Education, History, Top Stories

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, and he tweets @JackMorganJ