Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 12 dissertation notes (week 13): Mind games & such

Earlier in this process, I remember feeling rebuked for seeking advice that was too directive—e.g. when first trying to decide whether my topic would be comparative or not, I asked, “What would you advise?” and got an exasperated response, to the effect that the decision needed to be all mine. And another time, I was told that it sounded like I wanted to be given a topic, but then it wouldn’t really be my project.

But now, having gone around and around on this several times, I’ve come to the realization that I do need to hew as closely as possible to what my committee wants, and that, for all the insistence on its being “my project,” it doesn’t really belong to me, ultimately. It feels like this process has been an elaborate mind game, where the rules keep changing. (To be fair, I’ve gotten frustrated with people for not being able to read my mind when they don’t understand my writing.)

This is rather challenging for me, as someone who takes what authority figures say at face value (because they’re teachers, see, so they must be right). For example: during that brief, happy window of time after my prospectus was approved and I advanced to candidacy and believed I was on the same page as my committee, my prof told me, “Congratulations—email me when you have a chapter completed.” I heard this as, “Don’t contact me until you have a chapter completed.” So, when I fell into a slump after writing ten pages and spent weeks struggling to pull myself together, I didn’t reach out to my advisor or anyone because I thought . . . come to think of it, I don’t know what I thought; that I’d get in trouble for needing help? Instead, I got criticized for not asking for help sooner. 

Does that help explain why this process has been bewildering and frustrating? I don’t do mind games, with anyone. Life is too difficult already to not say what you mean.

But it would probably behoove me to learn to take others less literally. Or not to over-interpret their words? GAHHH I DON’T KNOW. It’s a form of graciousness, I guess.

I wish I’d had a list of the “rules” a few years ago. Then again . . . I probably did; I just chose to ignore them because they sounded too cynical to my ears (“but it’ll be different for me!”). Instead, I’ve spent much of the past three years bleating in protest that the dissertation has turned out to be, well, a dissertation.

Anyway, water under the bridge. How am I moving forward with this?

  • After last week’s tentative brainstorm of comparing Christian and pagan encomia, I looked at Rosemary Radford Ruether’s 1969 dissertation on Gregory’s use of rhetoric and was forced to conclude that what needs to be written on this subject has already been written.
  • While there are some interesting parallels between Gregory’s and Themistius’ approaches to rhetoric and philosophy, I’m not convinced that there’s enough to fill a chapter, much less a sustained comparison. Maybe a chapter is enough?
  • Part of me wants to bail and do something altogether different, e.g. Gregory’s poetry is delightful, and the scholarship on this part of his corpus doesn’t seem to be as extensive. But then I think of having to remain in this Ph.D. program beyond next year, and I can’t bear the thought…
  • After Thanksgiving I’m meeting with a professor I’ve always gotten along with well, in hopes that he can help me out of this impasse.
I’m honestly not sure what to do next week. I want to head into the holiday feeling more settled about things...

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