Reassess the Diss

I’m in the midst of a four-day faculty writing retreat. Seven hours each day of camping out in a conference room on campus, with 19 colleagues from various disciplines, and a middling catered lunch every day. Sounds glamorous, right?

We’re all working on research projects in various states of completing, but most of us are at the stage of editing and revising articles, manuscripts, conference presentations, etc. I’m working on revising my book proposal packet: I had interest from a publisher, and they asked for some light revisions before it goes to external reviewers. It is by no means accepted or legitimately ready for a publisher to work with. This just means my topic generated a bit of interest–which is way better than an outright rejection, which I’ve already had twice over.

My manuscript is my dissertation, and the process of revising it to both make it, well, better and more suited for a wide audience is challenging. I am nearly finished with my revisions, and I’ve discovered two things during this retreat that I’ve been mulling over and want to unpack a bit.

1) I recommitted to this blog in 2016 as a way to work on research topics and stay connected to a regular writing schedule. Thus far, success on both counts! But I quickly realized that writing this blog has been a great opportunity to work on explaining topics in a non-academic writing style. Whether or not anyone actually reads this blog, I am writing it for an imagined popular audience, one which will not appreciate the type of writing I learned to do in graduate school and continue to do as an academic. Instead, I want to practice writing about the same topics I do in my academic career, but in more direct, readily understandable prose. This is both liberating (what? I don’t need to explain Derrida’s theory of genre first? Whew.) and challenging (how can I discuss this without first explaining Derrida’s theory of genre?).

And so, while I am not confident in saying that this blog is perfect in tone and style, it has been helping me this week as I revise my manuscript materials and imagine a more popular audience for my work.

2) I filed my dissertation so long ago. It’s been four years since I completed it, and while what I wrote is still relevant, I see the arguments now with a much more informed perspective, and it makes the work look…thin. Let me explain.

My dissertation was about the role of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or Ebonics) in Black drama of the 20th century. My central argument is that incorporating AAVE moved playwrights’ work into the genre of agitprop (or political theatre) and thus revises our understanding of both that genre and the history of Black theatre more broadly. While this may not be the most thrilling topic to most readers, it’s something I think is important and relevant to both popular culture and academic scholarship. And though I am White as can be, I studied and researched the appropriate theoretical approaches, applied myself to unpacking womanism and intersectionality, and still consider myself a scholar of these ideas, not an expert.

And yet, 2011 was pre Black Lives Matter. It was pre Lemonade. It was  pre Black Twitter. These events, texts, and movements have drastically altered my approach and understanding of my project, both in terms of theory and praxis. While I think my book might be even more useful/relevant now than it was when I filed the dissertation, it seems woefully lacking in addressing these critical moments, now that I am more familiar with the voices and work from within these areas.

In the intervening years, I have listened to more Black musicians (how did I live without Janelle Monae before?), followed more Black women on Twitter, and read up on the work of Black academics. I’ve learned quite a bit about how issues like vernacular affect the lived experiences of African Americans. And now, I can center those perspectives within my manuscript. For example, I now begin my introduction by discussing the Lemonade visual album and how it created a conversation about what political performance actually is. (Which is almost precisely the purpose of my book.)

So as I revise this manuscript, I am painfully aware of the need to be a continual student, never being satisfied with what I know right now. And with that, I’ve got to get back to writing.

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