Image: Kevin Van Aelst
Graduate school, especially in the humanities, perpetuates the myth of the solitary genius. Laboring over your dissertation, you become the great writer scratching out a manuscript in a musty garret by the flickering light of a lone candle. After years of toil, you emerge with an opus shot through with penetrating insights. Blinking in the sunlight, you carry the prize to a printer who publishes it to generations of acclaim.
Absurd? Sure. But it’s a powerful myth that has a lasting hold over graduate students — and former graduate students. The glorification of solitary labor permeates the imaginary ideal of scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Your dissertation is your own work of expertise, your own plot in the great intellectual firmament. And you write it by yourself.
Here’s the trouble: It just ain’t so.
Writing is collaborative, and scholarly writing especially so. In the acknowledgements pages of scholarly books, you can see the writer thanking not only librarians and archivists, but also — and crucially — the people who have been reading drafts all along, making suggestions, editing, shaping. The person whose name is on the spine does the largest part of the work, but others share in the labor.
When I teach dissertation writing to my graduate students, I try to emphasize the collaborative element. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is to bring students together into a dissertation group and encourage them to meet regularly and work with one another. A dissertation group brings many benefits, starting with the way the group creates socially enforced deadlines that keep students writing. At the same time, the group helps me as an adviser, since the regular meetings help me keep tabs on how various students are progressing, and check in on them informally. A graduate student who is working at a regular clip is one less thing an adviser has to worry about. More important, when a student writes regularly, it usually leads to a better dissertation, since there are more opportunities for feedback along the way.
Here’s how it works in my case: My students and I convene each month during the school year, at someone’s house or in a conference room on the campus. There’s always food, the great social mastic. I aim for dinner, but sometimes it’s lunch or an afternoon snack. Sometimes we hold a potluck — which I prefer, since it’s another kind of collaboration — but there are days when practical demands lead us to choose pizza or deli sandwiches.
A week ahead of the meeting, two dissertators send out chapter drafts for everyone to read in advance. Once we’ve eaten (and perhaps had a glass of wine), the writers briefly introduce their work, usually to spotlight particular questions for the group. Then we discuss it. Afterward, everyone gives the writer written comments they’ve prepared. The writer goes home with research leads, micro and macro questions to tackle, copyedits — and, usually, inspiration.
And I usually get inspired, too. My students invariably point me to ideas I haven’t seen when they respond to their peers’ writing, and their suggestions for improvement are sometimes better than the ones I bring to the meeting. They’re good teachers, and I learn from them regularly. Their comments enrich the written responses I send to the writers afterward.
I claim no credit for inventing the idea of dissertation groups. I cheerfully confess that I stole it. An undergraduate I taught many years ago went on to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked with Catherine Gallagher, a professor of English there until her 2012 retirement. He told me how Gallagher would convene her dissertation students at her house to share work in progress over potluck suppers.
All good teachers are magpies. In this case, I recognized a valuable idea when I saw it, and adapted it for my own use.
But Gallagher didn’t hatch the concept, either. Graduate students — like writers of all stripes — share writing with each other all the time, sometimes informally, sometimes in organized writing groups.
Yet Gallagher’s pedagogical use of writing groups in graduate school was unusual enough for it to attract my attention years ago. That’s because graduate advisers often fuel the myth of the solitary writer by failing to practice anything akin to Gallagher’s meet-ups.
My point is that collaboration ought to be an explicit part of graduate teaching, and especially dissertation direction. For graduate students in the bench sciences, it already is. They work together in laboratories, and their writing culture assumes that publication is the work of many hands. Multiple authorship is the norm in the sciences.
Graduate students in nonscience fields readily and collegially accommodate each other, but they don’t have experience working on teams and aren’t used to such formal collaboration. Perhaps they’ve bought into the myth that their dissertation should be the product of solitary genius, or maybe they just aren’t asked to work together often enough — or both.
Dissertation working groups help them to see their scholarship as something they can and should do together, cooperatively.
Maybe you don’t have enough advisees to form a group. (As my department admits smaller cohorts of doctoral students, I expect to face that situation myself before too long.) In that case, consider banding together with colleagues and their advisees to achieve critical mass.
You needn’t limit yourself to your own institution, either. Look to the example of how full-fledged professors do research: They collaborate with colleagues at other institutions. I offer only one caution: Don’t let the group grow too large. You don’t want it to become unwieldy, or worse, impersonal. The rule of thumb for how many members is too many depends on you: If you can’t give personal attention to each member, then your dissertation group has grown too big.
It’s worth the time and effort to organize dissertation groups, because at their best, the group’s ties go beyond cooperation to create community. One of my former dissertation students, Jane van Slembrouck, wrote about our dissertation group in an article about the intersection of the professional and the personal in graduate school (published in a 2015 edited volume, The Mentoring Continuum: From Graduate School Through Tenure. "The group meetings," she wrote, "have been an education in academic writing, but they’ve also become an important part of my social life." That comment meant a lot to me, because it showed me that my teaching could improve my students’ lives, not just their intellects.
I meet with my advisees individually, of course, but many of them have told me over the years that the group is what got them through their dissertations. Working with one another is what they remember me by — and that’s fine with me.