Some Kind of Help

Yesterday, I finished revising the section of the chapter that I have been working on all summer. (well, "working" on "all" "summer"...) I was totally psyched because I thought that pretty much took care of what I had to do for this chapter. And then this morning I picked up the commented/edited version returned by the advisor and realized that I'm only halfway through. Discouraging. Especially because I wanted to finish it before my Mom arrives for a visit on Friday since I suspect that we won't be spending much time working on the diss., but rather gathering crap for the Gadlet. Shopping, and playing with baby clothes and toys sounds like much more fun for a grandmother-to-be than sitting in the coffee shop watching me type, even if it is on an Apple. (FYI - if you ever get pregnant, you'll find that everyone you have ever met will appear on your doorstep wanting to look at you and rub your belly. I don't really find it all that exciting, just inconvenient and increasingly uncomfortable, but apparently the belly exerts some strange power over my fellow humans. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love the company, but I'm just finding it amusing that everyone wants to have a peek at the Internal Gadlet when I suspect the External Gadlet will be much, much more interesting, if slightly less easy to tote around.)

Anyway, so I was a little discouraged by the amount of stuff I have left to do on this chapter. But, like a good little Stewgad, I started plugging away at it anyway while I sat in the waiting room of the tire store as they patched up our flat tire instead of reading the temptingly trashy magazines they had sitting there. (Aren’t I virtuous?) Mostly, the advisor has a concern that the passive voice is overly used in the chapter, and the second half certainly has this as a problem. :) (Who, me? Deflect authorial responsibility by passivising my language?) Anyway, that is a pretty easy fix. I just need to take agency and assert that actors are doing things. That, I can do.

So, I'm moving along, removing passivity, tidying up stuff, tightening things, and then I come across a supposedly harmless marginal question that pretty much undermines my confidence in the whole chapter and in myself and my whole dissertation.

Here's the situation: I'm trying to make the case that something happened in the past for which I have no direct and explicit evidence. None of my historical actors EVER come out and say "Hey, we're doing this thing." However, they do do it (this fact is very well-documented), and there are many, many indicators that they know why they are doing it and that they are perfectly aware of the consequences of doing it. The whole chapter is, essentially, building up this circumstantial evidence into a strong case for the why they did it and their awareness of the consequences involved. Given this, what on earth do I do with the fact that on p. 26 of a 50-something page chapter, the advisor wrote "the goal here would be to show [these actors] saying Aha! We need to [do this thing]."

Yeah. No shit. That WOULD be the goal. I spent a year researching private papers at the Library of Congress looking for this precise thing. I spent more years than I care to recount sorting through microfilmed letters, attempting to read the handwriting of insane, blind, ancient historical figures who apparently wrote their letters in heiroglyphics with their feet, looking for this thing. I've read acres and acres of public political documents looking for this thing. I simply did not find it. Period. And, the thing that pisses me off, is that he knows good and well I did not find this kind of Aha! statement. He knows it. And he knows that what I do have -- the preponderance of evidence for the action --is actually pretty effective and persuasive. In fact, he says so in his ultimate comments on this chapter.

So, what do I do with this marginal comment? Do I attempt to pursue it? Do I throw in a footnote detailing the years of work I undertook only to NOT find something, which then emphasizes the weakness of my case rather than focusing on the positive strengths of what I do have (a technique he tacitly advocated three pages later when he cut a section where I was hemming and hawing about the lack of some other info and told me to focus on what I do have) or do I just ignore this particular comment and continue with my de-passification project and move on, trying to plow through as much material as I can before Friday?

All in all, it reminds me of that great song on Free to Be, You and Me derived from a Shel Silverstein poem whose punchline is: "some kind of help is the kind of help that helping's all about. And some kind of help is the kind of help ... we all can do without."

I strongly suspect that that comment was the Kind of Help I Could Do Without.


At 8:23 PM Anonymous said...

I would ignore it by assuming that Advisor forgot to begin the comment with "Wouldn't it be great if...". At this stage, any marginalia not style/line edit related that is not mentioned in the final comments at the end of the chapter I would consider optional.

I've been reading the blog for a few months now and really enjoy it. I'm sending a good thought for lots of good work before your mom visit.

At 10:37 PM What Now? said...

I'm with Anonymous. (Ooh, wouldn't that make a great t-shirt?) Ignore the comment. Your adviser knows that you looked for this stuff and that you're presenting what you found. You can thus read the comment, say "Yeah, it would be great, but oh well," and then go on with the rest of what you can easily fix in the chapter. I think that at this point, probably everyone is just rooting for you to finish, so the project at hand is to fix what can be fixed and to "save" larger issues "for the book."

At 5:52 AM Jonathan Benda said...

This is a tough question, and one that I'm also trying to deal with. Do you think it would help if you included a footnote that said something like, "Although [the actors] never explicitly said, 'Aha! We need to do this,' all evidence points to their awareness of what they were doing and of the consequences involved."? Or... maybe your adviser will just forget about it by the time you give him the next draft...

I have the same problem with the passive voice, too. And lots of hedging, too. I think it's got to be a dissertator thing. (In my case, it's fear...)

At 10:58 AM J. said...

Is there any point you can come out in the text (not the footnotes) and say "they never explicitly say this, but the evidence is that this is in fact what they did, and I will prove this to you in this chapter"? I have a similar problem in my dissertation, and that's how I eliminated those kinds of comments I keep getting from one particular member of my committee. I think he is trying to be helpful (God, I hope so; otherwise he's a heartless bastard) and cover all the bases/questions that an outside reader would have about the chapter. You are probably going to have to make some sort of statement regarding this in the manuscript, if not in the dissertation, because your book readers (unlike your advisor) will not know (unless you tell them) that you've looked everywhere for direct statements and they do not exist. It might be worth it to try out a paragraph along these lines now, while most of the chapter is still fresh in your mind, than later when you're revising to publish. Good luck and godspeed.

At 10:51 AM Anonymous said...

My approach, when faced with a similar fork in the road: always take the easier path. (i.e. don't do anything about his comment and assume he'll either forget about it or is fine with what you've done For The Dissertation.) If he's really got a bee in his bonnet about this comment, he'll tell you to figure it out For The Book, given your ever-expanding size in the meantime. :)


At 1:08 AM materfamilias said...

I lurk here occasionally, but this post somehow makes me want to jump in and comment. Then I see that everyone else's comments are very much like what I want to say. We really do need to share our diss experiences more -- wish I'd known then (2 years ago) . . .
But yeah, half the time, your supervisor's probably just trying to be conscientious about giving you feedback, but isn't particularly invested beyond the moment in each and every comment. By the end, I tried to respond to some comments and just ignore others and hope that treatment (avoidance) didn't get noticed. Most of the time, that approach worked.
But I also agree with commenters who think a fn could also do the trick. Or even an in-text sentence or two -- your supervisor really is just anticipating what other readers will say and you could head them all off at the past by spelling out exactly what you have in this post. Wouldn't take up much room and I don't see it pointing to a weakness at all, at least as I understand the problem you're describing.
Best of luck -- your life and perspective are going to change so much in the next short while, but you are going to finish the document. And I have to say, from someone who spent too long in the slough of despond that is diss-writing (or not-writing!)it will feel sooooo good and you will wonder why and how you got so bogged down for so long.


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