Writing a plan can be a lonely process. Left alone with one's mind, the prospect of filling seventy to one hundred pages with lucid prose can be daunting. It's easy to feel that you're not up to the task. Conversations with your peers about how many pages they produced in the last all-nighter will only increase your sense of isolation. This plan seminar aims to reduce your stress by bringing a constructive social element back into the process of writing.

In fact, writing is a highly social activity. First, there is the writer; then, there are the authors under consideration; then there is life and its evidence; then, there are the critics, the secondary sources; then there are the plan sponsors; and finally, there is the Outside Examiner. And you thought the only other person in your office was your officemate!

Every week we'll hone our skills, crafting strong arguments, exploring counter-arguments, and learning from each other how to be more precise with our language. We'll also spend time preparing for the orals.

One of the key things I've learned from the oral examinations is that the writing pretty much runs the show. If you've written honestly and passionately, then the Outside Examiner (OE) will be overjoyed. If you think of your plan as a way to prove to the OE that you've read copious amounts of difficult material, think again. I can guarantee that the OE will not be impressed.

But if you write precisely about a topic that matters to you, and you write about it in such a way that the reader begins to care as well, then you will have succeeded at this thing called plan. But here's the trick, you can't be so concerned about the reader that you forget about the subject matter. Here is some advice from Virginia Woolf:

I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves. (A Room of One's Own, Harcourt, 115.)

In other words, be precise about your subject matter. Show us what the thing is, don't tell us how to think about it. Spend more time on descriptions than explanations. Your logic will be more convincing if we see what concerns you.

A word of caution: A plan sponsor is just that, a paid professional who supports (sponsors) your research. Most of the time, the plan sponsor is not an expert in your topic. For instance, I may be able to give you so-called expert advice if you are looking at Marx's theory of alienation but that doesn't mean I'll be much of an authority on land distribution in Brazil. You will need to become the authority on Movimiento Sim Terre (MST) by writing accurately using multiple sources. Too often, plan students assume the plan sponsor already knows what needs to be said. In fact, we're counting on you to teach us.

A word of reassurance: One needn't know everything about the case study in order to engage in political theory. To theorize about a public matter is "to express various meanings on complex things with a scanty vocabulary of fastened senses" (Walter Bagehot, cited in Wolin, 3). We don't have to know everything about Marx nor about MST to address thorny political problems. We just need to be honest about the endeavor and willing to take on the complexities of the project.

Last modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2012, 11:09 AM