A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic
April 2, 2011 § 16 Comments
“It’s like ripples in a pond!” I exclaim over my grilled herb chicken. My director and I are at lunch at a local in-hotel Italian restaurant. The number of faculty and staff at this particular location right now is astounding–this must be the tastiest lunch deal within walking distance of campus. I’d tend to agree with them.
“Well, maybe for you it is…,” she says warily.
“I guess I have a great topic.” When she cocks her eyebrow and kind of laughs, I take it back. “Well…I have good ideas how to work on this topic. I guess I’m just worried that this topic is so huge, so unwieldy that I’ll get to the end of the dissertation and hear criticism because I didn’t talk about this point or apply my theory in that way. I’m scared of being judged for what could have been.”
“That’s fair,” she concedes. And then she pauses. I take a sip of my water realizing that I’m doing it again–rambling like a hyperactive child who discovered her mother’s sugary treat stash. “You need to come up with an elevator topic.” My eyebrows crease. “You don’t know about the elevator topic?” she asks, surprised she hasn’t already divulged this secret to me yet, over our six-year working relationship.
And, friends, that’s when my directing professor delivered the single-best advice I have ever been given. And now I will share it with you.
“The elevator topic…,” she says almost conspiratorially, leaning forward a little. “…is a method for distilling your entire dissertation argument into a single, concise sentence.”
Imagine you are at the MLA conference, the location for all humanities-related job interviews. You are in a hotel, preparing for one of your first market interviews. You’ve waited a while, and now you wait on the elevator. As the doors ding! open, another job-seeking-hopeful joins you and pleasantly engages you in conversation.
“So, what’s your dissertation about?” he asks, pushing the number 3.
You have three floors to offer the argument of a 200-page book.
What do you say?
I laugh, interrupting the magic of the moment, and say, “I’d end up having to hold the door open and would just annoy everyone.”
She laughs too. “Well, this is something you need to do. I’m concerned that your topic is attempting to do too much. Your dissertation will not be perfect. It just won’t. Even if you publish it, you will flip it open to the first page and locate an error immediately. You’ll realize that you meant to say it another way or that you should have developed your argument in a different direction. That’s the nature of a dissertation. If you focus on the perfect product that argues everything, you will never finish.”
The last four words she delivers ominously. I think the sky darkens outside the window as she speaks.
“So, an elevator topic, huh?” I ask when the sky lightens. “That is what I will devote my next 48 hours to. I will come up with an elevator topic.”
“Yes. And when you do, you need to write it down and put it on your fridge. Put it everywhere you will see it.”
After I left lunch, I felt inspired.
“V!” I probably blast off her ear when we’re on the phone. “I have this great idea. Professor Director told me about the elevator topic. Have you heard about it?” She hasn’t. I impart my newly-gained wisdom upon her. Once I finish, I say, “So I was thinking…if it’s something that should go on the fridge, it’s something that should fit on a small piece of paper, right? Like a Post-It Note!”
V knows where I’m going with this. “Oh my gosh, A.Hab., I love it!”
We agree that Saturday will be Post-It Note Argument Day. (It’s a lengthy title, but major projects deserve lengthy titles.)
This morning, V and I worked on and wrote our Post-It Note Arguments. We wrote them about four times (twice on Post-It notes, once on our notepads, and once on our laptops). We exchanged one of the two Post-It notes with our argument with each other, fully intending to help hold the other accountable for her concise argument.
I will speak for V when I say that we are relieved, better focused, and more motivated to incorporate these arguments throughout our dissertation chapters. V’s even going to apply this theory to individual chapter arguments in order to check that she is consistent from the beginning to the end of each chapter.
I’m thrilled. My first Post-It note argument draft was rough. V helped me see how it was too broad. She gave me a dose of honesty that I truly needed. My first draft, she said, read too much like a dissertation from a psychology student or a human sciences or evolutionary biology student. “Are you really going to be able to prove this by the end of your dissertation?” she asked. I shook my head. “And where’s Shakespeare?” I reworked it to include the words “select seventeenth century texts” and reevaluated my end-goal…and now I’m happy. Because my chapters are working toward this argument. I just now need to make sure I state it clearly throughout the dissertation in a way that won’t leave my readers wondering why they’re receiving a specific anecdote.
So, here’s the moral of the story:
When in doubt, write it out…on a Post-It note!