Timothy Morton has some interesting posts on planning the phd and writing a dissertation. His central point is that a dissertation is not a book (even though some dissertations get published) and if you try to write it as a book you can encounter many problems. I particularly like this line:
A transitional object is usually scarred and a bit broken looking. It's had plenty of wear and tear. By the time I was finished with him, my teddy bear was covered in vomit, with stuffing coming out, he was bleached from being in the laundry and hung out to dry. That's what a good dissertation looks like. Now imagine trying to sell a vomit stained teddy bear. Now do you get the difference between a dissertation and a book?
This is an important point. Writing a dissertation is part of the journey toward expertise. Not surprisingly, I think of expertise as a rhetorical matter rather than an absolute one. That doesn't mean that you can just fake it with all fluff and no substance, but it does mean that expertise needs to be performed and if you can't perform then you don't really have it either.
While I agree with Morton's characterization of English Studies dissertations as they currently are, I can't help wondering how they might be or should be. I agree with Morton that a diss shouldn't need to be a book. I also agree that it needs to be a mechanism of gaining expertise and professionalization. The question for me though is whether or not it needs to be this tortured, overwrought document. Specifically, the reference to transitional object brings home the psychological dimension of graduate school. It's the thing that you cling to as a comfort against other trauma, and, importantly, it's the thing that you ultimately need to abandon.
A book is different rhetorically but not necessarily in terms of its composition. Consider, for instance, Junot Diaz's torturous 10-year journey toward writing his Pultizer Prize wining novel. He ends it this way:
in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn't until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.
It's simple really: a writer writes. It can also be damned near impossible. It's like saying a runner runs, so start running. I think we are all familiar with these kinds of stories about the artist's struggle. Diaz (re)tells that story well though.
The difference between the book and the dissertation is not in its potentially torturous composition, but in its rhetorical function. The dissertation might claim to an a-rhetorical composition, but we don't let much get outside the realm of rhetoric in these parts, especially not texts. Even though the dissertation may appear to have little concern for audience in its almost paranoid obsession with establishing authority and myopic focus, it is a particular genre, where authors and audience (limited though it may be) are asked to play particular roles. With the book, academic or otherwise, we have less interest in the task of establishing authority. As readers, I think we assume the publisher vets the author, and as authors we don't need the obsessive demonstration of mastery to be visible in our text anymore than one has to pass a driver's test every time one gets pulled over by the police. Showing them your license is sufficient. Furthermore the book shouldn't be as myopic as the dissertation. It requires a much broader audience.
As this Inside Higher Ed missive indicates, there is some real struggle over what academic publishing is about. There is an obvious disconnect between the transaction of acquiring reputation (for jobs and tenure) and actually communicating. And nowhere is this more clear than in the dissertation: an artifact one trades for reputational credit that will communicate almost nothing (if for no other reason than that fact that you can count the number of people who will read it on one hand). Sadly, I think there is some implicit notion that dissertation writers aren't ready to communicate: a notion that is an extension of what we believe about our undergraduates. Admittedly it's an odd notion since they've all been communicating since they were quite young.
So what if the rite of passage for doctoral students was an act of communication rather than a reputation transaction? I don't think it would be any less difficult. Writing, communicating, can be difficult. But it would be different. It would mean asking our doctoral students to do the thing we presumably expect them to do in their professional lives. At the same time I don't think it would be more difficult than writing a dissertation, but it would clearly be different. One could say that it would require rethinking graduate curriculum to prepare student to produce this new kind of document, but that would seem to assume that existing grad curriculum would prepare students to write a dissertation. An interesting assumption, but patently false. Why do you think there are so many ABDs?
What it comes down to for me is a greater focus on rhetorical education for humanities graduate students. As I have said here before, some faculty are scholars, some are teachers, and some are writers: some overlap these categories. Some are happiest researching in the library. Some excel in the classroom. Still others find their talents in writing. In my experience, most grad students arrive thinking of themselves in the first category. As TAs they might discover a true calling for teaching. Writing however is commonly a struggle. Most often, it's the writing that keeps people from getting degrees, finding jobs, or reaching tenure.
It's also the writing, from the humanities on the whole, that has led us to our outside position in our culture. At the very least, it hasn't helped the situation. So maybe we need to rethink this dissertation thing.