Writing a Thesis Proposal is Hard

In the United States, PhD students take 2-3 years of course work before starting on their theses. Despite being in the program since Fall 2017, I only completed my coursework last semester. I was required to take 3 years of coursework. The American PhD is a very lengthy process. Thankfully, I now only have my thesis to worry about.

writing a thesis proposal is hard

Nevertheless, writing my prospectus has not been a walk in the park. I agonized over it for weeks on end.

The hardest part of doing research in the humanities is finding something new to say. It can often feel like everything has already been done. In popular culture, research is synonymous with looking things up on Google. But that’s not true research. Academic scholarship makes an original contribution to existing knowledge. To obtain a PhD, I must demonstrate that I am asking new questions or taking a new angle on a topic.

I must admit that I contemplated quitting my PhD dozens of times in the past month. This is actually a first for me. Up until now, I’ve always felt that I am meant to do a PhD in French literature. It has always felt like a calling. Nevertheless, the challenge of writing a proposal made me doubt my abilities. No one prepares you for how different research is from writing term papers. I had to overcome many limiting beliefs to push through this proposal, during a pandemic, with the most minimal social contact.

2020 has been a trying year for everyone, but I have come to recognize what a privilege it is to have a job during a pandemic. I’ve also realized that I want to continue in this program. Producing original research will be the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, but I am excited to see where this project will take me.

Despite what the Wall Street Journal might tell you about doing a PhD, it’s really hard. Completing a PhD in the humanities, in education, or in the social sciences is not a straightforward process. It can be just as unpredictable as in the hard or natural sciences. That’s research.

After over a month of self-doubt, I am happy to say that I submitted my proposal to my committee today.


5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?


How Roald Dahl and St. Francis of Assisi Got Me Into Humanities Research

I am doing a PhD largely because I love research.

It all started in middle school. I suddenly fell in love with Roald Dahl’s writings in seventh grade. By my last year of middle school I had read not only every children’s book he wrote but I had also sought out every autobiography he wrote and every anecdote written about him. I even knew that his favorite color was yellow.

Unfortunately, this passion for researching Roald Dahl and his works (including some of his adult short stories) led me to some unpleasant discoveries. I learned that my childhood idol was antisemitic and a champion of British imperialism. Thus, I discovered from a fairly young age that research can be a lot like eating the forbidden food.

My eyes were opened to the complexities of history and the human person.

During my freshman year of college, my new obsession was Franciscan history. It all started with reading the vitae (lives) of Saint Francis of Assisi and a few well-known modern biographies about him. Soon, I discovered the important role friars played in the shaping of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. I was at one shocked and fascinated by the scandals in the Franciscan order. I began paying attention to the rhetoric of the stories, aware of the historical contexts in which they were written.

At around the same time, I discovered Paul Sabatier. Sabatier spearheaded the movement of studying the “historical” Francis – that is, the vitae stripped of their alleged mythos. Sabatier, a Protestant historian, attempted to reconstruct the life of the saint through the consultation of various documents in the Vatican archives. His Life of Saint Francis of Assisi contextualized the Order of the Friars Minor in the radical Christian movements of the 13th century. Thus, Francis was not alone in his decision to abandon material comfort and live in community. The Waldensians were doing it well before Francis started preaching. The Humiliati and the Albigensians also adopted radical poverty.

The merchant Peter Waldo abandoned all of his wealth in the late 12th century to start an evangelical ministry. Unfortunately, his request to preach was denied by the Pope for unknown reasons. When he and his followers persisted, they found themselves excommunicated from the medieval church.

The 13th-century reform coincided with the beginning of a long period of violent conflict between the papacy and religious nonconformists, such as the Waldensians, Albigensians, and Spiritual Franciscans known as the Fraticelli. In 1211, two years after Francis got official approval to preach in poverty and established the Order of the Friars Minor, 80 Waldensians were burned at the stake in Strasbourg for heresy. The Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominican Order) was founded in 1216 to combat heresy – initially with words alone, but later with force, through the Dominican-run Roman Inquisition.

Needless to say, Paul Sabatier’s association of Saint Francis with 13th-century heretics earned him a papal condemnation. His book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1894. But his condemned book only grew in popularity. Although some of his assertions (especially his more provocative ones) have now been discredited by historians, Sabatier inspired a movement of scholars interested in historicizing the lives of saints.

I, too, was inspired by Sabatier to study saints’ lives. If the field of hagriography was concerned in the 20th century with demythologization, scholars today are less interested in knowing the “true” Saint Francis than in considering the literary and historical contexts that gave rise to his cult. I prefer the latter approach because it is more culturally-sensitive. Sabatier assumed that saint veneration was superstitious and thus allowed his personal religious views to influence how he read the life of Francis, but the modern historian is trained to refrain from making judgments about a particular religious or cultural practice.

From obsessing about Roald Dahl to studying the vitae of Saint Francis of Assisi, literary research has taught me to appreciate the many valences of a historical event or person.

And most importantly, it has taught me much about humanity.