Archive for dissertation


Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on July 11, 2013 by chateaucone

I am adopted.

Present tense.

I am not someone who “was adopted.”

(Although for a long time it felt as though it were something that happened to someone else, a baby named Elizabeth Ann who lived in a fable with fairy godmothers to rescue her and magical cousins to grow up with.)

“Adopted” is a state of being. It doesn’t end.  It is not unlike being of Italian-American descent. But of course it is totally unlike being of Italian-American descent.

I say this because the very fact of my adoption is fluid, constant, present, always, fragmented and changeable, but never ending, never done. It exists never solely in the moment in the conference room in Angel Guardian in 1967 where that baby changed hands, changed identities, but in every moment since then, in 1000 different forms and thoughts, processes and perceptions, conversations and categories.

It is a molten state of being.

My father is the keeper of the adoption story, and he is losing his memory. Sometimes he asks me whether he and my mother adopted me, or whether I am theirs.

“Did we adopt you, Elizabeth? Or are you ours? I think you’re ours,” he says.

The words he uses are tricky, difficult, to think about. He never would have made this distinction before tiny strokes started destroying the neural pathways in his brains.

I was both/and, always and already, have-always-been, adopted and his.

I have written an entire dissertation about our adoption story–about the power of narrative and how it, for so long, erased the adoption, so strongly did it construct the fact of the inevitability of our family.

And yet somehow, as my father’s dementia progresses, I have become even more his, if possible, than before, the holes in his memory easing any final boundaries–the adoption now not only figuratively but literary erased.

This is a strange little paradox.

My father’s memory, the one that took all the disparate pieces of us and created our story, our family, is breaking apart like a teacup falling off the table shattering into one million tiny pieces.

My father’s memory, I think, is in that moment where the teacup has just hit the floor and the shards are bouncing back up into the air, in slowest motion, still discernable as a teacup but spreading apart, the spaces between the pieces bigger with each passing millisecond, the cup losing its shape, its curves, its teacup-ness, in movements of almost negligible increment.

The universe tends toward chaos. The teacup will never leap back up off the floor and put itself back together. This is not how I imagined my father’s stories would be lost.


I believe in our family, our meant-to-be-ness, in a different way than my father does, I think–but in a way that is perhaps just as fragmented. I don’t need, or even want, the adoption erased. I can hold, have been holding for years, all these disparate ideas in my head at once: I am adopted. And (not but!) I am a Cone and a Paganelli  and connected by more-than-blood to the whole-extended-family, regardless of how I got there. And (not but!) I have another mother and father, and aunts and uncles and cousins out there somewhere, and I am part of those families too. And (not but!) I am not a whole-hearted supporter of adoption as it is now practiced, and as it has been practiced in the past. And (not but!) I am happy I was adopted, and sorry that my birth mother was probably coerced, maybe only in subtle ways, to give me up. And (not but!) my own neurological pathways are probably a little messed up from being reliquished as an infant. And (not but!) I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t change that.

My father likes to blame my college friends and the politicians I worked for early in my career for my political views. But it was the idea of the creation of our family that made me who I am– that gave me the tools–however inadvertently–to believe families have little to do with blood and genetics–that families that we construct out of disparate pieces are every bit as real, as valid, as valuable, as those that occur biologically.

My father’s neurological pathways are coming undone. But his stories and their implications are embedded in me. They are inside my cell walls.

I am the boiled frog.

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2013 by chateaucone

I am the boiled frog.*

I have just turned in what I hope is the final version of my dissertation, complete with a Table of Contents and numbered chapters, and I did so without any fight left in me, because in the end, I just want to graduate. (You can see my petition to leave out the TOC in a previous post.)

I feel a little sad, a little defeated. I was unable to make any sort of meaningful change–the very kind of change my dissertation argues for, no less.

Anxiety has slowly pushed me down the slope toward graduation and submission. Not the submit-the-work kind of submission but the submit-to-the-powers-that-be kind of submission. The sad, pathetic kind.

Because I want to graduate.

And I didn’t even get an ass-kickin’ rejection letter from Columbia. All I got was this pen.

(Sorry. Momentarily channeling, and yet misquoting, Lloyd Dobbler. But the tone! The tone!)

All I got, from the nameless, faceless, “Faculty Committee on the EdD,” was this:

The Faculty Committee on the EdD has reviewed your request and dissertation manuscript. While the Committee understands the basis for the request, on review it has been determined that a more formal Table of Contents would be appropriate. Having said that, it would be sufficient if the Table of Contents had the following:

I  Introduction

II (whatever label or title would be appropriate)

Underneath II, the indented subheadings which would list the existing section titles and page numbers (basically a list of the stories by page number).

In addition, you must indicate a Reference section in the Table of Contents to match the formatting of the example in the back of the Style Manual.

Also, please confirm the style sheet you were following for references. The Committee has asked that you assure consistent use of that style sheet throughout.

If you have any questions, please let me know.


(I’ll spare the guy who sent the letter and leave off his name. But let me say this: this letter, all 148 glorious words of it, had to come from the Faculty Committee on the EdD, to the Office of Doctoral Services, hence forth known as ODS, where it was rewritten, and then submitted to the boss of ODS, where it was revised, and then submitted to the Office of the Registrar, where it was approved, and then sent back to ODS, from whence it was sent to be me–all of which took four (4!) days, not counting the month during which the nameless, faceless committee deliberated.)

I have been gate-kept.

No reasons. No engagement with my arguments. Just, “Okay, but do it anyway.”

And I did.

I wanted it that bad.

(Pause here for sad reflection on the state of American education. Think of Paulo Freire.  Make rubber bracelet with initials, “WWPFD?” Send note to the Faculty Committee on the EdD thanking members for their malefic generosity.)

Whenever I hear about girls spending hours, months, their young lifetimes thinking about and planning their weddings, what they’ll wear, who they’ll marry, who their bridesmaids will be, I feel as though I’ve forgotten to do something.

I am not that girl.

I don’t even know that girl.

But I did spend hours, days, the equivalent of months holed up in empty Teachers College classrooms and at those long wooden library tables reading and writing and trying to understand how poststructural thought and autobiography work together and revising and developing and revising again the pieces of my dissertation.

And I spent a lot of that time daydreaming about the blue robe with the black velvet chevrons on the sleeves, and the little Columbia crowns on the lapels, and the poufy black hat that I’d wear on graduation day, when I got to walk down the aisle and across the altar at St. John the Divine to be hooded and to receive my diploma.

That’s where my daydreaming time was spent, and that’s what got me through. I wanted the darn robe. I wanted St. John the Divine. And now the robe is here, hanging outside my bedroom closet door in all it’s black and blue glory.

And I’m maybe a little bruised by the process.

*Is that a cheap trick**–using your title as your first line? I really like that line. And the title. I couldn’t think of a better one for either. So there.

**Do you remember the band Cheap Trick? Oh yeah. “I want you to want me. I need you to need. . .” Go on. Sing it all day. Stuck. In. Your. Head. (Zahm, I hope you’re reading this, because you do this to me, all the time. All. The. Time.)

They Can Take Our Lives, But They’ll Never Take Our FREEDOM!

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by chateaucone

Whether Columbia will, indeed, take my freedom to format as I please, (no–not as I please, but as integrity demands!) time will tell.

Perhaps not a battle for Scottish Independence, but it’s a slippery slope, folks.

Instead of blogging, I’ve writing my own Declaration of Arbroath. Maybe not so much “declaration” as “plea.” (As long as they have my diploma,  judiciousness is prudent.)

It should be noted that I have, thoughtfully and I hope persuasively, removed all references to “petty bureaucrats” and “small-minded power mongers” and “I cannot believe I have to write this even after a committee of scholars and experts in my field passed my dissertation.”


Dear Teachers College, Columbia University Ed.D. Board:

I am writing to petition the members of this board that I may be permitted to submit my final dissertation without a Table of Contents, and without numbered chapters. To explain my reasons for making such a request, knowing it is not consistent with the conventions presented in the Teachers College, Columbia University Office of Doctoral Studies General Instructions for Preparing Doctor of Education Dissertations: A Manual of Style, let me begin by quoting to you a section of the abstract of my dissertation, in order that you can, without reading the entire document, know the subject matter the dissertation engages.

According to my abstract, “The overarching goal of this work is to gesture toward a use of autobiographical writing in the classroom that encourages students to begin to see how these and all stories are discursive, ideological and political, and then to analyze and perhaps contest normative practices and discourses that work to construct their own subject positions. The researcher’s self-reflexive inquiries address blind spots, gaps, contradictions and complexities involved in challenging dominant discourses that have framed not only her “adoption stories” but also her pedagogies and practices as a teacher of composition. She constantly interrogates her own research and writing assumptions in order to provide incentive for writing teachers and their students to look at the stories they are telling about their own lives, to stop seeing those stories as transparent and natural, and to begin interrogating if and when they might wish and be able to tell new stories, to write new narratives toward change.”

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, in Reading Autobiographically: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, tell us that certain kinds of narratives inscribe certain kinds of subjects. And these narratives, these dominant discourses, reflect the cultures in which they are written. Certain cultures, social classes, nations, religions, ethnic communities, and so on, privilege certain kinds of identities, certain ideological identity formations, and these are reified by, and reify, the biographies and autobiographies written within those, or to represent those, collectivities. Thus, no narrative or discourse is transparent, natural and uncontestable, as much as any discourse may appear so.

My dissertation challenges dominant discourses; it implicitly and necessarily contests and disrupts the discourses and practices surrounding the traditional academic dissertation even as it explicitly contests and disrupts autobiographical narrative. As just one way that the dissertation attempts to disrupt traditional narrative form, it is written as a collection of archived documents that can be read in any order. Indeed, readers are encouraged, within the text, to jump around in time and place. To number the chapters of this dissertation and then to add a Table of Contents giving further authority to those numbers would fix, indeed prescribe, in the mind of the reader the order in which the dissertation is to be read. It would suggest to the reader that there is only one way to read the dissertation, when in fact that intention of the author is the opposite.

Further, this dissertation argues, through a post-structural lens, that to fix autobiographical or biographical narrative in any way is to render it fictional. While I have made necessary, common-sense concessions such as numbering the pages of the document consecutively for the purposes of publishing it in print form, further concessions would just erode the integrity of a narrative that is constantly attempting to unfix, to disrupt, to contest the practices that are always and already constructing it. To number the chapters and to list those numbers in a Table of Contents would suggest that this autobiographical dissertation presents a complete, fixed life, that nothing exists between the chronological numbers of each chapter–and yet nothing could be further from a representation of any life; such an action would give readers a false sense of the coherence and dominance of narrative, indeed of any discourse, even as my dissertation is arguing against this very idea.

To force such a dissertation to be burdened with a Table of Contents and numbered chapters, two narrative structures that will unnecessarily undermine the integrity of the subject matter and design of the dissertation, is to deny the very liberatory arguments the dissertation is making.

To argue that I must include a Table of Contents in order to conform to the conventions of a particular style manual is to argue that the style manual is transparent, natural, and uncontestable. Surely this is not so. In fact, I would argue that any style manual is discursive, ideological and political, and serves an agenda that in fact attempts to sabotage the very ideas my dissertation explores.

The conventions of the style manual from which I am requesting to be released construct me, as a writer, my readers, and my dissertation in ways that I do not intend—indeed in ways that I am specifically contesting, and it would be ironic if the university itself from which I am graduating demands that my dissertation meet two stylistic conventions that not only do not add to the content or intellectual rigor of the dissertation, but in fact subtract from it.

To simply submit to the Office of Doctoral Studies’ request that I include a Table of Contents and number my chapters, without petitioning this committee, would be to abandon all that my dissertation argues for at the first sign of conflict.

Thank you for taking the time to read this petition. I hope you will consider my requests.

My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography: Or, How (Not) To Drag Poststructural Thought, Kicking and Screaming, into the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , on December 15, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 14

During my dissertation defense, I was asked to consider the ways in which breaking the narrative–learning to tell stories about our own lives in different ways–could be disempowering, instead of empowering, as I had been claiming, in a rather Pollyanna-ish way, for 375 pages.

The thing is, I don’t know. By which I mean, I can’t think of any specific examples. I can only use, as I have been for 375 pages, myself and my own experiences. And I can tell you this–that if some English professor had asked me to rewrite, or even reconsider, one of the ways in which I described/defined/narrated my life at that point, I would have said that there was nothing to rewrite, nothing to change. It was all good.

And if that professor had pushed me to write about being adopted, I would have resisted mightily. Or, I’d have written some beautiful (by which I mean trite and sappy) ode to adoption as the most wonderful, uncomplicated practice in the world.

It wouldn’t have been disempowering so much as un-empowering. Lost on me. Thumbs parallel.

Of this I can be fairly sure, vague and indistinct though my 18-year-old self is. People have reacted with fascination to the news that I was adopted all my life. And I have reacted with something like fascination to their fascination. Why were they so fascinated? I was adopted. Big deal. No, I’m not curious about my birth parents. I have parents. No, I’m not searching. No, I don’t have abandonment issues. No, no, no to most of their questions.

But I often said no to those questions with a vague sense of guilt, as though I should have more to say, since the people asking were so obviously invested in hearing more. But to me, there was no story. There was no narrative to break. There were no holes in our adoption story. It was all there. My parents told us everything. What else could I possibly need to know?

(Of course since then I’ve spent years in therapy rewriting stories, learning to think in different ways about issues and experiences. But that’s another blog post.)

Interestingly, it was my 18-, 19- and 20-year-old selves that were writing journalism stories, reading Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, Truman Capote and George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, and wondering about truth in writing, truth in reporting. It was those selves who took a course called “Phenomenology” as a junior and learned about how we perceive and experience reality, and who took, for six credits,  “Propaganda,” and learned all about manipulation and persuasion and ideology, and argued at some point that all writing was propaganda because it was always trying to persuade, always coming from a specific viewpoint–and that it wasn’t all evil. Those selves wrote about the connections between phenomenology and journalism and how no writer can objectively reproduce an experience in language; no writer can represent the essence of anything.

And so the seeds of poststructural thought were being planted–the idea that Truth and the subject are contingent, partial, multiple, fragmented. unstable, shifting and contradictory. I could see it in other writers’ work, in all communication. But it never occurred to me, I never took it so far as to reread the adoption story, to start to rewrite it.

Had some well-meaning, all-fired-up English professor attempted to help me to see that the my subjectivity and my stories are discursive, and that certain discourses dominate certain communities, and that maybe there were other ways, even innocuous, tame, safe, ways, to talk about being adopted, I would have resisted. I would have said, politely, “No, really, there’s nothing to talk about.” Because I didn’t think there was.

So, I don’t know. Is the lesson here to start outside the self, the subject? To introduce students to these ideas in ways that do not ask them to step outside of the safe zone and to break the constructed narratives of their lives that are at best unnoticed, invisible, and at worst, harmful? And what would that mean?

I had all kinds of fun in college writing about the atrocities of mainstream news coverage of the Vietnam War and our protests of it, and even, sometimes, the circumstances, the dominant discourses, the unexamined ideologies and political realities that prevented THE TRUTH from being told. I had fun thinking about how objectivity can’t exist. I had fun thinking about how we can never know the truth of any experience, how democracy was its own form of indoctrination, and how power shaped everything.

I never extended any of that thought to myself and my own stories, though, which remained whole and complete and pretty and unexamined until a catalyst in my own life forced me to reexamine them. Was it enough that the seeds of the idea that stories might be told in different ways, from different perspectives, was there when I needed it?

Is there some college professor of mine out there now, reading this, saying, “Oh. My. God. She finally got it!”?

And would that be considered success?


Collapsing Boundaries Among I’s; Collapsing Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , on December 11, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 10

I am re-reading my dissertation in preparation for the defense on Wednesday.


And I like it.

There. Now the gods will smack me down. Narcissus all over again.

My car will break down on the way to Columbia. My book bag will spring open, of its own will, and my single copy of my dissertation will fly out, page by individual page, and float down W. 12o St. like giant snowflakes getting run over and turned to grey slush by car tires.

I will arrive at the defense out of breath, sweaty, dissertation-less, discombobulated, and ready to write one of those Worst Case Scenario Survival handbooks.

But let me first ask you this: Is dementia an epic metaphor for post-structural notions of memory?

Smith and Watson tell us this:

Readers often conceive of autobiographical narrative as telling unified stories of their lives, as creating or discovering coherent selves. But both the unified story and the coherent self are myths of identity. For there is no coherent “self” that predates stories about identity, about “who” one is. Nor is there a unified, stable, immutable self that can remember everything that has happened in the past. We are always fragmented in time, taking a particular or provisional perspective on the moving target of our pasts, addressing multiple and disparate audiences.

We are always fragmented in time. Our selves, our subjectivities are decentered, unknowable, fragmented. Is dementia a loss of the ability to impose culturally acceptable narratives, to stay put in one time, to stay put in one narrative? To stay put as one’s present, in-the-moment I? It dementia a collapsing of the boundaries between all those momentarily-existing I’s?

Lurching, Fragmented Time

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 7

We are home, in Patchogue, safe and sound, and Honey and Scout celebrated by sniffing every single blade of grass, individually, and thus gathering the latest news of the canine population of Fair Harbor.

It’s good to be home, and I feel as though some of the anxiety I’ve been attributing to the dissertation defense has lifted, and was, maybe, due more to moving home (and carting all my stuff back to Patchogue) than I realized.

But now. Now I can concentrate on the defense.

All day, in the back of my mind, I’ve been trying to think of questions that the committee might ask me, and I can’t think of any. In fact, I can’t even think of what my dissertation is really about right now. This, I guess, is its own form of  jitters. So, I’m going to reread the damn thing for the millionth time and appease my anxiety by memorizing names of theorists which will virtually guarantee that no one asks me about a theorist–because that is how my attempts at studying usually go. I will plan speeches in my head, and recite them in my sleep, and no one will ask me questions to which those speeches will be appropriate responses. And the defense will be something completely other than my imaginings. But I will follow my process nonetheless.

One thing I do want to be prepared to talk about is where I want to go next with this research, what my plans are, where I see the ideas going, that sort of thing. I was asked this question during the defense of my MA thesis, and I said, rather inappropriately, that the only thing I planned to do with my thesis and all of the background research was to have a big bonfire. I suspect that this answer, genuine though it was at the time, will not fly in this go around.

The truth is I have only vague notions of where I want to go with this. I want this published. This dissertation. Exactly as it is, if possible, which of course it won’t be. But after that? After that I think I want to write about my dad. This project centers so much on my dad and his stories and family and memory; it seems logical, or necessary even, to write about my father’s memory as he loses it, to write about the peculiarities of what he loses and when, and what he remembers, and how his mind seems to be working, and to examine my own visceral, inchoate reactions to all of this, which, to be honest, are not always the most compassionate or helpful.

For example:

When my father thinks my mother is his sister, I want to let that situation play itself out. I want, somehow, a glimpse of my father’s relationship with his sister, as though I could see that through his confusion about my mother. When my father thinks we are in the house on E. 2nd, I want him to describe it to me, every detail–the sounds of the trolleys on MacDonald Avenue, the temperature of the room, my grandfather’s mood, the fabric on the sofa, the scent of the breeze moving the curtains on the front windows, his sisters’ voices in the background.

I am sick and twisted. And while my father’s brain may be lurching back and forth, unwillingly, through time, dementia is not a time machine.

But. But, but, but.

Time is a series of discourses that structure both self perception and perceptions of others. We never really go back or forward but use memory and prediction to write narratives that are self fulfilling, self justifying, self accusing, or self abusing. The past is never past and the future is always beyond our grasp.

What happens when we look at my father’s memory through this lens? When we look at dementia? Or any normal, healthy memory? What happens when we are using memory to write ourselves, and memory is failing, physically, beyond all of the ways in which I’ve already talked about memory failing in theory?

The Unauthorized Autobiography of Elizabeth Cone

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on August 4, 2012 by chateaucone

You guys are awesome. Keep the comments coming!

L., can you come to my defense? More on memory later.

Here’s the problem with the Official Analysis Chapter. There’s no Official Lit Review Chapter, or Official Methodology Chapter, or any other Typical Dissertation Chapter in my dissertation. And that was all well and good when things were moving along and I was creating, and writing, and refracting, and playing. But now I have to say something about all of that, and I don’t have a format in which to do it. A style. A voice.

And here’s the second problem with the Official Analysis Chapter.  Nowhere in this project have I acknowledged that it is, in fact, a dissertation. It’s a post-structural autobiography.  Well, an attempt to see what a p/s autobiography might look like. All the Traditional Dissertation pieces are there, but all (one hopes) in service to the autobiography.

Which brings me to The Big Problem Of the Whole Project. How does one end a post-structural autobiography?

One does not.

To end it would be to fix it permanently, at which point, when it is no longer in flux, in motion, unstable, inconstant and fluid, it becomes a fiction. If it wasn’t already a fiction. Which maybe it was.

How might one keep ink on a page in flux? Fluid and inconstant?

How do I keep my story from being squeezed into some final interpretation? How do I keep it from serving some cultural or religious or social ideology?

Any sort of ending chapter would appear to be the definitive chapter; the authoritative chapter, the chapter with the answers. The Chapter That Brings Together All the Disparate Pieces of my Story in the Service of One Coherent Goal. One Ideologically Appropriate Goal.

(I have to stop with the capital letters already.)

You know. The kind of structure that says, “And all of these things happened because Augustine was meant to confess.” Or “All of these events naturally led to George W. Bush becoming the 43rd President of the United States.”

You can see my problem.

We can’t subscribe to the traditional biography/campaign literature philosophy of “recess the broken bits.”

On a positive note, I listened to an interview with Cheryl Strayed on WNYC the other day, and something she said about personas and voices, that my good friend D. also said in his comments (the small of which I have incorporated, the large of which I am fascinated by but not yet writing about) has given me an idea about how to proceed.  And since another NPR interview, three years ago, gave me the idea for the whole of Chapter 2, voice, structure, content, degree of snark, fracturedness, blah, blah, blah, I’m cautiously hopeful. And I’ll just say this: it’s about adoption, on levels that are still occurring to me, and, I hope, keep occurring.

And I’m reading Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and it is wonderful. Stories within stories within stories. And layers within the stories. I’m halfway through and climbing back toward some sort of edge, I hope, from which I’ll be able to see it all, stretched out before me.

In which we consider where living and writing and dissertating intersect, and don’t

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , on July 31, 2012 by chateaucone

More about writing, and life, and dissertations, and less about cats and collies.

We hope.

I just forced myself to turn off last night’s Daily Show and start writing. Writing anything–if not the dissertation then at least this blog.

Okay. The only thing I missed was my moment of zen.

Seriously, though. I’m stuck. I have no idea how to write the Official Analysis Chapter of my dissertation. No idea. And I’m running out of other things to do. Today I’m going to go through the revisions that my good friends B. and D. gave me, and note them, if not actually make them. Just in case tomorrow rolls around, and I still don’t know how to write the Official Analysis Chapter. And because I don’t like to rush things.

Here’s what else I have to do:

  1. Figure out what my second reader meant when he said, “You let memory off the hook,” and what to do about it.
  2. Write the rest of the “Hymns to the Lares” Chapter. Maybe incorporate #1?
  3. Finish the preface (which I’ll do last).
  4. Edit the hell out of the APA style that I’ve been pretty much making up as I go along because (a) I don’t know it well and (b) parts of the diss just don’t fit well, stylistically, with APA style (which I’ll do last, even after finishing the preface).
  5. Finish the Implications for Teaching chapter, because “I don’t give a crap” is neither an answer, nor long enough to fill a chapter.

Here’s what I’d rather do:

  1. Sit on the porch swing and read Cloud Atlas (which I will do, as a reward, later, if I actually get something done today.)
  2. Marinate the chicken for dinner.
  3. Read the new gas grill manual. (And anyone who knows me will know this is A Desperate Measure to Avoid Writing.)
  4. Watch replays of Michael Phelps winning assorted medals. Or the Russian women on the balance beam. Seriously–it’s summer’s answer to ice skating. All flinching, all the time.

And now, to work.

And for inspiration, Clarence Budington Kelland: “I get up in the morning, torture a typewriter until it screams, then stop.”