Writing a PhD thesis is like sailing (if you’ve never done either)
On December 18th, 2013, I sat in a stodgy IT classroom in Carleton University (Ottawa), surrounded by five extremely intelligent people (one via Skype) who were there to challenge, provoke, rock and ultimately assess me.
It was the end of six-and-a-half years of “doing” my PhD, and there I was, my doorstopper thesis in front of me looking like a turgid treatise destined for decades of editing or neglect (take your pick), and a clutch of eager professors ready to advance like well-meaning warriors who hadn’t eaten properly for days.
It wasn’t an easy defence, as my friends who were there in the room as observers will tell anyone who asks – I was put through the wringer on style, politics, methodology and my theoretical meanderings, which elicted from the Committee reactions that included, for the first time in defence history, mention of a “Classical Judeo-Christian Narrative,” “Ezra Levant,” and “The Canadian Chapter of the Taliban” (unlike the latter, the former two exist, although I wish one would go away).
At one point I was fairly convinced that I might not pass without major revisions, and as the first hour, which lasted well over one hundred hours, ticked by, I became acutely aware of the incredible efficiency at which my body was processing the water I was sipping from the canister I had brought, transforming it into anxiety-producing perspiration in mere nanoseconds.
Surveying the wolves (in hindsight, of course, there were no predators) in front of me and assessing my dwindling source of lubrication, that is to say the only stuff in the room that would save my maw from drying up to the point where I would sound like someone talking with a mouthful of shag carpet and cotton balls, I tried to think of what my supervisor had drilled into me in the days leading up to the defence.
“Remember, most importantly, to have fun.”
The messenger of that sensible ditty, Ira Wagman, is a practical sort, someone who doesn’t like to waste too much time on the messiness of the present if the future isn’t going to benefit with clarity from today’s tidying. He’s one of the most generous and passionate teachers I’ve ever studied under, and watching him in action inside the classroom or outside in the halls with students helped solidify in me the answer to the nagging question, “Is this what I want to do?”
Given Ira’s predilection for pragmatism and helpfulness, it’s no surprise that on many, many occasions throughout my PhD journey, Dr. Wagman felt compelled to say, “We’re not quite there yet.”
To think now of the utter hubris and naiveté that must have been bubbling under my eager graduate student skin when I inquired about publishers for my thesis – before I had a thesis that is. Or the many times I would suggest a conclusion without an introduction, or an argument without evidence, and Dr. Wagman would, once again, deploy in a calmly fashion, the idiom that sums up my PhD approach: “That’s probably putting the cart before the horse.”
I remember telling Ira once that I had bought a sailboat (for peanuts, practically) with a friend in Vancouver.
I had been on many a sailing adventure as a wee one and my friend, well he loved the idea of sailing, but neither of us knew what the hell to do with a giant sailboat. No mind, “We’ll learn later!”
That first moment of motoring the 34 foot floating alien out of the Mosquito Creek Marina in North Vancouver, bumping into other boats and barely squeezing out into the open waters was an awakening of sorts – that thing was bigger than us, and more powerful than us, and we were taking it out into something more powerful than all of us put together.
That’s kind of how I feel about writing a thesis.
In the sailing version, Brock and I steered “Salem” successfully around Stanley Park, under the glorious Lion’s Gate Bridge, and into the frenetic Granville Island Marina. On our maiden voyage we clutched tin cups of hot tea and screamed in total exuberance as the cool salty air swept into our faces and filled us with the promise of not only adventure, but adulthood – we were doing it and no one showed us how! We were stumbling through the wilds with only our passion, our own inner wildness, and it was working out, by gum!
Our next trip, some days later, involved an engine breakdown, an apprehensive and altogether unknowing crew of two (plus Katy the dog – why not bring a dog on our first sailing trip, we’re sailors after all!), a sail bundled up without instructions on how to put it up (that seemed so easy when we talked about it earlier…) and a call to the Coast Guard.
As we were towed back toward Granville Island, I lowered my head, thinking that eye contact with better, wiser sailors we passed in the narrows would melt me into a pathetic pool that would pour off the deck into the sea, taking my dreams of sailing and wildness with me.
As it turns out, writing a thesis is a lot like sailing a boat, at least when in both cases proper training is cast off as unnecessary—overkill even—such as in bar conversations and heady intellectual banter that almost always includes references to things and thinkers that have only recently taken shape as abstract flotsam and jetsam of in the hull of one’s brain.
Flush deck? Foucault? On it – no problem, let’s do this!
Doing a PhD seems like a great idea for anyone intrigued by ideas, passionate about knowledge, interested in teaching, or fearsome of manual labour. For some, like me, it promised the continuation of an education that foregrounded the search for meaning through ideas. I was also compelled to stay in school by a busted up back. Both reasons kept me focused on the PhD, or as my workmates in construction used to call it, Pot Hole Digger.
In the beginning it feels like a continuation of one’s education, to be sure. My Master’s experience blended and mingled easily with the new PhD classes I was taking at Carleton. There were less people in the room and things were much more intense and focused on ideas moving toward theory, but I didn’t feel out of place.
Once the classes had ended, and exams written and passed, I was cast out into the intellectual wilderness known as ABD – All But Dissertation.
To be defined as anything that starts with “All But” may not sound that glorious to you, but believe me, it feels like the gates have opened and revealed just that one little thing one needs to do before finishing, before total satisfaction…that little thing known as writing a thesis.
With the sailboat Brock and I were ABSE, All But Sailing Experience, and felt like we had done most of the heavy lifting just procuring the boat (an absurd fantasy quickly shattered as we watched currents drag us every which way and called for the Coast Guard), ABD feels like a mere technicality – you’re pretty much there. Right?
Yet ABD is the moment you transition from a relatively well-lit room to an endless abyss. You are on your own. In virtual isolation, without much training to speak of.
This is when the scaffolding falls away – the oddly comforting presence of an otherwise unfriendly institution, the regularity of classes, the stability of assignments, the structural elements of education that one gets to know after years and years – and it suddenly becomes amorphous, phantasmal even, and wobbles like Jello in your review mirror.
It is, in no uncertain terms, an architecture of abandonment.
That is to say, it is a system of catch and release, where after you’ve become accustomed to the swishing warmer water of the boat, you’re thrown back out to the open sea (now with the knowledge of just how big that sea is), and left to figure it all out. And there is a lot of figuring out to do for a PhD thesis.
It’s no wonder that years later, after seeing their familiar environment fade into memory and experiencing the alienating social rituals that non-PhDs politely engage in with the wide-eyed, stammering students who every six seconds say “I’m interested in the ways in which…” that we, the privileged slaves to the dissertation, finally fold inward and become our own architectures – however shaky those refuges may be.
Sure, we reach out to each other, but we are islands apart, each lonely sole trudging along talking to themselves early in the morning and late at night as they type out either brilliance or infantile sludge, depending on their current disposition and predicament. Late night calls are made, reassuring words are spoken by disembodied voices who have defended and are now, somehow, unbelievably, “Doctors,” and we go back to our tiny world that only we can keep obsessively building, destroying and escaping.
Every day one discovers an article or book that has somehow, inexplicably, escaped one’s own careful and dutiful surveillance of all articulated knowledge and thought on the subject. Every week something triggers the ego-avalanche that screams: “Too stupid! Too undisciplined! Too impatient!”
Then there are calls from parents asking “Will you be finished before I die? I certainly hope so…” And from friends and family: “So, what will you be, when this is done, and what will you do exactly?” Questions, I’m sure, that are all-too-familiar for those of us in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
“Yes, I’ll be a doctor, but not the sort that can really fix anything or anyone…”
And all the future doctor talk only triggers more anxiety about how far you have to go and how little you’ve done, in what is it, where’s a calendar…has it been THREE YEARS??? Entire months go by and sometimes you wonder if aliens took your body and put it in front of your computer while you were made to do nefarious otherworldly exercises, because tragically, there is no evidence of your hard work. This, despite the manic episodes PhD partners and friends must endure.
Near the end of writing my thesis the letter “t” became stuck on my keyboard. Well I’m here to tell you that that was a greater injustice exacted upon me than all of the misery and violence that humankind was undergoing at that very moment. I was on the phone saying in the most incredulous voice, to as many that would listen, things like: “Can you believe this is happening to me? I mean can you really believe it? After all I’ve been through?”
Needless to say, I soldiered on for a day or two, completing words by cutting and pasting the letter t, until I realized, I really truly needed help. And not the kind you get from a computer mechanic.
Thesis writing is a suspended manic space where you build yourself up and take yourself down with the turbulence of a winter storm and the strange self-oppression of a soldier.
You can spend a whole day struggling with one phrase from one theorist, or one paragraph, and still not nail it. Then you go out with normal people and start opining about the day you spent struggling with the “concept of culture,” or the “multivalent tensions inherent in Marxist critiques of contemporary capitalism,” and immediately feel the sting of an uncaring world that rightly sees your “problem” as among the most privileged on the planet.
And all the while you’re groping in the fog for guidance…for a magical buoy, for structural reassurance in a swelling environment of flux, pull and uncertainty.
But there is no solid ground, no architecture, and you keep going, motoring along against all odds.
Assessing my experience, I may not have become the greatest sailor or writer, but I’ve passed a threshold in one piece (more or less), and can now reflect on the challenges that didn’t sink me.
The experience, including that sweaty defence, has made me stronger, helped me figure my own intellectual and emotional architecture when all else fails, and of course, helped me orient myself in so much uncertainty.
And so, adieu large white brick of a thesis – I’ll see you on the Fantail of the boat, whatever the hell that is.
PS: If you think that was a lot of marine metaphor, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.