Amanda Shopa

Artist. Researcher. Teacher.

My Touchstone Dissertation Writing Question

I changed my dissertation topic in the last year of my program. I wouldn’t recommend this, but it had to be done.

I wrote about how this affected reading for my dissertation in a previous post.

What I didn’t realize is that this shift would have a psychological impact on writing the dissertation.

In my program, you complete a large chunk of your reading in preparation for your written preliminary exams. My prelim exam questions were co-written with my committee members, and directly related to my original topic and my arts-based research orientation and methodology. So all of the reading I was doing at that point was directly related to my work. Often, students can take those papers and turn them into chapters in their dissertation, meaning that the preliminary exams are doing double duty.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t do more reading, of course. But it does mean that when you’ve passed your prelims and your oral comprehensive exam, you’ve proven to your committee that you’re familiar with the literature.

Since I changed topics after my oral exam, though, there’s been a subconscious tension where I feel like I need a very long, very robust lit review to prove to my committee that I’ve read enough.

But this is bumping up against my onto-epistemological beliefs and my arts-based researcher orientation.

Namely, I trust my reader to make their own connections and draw conclusions on their own! And aesthetically, I want to give the reader just enough background information that they learn something, feel smarter, and make connections. And I want to hold back enough extraneous detail that they don’t get bored and feel bogged down.

These two things—prove how much I know because I changed my topic last minute (and what if my committee doesn’t trust that I could manage to do all of this in about a year?) and keep the reader interested and make them want to keep reading—are in direct opposition to each other.

I have considered shoving all of the extra stuff into an appendix. But if I have an appendix, I want it to be meaningful and not just… a home for half abandoned writing that acts as a security blanket.

So I keep coming back to the question I’ve returned to several times over the last year: What does this look like if I approach this as an art project instead of a research project?

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