The thesis! It’s SO OVER!

It’s not perfect and I love it.

At long last. After an unexpected eighteen-month hiatus in the mid-twenty-teens, and then of course The Plague, I submitted my thesis on March 20, 2021.

“Occult Anorexia: The Unseen Forces of Anorexia Life-writing”

(More on that story later.)

I’d always heard that by the time I got to the point of submission, I would hate my thesis. I wouldn’t be able to look at it, I would be champing at the bit for it all to be over so I could move on to whatever new project had seized my attention. For whatever reason, I’m really happy to say that that didn’t happen, and still hasn’t. I really like my thesis! And as a person who has, at times, really really been stymied by perfectionism about my writing — and also insecure about either the smartness of my ideas or of their positive and faithful reception by others — that’s a fairly new feeling.

I passed my viva with minor corrections (I’m still waiting for the paperwork; it’s a busy moment for the research degrees office) and, actually, that alone has provided great reinforcement of some axioms I am trying to internalise: that perfection is impossible, that everybody makes mistakes, and that mistakes aren’t the same as failures. (Even as I write this my internal monologue persists in reminding me that several friends passed their vivas without corrections.) A younger Emma would not have been able to make “my thesis was not perfect” and “I like my thesis” exist in the same universe.

Here’s a truth: I always knew I was going to need to make amendments. My thesis was a fucking mess. It was full of typos. There were punctuation errors. There were missing words. There were whole chunks of paragraphs highlighted in red or annotated with CHANGE THIS BEFORE SUBMISSION or UGHHHH or some elaborate string of self-directed insults and reproachments about how this or that was phrased. There was even a sentence that stopped partway through, a whole paragraph thus bereft of its second, third, fourth and final acts.

Although I wish I could say that this was a deliberate move — a real-world, high-stakes perfectionism experiment of the sort practised in cognitive behavioural therapy — most of it was not strategy but oversight because I was rushing and I hadn’t noticed the mistake, or I had but still forgot to change it. Even so, there were some parts I knew were, er, sloppy and, though I had the time to fix them, I chose not to.

If only I were as self-assured as a move like that might imply: cool enough with imperfection to not bother with even basic quality control; confident enough in my ideas to think my examiners would happily overlook my errors and omissions simply because my writing was so innovative, so brilliant, so replete with verve and flair that conventions of both English grammar and academic comportment simply dissolve in its presence. I am not. I am not even devil-may-care. I’m still insecure! What that move allowed me to do was to eliminate the possibility of ever hoping to pass “perfectly,” thereby insulating my tiny, fragile ego from disappointment. It gave me a buffer for whatever flaws my examiners found, whatever problems they had with my research or how I had expressed myself. There was always going to be corrections to make, because I left the errors there: My “failure” to produce a flawless thesis was a choice I made.

What, why would you do that?!

I have a note on my wall that reads:

All good writing goes through drafts

Drafts allow your writing to improve

It’s something I really try to remember when I have difficulty putting words on a page. When I can, it has been really freeing.

My thesis was always a draft. As I sent the manuscript through on submission day, it was in the knowledge that that document was still a draft of the document that will end up in the library.

I always* knew I wanted the opportunity to change it based on the discussion I would have with my examiners: the questions they asked, the wisdom the offered, the criticisms and challenged they presented. I wanted to know what needed work: where my writing could be clearer, where my thinking had got tangled up in knots, or where my persistence in writing lists of three became tedious. Now I have that opportunity — and I have further opportunities to refine and clarify and polish and create as I adapt chapters to submit as articles, as I consider book proposals, etc. etc. etc. After all, academic research is not about having or producing an idea to sit on its own, merely to be consumed by others and received well or poorly (or sometimes “well” or “incorrectly”). Perception is relative. Insight is dynamic. What’s the point of an idea that can’t propel anything?

Isn’t that what we’re trying to do? To move something — thinking, people, the whole world — to new ideas, feelings, places or ways of being? Do any of us really want our work to be stagnant?

Maybe what I mean is that the perfect thesis (or article or book) is anathema to knowledge production. If knowledge is a garden — it’s about 3am now so I’m thinking with metaphors — it makes no sense to believe that the best academic research should be like some rare, perfect flower that is universally admired for its flawless beauty, but it doesn’t reproduce. No pollination. No self-seeding. No bulb hiding below the soil, waiting to offer up new flower for fresh, future eyes. If an idea warrants no response, what’s it for?

I think of academia — or my field, let’s say — as communal environment that is full of life and chatter and growth — a community garden (don’t roll your eyes) where we all can tend to the plants others have left, we can weed, we can plant our own seeds or transplant stuff in from elsewhere because it might looks better here, or serves some function to the landscape that was unknown until now. But it’s organic and ever-changing. There is no moment where it is “done”. It’s good, but it’s never “perfect” because perfection doesn’t allow change. Knowledge is a whole ecosystem, it’s alive!

(All of this is not, I really want to stress, meant to besmirch the correctionless theses and error-free manuscripts of the world as simulcra of knowledge (or as I would more usually say, “shit research”). I don’t mean it like that — I don’t mean that my error-laden and sometimes clumsily written thesis is super humble and truly relishes criticism and has really mastered that fucking growth mindset in a deeply enlightened way, while all the seamless passes and uncorrectable documents are lesser offerings betraying, i don’t know, the author’s stubborn arrogance, or the dead-endedness of their thinking. I don’t mean that at all! (Major congrats to anyone who passes their viva without corrections!))

What I really mean is that I have learnt that no piece of academic writing is ever perfect. If it were, it would be useless.

If knowledge is a garden, the “perfect” work of knowledge offers the ersatz fecundity of artificial grass lawns and plastic pot plants and silk flower displays. Looks great in summer, maybe, but increasingly wrong as the seasons change. Cannot withstand close-up scrutiny. Absolute headfuck for bees.

Having “the character of a country manor” is bad enough in its living form; thanks but no thanks to the replica model.

I think most of my peers learnt earlier in their careers than I did that perfectionism is a scam. The process of writing this thesis was one of three occasions where I have been able to loosen its grip over my creative thinking and expression and actually allow myself to enjoy the writing process. Except then, writing has always been torturous and painfully protracted (my PhD was too, for a long time). (Don’t confuse this next sentence for the most pathetic example of an attempted humblebrag you might ever witness, but…) I was utterly unable to produce academic writing without waiting until the very last second and doing it all in a mad panic, leaving no time to read through or even spellcheck, much less edit or — imagine?! — redraft. I have no idea how I was able to get away with it for as long as I did. It’s really no way to live.

So my thesis, requiring minor amendments, represents a personal victory and a moment of change. I’ve grown, man. I’ve redrafted my mind! Don’t care if it’s corny. Don’t care about typos in this middle-of-the-night thing. I can be smart and make mistakes and still be smart!

Best wishes and warmest regards,
Dr (with minor amendments) Emma Seaber

* For the record this is a big fat lie. Up until my return from hiatus I was paralysed by my mistaken belief that my thesis had to be perfect and nothing less would do. I couldn’t share my writing with my supervisor. (That would have been impossible, since I couldn’t even put words on the page.) I was so absolutely beholden to this controlling notion that my ideas must arrive fully formed, in complete and effortlessly elegant sentences, to the thesis that I was producing nothing at all. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to change this belief. Don’t ask me how — I’m no perfectionism hierophant.

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My first publication!

It’s here! It’s out! It’s open access! It’s got a DOI and everything!

My very first peer-reviewed article — “Reading Disorders: Pro-Eating Disorder Rhetoric and Anorexia Life-Writing” — is available now, to all comers, in the latest issue of Literature and Medicine. (Open access courtesy of the Wellcome Trust, huzzah!)

You can find it here: http://muse.jhu.edu/article/647766

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A PhD student? With impostor syndrome?

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Yeah. I know.

So last week I found out that my MSc dissertation (which I was writing this time last year, and was frankly having a much easier time with than I am having trying to grapple with my current thesis chapter…) has been shortlisted for a prize. Specifically, the Sunley Prize from the Howard League for Penal Reform. It’s very exciting.The prize, should I win, is not only a cool £1000 but also an additional line on my CV, the publication of the dissertation in a slightly more Howard League-friendly format than its current form, and a swank awards ceremony.

I’m not expecting to win. I’m surprised and honoured even to be shortlisted given how out of place (to me) my title feels compared to the others. This is perhaps side effect of the broad derogation of humanities from social science: all the others are “real” sociology/criminology/law dissertations whereas mine is “only” English/med hums. Any day of the week I will enthusiastically and ardently defend my discipline from anybody who would shit on it, so this other feeling is strange and hard to explain. Perhaps it’s just that, knowing how literary studies — and pop culture work in particular — can be so readily sneered at, I assume no awards panel would actually want to applaud some academic dilettante (that’s me)’s analysis of what most people might call a glorified soap opera watched by lesbians and chavs that hasn’t even been on TV for a decade when they otherwise give prizes to work on the experiences of foreign national women in UK prisons or prisoners’ emotional management strategies or the impact of motherhood on sentencing decisions in England and Wales (just a selection of previous winning dissertations).

When I’m not having a thesis crisis (cresis? thisis?), I usually feel okay about my stuff. In more reflective, circumspect and less anxious moments I can reassure myself that everything is fine, my achievements are deserved and more good things will happen in the future, too.

I obviously felt bold enough, and excited enough about my work, to bother entering the competition. I wrote the thing — pretty painlessly, too. I got a great mark for it. And then I wrote densely-packed blurbs explaining the importance and worthiness of it all. My supervisors supported that application. And here I am, shortlisted.

That’s sort of what’s supposed to happen, I guess.

Presumably the shortlisters felt my dissertation was as worthy as the others, or else it wouldn’t be up there with them, but I can’t help feeling like it’s all just someone’s terrible error. This isn’t really helped by the fact that Oxbridge is also rather over-represented on the shortlist, making up 60% of candidates’ affiliations, and with only me (King’s) and three others (Strathclyde, Middlesex and Manchester Metropolitan) left representing anywhere else. It just gives me a feeling that this is principally an award meant for “elite” students — and since I feel about as far from elite as it’s possible to be, so erupts the impostor syndrome.

This sort of writing is meant to end on a positive note, isn’t it? Unfortunately I don’t have the answers…

 

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So this is it.

I finally started a proper blog-website thing, instead of spilling little chunks of writing in random places on the Internet. This is probably going to be a mix of:

  • Thoughts about research/being a research student
  • Weird little interesting things about my research
  • Links to things I’ve written elsewhere
  • Conference write-ups, public engagement-y things, thoughts on AN-related news stuff
  • Occasional pictures of my dog.

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