Education, History, Spotlight

My Dissertation Disaster

“This is your chance to write in depth about what interests you,” said my lecturers as I prepared to embark upon my History dissertation. I had just finished studying the Russian intelligentsia’s epistolary networks of the nineteenth century, and had enjoyed it so much that I had often found myself deep-diving into the Soviet literature of the twentieth century, too. In my thesis I wanted to marry this newfound twentieth century interest to my longstanding fascination with totalitarianism. Whenever the concept of totalitarianism had come up in classes, it had intrigued me, but during my three years at university I hadn’t had an opportunity to study it in any depth. I was enthralled by what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “the long blank page of Russian history” during the 1930s and 1940s, and I wanted to find out more about the institutionalization of literature in the USSR. My dissertation provided me with the chance to do so.

But a little over a year later, I found myself turning in a paper entitled: “What Can the Relationship Between Soviet Women and WWII as Expressed in Soviet Culture Tell Us About Memory and History in the USSR (1953-1966)?” I knew that I hadn’t done myself justice. In a module that—more than any other—was supposed to be my own, how on earth had I managed to end up so far from my chosen topic? And, once I realised I wasn’t benefitting from, or even enjoying, my new direction, why did I persist with it? While the compromises and concessions I made along the way were my own, my dissertation fiasco wasn’t entirely my fault. Part of the reason I ended up writing about gender and memory and culture in the USSR, rather than literature and totalitarianism, was that I was assigned a dissertation supervisor who specialised in culture and gender. A twentieth century Russian historian, she was a representative of what Niall Ferguson has called the ‘Monochrome Left.’

While it was not the job of my dissertation supervisor to tell me what to write, she did have several very definite ideas about what I should not write. So many, in fact, that this amounted to pretty much the same thing. The upshot was that a labour of love became a burden, into which I begrudgingly sank countless hours of research. I loved History and every other module I took, but I grew to hate this one. Perhaps it was precisely because I loved all my other modules that I persevered. The history of didactic poetry, the spread of Greek culture across the Mediterranean, a comparative approach to the history of violence—I was so engrossed by the range and depth of these modules that I suppose I just reasoned my dissertation worries away; what did I have to complain about if one module happened to be a chore?

Over the final year of study, undergraduates meet with their supervisors more than once a term, and during these meetings I found that most of my ideas were either discouraged with a wry smile or a raised eyebrow or were simply brushed aside. Going back through my university e-mails reacquainted me with this miserable experience, and allowed me to reconstruct a timeline of events that I hope will serve as a salutary warning to other undergraduates who find themselves in a similar position…

28 April 2016

It is nearing the end of my second year at university. In my final year I have elected to write a dissertation and this requires the submission of a project proposal. I send the module coordinator an email indicating my interest in totalitarianism and Russian literature. I receive a positive response.

3 May 2016 

I submit my Nomination of Interest form. This document is meant to help faculty assess the viability of proposed research areas and allocate an appropriate supervisor. I explain that I want to analyse the relationship between totalitarianism and literature in the USSR during the mid-twentieth century. I will be looking at the writers who chose not to emigrate, such as Sholkhov and Gorky, and how they survived and worked within the Soviet system.

31 May 2016 

I meet with my dissertation supervisor for the first time. She insists that the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s was not totalitarian, and that using totalitarianism as an analytical framework has long since been dismantled by revisionist scholarship. Clearly my supervisor knows more about Soviet history than I do. Nevertheless, I counter, surely the term still has some analytical value. I argue that even if I were to grant that the USSR had absolutely nothing in common with Orwell’s 1984, totalitarianism might have as much to do with intent as it does with practical reality. A long exchange ensues, during which we debate whether or not there is anything salvageable in the term. My supervisor seems peculiarly determined to render it obsolete. She firmly advises me against making totalitarianism the focus of my dissertation. She makes her case with emphatic certainty—the scholarship on this matter, she tells me, is settled. She is so dismissive that I begin to feel foolish for having even proposed it. Leaving the meeting, it occurs to me that, paradoxically, a re-examination of ‘settled scholarship’ ought to be ideal. After all, to tick what my supervisor and her colleagues call the ‘originality box’ of a History dissertation, you are meant to understand your limits, set your sights low, and identify small points of difference.

15 August 2016

Over the summer which separates my second and third years of study, I do some preliminary reading. Still determined to find a way into totalitarianism, I decide to revise my approach. I move away from the 1930s and ’40s, delving instead into the ‘Secret Speech’ delivered by Khrushchev in 1956, and the ‘Cult of Personality’ which outlived Stalin. I send her an email, asking for her opinion on both these ideas. (I do not tell her that I intend to use them as a way back into totalitarianism.) Her reply is generally supportive of both these ideas. However, she adds that I should look beyond literature and consider other cultural forms as well, such as film. I’m surprised that she is only telling me this now, and had not thought to raise it at our first meeting. If there isn’t enough translated literature she could have told me so at the outset. And if there is enough translated literature, then why not give me the time to me to collect it?

22 September 2016

I have a second meeting with my supervisor at the start of my third year, and I tell her that while I appreciate I need to widen my source base, I still want to focus on the nature and effects of totalitarianism. Again, she advises me against this. In an email I send her after the meeting, I finally concede defeat in this battle, and ask her to recommend a concept with which I can engage if I cannot write about totalitarianism. She replies that it is not a good idea to focus on just one thing at undergraduate level: “There isn’t going to be one historiographical tradition you have to situation yourself within, there are going to be several.” This strikes me as rather vague advice, but what I think she means is that it is easier to tick the ‘originality box’ by spreading yourself thinner. Even this doesn’t completely make sense to me. Surely I can study a small part of a big idea and still hope to contribute something of value? How can I expect to contribute to multiple historiographies without making my dissertation disjointed and piecemeal? By now, I have the feeling that my supervisor and I are at cross-purposes. It seems that we approach history in fundamentally different ways, and I begin to wonder whether her specialist field of study should have sounded an alarm earlier in the process.

13 October 2016

I submit my ‘Detailed Research Plan.’ This is meant to catch any problems in sources and scholarship before it’s too late. My working title is now: “How Did Popular Culture During Khrushchev’s Thaw Re-Define Patriotism in Relation to The Great Patriotic War (1953-1966)?” I have reluctantly accepted that I will not be studying totalitarianism, but I am determined to engage with a single concept, regardless. I had always liked history best at its most coherent and grand. The histories I enjoyed were the big stories; theories that attempt to unify and make sense of the greater whole; that seek to identify broad connections in historical narratives, and which make use of rhetorical flourishes to illustrate a point because they trust their readers enough. Which is not to say that I want to attempt such a thing myself; I just want to enjoy my dissertation readings and engage deeply with the idea.

16 November 2016

I attend a ‘Dissertation Surgery.’ This is a ten minute meeting with another member of the History faculty, whose job it is to answer any dissertation-related queries I might have. I meet with a module coordinator and tell him how frustrated I am that I have been discouraged from studying totalitarianism by my supervisor. I am told that I still can still study totalitarianism if that’s what I want to do. I am told to pursue whatever I find most interesting, and that, although totalitarianism isn’t his area of expertise, he can’t imagine that there is nothing left to be said on the subject. I emerge from the surgery feeling a little better, but do not ask to change supervisors. Maybe I am not seeing totalitarianism clearly enough and just need to hit on the right approach to win over my dissertation supervisor.

18 December 2016

I meet with my supervisor and she tells me what she thinks of my new research plan. She’s pleased with the time-frame I have selected, but she spends what feels like an unconscionably long time ensuring I understand the importance of naming that period correctly. I am all for precision, but her repeated references to ‘so-called’ this and ‘so-called’ that, and whether the ‘so-called’ this-or-that should be put in ‘so-called’ inverted commas or not, all starts to wear me down. It feels ever so insular. Then she announces that I simply must expand my interest beyond ‘patriotism’ singular. As I listen to her prescriptions, I remind myself that she is the marker of my essay. Since my plan to study totalitarianism is a vanishing dream, I give in to her because it’s the easy thing to do. She encourages me to analyse the sources through the lens of gender. I don’t recall mentioning an interest in a gendered approach, and I’m aware of being prodded down an ever-narrowing tunnel of legitimate fields of study into her own area of speciality. I leave the meeting demoralised but send her an email confirming my new direction. It is an e-mail I now read back with horror.

13 March 2017

My new working title is: “How Did Thaw Culture Remember the Soviet Women of WWII?” I vaguely remember that, while my supervisor expressed her approval of this new direction, it was my own idea to go down the history-as-memory route. Now that I am looking at culture through the lens of gender, it seems a natural next step to make it about lived experience. I’m also aware that I’m now running out of time, and I’ve noticed that a plethora of recent scholarship exploring culture and women and WWII happens to deal with memory. I suspect that focusing on remembering will make this all easier to write. That this is a shallow motivation does not occur to me. I am, by now, in damage-control mode.

23 March 2017

My last point of contact with my supervisor is to discuss a sample chapter. The formative mark she gives me is awful, and rightfully so. This is now an essay soup which explores patriotism, female identity, memory, power-relations, and individuality. There is so much stuff here that my initial idea, which I had been warned was too big for a dissertation, now seems small by comparison. If I wasn’t ever going to be allowed to channel Arendt, I might at least have been permitted—and even encouraged—to carve out a small piece of totalitarianism for dissection. I could have engaged with the ‘settled’ historiography and explored new ways in which ‘totalitarianism’ might be a valuable term of analysis (assuming my research confirmed this hunch—it may not have, but we’ll never know). The conversation in our last face-to-face meeting quickly becomes circular. I’m bored, frustrated, and uninspired, and she keeps retreading old ground, as if she’s forgotten our previous conversations. In our final exchange she breezily assures me that although I have lots of changes to make, I should be okay.

4 May 2017

Over the last month before the deadline, I grind out my dissertation with the sensibilities of my supervisor lurking in the back of my mind. I tinker constantly with the title, and by the time I am finished I have settled on “What Can the Relationship Between Soviet Women and WWII as Expressed in Soviet Culture Tell Us About Memory and History in the USSR (1953-1966)?” In the final document, the word ‘totalitarianism’ appears tangentially just twice.

Looking back over my emails confirmed that I allowed myself to get sidetracked very early on. Browbeaten and discouraged, I was directed onto my supervisor’s favoured railroad and carted off to the gulag of dead-end scholarship. I was at least correct that writing about history as if it were memory would make it easier to write. By conflating the two, my dissertation became impossible, and this impossibility made it hard to fail. As Arif Dirlik once remarked, “The proliferation of memory is the impossibility of history, but the proliferation of histories makes everything incoherent.” This was where I betrayed myself the most. I’d have loved to have written a dissertation on totalitarianism with a capital ‘T’, and to have risked failing in the attempt. It might not have satisfied my supervisor, but at least it would have been mine.

Historians sometimes get trapped on the second floor of a three-story building. Yes, they’ll say, (passing quickly through the ground floor), the resemblances between Nazi Germany and the USSR are longstanding and widely recognised, but it’s the vast differences between the two on the second floor that are more important and, therefore, more interesting. My suspicion is that, while the second floor is capacious and anyone can find another difference if they look hard enough, once this floor has been explored and one has recognised that totalitarianism is conceptually fraught, one should be able to revisit the similarities between Nazi Germany and the USSR on the third floor. Students should be encouraged to revisit and re-explore salient commonalities once evident in the two systems.

I expected my dissertation to be the most rewarding module of a degree that I loved. Instead, I am left with regrets. Most of all, I regret that I did not respect my own abilities enough to pursue what I wanted. At the time, I assumed that there must be lots of good reasons why I underperformed. A lack of effort. A lack of organisation. A lack of talent. A lack of courage. Perhaps the last of these, most of all. Doubtless, all played their part. But I also wonder if I wasn’t simply doomed by an unsympathetic supervisor whose own field of study has been opened up, in her own words, by “postmodernist trends” and the use of “Foucauldian frameworks.” I am not ideologically inflexible—come election day, my vote leans leftwards, and my university experience, although frequently as monochrome as its conservative critics attest, was not generally stunted as a result. Some of my best lecturers were openly Marxist and yet brilliant in their fields in spite of their biases. But I can’t help resenting my dissertation supervisor. In an attempt to give her what I thought she wanted, I sacrificed the chance to explore a topic in which I was fascinated, and was rewarded with the average mark I expected. “Dealing with anything to do with memory,” she wrote in the opening line of my final feedback form, “is tricky…”

Featured pic: Stalin and Maxim Gorky, 1931

 

Jack Morgan Jones graduated from Exeter University last year, and has since fled to China. He blogs about this and some other things at jackmorganjones.com, and he tweets @JackMorganJ

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48 Comments

  1. Peter Freeman says

    Did your supervisor give any specific reason why the 30s and 40s USSR wasn’t totalitarian?

    • ga gamba says

      It wasn’t totalitarianism… erm… it was Stalinism! Totally different. For example, the spelling. Also… Beria.

      She insists that the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s was not totalitarian. . . . the scholarship on this matter, she tells me, is settled. . . . an unsympathetic supervisor whose own field of study has been opened up, in her own words, by “postmodernist trends” and the use of “Foucauldian frameworks.”

      If I understand this correctly, “settled” means the truth has been established and it’s no longer up for debate. Yet, in postmodernism, what does it have to say about the truth? Maurice Blanchot, who greatly influenced Foucault, the creator of “Foucauldian frameworks”, wrote: ““there are no dishonored concepts, betrayed or treacherous; there are only concepts which require to be re-thought over and over again.” That hardly sounds like anything is “settled”, other than settling on the idea all concepts must be continuously scrutinised, doesn’t it? Seems your professor belongs to the philosophical movement of I’m Rubber You’re Glue.

      Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski defined the characteristics of totalitarianism as a totalistic ideology, a single party reinforced by a secret police, and a monopoly of the three major forms of interpersonal confrontation in industrial mass society, e.g. mass communication, weapons, and all organisations including economic ones. Perhaps your professor was dissatisfied by the definition?

      There are better ones.

      1) A revolutionary ideology expressing faith in the necessary laws of history, announcing the destruction of the old order and the birth of a radically new and purified best one. The totalistic ideology is also very exclusionary; it is treated as the only truth and any other ideologies, ideas, thoughts, and theories are first scrutinised to verify compliance and those to the contrary or different are viewed as heresy and are censured;

      2) A mass party structure headed by a charismatic leader who claims infallibility, and who demands the unconditional personal devotion of the people. No one other than the leader is ever above suspicion of treachery, and the people govern their words and actions with this understanding;

      3) Pursuit of the goal of shaping a “new man”. The leader thinks the people are as a malleable clay and human reality itself is to be refashioned;

      4) A chaotic displacement of offices and roles so as to ensure rivalry and therefore dependence on the real site of power;

      5) A collective economic system intended to direct productive forces toward the regime’s autarchic and militaristic goals;

      6) Total control of mass media and academia, and with that, the formulation of a set language designed to prevent ambivalence and complexity;

      7) The leader’s thoughts are so infused by the people that in the absence of direct commands the people’s actions are based on their understanding of the leader’s wishes and wants.

      8) Perpetual mobilization of the population through wars, struggles, or purges;

      9) The pervasive use of terror by secret police to isolate, intimidate, and align all those whom the regime deems menacing;

      10) The centrality of an “objective enemy”: the pursuit and elimination not simply of real opponents but also categories of people deemed guilty of wickedness in virtue of some ascribed quality such as race, belief, class, or descent. Crimes against the state need not have actually been committed by the person accused of them;

      11) The concentration camp, as laboratory of totalitarian domination: the space of experimenting on the conditions under which human subjects become fully malleable. In addition, a slave labor system existing side-by-side with a racial, sectarian, and/or class-oriented policy of severe oppression and even genocide.

      Stalinist USSR certainly met all these conditions.

      As an aside, one of the stranger paradoxes of the Soviet Union was sociology was banned for most of regime’s existence though Marx is considered one of the founding fathers of it. Sociology was declared “bourgeois” and it was only after Stalin’s death that Yuri Levada was allowed to practice it. After Khrushchev was purged Levada was denounced for criticising the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and fired by Moscow State University – soon more than 200 other sociologists were purged too. It wasn’t until Gorbachev that Levada was allowed to research again. In 1989 he was allowed to conduct the USSR’s first western-style public-opinion survey. One of the respondents wrote: “I am 80 years old, and no one has ever asked me for my opinion.” I think that sums up an outcome of totalitarianism quite well.

      A postmodern “truth” is that there’s my truth, your truth, and that 80-year-old’s truth. I’d love to witness a conversation between your professor, for whom totalitarianism is an abstraction that I presume she never experienced first-hand, and that 80-year-old, for whom totalitarianism moulded his/her life. What would be the response when she told him the 1930s and ’40s was not totalitarian?

      Mr Jones, I hope someday you write the paper you wanted and post it to your former professor.

      • TarsTarkas says

        The academic version of the Brezhnev doctrine; ‘all concepts must be continuously scrutinised’ except those that don’t need scrutinisation because ‘the scholarship is settled’. Talk about close-mindedness!

  2. Jeremy H says

    “She insists that the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s was not totalitarian…”

    This is where you should have stood up and slowly backed out of the room never taking your eyes off the dangerous creature in front of you. Seriously though, it sounds like you’re a couple decades too late for your original thesis. In the 90s totalitarianism was still the rage in the histories; you probably would have been encouraged in this direction. That was at least interesting, I can’t imagine what being a student today would be like, having to look at everything through the “gender” and/or “social justice” lenses.

  3. Sean WA says

    Stop the press! ” If there isn’t enough translated literature she could have told me so at the outset. And if there is enough translated literature, then why not give me the time to me to collect it?” Are you saying that you *can’t* read Russian fluently?

    • Tom J. says

      An undergraduate student majoring in History isn’t going to become fluent in the languages spoken in the places they will study. That’s just not realistic. Perhaps the word “dissertation” led you to believe this was a graduate program, but he says this project began after three years of university.

  4. A Berman says

    Well, the kid wanted to learn about totalitarianism…

  5. Mark says

    It’s been over 10 years since I was at university, but it seems as though the narrative is a strong postmodern one these days. And everything must be filtered through some “progressive left” acceptability bubble.

    The author should have pushed back and made a complaint to the head of the department, although I know I wouldn’t have had enough life experience 10 years ago to do so. We need to start pushing back against these types of things. Articles are great, but they can’t complete with a movement that’s been going on since the ’60s.

  6. John says

    You became a case study in your own dissertation!

  7. Thanks for writing this memory piece. Hopefully, it’ll give courage to others caught in your predicament and help them chose the more daring path. In the end, nothing original ever comes from those who did not speak with their own voice.

  8. Ah, yet another tale of woe from a 20-year-old suffering at the hands of the Great and Powerful Oz.

    Every time we tear back the curtain, we find “Postmodernism” operating the levers!

    I will say that it is a shame the author wasn’t allowed to do a “deep dive” into Totalitarianism because the 6 decades during which there was no other lens through which to view Russian or Soviet history surely was not sufficient to do justice to either the concept or the historical reality. And hardly is the Cold War over than scholars begin to insist on looking at things in a different way to advance the cause of knowledge!

    I will also say that when all you worry about is adequate marks it seems somewhat churlish to complain that you were not allowed to express yourself in your academic work.

    • yeah! people totally overemphasis the police state, the spying, the gulags, the mass starvation, the break down of society in the name of party worship. I really don’t know why calling it totalitarian has been so popular for six decades. :p

    • Fluffy Buffalo says

      I;m not a historian at all, but this seems like a very one-sided take on things. First off, “totalitarianism as the only lens for six decades” is bullshit. While some people understood what went on the Soviet Union in the 50s and 60s, communism had plenty of fanboys among public intellectuals and naive young people at that time, and they sure didn’t all see the USSR as totalitarian.
      Second, “looking at things in different way to advance the cause of knowledge” is quite different from “the previous approach was dead wrong.” Note that his advisor didn’t tell the author “look, the totalitarianism angle has been done to death, you won’t be able to write anything that hasn’t been done better a thousand times already.” She said that the USSR wasn’t totalitarian at that time, and that the framework was useless. Which is the sort of thing you’d say if you had a revisionist agenda, IMO.

  9. afig says

    Foucault wasn’t a marxist guys. Nor is postmodernism. They’re hostile to marxists and marxists to them. There are people trying to salvage Foucault from neoliberalism. Having said that, your experience isn’t unique, and I don’t think it has much to do with leftism in the humanities. I know people studying chemistry who have ended up in similar dead ends. If anything it sounds like the supervisor was just trying to steer you away from a dated paradigm into what was current. The thing to do might have been to just focus on the institutionalissation of literature and leave the word totalitarianism out, or find whatever the current buzzword for it was.

    Easy to say in retrospect though and I find myself fighting similar struggles to you.

    • sceptical says

      Steering him away from a dated paradigm? I doubt your explanation for this debacle is correct. Supervisors in history are rarely able to detect “dated paradigms” because they lack a sense of the way intellectual fashions change. Accustomed to looking backwards rather than forwards, they tend to be two paces behind the latest theoretical frameworks arousing enthusiasm in English or philosophy departments. Not only that, no true post-modernist would ever make an argument that a particular view was “settled scholarship”. The essence of post-modernism is the assumption that there is no truth out there, or at any rate none that we can expect to discover, that contesting truth claims are no more than power contests.

    • Deafening Tone says

      “Foucault wasn’t a marxist guys.”

      Welllllll, maybe you should hear how the transformation came about from Michel himself. See the first minute of this video:

      https://youtu.be/G9EZbSTAgHg

      Catholics are hostile to Prostestants. Are they not both Christian? The analogy would help if we didn’t make Marxism a fundamental worldview. My critique of Jordan Peterson’s “Neo-Marxist Postmodernism” is that both Marxism and Postmodernism are part of a bigger, fundamental worldview: humanity is under oppression and the powers that be must be overthrown (cf. the French Revolution and the birth of the “New Man”). The quibble between the two is over the source of the oppression.

      Also, the introduction to the book below is very revealing. The authors detail their transition from Marxism to Postmodernism and the “conversion” is quite interesting…as are the continuing themes:

    • Piper says

      Coates never finished college so not sure his opinion matters.

  10. AC Harper says

    “I love learning, but hate being taught.”
    ~ Winston Churchill

    I’m afraid you were being taught, not encouraged to learn. Are ‘left wing’ thinkers more likely to teach ‘the truth’ than mentor learning? Perhaps.

  11. dirk says

    Nice portrait of Gorky and Stalin, they seem to be old buddie. Gorky stayed, in the face of all the totalitarisation around, but helped other critical writers (such as the Russian Orwell, Zamyatin) to emigrate,thereby avoid being arrested or worse. The hero of the small peasant farmers, Chayanov, was arrested (early 1930s) and shot by Stalin, because he did not agree with the drastic, totalitarian collectivisation of the 5 yr plans of Stalin. But why should a youngster want to go into totalitarism? Because of Peterson’s lectures on youtube? Because of compassion with people far away, under the boots of that totalitarism? And why to include gender, has that anything to do with it? And why complain at Quillette (how to proceed with her study, whereas she can guess that mrs supervisor will read this?). I would say, just follow the gender exigencies of your supervisors and do your own thing once finished and free. Take Peterson as an example!
    Because, it looks like, universities have become totalitarian viper nests.

  12. King K says

    Sounds like Mr. Jones learnt a thing or two about totalitarianism in this three years.

  13. Thomas van Iersel says

    I see remnants of totalitarianism in her approach to your writing of a thesis. I doubt she would though.

  14. theo richard says

    She obviously never read anything about the Ukraine in the early 30’s.

  15. Mark Green says

    I feel that this article may be your more valuable contribution to historical research, in this case the historical analysis of the bastardisation of academia.

  16. cacambo says

    Breaking News: student has issues with thesis advisor–proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that academia has been irredeemably corrupted by postmodern neo-marxism. Details at 11:00!

  17. sceptical says

    Although sympathetic to the writer’s plight in this account, I find myself equally outraged and baffled by the line “I was assigned a dissertation supervisor who specialised in culture and gender. ” Since when are supervisors assigned to students intending to write a dissertation?

    That is not how things were done in any graduate or indeed undergraduate programme I took part in. My choice of supervisors for both my master’s and doctoral work brought me many problems but nothing like this. I hope that assigning dissertation supervisors to students has not become a common practice, or our intellectual life and freedom is in even more danger than I had thought.

  18. Tim says

    I am about to go back to school and am concerned about how accepted my ideas for research will be… Thank you for the encouragement to follow my own interests!

  19. A sad story. Yes, your supervisor should be fired. Of course the soviet union was totalitarian. When historians give up truth and objectivity, nothing is left of history.

    • dirk says

      Why fired Alex? It’s not her fault! She is just swimming with the other fishes and the head fish. Imagine, she would speak with the words and opinions of a Quillette reader, she would herself immediately be fired, miss her income, and have difficulties to find another job, if any. We (in the US, Western Europe, not so in Eastern, I think) have come very close to the old Sovjets, it’s tragic, but also, somewhere, funny!

  20. NomNom says

    Write a book about totalitarianism, my dude. Don’t let your college experience stop you from writing on the subject.

    • dirk says

      That’s what I meant in a former reaction Nomnom. Jack has also something of a plaintive, a child, not quite adult (but, of course, he was also very young). My whole life I have thought, the system I live in, the ideas of colleagues, not my cup of tea, but can I change it on my own? Better, go your own way, that’s quite possible in that same system, at least one good thing.

  21. Lesley says

    Eh, unless you are being coached for graduate school, who cares if a given dissertation topic is sufficiently trendy? And even then really, who cares? Isn’t the point of an undergraduate dissertation to demonstrate that the undergraduate A) knows how to do research, B) knows how to discriminate among sources, and C) knows how to synthesis an idea from those sources and argue about it coherently? To that end, who even cares if it’s wildly original or not?

  22. Chuck says

    I think your mistake is assuming that scholarship and research is objective and neutral and that your instructors are impartial. They are not. They seek replication and reinforcement of their own grasp of reality. If you and your thesis supervisor are not on the same page from the start you are sunk. Can you write something that totally upends their outlook on life, the universe and everything else and expect them to be happy about it or is it more likely the messenger gets killed?

    Until you are independently wealthy you are not independent from their control, thus you must find a controller you are compatible with.

    That is not the way it is supposed to be but I think that is the way it is.

  23. Gregory Bogosian says

    Sounds like you just had a bad supervisor. A good supervisor, who didn’t believe in totalitarianism, would direct you to the scholarship that debunks the concept of totalitarianism, as well as the scholarship that lays out a superior paradigm for studying the times and places that we consider “totalitarian.” Also, telling you to not lock yourself into any one historiography is just stupid. Picking a topic and sticking with it is the basics of the basics of academic writing.

  24. Anthony says

    A smart, sharply written, and timely dispatch from the front lines. May I suggest that you take up your topic in a PhD program? Any program would be lucky to have you .

  25. dirk says

    @Jack: if you still meet or write your supervisor, tell her(because she is found of films) about the existence of the short movie – Love is potatoes-, by Aliona van der Horst, about old relatives in a Russian village where she was on a reunion. These old aunts had experienced the horrors of Stalin (artificial hunger, forced labour on state lands, brothers and fathers succumbed in Germany etc). But, to the great surprise of Aliona (she married a Dutchman and lives in Holland now) her aunts did not remember these horrors, they didn’t want to, everything was “normal”, you should not make an elephant of a mosquito. it was all for the good of Russia and the victory.The movie got high esteem in the Russian ARTDOCFEST, now, under Putin, but would never have made in in Stalin’s time of course.

    • dirk says

      Indeed, a mystery more Benita, “he fled to China”, after graduation? to feel free? to do what there? Invited for being anti-totalitarian? Sometimes the riddles begin just only after the article and the comments are put in place!

  26. Evan Osborne says

    It gives one pause that your supervisor who denied the existence of an actual phenomenon called totalitarianism is not identified. I am not sure what to make of that.

  27. Coincidentally, it was discovered that the Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s was not totalitarian shortly after institutions of higher education became totalitarian.

  28. David Blair says

    I have found that professors (and students) at Chinese universities, at least the leading ones, have a much greater level of free speech than can currently be found at American (and, apparently, UK) universities. I also find that the Chinese press is much less censored and much less a party propaganda organ than, for example, the Washington Post.

    • dirk says

      Rosa will immediately agree David, though I don’t know whether with joy or with anger.

      • David Blair says

        Sorry, I don’t know who Rosa is. In any case, it is not something to be joyful about.

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