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24 Jun 2011

Thinking in the abstract – Yesterday, as most of you know, was my initial evaluation for my dissertation. Obviously, I am still alive. In a nutshell, things didn’t go as well as they could have, but they didn’t really go badly, either. Let’s just say the next few weeks are going to be busy.

“The bottom line is that I am on the right track and the reaction has been positive, but I have a lot of work to do to get this thing into shape.”

The rainy (monsoon) season began here on Wednesday, as fate would have it, so yesterday morning it was raining as I walked to the subway station. It rained for most of the day, except for a brief period of about a half hour, when I made the journey from the Seoul National subway station to the school itself (five minutes after arriving at school, it started pouring). I arrived early, because I wasn’t sure exactly how things were going to go. I did go through a similar process with my MA thesis, but that was nine years ago, so I didn’t really remember the details.

As I waited for the appointed time, I sat down with two abstracts I had written for the dissertation. The abstract (essentially a summary of the main points of the dissertation) is not due until I submit my final copy, but my advisor recommended that I write one anyway before the evaluation—apparently one of the professors used to ask every candidate to summarize their dissertation in three minutes or less, and if they couldn’t do it he would immediately send them back to the drawing board for a rewrite. The idea is that if you can’t summarize your arguments in a concise fashion, your arguments probably aren’t very well organized.

So, in the time after I submitted the evaluation copies and before the evaluation, I took a stab at writing an abstract. My advisor suggested that I limit it to two pages at the most, so I wrote a two-page abstract. Despite the length, I was not happy with it. It did not feel like I had captured the essence of the dissertation. So I decided to slim down and go for one page. But how do you summarize a 170+ page dissertation in just one page? The answer, of course, is that you don’t. The best you can do is present the core element(s) of your dissertation in brief.

So I sat down and distilled my dissertation into its core idea: that the trickster is a liminal figure, and everything he does is defined by this liminality. And I ended up with something just slightly over a page, but which had captured the essence of the dissertation. There was just one problem. I looked back at my dissertation and realized that the distilled ideas I presented in the abstract were not always evident in the dissertation itself.

After the first attempt at an abstract, I thought that perhaps I was just burned out. Maybe I needed a break. Maybe I was too deep into the dissertation to get the proper perspective. I was not entirely wrong on that last count, but the problem was not with my state of mind. When I wrote the second abstract I realized that the problem was with the dissertation—somewhere along the way, I had lost focus. After all the categorizing and organizing and putting round pegs in round holes, the main point that was supposed to hold everything together had gotten buried.

In other words, I had an idea of what was going to happen during the evaluation. This did not make it any easier, of course. After thirty minutes of closed-door deliberations, my committee called me in and began to tear apart my dissertation, piece by piece. Now that the dust has settled and my head has cleared, I have a much better picture of the task that is before me, and I can see that things aren’t quite as bad as I first feared. At the time, though, it just felt like I was getting pummeled. I weathered the first hour pretty well, but after an hour, with about a half hour to go, my brain must have hit its limit and things started to get fuzzy.

I think I may have mentioned the test I took to get my brown belt in karate when I was younger. I hate to bring it up again, but I honestly cannot think of any experience that I have had that is more similar to what I felt at the one-hour mark. The brown belt test involved facing off against five black belts in a row—that is, one round each with five-different black belts. It was quite a while ago now, so I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but I know that at some point I went into a state of shock. Things around me weren’t as sharp, and it felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was just acting on instinct. This is very much what it felt like for a short period during the evaluation—fuzzy, slow, white. I must have also had a somewhat stunned look on my face, because at one point the head of my committee laughed and said, “You’re getting all of this, right?” And then I nodded and snapped back. I just think for a moment there it was a bit too much.

Needless to say, at the time I was quite discouraged. In retrospect, though, the overall atmosphere was positive. Essentially what my committee members were saying was, “We think you’ve got something good here, but you need to get back to the basics and focus.” One of my committee members told me, “Honestly, I was a little disappointed, because I’ve followed your research and I know you can do better than this.” In fact, during lunch after the evaluation he told me that he had his students this past semester bring in one paper on Korean oral literature that they thought would be a good role model for the sort of research that they wanted to do, and while most of the students brought in papers by my former advisor and other giants in the field, one of his students actually brought in a paper I had published on the trickster. That kind of blew me away. This committee member went on to talk about certain elements of the trickster I had not covered in the dissertation, and I realized that he was practically quoting verbatim from my paper. I sat there thinking to myself, “Why the heck did I not even mention this in my dissertation?”

He was completely right. That paper had focus, and is probably the best thing I have written on the trickster to date. What happened? Well, as the head of my committee pointed out, just about everyone gets sloppy when they have to write at length on something. I had a point when I started out, a very clear point. But as time went on and I got deeper and deeper into the subject and the materials, I lost sight of that point. I never lost sight of it completely, of course. That is, I always knew that this was the core of my dissertation, but it got buried at times, leaving me with a dissertation that had no clear focus.

The bottom line is that I am on the right track and the reaction has been positive, but I have a lot of work to do to get this thing into shape. It is definitely daunting, and I’m honestly not looking forward to the next three-and-a-half weeks, but it’s certainly not a bad outcome. Could it have gone better? Yeah, definitely. But it didn’t, and if I want to produce the best dissertation that I can I have a lot of work ahead of me. In the end, I am grateful that my committee did such a thorough job, as it has given me a clear road map.

My final evaluation is scheduled for 21 July. I believe in the last entry I had originally said the final deadline was 20 July, but apparently I had misheard the date—it’s actually 22 July. What this means is that I will be submitting my final copy to the committee on the 18th, and they will have three days to look it over. If they deem that I have brought the dissertation up to their standards, I will get their stamps (both figuratively and literally) and be able to complete the paperwork that needs to be submitted to the department office. I will have some time (a couple of weeks) after this to make final corrections, but these are of the editing/proofreading nature. The dissertation must be submitted to the school library by the 5th of August, and after that... well, that will be pretty much it.

Of course, if I don’t bring the dissertation up to standards by the 18th of next month, the committee may postpone my evaluation until next semester. This would obviously be the worst case scenario, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen. The ball is in my court now, though. I hold my own fate in my hands. I know what I have to do, and now it’s just a matter of hunkering back down and getting it done. So, I’m going to go hunker a bit. I’ll see you on the 18th.

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