actually working on the dissertation; ABD

05Dec07

So even though I’ve been referring to myself as ABD since I passed exams, now I’m officially ABD since I submitted my dissertation prospectus a few days ago.  My advisor has signed off, which I’m viewing as a major accomplishment even though I’ve been developing this project for about a year now with her tacit approval.  It’s still good to get her name onto the sheet of paper.  Writing drafts of the prospectus was useful and mine is short enough that I can send it to professors who work in my field without feeling bad about burdening them with 20-30 pages of text.  But it feels good to be able to start working on the actual dissertation, not just the dissertation prospectus.  In some ways, even though the two and a half years ahead of me seems really daunting, the long stretch of time also feels right.  I can now actually read the things I need to read without the pressure of producing something next week.  Now I can just get to filling in what I haven’t read instead of just saying, “I’ll get to these books, I promise” in the footnotes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately as the class part of the semester winds down.  One thing I learned is that military history is a big hit with some of the men in class and well-written military history draws in those who don’t like it but can still discuss it in some articulate ways.  But more seriously, I’ve been trying to think about what my teaching philosophy is.  I won’t be teaching again for probably a year and a half, at which point I intend to be on the job/post-doc market, so it’s crucial that I think about these things now.  I’ve always known this, but there are so many different aspects to practicing history that teachers have a difficulty creating courses which really introduce undergraduates to the discipline.  I went to a school where history often remained on the level of the textbook and the facts and, despite the department’s emphasis on primary sources, I almost feel as though collecting the sources was more important than engaging and interpretating of them.  I know there were classes that emphasized historiography and that made it clear that the discipline of history was a conversation between scholarly interpretations but somehow I managed to avoid taking those classes.  I didn’t know which classes these were nor did I know I needed to take them.  In the current moment where liberal arts education is sometimes about “take what you like,” I did just that and ended up in graduate school having taken numerous courses on numerous odd-ball things but without a clear sense of what it meant to be a professional historian.  Now, I don’t believe that undergraduate education should be about producing intellectuals or professional historians.  But I do believe that the idea of a major/concentration/focus is to teach students what the discipline is and help them to begin to practice it, even if they don’t continue on.  In terms of history, that means that students need to know more than just “the facts”; they need to be able to think, write, and talk historically.  They  need to know how to approach primary and secondary texts.  They need to understand how authors construct arguments so that they can begin to attempt the same thing.  They need to know how to ask questions of a text and how to critique a scholar’s argument without criticizing it unfairly.  But all of that takes a ton of work on the part of the teacher to devise syllabi that force students to do all of these things.  And I’m not sure it’s possible in large courses at all.  I’m sure in ten to fifteen years I won’t care at all after my idealism about teaching has been beaten down by years of teaching large lecture classes.  But, for now at least, I’m enjoying the thought, however naive it is, that teaching history can actually mean teaching the discipline rather than teaching the facts.

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2 Responses to “actually working on the dissertation; ABD”

  1. 1 whitheramp

    “But it feels good to be able to start working on the actual dissertation, not just the dissertation prospectus.”

    I, meanwhile, just learned that i need to write *another* unexpected 30 page paper for my general exams! ahh!

  2. Congrats on officially becoming a citizen of ABDville! And I agree; it’s never too early to think about your teaching philosophy. When I had to sit down and write mine for my job apps, I found it to be initially quite daunting because although what I ended up putting to paper seemed so obvious after the fact, I hadn’t put much thought into it prior to this year. 🙂


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