The dissertation is a curious beast. It has eyeballed me for years. Even now, having tucked it safely in a drawer since 2010, I still catch it looking at me. The word alone, “dissertation,” evokes a certain awe — a kind of fear coupled with an almost giddy excitement. When I was writing mine, I would wake in the middle of the night with my heart racing, thoughts of the thing scuttling about my brain. There’s nothing like scrambling out of bed to write at 3:30 in the morning as though your life depends on it.
I’ve wondered frequently about the value of the dissertation — about the various expectations of the form — about the compromises I made — about what the writing of one awoke in me. Recently, as I’ve begun to turn the raw matter of my dissertation into articles and book chapters, I’ve realized how little the dissertation actually prepared me for the work I’d ultimately do. And as I’ve found myself serving as a mentor for other dissertators, I’ve wondered increasingly about its pedagogical value. For me, the dissertation is a container that seems most useful and pedagogical at its breaking point. At its worst, a dissertation is a mere exercise, designed to prove the merits of a student to a committee. The ideal response to a dissertation, though, instead of “this meets expectation,” might be “what am I even looking at?” At its best, then, a dissertation is a genuine surprise, an encounter with something a committee couldn’t anticipate, which is why I find recent experiments with the form, like Nick Sousanis’s comic dissertation, so compelling.