Discussing matters of legitimacy: When your dissertation paper hits too close to home

Written by Ilham Lamrani Alaoui

            Upon starting their master’s degree, students face a variety of issues, one of them being: what is their dissertation going to be about? Having to find something to write and read up on for months can be very daunting. Teachers usually advise students to work on something they are particularly interested in, since they will be spending hours and hours on this paper. But that means they are left with the endless possibilities that come with the sentence “you can work on anything.” The latter is true, indeed… in theory. But they will have to pick a subject which will allow them to find enough primary sources to fuel their reflections. Once their choice is made, they can spend hours online, in a library or in a research center, looking for the document, the holy grail that will unlock (or not) the mystery of all their hypotheses.

            If, similarly to myself, they picked a topic that they love studying (in my case, African-American history – more precisely, the representation of African Americans in the US judiciary system), they will soon be confronted with important issues. First: isn’t this topic too personal? As academics in training, students are expected to never lack objectivity in regard to their work. Therefore, they need to have (and maintain) a certain distance in what they write within their dissertations. Since I work on race-related issues, I have to read, watch and listen to very provocative materials – some documents deal with police brutality, slavery, rape… All of this made me question my work due to the latter’s emotional impact: would I truly be able to do this?

            The issues that I am studying are bigger than my own feelings. It made me ponder on my legitimacy as an aspiring academic – am I allowed to dive into this? I am not Black. I am not American. I am a woman of color and a minority… but can I write, work and make hypotheses on a life I will never experience, and a community that I do not belong to? This questioning went as far as making me question my legitimacy to pursue a career in academia.

            Upon talking to my fellow classmates, I found out that I was not the only one suffering from this “impostor syndrome”. Some did not have issues with the topic of their master’s thesis itself, but their difficulties had more to do with the very exercise of writing a piece of research, questioning whether they had the legitimacy to challenge certain ideas (expressed by established scholars). Other students did not have these problems, as they picked a topic that was directly linked to their personal lives. One of my fellow classmates works on gender issues and feminism: she chose those fields of study as a feminist and a woman – it was a way for her to educate herself further, to speak out on certain issues. Her research topic gave her a voice.

            My own experience and those testimonies led me to a deeper question: why did I pick this subject? My choice was undoubtedly influenced by the modules on Cultural and African American studies, because these lessons confirmed that my interest in African American history was “academic enough” (since professors taught those topics in a university classroom, it gave them some scholarly credit). Therefore, I was free to work on it in turn. In addition, Black intellectuals helped me shape part of my identity. I grew up between two cultures and had to face discrimination. I identified myself with prominent Black figures such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis… and related to African American literature and cinema. I first thought that, because I was not part of the Black community, I could naturally have a certain degree of objectivity. But I quickly found out that it was not the case. It also happened to other friends of mine – we have to be very careful, as we are not producing pamphlets, but research papers. Nonetheless, this passion for our dissertation’s topic gives us a sense of purpose and enjoyment. On the other hand, some fellow classmates – who don’t necessarily have an emotional and personal connection to their work –  may perceive their thesis as more of a burden, since they may only see it as some dry work.

            Furthermore, master’s dissertations can shape a student’s future, in the sense that they usually influence the topic of their PhD thesis. Some find it easier to work on topics they particularly care about, so that they do not always have the impression to be studying; whereas some prefer to maintain a certain distance. There is no right or wrong approach. What is important for students to remember is that, even when the topic studied is not personal to them, they are legitimate. The canon is always evolving and the division between academic and pop culture is becoming more and more blurry. For some, the very personal aspect of their research topic could be an advantage. They will be particularly hard on themselves: it will not only be about finding the document, but also about seeking to understand a community and its grievances. It will lead them to treat the members of the community they are studying as people, not a field of studies. It will help them create a deeply meticulous work in order to make themselves and their approach legitimate. Even if they are not part of a certain community, they are still allowed to feel connected to the latter’s work and struggle.
            Others, who have chosen a research thesis more distant from their personal history and taste, might gain time and focus – indeed, they might not be as emotionally drained or unwilling to write certain things about public figures they admire, for instance. Nonetheless, once again: what every student needs to remember is that there is no right or wrong when it comes to their dissertation’s topic. They just need to focus… and do their very best.

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