Advice

Footnotitis

August 09, 2007

I've always been indecisive, the kind of person who takes forever to reach a decision and then questions the hell out of it. So I see it as something of a miracle that I managed to earn a Ph.D. in less than the eight years considered average for students in my humanities department.

But my indecisiveness -- or, as I prefer to call it, perfectionism -- did lengthen the process and add some unforeseen drama. At one point, it manifested itself radically in a little-diagnosed but probably widespread disease that I call footnotitis: the chronic misuse of footnotes.

My love affair with the footnote began rather late in life. I started out as a journalist, where the important thing was to be clear and, for God's sake, never to show off. (We were instructed at one of my jobs to write for the middle-class grandmother in Indiana, who presumably was incapable of grasping sentences above a third-grade level.) It took a year or two of graduate school for me to figure out that the opposite was now required, and a few more years to discover how valuable the footnote could be in subtly conveying one's knowledge and intelligence.

At first I used the footnote for what I understood to be its primary purpose: to cite references for the quotations that I used in my text. But then, as I became better acquainted with academic writing, the footnote's role in my work grew amplified.

Why not throw in, under an unassuming "see also," a few more sources, preferably in a language other than English? A jot of German here, a dollop of French there allowed me to modestly but unmistakably declare my familiarity with the field's offerings.

While writing my dissertation, I began to use footnotes extensively to annotate and elaborate on my text. I grew proud of my lengthy footnotes, some of which occupied half a page: Like a very long bibliography, they seemed a sign of scholarly machismo.

Then something happened that tipped the balance from overuse to downright abuse. I had completed a revision of my dissertation according to specifications requested by my committee and was preparing to resubmit it. My defense was scheduled for a month down the road. I was congratulating myself on having avoided the self-defeatist psychological traps that I had seen waylay more than a few friends, such as accidentally and permanently deleting entire chapters, or taking up tango.

And then I invented my very own torpedo. Of course, I didn't see it that way at first. All I knew was that while aimlessly browsing the Internet one afternoon, two days before I was planning to resubmit, I came across what appeared to be an incredibly important article that undermined all of my arguments and that I had entirely failed to acknowledge.

(I now realize that the article was not that important. But I'm convinced that the psychological need to work myself into a state of panic was so great that if I had not stumbled across that catalyst, I would have found another.)

I printed out the article and read it carefully at a campus cafe. I remember going into one of those zombielike states, the kind where you become so absorbed in the matter at hand that the world turns into a blur. Emerging from my daze after a couple of hours -- a few people were staring -- I hopped on my bike and set out to collect the sources mentioned in the article. I even paid $40 for a book unavailable at the library.

How should I deal with the issue? Should I alter the focus of the whole dissertation? Although that was my first reaction, I came to feel it might not be the best solution. My committee members had, after all, conditionally approved what I had written. They probably wouldn't react well to a wholesale change of direction. (It did not occur to me then that one or more of them would have been aware of the article and that if they had not seen fit to bring it up, it probably wasn't worth worrying about.)

I thought about putting a discussion of the issue in a preface. I wrote a long, apologetic one. A friend told me it was overkill.

Instead, I fell back on the footnote. Pressing it into service seemed like a good way to make sure readers knew I was aware of the alternative ideas without admitting them into the body of my text, where they did not belong. They could loiter in the subtext, where they could do no real harm.

So I pinned a footnote to one statement in my introduction that I imagined would have elicited a riposte from one of my supposed antagonists. I cited a quotation or two from the article, along with a brief, timid rebuttal. To another statement, I appended a comment observing, "Of course, so-and-so would disagree. . . ." Five or six lengthy footnotes later, I felt satisfied and submitted the draft to my committee.

A few days went by and I reread the introduction. The text itself seemed fine, but what was this? An alternate universe was unfolding in my footnotes, casting doubt on my authoritative statements and making my dissertation seem as tenuous, as uncertain, as gossamer. It was as though the footnote, a lowly vassal, were rising up to overthrow my entire thesis.

It's possible that in another field, where all statements are constructed with the expectation of being deconstructed (or rather, not even constructed, but permitted to lie around like LEGO's in a fetching state of unconstruction), that type of uncertainty would be acceptable, even desirable. But my own area of study requires at least the illusion of coherence. Not only had I dissolved any such sturdiness, but it was as though the most embarrassing evidence of my own insecurity, heretofore tucked out of sight (I had hoped), had been set forth in vivid, albeit diminutive, letters at the bottom of the page.

What to do?

A new state of panic presented itself. I prayed that none of my committee members had actually read the new version of my dissertation and, if they had, that they had skipped over the footnotes. I deleted some of the more offensive notes from the draft on my computer, toned down others, and, a few days before the defense, submitted a "final" version. During the defense, no one said a thing about my footnotes or, indeed, about the issue itself. The insurgency had been put down.

Now that it's over, I see my brief bout of footnotitis as akin to Edward Gorey's heroine, Bavel, who furiously knitted one way on the train, and on the way back unraveled. Only here both the writing and the unraveling of it are left to stand as a dual, and dueling, conversation for the reader, testimony to a writer's waffling.

I am now looking forward to transforming my dissertation into a book, a move that, I am told, will break me of my compulsive footnoting. In the meantime, with any luck you will find me at the interview table this fall. I'll be the one systematically undoing her own persona.

Aimee Parkinson is the pseudonym of a new Ph.D. recipient in a foreign-languages department at a research university in the Midwest.