Dissertation Writing

Maintaining concentration is a problem on more than one level when writing my dissertation. I cannot know how widely spread this problem might be among other PhD students. But, maybe if I describe it here, other students could benefit. This is not a post about dissertation writing secrets, plans, or advice. There are plenty other places on the internet and through university counseling centers to get others’ opinions in that regard. This post is more about a brain-challenge, a thought-hurdle that stands in my way.

In the case of some term papers and other projects, it is possible to write the crux of the argument in one sitting, in one go. While that may not be entirely likely, it becomes easier to come back to shorter projects knowing it is always possible that you’ll be able to wrap it up and get to the clean-up stage.

In the case of writing a book, which is one way to picture dissertation writing, there is simply no hope of getting the crux down in one go. Your best hope is to get an outline down, containing the various bits of the argument. Doing so is an achievement, but not very impressive in terms of the overall task.

I’m in the process of finishing a mammoth chapter draft of over one hundred pages. It is a historiography, the historiography of my topic. My goal was to make it as comprehensive and complete as possible, to allow any future scholars covering my topic to benefit from my research directly. It is not the most important chapter, but it is somewhat important to chronicle how others have approached the Kazakh-Jungar wars of the 1720s. Some did so obliquely, where the subject occurred as a tangent in a longer text. In many survey histories, the wars occupied a sentence or two in discussing the struggles of the Kazakhs or peoples of Central Asia of the 1710s-1730s. Relatively few scholars spent more than a page on the topic — the first generation to do so were writing in the 1920s, and most of them were later arrested and executed as nationalists. I want to make clear that writing about 18th century history was not their crime, but it did seem to be somewhat connected. At the least, it is an intriguing correlation.

And so, in writing this chapter, there is a historiography (a history of histories) stretching back three hundred years. In some years, there was nothing of note — and in others, several interesting works at once. The study of this long list of works has been very educational, but also impossible to boil down into grandiose statements. There were changes in the ideologies and interpretations, changes in the sources available and sources used. There were even times when authors would change what the sources had said! These were the most important to catch — whether by accident or on purpose, if an author cites and quotes directly from a source and then adds or subtracts from that source, that can be a big deal. The work of historians often dictates how the public thinks about the past. A bias or prejudice is inevitable, but lies of omission or creation are much harder to forgive.

But it’s impossible to hold everything in your head! The problem is so large, the scope of the project so big, that it is no wonder so many PhD students do not finish their dissertation. It is quite unlike anything else done while a student. I am not writing a particularly long or complicated book — my sources are relatively clear, the interpretations easy to follow. There are just too many of them to hold in one’s mind at once, so I keep coming back to ideas I’ve had several times, wondering how many times I’ve read a specific section or responded with a particular thought without then writing it down.

And this is why, I think, so many professors harp on students to learn good note-taking skills. Without them, it becomes that much more difficult to write a dissertation without wasting time. Time is the precious resource, which itself is a change for some students.

There are a few PhD students, however, who somehow finish quickly. Those mysterious people have the work-ethic and wherewithal to produce their dissertation in a time-frame better measured in months than in years. I hope that I may be one of those people. If that is the case, it will not be due to my organization. Rather, it will be because I’ve been thinking and writing about this project since 2009. In other words, I had already been ramming my head against this wall for five years before getting to the stage where I began to write the dissertation.

I was not planning on keeping a dissertation journal, but I have any more thoughts of this nature, I will post them here. It would be good to remember in the future how my mind was functioning (or malfunctioning) during this time.

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