Home > Uncategorized > Architects, Gardeners, and the Dissertation Process

Architects, Gardeners, and the Dissertation Process

One of my vices as a PhD Candidate has been, I must confess, a tendency to spend a bit too much time thinking about, writing about, and talking about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. While it was the television show that first introduced me to Martin’s world, I quickly found the books and they now hold a prominent place on my bookshelf.

So much so that I know find myself engaged in rather senseless arguments with family members about the merits of the show as an adaptation. So what does A Song of Ice and Fire have to do with writing a dissertation? It has to do with a quote from Martin that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Martin once said he thought,

there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house… They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if [they] planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

I think I’ve been both a gardener and an architect. But more importantly, I think it’s important to be a bit of both. I remember writing my dissertation proposal and thinking I had the entire house planned out. I knew what the chapters (rooms) would look like and what sources (materials) I’d need to build it. When I embarked on my first extended research trip I was certain I knew what I was looking for. This precise focus led me to request manuscript material with the intent to find very specific stuff related to what I thought was important at the time. But in a lot of ways, I wish I had started out as more of a gardener, willing to cast a wider net. I’ve been back to Philadelphia several times after my first trip, often to look over the same sources I examined the first time. I was amazed at how much new material I found from old sources when I approached them with a more general eye. The same can be said for the actual process of writing. I wrote a proposal with a pretty clear chapter outline only to find that outline rather useless once I actually sat down and “put pen to paper.” But in many ways, I think this organic writing process was for the betterment of my project. Rather than try to fit everything into the outline I started with, I allowed for the sources to guide me.

I’ve also found myself to be more of a gardener than an architect in the revision process. I’m very thankful to my committee for providing me with some very excellent and helpful feedback. And I’ve spent a lot of time going through their comments and revising the dissertation. But even here, I found myself trying to establish a clear, direct plan for revisions only to find myself gardening and planting and growing the dissertation. I was really surprised at how much new material—both secondary sources and primary research—I added in the process of revisions. This was particularly true with my use of secondary literature. I think I was overly focused on secondary sources directly about my topic when I started out, without realizing that I could draw a lot of very important information from sources that didn’t fit my exact chronological or geographical focus.

Ultimately, I don’t know if my process was at all unique. Or if I can even suggest any broader points about how someone should go about their project. I’m glad that I put so much work into the architectural aspect of the dissertation. Having a clear plan for going about my research and writing gave me a very strong set of questions to ask right from the start. But I’m also thankful for my tendency to garden and plant. Letting aspects of the project grow organically and in ways I didn’t expect helped me ask even more questions that, I think, will ultimately have more of an impact than the ones I started with. When it comes down to it and you talk about gardeners and architects, it’s best to just invoke a common internet meme. “Why not both?”

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