This month, I finish my Ph.D dissertation (a dissertation that is really speaking only the first draft of an eventual book, and therefore not “finished” at all). Throughout this process, I’ve thought often about the acknowledgments I will write. Who will I thank, and in what words? How clever should I be? How sentimental? How brief?
People remember these things. When I was deciding between doctoral programs, a colleague advised that I choose Berkeley Rhetoric because the majority of students thanked the Graduate Student Services Advisor in the acknowledgments of their dissertations. This, it seemed to my colleague, was a remarkable sign of a generous community and infrastructure of support. (Whether or not it was is beside the point.)
Recently, during a conversation about academic books (like, who ever reads them, anyway?), a friend recalled a line from a 2009 monograph by Eric Hayot: “I want to acknowledge, finally, the people who constitute the first concentric circle of my address …” Seven years later, my friend was still chewing on those words, as he contemplated who he was writing for and what forms of address would be adequate to the task.
I’ve written here before about the acknowledgments from Inderpal Grewal’s book, Transnational America: “[B]ecause there are communities to care about, there is something I care to write about.” I read the book in 2005, but I remember that line even now. Her words still sound to me like the most sensible and succinct causal explanation of the relationship between life and work, the subject of the writer and the object of the prose.
I think, too, of how my undergraduate advisor, Robyn Wiegman, thanked in her most recent book “a string of vibrant English teachers in public schools in Miami, Florida” for her first, elementary-school lessons in the grammar of “subject” and “object”—which were also lessons about the grammar of life.
And then there are the words from my grandmother, Lily Tharoor, who’s more thrilled than anyone that I’ve finished the Ph.D. When she published her first book, Household Hints (excerpts from which appeared in this magazine in 2008), she scrawled an extra line of dedication in my copy: “To Ragini, who didn’t help me with this.” I had promised to type up her manuscript and failed, so I deserved it. What’s more, I won’t soon forget it.
Acknowledgements often begin with the disclaimer that all cannot be acknowledged, too many must be thanked, the errors are mine, everything good comes from everybody else, etc. Pulling this off in a way that is honest and generous, humorous yet sincere, humble and alive to the privilege of having people to thank in the first place, is no easy art. A truly outstanding dedication can sometimes redeem even a very bad book.
Do you thank only those who contributed ideas or feedback directly pertaining to the book? Do you thank those who made your life more livable during its creation? How do you thank the people you have to thank, but don’t want to, versus those you want to, but who may not want the acknowledgment? In what order do you proceed?
In academic books, the often pages-long acknowledgments sections alternate between perfunctory (and in some cases contractually obligatory) listing of funding sources and previous publications, mixed with glowing words on everyone the author dined with during the decade it took to complete the book.
There’s a lot of name-dropping, as a matter of course. Acknowledgments create an aura of celebrity and credibility by association. Who you have to thank says something about who you are, who you can ask for help, and who’s willing to give it. And it says other things, too. I’ve used the acknowledgments sections in other people’s books in order to figure out who’s married to whom, who has kids, who is friends with whom—in other words, as a guide to figuring them out.
You notice when you don’t get thanked. You notice when you do.
Let me take this opportunity, then, to thank some people who can’t really be thanked in my dissertation, because I don’t really know who they are. Call it the opposite of name-dropping.
Thank you to:
…the neighbor downstairs, whose full name I don’t know, who hung around my living room while Mrinalini slept and I ran out to buy a suit the night before a major job interview.
To the skeptical interviewer who wouldn’t let up and probably lost me that job. Because of him, I doubled down on the nascent arguments in my dissertation and got a better job.
To the anonymous peer-reviewer who rejected the not-good article and didn’t mince words.
To the anonymous peer-reviewer who cheered the masterful, poetic rewrite.
To the administrator who wouldn’t let me give back my fellowship when Mrinalini was in the hospital.
To the editor who cold-called me from across the country with praise for an article I didn’t realize anyone had read.
Finally, to the readers of this column. Next month, June 2016, marks the 15th anniversary of my regular contributions to India Currents. It’s hard to quantify the mark that this magazine, and you readers, have had on my academic work, but I’ll try. You have given me a space to which to return—a space of literal column inches and virtual relations. You have presented “India” as a provocation. And you have given me time. Acknowledging you is a pleasure long overdue.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.