Yesterday I fell into a dissertation black hole, was overwhelmed with despair and quit an hour early. There are these days. What is a dissertation black hole? Here’s my explanation.
At least in theology, if you write a dissertation, chances are you are a generalist. This has some very particular difficulties. One of them is the possibility of slipping into a dissertation black hole. A dissertation black hole is when you are drawn deeper and deeper into providing backing for a minor claim to the point where you find yourself buried in a pile of PDFs and books that cost you at least eight hours.
Yesterday it was this. I wanted to illustrate the ways philosophers and theologians denied the immortality of the soul in the late Renaissance. I had a few figures and “schools” picked out, and really was only trying to expand on what I already had written, an introduction of sorts. I had already written about Siger of Brabant, George of Trebizond, Cardinal Bessarion, Marsilio Ficino, and Pietro Pompanazzi. However, a passing comment in an article I read yesterday mentioned the rise of “Alexanderism” in the 16th century, which is exactly relevant to my topic. I added “Alexanderism” to “Averroism,” and “Galenism” to be addressed by my paragraph today. The trouble is the relationship between Alexander and Averroes is incredibly complex and involves something like ten other theologians–particularly from the Italian Renaissance–between the early fifteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth. I read through roughly two hundred pages of crap about Alexanderism and Averroes before I realized that I wrote about fifteen words today, all of which will be deleted. I am no further than yesterday, and actually quite a bit more confused.
What have I gained? I now know that actually the reception of Aristotle was quite a bit more complicated than I supposed, and Alexanderism, which is probably not justly an “–ism”, has bearing on my project to a much greater degree than I had realized, culminating in a possibly pervasive influence on the radical Reformers through Jacopo Zabrella. Important, complex, and time consuming. My 14,000 word monster of a chapter threatens to become much bigger.
I could finish the 150 more pages to read, take notes, and write ten very well-crafted and nuanced sentences on the scope of controversy, and how it influenced not only Calvin’s psychology but the anabaptist psychology he attacked as well.
Or… I could write the three sentences I had originally intended, knowing full well I’m oversimplifying the situation, putting a few sources in the footnotes and move on. There are literally hundreds of these black holes to avoid. And what makes this worse is I also didn’t do very well blocking out that I don’t have any job prospects and received a discouraging email around quitting time.
I fell into a black hole.
The Set Up
Today I’m at Wheaton College for the Midwest Regional ETS.