How writing a history dissertation is killing ‘me’

By Ivi Fung

Being a historian carries a dual identity of researcher and writer. But a scholar writing History (with a capital H) does not always have the privilege of writing originally, creatively and experimentally. Creating a text as academics means conforming not only to the academic integrity and methodology in the discipline but also to a rigid writing style. The expectation is still there – the hype of fingers dancing on the keyboard after a long happy ride of research; the thrill of imagining how the readers would be surprised, entertained, or fall in love with your findings and the witticism between the lines. Maybe, you think, fellow scholars will be so defeated by your arguments that they write a review for you admitting how water-tight your logic is.

This does not happen when writing a history dissertation.  A history dissertation – or thesis, depending on the university and the course – is a text based on primary sources on a specific historical topic, that a history student needs to finish to obtain their degree. Technically speaking, it is a special genre of writing – a work of academic scholarship and an exercise for historians-to-be. The quality of the dissertation is judged according to the disciplinary discourse and critical consciousness of the History discipline. Dissertations are thus embodiment of the professional language and the conventions of history writing. A dissertation is not only a piece of research, but a showcase of the skills you acquired throughout your study and guidance of your supervisor, and is the student’s hardest attempt to step into the circle of professional historians.

As such, students inevitably write in a very rigid style and formal manner in order to aggressively fit into the established practices of the history discipline. Often, this amounts to checking the boxes in a simple ‘to-do list’–

  • Literature review
  • Methodology
  • Overview
  • Fancy, extravagant academic vocabulary 
  • Humility and appraisal for more established scholars 
  • Cite your supervisor’s (and any potential markers’) work

The worst part is not checking all these boxes, however, but knowing that your year(s) of work will probably only be read by two or three markers, and the fear that all of your effort will be denied if you get a disappointing grade.

Don’t get me wrong – I learned a lot about locating historiographical issues and the pre-existing problems of interpretation of historical sources, as well as organizing and presenting history research, through making steady, measurable progress on my dissertation at Cambridge as a MPhil candidate. However, I often get frustrated by the rigidity of dissertation format and many of its unwritten rules: the desperate need to draw on existing scholarship and honor their findings deliberately; writing formal, almost pretentious text laden with buzz words to create sufficiently ‘academic’ prose. This all leads to a dreadful result – a writing piece that eliminates the writer’s voice itself.

What is more upsetting is the hierarchical pressure embedded in the academia between students and their supervisors. Unfortunate students even face the situation where their supervisors impose (or ‘strongly suggest’) their ideas on the students’ work. On the other hand, a contributor of a journal article stands on more equal footing with their editors, and have more space to negotiate. Speaking from personal experience, the editors are more likely to respect the writer’s choice of language, and writer has more ground to defend themselves. Sadly, in the process of drafting my dissertation and getting feedback from my supervisor, I feel like my presence and my literary personality in my piece of writing are being relinquished. Many dissertations I have read, with incredible history research value, also seem to miss the liveliness of an intriguing narrative and spicy arguments. Indeed, an engaging tone is less emphasized in a dissertation compared to an article or a book chapter, since the readers – as markers – are required to finish reading it.

In short, the dissertation is a genre that reflects the culture of scholarly disciplines. Being a history student working on a history dissertation, I find it a rewarding process as I piece the sources and arguments together within the methodology and discourse of History. However, the formality and the nature of dissertation is also eradicating my own writing style, my narration of my research journey, my voice, and my potential interactions with the readers. If you like, treat this article as a rant of an exhausted history student. Perhaps, though, it’s a chance for us to reflect the academic expectations about dissertations as a whole. 


Bibliography

Scrivener, Laurie. ‘An exploratory analysis of history students’ dissertation acknowledgments.’ The Journal of Academic Librarianship 35.3 (2009): 241-51.

Parry, Sharon. ‘Disciplinary discourse in doctoral theses.’ Higher Education 36.3 (1998): 273-99.

Beaufort, Anne, and John A. Williams. ‘WRITING HISTORY: Informed or Not by Genre Theory?’ in Anne Herrington and Charles Moran ed., Genre Across The Curriculum. Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2005, 44–64.

Image Credit: Author’s own illustration.

1 thought on “How writing a history dissertation is killing ‘me’

  1. I can understand your frustration with the dissertation process. But it’s meant to be a demonstration of basic research techniques and process. There’s plenty of scope to break the rules, but first you need to know what they are.

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