Sunday, 22 April 2012

Can a PhD thesis save the world?

Today is twenty-four years since I defended my PhD. Not quite a quarter of a century, but close enough.

I always tell my students that they need to write their thesis as if they wanted to save the world. Because if you don't believe in what you are doing, who will?

My PhD thesis was my third attempt. I certainly believed that my first one would make a significant contribution to linguistics, and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about my second one, on Norwegian film, but it was a topic I was allowed to pursue at the time. Both projects were interrupted by external circumstances, and I have never regretted it. In my final and successful thesis I was doing what I had always wanted to do, and I truly believed it would make a difference. Fantasy was just beginning to become a hot research topic, after years and years of studies about dysfunctional families and teen pregnancies in children's books. In fact, the very year I moved to Sweden, the first academic study of fantasy was published in Swedish, which made me desperate until I read it and could state that it did something radically different from what I wanted to do and that I could still save the world. My thesis was indeed different from what was habitual in Sweden at the time, which was a very narrow, very concrete and specific topic of the type “The portrayal of XX in two early poems by YY”. I looked at two hundred and fifty texts and tried to make inferences from them. I wanted a taxonomy, a paradigm, a structural poetics. I wanted my work to become as famous as Propp's Morphology of the Folktale.

Looking back at it, I see its flaws – it was after all an apprentice's work, not the crown of a scholar's career. But it was not worse than most other doctoral theses and perhaps better than many. It was published as a book and had sold steadily for twenty years until the publisher gave me the remaining forty copies some years ago. It means that it has sold just under a thousand copies. I still get inquiries from libraries and colleagues and students. I always ask: Why do you want it? It is out of date, it wasn't brilliant to begin with (although I thought it was at the time), I have published so many better books since then. And yet people insist that it is very important, and some even claim that it is indispensable. I have never seen any colleague or student use my central concept of the fantaseme, the smallest identifiable element of a fantasy text, coined in analogy with mytheme. I haven't even seen my particular employment of Mikhail Bakhtin's chronotope reflected in any studies. I have no idea what people find useful. Not a catalogue of two hundred and fifty texts, I hope. There are annotated bibliographies for that purpose. Yet somewhere out there, in university libraries and in people's bookshelves, almost a thousand copies of my book are making their humble impact.


Anonymous said...

What did I find useful... When I was writing my own PhD
1. You can do literary research using a corpus (I'd not seen that before).
2. Establishing big patterns across a corpus may seem like stating the obvious, but if no-one has done it then you can't back up your hunches.
3. PhDs can be easy to read books. They don't have to put so much theory up front in difficult language that no-one outside the discipline has a clue what they are saying.
4. You can publish a PhD as a real book if you organize it like a book.

Since my PhD
1. I've used it to back up the things that sound like hunches so that I can draw quick generalizations and then get down to the real business I want to discuss.
2. I've had the courage to work with a corpus.

but most usefully... I learned that you don't need to be defined by your PhD. It's just a stepping stone and then you can disappear off and do your own thing.


Maria Brown said...

Now is the year that your thesis is a quarter of a century, and I agree with you that people should start treating thesis as they wanted to save the world. Anyway, I hope you posted the link to your paper, or a thesis abstract sample for us to read what your paper was all about. Even though computer was not that popular in those days, maybe it would be hard to publish it online.