Why I’m Making People Rewrite their Dissertations
A defense of academic modesty

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 9 February 2023

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I’ve been on a bunch of dissertation committees lately, where I’m finding myself to be the tough guy—the last holdout refusing to approve the document. It’s a weird feeling because I don’t really consider myself an academic, much less a rigorous one. I do know some stuff, I wrote a dissertation, I have a PhD, and I’m even a “full” professor at a real university. But I’ve always seen myself as more of a writer, thinker, or even artist than a full-fledged professional scholar. (And I have plenty of colleagues who like to remind me that they feel the same way about me and my oeuvre!)

Yet when I am on a dissertation committee, I find myself filled with a sense of commitment to the project of humanity’s collective scholarship. There is something special about academic writing, precisely because it is academic. It is not “professional” writing in the sense that it does not have to be commercial or acceptable to our emotional sensibilities, the political climate, or the marketplace. It just has to be supported. And rigorous. That’s the whole point of this genre of writing, or discipline of study. Because it’s “only” academic, it is both free to tell the truth and obligated to tell the truth as far as we know it.

That’s the operative phrase for me as the dissertation gatekeeper: as far as we know it. The object of the game in academic writing is to assert only what you can prove. All that stuff that looks like hemming and hawing? All those exceptions and caveats that academics make? That’s called academic modesty: assert nothing more than what you have actually proven. And trust me, proving one teeny little thing is a really big deal, particularly in a field where a whole lot of research and thinking has already been done. If you figure out one teeny little new thing about Cervantes, squirrels or squamous cells, it’s a really big deal.

Too much of the academic writing I’m coming across these days seems unsatisfied with these necessary limitations of the form. Sometimes it’s because the student is hoping to publish the piece as a book, so they are already trying to appeal to broader audiences by softening their arguments (thus creating ambiguities); trying to make their document more commercial by dispensing with factual evidence (thus eroding support), or trying to come off as more original by neglecting to acknowledge influences (thus removing the work from its scholarly context). Whatever the reasons, the scholar ends up disarmed and defenseless on the battlefield.

So, perhaps uncharacteristically for a softy like me, I’m getting tough on them. This isn’t because I want them to proceed through some gauntlet like I did. (And yes, my advisors were tough with me. Eight years tough.) It’s because I want them to get the value of the dissertation experience. We on the approving committee are not bestowing the emerging scholar with a symbol or a degree, or investing them with an institutional imprimatur. Rather, we are attempting to arm them for future battles in a particularly contentious environment. This is the essence and reward of the dissertation process.

We can think of approving a PhD as if we are giving the young scholar a sword and a shield. The sword is critical, unbiased thinking: the ability to separate one’s arguments from one’s own underlying assumptions, and to attack the inconsistent thoughts and ideas of others cleanly and without prejudice. The shield is knowledge and expertise of the rest of the critical work in their field. It’s their familiarity and facility with the other scholars who have worked in these areas before. Alone, the new scholar is vulnerable to attack; by recognizing the body of research supporting one’s assertions (or leading up to them), they become unassailable. All those other scholars, living and dead, are standing behind them.

So for instance, if you are doing an ethnographic study, we want to know what kind of ethnographic study you are doing. Where is it situated in the field of ethnography? Whose methodology do you embrace for this project, and whose do you reject? Why is the ethnographic methodology you have chosen the right one, and what are the limits to this method that you recognize from the outset? Your shield, in this case, is your expertise of the field of ethnography, and your recognition of the potential limits of the methodology. This “throat clearing” protects you from the accusation that you just spoke with a bunch of people and spitballed your assessments.

Or if you are going to assert a definition of something, you are vulnerable if you don’t base it on (or at least acknowledge) the significant body of scholarship defining and redefining that thing already. We need to know that you are familiar with this literature, and aware of your positioning within it. All those allied scholars then come to your aid, even if they’re no longer alive.

In other words, the dissertation should not be a demonstration of one’s experience so much as their expertise. It’s not just that you got access to a fascinating subject, or thought about something for a while — however intensely. A great book can come out of such access and meditation, indeed; but a dissertation expects one to grasp and engage with the scholarly literature around their researched experience.

The danger of not exploring the literature around assertions is that one ends up attacking without a shield. If they seem ignorant or oblivious to the major thinking in their area, or they make an assertion that is contrary to accepted thought without acknowledging that it is, then they have no protection. No defense. And once the reader is doubting claims in the area with which they are familiar, it undermines their trust in the areas with which they are not.

A beauty of academic writing is that you get to use a whole lot of reading and research to say very little. From a labor standpoint, it’s a great deal: you get to read books and interview people and do research for years, as long as you say something true about all of it at the end. Just push a pseudopod in a new direction. Or pose a hypothesis that turns out to be wrong! Proving yourself wrong counts just as much as proving yourself true. You provide the world with evidence that you’ve hit a dead end, and no one else has to waste their time by going down that path.

For me anyway, the power of academic inquiry is that it is about process over product. It is a way of doing things. Like ballet, culinary arts, or Zen archery. It’s the discipline to extend the existing tapestry of human thought, and to pull out someone else’s row of stitches only when you’re truly certain they need to be redone.