Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dissertation Fun versus the Bus to Brno

While I was looking forward to going to both the Brno folk ball and the Fulbright midyear conference, when it came time to leave Prague, their timing did not seem very agreeable. Not only was I enjoying reading newspaper clippings relating to Karel Janský suing Bohuslav Brouk (at the PNP), making my way through information about early Czech feminism and Vratislav Effenberger’s writings about surrealism (at the Národní knihovna), but I was in the midst of fine-tuning the organization of my dissertation chapters.
I realize that not everyone would find these pursuits at all pleasant. My regular readers have discerned, however, that I am a bit peculiar.
After reading one of Dawn’s books on dissertation-writing, I had done a good deal of productive thinking about my (hypothetical) chapter sections. At that time, I moved around quite a bit of text, wrote new bits, and all that sort of exciting thing. I could see, however, that I still had chapters whose prospective sections were just not satisfactory. In some cases they were mere reminders of topics that needed to be addressed sometime, somehow, somewhere. In other cases, they seemed reasonable but in some manner incomplete or disordered. Consequently, last week I felt moved to address this issue further.
Not surprisingly, I did not really do much with the chapters that struck me as most in need of attention. Instead, I found myself fiddling around with the Introduction. As a rule, one writes the introduction to anything last, but I am not much attached to rules.
This lovely introduction was supposed to consist of something like a Literature Review, a section on Methodology, an Overview of Biography and Oeuvre, and a summary of the chapters to come. In other words, the kind of stage-setting tripe (if one can indeed set a stage with tripe, which sounds to me like something either out of a Naturalist drama or a contemporary work of performance art) that one is expected to shove into a dissertation before things get interesting.
I was willing to write an introduction full of this sort of thing; the older I get, the more my literary ambitions shrink, at least as regards academic writing. I am more and more inclined to leave my attempts at great literature for my fiction, and otherwise to simply give Caesar his due, or do whatever will fit the bill. On the other hand, it would be unthinkable to write something dull in my dissertation. Perish the thought. (Editorial note: I enjoy reading over my footnotes and bibliography, so we must consider dullness a relative matter.)
There was something unsatisfactory about my introduction, I felt. The Literature Review was not unsatisfactory, although it was not finished, but I felt unsettled about the rest. I moved the Methodology section about restlessly and found it unpleasing both before and after the biographical section.
Some benignant spirit prompted me to take a look at my friend Sylvia’s dissertation, despite the fact that it really bears scant relation to mine, as Sylvia wrote about twentieth-century Chicago school murals. (I think I had some vague notion of examining her formatting, since this was probably the first dissertation in our department submitted under the new Electronic Dissertation requirements.) Sylvia, I noted, had seen fit to combine her discussion of methodology with her chapter road map. This seemed strangely tempting.
I then noticed that the best bits lurking in the biographical section related to the ways in which Toyen has been mythologized by her contemporaries and by art historians. I had really not been sure where these fun bits would end up, as they seemed too exciting to put in the introduction, but it now occurred to me that addressing Toyen’s biography in this manner would be much more entertaining for me to write and would get across basic biographical data without causing my committee to cry out that I was writing mere factual, chronological, nonanalytical biography.
This seemed just too splendid for words, but then I am easily excited by small pleasures. Suffice it to say that I went at sticking together paragraphs that seemed to belong, and threw other material elsewhere in the hope that it would come in handy for some other purpose like clarifying Toyen’s relationship with Štyrský, or who only knows what.
Unfortunately, I could only get a certain amount of this sort of thing done before it was time to head for the Florenc bus station and give Alex and Dawn their tickets so that we could get underway to Brno.


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