Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will Your Thesis Come Back to Haunt You?

We've all heard the horror stories about people's ill-considered Facebook photos or blog postings that come to the attention of a possible boss or college admissions officer and sink a candidate. But what about that thesis that you wrote long ago for your M.A. or M.S. degree?

I've been following the story of one of Virginia's candidates for governor, who wrote a thesis twenty years ago. If it had the experience of most theses, no one looked at it after it was submitted and accepted. Until now, of course.

This thesis has some conservative views, which probably shouldn't surprise us, since it's the M.A. thesis of the Republican candidate who wrote it for a graduate degree from Regent University, a Christian conservative institution founded by Pat Robertson. In his thesis, he wrote that working women threaten the traditional family. If you define the traditional family as including a mom at home, you'd have to agree with him. No shock there. In that thesis, he also expressed his shock at the idea of non-married people having access to birth control, sadness over the purging of religion from the schools, opposition to homosexuality: all the standard, ultra-conservative viewpoints.

I confess that I haven't read his thesis. My life is short, and my reading time constrained. I read about it in this story in The Washington Post. There was also a story on Sunday.

The candidate, Robert McDonnell, says his views have changed. Perhaps.

I started to think about my own M.A. thesis, which set about to prove that James Joyce was not anti-female, but instead had created female characters which were realistic and fully realized. We've now had several decades of feminist Joyce scholarship, so this view doesn't seem particularly radical, but at the time, there were only a few feminist scholars working on Joyce--ah, the road not taken.

I think about my Ph.D. dissertation, which set about to prove that work that has been considered to be part of the Gothic tradition actually had some serious points to make about domestic violence and the desperate status of women in patriarchal society. I'm still proud of that dissertation, although when I read it now, I see that I stretched some of the evidence to make a point here or there.

You might ask why, if I was proud of it, I never went back to make it into a book. I was proud of it, but I had written as much as I had to say on the subject. I thought it worked well as a dissertation, but to turn it into a book would require another 150 pages at least, and I just didn't have enough material.

To be honest, I had also started a job with a 5-5-4 teaching load at a community college, and working to turn my dissertation into a book just didn't interest me. It wasn't a matter of time management. I wrote a novel during that first year of teaching. I wanted to turn my attention to creative writing, and that's what I did.

Occasionally, I've returned to literary scholarship. When I do, part of my brain is thrilled to be analyzing literature again. Part of my brain is annoyed that I'm using valuable time to do literary scholarship, when we could be assembling a book of poems or sending out manuscripts or writing new poems.

When I first started blogging, I worried about the ways that blogging might come back to haunt me, particularly if I ever wanted a different job. I think it's good to be cautious about what one posts on the Internet. And as the case of the gubernatorial candidate shows us, nothing we write and release into the world is ever really gone. Well, maybe there's a poem of mine in an obscure literary magazine here and there that would be gone forever if I wasn't here to keep track.

And here's an interesting question: if I did run for public office, would my poems come back to haunt me? I can see where a blog post here and there might, if an intrepid reporter had time to wade through them all. But would my poems torpedo my chances at election? Would yours?


Shefali Shah Choksi said...

how reassuring for me that you too worry about an imagined audience's response to what you let loose on the universe!
i am going to be presumptious and answer the question your post poses: YES. nothing ever goes away; the slightest word hovers indefinitely, and not being corporeal, lingers forever since it doesn't know how to waste away! so everything i write i have to be prepared to live with. this is often enough to deter me from sending stuff out for possible publication.

Dale said...

Ah, now we come to one of the blissful parts of no longer being an academic or having any academic ambitions! I write whatever I damn well please, and enjoy it enormously. My mind and my words are my own again.

There are things I miss about academia, a few, but not many and not much :-)

( -- see? I can use emoticons, too, now, which of course used to be beneath my dignity :->)

Kristin said...

It is a joy to write what we please, which I think is an advantage to being a poet--not much chance of selling out our values for big money :)

I, too, can use emoticons, although my emotional/expressive range is fairly limited. I'm always the one in the car who can't figure out what the vanity plate says, so seeing a face sideways through typing symbols isn't a skill of mine.