At some point in the dissertation process, T. A. Shippey gives his advisees a “magic” bottle of Scotch with the following instructions:

Set the bottle aside, and after you’ve been working hard for a while, not a good day’s work, but for a period of time, pour yourself two fingers full, and add nothing to it except maybe a little water. Then take the drink and sit somewhere quiet and relax and think about the dissertation, not the particulars you’re struggling with, but the larger issues, the big picture. The purpose is to think about the forest rather than the individual trees. Pace yourself so that you finish the bottle and the dissertation at the same time. (( This is the gist of the instructions, but is in no way verbatim. ))

The “magic” in all this is that if you follow the instructions you will get a tenure-track job. While it may have taken a few years, Shippey notes, to date everyone who has followed these instructions have landed a tenure-track job. The bottle is both a challenge and an initiation rite. It is a ritual, and as are all rituals, it is a mnemonic practice.

The purpose of this ritual, of course, is not to land a tenure-track job. None of us believe that there’s any real magic involved here. The purpose of all this is to remind us to take a break and reflect, to take the time to see the forest from the trees, to map out where we are and where we want to go so that we don’t just blunder through this process and get lost.

Shippey could, of course, just have given us this advice, which I imagine many dissertation directors do. Shippey, however, knows something about ritual and myth, about the power of story, (( Shippey has, after all, read Tolkien and Pratchett. Stories and reality co-exist within a dynamic process in which they both shape and are shapped by each other. )) and the ritual, embodied both symbolically and physically in the bottle and the ceremonial practice connected to it, is Shippey’s way of trying to turn this advice into practice. Advice is something we all forget, but a bottle of scotch, given with special instructions on how to consume it and a story, a myth, about the purpose of the scotch and the ritual, that is something much harder to forget. Remembrance is, after all, the purpose and function of myth and ritual.

What I’ve come to realize is that the purpose of this ritual is much greater than helpful advice for finishing the dissertation. While its immediate purpose is to get us through the dissertation, its larger purpose is to instill in us this practice of reflection. Over the years, Shippey has always talked about the importance of taking the time to think, to carve out not just a space of one’s own but a time of one’s own. In this way this is not just about finishing the dissertation so that we can get jobs; it is about instilling in us practices necessary for becoming reflective scholars and teachers throughout our careers.

When I finish this bottle and the dissertation along with it, I will need to buy myself another. I prefer bourbon to Scotch, and that’s just as well. Rituals should be special, and drinking Scotch rather than bourbon for this ritual will remind me of its purpose, that it is a time for sober rumination. A mnemonic practice for a mnemonic practice, so to speak.

This is an aspect of memory I don’t explore in the dissertation, the mnemonic practices of composition, from the rituals we practice to the body memories of space and tools to the habit memories of when and how we compose. At CCCC last year, a friend introduced me to another person working on memory. As I described my dissertation to him, he blurted out “You need to leave something for the rest of us!” As if I could cover the topic in a lifetime, let alone a dissertation. It was commonplace not too long ago to believe that memory was a dead end, that, to paraphrase Edward Corbett, there was not much to say or be said about memoria. As I’ve argued before, the problem has never been that that there was or there is not much that can be said about memory. Rather, it is because memoria so thoroughly permeates all that we do that we fail to recognize memoria when we encounter it.

It has been my plan to have the last drink the night before my dissertation defense, but I’ve decided that should be the second to last drink. I want to save the last drink for later, for after the post-disseration glow has started to fade. Rather than use the last drink to think about what I’ve done, I want to use that last drink to think about what I’ll do next.