Writing (a dissertation) at the end of the world

There’s this tweet going around, it’s like, write no matter what. Your voice matters.

Write no matter what! Your voice matters. What a thing to say.

I love that tweet and I believe in that tweet. Or, I mean, as long as it stays in a kind of universal second person, I believe in that tweet. Your voice matters.

Me, I haven’t really written since the end of the world. I hardly dare to ask anything more of you.

I mean, look. There is a difference between writing art and writing scholarship, isn’t there? Because art has saved me. But scholarship has only ever employed me.

And when the world ends, we’re going to need art, as much as anything we’re going to need art. I’ve read Station Eleven, I know how this goes. Art beyond death. Art beyond infrastructure. Art beyond faith.

But a dissertation. Oh my god. I cannot imagine writing a dissertation right now.

In 2016 I was writing a dissertation when a fascist stole an election and took over my country.

I left the bar early because I could not bear to watch events unfold, and I went home, and I wrote the third chapter of my dissertation. Just like that I buckled down and I wrote the third chapter of my dissertation.

Writing was how I coped that November. So I get where people are coming from when they say they’re writing more than ever before.

But then in January 2017, when that same fascist was inaugurated? I was frozen in place.

I was able to get out of bed, I remember that. I was able to make coffee. I was able to sit at my desk and watch the snow fall over Brooklyn. I was able to open my computer.

I was able to open my computer but I could not write.

I could not write because it did not seem worth it. It was not a matter of personal value. I know I matter in the world, I believe in love. It was a matter of scholarly worth. People were freezing in North Dakota. Families were being torn apart in airports. Children were dying in prisons on the border.

And my dissertation, my smart, insightful dissertation, with its thorough lit review and its interdisciplinary methodology and its incisive analysis? I have never felt so sure that the humanities were worthless and that literary study in particular should be abolished.

So if you, right now, in the face of a pandemic, are feeling this way, let me just say that it is a reasonable way to feel. It’s how I would feel if I were in your shoes.

If I were writing my dissertation right now? I wouldn’t be writing my dissertation right now. I would be staring at a computer screen, hating myself, scrolling through twitter, hating myself, thinking about the end of the world, forgetting to breathe, forgetting to drink water, starting to feel faint, wondering if I had coronavirus, and then drinking bourbon and watching Netflix for the rest of the day.


You know what I think? The world as we know it may be ending, but the world is not over, not yet.

I know that writing feels futile. I’ve been going through the spiral too. What’s the point of writing this essay, I wonder, if millions of people are dying, if our institutions are collapsing, if in just a few months there won’t be any more universities, or publishers, or access to the internet?

At times like these, the holes in the logical underpinning of our academic system become visible. What is the point of a dissertation? It’s hard to take seriously the idea that it will become a published monograph en route to tenure when both monographs and tenure are becoming obsolete, when the future is uncertain, when you’re wondering how you’re going to educate your children or do your field work or get summer funding or pay rent.

And it’s hard to believe that a monograph, written for a small audience on a niche subject relating to history or art or literature, will be able to do anything in the face of the great wave of devastation that is coming for us now.

So I guess what I want to tell you is two things.

Personally, I think that humanities work matters, in general, now and in the future.

But the first thing I want to say is that if you are unable to find meaning in your dissertation at this moment in time, you can choose to stop writing.

Do not spend time doing something that is killing you. Life is too hard and too precious for that.

If writing is unbearable, I want you to at the very least forgive yourself for that. Let this be one in a life of disappointments, in a world of betrayals. But let this also be a moment of power. Whether you go back to the dissertation later, or whether you never write it at all, know that refusing to do work that breaks your spirit is a courageous thing to do.

The second thing I want to say is, if you choose not to work on your dissertation during this time, I hope you can find some space to identify where you do find meaning in your work and your life.

If your experience of the pandemic is anything like mine, then you too are realizing that the things you value most have for too long been neglected in favor of academic achievement. In my case, I have never felt so grateful for the love of my local and virtual community, the feminist ethic of care practiced by so many people in times of fear and loss.

I cannot imagine going back to a life where those relationships are not at the center of my days. I cannot imagine accepting conditions of employment that make it impossible for me to choose where I live, or who I spend my time with, or how I express care.

And if I were a student, I certainly would not be able to imagine going back to graduate education as it currently exists.

So in this time, I hope you are able to spend your time living for and with the things that matter most to you, whether that means educating your children, or calling your mother, or writing letters to people in quarantine, or working at a food pantry, or holding office hours for your students, or writing something that isn’t your dissertation at all.

And I do hope, very much, that you are able to find your voice in the midst of this. Because I really believe, as a matter of faith, that if the world doesn’t end, then our institutions are going to need to be rebuilt. And we’re going to need you then.

Dürer’s four horsemen of the apocalypse
The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse (1498) https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/19.73.209/

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