Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Little voices

So the dissertation is very much in stop-and-start mode, which I suppose is normal in the early stages (or maybe throughout the whole process).  I started my first chapter (focusing on a few pre-modern texts) but quickly put it aside when I realized that the world of pre-modern Japanese literature was just too huge a realm to investigate right now.  I might scrap the pre-modern connections altogether (yet another part of the process, deciding which stuff from your prospectus stays in and which stuff gets thrown out).  I started work on another chapter that deals with modern texts, and things are going a bit smoother.  But then those little voices start up.  They go something like this:

Voice #1: “You have nothing important to say about these texts.  Everything meaningful has already been written down.”  Reading all the stuff that’s come before you can be both enlightening and very depressing, especially when you’re working on texts that are reasonably well-known.  You begin to look at your own efforts as futile (especially when, in my case, your Japanese reading abilities don’t quite match those of your predecessors).  I was chatting about this with a dissertation-writing friend the other day, and she mentioned similar frustrations.  Then she told me that a lot of her dissertation was about correcting the glaring errors in the current literature on her subject–it seems as though people who write about it just copy the same English language materials again and again, and those materials are full of mistakes.  And she said she felt she wasn’t doing anything important, which shocked me, because I’d say correcting major errors is *damned* important.  (She also revealed to me that one of the most famous English-speaking scholars of Japanese cinema doesn’t read Japanese at all–he gets his grad students to do all the reading for him.  Oooh, academic gossip!)  Anyway, what I realized was that maybe if her work doesn’t seem groundbreaking to her but it does to me, perhaps my work doesn’t seem groundbreaking to me but it will to someone else.

Voice#2: “Why bother?  The job market is dismal, and it looks like it won’t get any better.  No one’s ever going to read this thing.”  This one’s been a real downer and it’s been keeping me from getting a lot of work done.  Why bother writing something so long and difficult when only nine or ten people will ever read it?  Another friend pointed out today, though, that *I’ll* get a lot out of the process–not just knowledge, but research and writing skills that will stay with me.  And hopefully a lot more valuable contacts made throughout the process.  So I’ll try to focus more on the now and less on the grim realities of the future.

Voice #3: “You need to read more, you’re not informed enough.” F–k you, voice #3, I’ll *never* be informed enough.  Reading during the dissertation process is a bit like a drug–once you start you can’t stop, and reading is a lot easier than writing (for me, anyway), so I just convince myself that I have to read this book…and this book…and this book before I can get back to the writing part.  This is not to say that long periods of full-on research aren’t part of the process–they are–but I have to avoid the trap of trying to read every single piece of material that remotely relates to my subject.  That way lies madness.

There are a lot of positives to all this–I’m learning a lot more about my subject matter, picking up random bits of fascinating information (did you know that during the 1930s Japanese women were encouraged to have healthy babies for the good of the nation, and that said babies were paraded around department stores in “healthy baby contests,” and that their mothers were known as “fertile womb battalions”?).  It’s fun to think of my dissertation as a living organism that grows and changes (though given that I’m working on horror movies I more often see it as a sort of pulsating mass of goo, kind of like John Carpenter’s The Thing).  And above all, I’m grateful for a large community of people who are going through the same process, because even if you have to do the writing alone, finishing with sanity intact would be pretty impossible without a support network.

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This entry was posted on September 24, 2010 by in (post) Grad life, Japan and tagged , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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