This is going to sound awfully snobbish and arrogant. But I am struggling so much with the concept of narrowing my thesis. I'm writing a PhD and want to write about something meaningful (cue eye rolls...I know) but I keep on being told to narrow, narrow, narrow. I know this is very good advice, but it often feels like my topic is becoming uselessly niche and generally not very interesting or important. Have you experienced this feeling before? How do you get past this!?
So, I’m really mad because I wrote like a six-paragraph response to this and then acidentally hit the ‘back’ button. Fuck Tumblr for not saving drafts automatically. Fuck me for not doing it manually. Anyway I’m going to try to remember everything I just wrote:
This doesn’t sound arrogant to me, but it does sound a little
naïve. Now, bear with me while I talk about bees for a minute. (Yes, you read that right. Bees.) Bees are small. Some people are scared of them and some
shitty people kill them, but most just don’t think about them very often. But without bees pollination wouldn’t happen, plants would die, animals that eat plants would die, and animals that eat animals that eat plants would die. Basically, without bees we’d be pretty much fucked. The same is true of academia. If you want to say anything meaningful, you have to know the minutiae first. You want to have big majestic bears, you can’t kill off the bees. Everybody who starts working on a thesis or dissertation wants to say something grand and meaningful, but those romantic notions will wear off pretty much as soon as you sit down to actually do the work and realize how many little things you need to know just to be qualified to attempt that. Academia is not the place for romance. It’s a place to be realistic. What kind of argument can you make convincingly in about 20,000 words?
Here’s the other thing: Believe it or not, the ‘niche’ research is often what ends up being the most valuable. I mean, thank God Marcus Nordlund wrote 95 pages on the economy of candles in the early modern indoor playhouse so I didn’t have to in order to talk about darkness in The Duchess of Malfi. Thank God Charles S. Forker understands the Renaissance legal system in Naples so I didn’t have to learn Latin to edit one scene of The Devil’s Law-Case. You get the idea. All scholars have different specialties, and what might not seem particularly interesting to one may up being vitally important to another. ‘Niche’ is not a bad thing. Writing something ‘niche’ actually enables you to to make a sharp, pointed, and thoroughly researched argument instead of trying shoehorn a huge philosophical statement into a graduate thesis. At best it’s going to come out feeling cramped, at worst woefully incomplete, and either way two weeks before your deadline you will want to die. Trust me. I’ve made that mistake too many times to tell it any other way.
Here’s what I’d suggest: Start with one of those big ideas you’re passionate about. Feminism, atheism, colonialism, whatever. Start there and start reading primary/secondary material. (Pro-tip: Start with the most recent criticism and use their bibliographies to follow the breadcrumbs back to the origins.) As you do this reading, look for themes or trends or specific details of the argument that intrigue you. For instance: My dissertation started with the huge unwieldy topic of n/Nature in King Lear. Eight months later I’m using a very specific strain of Aristotelian ethics to explore the question of culpability for three of Shakespeare’s tragic villains. Narrow? Hell yes. But because the argument is so narrow it actually enables me to say, “Shakespeare was really the only early modern playwright (besides Chapman, sort of) who eschewed the absolute moral binary in favor of weighing characters’ actions against intent, agency, and other mitigating/aggravating factors. This matters because it’s the same legal framework we still use today, which makes it much easier to understand the plays and supports their continued relevance.“ That’s a big statement. But I can back it up because my research has been both exhaustive and specific. Have I had to read a lot of really dense philosophy and theology and jurisprudence dating back several thousand years? Yes. Has all of it been fun? Absolutely fucking not. But all of that ‘niche’ work has enabled me to present what I feel is a meaningful interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic villains, which is something I care a whole lot about. This is a really long of way of saying: Start with the big idea and find a little idea inside the big idea. That’s how you stay excited without biting off more than you can chew.
Make it about the bees. When you have a professorship and twelve research assistants you can worry about bears.