Saturday, August 26, 2006

:: On Dissertating ::

Really what a dissertation is, at least in my case, is an explanation. It’s an analysis of some body of work with the goal of being able to explain something about that body of work. So, say, it’s an analysis of “poetry” with the goal of being able to explain some fundamental aspect of “poetry.” Or, it’s an analysis of the economic development of Fairport, New York with the goal of explaining perhaps why the development went as it did or why it had whatever features it had (OK, obviously I’m not getting my Ph.D. in economics).

In my case, it’s an analysis of the role of setting in American novels of the 20th century with the goal of explaining HOW and WHY setting is important in these and, it is hoped, in “all” literary narratives. One part of the body of work I am analyzing is a subset of texts in which settings seem to become characters.

It seems like the work of a dissertation is to complicate and examine nuances, etc. But in my case, I think the work I most have to do is somewhat reversed. In theorizing, my job is to try to abstract a set of general principles that describe and account for a wide variety of narrative uses of setting (explaining and defending my theory is the complicated part that takes 200-300 pages). My goal is for the theory itself to be elegant – to be easily understood and easily applied – while at the same time it accounts for nuances in the texts themselves and acknowledges the complexity and beauty of literary texts and our interactions with them. Thus, the idea is to be simple with the theory but not to simplify the body of work as a way of doing so.

Easy-peasy, right?

But anyway, I’m writing about this because I am finding it really strange, the fact that some of the most important questions I will have to answer are some of the most “basic” questions possible. Questions that you, my friends and family, will likely ask at some point. Like, “what is narrative?” and “what is the difference between space and place?” The big one I’m working on right now is “can places be characters?” Funny how a simple question can be so hard to answer. Yet, partly I just need to have confidence that I’ve read enough, studied enough, and thought enough to be able to just answer and then support my response.

As your questions about my work arise, definitely send them my way. It's good for me to have to answer them and it's even better for me to have to answer them for people who haven't read the books I'm writing about and who haven't studies all this stuff about setting, place, character, and narrative.