A dissertation is many things to many people: a final example
of student work, a first draft of a book, a stepping stone towards
an academic job, a complex argument about a subject you care deeply
about, a series of signatures. For me, it has also been a rhetorical
mystery. The dissertation amounts to what is arguably one of the
most enigmatic and elusive of academic genres, rarely defined
to those who must write them. For some, this is not a problem;
for me, it was.
This is why I turned to the writing center in
order to finish my dissertation, for there I could approach my
project as a compositional problem--an issue less of arguments
and archives, the realm of my committee, but of rhetorical strategies
and weekly writing. This is what SWC has added to my experience
as a dissertator--on the one hand, the eyes of a reader and "coach"
whose role has been to help me move forward with the writing on
a regular basis; on the other hand, a way of breaking down the
process into manageable compositional tasks, of giving me practical
clues to solve the dissertation mystery.
Most undergraduate writers come into the SWC expecting immediate
feedback. They want help to finish a project – now. Once
they get feedback, they (theoretically) revise the project and
turn it in -- often within a week. The cycle of writing and feedback
resolves quickly. While a writer might return to me, the assignment
is different, the cycle begins anew, and, again, the writer expects
resolution – the sooner, the better. The outcome for the
undergrad is quickened momentum toward a completed paper, another
project to dispatch in the course of a busy quarter.
With Joel and other graduate students, I see the
same project repeatedly. In one case, I’ve helped a writer
turn her dissertation-in-progress into several conference papers.
In Joel’s case, the dissertation has come in pieces over
the course of several months, as he composes and recomposes chapters.
We usually cover about 15 to 20 pages per session. I use an hour
of tutoring time to read, and, when we meet for an hour, we really
don’t expect to resolve the project within that sitting.
The reading cycle is long, our discussions steeped in the context
of Joel’s previous material, and the outcome is Joel having
constructed another piece of the puzzle that is becoming a dissertation.
John is absolutely right. I have recently started working with
an anthropology grad on her proposal presentation for her dissertation.
She and I immediately realized this work would mean meeting more
than once because the complexity of what she was trying to accomplish
required a more recursive process. But while the tempo of tutoring
grads is different, are the sessions themselves? As John notes,
and as other tutors have also mentioned to me, reading more is
often necessary. But while this is a difference from the undergrad
tutee, the guiding insight of the writing center—teaching,
not editing—still informs the practical look of sessions
with grads as much as undergrads.
I referred earlier to how SWC has helped me turn
the dissertation into manageable compositional tasks: so as with
undergrads, John and I often spend a lot of time talking through
areas that I as a writer feel are problematic, creating solutions
at the level of sentence, structure, and argument. But in this,
John adds to the writing of a dissertation—the nuts and
bolts of rhetoric are often not at the heart of meetings with
advisers because larger issues of argument are at stake. Indeed,
having a regular presence outside the committee serves important
purposes: a regular way to be social about your work that only
SWC institutionally provides, the chance to work closely with
someone not deeply entangled with your professional future.
How different is a grad student tutoring session? Pre-reading,
long term immersion in the material, long sessions that end with
a fuzzier conclusion than with the swift moving undergrad. I get
to deal with more complex rhetoric that stretches its argument
over the course of several hundred pages.
But tutoring grad students has significantly helped
the ways I tutor undergrads. For me, when I am in the typically
fatigued mode of a lecturer squeezing appointments between being
a full-time teach, I don’t automatically use the same methods
to engage with undergrads. I quickly explore how assignments fit
within the context of students’ learning, because that context
sets up an efficient way of understanding how the student work.
Work with Joel and other grads rejuvenates my
tutoring life. When I have repeat visits from the same undergrads
– which is common – I can see their work as having
continuity, and put the work within the context of their careers
at Stanford, not just as a one-shot effort to reach rapid resolution.