Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Quixotic Travels with Jane

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken." -- Jane Austen, Emma

It would be fair to say that my approach to writing this dissertation has been almost desperate at times.  After transcribing and reading the interviews, I had ideas, impressions - thoughts that I found interesting, that I was afraid to lose.  I took notes and created outlines and then just wrote and wrote and wrote. It's been months and I am still not done but I find it is a great relief to have recorded the ideas, even if most are in a very rough form.

Watching a Don Quixote movie in Spanish class last month, I recognized myself. The hero's mind is so filled with stories of knights and chivalry that he impulsively puts on his grandfather's old rusted armor and sets out to find adventure. This first journey doesn't go so well. He gets knocked off his horse but is rescued by a benevolent neighbor and brought back home to recover.  That's about where I am now - back from my first solo ride into the world of data analysis, knocked around a bit, seeking guidance and companionship for the next leg of the expedition.

My advisor and I have been corresponding about the project via email. This is very helpful, someone to guide the way, keep me on track, help me interpret what I think it is that I see.  Although electronic mail is a modern invention, in this context, where extensive opinions and thoughts are being shared, our exchanges seems more like traditional letter-writing.  I send her a "letter" which takes several days for her to read and digest and, in return, I receive her equally complex feedback.  In the world of Jane Austen, women take delivery of notes that have been folded dozens of times to fit inside impossibly small envelopes.  Retrieving the letter involves not simply opening the envelope but also unfolding the thick paper.  The contents must be read several times, often out loud, to be completely understood.  Clicking on the computer to open the email, open the attachments, read the content, I feel like Emma sitting on the upholstered settee eagerly unfolding a suitor's letter.  What will it say? What is her reaction to the news?

Letter-writing is but one of the ways in which the world of doctoral studies resembles Victorian society. Academia is organized around a complicated hierarchy for which the rules of navigation are obtuse and unspoken. The novice struggles to understand the etiquette and sensibilities which are so critical to her success. Pride and prejudice, indeed.  This makes my own sympathy with the Man of the Mancha that much more troubling.  Can you imagine if Mr. Q showed up for tea with Darcy? Would the dinner party at Rosings Park delight in his fantastic tales or find them wildly inappropriate? 

Among other things, my advisor has reminded me that I must document and explain my methods. What path did I take to arrive at my various conclusions? The validity of my conclusions cannot be evaluated without this information. Indeed, I can write forever about how the sky is blue, but this thesis cannot be judged without sharing how it was constructed. I have to justify my claims.  (If your mind now drifts to Madonna, well, you aren't the only one. But believe me, there's no black leather pants involved in this process.)

Anyway, it should be an interesting process and I am actually kind of curious about how it will all unfold. In my most cynical and lazy moments, I conclude that my claims are, in fact, unjustifiable. In the postmodern world that Jane alludes to (above), there is no truth, everything is disguised and mistaken. Our beliefs and conclusions a gaudy mosaic of everything we've ever seen, heard or imagined. But to say my work is completely fictitious imagination negates the fact that these narratives do exist. Don't they? Or is the army of giants which I am so sure that I see actually a row of windmills?  Describing how this data were collected and interpreted will demonstrate that my conclusions are all socially constructed but that hopefully that will make them more true, not less so.

So here we go...  Time to get Rocinante out of the barn and hit the road again in search of truth and adventure.  Onward, Sancho!