By Hyonbin Choi
Hyonbin is a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at UW-Madison, writing her dissertation on modernist long poems. She has been a Writing Center instructor since 2013, and currently serves as a TA co-coordinator. She also moonlights as a translator of children’s and YA literature from English to Korean.
Writing your dissertation—or any long research project—is mostly a lonely affair. One dissertator once said to me that it feels like you’re stranded on an island trying to survive, while an occasional surveillance aircraft flies over to check on you. Or even worse, not even that.
As Rick Ness pointed out in a previous blog post, metaphors of dissertation writing are often associated with survival, climbing mountains, or pulling through a grueling boot camp. These metaphors of perilous adventures or life-threatening situations have the danger of intimidating and overwhelming dissertators. And yes, parts of dissertation writing are strenuous and even conditioned with fear. I mean, who can say they haven’t run for cover when the hum of a surveillance craft sounds from afar?
Perhaps this is partly because of the rhetoric surrounding the academia. We’re too often asked the importance of our study, the significance of our research, and the contribution our work and writing will make. Surrounded by a rhetoric that demands our research to be valuable and worthwhile for all, writing becomes an impossible task trying to benefit and please everyone. Meanwhile, no one really asks what we like about our work, what makes us passionate, or what you love most in your research. “Love” is something whispered almost like a guilty pleasure or taboo in academia.
Working with dissertators over semesters at the Writing Center, however, has taught me that there are also moments of joy and exhilaration during both the writing and sharing process, which is nowhere like survival on a desert island. Here I’d like to offer a different type of metaphor I have shared with dissertators I’ve worked with: Sharing your most cherished view.
In one literature class I TAed for, I had an opportunity to read and teach Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, a sequence of short stories narrated by an unnamed woman protagonist from Boston, who summers in Dunnet, Maine and gets acquainted to the townspeople. The slow-paced stories do not follow one main narrative, but present a web of stories full of encounters, connections, memory, and love. Among the sequence of short stories, there’s one scene I really cherish. The narrator visits a small island where her landlady’s mother, Mrs. Blackett lives with her son. After a very pleasant encounter, an afternoon of having tea together and singing, the old lady leads the narrator to her bedroom, to show her the beautiful scenery the lady loves most:
Mrs. Blackett, the dear old lady, opened the door of her bedroom….
I went to the door of the bedroom, and thought how pleasant it looked, with its pink-and-white patchwork quilt and the brown unpainted paneling of its woodwork.
“Come right in, dear,” she said. “I want you to set down in my old quilted rockin’-chair there by the window; you’ll say it’s the prettiest view in the house. I set there a good deal to rest me and when I want to read.”
There was a worn red Bible on the lightstand, and Mrs. Blackett’s heavy silver-bowed glasses; her thimble was on the narrow window-ledge, and folded carefully on the table was a thick striped-cotton shirt that she was making for her son. Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart which had made the most of everything that needed love! Here was the real home, the heart of the old house on Green Island! I sat in the rocking-chair, and felt that it was a place of peace, the little brown bedroom, and the quiet outlook upon field and sea and sky.
I looked up, and we understood each other without speaking. “I shall like to think o’ your settin’ here to-day,” said Mrs. Blackett. “I want you to come again.”
From The Country of the Pointed Firs
In this scene, Mrs. Blackett offers the narrator her chair where she can see “the prettiest view in the house,” but the narrator doesn’t immediately describe what the “prettiest view” looks like. Rather, she starts to portray the immediate surroundings of the chair, with the Bible on the light stand, glasses, a thimble, and the shirt Mrs. Blackett is making for her son. In this moment, the narrator understands, truly understands Mrs. Blackett, the quiet, loving life she has led, and the peaceful home she has given to her children. Only after this moment does the narrator mention the “quiet outlook upon field and sea and sky.” She is able to appreciate the scenery not only because the view is beautiful, but because she understands the narratives that surrounds the chair, the orientation of Mrs. Blackett. Sitting there, she can look out from the eyes of Mrs. Blackett as well as her own. In a way, the scene tells us that this is a gesture of understanding and love between two people, offering another person your chair and sharing the view you cherish the most.
And also, in a way, writing your dissertation or any long piece of research is like sharing the view you cherish the most. Only you have access to the vision or beautiful view you have in mind, whether it be exciting experimental findings, new theoretical approaches, or a new interpretation of data or texts. You first have to convince your readers that it is worth the trouble of following you. Along the way, you walk side by side with your companions, keeping them engaged, and once you arrive, make sure they understand the view you cherish. What I like about the above scene most, though, is that first you have to work on building a connection with the reader. Without that connection they will not be able to appreciate the view from your orientation. So even the seemingly tedious task of researching previous studies and writing a lit review prepares the readers to know where you’re situated. With love.
In “‘Cooking together disparate things’: The Role of Metaphor in Thesis Writing,” Frances Kelley distinguishes between conceptual and structural metaphors; conceptual metaphors offer a way to engage with your writing as an entity, like visualizing the dissertation writing as a journey. Structural metaphors allow you to think about the actual parts of the dissertation, such as composing music or staircases with turns. The metaphor I presented above is closer to a conceptual metaphor as it shows one way to approach your dissertation as an entity, but unlike many other metaphors of dissertation writing, it branches out to include the readers, and also has the potential to include interactions that go on in the writing center.
Going further than making the writing process pleasant or reminding writers of their first exhilaration, the metaphor of sharing your most cherished view helps you to be conscious of presentation, for the purpose of sharing with a person you care about. You have to be conscious of your voice, of how you present your material. It is also a metaphor that entails both the process and end-product, in that you’re trying to create this view, but at the same time taking another person with you, right into the “heart” of your most cherished view.
For writing center instructors, having this metaphor in mind would allow us to think through the writing process along with writers, side by side, actively accompanying them to reach the view they cherish the most. And these moments of connection and understanding has been one of my best rewards of working at the Writing Center. During the three years I have worked as an instructor, I have worked with dissertators from different disciplines such as Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, Math, Bioengineering, Anthropology, Geography, Curriculum and Instruction, Film, Theatre and Drama, Nursing, and Law. As new writing center instructors often express, when I first began working as an instructor I was very much wary of the prospect of having to work with advanced writers from widely different disciplines. What if I can’t understand a word from a dissertation in Math or Engineering?
But when I actually began to work with writers, that fear quickly abated. Working with advanced writers was not about being an authoritative figure giving advice, or being a therapist serenely nodding your head to everything. We were in this together, in a manner that was strangely reminiscent of the process of translation to me. In translation, you can’t miss any word in the text. You ride along the writer, going through the same, almost agonizing process of choosing words, pondering over every placement of those words, sentences, characters, scenes, and what they go through. You’re able to reach a deeper understanding, a deeper connection than the one you thought you already had before. When I read, I’m immersed in the narrative or lyrical world the writer presents before me, but when I translate, I laugh, I cry, and act out every word and scene in my head, recreating the world the writer presents to me. Having on-going appointments with advanced writers gives me a similar opportunity to ride along their tosses and turns in the writing process at a slow-paced manner, worrying over one concept, one framework, one argument at a time together. And suddenly, out of the sprawling expanse of words, a beautiful scene emerges, and I am able to look at one part of the world from where they’re sitting, borrowing their eyes for a moment.
For blog readers, I wonder what you thought of this metaphor. How else might we apply this to the writing process or in our writing center instructions?
Also, what might be a good structural metaphor, or a metaphor that could serve as both conceptual and structural?
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories. Signet Classics, 2009.
Kelly, Frances. “‘Cooking together disparate things’: The Role of Metaphor in Thesis Writing.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 48, no. 4, November 2011, pp. 429-38.