Dreaming with my feet on the ground
A few days ago, I celebrated a personal triumph. On February 28, the registry office at University College London rolled out its latest monthly list of graduates and my PhD in Information Studies (Publishing) took full official effect. Meet Dr Greenberg: author, editor, scholar, teacher, and occasional blogger.
Although insignificant in the bigger scheme of things, the triumph counts as major news on this blog, started four years ago to help me lithify stray thoughts about a new scholarly identity.
The odd thing is that so far, I have posted hardly anything about the doctoral thesis. Some reflection about a previous life as journalist, and news about other projects; but when it came to the thesis itself, I felt protective. Until it was written, I was not entirely sure what it all meant. The final title, ‘The Hidden Art of Editing’, only emerged in the last few months.
Hopefully, the work will not remain hidden any longer. One book is already contracted with Peter Lang, a set of fascinating interviews with practitioners. Another is now in the proposal stage: a countervailing view of editing as a way of opening up the text, rather than closing it down.
There is a lot of mystique about doing a PhD. Often, that is not helpful. It is stubborn persistence and hard-headed planning that allows a student to come up with the goods, and steady, predictable support from the host institution. But there is something magical about the doctoral journey and its strange intensity.
Perhaps all major projects have this quality; the difference is that the doctoral thesis, at its best, must combine both imagination (the ‘original contribution to knowledge’) and solidity; the careful placement of stepping stones that allow the reader to retrace one’s steps.
In my case, the journey was taken later in life, alongside a full-time job. And by the nature of its subject matter, the research marked not just the start of a new professional life but the culmination of a previous one. On one level, there is a surprising constancy in the concerns pursued over the years. On another, my thinking has gone through a complete transformation.
Meanwhile, life happens. During the seven years since the start I began a new career, faced the end of a marriage, said goodbye to a parent and fought a life-threatening illness. It is not surprising that finishing became an act of defiance. It feels a big deal for the whole family too. Only a fraction of the extended family has a first degree, and I am only the second person with a doctorate; the first was won nearly 40 years ago.
Although personally I have met with only warm support and affirmation, our wider culture’s attitude to academic achievement is mixed, and sometimes contradictory. People demand qualifications from professionals as a marker for trust, but they are also sometimes attacked as ‘credentialism’. When a policy advisor was found to have lied about having a PhD, participants in the public debate were obliged to offer a basic defence of why that mattered.
For me, the PhD was never just about the qualification. It was about making discoveries that could be recognised by others; joining a conversation that might survive the tests of time.
It also feels valuable for its own sake. The last year of doctoral work, during a wonderful period of leave, provided dreamy freedom, perhaps the first since those long exam-less summers of girlhood. Not dreaming as in ‘ivory tower’, but dreaming as discovery. After a lifetime of short-term demands I was able to think things through; things that really mattered to me. The kind of dreaming that puts your feet on firmer ground.
The kind of dreaming that changes everything.