Concluding well – part 2. on back rows and beautiful houses


Imagine yourself in a theatre. You choose to sit in the back row. You are the author of the play to be performed, and you have crept into the stalls after the lights go down. It is opening night and your words are about to be heard by a real audience. The stakes are high. Critical reviews can make or break a play. No-one can see you or recognise you now as everyone’s eyes are on the stage. You are close to the exit and can creep quietly away before the lights go up.

This is not you. The theatre is not your thesis. The last act of the play is not your conclusion. Your words do not speak for themselves, nor are they spoken through the mouths of other actors.

The thesis is not a back row. It is your beautiful house.

Oh yes. I haven’t just been watching the Winter Olympics, I’ve also watched Spike Lee’s performance film of David Byrne’s American Utopia. For the second time. And I think it’s got some helpful insights about conclusions. And oh yes, it’s another metaphor based post. If these are not your cup of tea I’ve written other posts on conclusions you might prefer (here and here). But as I was saying, American Utopia has some useful insights for concluding well….

Even the trailer for the film is helpful for putting yourself in the right conclusion-writing head space – it starts off “Everyone’s coming to my house.” Right away, following the metaphor, you know that your conclusion is you and your work. Work which is beautiful. which your audience is coming to see and to read and to hear about.

When you come to the conclusion you might well ask yourself, as Bryne does, “How do I work this?”. Byrne and his former outfit Talking Heads’ have some advice. Their answer is not to focus on “How did I get here?” but rather, “What is this beautiful house?” and “Where does this highway go?”

The conclusion is not a summary of everything that has gone before. It is not a laborious plod through the research questions giving detailed answers to each. Yes, you do need to return to the question you asked at the start and succinctly state your answer – this is more like a very quick catch up with only the very most important points making the cut. The main act of the thesis conclusion is to move the action forward to a satisfactory ending.

The thesis conclusion is the pace where you claim what it is that you have done for your field. Why it is important that other people know about your results. How they matter and why. And then you need to tell your audience where the story might go next.

You are the lead actor in the conclusion. While you directed and managed the action and the argument all through the thesis, now is the time for you to take centre stage. The conclusion is important text work/identity work. it is where you are the expert scholar.

Now, writing yourself as an expert doesn’t mean that you have to write in the first person. The conclusion is usually a judicious mix of first and third writing, but can be one or the other. It is a misconception to think that writing in the first person means you’re out of the back row. It’s how you stage, sequence and argue that matters now. The conclusion is not the place for an inappropriate “I” magic trick. The magic trick where you appear to be on stage leading the plot but actually fail to make your presence felt. Where you are a ghostly holograph. Where the action before is clear, but what is to come is shrouded in mystery, as are you. You need to be present in the text, organising the events.

Nor is the thesis conclusion is the place for a long monologue of regrets, of wishes about what the thesis didn’t do, its fatal flaws. It may be that in your field your audience expects some kind of reflection on the action, a short and well worded critical evaluation of your learnings. But they don’t want you to do pirouettes or embark on a whole new adventure. They want you to tell them why it is that you think it has been worth them engaging with your words. All of them. And for quite some time. From your perspective.

You audience is looking forward to the after show conversation with the author. They know that you are an academic work in progress. As are they. They don’t want to have to start off the conversation with, “I couldn’t quite see the point you were making. Can you just fill me in on what you think your main message was.”

Of course your audience will form their own opinions. But they also need to hear from you. They don’t want you to remain  lurking in the back rows. They don’t want you to creep out just before the lights go up. They want a finale worthy of the three or four years it took you to complete the work.

So.. Stand up. Go the front. Own your expertise. Take – and be – the lead.