Earlier this summer, my aunt and uncle took a mini-vacation to Houston and Galveston. My adorable 5-year-old cousin had never been to Moody Gardens in Galveston, and it had been a while since we last saw each other.
After dinner, we got to talking about graduate school and dissertations. Dad and Uncle compared notes on the number of times their advisers asked them to revise their work. Dad has always been proud of the brevity of his dissertation, which he pulled off our living room bookshelf. I had seen it before, but not since beginning grad school. I was more than a little impressed with the leather binding and the bookness of it. And, true, compared to the reams of paper stuffed under my couch cushions, between the pages of Byron’s collected works, and in my files, it was short. I should also mention that Dad is a scientist, and I’ve noticed that scientists have an uncanny ability to do away with the stuff and nonsense that fills most theory-based lit crit now-a-days.
Uncle commented that his thesis was longer, but not by much. His biggest pain while writing the diss was not the writing of it, but drawing the diagrams and figures that accompanied it. Once, he spent all night working on a building plan, only to have his toddler spill orange juice on it the next morning.
Nightmare scenarios aside, it seemed that their experience writing their dissertations was much different than mine has been so far. For one, they claim that they only had to revise their dissertations two or three times before the defense. True, I’m sure that they did more handwritten revisions in between their typed versions. But the expectations their advisers had for the diss were adjusted for the limitations of technology.
When Dad and Uncle gave a draft to their adviser, they had to recopy and type the entire thing. When I submit a new draft, all I have to do is print out another copy. When Uncle submitted his to the university, he had to make sure the copier was not at 90% or it would ruin the margins. I only have to adjust Word’s settings. They hired typists and asked their wives to type up their work. I only have to ask Husband where he hid the extra paper after our recent move.
Compared with the arduous task of creating a type-written document 40 or 50 years ago, I can revise with a fair amount of ease up to the last minute. And for my prospectus, that’s exactly what I did. I handed my advisor what I thought was the final draft a week before it was due (and only 2 days before I had to leave for MLA). I received an email that night telling me that there were a few more changes I needed to make before he would sign it. I’m happy he wanted my work to be the best it could be before we submitted it to the committee, but that level of attention left me staring at the ceiling during many sleepless nights wondering what else was wrong with my prospectus.
One of the professors in our department gave a presentation on turning a dissertation in a book, and said that in the late 80s, she did a search on her desktop computer for “dissertation” and swapped it for “book.” We had a good laugh before she told us how long it took her to do it because she had to write an algorithm to make this slight adjustment.
When we can now type and publish anything with the greatest of ease (often without editing it), we sometimes don’t think about the other side of the spectrum: how has technology changed the way we edit drafts? How does it change the way we write, and by extension, the way we think? Does it make us into perfectionists in search of a flawless copy? Or has it made our first drafts sloppy, so that our writing requires even more drafts?
What do you think?