Thursday, August 21, 2008

Just the Dissertation

Just to be clear, I'm writing the dissertation.

It's a particularly sexist genre, though not peculiarly sexist. Men in the academy in the western world for centuries have locked it down as a means of achieving the academic pinnacle and have often used it to lock women out.

Trivia question:
When was the first dissertation written, and when was the first dissertation written by a woman?

Two different perspectives on the dissertation:
Do you see how the latter seeks to tell a story, her own story subjectively as a human being sexed female, and to open up what this genre can be if sexed more than male only?

The first is William Ewart Gladstone, from Gleanings of Past Years, 1843-78:

[N]o Oxford student has an adequate excuse for having failed to learn under the auspices of Aristotle. . . .
A speech of two hours is often heard with less wandering of mind, than a sermon of thirty minutes; and that by men whose hearts are interested in the subject of the sermon, to a degree infinitely exceeding their care for that of the speech. But the sermon is
a dissertation, and does violence to nature in the effort to be more like what Nature prompts. An essay may, indeed, be of such surpassing excellence, as to be heard with unbroken interest throughout; but the mass of the essays of a body of fifteen thousand men never can. We long for more than mere amendments in detail. Our need is for the introduction, or the general prevalence, of a new idea as the proper basis of preaching.

The second is Nancy Mairs, from Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer:

The binary mode of structuring the world is agonistic, to use the term employed by Walter J. Ong, who associates it with the adversarial nature of [Greek] male ceremonial combat and contrasts it with the irenic, or conciliatory, discourse characteristic of “women’s liberation movements, student demonstrations, pacifism, and the substitution of the existential noncontesting fugitive hero . . . in place of the agonistic hero . . ..” The discrepancy between these two modes of being in the world has manifold, often violent, consequences, of which one has affected me most deeply: agon (contest or conflict) in the academy. “Ludus,” notes Ong, “the Latin word for school, . . . means also war games.” One cannot go to school, it seems, without going to war, where women, Virginia Woolf and Julia Kristeva and Carol Gilligan and myriad other feminist writers tell us, do not wish to be. . . .
In order to earn a Ph.D., I was still required to submit a dissertation (which by definition takes apart that which has been joined together, though it is fortunately also defined as a discourse, a running back and forth: my dissertation . . . ran back and forth a lot). I still had to defend it (to ward off its attackers) even though I think that its indefensibility may have been its one great strength. I went along. Having been in the academy for more than thirty years, I am not innocent (neither unharmed nor harmless).

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