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On passion, imperfections, confessional writing and fears (re: dissertation goes to a printer)

[This has been in drafts for a while, so don’t be surprised with the date :)]

Following PhDs across the globe on Twitter helps to realise that the process and customs for a PhD differ between countries. For example, from what I understand in the US, dissertations are not published; a dissertation might be shared as unpublished version and/or converted into a book to be published. In the Netherlands PhD dissertations are usually published as books. The text is not adapted; instead, it’s formatted nicely and turned into a book with a cover and few extras.

So, my dissertation will be published too. Finishing it to be evaluated by the PhD committee was tough, but it did not feel definite, since I knew I could change a few minor things. I did not realise then that sending it to a printer is much scarier as it is definite: it will go public in that form.

The things that make it difficult are those that I should be comfortable with, given what I blog and I study blogging – passion, imperfections and confessional writing.


Historically dissertations in the Netherlands are accompanied by stellingen, propositions that sum up one’s PhD work. I always saw them as an outlet that reflects the author’s values/thinking/reflections in relation to the work done. I anticipated the pleasure of writing stellingen – as a legitimate part of the dissertation that would reflects my passions and my beliefs – and I even wrote the first version of “stellingen-to-be” in 2004.

To my surprise I did not feel like doing it when finishing my dissertation. Given that in Utrecht University, where I defend it, stellingen are not required as a formal part of the dissertation, I decided to go without stellingen.

I guess the main reason behind not writing something, which I view as a personal stance behind an academic work, is that I put all what I wanted to say in the stellingen in the dissertation itself. In that sense, the dissertation title “Passion at work: blogging practices of knowledge workers” reflects not only the content, but also the format of it: my own passions are present throughout the book, in the choices of topics, methods and ways to write about those.

It is scary to get that printed as a book: while being present as an author and confessional writing is normal and even desired in a weblog, this is not the case with most of the academic work. As a reader of confessional academic texts I know how helpful it is to see someone’s far-from-perfect work-in-progress, but it is scary to write such a text myself even if I believe that this is important.

Learning to show imperfections of my own research was a big part of the PhD process. In that respect I just loved the way Penelope Eckert puts it (in a “How I Write” conversation which is part of the series of conversations about writing with academics at Stanford University):

..the purpose of writing is not simply to tie a neat package around what was really frequently a very flawed process, but to actually discuss the flawed part of the process, because people can learn from that and I can learn from that, too.

She explains how it became part of her writing choices:

…one of the things that I am most concerned with in academics, because that’s where I live, is lack of confidence, insecurity. I was plagued by lack of confidence as a student and for years, and I know when my own students are plagued by lack of confidence; and the thing we learn to do in academics is to cover it up and act really cool. And when we do research we get—and when you teach—I remember as an assistant professor learning to act how I knew more than I did. And in research, learning how to make the final product look as if there had been no glitches beforehand, or as if everything had been done perfectly. And all that is doing is contributing to other people’s insecurity, and it doesn’t help mine because I know that I have been covering up.

Having been there myself I find it important to break the tradition and to make sure that I don’t add to other people insecurities by showing a polished version of my research. I try not to cover up in my dissertation, so it has a lots of traces of my passions and imperfections of what I did. But gosh, confessional writing is a scary thing to do, especially since doing it in an academic document is an art by itself (and I’m not sure that I mastered it :).

Well, the good thing is that the dissertation is out of my hands now. I can be scared as I want, but at least nothing could be done about it. And, hopefully, blogging about those fears helps someone else to get over theirs, pretty much as danah boyd‘s posts on sharing her dissertation online helped me to deal with my own.

danah in Taken Out of Context — my PhD dissertation

Knowing that I would share my dissertation publicly, I desperately wanted to create a perfect dissertation. Anyone who has been through this process knows how impossible that is. […]

There was a huge part of me that wanted to hole up and not share this document with you, for fear of your criticism. This is not a perfect document. Not even close. There are holes in my argument structure, problems with my description, and loads of places where I can’t help but smack my forehead at my simplicity and lack of depth. With all of its imperfections, there is one very important thing about this document: it is done. And by the end of the process, I accepted the age-old PhD mantra: the only good dissertation is a done dissertation.

and in licensing your dissertation under Creative Commons

Part way through my dissertation, I realized that I had never read a dissertation. I was surprised to find that very few people make their dissertations easily available. Why? In some senses, the diss is quite embarrassing. It’s imperfect. You’re sick of it. But there are huge advantages to making it available. At the very least, it allows future students to get a sense of what they should expect. (There was nothing more nerve-calming than realizing that my mentors’ dissertations were totally sloppy at points.)

I will share my dissertation online, very soon. It’s under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 (that’s another story of learning from danah and other PhDs who wrote about their experiences 🙂

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • cathy May 25, 2009, 15:16

    Thank you so much for writing this post, Lilia. I remember seeing one of your presentations in Umea, and being in awe of your skill and confidence. I am now in the throes of writing, and it does help enormously to read a post like this one.

  • Mónica May 27, 2009, 11:33

    Coming from you, it was something that I’ve never dream of. The self-confident Lilia image that I’ve built since the first time I «met» you on KBoard, later seeing how you where assertive in f2f gatherings, and the fearless way of how you questioned in your blog long time established academia way, made me even more fearful of not being cut to do it myself.

    Whenever I try to submit a paper, I always question my faults, the growing things I know that I don’t know about, and I keep postponing, going back to reading, search for more works that said it better… and come back looking to what I have… as a pale contribution to all the things that where already said much better by others. One thing I know, I am surrounded by great researcher models that have help built by expectations of what great research is all about.

    Today, as I read your words, I’m thinking about the impact you have had on more than my research and on my own quest to be a little bit more self-confident: transposing the fears of contributing to forums, learning it was ok to communicate in another language even if faulty, make my voice travel on blogging for serendipity discovery, having the opportunity to talk over things that I taught it were foolish and that became part of my own research topic, but above all, receiving your bits of encouragement just because you share it out loud, during all this years.

    Thank you

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