Monday, February 1, 2010

How much is enough?

If I'm keeping to the schedule my supervisor and I worked out -- well, scratch that, I've already fallen behind.  Correction: if I don't want to fall more than a week behind on the schedule that my supervisor and I worked out, then I need to add some citations, think deeply, and write more cool shit into my dissertation draft during this week, so I can email the sucker to my committee over the weekend.  I'm not as intimidated by all this as I was some months ago, when I had all those blank pages, as it were, taunting me with their lack of verbiage.  I'm slightly intimidated by the thought of innovating more cool stuff, especially since my supervisor is particularly critiquing my reticence to think Grand Theoretical Thoughts.  (Who knew that an arrogant SOB like me would turn into such a Voiceless Violet?) 

What really intimidates me at the moment is how shallow and stupid I am in comparison to some of my friends and colleagues who recently graduated.  I've been reading their dissertations, and for the most part, they make me feel like crap.  And the stupid part -- I know it's stupid to care about this -- is that the most intimidating aspect of their disses is the length: over 300 pages!  People, I have a little less than half of that right now.  It'll be a little longer once I add a bit, and who knows what the committee will say at the defense, but I honestly don't envision my dissertation ever topping 300 pages.  It seems -- or seemed, anyway -- unnecessary.  I'm a big fan of precise, efficient prose; I'm not the Ernest Hemingway of my department (I hope), but I'm well aware that precision is often a more effective writing tactic than an avalanche of prose that becomes repetitive and disorienting.  (Assuming you want readers to know what you're saying, anyway.  Obviously, an avalanche of bullshit is virtually a necessity if you're in government or administration of anything.) 

And yet the length worries me.  Am I being too parsimonious in my theory discussions?  Am I ignoring some unwritten rule of diss style?  I suspect that a lot of dissertations, even very fine ones, are longer than necessary, just because it's so hard to shut up about certain background issues, and because people figure it's better to be give too much information than not enough.  And, looking at my friends' disses, that suspicion certainly bears out.  In fact, one of my committee members, who also sat on two of these other diss committees, begged me in uncommonly frank language not to do the same thing.  While discussing my plan for the posited five-chapter diss, I asked if zi expected 60 pages or so per chapter, since that would generate the apparently magic number of 300.  Zi looked horrified, and responded, "You can't write 60 pages per chapter, it's criminal!  You can't do that yourself!  You can't do that to us!  They should only be 35 pages, max!"  Doesn't get much more direct than that.

What strikes me is that three particular friends' disses have all gone over 300, despite drastically different circumstances in their research and writing processes.  One of them spent a comparatively huge amount of time doing research, taking hir time, underwritten by a staggering number of research grants.  (Oh, to have hir CV for mine own!)  Another spent an average amount of research time, per se, but had a good bit of background research accumulated along the way; hir material was also the sort that did not lend itself readily to brief summations.  And the third...well, poor thing, zi had an interesting idea that perhaps should not have been built into a research prospectus, which meant that zi could never secure funding, which meant that hir research time was dreadfully short, and so zi likely felt pressured to bulk up descriptions of every single iota of data in order to compensate for the plainly insufficient quantity.  And every one of them somehow generated over 300 pages of text.  WTF? 

What on earth is going on here?  The one with all the fancy research grants didn't go to DOU, but the others are from my department, and we all share many of the same committee members.  Am I the only one who ever thought to ask how long the fucking thing should be?  Have the faculty become frightened of wading through so much text in a year when so many students are expected to graduate?  Do I seem like such an underachiever that my prof sees reason only to request the league minimum?

I guess it boils down to one of those questions I've been asking myself since childhood: Am I crazy, or is everyone else crazy?


  1. Eh. Are you taking into account the special diss formatting? Mine grew by like 40 pages when I put it in the formatting for the binding.

    And huge piles of space-filling verbiage will just have to be cut back out when you transform the stuff into a book. Or does your discipline not do books? Articles get even more hit by space constraints, anyway.

  2. Oh Sisyphus, of course I've accounted for diss formatting! I started formatting all my chapter drafts that way in advance months ago, so that they'd look a little bit longer and fancy-like, and so I'd know right away if I started to ramble on past a reasonable page count. Besides, fussing with margins and so on let me procrastinate -- sweet, sweet procrastination! -- for a while one day.

    We most definitely do books in my discipline. I suspect that my colleagues were thinking that they'd just have to cut reams of stuff and write other things anew anyway, since diss and book are so often very different animals. (And that's not even thinking of the difference in readerships.)

    I'd like to congratulate myself for knowing that books need to look prettier and more polished than disses, but I just can't imagine that none of these people knew that. (Well...maybe the one with the thin research wasn't focused on future goals so much.) My gut tells me that I'm writing my diss to an appropriate length and level of prose style, but the knot of irrational diss-inspired fear in my gut is whispering otherwise. I probably just need a slap across the face.

  3. I am not to this point yet, but I feel I will be stressing over the same thing.

    But....if people on your committee members are telling you not to worry about it and, in fact, don't go over 300 pages, then don't worry about it. There is nothing as beautiful as concise, direct prose. At the same time, there is nothing as obvious and annoying as someone whose prose is overly long and complicated.

  4. yeah--I think it's wise to accept that different people produce different work. With a diss, all it takes is an okay from a committee and you get a phd for it, no matter what it looks like. And job committees aren't going to be asking you about how long it is anyway; they just want you to be done and capable of producing other work that gets done. Finished is better than "in progress" or "languishing" any day. Means to an end, I say. You can always expand under the auspices of a real salary and better institutional support.