Scholars Symposium: “How My Dissertation Changed”

We report from a recent Scholars Symposium panel with Becky Kling, Michael Martel, Meg Sparling, and Melissa Wills on the dramatic transformations that can happen through the dissertation process.


Becky Kling began her presentation at the recent UC Davis English Scholars Symposium panel on “How My Dissertation Changed” with a quotation from Bay area writer Anne Lamott. “Not one [of my writer friends] sits down feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident,” she read. “Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much, or think that she has a rich inner life.” It’s an idea that many PhD students tell their classes, but that’s nevertheless hard to internalize when it comes to the dissertation. For every member of the panel, the transformation of the dissertation from its original drafts to its final form was preceded by a sense of crisis and uncertainty. “I was actually not 100% sure that I would end up writing a dissertation,” Becky admitted. “I entertained ideas of dropping out, and doing everything from teaching yoga to making lamps.” Meg Sparling had a similar sense of doubt. “I had no idea how or whether I was going to proceed with the program,” she told the audience.


They had not started out like this. As the moderator, Professor Margie Ferguson pointed out, “everyone who comes to graduate school and goes on in various stages and steps has been a good student, and that’s what we bring to our choice of career.” Panelists spoke about the sense of having a track, of being on the right path. As Melissa Wills explained, “I was pretty much following what I knew and what my Master’s thesis had been built around, which was the role of aesthetic discourses in 18th century scientific thought and publishing. And so I had planned my seminars, my conferences, and, you know, all the dutiful little things that you do, kind of building around that, thinking that I would expand it in some way into a dissertation.” Becky, too, had a plan from the very beginning. “I had already discussed how I might turn [my Master’s thesis] into a dissertation,” she recalled, “and I was on a track, so I found myself kind of frustrated that I had to actually take a step back and do all this extra coursework and jump through hoops, because I just felt like I was ready to write.”


And yet there came a point when the projects that the panelists had committed to just weren’t working out. As Melissa put it, “we don’t all hit on the right thing the first time. And so my plans completely ran out of steam around year three.” Melissa “liked what [she] was reading,” but she started to realize that she “liked the 18th century literature like one likes a meerkat in the zoo: it’s interesting; it’s cute; you like thinking about it; but you don’t want it in your house.” For Michael Martel, it was “the literary stakes of [his] project and the relationship between literature and local government” that kept troubling him. “I really struggled, post-Qual,” he told the group. Though he managed to write several chapters, “the article versions of those first two chapters were rejected, quite understandably.” It was the reader reports that helped him to realize that he “really hadn’t thought about the relationship between literary form and governance”—two key concepts in his project.


Meg also had lingering doubts, both about shaping her work to the market and about seeking a tenure-track position. As she explained, “my latent hesitancy and ambivalence about actually becoming a researcher were stronger than I realized, going into the exam, and, when the exam was over, my committee had re-shaped my project into something that they felt could be more marketable—which is great, but it took me nearly a year to realize that I kind of hated it. Or, at the very least, I couldn’t write the project in the way that we had re-envisioned it.”


Each scholar needed a way to renew or re-imagine the project. And the sense of uncertainty could be very painful. Meg tried to be candid about her experience: “it took me—as I said—nearly a year, and—if I’m being honest—that year was really, really bad.” Without a sense of connection to the project, it became unbearable to do the work. Melissa told the audience, “I think that, as PhD candidates, we feel a lot of pressure to know what we’re doing, or to sound like we do.” In the face of this pressure, it was hard to admit that her plan wasn’t working for her. “I’m an example,” she explained, “of how unnecessary and kind of damaging in some ways that can be, to have that self-imposed expectation of expertise and having your shit together the whole time.”


As Margie noted, each story “suggested the importance of serendipity” in renewing the work. Michael, for example, found himself “reeling” from the rejection of the article versions of his chapters when he “went on a research trip to the Huntington Library, just because.” Yet when he “randomly called up some collections of Socialist writing at the end of the 19th century,” he discovered a “whole trove” of what he now calls “localist writing.” “This was a really pivotal moment in my project,” he said. “This allowed me to rethink the relationship between literature and government, in a triangulated relationship with these localist forms of writing, largely through form.”


Becky, too, found a way to re-imagine her work by looking beyond the immediate scope of her project. When she “began teaching at San Quentin Prison,” she thought that it would be a totally separate experience from that of her research. And yet, she explained, “This actually really radically changed things for me. It wasn’t the intended result, it was just something aside from my scholarship, but it actually ended up really affecting how I thought about my scholarship and it made me reconfigure what I wanted to do as an academic.” She became interested in issues around prison literacy, which led her to explore a DE in Rhetoric and Composition—and, ultimately, to re-shape her entire project around ideas of literacy and personhood. “Sometimes the most helpful change and growth happens when you’re least expecting it,” she suggested. “I didn’t really expect when I started volunteering at a prison or going to this Rhet-Comp conference that I’d have these major breakthroughs that affected my dissertation, but that was how it turned out.”


Yet the panelists’ stories were also, in Margie’s words, “testimonies to resilience.” She continued, “There are so many times in writing when you just don’t know how you’re going to come out of it, or whether you’re going to produce anything that anybody is going to consider valuable. And I just want to frame that for you again, and say that you’re operating in a society that basically isn’t sure that any of what we do is valuable.” Each person had to make the decision to push through the crisis (or crises) of the project. As Meg told the group, “I chose to finish, knowing that Future Meg [. . .] would not have wanted me to give up.”


Each person found the energy to persevere by shaping their project in a way that worked for them. When Melissa finally told her advisor that she was “confused about [her] time period,” he gave her what she describes as “still some of the best advice I have received in this program”: “that the work you do has to sustain you, as a person, in this career path, not just for a little while. He said, if you’re going to do this as your job, it’s not about the next chapter, or even doing the whole dissertation; it has to be something that fires you up, with enough energy to last you through a decade or two decades or even more than that.”


For Melissa, this advice would become even more important than she had, at first, realized. When she was unexpectedly forced to take time away from grad school, it was the new topic that pushed her to return. She told the group: “On a personal note—and I won’t get into all the details on this—but I can now retrospectively testify wholeheartedly for the importance of finding that sustaining passion in what we do. Immediately after my Qual, I ended up taking an unplanned year off—completely off, no thinking about my project, no reading on the side. My son was born early and had a lot of complications; he was in the hospital for a long time. He’s great now, but it was an emotionally difficult, very trying year, and when I came back I felt like I was crawling out of a cave, very bruised and battered from the experience. And I’ve often thought since returning about how easy it would have been to have just never come back—just to have settled the score, moved on, done something non-academic, and I probably would have felt okay with that, especially if I had been doing the 18th century project. And I think the project change is what brought me back, ultimately. It took awhile, but when I was finally ready, it was like falling back into it was like this warm, kind of cozy thing that fired me up, and I’ve been running with it ever since.”


Meg, too, found that changing her project was crucial to completing the dissertation. But, for her, this change was about coming to understand what she really wanted out of the degree. “I came here wanting a tenure-track job,” she said, “but without really thinking about what that would actually entail, and how I might not actually be suited for the particulars of that job, personality-wise.” Though she now knew that a tenure-track career wasn’t for her, she was determined to finish. So she did the courageous thing and went to her advisor: “I confessed that I had changed my mind about the job market, but that I had decided to finish regardless. I knew, and I told him, that I could not finish unless I wrote the dissertation my own way, pursuing my own ideas, my voice, my methodology, without feeling beholden to the job market.” It was this decision that allowed her to finish.


Though every panelist’s story was different, all agreed on the paramount importance of creating a project that they, personally, connected to. “The market’s totally irrational,” Margie noted. “It’s not just that, in seven years, or even four years, [a particular topic] may not be trending, but that you’re setting the trends.” Becky agreed: “do what you’re passionate about,” she said, “and then get to a point where you can convince other people that that really should be the trend, if it’s not yet.” When you have a project that you think is important, panelists suggested, the process has its own value. “I won’t say that [writing the dissertation] has been easy,” Meg acknowledged. “It is still really, really hard. But writing it has also been freeing, and creative, and personal, and—most importantly—it’s almost done.”