Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Prospectus: Lessons from a Struggling Writer

My longtime readers already know that when I began my doctoral program, my intention was today study Victorian literature, specifically Children's literature of the Victorian age. A little less than a semester in, however, I decided to flip to the dark side of Comp/Rhet, and I've loved every minute of it. The problem is that I began my doctoral program with a background in British literature and Children's literature, and because I already had a M.A., I was fast-tracked in my residency requirements. This meant that while I normally would have had three years of full-time classes, I was cut down to one-- nice for my wallet, not so nice for my brain.

Now that I'm at the dissertation phase, I'm struggling. I picked three areas of interest for my comprehensive exams that were somewhat useful, but not directly applicable to my dissertation. So at the moment, I'm forced to play catch up with all of the readings that I missed over two years of lost residency and to figure out how comp/rhet researchers write. I don't blame anyone, and I certainly wouldn't say "I wish I never switched fields." I'm quite happy with what I've chosen, but it has been a challenge.

I've been trying to perfect my prospectus for two semesters now, and it's been a painfully slow process. At one point, I scrapped an entire semester's worth of work and started from scratch. With that said, I am learning some things along the way about how to prepare a prospectus:

  1. A dissertation prospectus is not the same thing as the prospectus for a Master's thesis: This was my first wrong assumption. I figured because I did one well, I would be good at doing the other. Not so. A dissertation prospectus is a much more intensive task. 
  2. Writing more is not necessarily writing well: When I heard "this is not ready for approval," I automatically thought that meant I had to add more texts and explanation. That wasn't the case. What I needed to do (and still need to do) was think more deeply about the issues and focus in on the key points.
  3. How you frame your review of the literature is just as important, if not more important, than the works that you choose to include: As an English major, I know that the nuances of language can change the meaning of a phrase dramatically. I had a hard time seeing the difference between presenting ideas and presenting my ideas about others' work, which was often directly related to the way I wrote about the texts. I also couldn't see that I was supposed to be filtering in the works that directly applied to my work and wanted to talk about everything ever written about my subtopics. Having models is a good start, but learning to make the switch is not automatic. I'm still working on it.
  4. Read other prospectuses and ask questions: I wish I knew more about writing the prospectus itself when I started and more closely analyzed others' prospectuses and literature reviews. I'm not sure I understood the function of the prospectus, other than to tell what research you thought you were doing, but it's more than that. It's about the importance of your contribution, the relevance of your ideas, the rationale behind your methodologies, the subfields that you want to connect with, and how you're speaking into what's already been. Asking questions and reading for models earlier on would have saved me time and energy. 
  5. Own it: I'm still working on this one too. It's hard to remember that the dissertation is about YOUR contribution to the field and about your entrance into the scholarly conversation. 
Now, I'm not saying I've got these things down. Far from it. In fact, my chair had to remind me about just about all of them yesterday. And for all I know, I might still be missing the mark. However, if I realized these 5 things earlier, I probably would have been much further ahead than I am now. Wiuth that said, this whole process has been a learning process, though, and I'm looking forward to working through my ideas more productively and effectively now and taking these strategies to future research.

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