In part I of this two-part post, I explained the way our graduate program in R&W approaches the dissertation as a learning experience first and foremost, and as the beginning of a students’ research career (rather than the end of their graduate education). I also suggested that this meant that faculty should have a pedagogy for dissertation writing.
Approaching the dissertation experience this way puts some demands on faculty – and particularly on chairs of advisory committees – that I have rarely seen spelled out in explicit terms. I’ll offer a few below. They might be seen as a companion to Karl Stolley’s excellent advice to graduate students on the dissertation, pitched instead for my faculty colleagues. They might also be seen as contributions, a la Harris, that our field has to the evolution of graduate education in the Humanities, particularly, around the dissertation process.
For Faculty: Three Ways to Be a Good Dissertation Committee Member
1. Students will be making mistakes; help them learn from them
The Dissertation affords an opportunity to help students learn to become independent researchers and to lead research projects that involve others. As such, the committee’s orientation toward the project should be similar to any writing instructor’s orientation toward students’ composing process: help shape an interesting project, build in moments for formative feedback, intervene at moments where advice can make implicit strategies explicit, prevent catastrophy but know that dealing with failure is part of the learning process (and a big part of research).
2. Treat Early Drafts as Opportunities to See, Understand, & Advise Decision-Making
Dissertations have genre characteristics owing to the rhetorical situation – writing for the approval of a committee, for instance – and their size/scope that students will be confronting for the first time. The traditional way of helping students understand these genre features is to ask them to examine models. Sound familiar? The problem with this approach is that what become formal features in a finished text are not simply the result of following textual conventions. They are the result of making decisions about claims and evidence, about framing, about theoretical and methodological precedent. They are decisions that every dissertation writer faces in some form. But, by design, the precise circumstances each writer faces are distinct, reflecting a particular problem, a particular set of data or resources, and a particular time/place in which the inquiry unfolds. Committees need to help students make good decisions, not simply produce a recognizable dissertation. This may mean that you, the committee member, will see some ugly texts along the way. Drafts that don’t bear a resemblance to the finished, polished masterpiece we all hope results. Take these as opportunities to learn about and, if needed, intervene in the decision-making processes that accompany dissertation writing.
3. Ask the Hard Questions Now that You Expect Students Will Face Later
Dissertation committees act as a proxy for the broader field they represent. When you read and comment as a committee member, you should do so as a stand in for your colleagues whose work the dissertation interacts with, challenges, supports, etc. You help make the writers’ audience a little less distant, and a lot more available for consultation while the arguments and evidence are being assembled. You are upholding a standard, but it is not some abstract measure of quality. It is a living, evolving body of knowledge manifest in the published work of your discipline. When you offer comments to a dissertation writer, you speak for that discipline back to a future colleague who seeks to contribute knowledge but who is also still very much learning what the field, collectively, knows.
These three pieces of advice are just a start. And they echo familiar writing instruction themes: writing is a process, genres represent social activities and not merely textual forms, and knowing one’s audience is critical to making effective rhetorical decisions. But they are no less valuable as applied to advisory committee chairs or members. I would love to hear others’ thoughts and additions to this list.