Name: Matthew Chaldekas
Year in program: 7
Perhaps my favorite part about being an academic is the thrill of composition. I have always enjoyed hunkering down to write, making discoveries, uncovering connections, and putting it all into words. The experience falls nothing short of euphoria. As an undergraduate and early graduate student, my madness was sometimes channeled into short bursts that happened to coincide with the end of the semester and looming due dates… When I started writing my dissertation, I realized that I needed a better process. This is a bigger project and I needed a new method to ensure I could write something on larger scale without burning myself out.
I should probably pause to introduce my field of study: I study Classics, in particular ancient Greek poetry.
My approach to literature always relates it to real life in some way, so I try to show how ancient literature reflects on historical realities and how those realities matter for us today.
My research includes literary criticism, historical source-work, ancient textual transmission, and a wide sampling of modern sociology and other theory.
The early stages of the dissertation involved a lot of writing, reading pertinent scholarship, and revising. Although I had a topic and an argument clearly selected, the overall organization of the project wasn’t clear until I had loose drafts of the first 2 chapters.
Crafting an overarching structure for a book-length project requires calm reflection, not madness.
I still get to lose myself in day-long research binges in which I have to collocate all of the instances of a particular word in Greek literature in order to show that its meaning in my text has been misinterpreted. This requires a lot of reading and combing through centuries of textual commentary and sometimes results in nothing more than a long footnote. The most important change from my earlier method is that I have started to feel the wind overtake me when I revise. There is a thrill in being able to spot places in my text where the argument becomes unclear and to provide better scaffolding for my conclusions.
My project is nearing its completion, and there is a long overdue relief that all of this work is going to finally result in something that feels complete.
Now that I am teaching and applying for jobs, I tend to bracket time off for dissertating. (Writing cover letters and teaching philosophies does not have the same euphoric effect as academic writing.) Sometimes I work until the early afternoon on my other duties, and then I let myself get lost in the whirlwind of writing. I keep a drawer of food in my desk, so I can refuel when I need to, and I try not to stay on campus so late that it makes me feel groggy the next day.
Nietzsche famously argued that Greek tragedy was a fusion of Dionysiac madness and the ordering principles of Apollonian reason. To write my dissertation, I’ve had to make the same thing happen in my head.
Matthew Chaldekas is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Southern California.