How to Write a Thesis, by Umberto Eco

Robert Eaglestone:

These seem to be very bad times for graduate research students in the arts and humanities, the intended audience for this book. The job market is not great; funding is scarce; casualisation, which might appear to serve grad students but actually exploits them, proceeds apace; the smooth, high walls of the ivory tower seem ever more exclusive and imposing; the groves of academe (odd, I’ve always thought, to have groves inside a tower) ever more remote. Even from the pages of Times Higher Education, our little world’s local paper, opinion pieces declare that, to prevent them getting “exalted notions of themselves” (forfend!), researchers in the arts and humanities should realise that they are simply “trainspotters in their field” about whom no one cares (wait: trainspotters in a…field?). Instead of doing research, it’s argued, they should simply teach, concentrating, as Jorge of Burgos demands, in Umberto Eco’s bestselling 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, on “the preservation of knowledge” or at best “a continuous and sublime recapitulation” of what is known.

Into this bleak picture comes the first English translation of Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, continuously in print in Italy since 1977. That was a long time ago in academia, and, at first sight, lots of this book looks just useless, rooted in its historic and specific Italian context. Who uses index cards any more? (I mean, I used to, but I wrote my PhD on a computer with no hard drive, using 5¼-inch diskettes, when the internet was still for swapping equations at Cern or firing nukes at Russia.) Who has typists copy up their thesis? The sections on using libraries and research sources sound like an account of a lost, antediluvian culture.