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!

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§ 16 Responses to A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic

  • Lisa says:

    I humbly request that you e-mail me a copy of your post-it note.

    Your long distance supporter, Lisa K. Ph.D. πŸ˜‰

  • Dana says:

    To be honest, I’m surprised that it took your supervisor 6 years to let you in on this little gem! πŸ˜‰ During my Master’s Degree, that was probably the first thing my supervisor ever said to me, and any time I tried to bring in a world’s worth of supporting evidence during our conversations, she would gently coax me back to my One Sentence.

    During your defense, yes– you might get asked about this Other Body of Research or that Other Body of Research. All you have to do is acknowledge that those bodies exist, that you’re aware of them, but that your purpose was to do ‘x’ [insert your brilliant post-it note argument] and not ‘y’. Works like a charm, and this way you don’t have to keep carrying an impossible burden of Too Much Information on your shoulders.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Oh, Dana…my MA defense was a horror story. I wasn’t just asked about the Other Body of Research, but one of my committee members actually accused me of not even KNOWING that the Other Body of Research existed! I was so shocked; I couldn’t even talk. My director (who happens to be the same one who’s directing my dissertation–she’s awesome) had to sort of “rescue” me and make the other committee member rephrase his statement into the form of a question. It was awful. He refused to sign the approval form right away. I have nightmares about that defense still. I’m just dreading a repeat of this scenario in August…here’s hoping I cover all my bases (or properly allude to them at least) and don’t get raked over the coals again!

  • Melissa Pojasek says:

    I. LOVE. THIS.

    I am always struggling to answer the question, “So…. what is your dissertation about?” It is so clear inside my brain, but that clarity never makes it out of my mouth…. so maybe a Post-It will help! πŸ™‚

    • Mrs. H. says:

      It certainly can’t hurt! πŸ™‚ I’ve already started seeing the benefits of being able to clearly state my argument in the space of a Post-It note. (And welcome to the blog, too! :))

  • AMo says:

    haha excellent!! I always called that the ‘book jacket blurb’, but elevator topic works really well, too! Glad you discovered this secret! Can’t wait to see you Wed! πŸ˜€

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Hehehe, I guess at this point it’s just a matter of semantics, right? Doesn’t matter what you call it, as long as it gets the job done! πŸ˜‰ (Hooray for Wednesday!!!)

  • petthedog says:

    Sweet relief and multiple post-its! YES! It was actually kind of fun working on them together. It really helped!

    Yes, world, we have dissertation topics, and they fit on post-its.

  • Tori Nelson says:

    I’m with Lisa. I think we need a Post It Post to read!

  • […] A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic » […]

  • Excellent post, and I, too, want to see the post-it note! You must share! It this what’s in the protected post? Would you email me the password?
    Kathy

  • […] You’re already familiar with the concept behind this little beauty, so I won’t go into greater detail here. If you need a refresher on the theory behind the Post-It note argument, please feel free to go back and read, “A Post-It Note Argument: a cure for the common ever-expanding diss topic.” […]

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