How Glorious Our Task! Letters from a Dissertation Boot Camp.
My Dearest Advisor,
How heavy my heart was when last we parted. So noble is the conquest for which I must steel myself! And yet I confess my valor falters when I contemplate the arduous review of criticism, the dangers of close reading, the harsh strictures of formatting and documentation. It was my duty to show a brave face, but when I gathered my books and left your office, know that in my heart of hearts I wept at the long and heavy task I must face for the glory of the department and the righteousness of British Romanticism.
On entering the Dissertation Boot Camp, I was cheered by the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity. So many new faces, taking up the banner for the fair departments of this, our sacred University. And how jolly the jostling and preparations of the camp! The humming of many overworked CPUs in concert! The intermittent piddling of the coffee urn! O, the shining travel mugs, the laptop bags laden with hope and AC adapters, the headphones and the sweater-vests of the rank-and-file! My heart swelled with inspiration. We are young. We are caffeinated. Right is on our side. And surely we will win the day.
Thirteen pages written. Your suggestion of a “long scholarly footnote” surveying the criticism of Mr. Darwin’s poem was well taken, dear advisor, but sorely it slowed me and I long for bed. Still, my last thought as I close my eyes will be of you and your treasured revisions. What did you mean by “contextualize?”
Ever your devoted protégée,
My Dearest Advisor,
Today, a flurry of writing and citation. Thirteen more pages gained! Surely, our goal is near if we can conquer such vast ground in one short day.
Dear advisor, I fear you would not recognize me now. The rigors of the camp have hardened me, and I now look with unperturbed eye upon the lines of text preparing their battery of conundrums. Bullet points whiz around me and yet I do not flinch, for I know that when my time to defend comes, I will be ready. For the strength of the Oxford English Dictionary abides within my internet cable, and the puissance of my literary forefathers in my store of citations.
Also, I have become skilled in the combination of coffee with dark chocolate. What quaking and pounding of the heart seizes me upon the powerful fusillade of sugar blasting through midday drowsiness. How privileged, we, to bear the time-honored weapons of grad students against the foes of procrastination and uncertainty! We few, we happy few, shall march on toward professorship and glory!
Yours, even in the ranks of the tenured,
My Dearest Advisor,
A dark day. Snow has been among us in the intervening hours between dusk and daylight, and many are lost to the fell hand of blocked driveways and snow-day childcare. The chair that once held the experimental psych student who shared my table now stands empty and forlorn. Oh, companion of my dissertating hours! Will I ever again look on your face, illuminated by the stark glare of the laptop’s screen?
Our ranks are thinning, and though that mean a plenitude of rations for those who remain, the coffee is but a cold comfort. When I think of those who have fallen, it is bitter on my tongue. Still, I hold tight unto hope, and remember that battle hymn of the literary crusader:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the dissertating Lord,
He is hauling out the backpack where theory texts are stored,
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible keyboard,
His chapter’s marching on!
Dear do I hold the sentiments of those words, when late at night I strive for sleep, and fear to meet the foe at daybreak. I take comfort in the thought that the missing are in a better place, lounging in their pajamas and drinking the cocoa of the righteous. They are with us, dissertating in spirit.
In the waning hours of the day, I spoke to one organizer. Officers and troops may be conceived by most to have little in common, but we were both weary, and it comforted each of us to speak of our homes in faraway Massachusetts. Shall I let my spirits sink, when we are all in this mighty undertaking together? Away with such weak fears! Analyze on, brave comrades. Scholarly hearts, annotate proudly. We shall conquer.
Twelve pages today. My strength lags sadly behind my resolve. Also, MS Word is being slow, and for that, fault no one but the gods themselves.
Yours ever in literary solidarity,
My Dearest Advisor,
My head whirls, and I barely have the wits to scrawl the words: Victory! My final section accomplished, my conclusion writ, your revisions pored over with devoted fidelity.
Already my mind turns to thoughts of a happy homecoming. I long once more to have the soil of Liberal Arts beneath my feet. What exultations will greet us when we return to our respective home departments, having preserved the liberty of academic inquiry and the sanctity of scholarly record. How great have been our struggles! How glorious our task!
We cracked open leftover cans of soda in celebration, and the immoderate rejoicing lasts late into the afternoon. But what is the siren embrace of Diet Coke to the longed-for glow of your feedback? Can the fizzy tang of artificial sweetener compare with the sweet incisiveness of your in-line commentary, the ticker-tape acclaim of the chapter conference, and most likely the immediate assignment of another looming deadline?
Then onward, battle-scarred and veteran disserators, to attend conferences and submit to journals! To rebuild the social lives we left behind! To email this final chapter draft to you, dear advisor, and to the committee that awaits breathlessly any news of my fate. But it is a bittersweet leave-taking from this camp that has become my intellectual home, these soldiers in academia who have become my familiars, my comrades-at-keyboards, and yes, indeed—my brethren. I think that one guy’s name is Ryan.
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