Nov 16, 2020

thesis advice

I’ve been working with thesis students for some years now, at various institutions and in various roles. I’ve learned some things that may be worth collecting here, for folks who are in that stop-start process of a thesis or major paper and struggling along the way. Late fall tends to be the bottleneck for a lot of people: getting near to commitment time, but with enough runway to still worry-and-avoid on repeat. For what it’s worth, some things to keep in mind are below. Might be useful for folks applying to grad school too.

Start with a heuristic of love. The engine of any long-term project has to be one that has genuine enthusiasm at its core. It’s important to collect the work you really care about, truly believe in, to begin the process of figuring out your point of view, plan of study, your eventual contribution. Now—will your choices be subject to availability bias, to blinkered notions of importance, to prejudices of troubling kinds? You bet! It’ll be crucial to figure those things out. So yes—you’ll apply a rigorous set of skeptical tests to your chosen beloved subjects, switching out some in favor of others, reformulating and digging deeper. But that’s a second or third step. If you shoot down your first ideas before they’ve even made it to the draft page, you’ll never get it done. So: start with your unedited enthusiasm, and let it live as such for a while. Then you can look at it more closely, playing the game of believing and doubting, namely:

Play the Believing Game and the Doubting Game, but not at the same time. Longtime writing professor Peter Elbow coined this idea of games for looking at the work of others, and it’s worth applying to one’s own work-in-progress too. The Believing Game is how you get that first draft down. It’s that “yes, and” thing that people always understand intellectually about improv comedy but can never really bring themselves to do—because it means silencing the critic for a moment, and nurturing the seedling of an idea in its early form. Playing the Believing Game means thinking, for a short time, that the idea in your head might be the very best idea you’ve ever had—and if it were, what would be the best version of it? What are the things it could do? You play the game to let the little idea have a chance for a moment. You pretend that it could work, as a way of testing its power.

But what if it’s a bad idea, you ask? That’s for the Doubting Game to suss out. Few of us need to be taught how to do the doubting: You ask whether your claims really are the ones you think they are. You ask whether there might be ideas that seem like insight but are actually truisms or redundancies, and so on. You invite others, at key moments, to comb through the work and ask the hard questions. The game metaphor matters, crucially. You have to learn to start and stop each one. You play by its rules. You understand it as a suspension of other considerations for a time. Learn to play both, on repeat in series, and not at the same time.

Write a fake first page, two ways. I studied with a prolific historian who, at the outset of a new book project, would write a fake first page. You tell yourself: I don’t know what this book is really about, but if I did know, it would be about these [claims, central arguments, big-idea contributions]. The fake first page is made of fictions! But they’re useful. They scope the territory. They narrow the reading and research you’ll do, which will otherwise be truly endless. A fake first page gets the project running. And that first form is for the academic portion of the work, the thesis paper.

But you should also write a fake first page that is the introduction talk for your thesis presentation, assuming that there will be very smart but wholly uninformed attendees there. This fake page will be how you’d welcome folks to your idea, and it forces you to distill the heart of your work in plain language. Both kinds of pages matter. Your self-understanding of the work will grow dimensional and sharper when you cultivate these two languages. And if you won’t have that outside observer at your thesis presentation, take up that much-recommended mental model offered by writers for a long time: Think of being on a long train ride with a friendly stranger at your side, both of you gazing out the window.* What would you tell this companion about your work? Where would you start, and how would you make it the most vivid version of itself?

Write for and write against. Take your idea and test it in a couple of directions. Figuring out “what you think” about some idea can be hard in a vacuum. If you’re unclear what you’re writing for, think for a while in the against mode. As in: “Most people think that [common misconception about your topic], but the more interesting and urgent truth is that [key overlooked insight].” Identifying that common misconception—or misinterpretation, or lazy thinking, or some other unsatisfying treatment of knowledge—is a ground against which you can imagine your ideas taking shape. Or do the opposite. If you know the things you want to critique, ask yourself what the mode of criticism might argue for instead. These can also be just games—modes of stretching and elasticizing your ideas-in-progress to make them more pliable, more recognizable, and finally, more concrete. Or they might grow from the game to form some of your real text. But either way, they force you to think in terms of figure and ground, the ideas set on a backdrop so they come alive.

*Who is the writer who describes that train-ride technique? I can’t recall.