A less-than-modest proposal (2/2)

Welcome back to the second-half of my post on dissertation proposals.  Last time, I talked about my experience of writing the proposal, the importance of frequent and varied feedback, and what my proposal ended up looking like.  Today, I’ll be writing a bit about the moment when the rubber meets the road: the defense.  What was it like?  What was expected of me?  And did I fulfill those expectations?  

Everyone had always told me as I was writing the proposal that it wasn’t a contract: the actual contours of my dissertation could and would change as I actually went through the process of researching and writing the thing.  As a result, I was under no illusion that what I turned in to my committee was an ironclad agreement about what my dissertation will look like when I finish it.  Nevertheless, I was a bit taken aback at just how much changed in the defense itself.

So what is a defense?  This is probably a question to which everyone already has an answer, but I think it’s worth revisiting here.  The dissertation proposal defense (at least in my department) is a roughly 2-hour meeting between you and your dissertation committee in which they talk to you about the proposed project you’ve submitted, asking how it’s significant, why you chose certain methodologies, how you’re defining key concepts, and so on.  It’s their opportunity to make sure that the project you’ve put forward stands on stable footing, that it’s feasible within the time you have allotted, and that it will represent a significant contribution to your field.

For me, the defense was a little out of the ordinary, in that I was doing it less than two weeks after I finished my exams.  Normally, one would spend time thinking about issues that came up during the exam process.  There were still holes in my thinking by the end of those exams, and if I’d had the time, I would have loved to get back in and work through what those issues might mean for my dissertation proposal.  Unfortunately, conditions placed on my funding meant that I had to do the defense when I did, so in many ways, the conversation we had in the defense was a re-hash of what we’d talked about in exams (my exam committee and dissertation committee are the same).  I’d done some quick editing in the meantime, but 10 days isn’t enough to seriously re-work any of my thinking.

As a result, many of the problems that first presented themselves in my exams remained in my defense, and this is where a lot of the work I’d put into the proposal kind of fell apart.  The crux of the problems was this: the terms and concepts under consideration were simply too broad, especially when combined with the expansive historical scope I was using to try to get a broad view of SF across Japan’s 20th century.  As a result, we spent the entire defense talking about how I planned to keep those concepts reined in, and whether or not it was feasible to attempt a project that tackled so much history (3 separate decades’ worth).  I saw those critiques coming – they were concerns I myself shared – but it was still stressful in the moment.

This is where the surprise I mentioned above comes in.  By the end of the defense, my committee had basically negotiated with me until we had created a very different dissertation proposal from the document I gave them.  While I think I convinced them that I was going to be able to use all of the terms I’d brought into play with precision, it was their conviction that each of the historical periods I took up across the dissertation chapters could become entire dissertations in and of themselves.  So they told me to cut two of them.  I didn’t realize going in that revisions that drastic could happen over the course of a defense.  I’d thought that, at most, the defense would make small tweaks to emphasis, terminology, and so on, but that what the committee approved or rejected would basically be the thing that was given to them, wholesale.  Instead, I found myself walking out of the room with a dissertation that is now covering just one historical moment out of three that I had proposed.

It was a significant cut, and to be honest, I still feel that those other decades are a necessary part of the narrative I’m trying to tell.  Nevertheless, I recognize the wisdom in starting smaller (as well as in swallowing one’s pride when given revisions by one’s committee), so I agreed to the changes and passed the defense.  And like I said: the proposal will probably end up looking very different from the final dissertation, so who knows where my research will take me?  Part of the point, I think, is in endeavoring to remain flexible and open to the possibility that your project’s direction will shift (whether or not you want it to).  Trying to bind yourself too closely to what you think the project should be will probably just end up in forced readings and questionable analysis.  So here’s to good scholarship that avoids all that!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s