• October 25, 2014

A Dissertation on Pussy Riot?

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question (from "Belladonna"): I'm tussling with my committee about my dissertation topic. I want to do something new, different, and interesting to me and others in my age cohort.

Specifically, I want to write about Pussy Riot, because they're the most important cultural event of the 21st century. My committee's mostly older people, over 50, and they don't know or appreciate what I'm talking about. They disapprove. They cringe.

But I want to write for the future, not live in the past. How can I persuade them to let me do my dissertation on Pussy Riot?

Answer: Although she's an antique herself, Ms. Mentor does admire Pussy Riot, the energetic and talented Russian punk feminist collective that plays guitars, sings and dances, studies feminist theory, and speaks truth to power.

She's seen the group's most audacious moment on YouTube: its takeover of the altar at a Moscow cathedral last year for an impromptu kick-dancing and musical performance while shouting, "Mother of God, blessed Virgin, drive out Putin."

Ms. Mentor would call it guerrilla theater, but President Vladimir Putin called it a "witches' sabbath." He had three of the members of Pussy Riot arrested, tried, and convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred"—after which they were sentenced to two years of hard labor and solitary confinement.

As of Ms. Mentor's writing, two of them remain in prison. They may or may not be forced to serve their full terms— and the uncertainty is a big reason why Pussy Riot is not a good dissertation topic.

You don't know what will happen next, and a dissertation will take you at least a couple of years to write (longer if you don't know Russian well). Your dissertation may be dated, superseded by events before your committee even finishes reading it (and do any of them speak Russian?).

You also don't know whether the end will be happy or tragic, or whether anyone will care. By the time you're finished, Pussy Riot may already be forgotten.

A dissertation on Pussy Riot does pass one test: You know everyone will be eavesdropping on your elevator conversations. Tweeters will love you. Even family gatherings will be enlivened.

But that's not the usual purpose of a dissertation.

A dissertation is a rite of passage, a genuinely original contribution to knowledge. In science—barring fraud or unfortunate timing—a dissertation will produce new data and add to the world's wisdom. In the humanities, where "knowledge" is a more contested term, other questions come up: Is the subject worth doing? Is it worth doing now? Does it rise past the "So what?" threshold?

Those last questions aren't always asked when they should be: at the beginning of the project. Sometimes there's a grudging, "OK, write on that"—and then a blowup later. Even dissertation defenses can be a battlefield. ("Is this really a scholarly topic?") A topic that seems ephemeral or incomplete can mean blistering demands for revisions, or even failure.

Once you do get the Ph.D., you're licensed to try to find a job. In the past, a racy-sounding topic like Pussy Riot might have gotten you job interviews. "Mickey," a literature graduate, claims to have gotten half a dozen interviews (and a couple of offers) because he included "Marquis de Sade" in his dissertation title. But that was a long time ago, when tenure-track jobs in the humanities were still available. Now it can take three to four years after graduation to land one, if you ever do.

By then your research may have grown old or may seem silly and irrelevant. It won't be clear what you're able to teach, and your work on Pussy Riot is not apt to be publishable anywhere, especially in book form. It will no longer be timely, nor is it timeless.

Academicians generally favor the old, the traditional. Entrenched professors sniff at what's "trendy." Current popular culture is often dismissed as "trivial" or "frivolous," and there's a certain pride in not owning a television. Something must "stand the test of time," they'll harumph. It must be "substantial," or even "the final word." (Ms. Mentor is glad that reviewers have never called her advice "the definitive word." She is not dead yet.)

Ms. Mentor hopes you'll hearken to your elders' objections. People over 30 can be trusted to know history, and to know why dissertation topics do or don't pan out. Among A.B.D. (all but dissertation) students, about half never finish the big paper. They run out of time, money, or interest, or they're worn down by wranglings with a hostile committee. Your committee members are already being more honest than most, if they admit they don't know (or care) enough about Pussy Riot. "I don't know" is rare among academics.

But Ms. Mentor urges you not to despair.

Up-to-the-minute topics of popular culture can be saved if you're willing to write a longer historical overview. Pussy Riot has ancestors: the punk movement, the hippie "happenings" of the 1960s, the rowdy suffragists of 1912, the ecstatic Bacchae in ancient Athens. Pussy Riot performers have a brand, too, with their trademark balaclavas, the unique wraparound headgear that Ms. Mentor remembers fondly from the Crimean War. (Some Americans call the balaclava a "ski mask." They are hopeless peasants.)

A dissertation on "Pussy Riot and the tradition of ..." may mollify your professors. Dissertation writing is hard and lonely, and it's done best when you have a subject you love. But be canny. Surround Pussy Riot with respectable and timeless companions. Certainly the art world has always enjoyed the shock of the new: Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." What is new about Pussy Riot? What does it mean that women are being loud, obscene, and funny—in Russian? Can you coat what they do in academic jargon?

But do not allow your dissertation to be ponderous or dull. Don't let it be forgettable, filed in a dusty warehouse with all the others, like the latest prize in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Most university libraries have a forlorn room in which the typed dissertations, mostly never read, are stored. At Harvard it's rumored that some library nooks haven't been visited for years, and that one unfortunate scholar was once locked in with a dissertation. By the time he was found again, he was a skeleton.

Your topic can be tamed, made respectable and timeless, but you needn't give up your wide-ranging curiosity. Get your own balaclava ($12 online) and wear it in the privacy of your garret. Take note of the fact that Pussy Riot has no admissions requirements. You can join in. So can Ms. Mentor. So can your committee.

And of course you can, slyly or not, slip your admiration for popular culture and Pussy Riot into anything you write.

Ms. Mentor has just shown you how.


Question: Does everyone writing a dissertation suffer from shame, guilt, sleeplessness, and self-loathing? But it goes away eventually?

Answer: Yes.


Sage readers: Can Ms. Mentor err? Some bold readers of her last column think she did, when she wrote that "there is no Theory of Football." She was informed that courses with that title are offered in at least half a dozen institutions. And so Ms. Mentor duly read the course descriptions. Some do mention "philosophies of multiple offensive formations," along with "running, catching, and throwing."

But those brute skills are not what Ms. Mentor would call "theory." True academic theory requires reading, research, and jargon formation. Tackling and punting do not qualify as theory. Ms. Mentor is, as always, impeccable.

As is her wont, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle's forums. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are concealed. No one will ever know you're the one with the secret fantasy dissertation.

© Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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