Thursday, March 21, 2019

A Remedy for Nostalgia

So, one of the most interesting things to turn up in my recent round of sorting down in the Box Room is a folder containing correspondence and other material related to my first dissertation topic, the one which went down in flames.

I find that when I think of Marquette these days what I remember is the good-parts version: spending time in the Archives, my fellow grad students, courses from professors I liked, teaching continuing ed. courses (night school) on Tolkien and fantasy, my long-running D&D campaign, &c.

What I tend to forget is the down side,* and the papers in this folder are a reminder of the latter.

Well into my dissertation process, when I'd done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and come up with a topic and thesis I thought wd make for a good dissertation ('THE EMERGENCE OF FANTASY AS A MODERN LITERARY GENRE'**),  I found myself at an impasse. Two of the people on my three-person committee (including the dissertation director) approved the topic while the third kept requesting changes, requiring me to re-write the proposal time after time for a period of months (almost a year, all told). Eventually she rejected my topic completely, calling it

"unworkable as a project, 
unpublishable as a book, 
and something that would be ripped to shreds 
if any of it did ever get published"

And that, pretty much, was that. I had to start over again with a new topic with a new committee, not including the person who'd given the thumbs down on my previous effort. That turned out to be my Dunsany project, which I enjoyed researching and learned a lot doing, so no regrets there, though the change in topic did set me back and delay my finishing my Ph.D. by several years. 

At the time I was bitter about it, but over time I've become more exasperated than anything else. If that one committee member didn't agree with my thesis and was determined not to approve a dissertation along those lines, as turned out to be the case, why didn't she just tell me at the start?***
It wd have saved a lot of time and bother all round.

And now, back to Tolkien.

--John R.
--current reading: A FLUTTER OF WINGS by Mervyn Wall

*I had a paragraph about the down side here but on second thought deleted it.
**which might just as well have been called The Role of Tolkien in the Emergence of Fantasy as a modern literary genre.

***she told me later she was trying to do me a favor, since I'd never get a job in academia if I kept writing about fantasy and Tolkien.


David Bratman said...

That's particularly exasperating, since good books on exactly that subject, notably Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy, have since been published. You could have been a pioneer!

Neil said...

You were ahead of your time.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.

Yes, I had enough faith in my thesis that I was sure someone else, working independently, wd eventually wind up with the same (or v. similar) conclusions.

When I saw Williamson's book I recognized him at once for a kindred spirit, the main difference between our approaches I think being that the role I assign to Tolkien he assigns to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series.

--John R.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Neil

Thanks for the complement, but let me tell you that experience teaches that 'ahead of the times' is the LAST place you want to be when doing a dissertation. My friend Fan Shen pulled it off ; I can't think offhand of anyone else that did. Of course it's a long time ago now and I get the feeling that things have changed for the better. At least I'd like to think so.

--John R.