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Writers’ Lab: Experimenting with Expertise

Today, I have the pleasure of inviting Dr. Scheg to share her views on the unique type of writing that is dissertation writing. Dr. Abigail Scheg is an Assistant Professor of English at Elizabeth City State University and an Adjunct Dissertation Chair for Northcentral University. She researches and publishes in the areas of composition, online pedagogy, and popular culture. She loves working with doctoral students and is dedicated to creating and participating in networks for doctoral student support. Follow her on Twitter @ag_scheg.  
As a doctoral student, I proclaimed a certain level of expertise in my subject area: online pedagogy and teacher preparation. I read, toiled, read, labored, read, wrote, and edited until I began to have dreams about Allen and Seaman and the No Significant Difference phenomenon. Since all of my degrees are in English-related fields, I felt fairly confident in my writing abilities as I drafted my actual dissertation chapters. I felt confident until I received the response from my Chair, who had obviously given this same speech a number of times,“The dissertation is a unique genre. Basically it’s a new type of writing that you’ll only use this once and then you can continue with your usual style.”
And just like that, everything that I knew seemed to slip away. If I couldn’t even write it correctly, which I thought was my strong point, then did I really deserve to write it? Should I be working on a dissertation? Are people actually going to listen to me talk about online pedagogy?
The dissertation process is a unique juxtaposition of being a subject-matter expert and a neophyte. Jimmy Buffett’s song, “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me,” has the line, “I’ve had good days and bad days and going half mad days,” which, if I didn’t know any better, would say that Jimmy wrote in the middle of the dissertation process. 
Some days spent reading journal articles will fit gloriously into the puzzle; a study will represent exactly the information you needed in chapter three. Other days will be spent staring at the same journal article for hours, unable to comprehend why one article was cited in another when they seem to have no ties whatsoever.
Now I find myself on the other side of the puzzle as a dissertation director. I strive to have a very open and honest dialogue with my doctoral students about the process of writing a dissertation. While the entire process can be isolating and frustrating, I always reach out to students that I haven’t heard from and call them back towards the light. I find that students are usually very well-versed in their topics, but hesitant on the presentation of their documents or the appropriate length, tone, or amount of research in a finished chapter. 
Let me reiterate the advice from my Chair, a dissertation is an entirely unique writing process and provided that this is probably your first doctoral program, you’re allowed to be relatively unfamiliar with nuances of this genre.  That is not to say that you should be entirely unfamiliar; read other people’s dissertations. Learn about the styles that different universities use; look at the chapter breakdowns and try to recognize patterns. Make informed decisions about your writing based on the other dissertations that you have seen and then use your Chair as a sounding board.
My wonderful Chair helped me organize the information in my later chapters. I had the data, I had the analysis, but I couldn’t figure out how to piece it together to fit the parameters of the chapter guidelines. He helped me to take the information and fit it into the puzzle.
One of the most important things that I learned about the dissertation process that made me want to get involved with doctoral students was this: Nobody knows what they’re doing. Once a person reaches that stage in their education, there is a sense of confidence in their understanding of content materials, but until you have successfully completed a dissertation, you may not understand the genre. Accept your status as subject-matter expert and dissertation-writing neophyte and press on. Go, scholar, go.


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