Implementing the Getting Things Done system and thinking of each chapter as a project. Then I'd write down every single little thing I could think of do related to that chapter -- David Allen calls them "next action" steps. They'd be tasks as small as "request such-and-such a book from interlibrary loan." I just tried to capture every single task.
  4. Doing thought exercises: If one occurred to me, I did it.
  5. Taking a seminar the Women's Studies department at UMN offers called "Feminist Research and Writing" which is basically a writing/project management practicum. If your university has something like this, TAKE IT. I wrote several drafts of my dissertation prospectus in a timely manner because I was getting graded on it.
  6. Forming a dissertation writing group and attending meetings (we did things in the same draft workshop format as the Feminist Research and Writing class). Oh, and I had absolutely no compunction about giving them those ugly planning drafts to read.
  7. Revising ambitions and goals. I've cut lots of whole sections and ideas from chapters, simply because it would take too much time to develop them and connect them to what I'm already doing (plus, including everything I think of would distract from the unity I'm striving for). I'm keeping these in a list for future projects instead. A dissertation is a generative process; that's part of the point. Just because certain interesting connections might occur to me doesn't mean they all have to be documented in the dissertation. Simply pick some ideas and go with them; don't even try to cover everything.
  8. Reading other people's dissertations -- not the award winners, but people who finished and passed.
  9. Oh, and I know this might not be possible for everyone, but if you're just starting your PhD program, I'd recommend deciding on a dissertation topic immediately (a broad area, at least -- back in 2002, mine was just "gender and blogging," and I could have done a lot of different things with that) and funneling seminar papers and comprehensive exam essays toward the dissertation.

* I've already gotten her comments on the first three chapters, and they're encouraging! Not too much left to do now.

Literature Review Spreadsheet

Right now I'm in the process of frantically revising chapters. Revisions of chapters 1, 2, and 3 are due to my advisor very soon, and chapters 1 and 3 are what need the most work in the whole thing, sigh.

I wrote my literature review a long time ago; I guess I've been writing it for years now: in seminar papers, preliminary exams, etc. What I need to do now is organize it in a clean, streamlined way in order to make broad claims about the body of research -- which is, in this case, work with gender and technology in composition studies.

Throughout the process of writing my dissertation, I've sometimes had these leaps in my thinking, these "why didn't I think of this two years ago?" ideas. Last night, as I was revising my chapter, I had one. I decided to take all the articles, books, and book chapters I'm reviewing and put them in a spreadsheet. I have only five columns: Author, Year, Category, Theory, and Method. I'm categorizing these essays according to what the authors are doing and/or talking about. My categories, which are subheadings in my literature review, are:

Classroom Research

The Body in Cyberspace (remember all those pieces that were published in the late 1990s? Almost all used some theoretical combination of Stone, Haraway, Foucault, and Turkle)

Hypertext as Écriture Féminine

Girl Culture Online

Professional Space (women's professional web sites)

These categories pretty much cover most of the research that's been done. Perhaps some of you have already had the idea to do a literature review spreadsheet, but I thought I'd share it anyway. I think it will help me to be as comprehensive as possible. It'll also be nice to sort the data by year, category, or any other heading.

Edited: Immediately after hitting "Submit," I thought of another column: Technology. I realized I wanted to keep track of whether the technology being studied was email, a bulletin board, a MOO, what have you.

A dissertation-related insight

Maybe, as the nagging, doubtful critic in my mind says, someone else (anyone else!) could read the same primary and secondary texts I'm reading and write a better dissertation. Maybe this someone would make more incisive critical moves, find a more innovative way to frame the whole thing, etc.

But no one else is reading my primary and secondary texts. I'm the only one writing this particular dissertation. It's long tail work, as Collin has described academic work before (and I tried to find the post, but I couldn't do a domain-specific Google search for some reason). It's one small piece of something.

And it's really not so bad! Ah, revision. I think it's coming together.

It's not such a bad little chapter...

Lovely pithy quote of the day, from John Holbo:

Your average Ph.D. dissertation has the utility and appeal of an X-Ray image of a half-digested meal.

Also, I reread chapter 2 recently (which I wrote last summer), in which I describe my methodology, and while it's no award-winner by any means, it's not that bad.

To elaborate on this, a good friend of mine who is working on his dissertation once said that while my dissertation (or his, or anyone's) might bring up more questions and problems than it even begins to solve or so much as address, people who read it will learn something they didn't know before, and that's what a dissertation should do -- tell a story that teaches somebody something. Some might think that's an awfully low standard for a dissertation, but check this out: Here's what I'm going for. As a variation on what Jenny once said, I'm aiming for around two hundred pages of words with chapters and quotations and paragraphs and subheadings. It will have a beginning, middle, and end, and if you read it, you'll learn something you didn't know before.

Dissertation Woes

It's been a while since you got a dissertation update, hasn't it? Well, in the words-on-paper sense, I have a zero draft of the whole thing. 206 pages of something. I'm so lost and confused with the theory I'm using (too many conceptual tools to choose from, nothing that seems to lend itself to a systematic application, etc.) that for chapters 3 and 5, I decided simply to write the chapters saying what I wanted to say about the "Where are the women?" case, then add the theory in later once I know WTF I'm doing with it. I know that's a pretty wack approach to scholarship, but hey, by hook or by crook, right?

My biggest problem is that I'm frustrated with the whole. I would love to be able to have this tight, coherent dissertation with a sequential, step-by-step analytical structure that a reader can anticipate and follow easily, a dissertation that would make sense even if all one saw was the table of contents. I had a good friend in my master's program at Tennessee, Shauna Bryant, whose thesis was like that. Observe the lovely flow:

Chapter One: Introduction_______________________________________________1
A Definition of Technical Communication______________________________________1
A Definition of Ethics________________________________________________________8
Chapter Two: Review of the Literature_____________________________________12
The Social Contingency of Communication____________________________________12
Foundational Ethical Theories_______________________________________________30
Nonfoundational Ethical Theories____________________________________________33
Chapter Three: Foundational Ethics ______________________________________39
Universal Values __________________________________________________________42
Kantian Ethics____________________________________________________________55
Problems with Foundational Ethical Theories__________________________________59
The Need for Nonfoundational Considerations in Foundational Ethics______________69
Chapter Four: Nonfoundational Ethics____________________________________70
Dialogic Ethics____________________________________________________________76
Professional Ethics_________________________________________________________85
Problems with Nonfoundational Ethical Theories_______________________________94
The Need for Foundational Considerations in Nonfoundational Ethics_____________102
Chapter Five: Contextual Foundational Ethics_____________________________103
Markel’s (Contextual Foundational) Ethic____________________________________104
Examining Contextual Foundational Ethics___________________________________109
Alleviating Nonfoundational Ethics’ Lack of Emphasis on the Individual __________113
Alleviating Foundational Ethics’ Over-reliance on the Individual_________________120
Alleviating Foundational Ethics’ Dependence on Ends__________________________125
Alleviating Nonfoundational Ethics’ Impracticality_____________________________132

Bradley Dilger's dissertation is the same way. How I envy their ordered minds:

WATW by the Numbers

As most of you know, I'm writing a dissertation about rhetoric, gender, and blogging using where are the women? as a case study. I should say that I'm not looking at every post on the list I compiled, only the spikes of activity: August 2002, September 2002, March through August of 2004, December 2004, and February 2005. So here are the numbers:

Total number of posts: 102
Total number of comments: 2243 (not counting spam or those accidental duplicate comments)
Total number of trackbacks: 171

Total number of posts by men: 33
Total number of posts by women: 69

Total number of comments by men: 885
Total number of comments by women: 1059
Total number of comments by gender-free: 349

Total number of trackbacks by men: 60
Total number of trackbacks by women: 105
Total number of trackbacks by gender-free: 6

Total number of posts by men that allowed comments: 30
Total number of posts by women that allowed comments: 53

Total number of comments under posts by men: 1374
Total number of comments under posts by women: 869

Average number of comments readers left under a post written by a man: 46
Average number of comments readers left under a post written by a woman: 16

Now here's my problem. I think these numbers are kind of interesting -- they help provide a tie-in to findings in previous research in gender and computer-mediated communication, especially that of Susan Herring, that show that men's online postings get more replies than women's, etc. These numbers certainly corroborate that. I'm interested in the implications of the numbers: The fact, for example, that there are more than twice as many posts by women than by men speaks to how important this question is to this particular group of women. These women took the time and expended the effort to write all these posts; despite the fact that some of the posts are flippant and parodic, obviously they care about the issue. And, taking into account the context and patterns of online interaction, the numbers arguably reveal something about how heated these discussions are.

But: In my experience, when I even think about counting something, everyone giving me feedback on the given project gets a little too excited and wants me to go whole-hog to the empirical and quantitative approach. (Why don't you count the number of words per post?! Devise a coding scheme and code everything!) I'm not necessarily talking about my committee, just scholars in general. Although that's very valuable and interesting research, it's not what I'm interested in doing. I'm taking a naturalistic approach, mostly consisting of interpretive close intertextual reading. So far that's okay with my committee -- they seem fine with whatever approach I choose as long as I can define/articulate/defend it -- but I'm thinking about not even putting these numbers in my dissertation anywhere, lest they be held against me. What do the rest of you think? If you can give me some language to use to introduce and explain the numbers and my choice to include them, that would be especially helpful.

Edited to add: By "men" and "women," I mean people presenting online as men and women. For the purposes of my dissertation research, I'm thinking of gender as a rhetorical position (i.e., positioning oneself as...). This is because someone might strategically present hirself as a man or woman because ze knows that the audience will respond to hir in a certain way. In this sense I'm thinking of gender as performative.


Title lifted from Dean Dad. These are some items I need to mark here so that they don't keep occupying a window with 500 tabs open:

Mike Garcia's dissertation notes. It's going to rock the field of rhetoric and composition; I'm sure it's going to be one of the best critiques of assessment out there. I also like what he's doing with del.icio.us.

Some of you know that I've recently suffered a series of crushing career-related disappointments, and I want to be honest about that in this space, if vague and oblique. This has made it a lot more difficult to finish my dissertation. I'm not facing a running-out-of-funding situation, but I am still determined to be finished by this summer. So: I'm interested in inspiring stories, like this one about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and this one about several other women who accomplished so much under much more adverse circumstances than mine.

What's also helped me during this time is reading beautiful posts by outstanding, talented writers about What Really Matters, like this one from Flea:

And after his shower, he asked me, "Mommy, do you still like me?"

"Not only do I like you, I love you," I told him, towelling off his hair, "I love you more than anyone."

I felt like I had to cram six years of talking to him into this one day, because I didn't know if I'd ever have it again. I had one day to find out if he liked Tae Kwan Do, if he had any friends at school, what he did in gym class, if he was having difficulty in any area. One day to help him with reading and tying his shoes, one day to tell him how much I loved him before he disappeared back inside himself. Which he did, today. That sweet little stranger that curled up in my lap yesterday morning and sang "Rich Girl" and showed me his fancy dance moves and looked right into my face and laughed and smiled is gone today. Is that what parents of normally functioning children have every day? And, if that's what you have every day, why would there be a rush to put that kind of kid on Ritalin?

And Dooce's latest monthly newsletter:

A few moments later he returned to tell me that they had found a seat for me and that I needed to hurry, they were holding the plane. I took off flying, my suitcase turning flips behind me, and as I ran down the indoor tarmac someone suddenly called out my name. I stopped suddenly to scan the faces in the crowd only to see my mother standing twenty feet in front of me, my beautiful, perfect mother. It seems ridiculous now, but in that moment it seemed as if she had appeared out of thin air, that she had dropped out of heaven. When I saw the features in her face, the way her cheekbones meet her thin nose in symmetrical angles, her milky complexion peeking out of the black of her business suit, I realized that everything was going to be okay. That was one of the most spiritual moments of my life.

I wanted to tell you that story because that is my hope for you, that no matter how far away you go or how different we may become — I know it’s going to happen, it’s only a matter of time — that when you see my face you will find strength. Look for me.

Also, the new issue of Kairos just came out.

And to close with a few things coming up that I'm excited about: first, I'm going to do a stint of guest-blogging at The Valve soon. Second, I've been invited to participate in a meeting for the Institute for the Future of the Book. We'll be talking about digital/networked textbooks in the field of rhetoric and composition. Finally, I'm going to be interviewed for a story in The Minnesota Daily about my use of blogging in my teaching. [Edited to clarify: The story is about using blogging in teaching in general; it's not an entire story devoted to MY use of blogs in my teaching.] I'm thinking of this as an opportunity to be pushed to find something new to say about using blogging in teaching. It's tempting sometimes to make it easy and trot out the same old examples and comments.

Friedan, Blogging, and Aleatory Research

The Feminine Mystique is one of those (many) books I've never read but intend to someday. After Friedan's passing, I read Rad Geek's tribute and noticed that he had links to Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, so I promptly read them and was, well, impressed is an understatement. It's remarkable how relevant Friedan's work still is. For example, you might remember chapter 4 of my dissertation, in which I discuss themes that are commonly brought up in the where are the women (political bloggers threads. One recurring theme is the claim that "women aren't interested in politics." If you'll allow me a bit of aleatory research, check out what Friedan has to say about this argument in chapter 2 of The Feminine Mystique, my emphasis:

I sat one night at a meeting of magazine writers, mostly men, who work for all kinds of magazines, including women's magazines. The main speaker was a leader of the desegregation battle. Before he spoke, another man outlined the needs of the large women's magazine he edited:

Our readers are housewives, full time. They're not interested in the broad public issues of the day. They are not interested in national or international affairs. They are only interested in the family and the home. They aren't interested in politics, unless it's related to an immediate need in the home, like the price of coffee. Humor? Has to be gentle, they don't get satire. Travel? We have almost completely dropped it. Education? That's a problem. Their own education level is going up. They've generally all had a high school education and many, college. They're tremendously interested in education for their children--fourth-grade arithmetic. You just can't write about ideas or broad issues of the day for women. That's why we're publishing 90 per cent service vice now and 10 per cent general interest.

[. . .]

By the time I started writing for women's magazines, in the fifties, it was simply taken for granted by editors, and accepted as an immutable fact of life by writers, that women were not interested in politics, life outside the United States, national issues, art, science, ideas, adventure, education, or even their own communities, except where they could be sold through their emotions as wives and mothers.

Politics, for women, became Mamie's clothes and the Nixons' home life. Out of conscience, a sense of duty, the Ladies' Home Journal might run a series like "Political Pilgrim's Progress," showing women trying to improve their children's schools and playgrounds. But even approaching politics through mother love did not really interest women, it was thought in the trade. Everyone knew those readership percentages. An editor of Redbook ingeniously tried to bring the bomb down to the feminine level by showing the emotions of a wife whose husband sailed into a contaminated area.

"Women can't take an idea, an issue, pure," men who edited the mass women's magazines agreed. "It had to be translated in terms they can understand as women." This was so well understood by those who wrote for women's magazines that a natural childbirth expert submitted an article to a leading woman's magazine called "How to Have a Baby in a Atom Bomb Shelter." "The article was not well written," an editor told me, "or we might have bought it." According to the mystique, women, in their mysterious femininity, might be interested in the concrete biological details of having a baby in a bomb shelter, but never in the abstract idea of the bomb's power to destroy the human race.

Such a belief, of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In 1960, a perceptive social psychologist showed me some sad statistics which seemed to prove unmistakably that American women under thirty-five are not interested in politics. "They may have the vote, but they don't dream about running for office," he told me. "If you write a political piece, they won't read it. You have to translate it into issues they can understand--romance, pregnancy, nursing, home furnishings, clothes. Run an article on the economy, or the race question, civil rights, and you'd think that women had never heard of them."

This quotation'll be going into the revision of chapter 4 somewhere, that's for sure, if only as a footnote. For now, back to chapter 5.

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