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Steve had a nice comment to my last post:

I would add as a slightly different but related truism: there are a lot of different ways to skin the same cat. I think that everyone working on a diss or a book or major project lives in terror of coming across a title that appears to be about the same topic. But there are a lot of ways to take different angles on something. We did a job search this year, and it was interesting to see how many of our top candidates were doing essentially the same thing but doing them just differently enough to be unique.

Every project is a snowflake, I suppose.

What I didn't say in my last post was that, when that conversation started, my first thought was that I was going to have to offer this advice. It's far more common, I think, for writers to come across an essay or book that feels like it's covered the same ground. I'll never forget reading Mark Taylor's The Moment of Complexity the first time--I had just read, over the course of maybe 5 or 6 months, a bunch of the primary sources that Taylor relied on, and that material was percolating in my head. Then I picked up Taylor and all of a sudden, he was saying all the things that had only formed half-baked in my own head. It made it simultaneously exhilarating, deflating, and easy to read.

When it comes to working on the dissertation, though, I think that the terror that Steve describes above is a biggie. And part of that is our attachment to values like Originality--what seems like an original thought or approach in the context of a graduate program may be old news in another discipline, another program, or wherever. I've seen dissertators overhaul their methods because they found someone who had done something similar, and I think that's almost always a mistake.

First, I think that it's more productive to think of one's project in terms of its contribution rather than in terms of its originality. That's tougher than I make it sound. Part of the problem is that our model for designing projects (the old CARS model from Swales) focuses on distinction in a way that can be misread. The fact is that there are many dimensions along which a project can be distinct from another: method, site, background, genealogy, application, approach, etc. What we forget in the humanities sometimes is that small distinctions (applying a particular method to this site instead of that one) can produce important insights. Perhaps a pedagogical approach or curriculum that's worked well in one context does not in another. Maybe an interpretive attitude suited for certain artifacts is less suited for others. And so on.

My second point is related to yesterday's post, and that's that rather than living in terror of someone having been there before, we should think of those instances as opportunities for conversation. I've never read a book that was the absolute final word on something, my own included. There's always lots of room for additional work. And that's the kind of work that 99% of us actually do, connecting this idea to that one, bridging one tradition with another, building upon what's come before. The fantasy of initiating paradigm shifts is all well and good, but when it hangs up our ability to get work done, it's time to set it aside and focus instead on doing good work, making a strong contribution to the discipline.

I have those fantasies too, but they're best combined with a sense of humor and a commitment to the work itself.

That's all.


Thanks for this post and the last one, Collin. I'm dissertating right now, and I've felt the terrors you describe pretty acutely. So your advice was both comforting and timely for me.

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