Monday, 8 February 2016

Abstracts and revisions

Over the last couple of weeks I've been working on major revisions for a chapter on indigenous science fiction, which looks at the work of Australian writers Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ellen van Neerven and Alexis Wright. This chapter is challenging because of the cultural negotiations it entails and the breadth of scholarship I have to draw upon, along with the practical challenge of dealing with three different writers with distinct styles, perspectives and bodies of work.

This is the fifth draft of this chapter, and the third version my supervisor will see. It has been by far the most troublesome chapter and it's frustrating to be so close to the end and still struggling to put together a convincing argument. Earlier in my studies, I would have thought the latter months would be spent polishing and proof-reading, rather than still doing so much writing. The same is true of the novel: I didn't think I would still be drafting new scenes this close to submission. But one of my supervisors reassured me by saying that she, too, was writing a lot of material at the end of her PhD, because it's at that point that your argument is clearest in your head, so it makes sense that there's a lot to write. You're clarifying, you're making new connections, you're getting deeper and sharper with the analysis. So I'm telling myself it's all ok.

There's also been the challenge of transitioning from writing a novel to writing a dissertation. Though both are certainly creative and critical acts, there are different challenges and different joys to be found in both. In coming back to the chapter, I now have to think in terms of an argument and evidence, I have to think about structure, language and voice in a different way - in terms of expressing authority or of corroborating evidence, for example. I find this kind of writing more straightforward than fiction, but at the same I feel as if there's less freedom. The theoretical component of my thesis is quite conventional, and so is the language I use. At times I find myself becoming bored with my own writing and worry my examiners will also be bored. Does anyone else experience this? Should I be freer with my syntax and lexicon? But shouldn't a PhD demonstrate proficiency in academic conventions, including writing style? But I also don't want to fall into the senselessness of academese. But shouldn't the thesis also be original? But then - but if - but, but, but... You see, I could go back and forth like this forever.

It's not all been drudgery and self-doubt though. One of the biggest landmarks I reached in the last couple of weeks was lodging my Intention to Submit form, which has to include the submission date, thesis title and abstract. This form is supposed to be lodged two months prior to submission so examiners can be appointed in advance. You don't have to submit on the date you stipulate on the form, but it serves as a guide and gets the process of locating examiners underway. You can also update your thesis title and abstract prior to submission, so nothing is absolutely fixed in stone, but it's still exciting to reach this point and have some kind of formal acknowledgement that the finish line is in sight, even if it still feels like it's at the end of a rainbow.

It was only when I was filling out the form that I realised I hadn't written an abstract since my last Annual Progress Review over a year ago, and my thesis has changed more than I thought since then. It was actually a good opportunity to revisit my overarching argument, update it and have something in place that will guide my next round of revisions. It'll also come in handy for my next task, which (hopefully) will be the last significant piece of writing I do for the PhD - writing the introduction and conclusion.

I'm planning to post more in the coming weeks. The last few weeks have been hectic with this troublesome chapter but I'm hopeful that it's an improvement on the previous drafts. Surely it couldn't be worse. Surely?

P.S. Try the Postmodernism Generator for an academese LOLapalozza.

P.P.S. For those of you who are getting close to submission, check out this page on the UNSW GRS website for the procedure and forms.

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