Why Dissertations Should Be Monographs

Before I left for Maine I spent some time going through my late dissertation advisor's books (let's call him M). His partner told me to take whatever I wanted, and I suggested I could pick out one or two things for some of his other students, too. So I've been trying to do that; trying, that is, to find books that relate to people's interests without being books they must already have. I'm sure they'll be happy to have something of M's whether or not they already have it, but, of course, I also want everything to be perfect.

It's been two and a half years since M died, and I can see why his partner hasn't summoned the courage to finish off this task himself; it's really wrenching, with M's annotations and post-it notes, not to mention the organizational system that suggests the workings of his mind, the topics to which he returned again and again, the new directions he might have gone in.

I've come across some books M had once recommended to me, and others I discovered on my own but wish I'd had a chance to talk with him about. I'm reminded of myself, early in graduate school, convinced I didn't have anything to learn from anyone, and how with that attitude I did myself both a service (enabling me to be rather ambitious) and a disservice (not realizing how much I could learn from someone who wouldn't, in fact, be around much longer).

I can trace elements of my own intellectual genealogy in these books -- the things I was learning that I didn't realize I was learning. And I can trace the ghostly elements of that genealogy that didn't come into being. I came across an article in an issue of Yale French Studies, that I really, really should have seen before I turned in my book manuscript a few weeks ago. The first thing that came to mind, rather absurdly, is that there's a reason why dissertations all used to be (and, in art history, mostly still are) monographic. It's possible, or maybe it was once, to read everything ever written about a clearly-defined topic (say, one artist's production in one decade of his -- usually his -- life), and thus save yourself the embarrassment of not having read something you really should have. You can't possibly know everything written about every aspect of a sprawling topic.

I wouldn't change my topic (or if I would, it wouldn't be to make it less sprawling). But I wish I could have asked M to read my manuscript and have him tell me "there's this article in YFS you should look at..." Not because it would have saved me the embarrassment of publishing the book without reading the article. It's that co-conspiratorial pleasure in a rarefied scholarly article that any scholar can only have with a few people in her life. If I'm more cynical about the value of such pleasures now, it might be because one of these links is broken forever.


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