The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another."...  ...J. Frank Dobie.

Commentary of the Day - December 26, 2009:  The Dissertation Blues, Then and Now.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I can only speak from my own experiences, more than 40 years  ago, as a grad student in English literature setting out to write my dissertation.   No doubt people in other disciplines had their troubles but English majors, I would argue, had the most colorful troubles.  Take, for example, a friend of mine who had breezed through his undergraduate years only to face a graduate advisor who insisted that his dissertation "add something significant" to scholarship as it then existed.

Granted, this admonition could mean lots of things but in his case it meant taking on a subject that no one had taken on before.  His advisor suggested that he work on the short stories of Sinclair Lewis, a topic no scholar had bothered to explore in anything resembling "depth."  Why so?  Because, as one reviewer after another pointed out, Lewis's short stories are just plain lousy.  Unlike many others in similar predicaments, my friend did not grow so accustomed to Lewis's short stories that he overvalued them.  After all, if he was spending month after month reading these wretched stories, they had to be good, even great.  Not so, and to his credit, he said precisely that.  The dissertation got him a Ph.D. and a life in which he never read another Sinclair Lewis short story again.

Another friend of mine was not so lucky.  He set out to write a dissertation on William Faulkner.  He began by  reading  everything from Soldier’s Pay (1926) to The Mansion  (1959), taking careful notes on 3 5 cards and filing them in an old shoebox.  So far, so good.  The rub came when one shoebox would not suffice, so he brought another -- and then another -- into the service of his yet-to-be-written dissertation.

He went from being meticulous to becoming  obsessive.  Like a man painting the Golden Gate bridge, he realized that when he reached The Mansion, the hard work he had done on Soldier's Pay was already peeling.  He had no choice, as it seemed to him, but to reread the Faulkner canon, to make new notes, and to file them away in more shoeboxes.

I left graduate school without finding out if his massive notes ever translated themselves into a dissertation.  I tend to doubt it, although I do remember an old geezer, somewhere in his eighties, whose picture appeared in a Time magazine article on the shocking amount of time some students spent finishing their dissertations.  Apparently this guy, who was once a Columbia University grad student working on Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales, was the hands-down winner.  I cut out his photograph and tacked it to my bulletin board.  It was a reminder, as I worked on my own dissertation, not to end up like him.

Over the years since I labored on "the schlemiel as metaphor" (my dissertation) a number of plans to cut down the time and sheer drudgery of the dissertation have been tried: a few schools have experimented with various "associate" degrees that required a couple of essays rather than a book-length dissertation but in tight job markets nothing quite worked like a "real" Ph.D.  A few schools put limits on the number of extensions a malingering grad student (like my friend with the shoeboxes) could receive.  Sometimes the prodding worked, sometimes it didn't.

Reading the galleys of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's forthcoming novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I came across yet another version of the hopelessly mired graduate student -- this one so enamored with a charismatic professor that he cannot move, cannot act, and most important of all, cannot think for himself.  Goldstein whose first novel.  The Mind-Body Problem, was a brilliant satire of Princeton's philosophy department (where she had been a rising star) takes on more, much more, in her latest effort.  At a time when theology, philosophy, and literature are squashed together, professor Jonas Elijah Klapper reigns supreme.  Counter-intuitive and contrary, Klapper surrounds himself with acolytes who endure his stern initiations and even sterner requirements.  One of them, perhaps the chief disciple, is Gideon Raven.  When asked why he didn't defend Klapper as the Great Man's reputation was being besmirched at a local hangout, Raven insists  that

There's  no point.  These guys are ideologues.  Their world-views would crumble if you got them to give up their positivistic, nihilistic scientism.  The English departments are mired in political ideology and the philosophers are buried in scientific ideology.  Jonas [Klapper] is the sole defender of the faith.

Later we learn that Raven takes every course, grad and undergrad alike, that Klapper offers, and that his dissertation has languished as a result.  We also learn that Raven has been doing this for twelve years.

Goldstein paints the current university in broad, often hilarious strokes.  Gideon Raven's dissertation blues are one brushstroke among many but it points to some very old truths about would-be dissertation writers, as well as to some new wrinkles in post-modernist academia.

2009, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.  

The Irascible Professor comments: For readers who might not be familiar with Yiddish, a "schlemiel" is a perpetual bungler or dolt.  The IP's graduate work was in experimental physics where the dissertation problems are a bit different, but the delays often just as long.  The experimentalist's problems with completing the Ph.D. dissertation usually fall into one of two categories, but sometimes into both.  First, every grad student in an experimental science has a fear of being "scooped" -- that some other grad student or scientist will publish first on the same topic that he or she is pursuing.  If that happens the poor grad student would have to start over from scratch.  Second, not a few grad students in the experimental sciences, while brilliant in the lab, have trouble with the actual writing part.  When the IP was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Caltech's Kellogg Radiation Laboratory, one wag had neatly cut a piece of wood into the shape of a small cube upon which he had inscribed the words "writer's block."  As each grad student approached the point where the actual writing of the thesis was to begin, the "writer's block" mysteriously would appear in his or her lab mailbox.


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