Preconceptions, self fashioning, and the dissertation topic

I like latin american coffees and Irish breakfast tea. I like tastefully flavored black beans, wheat bread, tomatoes, hot salsa, and sharp cheddar cheese. I like pilsner beer and rye whiskey. I like Hemingway and Orwell, Kazantzakis and Pamuk. I like the banjo and the acoustic guitar, bluegrass and rock.

These are not limits to what I like or what I will consume, either, though there is another list of things I have no taste for and therefore shy away from (IPAs, cream teas, Dickens, sweet white wine, to name a few). The first list helps me make decisions when I am out to eat, when I am choosing what to read next, or when looking for new music. This is my palate, the things I have learned that I like over a number of years and while experimenting and trying new things is, generally speaking, a good thing, knowing what I like has served me well. But these are also preconceptions that I hold with me each time that I go into a restaurant.

A similar thing happens in what I choose to study in history. I know what I have worked on before and (at least to a limited extent) the type of paper that I did not enjoy writing or did not write well for whatever reason. I do believe that there are certain people who are suited for certain topics. For instance, I have no interest in poetry studies per se; my interest is purely the message and not at all the medium. As such, I am fascinated by the social and cultural messages wrapped up in Archaic Greek lyric poetry, but would not want to study the poetics of the poetry. My strengths (which generally run parallel to my interests since if I don’t have any ability when it comes to a topic I usually get frustrated and drop it) tend towards reading prose authors in the world, geography, and political and diplomatic considerations.

Some of these “strengths” stem from the papers I have written and presented upon in the past, or standing interests of mine since, well, as long as I can remember. I was teased for “reading” maps and atlases when I was in middle school. But there is also a measure of confirmation bias in this statement. I have written papers on only a small handful of topics in graduate school and basically none of those directly correspond to the dissertation topics presently on the table.

What I am struggling with is that I am in trying to choose a dissertation topic, but most of the potential topics do not correspond to any of those preconceptions about what I study, or, frequently, I have no previous experience with studying. In light of this, I am concerned that pushing myself towards something may or may not play to my strengths. To be sure, I will acquire new skills. I am well aware that any dissertation topic would force me to expand my skill set. If that were not the case, then the dissertation would merely be a formality, so even if I had been able to pursue my initial topic that would have played more into my strengths, there would have still been a learning curve. Nevertheless, most of the potential topics (and yes, I have struggled through a half-dozen potential topics in the past few months) are so far beyond anything that I have previously done that it feels as though I am starting from scratch. Starting over could be good, allowing me to come at a topic unencumbered by preconceptions and biases, but it would also be a slower road, and one that is far less certain and with more risk that it would be a topic that I would be incapable of realizing the potential of as a result of limited experience or lack of conviction.

I need to make a decision this week and so here I am on Wednesday night, unable to decide, unable to determine even how much I should weigh these different factors in making the decision. Until this week I stressed about the potential to produce a monograph from the dissertation and articles along the way. Now that worry seems overly ambitious. Now I need to decide how much I should accede to these preconceptions about myself and how I have defined my research thus far. Admittedly, though, there is only the faintest thread of continuity thus far and that same slight thread could run through any of these potential topics, too. I need to decide this week, but it is Wednesday and I am further from a decision than I was on Monday.

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