At first, I thought dissertation introductions were a theory dumping ground, a heaping pile of “here’s all my theory so you don’t have to deal with it later on in the other chapters” served with a “this is what my dissertation is about, in a nutshell, but also here’s the theory of my dissertation.”
And at first, that’s what I wrote. It was only until last week, 4-6, revisions later (and these revisions were all pretty major), that I finally figured out what my introduction is supposed to be and does. Last week was also when my supervisor and I were both happy with the introduction. So, I thought to reflect on and share this process because dissertations are a strange thing that, typically, only get written once, and dissertation introductions are an even stranger thing (see Stranger Things 7) for this very reason.
The First Draft is the Worstest (but goes a long way). Despite all of my advice to undergrads, I wrote my introduction first before all other chapters (there are 4, not including the Conclusion). Despite this introduction being absolutely horrid and an absolute garbage dump of theory, it was actually kinda necessary for me to get a handle of the theory and be comfortable with it.
This first draft of the introduction is full of jargon, but I wrote it so I wouldn’t have to deal with the jargon later on and in the final edits of the new and final-ish introduction. From what I remember of this draft, it is largely organized into “Community Theory,” “Affect Theory,” and this weird category of “media studies and auto/biography theory” (perhaps it was the “automedia” category). In short, it was all show off-y theory ramblings. These were introduced with some context for my project, taken from my proposal introduction, and had the chapter summaries, also taken from my proposal.
So, basically, this first draft was my proposal as the buns, and the theory as my hamburger patties + ALL OF THE CONDIMENTS AND TOPPINGS + MORE PATTIES. Yeah, it was mess. But then, I just shoved it to the side and wrote comfortably about affect and community without worrying about explaining everything. The weight of “I have to explain x + y+ z of this theory and include all 10 theorists debating A” was off my shoulders, and I was getting an idea of what I found the most important aspects about whichever theory as I was working through the dissertation.
3rd times a charm…for a better direction. By the second or third draft, my supervisor made a list of all of the theoretical jargon or jargony words/key terms in my introduction.
I had over 30.
My task: define each of these words/key terms and argue why they are relevant to my dissertation. Then, remove the ones that aren’t important. Draw connections between certain terms, group related terms together, and figure out a way to introduce these terms up front and not near the end of the introduction or in a constant stream of never-ending new key terms.
My other task: Be more clear about your dissertation: Why this radio and internet comparison, why Stein and Wallace? Why these research creation projects? Is it research creation? Critical media projects? etc.
For my “other task,” I used a recent New Yorker article that was a comparative think piece on radio and recent internet controversies, especially around their so-called “democratic revolution” of the internet, which was perfect for introducing my dissertation that narrows in on these debates. Yet, I half-committed to this, and despite having other sources that made the comparison between radio and the internet, those stayed in my notebook. And I still had trouble with my first task. Granted, it was great to get rid of some key terms, and to try introducing these earlier. But I struggled with making these two tasks work in concert: to define key terms alongside describing my dissertation.
But what was important for this draft was identifying the key terms of my dissertation, and to start really thinking of these terms in conjunction with my dissertation and the arguments of my dissertation. Basically, I was clearing out the rubble of the theory dump and started to see the introduction as part of my dissertation. Did I make all of the charts and tree graphs and define all of those thirty terms? Er, not entirely. I gave up midway through the process, but that’s because going through with this process immediately pointed to where I needed to go.
The 5th Element. By the 5th or 6th revision, I think I figured it out. But I took major editorial risks that had me anxious AF when handing it over. While the previous draft was in better shape, a shape that could’ve been “acceptable,” my supervisor pushed me to address the main problems of the previous drafts. By this draft, I no longer was thinking of the introduction as a theory dump. In fact, I didn’t really have theory in mind. I stripped away a lot of theory. I just wanted to introduce my dissertation.
The idea that drove these revisions was thinking of the introduction as setting up the context and being clear of situating the argument within that context. The theory was more contextual to my arguments and/or contextualized by my arguments; the key terms were more or less whittled down to under 10, and they were introduced within the 10 pages of my introduction by being pulled out from that New Yorker article I used to set up my introduction as a hook; the New Yorker article wasn’t alone, but was now joined by a bunch of articles that compare the internet and radio and similar rhetoric from early radio and early internet days; and I defined my approach as media archeological to justify my juggling of media, critical media projects, literature, and rhetoric. Here’s a snippet from introduction:
In my dissertation, I compare Modernist imaginations and applications of early radio with Late Postmodernist imaginations and applications of the early internet. My inclusion of literature is both a techno-cultural barometer and an intervention in debates about these media to ask questions of democratic participation, community, and identity formation. My method is media archeological, as my juxtapositions are archeological “cuts” to critique techno-determinist notions of technological progress and interrogate the shared protocols (cultural and technological) of radio and the internet (See Zielinski 7; Emerson xiii).
I quite enjoyed writing that sentence. And a whole lot of other sentences I enjoyed writing because my mindset is “I’m not explaining theory, I’m explaining my dissertation.” The major key terms driving the introduction is “democratic participation, community, and identity formation,” and I stuck closely to those throughout, these being mentioned right from the get-go. Affect comes in, but is importantly linked to community, the affect of community, and is less about affect theory. Auto/biography is there, but is connected to Stein’s and Wallace’s concepts of “democratic participation” and “identity formation” (and “community”). In short, if I threw in any other key terms that needed to be mentioned, they looped back to either all three of these terms or at least one of them.
Out of the dump, and into the garden. The first 9 pages introduces all of the key terms, and defines them in context of the dissertation’s topics. The remaining pages afterwards is expanding upon those terms and giving some further context, followed by the chapter summaries, which remained more or less untouched (yes, nearly untouched since the proposal days!). There’s still theory in there, but as noted above, it’s contextualized by my dissertation and its arguments.
Here’s my garden, now let’s move through it at a leisurely pace and take a closer look.
Or something like that.
By the end of writing this, I had a better sense of how to articulate my dissertation; I understood my dissertation in a different light. I know that is weird (“shouldn’t you know what your dissertation is?”), but it’s true: I understood my dissertation better. It’s a “oh, I was doing this all along!” Writing something for 2+ years, you can kinda lose focus of the whole dissertation – you understand the parts you worked on so closely throughout those years, but when you have to step back and introduce the whole thing, you have to really think of how all those parts work together.
And, to quote Ziggy Stardust, “it ain’t easy.”
But I had some help from my supervisor, who gave me her dissertation introduction to read. I don’t know if this will work for everyone because, eerily enough, our dissertation introductions do similar stuff, but looking at dissertation intros is a huge help. And a good place to start may be your supervisor’s!
So, now the dissertation is all in one document. I’ve sent it off to the committee to have them look it over one more time. The end is in sight. And I am confident that the re-writing of the introduction over and over again will better prepare me for the defence.