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April 18, 2015 1:11 AM   Subscribe

Robert Eaglestone reviews the first English translation of Umberto Eco's How To Write A Thesis:
Into this bleak picture comes the first English translation of Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, continuously in print in Italy since 1977. That was a long time ago in academia, and, at first sight, lots of this book looks just useless, rooted in its historic and specific Italian context. Who uses index cards any more? (I mean, I used to, but I wrote my PhD on a computer with no hard drive, using 5¼-inch diskettes, when the internet was still for swapping equations at Cern or firing nukes at Russia.) Who has typists copy up their thesis? The sections on using libraries and research sources sound like an account of a lost, antediluvian culture. But.
posted by the man of twists and turns (5 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Consider Eco’s caution against “the alibi of photocopies”: “A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them.
So much this.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:55 AM on April 18, 2015 [20 favorites]

5. You must write a thesis that you are able to write

A particularly mordant Hell is Casaubon's Syndrome, where you only discover your genuine inability half-way through the attempt.
posted by Segundus at 5:38 AM on April 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

My friend recently slid his copy of this very book across the table as we were having coffee. He told me it was wonderful. I opened it and saw an image of an index card and nearly flipped my lid.

I wrote my very-recently-completed dissertation using index cards. I did a grounded theory study, and I found that index cards were the best way to organize my inductive codes and to engage in constant comparison as I collected and analyzed my data. I actually had a few weeks where I pinned some of the cards to my wall and connected them with strings in order to try to get a grip on how the codes related to one another.

I'll tell you, that month no one saw my office, because I was actually a tad ashamed of how weird the whole thing looked. I felt a little like the main character in Homeland for a bit. But man, it really worked as an analytic tool.

The most important part of writing a dissertation is finding whatever method works for you as quickly as possible and just doing that and not putting it under the microscope too much. It seems like a great time to find the best and most efficient method for writing, but in reality the best method is usually just "whatever you always do to get a handle on intellectual things, just a whole lot more of it."
posted by k8lin at 5:42 AM on April 18, 2015 [11 favorites]

“You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian,” he writes, “because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation.”
Gotta love Eco. This book wouldn't have enabled me to finish my dissertation, but it might have helped me have a better time failing to finish it.
posted by languagehat at 8:40 AM on April 18, 2015 [12 favorites]

This is all good advice. I can only thank Christ I don't have to do another one, because I don't have enough juice left in the tank, and I'm getting a headache just thinking about it.
posted by Wolof at 7:47 AM on April 19, 2015

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