Trolling Your Thesis

If you are a current or recovering academic, odds are good that you’ve already seen lol my thesis within the last month–and thanks to each and everyone one of you who linked to it.  Reducing years of research and pages of explication into one sentence = academic comedy gold. I’m delighted by the premise as a book pusher, since in addition to my seasonal task of writing appealing summaries of our new books in three paragraphs or less, I also boil that down into short copy of 350 characters (roughly 5o words). The short copy is public–it goes with the rest of the metadata to online trade partners and databases–but privately, we also write short catchy taglines to interest our sales reps in each title. The “lol my thesis” entries remind me of these: when you strip an argument of its jargon and shrink it down to its basic components, the result might be pleasingly direct and sharp, or laughable and absurd.

I like the science lol-theses best, because they are so much more straightforward. After years of research, their authors have found something new–or, alternately, something quite obvious, but at least it’s proven beyond reasonable doubt.

  • Bad puns are simple enough that a computer can make them up, but actually funny jokes are harder. Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh. [link]
  • Avoiding people has its mental health benefits. Clinical Psychology, University of the Philippines. [link]
  • “That’s surprising that the microorganism evolved when you put it in a difficult environment” said no one ever. Microbiology, University of Sydney. [link]

It’s a little harder to do pithy summaries of humanities and humanistic social sciences; our arguments tend to be made from excess verbiage, more rhetorics than empirics. But some good lol-theses are made by contradicting received wisdom or by going all meta on the project–two time-honored tools in the contemporary humanities toolkit!

  • It’s not selfish to be selfish. Philosophy, Whitman College. [link]
  • You can write a 120 page thesis on a 119 page book. English, University of Victoria. [link]

Some of them sound like studies I definitely want to read. And I imagine what the short copy for these theses would sound like if I rewrote their summaries with all the proper keywords and house style and whatnot. They would become more specific, searchable, and targeted to their audiences–but far less catchy! That is precisely why we write the secret internal-use-only handles for sales reps: we can’t publicly release summaries like these.

  • College professors don’t actually *teach* very well, except for the one teaching *this* class. Education, Brandman. [link]
  • There are thousands of ways to be a compatibilist, but there’s only one way to be a libertarian, and it’s the crazy way. Philosophy, University of Victoria. [link]

But many, many others are not quite funny. I do not wish to pick on specific examples, but you will know them when you see them: they are a little too long, usually. A little defensive, maybe, or trying too hard. Some of them straight-up humorlessly describe the thesis, or weakly inject humor by way of infantilizing or aggrandizing the project. I say this with utmost sympathy, but I’d wager that a survey would reveal the authors of the significantly-less-funny submissions to be currently or recently engaged in thesis-writing. It’s still a little too close for us them, a little too hard not to take it seriously, however much I they wish to play it cool. 

I get it. I really do. You know who else does? Matt Might, the author of The Illustrated Guide to a PhD.

With the utmost affection and sympathy, I like to revisit this comic with my publishing colleagues when, say, a scholar of a very obscure and little-read archive wants us to advertise their book in or send review copies to The New York Times. I wish I remembered more often to share it with my academic colleagues, too. This marvelous illustration depicts the process of education as a series of concentric circles, with each level of education taking you to the outer limit of knowledge in your specialized field. When you reach that limit, you dedicate your time and strength to pushing at the boundaries until you break through–making a discovery or argument or artwork that no one has made before! It can be exhilarating, and after all that time and energy spent at your task, all you can see is the place you’ve broken through. It looks huge, it looks like the whole world.

But compared to the rest of the world’s knowledge, that already known and that still waiting to be discovered, your breakthrough looks like this:

From An Illustrated Guide to a PhD

His message is: Keep on pushing. My takeaway is: Keep humble–and keep humor.

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