There & Back Again: Writing a Thesis without Losing Your Mind

I once spent a whole afternoon in the Oxford Botanical Gardens looking for this professor’s favorite tree… and never did find it.

As promised, the purpose of this post is to share some of the things I’ve learned about the process of writing a thesis at this level and make a few recommendations for those who have yet to take on such a project.  I want to keep this post as practical as possible–as I’ve already waxed poetic on the mental anguish side of things–but some of the reasons why I recommend doing this or that have  much to do with maintaining mental focus, drive, and balance as your work through the process.  So, if you feel overly burdened by my explanations, just skim on through to the next piece of practical advice.

1) Choose a topic that you care about and can keep caring about.  Initially, I thought to myself, “I could write my Masters thesis about anything.  The recommended length is as low as twenty-five pages; I could write twenty-five pages about the theoretical justification for the arrangement of my sock drawe!.”  However, while it is true that the low, low minimum length on MAPH’s Masters thesis allows for investigations of itsy-bitsy topics that one could handily dissect and wrap up with a minimum amount of work, there are two excellent reasons why choosing a topic that is ready to hand, but not compelling to you, is a bad idea.  First, for six months you will be thrown back upon this topic, so–even if you manage to fool your preceptor and adviser into letting you choose a topic with a relatively small scope and straight forward solution–you will be pushed by the process to dig deeper and engage more fully with the problem you create.  If the problem’s consequences are minimal, not ultimately interesting to you, or just not deep enough to sustain multiple inquiries you will quickly come to hate your topic, the paper, your adviser, and the whole process.  Secondly, since the goal for many a MAPHer is to reapply for a Ph.D. spot down the road, choosing to write a simple–and ultimately sub-par–thesis robs you of a chance to work up a really great writing sample to take into your next round of applications.  Even if you intend to go the “professional route” and get a read job outside the academy, a thesis on a fluffy topic–even if you can get away with it–isn’t going to help you down the road.

2) When you research, read books with your thesis always knocking around in the back of your mind, but don’t try to read every book in the library that might have some minimal bearing on the problem you are investigating.  When I decided that I was going to write something about ethics and appropriation I thought the best research plan would be to search for every book in the universe that had the keywords “art” “ethics” “appropriation” and “intention” and then read all of them one after another.  Now, in hindsight this plan was obviously doomed to failure.  Even working within a topic that had a relatively small literature–like “appropriation”–there are hundreds of books on the subject and with a topic like “intention” there are tens of thousands of books, articles, and reviews–far, far too many to read and digest in six short months.  A variant of this mistaken and ultimately doomed strategy is to select one book that treats your topic well and then use the bibliography to create the “Amazon Wishlist from Hell.”  The reason is obvious to anyone who has done any large-scale academic writing: while papers frequently reference little snippets from a huge number of sources, they generally circle around just a few primary sources.  If you build a reading list from a bibliography you will quickly discover that many resources on that list don’t have any bearing on your particular project. Instead, read everything you have to read–the colloquium and Foundations books, the readings for your classes, the papers written by your fellow MAPHers–with an ear toward how they might help you with your project.  When you’ve latched onto some useful ways of approaching your project, particularly insightful scholars who have already done work in the field, or even some analogous problem in another area, then, and only then, create a finalized reading list.

3) When it comes time to build a final reading list, limit yourself to the seminal papers that shaped academic thought regarding your particular topic.  For my project, this meant returning first to the sources of anti-intentionalist in Beardsley and Wimsatt’s “The Intentional Fallacy,” the seminal papers that constituted The New Criticism including John Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” and Allen Tate’s “Miss Emily and the Bibliographers,” and the paper that kicked started radical anti-intentionalism: Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author.”  Then I found the patron saints and founding papers of intentionalism including works by E.D. Hirsch, Noel Carrol, Gary Iseminger, and Jerrold Levinson.  Now, obviously the selection process is going to be different for every person and every project, but I discovered that most lines of thought and theory-shaping distinctions can be traced back to an handful of moments in just a few papers.  Also, notice that all my major sources are papers rather than books.  Books tend to be glosses and surveys, while the real innovations in academia tend to occur in journals and at conferences.  I have twenty single-author books on my shelf on the subject of intentionalism and ethics as it relates to art, but I used only two of them in my thesis.  Now, anthologies, while edited by a single person, are exempt from this prohibition because–of course–they are full of conference papers and reprinted journal articles.

4) Write like you are creating a new primary source.  Once you have a good handle on the seminal papers that define the academic discourse on your subject, try to shove all that information to the periphery of your mental space so that when you write you are working out your own ideas and your own theories.  If you strive to write like you, yourself, have something to say your writing will still pull in the references to other writers and seminal papers you’ve studied, but you won’t be bound to think about the topic along the prescribed ruts of previous authors.  My previous major papers have averaged 24.31 pages in length with an average of 3.82 citations per page.  Yes, I actually did the math.  But my thesis, weighing in at 33 pages, has only 25 citations from 15 sources or .76 citations per page.  My undergraduate senior thesis paper was well over fifty pages long and had over 130 citations from 73 sources!  The point of all this number crunching is to say that, during this thesis writing process, I have grown from surveying and then commenting on other scholars’ works to actually doing philosophy–and my paper trail proves it.

5) As individual deadlines approach (e.g. five pages of sustained engagement, five draft pages, fifteen draft pages, etc.) make your best estimate of how much time the various writing projects should take–and multiply by two and a half.  I discovered that–while writing my thesis– if I was really in the groove, had all my notes ready to go, and had a clear idea of what I wanted to say, I could write an average of four pages in eight to ten hours.  However, if I was distracted or upset, my reference notes weren’t ready to hand, and my ideas fragmented or unfocused I could spend an entire day and only have a page and half or so to show for my efforts.  If that seems painfully slow–it is.  In my undergrad years I routinely wrote ten to fifteen pages in a single afternoon and the drafting process usually retained at least two-thirds of what I’d written from draft to draft.  With no more than four or five drafts a paper of similar length to my Masters thesis would have taken no more than a week to finish.  My Masters thesis was written and rewritten over the course of the past six months–the final version of the paper was completed a mere two days ahead of the final due date–just enough time to get it proofed and polished.

Now, much of the first third of that time was spent working up three unsuccessful treatments–basically, highly detailed outlines with reference citations and footnote-style rebuttals to remind me which arguments would need careful attention when I wrote the real thing.  Each of these contributed only another method of failing to secure provisional buy-in from my readers–and, with all their finicky detail and argumentative footnotes, were excruciating to write.  However, by the time I finally struck on an example or two that clicked with readers, I had already heard so many arguments and criticisms of my central thesis that I was genuinely prepared to address the lion’s share of rebuttals I was likely to face with my final paper.  But even once that first full, real draft was worked up, I still discovered that the paper was far less organized and focused than it needed to be–which, of course, meant even more time spent on a final version.

6) So stay as far ahead as you can, but remember that there are no points awarded for getting done early.  I spent much of my time in MAPH trying to get ahead and stay ahead of the syllabi in my classes and the schedule of due dates for my thesis.  Because of my many false starts and blank-sheet revisions, I’ve spent the past three months feeling like I was terribly behind everyone else in my thesis workshop group, my larger precept group, and virtually everyone in the program.  Psychologically, the result was many, many wasted days being alternately frustrated by my lack of progress and so depressed that I wasted entire weekends sitting on the couch or trying to distract myself from the consequences of my own procrastination.  Physiologically, the results were even less pleasant.  I made myself sick, stopped sleeping, and had terrible stomach cramps throughout the writing process.  When everything finally fell into place about a month and a half ago, I succeeding in finally getting my arguments down just in time for the first draft due date–one of the three “hard” deadlines in the thesis writing schedule with the other two being the final version of the thesis proposal and the final version of the thesis turned in to the MAPH office, your preceptor, and adviser.  From the time that I got my adviser’s corrections and notes back I worked steadily, but leisurely, to write the final version of the paper.  Again, there are no extra points for being done early.  You don’t want to find yourself pressed for time, but there is no reason to put more stress into an already stressful situation by trying to win the Great and Glorious Thesis Completion Race! in which only you are competing.

7) When you come to the last page, close the book.  I have, since I was a freshman in undergrad, tried to write every paper as though I were going to publish it, and every reading response like I would need to defend it in front of the class.  Now I recommend following that model if you want to get a job, but the consequence of taking that tack when writing seminar papers has been–at least for me–a real profound separation anxiety as I prepared each of my “babies” to go out into the world.  Now, the pressure to make everything perfect on something like a Masters thesis is even more extreme.  You can drive yourself crazy making sure that every obscure grammar rule has been observed, every arcane citation convention practiced, and–my personal favorite–making the first letter of every line form an acrostic subliminal message like: “T-H-I-S I-S T-H-E B-E-S-T T-H-E-S-I-S Y-O-U H-A-V-E E-V-ER R-E-A-D.  G-I-V-E H-I-M A-N A.”  After working as long and hard on my thesis as I had, I determined that I was just going to get it “good enough” and let “perfect” worry about itself.  For every claim I made in the thesis, I provided at least one rebuttal and gave a plausible reason for dismissing it.  For every suggestion that my thesis adviser made, I addressed that concern two times: once in the part of the argument where it had occurred to him and once early in a section I titled “Presuppositions and Caveats” just before the section that rolled out my claim.  For every suggestion that my invaluable conversational foil, Bill Hutchison made, I–at least–dropped a footnote to clarify or concede, and when he really blind-sided me, I rewrote the paragraph or the section.  I had my paper proofed by a college-level English prof who is adjuncting at my alma mater and then… I walked away.  I know there are likely one, two, or ten grammar errors, several commas where their ought to have periods in my citations, and an absent sub-argument or two that would have pounded the last nail(s) into the sparkling edifice that is my thesis, but I determined that I needed to walk away and let the whole thing lie if I was ever going to get healthy again.

The most significant thing that writing this thesis has taught me is gratitude.  Having come to the end of it, I am not so much happy as drained and only now can I recognize all the people that have lent me strength and provided help along the way.  So, my gratitude goes, first, to my lovely wife who has been a good sport about listening to my insane ramblings when I suggested that I needed to “bounce some ideas off her,” then, to the esteemed Mr. Hutchison who gave my thesis both a reality check and some much needed generosity over the course of many, many drafts and quite a few impromptu, emergency email exchanges, then, to my preceptor, Will Small, who has demonstrated not only his philosophical chops but his pedagogical acumen as he did his dead-level best to keep the little ship of my thesis off the rocks, then, to my thesis adviser Dr. Pippin, who despite a packed schedule made timely remarks and one huge, course-changing suggestion that contributed to whatever is good and innovative about my work, and finally, to all the professors, administrative staff, and fellow MAPH students who–knowingly or unknowingly–contributed little bits of insight and advice that helped my thesis get off the ground.  So, like a hobbit, I find myself enriched for the journey, but pleased to be home, thankful to those who assisted me along the way, and not terribly anxious to do it again–at least for a month or so.

It does look rather like an Ent, doesn’t it?


3 comments on “There & Back Again: Writing a Thesis without Losing Your Mind

  1. Robert Minto says:

    This is a fabulous account. I hope that when this blog is wrapped up you take yourself and your perceptive meta-discussions of scholarly life to another, more permanent blog.

    In the meantime, is there any chance I could read your thesis? I’d love to see the result of your year’s work, if you didn’t mind.

  2. maphman says:

    Thank you for your kind regards! I’m not sure what I plan to do with my bloggy alter-ego once someone has finally stopped the MAPHness. However the great scales of the internet finally weigh this blog, its purpose was always to be of use to other folks struggling against an April acceptance deadline, rather than to make me look particularly clever. So, I’m not sure whether I have anything to say worth reading beyond my experience of MAPH. I’ve always been a little in awe of your, but I’m not sure there is any need for me to have a new, permanent bloggy presence on the internet.

    I’ve considered creating a blog about the successes and failures I’m bound to crash into as new prof back home, but there are both political and pedagogical reasons for keeping commentary of that sort off the net. I’ve also considered trying to ape your style and putting together a sort of online collection of my philosophical work and digital commonplace book–although it appears you have decided to move away from that model. However, again, that assumes that anyone needs to read my works in progress or my commentaries on life.

    I will let you read my thesis when I can read yours… just before you get it published and set out on your international book tour.

  3. Robert Minto says:

    Well, here’s the thing: following the daily toils of an honest laborer in the same work that one dreams of pursuing can do wonders for the young. Bear with me, I know this sounds ridiculous at first. But I owe any understanding that I possess of my own vocation, to the glimpses of philosophers in practice online that I achieved through blogs like Graham Harman’s. You have a serious gift for that kind of writing, for representing with vigor and honesty the pains and pleasures of the role you have chosen: scholar and teacher. Even if it was another anonymous blog, with particular names also kept anonymous, I (and I think others) would find it beneficial to be able to follow your further experiences. Both of the potential blog styles you mention having considered would give scope to this talent of yours –whether you blogging is valuable is not a question of the intrinsic interest of your particular work and life (though I for one find that interesting), but that you could, I think, play an important role in our profession with your gift for representative self-presentation.

    (Since you brought it up, the reason I’m abandoning my own former style of blogging is that I think I don’t have your talent of turning accounts of my own experiences into objectively valuable writing. My accounts just come across as navel-gazing. So if I’m going to keep blogging, I need a more rigorous framework that will, in addition, prevent me from maundering on.)

    Consider this an earnest plea from one faithful and edified reader on behalf of many future ones that you develop your talent in this area, as much on our behalf as for any other reason. =)

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