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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

So we Dissertate on, Pens against the Pages, Borne back Ceaselessly into the Past...

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog! Last week we wrapped up our semester long journey (for now!) exploring the connections between Martial Arts Studies and Digital Humanities. This week I wanted to take a moment to provide a formal update on my research and to frame a few fundamental points that will be useful for anyone who wants to understand more about pursuing a PhD, how an English major can write about Tae Kwon Do in his dissertation, or just what in the hell rhetoric (whatever that is) has to do with kicking people/getting kicked in the face for fun.

Let's start with the PhD experience as I've known it. At USF, the English department has three main graduate degree programs: Literature, Creative Writing, and Rhetoric/Composition. As you may have guessed, I'm working toward the degree in Rhet/Comp. This is a 4-5 year process that looks like this:

  1. Two years (36 graduate hours) of course work. Here you take required courses like Historical Rhetorics, Teaching Composition, Rhetoric of/and Technology, and Composition Theory.

  2. In the third year, a student must demonstrate their ability to synthesize information from these courses in two ways; Comprehensive Exams (Comps) and writing a prospectus. The exams are a holdover from an older theory about what it means to be educated. It's my hope that they will eventually shift/change to be more of a preparatory exercise for the student to organize ideas useful for their prospectus. The prospectus is a fancy word used to refer to a dissertation proposal. This document outlines your major project so your committee of advisers can give you preliminary feedback or tell you to go back to the drawing board.

  3. Once the prospectus is written, it must be "defended." This isn't as scary as it sounds if you have a good dissertation committee chair. Your chair should have helped you revise the prospectus to the point where you can anticipate most comments from the other members of your committee and be prepared to accept them or explain why they won't be useful for this particular project.

  4. After the defense, the PhD candidate is officially ABD (all but dissertation) and has one primary focus left--get it done!

Guess what? I defended my prospectus this semester so I'm officially ABD!!!!

You may have seen this picture as proof...

So this means that all I have to do now is write "the dissertation..." (cue ominous music). Here's the thing, a lot of people inside and outside academia have a LOT of misconceptions about the dissertation, so I figured I would explain what it is as I see it in my field.

The dissertation is:

  1. A large research project designed to prove a student has the propensity for performing the job of a scholar in a full-time teaching/research position.

  2. Proof of concept that the student can articulate a research problem, collect and analyze that data with a defined methodology, make inferences from this analysis relevant/useful to the field at large, and establish implications for future researchers or projects.

  3. The final document designed to be produced by a student that the budding researcher (that's me!) creates before pursuing full-time employment.

The dissertation is NOT:

  1. A 500 page manuscript that should take 5-7 years to complete.

  2. An exhaustive, or even always COMPLETE, study of a particular subject.

  3. A document designed to truly prove anything to anyone other than the dissertation committee. For that matter, it's not a document to really be READ by anyone other than the dissertation committee.

So what's the point? In my estimation, the dissertation is designed as the final training exercise for prospective PhDs. It's the kind of wilderness survival simulation designed to see if the student has learned enough to become self-sufficient. In this way, writing a project like this is very much akin to martial arts practice--we train and train, work and work, not necessarily for any clearly defined goal, but because we understand that constant work yields constant improvement. This is how I write.

But what business do I have writing about Tae Kwon Do in the English department? That's a great question--one that Rhetorical Roundhouse is designed to answer over time. In addition, I'll be releasing some new video projects soon that will help answer some of the fundamental questions underpinning the one above. Some of these include:

  • How are martial arts rhetorical and what does it even mean to be rhetorical?

  • How has Tae Kwon Do operated as a rhetorical force politically over time for outside audiences?

  • How has Tae Kwon Do functioned as a rhetorical institution over time, disciplining its practitioners to believe and behave in certain ways in society?

  • What do Tae Kwon Do documents like training manuals reveal about some of these institutional, internal rhetorics?

  • How do we understand the Eastern rhetorical tradition as its embodied through martial arts practice generally and Tae Kwon Do specifically? Is it useful or inappropriate to compare this to the Western historical tradition extending from Ancient Greece?

  • What does it mean to "embody" a "rhetoric" anyway? And how does this process of uptake actually function?

  • Why does any of this matter to people who study rhetoric or teach writing?

  • Why does any of this matter to martial arts practitioners?

These questions are, for the most part, the ones I will be answering in detail throughout the course of my dissertation. The trick is I need to write that document in such a way that shows my colleagues that the rhetorical theory comes first and that Tae Kwon Do is merely the object of study. In reality, I don't see this as the case. I don't think you can have one without the other and, furthermore, understanding one informs and changes the other in a reciprocal way. If I do my job correctly, my committee, and you, fair audience of invisible readers, will feel that way too.

The good news is, I must be doing a pretty decent job of this already. I say that because the end of this semester came with a great honor--I was awarded the Irving and Mollie Rubin Award for Outstanding Graduate Student. I see this as recognition of the balance I try to achieve through teaching, scholarship, and public outreach and I'm very, very thankful to be recognized in this way.

If you are reading this, it means you are partly responsible for my success--your support and encouragement is what helps me keep pushing forward when I don't want to, when I feel tired and ready to quit, when I think I'm not good enough. Because of this, I wanted to take a moment to reprint a letter of gratitude I wrote to the donor of this award. Here, I've edited the letter to include all of you, all who energize me with love, all who catch me when I stumble and fall.


It is with the utmost sincerity and joy that I thank you for selecting me for the Irving and Mollie Rubin Outstanding Graduate Student Award for the 2018-2019 academic year. It’s been a challenging and trying year for me professionally as well as personally, so this recognition means more than you could know.

This is my third year in the Rhetoric and Composition PhD program and, I’m happy to say, that I’m finally at a point academically where I know what my research entails, how it compliments my other hobbies and interests as well as my future goals and endeavors. When I arrived in Tampa in 2016, none of those things were clear. All I knew at the time was that I loved teaching writing and wanted to continue to have a positive impact on students of varying levels. This and the knowledge of the non-existent job market for someone with an MA in American Literature led me here.

When I arrived at USF, however, I faced the same kinds of imposter syndrome struggles as every other graduate student. There were times when I nearly quit because I couldn’t quite figure out a way to be my authentic self in the confines of an R1 institution, perhaps in academe writ large. Combine this with imploding romantic relationships and the severity of my parents’ health decline back in Virginia and I could be, at times, a bit of a mess.

But somehow, I grounded myself in what I knew to be true above all else: I am a writer, a teacher, and a martial artist. These are the things that, when the whole world is a chaotic, dumpster fire, remain true and bring me some semblance of peace. Suddenly, I found connections between what I love about writing and Tae Kwon Do, I found overlaps in these connections and the research niches of embodied and Eastern rhetorics (overlaps I continue to pursue in my dissertation work), and I realized new ways to take what I’ve learned in eight years of classroom teaching and fourteen years of martial arts training and apply it to mentoring young instructors in my field.

In short, I began to find my own balance.

But this didn’t happen randomly or overnight. It happened with the love and dedication of people close to me, people who offer of themselves freely expecting nothing in return, it happened because of the generosity of people like you.

So thank you for this award. But also, thank you for the spirit of this award, the belief that encouragement and motivation can also be productive ways of changing people (and the world) for the better.

Again, thank you for your generosity and for everything this kind of award stands for. I will be sure to honor this acknowledgment with continued dedication and a renewed sense of purpose.


And now, with that renewal, I write. I write and write and read and write and read and write some more. And you know what? I'm really excited about it. I love my dissertation project and I can't wait to share it with all of you.

It took me a while to find it, but this is the FIRST Enlgish Tae Kwon Do manual to feature the Taegeuk forms. This is the first manual in my dissertation sample

And don't you worry, I'm still taking time to balance out my life with training and fun. Want to see how I combine those two?

Do you understand the hand speed/reflexes necessary to win those 500 extra tickets? I do.

So with all of that said, I should probably get back to work. Tune in next week for a preview of some more upcoming projects (Martial Arts Studies Conference paper, 4C's 2020 Proposal, RSA proposal) as well as the upcoming debut of my Tiny Tiger Video Lecture Series!

As always, thank you for reading.


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