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?

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