Don’t Write *that* Dissertation!

Ferdinand de Saussure

Don’t write that dissertation. You know the one. The dissertation sounds relevant because it employs theoretical terminology, even if it is little informed by the dense literature on Theory.

This is one of the points of advice in Tara Brabazon’s Times Higher Education Article, “How not to write a PhD thesis,”

5. Use discourse, ideology, signifier, signified, interpellation, postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism or deconstruction without reading the complete works of Foucault, Althusser, Saussure, Baudrillard or Derrida

How to upset an examiner in under 60 seconds: throw basic semiotic phrases into a sentence as if they are punctuation. Often this problem emerges in theses where “semiotics” is cited as a/the method. When a student uses words such as “discourse” and “ideology” as if they were neutral nouns, it is often a signal for the start of a pantomime of naivety throughout the script. Instead of an “analysis”, postgraduates describe their work as “deconstruction”. It is not deconstruction. They describe their approach as “structuralist”. It is not structuralist. Simply because they study structures does not mean it is structuralist. Conversely, simply because they do not study structures does not mean it is poststructuralist.

The number of students who fling names around as if they are fashion labels (“Dior”, “Derrida”, “Givenchy”, “Gramsci”) is becoming a problem. I also feel sorry for the students who are attempting a deep engagement with these theorists.

I am working with a postgraduate at the moment who has spent three months mapping Michel Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge over media-policy theories of self-regulation. It has been frustrating and tough, creating – at this stage – only six pages of work from her efforts. Every week, I see the perspiration on the page and the strain in the footnotes. If a student is not prepared to undertake this scale of effort, they must edit the thesis and remove all these words. They leave themselves vulnerable to an examiner who knows their ideological state apparatuses from their repressive state apparatuses.

I’m currently in the dissertation writing stage of my degree, writing about the ways in which the term “intertextuality” gets appropriated in biblical studies. The impetus for the project arises from this very thing. People desire to use terminology that sounds very trendy and academic, intertextuality hardly being the exception. But their work poorly reflects the theory behind this language. 

With this in mind, let me leave you with two suggestions from the introduction of my project: 

  1. That intertextuality, if it has anything to contribute to biblical studies, should bring about a change in our understanding of the biblical text emerged as the first and remains the most fundamental test of any intertextual study. 
  2. Where scholars can establish their theses without reference to the concept of intertextuality—either by means of other concepts or through more traditional terminology—the presence of intertextuality is a (strictly authorial) convenience that does not change our understanding of the biblical text.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Write *that* Dissertation!

  1. I attended a conference earlier in the year that purported to be for both academics and religious “practitoners.” I cringed at the promiscuous and incorrect usage of “deconstruction.” To deconstruct means more than to take apart, but you wouldn’t know it from most of the presenters there.

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