Everything is Arbitrary

I submitted my prospectus to my dissertation co-advisers on Thursday, March 24th at 1:31am. Don’t tell my dad, but he was right: I did feel a sense of relief after submitting it…even though it’s only 14 pages long and the chapter outlines are practically one paragraph each (instead of a few solid pages each). As I alternated between almost hyperventilating and hiding under my bed, taking pictures of my adorable kitty, snacking, and writing words on the page, I had the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in months. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will help anything.

Everything is about my prospectus (and perhaps this entire process) is…

ARBITRARY

…which is why I’m having so much trouble making decisions about everything.

When I find myself in a high-stakes writing environment, I feel paralyzed until I have a clear outline and projected order of things. Then, I can begin…but the “real” work has already been done: I know what I’m going to write about, where different pieces are going to fit into the puzzle, and probably what the end result is. The trouble with my prospectus, so I’m finding, is that I’ve completed at least 20 different outlines of different versions of the project. I’ve moved pieces around, shifted ideas in and out. Everyone–#TeamRhetoric, #TeamSarah, etc.–was supportive and said that my ideas were great, so I played with different versions of the project but never stressed too much about it. And then came time to finally finish my prospectus. Which version was I going to use? Which one(s) were most promising? Which ones will help me achieve my ultimate goals for the project?

That’s the funny thing about prospectuses. You write them about projects you haven’t done yet, and even in their “final form,” they may serve no purpose other than to check a box that allows you to begin your dissertation project. It’s hard to plan a project you haven’t done yet. It’s hard to anticipate the results of research you haven’t conducted yet.

The moral of the story:

1) pick something; 2) move forward; and 3) revise as you go.

To me, this feels hard and terrible. Perhaps inappropriately so, but that’s been my experience. It’s hard to know how other people solve this problem. One possible way that I’ve surmised is to pick some topoi (cultural commonplaces), search for them in your archive, and switch them up if they’re not meaningful and/or theorize why they aren’t meaningful. In Margret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2011), she analyzes topoi such as “presence,” “participation,” “resistance,” and “collegiality” (21-22). Maybe she didn’t start with these exact topoi, but she probably had a few to begin with and discovered the others along the way. She analyzes a range of genres, such as published guidelines from MLA and APA and interviews with “independent” scholars, which probably informed her thinking/topoi selection. Similarly, when I was talking with one of my co-advisers a few weeks ago, she suggested that I mine the pinterest #chronicillness posts (there are thousands of them) using a particular frame like disability. That made that piece of the project seem a hundred times more manageable. (She was probably actually thinking about topoi since she’s written about them before, but that only occurred to me five seconds ago).

Whatever I decide…I have to decide SOMETHING. Maybe kitty can help?

Ori_03-28-16

Oriole “Kitty Queen” the cat sitting on a red fleece bathrobe next to my laptop on top of a black reclining chair. 

 

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