Explaining Your Dissertation to Amelia Bedelia

by | August 13, 2012

As a child, I felt a wicked sense of glee when I read Amelia Bedelia books. Amelia Bedelia is a housekeeper who takes all instructions literally. If asked to draw the curtains, she pulls out a sketch pad and etches a lovely picture. If asked to dust the furniture, her only dilemma is whether to use talcum powder or dirt from the yard. And don’t even think of asking her to dress the turkey! My amusement at these literal responses to efforts at communication sparked my great love of the English language and how to misuse it. I continue to be the annoying person who posts corny remarks on Facebook, pretending to misunderstand the post, or who mock wails, “Don’t eat my little boy!” when my husband tells my son, “Let’s eat, Shannon!” But this also helped me to understand later, when I was in graduate school, why clarity in my prose was so incredibly important.

Let’s travel back in time now to what I thought was my last year in graduate school, when my mentor returned my final dissertation chapter with the comment, “Your conclusions just aren’t supported by the rest of your dissertation. You’ll need to completely rethink this one.” I called my mentor and said, “I’m not sure what other conclusion I could make, and you and I have been talking about this conclusion to my study for quite some time. Why is it suddenly now not okay, and can you help me figure out where to go in this chapter if not where I originally envisioned?” She asked me to verbally walk her through the problematic chapter; I did, and there was a brief silence on the other end. Then she said, “Melissa, what you just said to me makes perfect sense and is acceptable to me as your dissertation conclusion. But that’s NOT what you wrote!” From my perspective, what I said to my mentor was EXACTLY what I wrote. But clearly, my mentor didn’t agree, and given her academic reputation and abilities, I frankly had to assume I was mistaken about my clarity.

So I started writing for Amelia Bedelia. Every sentence I wrote, I asked myself the question: “Could this be misunderstood? Can I be more concise? Can I use unambiguous language?” and my favorite, “Can I figuratively beat my readers over the head with my meaning, so it’s impossible to ignore?” It’s not a fun way to write, but guess what? It’s the academic way to write.

So the next time you get feedback from your committee or IRB or the school that makes you wonder if they even read the darn thing you submitted, ask yourself: could Amelia Bedelia misinterpret this? If so, you have some work to do, dissertator. I’d tell you to get cracking, but I would then fear for your knuckles.