For graduate students in the humanities or social sciences, there is no greater challenge than writing—and finishing—a dissertation. For the first time in their careers, they must produce a book-length work of scholarship that makes a significant contribution to their field. And all too often, they find this to be an isolating experience.
Unlike their peers in the natural sciences, they don’t belong to research groups where everyone is investigating a set of related problems. Apart from an occasional check-in with their faculty advisor, they are mostly on their own. And during the years they typically spend on a dissertation, they may have trouble keeping up with emerging ideas in their disciplines and with larger developments in contemporary scholarship.
This is the predicament that Martha Woodmansee, professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Writing, set out to address when she founded the Arts and Sciences Dissertation Seminar in 1995. The program brings together students from several disciplines and helps them build an intellectual community. During the past 16 years, more than 90 doctoral candidates have benefited from the structure and guidance the seminar provides.
“It was one of the most valuable experiences in all of my career as a student at Case Western Reserve,” says Alexander Bonus (GRS ’10), a musicologist who took part in the seminar in fall 2007. A recent recipient of a New Faculty Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, Bonus now teaches at Duke University.
“I got so many different ideas, and so many different points of view, on scholarship and critical thinking,” Bonus explains. “Working with other people, getting advice on my writing as well as instruction in advanced critical theory and scholarly methods, approaching problems from different vantage points—it was an ideal situation for me.”
Woodmansee developed the seminar with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Ever since, she has been its coordinator and champion, eliciting support from the college and active involvement by faculty colleagues in art history, English, history, religious studies and sociology.
The seminar convenes every other year, with up to 12 students and two faculty supervisors from different departments. To be accepted into the program, students must be far enough along in their research to begin writing, and each participant commits to a deadline for finishing a chapter and presenting it to the group.
Part of the seminar’s appeal is that it combines lively intellectual exchanges with practical advice about making headway on the dissertation. Students learn how to stick to a production schedule, organize their proliferating sources and stay motivated. The faculty supervisors share strategies that worked for them as they began their scholarly careers.
“We talk about how you excise chapters to publish, how you bracket interesting inquiries that have to be ignored until later,” says Kenneth Ledford, associate professor of history, who co-directed the seminar with Woodmansee last spring. “You can return to them for your next project, for an article or for a book-length publication. It’s a question of discernment and discipline. Keep your eye on the prize of finishing the dissertation.“
To help the students advance toward their goal, the seminar provides a $3,000 stipend. Such support, which is all too rare for doctoral candidates in the humanities and social sciences, allows those who are teaching to forgo a course and spend more time writing. Others use their stipends for research trips they might not otherwise be able to afford.
Last spring, the seminar welcomed students from anthropology, art history, English, history, music and sociology. To Woodmansee, such diversity is one of the program’s most important features. An expert on the history and theory of intellectual property, Woodmansee is also a faculty member at the law school, and her research crosses disciplinary lines. Similarly, many students in the seminar explore topics that invite analysis from multiple perspectives.
Tiffany Washington, for instance, is an art historian whose work incorporates economics and social history. She is writing about an innovative firm that marketed lithographs by American regionalist artists during the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to operating a New York gallery, the firm published mail order catalogues to sell these works to buyers around the country.
“People would get the catalogues sent to them for free, pick out what they wanted and send for the artwork. Five dollars and a couple of weeks later, they would have their signed, limited-edition lithograph,” Washington explains. No one had sold art this way before.
Gradually, however, Washington realized she didn’t want to focus solely on the firm or the better-known artists, such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, it represented. She was just as intrigued by the buyers, many of whom were middle-class consumers purchasing art for the first time. Her peers in the seminar found this line of inquiry as promising as she did.
“They encouraged me to think about what it meant for people to own these lithographs, not only as works of art, but as objects of social status,” Washington says. Her seminar colleagues also prompted her to consider why these particular works appealed to Americans during a difficult time in their history.
“The core group of artists who signed on when the firm was founded were all very interested in promoting American scenes and ideals within their artwork,” she explains. “And Americans in most circles really preferred a kind of positive, almost utopian imagery. They were coming out of the Depression; things were not looking good in most parts of the country. And looking at this American art made them feel better and joined people together in these common ideals.”
Finally, seminar members asked about the firm’s place in the history of American advertising. “I had thought about advertising before, but I got a lot of really helpful ideas and some very specific directions I have turned in,” Washington says.
This fall, Washington was one of three seminar participants who gave public talks during a Dissertation Showcase lecture series—another of Woodmansee’s initiatives. Her fellow presenters were Joshua Terchek (sociology) and Sarah Tomasewski (music).
For his dissertation, Terchek interviewed people who have sought treatment for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as adults. ADHD is usually diagnosed in children, and Terchek wondered what led the participants in his study to think they might have it. In his talk, he discussed their struggles to meet the demands of a multitasking, competitive society, and he presented evidence that social factors, rather than physiological ones, explain many of the problems they have experienced.
Tomasewski introduced her audience to a woman who remains largely absent from 19th-century cultural history. For nearly 50 years, Anne C. L. Botta welcomed famous musicians, writers, artists and intellectuals into her Manhattan home for weekly conversazione—evenings devoted to intellectual discussions, poetry readings and lectures, and sometimes singing and dancing. Tomasewski is exploring the role of music at these gatherings and the influence of Botta’s salon on American cultural life.
The students’ public talks were a natural extension of the seminar, where they first presented their work to people outside their fields. The more practice they get at this, the better, Woodmansee says. After all, once they finish their dissertations and enter the job market, they will need to make their scholarship compelling to prospective colleagues with widely varying interests.
The students welcome these opportunities for another reason as well. Before Tomasewski circulated her chapter, no one in the seminar had ever heard of Anne Botta. But once the discussion began, they had all sorts of questions and ideas. “People were really excited,” Tomasewski recalls. “And I realized that I was working on something relevant and interesting to fields outside of musicology.”
Above all, Tomasewski appreciates the camaraderie the seminar inspired. “Through the friendships we developed, we have been able to support and motivate each other,” she explains. “This is one of the many things that set this seminar apart. It was an invaluable experience.”