I’m curious how you learned the conventions you are to use, the voice you should use, the way to argue within your field, or, if you’re learning as you go, now, as you write your dissertation.
If you were at a U.S. university as an undergraduate, you may not have been writing exclusively in your major course of study until late in your 2nd or even until your 3rd year of school. By then, had you learned a bit of flexibility by writing in different discourses for your required courses?
Had you been writing as an art historian one night and the next night as a psychologist? Did that give you insight into what writing conventions are important in each field?
And as you specialized more and more in your own field, did you become clearer about your field’s discourse or writing conventions?
The New York Times (9.6.2009) asks several professors to give advice to students entering college this year.
Stanley Fish advises students to “take a composition course even if they have tested out of it.” He says, “I have taught many students whose SAT scores exempted them from the writing requirement, but a disheartening number of them couldn’t write.”
Gerald Graff, the past president of the Modern Language Association, tells students how to write an argument, seemingly without the help of a writing class or instructor.
Since it’s a little late for those of you who are writing dissertations to take a writing class, Graff’s suggestions on how to take what you know and transform it into an argument might be helpful and definitely would have helped me early on in my student career.
1. Recognize that knowing a lot of stuff won’t do you much good unless you can do something with what you know by turning it into an argument.
2. Pay close attention to what others are saying and writing and then summarize their arguments and assumptions in a recognizable way. Work especially on summarizing the views that go most against your own.
3. As you summarize, look not only for the thesis of an argument, but for who or what provoked it — the points of controversy.
4. Use these summaries to motivate what you say and to indicate why it needs saying. Don’t be afraid to give your own opinion, especially if you can back it up with reasons and evidence, but don’t disagree with anything without carefully summarizing it first.
Even as the writer of a dissertation, it’s great to remind yourself that you know a lot of stuff. It’s easy to forget that.
Also don’t forget that there’s usually a reason for the writing requirements you run into for your dissertation. Remember that the literature review creates a context for your methodology and findings or for your argument.
As you write your dissertation, your field’s required structure and discourse conventions give you a great clothesline where you can hang your ideas.