The Riverine Collective of my Thesis

Hello All,

I hope that you are all well, wherever you may be. Today i’d like to use Fluid Imaginings to work through something that has been intriguing and puzzling me for a while, the matter of how I can best present my PhD thesis. First, a little background information:

My thesis, for at least a year and probably longer, has been grouped into a series of chapters on abstract hydrologies of the High Middle Ages. Each is a reading of a particular source with hydrological resonance, each presents quite a different form of hydrology, and each can more or less be read on its own. Although all five central chapters enrich each other by association they are, for the most part, independent entities. They are framed by an introduction and a series of three discursive essays, and end with a shared conclusion.

It was in light of this pre-existing structure that I read this recent post by Inger Mewburn over at The Thesis Whisperer. Inger asks the following question to conclude the post:

I wonder how many other people are out there, with tens of thousands of words on their hands, thinking that they have to rewrite these words to ‘tame them’ into the traditional thesis format? If you suspect you are one of those people I suggest you take a good hard look at what you are doing. You might be longing for coherence which, while desirable, is not that practical or necessary.

Upon reading this, I realised that this was me. I keep wishing that my chapters, despite being united by a quite clear commonality, would behave. I have been intrigued by the idea of submitting my thesis as a series of papers for quite a while, but always been too afraid to commit to the idea as a serious option. My university allows a thesis as a collection of published, under review, or unpublished papers separated by bridging sections and with a general introduction. Now, after reading Inger’s post, I am seriously rethinking the idea. It has several advantages that i’m toying with:

  1. I feel like my thesis is trying to tell me something, that it has a natural arrangement that will best balance it out. Maybe the degenerative ecological thinking syndrome contracted from years of this thesis is taking its toll, but I feel that the balance that feels right, is right.
  2. I have already been contemplating the idea of calling my thesis a collection of essays. As long as the thesis has, well, a thesis, then it seems like the natural thing to do.
  3. I have the intriguing option of improving part or all of my thesis by peer review before submitting it, and having the rest ready to go upon completion. I have a few chapters that are almost ready to go, so this could start quite fast.
  4. I have about three topics that have arisen from my thesis that I consider to be intimately tied to the thesis, but not of its core ‘theme’. I could include these as an appendix section more organically were my thesis a series of papers.

This is the Structure I have been considering, with each chapter as a self-contained essay of approximately 8000 words

  1. General Introduction and Discussion
  2. Section One: Three Discourses – Three Essays on A) The reading of water in medieval thought B) Balancing universalism with specificity in Water Theory and C) Formative theories for composing an abstract hydrology, and their potential problems in a medieval context.
  3. Section Two: Five Hydrologies - My five core chapters on (by source material) A) A Latin Poem called the Fons Philosophiae B) The Image Pierpont Morgan m.982 C) A Description of Clairvaux D) A small collection of Mappaemundi E) The Letters of Peter of Celle
  4. Section Three: Three AppendicesIncluding three essays on Environmental History, Ecology and Thalassology, each of which is related to, but apart from, the main argument
  5. Synthesis and Conclusion

The idea is that section one informs sections two and three, sections two and three read as a cumulative but separate collection of studies, and that two and three are also completely separate, but mutually beneficial. Together, the idea is to ‘do’ a thesis by showing that A) There is a main topic and set of questions to be applied to all essays B) There are discursive sections that enrich all essays and show the required understanding of literature surrounding the essays without resorting to a lit. review, C) There is a main section that is wholly medieval and uses hydrological abstraction to perform an intellectual history exercise through readings of texts D) There is a smaller section of appendices that demonstrates the wider implications of the thesis mode.

I particularly like the idea that the thesis would, rather than having one large chunky conclusion, run eleven conclusions in parallel that inform each other and then come together in a short synthesis at the end. I have long imagined my thesis as a riverine system (another symptom of the aforementioned hydromania), and this structure is more true to a hydrology. One source, many divisions, each of the original and yet exhibiting a flavour of their own mediated by the terrain through which they flow, and many exits in a great broad estuary where they return to the ocean of discourse.

The Mouths of the Amazon River, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons

Yes i’m probably crazy, but this seems like an intriguing idea. Feel free to offer advice, warnings or ridicule where appropriate.

Salvete Omnes,


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