Monday, March 17, 2014

On Writing Conclusions

The three most challenging  parts of writing my dissertation have definitely been the My Lai chapter (revised five times now), the Introduction, and starting on the Conclusion. I've discussed the problems with the My Lai chapter at length already, but before today I only mentioned the challenges of writing an introduction and conclusion on Twitter and Facebook. The intro was unexpectedly difficult because I assumed that in most respects it was really just another round of revisions of my prospectus. That turned out to be wrong due to the new direction my evidence forced my to take with my analysis, so while I was able to repurpose significant portions of the prospectus, I ended up doing a lot of new writing, and revisiting the historiography on My Lai and atrocities in Vietnam.

Conclusions are different animals. Like everyone else, I've written a short conclusions to papers, conference presentations, and journal articles, but since is my first book-length project, I've been unsure about how to approach this important element in the dissertation. After the long slog through graduate school, I know how important the introduction and conclusion are in helping readers understand what the whole point of the book is, but how to pull that off is another issue entirely. That meant a bit of quick research into how to write a conclusion - I know this applies to many graduate students, but by temperament I usually try to figure things out for myself before asking for help, and  enjoy doing research to solve problems.

My first stops were Turabian's A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, Jules Benjamin's A Student's Guide to History, and Mary Lynn Rampolla's A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. I have a long personal history with these three books - my first encounter with Turabian was as a junior in high school, while I got the others in graduate school to help out my own students. Predictably, Benjamin and Rampolla were no help. Indeed, Rampolla was counter-productive since she indicates that no new ideas, arguments or information should appear in a conclusion. While that's fine for an essay, based on the hundreds of academic works I've read at this point, it isn't accurate for books. Since I had already planned to use some very interesting sources that didn't work with the body of my dissertation, but speak to the overall theme that how soldiers understood the issue of atrocities in Vietnam was a complex and varied greatly based on their own background, goals, and experiences, Rampolla's advice almost started a bit of a panic attack.

Turabian was more helpful, likely because her audience is different. Benjamin and Rampolla are oriented toward helping undergraduates figure out how to write and do research for history courses, not write theses or dissertations. Luckily, Turabian provides a process for writing a conclusion that was familiar once I saw it laid out, though the initial suggestion sounded a bit snarky:
If you have no better plan, build your conclusion around the elements of your introduction, in reverse order.
Having said that she provides some useful advice in two basic points:
  1. Restate your claim more fully, and with more specificity than in the introduction.
  2. Point out new significance, practical applications, or new research.
I'm not sure my research has practical applications since the All Volunteer Force is increasingly less representative of the rest of American society than the conscript and draft-motivated armies of the 20th century. Similarly, while the Army noted that there was no consistent official way for soldiers to report atrocities without going through their immediate change of command as late as 1973 (and I'm not sure that it ever implemented that), the on-going debate about taking the process of investigating and court-martialing soldiers for sexual assault away from the chain of command. In some respects these are related issues. How could soldiers be expected to report atrocities through the chain of command when the officers above them often engaged in or ignored atrocities? Similarly, how can the DoD expect victims of sexual assault to report the crimes to the person who committed or enabled those assaults?

There is a lot of room for further research in the area of how American soldiers understood and reacted to atrocities in Vietnam. As Nick Turse put it in Kill Anything that Moves, this entire subject has taken on the status of forbidden or forgotten knowledge since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Beyond that, I'm only dealing with U.S. Army troops who witnessed or reported atrocities. There's remaining work to be done with other branches of services, especially the Marine Corps.  There's also the issue of soldiers who didn't witness atrocities - how did they understand the issue? Since Army chaplains played important roles in two of my chapters, there's also more work to be done to understand their position within the Army, how soldiers viewed them, and how that played into reporting of atrocities.

This still leaves out the issue of additional material. Luckily, a member of my committee provided good direction on that. He argued that as long as the new items fit in a way that accentuated the main argument of the dissertation, then there was no reason not to add it into the conclusion. However, if the materials were more in the nature of interesting anecdotes that don't really add anything, save the stuff for another project. That's something I can manage, and I think the items (mostly from oral histories) will lend themselves well to the overall conclusion.

The next order of business: write the dang conclusion, and start what I hope is the final round of pre-defense revisions.

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