Classically Inclined

April 4, 2016

How to write a thesis conclusion

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:27 am
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One of the most popular posts on this blog is about how to write a thesis introduction. Several years later, this post serves as its companion, and explores how to write a thesis conclusion. The thoughts here cover the genre of PhD thesis and book conclusions, but the general points apply to undergraduate and MA dissertations too (as indeed do the points in my original post). Conclusions have a habit of looking suspiciously easy, particularly if you follow the structural rubric that says you tell your reader what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Up to a point, Lord Copper. The problem with this approach in any kind of writing is that it very easily generates a laundry list summarising your chapters but not really offering anything new. I think the warning sign for a conclusion is that it feels like you’re reading the final paragraph of each of your chapters in a single document. There’s a place for that sort of writing, in a thesis synopsis or an abstract, but it’s not really a conclusion.

So what does a conclusion do? Once more taking the philological turn, it should conclude. It should tie up the loose ends, bring everything together neatly – and, yes, articulate the argument one final time, just to make sure that your reader has got the point. It should leave the reader in no doubt about why what they have read is of deep intellectual significance, the contribution it has made, how it has changed how they think about your subject.

I’ve found that the most sensible way to consider what you might want to say in a conclusion is to look at your argument thematically. What ideas have emerged again and again, perhaps in different shapes? What are the big points of contact between your various chapters that then build to mean something really significant? What concepts run through your work that you didn’t highlight in your introduction because the reader wasn’t ready for them until they had read the whole thing? Thinking thematically can help you provide a synthesis rather than a summary of the thesis. I know that sounds jargony, but it’s actually a helpful distinction – you’re pulling together the threads of your argument and revealing the jumper that you have been knitting from them, rather than just pointing to various balls of wool and expecting the reader to produce the jumper themselves.

The shape and the form that the conclusion will take will differ radically from work to work. When I was writing my PhD and using a rolling synopsis, I didn’t actually include a section for the conclusion – I assumed it would sort of write itself. It did, in the end, and came to just over five pages of general observation and tying up. I made sure that I restated the big take-away point I wanted the PhD to make; pulled together some elements of the individual chapters that otherwise did not get put side-by-side but needed to be; attempted some synthesis; and mentioned some directions for future work. That worked for the PhD.

However, it didn’t work when I came to revise the PhD for the Book. In the end, I actually retitled the Conclusion – it’s now an Epilogue, just over four pages long, but working in tandem to the main text rather than doing a wrap-up. You can get away with this sort of thing in a book, and this book needed to – there’s a big question about how the case I’ve made about Stoicism and the family fits into the bigger picture of Stoic doctrine as a whole, and which I don’t think can be answered until after the final chapter. Which is why the Epilogue answers it – so sometimes conclusions are places to deal with the big methodological or argumentative concerns which for whatever reason have had to be delayed until all the relevant material has been presented to the reader. Most of the Epilogue as it stands currently handles that big question, but it’s an answer that wouldn’t make any sort of sense without the book which will come before it.

But ultimately, the biggest thing that the conclusion should do is make it absolutely clear why the idea you’ve been exploring in your research needed and warranted as many words as it did, and why your reader will never think about the subject in the same way again. They’ve read your chapters, and have the evidence. It’s the conclusion’s job to make sure that there’s no mistake about the impact that evidence has on their understanding of the world, and to leave your point ringing in their ears as they finish the final page. The form that will work best does, I think, depend a lot more on the personality of the writer in conclusions than it does in introductions – so think of it also like ending a really long, really enjoyable phone call. Finish the conversation off, but in such a way that your (silent) interlocutor has plenty to think about. After all, scholarship is a conversation – hopefully somebody will pick up where you have left off and continue the dialogue.


October 13, 2014

New publication: Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:02 am
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Those long-time readers of this blog will be very familiar with the Ad Polybium article, which started out life as the Stoic exile article and went through various changes of shape in its journey towards completion. (If you’re interested in catching up, have a look at some of the stuff on the ad Polybium tag.) After many incarnations, starting as a carbuncle on the side of chapter two of the dissertation, I’m delighted to announce that “Show Me the Way to Go Home: A Reconsideration of Seneca’s De Consolatione ad Polybium” has appeared in the latest issue of The American Journal of Philology.

This is the classic example of what can happen when you have good research ideas that don’t fit into an argument you are trying to make yet still deserve airtime. Exactly the same thing happened when I wrote the new chapter four for the book manuscript – I now have the seed kernel of an article on Seneca’s use of paternal imagery in his political philosophy which will be interesting but isn’t in and of itself particularly helpful for the argument I’m making in the book. In “Show me the way” I’m entering a pretty well-worn debate about whether the ad Polybium is a text we can take seriously or not; I argue that it is, and that we do not need to tie ourselves in knots with questions of sincerity and intention to get there. I also argue that what has been read as some of the most outrageous flattery has a parallel function in the text if we start thinking about it from a Stoic perspective rather than getting caught up in those issues of flattery and sincerity which get prioritised when dealing with this text.

My hope is that this will move some of the conversation about this really quite fascinating wee text forward from where it’s got a bit stuck; whatever happens, it’s good to have this particular idea out there, and hopefully getting some people thinking about the consolation in a new way.

August 6, 2014

New publication: My family tree goes back to the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:57 pm
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, at the minute I am elbow-deep in assessing the revisions needed for chapter six of the book manuscript. I have just realised that I haven’t officially announced that a version of that chapter is already out in publication, as of a few months ago!

“My family tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca’s approach to the family in the Epistulae Morales” appears in Seneca Philosophus, a volume that came out of a conference in Paris about Seneca as a philosopher which I was unable to attend because – cheerful irony of ironies – it took place on the weekend of PhD graduation, so I kind of needed to be on another continent. However, I wrote to the conference organiser because I wanted sight of the paper she’d given, explaining what my interest was – and, lo and behold, she asked whether my book would be finished in time for consultation for the conference volume. As that was totally out of the range of possibility, I said so and sent her my Epistulae Morales chapter in PDF form instead. She then invited me to contribute it to the conference volume as it would make a good addition to the range of pieces talking about the letter collection.

Given that I had no idea how long it would take me to get the PhD into a book manuscript shape, I jumped at the chance to get some of my research out, and in a volume that contains some of the most significant scholars currently writing on Seneca, no less. So it’s out there, and in a book! Which is very exciting.

Of course, this now leaves me in a slightly perplexing place with what is now chapter six of the book manuscript. There are several discussions that didn’t make it into the Family Tree chapter, not least because of reasons of length, and because the argument that chapter makes had to stand alone rather than finish off the dissertation as a whole. I got some very good feedback on the Family Tree chapter as a stand-alone piece that I’m incorporating into the revised chapter six, but I’m also realising just how much I need to do in order to make sure that it does what I need it to do in terms of the overall book’s direction. It says a lot about the progress I’ve made over the last few years that I’m seeing so many different things I want to change and improve compared to the first time that I revised it – the only downside is that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Never mind – the chapter is out there, if anyone wants to read it and get a head-start on the book!

August 10, 2011

Seneca’s De Matrimonio, or On Marriage – a discussion of the text

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:32 pm
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I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting quite a few hits as a result of a search for the terms “Seneca on marriage”, “Seneca De Matrimonio” and variants thereof. The problem is that those hits get directed to this post I wrote about turning a thesis chapter into a talk, which mentions the De Matrimonio briefly, but doesn’t really give much of a background into Useful Things about it. So I thought I’d write a proper post explaining a bit more about the text, and giving some useful bibliography. I know I would have appreciated such a thing when I was trying to find out more about the De Matrimonio in my M.Phil. year, when all the books I could find referred to it in passing in a footnote and never actually explained what on earth it was.

There’s a good reason for this, and that’s because we don’t actually have a proper surviving text. Our only ancient evidence that Seneca wrote a text titled De Matrimonio comes from Saint Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, which is mainly concerned with Jerome’s attempts to prove his opponent Jovinian wrong about the relative merits of virginity and marriage. Jerome is strongly pro-virginity as the appropriate Christian life choice, and writes to oppose a tract of Jovinian’s in which he has expressed the opposite opinion. (Apparently Jerome’s vitriol against marriage came as a bit of a surprise to his married friends, and his letters include a very lengthy apology to the Roman senator Pammachius.) Jerome marshalled a band of worthy writers to support his case, both sacred and pagan – unfortunately, he was not, shall we say, particularly scrupulous about how he deployed his quotations and whether he correctly represented the intent of the original authors. I think his reading of Dido as “a woman of chastity devoted to just the one husband” was my favourite gem. This is our first problem with using Jerome as a source for Seneca – we can’t be completely sure which fragments are direct quotes from Seneca, which passages are paraphrases of Seneca, and which parts Jerome made up himself or took from another source. (more…)

June 1, 2011

How to write a thesis introduction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
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One of the things I found hardest when writing my thesis was getting the introduction sorted. By the time I came to write it, I had an outline that I had sketched in my rolling synopsis many many moons earlier, and random ideas that I’d been keeping in a document imaginatively titled ‘things to put in an introductory chapter’ for the last couple of months. Suddenly I found myself faced with the task of making a plan that actually reflected what I wanted to put into an introduction, and writing the thing.

To get my brain in gear, I thought I’d have a think about what the purpose of an introduction is, and how it should work in the first place, and it is those thoughts that I want to share with you now. I should note that this records my own thought process within my field of Classics, so I’d be delighted to hear about any significant differences in your discipline that might change how you would approach this task.

Well, taking the philological turn, an introduction should introduce. It needs to explain what’s coming, and what the reader can expect. Similarly, it needs to explain why the work that’s been done has been worth doing, and what new contribution to knowledge this thesis/book is going to make. What does the reader get out of reading it?


May 25, 2011

When a thesis chapter breeds – the Stoic Exile article

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:39 pm
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Seneca's Tower on Corscia - © Ethelwulf

Sometimes, when you are writing a thesis chapter, you find yourself going off on a tangent. It’s a pretty tangent, with highways and byways and beautifully flowered verges, and you wander through it on your way back to your main point, and you think nothing of it, because it’s been part of your mental process to get where you are in your thinking about your material. Then you hand your draft to your advisor, who looks at it, raises an eyebrow, and wants to know how on earth this relates to what you said you were going to give her. Although in my case, she did it very kindly, and she was right. Chapter two of my thesis was supposed to look at the subject of brothers and the Stoic cosmopolis in Seneca’s de Consolatione ad Polybium, a really interesting treatise that gets maltreated because – well, there’s no way of getting around it, it’s a bit sycophantic. Seneca claims he’s writing to Polybius to console him on the recent death of his brother, but he writes with the agenda of getting himself recalled to Rome from Corsica, where he’s currently being held in exile. Let’s just say that he gets the tiniest bit florid, and over the years many academics haven’t reacted well to his stylistic choices.

I wanted to look at the relationships between brothers in the consolation, because my thesis was about the family. However, I ended up getting distracted by the representation of the Emperor Claudius, and how he gets described using several images that the Stoics use to talk about God. It’s all a bit complicated, as the same images are used to describe Jupiter, head of the Roman pantheon, but that’s part of the point. Anyway, I wrote a great big lengthy draft of this chapter and proudly sent it off to my supervisor; she duly worked through it and her feedback essentialy said that it was all very interesting, but wasn’t this chapter supposed to be about brothers and the ad Polybium rather than Stoicism and the ad Polybium? At which point I re-read what I’d written, groaned, and chopped about four thousand words out of the manuscript. They were there because they were trying to take over my chapter, and turn it into something else. It wasn’t that what I wanted to say about Claudius and the Stoic god and all my other shiny ideas weren’t worth saying – it was just that they didn’t actually contribute towards my overall thesis about how families work in Seneca.

I knew, however, that hanging on to those four thousand words would come in handy. (more…)

May 2, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do: returning the library books

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:50 am
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I am coming to the end of a very traumatic process that nobody warns you about when you come to the end of a Ph.D. That’s right, I’m returning my library books.

When you are a Ph.D. student, you build up a comfortable nest of books you want to have around – things that are relevant to your research, that it’s helpful to have handy to dip into rather than get out every time you want to check a reference, books you are quoting constantly, that sort of thing. As a student living away from campus, my stash has been… a bit epic. When I realised I was going to have to return everything before 15th May or else Rutgers wouldn’t let me graduate, I had 63 library books that I hadn’t got around to returning. I’m now down to 25, and it’s quite revealing which books I’m holding on to until the last gasp library run.

There are some books that are holding on because they’re useful for research I’m still up to my elbows in. For instance, I’m using Roy Gibson’s commentary on book three of the Ars Amatoria for preparing the Companion passage; Audre Lord’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Thomas Waugh’s Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall are background reading for an article I’m writing on queer theory and classical reception, more of which another time. But there are some books that I really don’t want to give back!


April 28, 2011

Turning a thesis chapter into a talk – Seneca on marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:01 am
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There is something ineffably frustrating about trying to turn a thesis chapter into a twenty minute conference-style presentation. You have a whole chapter that you have loving and thoughtfully structured so it leads the reader gently through your train of thought and argument at a leisurely but clearly-marked pace – and now you have to chop out the ‘best bits’, the strongest arguments, reframe your organisational material to provide enough background for the arguments you are going to present, and tearfully wave farewell to all the other sections you have lovingly laboured over. In fact, one colleague has told me that she’s only ever tried to do it once, and that was such an off-putting experience that she has sworn off ever doing it again.

I have only had to go through this process once before myself, when I presented a chunk of chapter one of my thesis at the Oikos-Familia conference in Sweden, and it was jolly hard then. (If you’re interested, you can read my abstract here.) That was especially tricky, because I had to explain quite a complicated chunk of Stoic philosophy to a non-philosophical audience for them to be able to understand my argument; that was quite a significant challenge for me as one of my central tenets about my work is that you shouldn’t have to be trained to the eyeballs in ancient philosophy to be able to access philosophical material in Seneca. It seemed to go alright, anyway.


April 13, 2011

My Ph.D. research in plain English

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:21 pm
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One of the reasons I’m having a go at blogging is because of #phdchat over on Twitter. I feel a bit of the odd person out, what with being a classicist and also now having finished the Ph.D. process (!), but they are a lovely group of people who have great discussions, and if I were wrangling masters or doctoral students now, I would be recommending it left, right and centre.

The reason I mention it is that one of their recent chats spawned the idea of blogging about your research in plain English. No jargon, no technical terms, just straightforward language that the public would understand. I wanted to have a go at it, not least because I would quite like people to know what I do, but also because being able to explain your work in non-confusing terms is a sure way of showing that you’ve thought about it properly. If the only people who can understand what you’re doing and why it’s important are your committee, then you’re doing it wrong.

So, in the spirit of explaining What I Spent The Last Six Years Of My Life Working On, here is my go at outlining my thesis research in plain English. And, as it happens, rather chatty English as well!

Seneca and the ethics of the family

Studying the history of the Roman family has been a hot topic in classics lately. People look at archeological evidence, at how literature portrays families, at legal documents and tombstones, to find out as much as we can about how the Romans thought about their families. The Latin word for family is familia – it’s deceptively close to our word ‘family’, and it’s easy to assume that the Romans thought about their families just like we think about ours. The problem is that the word familia could, yes, refer to our nuclear family of mother, father and children – but could also refer to everyone, including slaves, living in a house; to just the slaves owned by a master; and to various varieties of extended family. It’s all rather complicated, and we need all the evidence we can get.

However, the place that people don’t tend to look for evidence is in ancient philosophy. This is understandable – philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, although they mention the family, tend to be keener on things like Justice and Piety. However, there is plenty of material that discusses the family in ancient philosophy that has so far gone under the radar.

Seneca, the author I worked on for my Ph.D., is a case in point. He’s a fascinating man in general, as he served as tutor and then advisor to the emperor Nero before being ordered to commit suicide after he was implicated in an assassination plot. But he also wrote a huge amount of philosophy (and tragedy, although that’s not what I studied). He subscribed to the Stoic philosophical school, which isn’t the same as our notion of a ‘stoic’ person (he endured the rain stoically, she took the news stoically) although that is where the word comes from. The Stoics had a well-defined system of how to think about the world, how it worked and how you interacted with it. It’s from inside this system that Seneca writes his various books.

So, what did I do? I looked at Seneca’s philosophical writing, and realised that family ethics, the question of how you interact with your family members and why, is a persistent and strong undercurrent that runs through his work. It’s not an outspokenly obvious theme – he never sits down and writes a handbook on how to be a good brother, husband or father, for example. But most of his works indirectly address those issues, which suggests that he was working according to a consistent understanding of the role family should play in your life. What I did was to study his writing and try to reconstruct that framework of thought.

Why does it matter? Well, it matters because it shows that Seneca actually had a consistent way of thinking about family relations that fitted into his wider Stoic system of thought. Families were important enough to be thought about in this kind of way. It also matters because it’s a way of reading texts that lets us see things that aren’t spelled out – as I say, Seneca never writes the handbook of Good Family Relations, but we can work out how he thought you got there without him needing to.

Finally, it matters because it shows Seneca thought that families influenced the development of our characters as we grow up – and that they could play a positive role in that process. This is especially important because of a Stoic idea that the ‘wise man’, the man who had developed perfectly, would be self-sufficient – that is, he wouldn’t need anyone else to be happy. The way that Seneca negotiates our need for our families with the wise man’s reliance on himself alone helps us understand how the Stoics navigated this tricky tension between the community and the individual.

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