March 24, 2011 — Time spent writing a dissertation can be solitary, and the writing narrowly focused, as graduate students work with tunnel vision to hone their topics.
In the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, humanities graduate students will get help with their dissertations thanks to a $226,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Fifteen doctoral candidates were chosen to participate in an interdisciplinary dissertation seminar and will devote eight weeks this summer advancing their research, analyzing their topics and writing.
French professor John Lyons received the grant and will lead the students in twice-weekly seminars. The first seminar of each week will focus on a theme, "poetics and modern emotion." The second will be devoted to the mechanics of writing a dissertation.
The students were chosen through an application process overseen by a committee of five faculty members in the humanities. Students will each receive a $4,500 stipend.
The grant will support another cohort of 15 students in the summer of 2013.
"It is gratifying to see the Mellon Foundation recognize the strength of the humanities in the College and to help graduate students preparing their dissertations," said Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of Arts & Sciences. "Our French department is outstanding, and given the quality of John Lyons' scholarship and his dedication to preparing the next generation of professors, it's no surprise that Mellon chose to support his efforts to assist our most promising students across the humanities with this essential milestone in their doctoral programs."
Lyons said the seminars are designed to help the students financially and to provide intellectual stimulation to guide them through the writing process.
"Writing a dissertation is a long process," he said. "Also, there's not a lot of money in the humanities to support dissertation writing."
The process of writing a dissertation can be isolating and without financial support, the distractions of employment can hinder progress, he said.
As graduate students, they may have written brilliant papers and performed well in the classroom, but when it comes to writing a dissertation, there is no regular class structure and you do not have a community in which to share your work, Lyons said.
The goal of the seminars is to "help the students make some real progress on their dissertations and provide a community," Lyons said.
Because the students are drawn from different departments, the experience will be an opportunity for them "to explain to someone else what they are writing about and to get them outside their specialist shorthand or technical language," Lyons said. "That exercise will improve their ability to write and communicate in general as they move beyond graduate school. Eventually they will be writing books and I hope they will come to think of their work as part of what people write for bigger audiences."
Although the "poetics and modern emotion" theme is not anyone's dissertation topic, Lyons said the study of emotions is a thread that runs through contemporary studies in history and the humanities and it will provide a common basis for discussions about humanities issues and help widen perspectives.
"Essentially all works of fiction and many non-fiction texts make use of emotion, and literary theory has, from its inception, included the story of emotion," Lyons said. The seminar will include readings of Aristotle's "Poetics" and his discussion of fear, pity and amazement as character motivating emotions to more contemporary and modern theoretical works that discuss emotions under headings such as the sublime, uncanny, the scapegoat, resentment, horror, political terror and the monstrous.
The students' topics cover a broad range of humanities studies and include medieval sculpture, 20th-century performance art, marriage and happiness in 20th-century Germany, the influences of fairy tales in Latin American novels, loss and the family in contemporary Spanish novels, slavery in 18th-century narratives, and rock 'n' roll and avant garde music.
The Mellon Foundation awards grants to support seminars that encourage graduate students to consider key ideas, questions and methods in research and scholarship writing and to encourage timely completion of dissertations. Lyon's grant was one of six awarded in 2010. Mellon started the program in 1992.
English professor Herbert Tucker received an earlier Mellon grant for dissertation seminars, and led them during the summers of 2002 and 2004.
"It was, for me and I think for the participants, a highly successful venture in advanced interdisciplinary education," Tucker said.