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.

Words and Pain: two poems by Miroslav Holub

This post is modified from the original on Peachleaves.

When I was teaching an introductory literature course organized around the concepts of comedy and tragedy, one of my toughest sells was that it is possible–desirable, sometimes–to take apart a joke to see what makes it funny. Thinking critically about humor really brought home the overarching point of my course–which was that language is instrumental in constructing how we understand the world, and that while we surely do construct sentences and create meaning, sometimes the meaning is already there before we get there, meaning all kinds of things above and beyond what it sounds like. (Undergrads hate this, at first.  “Aren’t we reading too much into it?” they plead.  Once they start noticing patterns themselves, they’re all over it.)

And yet it’s even harder to break down the perception of the tragic. Our impulse to laugh that feels so instinctual that we resist breaking it down into smaller parts, but it’s easy enough to get a roomful of undergrads to giggle and then to talk about how it’s done. It’s rather less desirable to lead them into a bodily experience of sadness or pain.

Around that time, I was scanning a book about modern drama and came across this beautiful poem, used to illustrate a point about the difference between the way we understand language in novels vs. plays. The title is translated as “Brief Reflection on the Word Pain,” by Miroslav Holub, a Czech immunologist who also publishes poetry.

Wittgenstein says the words ‘It hurts’ have replaced
tears and cries of pain.  The word ‘Pain’
does not describe the expression of pain but replaces it.
Replaces and displaces it.
Thus it creates a new behavior pattern
in the case of pain.

The word comes between us and the pain
like a pretence of silence.
It is a silencing.  It is a needle
unpicking the stitch
between blood and clay.

I sought out Holub’s collection, Vanishing Lung Syndrome, much of which continues to play on the tension between scientific knowledge and visceral knowledge, and between the metaphors of language and the metaphors of (yeah, I said it!) science.  This is the first poem in the volume, called “1751.”

   That year Diderot began to publish his Encyclopedia, and the first
insane asylum was founded in London.
So the counting out began, to separate the sane, who veil themselves
in words, from the insane, who rip feathers from their bodies.

Poets had to learn tightrope-walking.
And just to make sure, officious dimwits began to publish
instructions on how to be normal.

Maybe we teach it to them

This post was originally published at Peachleaves blog

This article has been making the rounds of my Facebook peer group.  It’s a thoughtful piece that puts a lot of effort into describing the conditions and causes of the current graduate school dilemma.  I don’t think I agree with his conclusions (though I certainly haven’t any better ideas) but the initial attraction for me was encapsulated in the last lines of the second paragraph:  “Go [to grad school] if you feel that your happiness depends on it—it can be a great experience in many ways—but be aware of what you’re in for. You’re going to be in school for at least seven years, probably more like nine, and there’s a very good chance that you won’t get a job at the end of it.”

It’s relieving, though sad, so see that written out so baldly.  Unless you have friends or relatives who have completed a PhD – and sometimes even then, since the landscape seems to have changed greatly in recent decades – you really have no way of knowing what the whole shenanigan is going to be like.  (I remember, upon receiving my acceptance and a sweet phone call from the then-department head, asking her whether she thought I could complete the program in three years.  LOLFOREVER.)  And your civilian peers don’t really have a way to know either.  As I’ve progressed through several stages and phases of interviews and employment since informally leaving academia, I’ve encountered seemingly limitless disbelief that anyone could leave the soft cushion and certain future of the ivory tower.

It’s hard to explain without sounding bitter.

I have frequently said in conversation – maybe I’ve said it here, too – that I think our undergrad students suffer simultaneously from tragically low self-esteem and just as tragically inflated self-entitlement.  There are always exceptions, but generally the  students who complain that meeting the basic requirement will only earn a C grade are the same students who believe themselves fundamentally incapable of doing better work.  I don’t usually see this as laziness or ignorance,  but as a failure on the part of some system, somewhere. . . some grand narrative is slithering through secondary schools, whispering to students that they deserve exceptional treatment but cannot do exceptional work.   I think so because of numerous lessons and conferences in which I had the opportunity to see a student light up, pleased and surprised and embarrassed that their own analytical powers brought them to know something they didn’t already know.

But with my poorly informed expectations laid in front of me by that article opener, I can see how much my own peers and I labor under those same twin limitations.  I mean, what but arrogance can buoy the assumption that years of labor will garner us grants or jobs or prestige, even as repeated rejection and experience deflates and defers those hopes?  And who is more self-abasing than a graduate student, who continues to reapply under the assumption that last time, the work just wasn’t refined enough, the transformation into Desirable Candidate not yet complete?

Intellect Does Not Exclude Empathy

This post was originally published on Peachleaves.

One of my jobs is to read papers written by senior English majors for their capstone seminars, and apply to them a rigorous rubric intended to judge how well (or if) these seniors have received the kind of training our department would like to give them.  The papers are widely varied; this week I read as many fabulous papers about Nabokov’s Lolita as completely abysmal and demoralizing ones.

But one of the fabulous papers made me smile broadly, because the author pointed out that Humbert Humbert’s character is doubly a seducer: he engineers his “romance” with Lolita, but he also cajoles and flatters the reader into seeing from his perspective.  Therefore, if readers who conclude from this story that Humbert is a victim of love, ravaged by a vicious little girl’s wiles – and many well-known critics have indeed argued – then those readers have been hoodwinked.

This paper brought to mind a particular afternoon I spent studying in a coffee shop.  The barista had a copy of Lolita ostentatiously planted on the countertop, inviting customers to comment.  I did not ask what he thought of it.  The next customer did, and the barista replied “I think it’s hilarious.”

In places, it is.  Or at least, it solicits humor.  It is frequently bombastic, occasionally charming, and yes, seductive.  But to read it only for these qualities is to miss a lot of the point.  I rankled when the barista made this pronouncement, but I didn’t get into a discussion about it.  I fully expected I would be told that I was taking a delicious literary classic too seriously.

And I have wonder, why is it that the argument with the least emotional power wins?  Why is it that the so-called rational reading is the one that reads only for humor, and not for empathy?  What is the point of reading, anyway, if not to identify keenly with another voice – even, in the case of Lolita, a submerged and suppressed voice?

Sometimes I think that teaching empathy is a form of activism.  Reading closely and reading completely does not preclude reading with feeling.  My Intro Lit class this semester, as a group, seems to have a grip on that – they felt very sorry for the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” very much more so than I suspect Flannery O’Conner did, but I admire their apparent instinct to identify with other human beings.