Some thoughts on my favorite dissertation ever written

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

Dissertating isn’t as bad as dissertating grad students say it is.

That’s not to dismiss the very real and often very intense struggle of researching, writing, and defending a document that represents one’s entrance into one’s chosen field of scholarship and, hopefully, into a career. For me, the struggle of getting to the end of my dissertation often feels like chasing the moon—even getting to the end of a chapter can feel that way. At a deeper level, though, this document has the nasty tendency of getting bound up in your identity to such a degree that to feel like your dissertation is uninteresting or weak is to feel like you as a scholar or even as a person are uninteresting or weak. Given the fishbowl-effect of graduate school and much academe in general, this unhealthy (and false) equivalence can get magnified as time goes on, making it harder and harder to recognize that you are much more than you produce. I know people struggling right now to recognize that; I did for a long time as well.

So to say “dissertating isn’t as bad as dissertating grad students say it is” is part wishful mantra and part polemic, a half-truth that helps me hang onto the idea that at the end of the day I’m just writing a paper—a long and complex paper, sure, but certainly not one that my life or identity fundamentally depends on. And really the dirty little secret that we all agree not to admit in the open is that the thing doesn’t really matter once it’s been hurdled, except as a testament to your own budding scholarly rigor and, as a professor once told me, “Maybe, sort of, some kind of rough-rough-rough draft to a book. Or not.”

Sometimes I’ll skim through my recently-graduated colleagues’ theses to help me remember my slogan—they got it done, I think, and I will too. But it was not until I processed Ms. Coll. 1433 Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery theses that I came across my favorite dissertation ever written, which I have now scanned and placed in my bedside table drawer for ease of access.

To be clear, I’m a doctoral student in the Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Program. If you are surprised that my favorite thesis of all time has come out of the annals of a short-lived dental school from the nineteenth century, imagine how I feel. But W.A. Allen of South Carolina has nonetheless made it into my personal hall of fame with “An Essay on Dentistry in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” submitted to the faculty of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery for the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1860.

Also, to be clear again, I am not saying that this dissertation is my favorite ever written because of its brilliance, its insight, its elegance of expression—“An Essay on Dentistry in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century” has made it into the hall of fame because of the unadulterated contempt its author seems to hold for the institution of the doctoral dissertation as a whole.

Of all the doctoral students whose theses I’ve read, I have never seen one who seems to so consistently, emphatically, and even hilariously flip the bird to his doctoral committee. What’s even more astounding is the fact that, given that this thesis is included in Ms. Coll. 1433, the damn thing worked. This document earned Mr. W.A. Allen of South Carolina his DDS in 1860. To give you a sense of how incredible this is, let’s first take a look at how Allen begins the document that would start his professional life. The first sentence reads as follows:

It is the practice of the professions of all Medical and Dental Institutions, to require of the candidate for graduation in Medicine or Dentistry, to write a Thesis on some branch of his studies.

Oh boy.

When teaching students how to write a college-level essay, one of the first things I do is warn against the impulse toward “throat-clearing.” This is a technique many beginning students use to (at best) orient their reader and (at worst) take up space in order to reach a minimum word- or page-count. In either case, it is a largely useless, distracting, and on occasion even insulting way to begin a paragraph, much less an essay, and much much less a thesis. As I tell my students, you shouldn’t really be telling your readers what you are about to write—you should just write it. (One of my favored, silly exempli gratia is that one of the great opening sentences in the fantasy genre is from Tolkein’s The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Imagine if it had started with something more like “Many people write novels to titillate and educate readers. They usually begin by introducing the novel’s main character and setting. This being a novel, I will therefore begin by introducing its main character and the setting. The novel begins now. In a hole in the ground…”)

Of course, opening-sentence throat-clearing is usually an easy fix—just delete whatever precedes the sentence where you actually begin the essay. In Allen’s case, his thesis truly begins in the following way:

Dr. Dunglison, in defining Thesis in his Medical Dictionary, says, “Thesis is the name usually given to the Essay composed by a candidate for graduation in Medicine.”

Wait—that’s more throat-clearing.

Translated into contemporary idiom, essentially Allen’s saying, “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘Thesis’ as…” This kind of opening has become so recognizable as a hallmark of lazy work that, even in an essay from 1860, it comes off as not only trite but outright grudging—two impressions that, I would imagine, one would not want to give off at the outset of one’s doctoral thesis. When I first read it, I couldn’t help but think of Steve Carrel’s portrayal of Michael Scott in the sitcom The Office: seizing the microphone at his employee’s wedding reception, Michael utters the immortal words, “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘wedding’ as ‘the fusing of two metals with a hot torch.’ Well you know something? I think you guys are two metals. Gold medals.” He then claps for himself.

Okay, so Allen has a bad opening. Big deal. This would have been simple to fix, but maybe he just wasn’t taught any better. At this point, I am perfectly willing to accept ignorance rather than disdain as the root of Mr. Allen’s rhetorical problems.

But then things really start to heat up. Following his dictionary definition of “thesis,” Allen writes that

Often, however, it is a mere form, giving useless labor and trouble to the student, inasmuch as it is executed as a task, and never afterwards regarded by the preceptor or by others. But as it has from long custom, assumed the authority of law, in obedience to which I this day commence the task.

Yeesh. So in addition to more throat-clearing, we get a sense of what he actually feels about his project—and it’s nothing good. According to him the whole business is “useless labor and trouble” that nobody will ever look at, a result of “long custom” that has “assumed the authority of law” which Allen only commences through a sense of openly grudging “obedience.” Of all the essays I’ve graded, I’ve at least never had to deal with one that began by saying essentially, “I’m writing this stupid essay that you probably don’t care about and I definitely don’t care about because you told me to.”

Following this magisterial first page, Allen takes us through a cursory and alarmingly sweeping history of dentistry from antiquity to his own day, one which cites no sources and doesn’t seem to have taken its author much time at all. In fact, it seems like Dr. Dunglison’s medical dictionary is the only book he cracked during the composition of his thesis. Allen’s argument, such as it is, seems to be in essence that people used to do dentistry poorly and by the middle of the nineteenth century had figured out how to do it better. The whole document runs some twenty pages.

If it sounds like I’m ragging on W.A. Allen’s thesis, I am—it’s a miserable paper with more problems than I could get into here—but that’s not all. Like I said, this is also my favorite thesis I’ve ever read. More than anything, it impresses me that he got away with this; it impresses me that he even tried it to begin with. While I would never come close to pulling a stunt like this (and I’m not suggesting any of my fellow graduates should do so either), Allen’s unmitigated and blatant contempt for something that frankly terrifies me and my colleagues is somewhat liberating—it is, after all, just a paper.

When I first started reading “An Essay on Dentistry in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century,” I didn’t think anything could top its first page. That was before I got to its last. Here in all its condescending glory is how Allen finishes his doctoral thesis:

It is not expected of the student, just entering the profession, to advance anything new in their Thesis to the professors. But it is expected that they will turn to good account the instructions which they have imparted to them. So in their turn, in riper years, from their experience and observation, they may instruct the young seeker after truth and knowledge in our rapid advancing profession.

My respected professors. As I have thrown these few disconnected remarks together, I hope that they will meet with your approbation. If so, my object is gained. I can add nothing more than to wish you all a long and happy life, and a rich harvest in your old age.

Avowing that he has no obligation to actually help advance knowledge in his field (a central goal of a doctoral dissertation as I understand it—though maybe that part was left out of Dunglison’s medical dictionary), Allen winds up for his final flourish. If I may hazard one more translation into contemporary idiom: “All right, old people. I’ve said some stuff and I hope that’s good enough.” What a hell of a mic drop.

2 responses to “Some thoughts on my favorite dissertation ever written”

  1. Does a scan of this work exist online somewhere, I’d /love/ to read it. I’m in the middle of putting the finishing touches on the final draft of my dissertation, and reading this post was cathartic.

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