I recently ran a dissertation writing workshop for the Society for Cultural Anthropology–and, if you missed it, you can play along at home. The workshop was basically group therapy, and I took turns asking participants the following questions. You can answer each of the questions and compare answers with friends (and maybe with members of your dissertation committee!).
Why are you writing a dissertation?
Who are you writing a dissertation for?
What do you want the dissertation to be?
What would be a successful outcome for the dissertation writing process?
What circumstances would lead you to walk away from your dissertation writing permanently?
What are the three key theories that animate your dissertation?
Who are the three key scholars that you are in conversation with?
Who are the constituencies (subfields, disciplines, etc.) that you are seeking to address in your dissertation?
How will you know that you’ve successfully addressed these theories, scholars, and constituencies?
What chapters does your dissertation have to include? What are the topics, key bits of evidence, and key theories involved in each chapter?
If you have time to write your dream dissertation, how would it differ from the necessary dissertation? That is, what additional chapters would it include?
What elements does a successful chapter include?
What is the right balance of evidence and argumentation?
What makes a bad chapter?
Having a clear sense of the answers to these questions–or even a muddled sense that you can refine over time–and writing them out for reference can be very helpful in providing a resource to check in with and ensure that you’re staying true to the mission.
Here’s an exercise: What nagging experience do you keep returning to in your thinking about your fieldwork? It can be an interaction, an event you attended, an interview, something else. Write up that experience. Try and provide as much detail as possible–and don’t worry about how it fits into your dissertation as a whole. Don’t do any analytic work–just the empirical description of the experience itself. Aim for ~5 pages of content.
Now, swap your write-up with a friend and answer the following questions about their write-up. Compare notes.
What are the key elements that resonate for you in this piece of writing?
What anthropological concerns do these elements relate to?
If you had to make an argument about these elements and their relationship to the evidence at hand, how would you structure that argument?
Given what you’ve read, what else would you like to read–what would help this make more sense, move across scales, or address specific scholarly concerns?