What's Wrong with Self-Help?
Historically, categories of self-help fall into a few repeating areas: Success, Health, Optimism. Think of the "How to be Rich" books, or "How to Get Friends" books. You've seen them or heard of them, maybe even taken a peek inside? And the health books? WOW. There is a whole section for those in the bookstore.
In the 1970s, as America moved forward from the Civil Rights Movement, and then Vietnam, the feelgood book became more of a thing than ever. And then it became a huge publishing industry. It tapped into people's insecurities, their struggles with body image, and their dissatisfaction with life. For some, self-help really helped. For others, it left them as isolated as before, and out a few dollars...or more. I remember digging in my mom's bookshelf when I was a kid in the '80s, and finding books with titles like Real Women Send Flowers. The most striking one I remember? A slim motivational handbook entitled F*** Yes! My mother grew stronger and stronger as we grew up, but I don't think it was because she spent $10 on F*** Yes!
In the 1990s, the pitfalls of self-help were becoming evident. The market was flooded with The Art of the Deal, 10 Days to Self-Esteem, and other well known but probably useless books. Counselors, psychologists, and other began to notice that self-help was replacing folk wisdom, making people actually feel more helpless, making them blame outside things for their own failures, and offering glib and disingenuous advice (especially the success books). In 1993, Wendy Kaminer published I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, an intelligent indictment of the entire self-help philosophy, and she marked the decline of the decades-long fad as the 21st century approached.
Though the industry of self-help did not collapse, it has been replaced in part by self-care methods like meditation, one-on-one counseling (owing to reduced stigma), and time honored traditions like group yoga. We are not afraid to let others help us anymore. So no need to read about it in private!
The Dissertation Self-Help Book
So where has the self-help book found a new lease on life? In the form of the dissertation self-help book.
It's true that there are helpful pieces of advice in these books. But oh dear, the metaphors... Can we stop talking about the dissertation as if it's not a real thing?
Well... for some of us the dissertation takes a million years to write, so it really does feel like a journey. Or like any number of the romantic and fearsome metaphors on those book covers! But there is a real problem with the self-help model: It focuses on recovery. Any recovery approach itself has problems, but to suggest that a dissertation is something that needs to be survived or overcome is to suggest that the dissertation is a malady or even an addiction. Ill advised it may be! But it is not an illness in need of a cure. It is a project in need of planning, management, and other practical solutions. (See "Practical Dissertation Help Books" below)
Someone needs to write the I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional of dissertation help books. I'm Not Writing My Dissertation, You're Not Writing Your Dissertation. It's good to have some inspirational books around. And it's helpful to envision yourself on a journey or a quest or whatever floats your boat (yet another diss metaphor...). But how do we read about dissertations with care and a critical eye?
This article on the dissertation book culture is a helpful read:
The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing
Practical Dissertation Help Books
BUT WAIT! After all our nay-saying, there is hope. We do recommend some of these books to our students. And other universities do too. I'm just on about the self-help so you know there's no magic "cure" for your dissertation. But what there is are some good books with practical advice:
Writing the Doctoral Dissertation: A Systematic Approach
(We recommend this to everyone!)
The Craft of Research
Proposals that Work
Here are some more books you might want to explore, curated by the University of Michigan graduate school. But don't forget your shaker of salt.
Recommended Books on Dissertation Writing
One final and important suggestion: Taking a page from this millennium's change from self-help to self-care and group help, maybe don't look for all the answers in a book? Talk to other dissertation writers often, take care of yourself and your body, and seek help from professionals if you need to. You are the first person who can help yourself write this dissertation. The words and research have to be yours, but you don't have to handle the "journey" alone.
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