The Final Countdown

Time is short, readers, so I’ll keep it brief.

I received a final round of comments from my chair on the Intro + revised chapters 1 & 2. We still weren’t seeing eye to eye on a few things so we had a two-hour meeting to iron it all out. During that meeting, he confirmed my defense date, so I reserved the room and confirmed with the whole committee: I am defending on April 19. ~shudder~

My deadline to submit the complete manuscript is a single week away and let me tell you, I’m working 12 to 15-hour days right now to make it happen.

The timing is once again unfortunate, because the major national conference for my field is occurring right now in my own city, and I’m going to be missing the entire thing (except for the reception I organized) because I really, really need to do my best and most thorough work right now. Oh well.

It’s so close I can almost taste it…see you on the other side!

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Tying it all together: Elvis Presley met Harold Nicholas in Paris during January of 1960

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Day 910: The Home Stretch, AKA Revisions

My apologies, dear readers. I remember at least 3 occasions during February when I said to myself, “I should try to post about this!” but then failed to find the time or energy to do so. Thus, now that it’s March, I will attempt to look back and describe what I’ve gone through since January.

At first, I stuck to the schedule. I started with revisions for Chapter 1, on the Nicholas brothers. I very quickly found myself overwhelmed with this task. I had no idea how to even begin to address all of the comments I received, even after I methodically went through them and made a task list. As February dawned and I was still treading water with the first chapter, I decided to switch gears and begin work on Chapter 2 revisions.

But, I soon realized that some of the shared problems with both the first and second chapters might reasonably solved by the introduction, so when I was still only a handful of pages into my Gene Kelly revisions, I switched gears again and started to write the introduction, which I hadn’t even really outlined yet but I did have plenty of notes to guide me. Surprisingly, it was easier to write than I had anticipated, so it (thankfully) only took about a week. But then, with less than a week before my deadline, I was left with a still-unfinished attempt at a Chapter 1 revision and a barely-touched Chapter 2, which I discovered too late was a complete disaster.

I probably should have known that Chapter 2 would be such a mess. It was the first chapter I wrote, one which I started writing two whole years ago and hadn’t really looked back at since then. Of course, it became the basis for my writing sample, which I used in job applications, but the 25-page version was much tighter and more polished than the full chapter, and the changes I made for the writing sample did not translate to improvements of the chapter version nearly as often as I had thought they would. And, after spending so much time tightening up my best chapter, it became very clear just how bad my worst was in comparison—almost no argument to be found at all! I discovered that the argument had been more pronounced in my head and in my descriptions of the project elsewhere, but largely fell away in the chapter itself.

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One of my tasks during Chapter 2 revisions was to add images, such as this one in which Gene Kelly literally dissolves into a drawing of black dancer Raphaël Padilla (Toulouse-Lautrec’s Chocolat) during An American in Paris (1951).

Meanwhile, our department’s recruitment weekend fast approached, and it entailed a series of events with many moving parts and details to coordinate—most of which was my job. I was also asked to serve as the representative graduate student scholar of my department and give a talk on the second day of the weekend, so it was crucial that I submit the intro and chapter revisions before all of this hit.

…but I didn’t quite make it. I submitted the ~185 pages 2 days too late, and with insufficient attention to the final section of Chapter 2, which was the worst part. This meant I did a subpar job preparing the talk, which itself was a version of the final section of Chapter 1.

All of this is a long way of saying that REVISIONS ARE THE HARDEST PART. This has taken me completely by surprise. I thought they would be so much easier than writing but I was very, very mistaken. I really should have anticipated this, though; one thing I have long known about myself is that I’m not very good at editing my own work. Once I’ve written something, I have a very hard time envisioning it otherwise. Editing for me has always been a slow and painful process, so I’m not sure why I thought that editing of a more dramatic sort (thus the term “revisions”) would be somehow less difficult. I suppose part of the reason is that preparing my materials for the job market in the Fall had really helped me to conceptualize the full project more clearly, so I felt more equipped to “fix” all the problems and reshape them to fit my newly coherent vision than I actually was.

I am still anticipating feedback from my chair in about 2 weeks, and I must admit I am newly terrified that he will inform me I’m not ready to defend yet after all. I know that I personally still don’t feel like it’s “there” yet, and this is frustrating because I’ve put in so many hundreds of hours at this point. In fact, this feeling is oddly reminiscent of the one I expressed way back at the beginning of this process, in November 2014, when I still wasn’t even quite sure how I was going to structure this dissertation yet (or what the case studies were). To quote my old self, “it’s an odd place to be: on the precipice of my potential, able to sense it but not able to actually see it yet.” Back then I couldn’t even see the shape of the thing I wanted to write—now, I definitely have the shape, but the contents don’t feel appropriately interconnected, coherent, and smoothed out. I can visualize, conceptualize, and imagine what the best version of my dissertation would look and sound like, but I am really struggling to get it to take shape.

I am blessed with great vision despite years of straining my eyes, but I think the appropriate metaphor for this experience is the difference between looking at a vision test before and after glasses. I can make out the general shapes of those letters (and chapters and sections and paragraphs) but I can’t actually distinguish them well enough to read them. But at the same time, I know what letters I should be able to see there, because I’m very familiar with this chart.

This is a scary place to be when your official manuscript has to be submitted to your committee in exactly 4 weeks.

So, for now, I’m trying to tackle revisions on Chapter 3 (Elvis). I have notes to self for re-revising certain parts of the other two chapters, especially Chapter 2, which still needs at least another week of work…but as I begin to go through comments on this final chapter, I’m terrified that Elvis is going to turn out to need even more help than Gene and that I’m not going to be able to turn in good—one might say, defensible—work at the end of the month because I won’t have time to fix everything well enough.

I must admit, I did not expect these final weeks to be nearly so frightening. I thought for sure I’d have it all together by now, that I’d feel better about my 3 years of work on this huge project. Instead, I’m really quite disappointed in my poor execution of good ideas.

Well, readers, I may not post again until after I theoretically submit at the end of the month, so wish me luck! I’ll try to check in again before the defense.

 

Day 870: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Well readers, I finally did it: I finished drafting the body chapters of the DOS-D. At around 3am on day 868.

The Elvis chapter ended up a little over 86 pages long (before notes), including 75 figures. I still believe there are too many images, but I’m going to deal with that later, when I start revising the chapter. For now, I’m grateful to have (barely) made it through. That last day was very rough; I had promised the chapter to my chair by January 18 but kept hitting walls when it came to dealing with Viva Las Vegas and beyond, let alone concluding the chapter. So, I spent January 18 not eating but working constantly, which meant that I only missed the deadline by about 3 hours.

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Elvis dancing for Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), for which I struggled to find a good angle of analysis.

It took me a few days to recuperate, but here I am on the other side of it. Now it’s time to switch mental gears and shape the project as a whole: revisions. Luckily for me, all three members of my committee have read through and given me detailed feedback on each chapter as I’ve written them, so I will have a lot of guidance through my revision process. I know that I need to do more secondary reading/citation for the “cultural context” parts of the chapters, and clarify my central argument. This means more sign-posting and better conclusions to my major examples and sections. I anticipate needing to print out the full chapters for myself, spread them out on the floor, and edit by hand. I need to be able to see the flow of the thing. My apologies in advance to the trees who had to die for me to achieve this; I promise to recycle it all when I’m done. Speaking of promises…

I have promised a draft of my Introduction alongside revised versions of Chapters 1 & 2 to my chair by February 22. Thus, I gave myself mini-deadlines to reach that goal:

  • Complete Ch. 1 revisions (Nicholas Brothers) by Jan. 30
  • Complete Ch. 2 revisions (Gene Kelly) by Feb 8
  • Use the 2 weeks between Feb 8 & Feb 22 to write the Intro

I expect to receive feedback on Elvis around Feb 22, and feedback on the Intro + revisions by St. Patrick’s day. I am due to submit the entire manuscript to my committee on March 29.

AHHHHH, it’s all so much. But I’m told this is just how the ‘final push’ tends to go. It’s a lot, but I can do it—I have to. March 29 really isn’t so far away…less than 10 weeks. Just 67 days. I have a lot of ground to cover, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This might mean that I check in here more often or less often; I’m not sure yet. But for now, the end is in sight and I just have to put my blinders on and charge forth!

Presley Loving You

Image Dependency Issues

Well everyone, I’ve completed my second Dissertation Bootcamp. It was a rough one, because I came down with a pretty nasty cold at the dawn of the 2-week period and battled it throughout the duration. The good news is: in spite of my illness and some bitter cold temperatures during my commute to campus every morning, I wrote about 34 pages during bootcamp! I am therefore roughly half done with my Elvis chapter. The bad news is: I have become image-dependent.

I assume this is a pretty rare problem for most writers, who don’t necessarily plan to include a whole slew of illustrations with their book-length work for adult readers. In my case, one of the pieces of feedback I received on my first chapter was that images would really help readers to visualize and process some of the very specifically visual arguments I am making regarding dance, costuming, and bodily comportment. Thus, my second chapter included 48 figures (all diptychs) over the course of its 76.5 pages (before endnotes). Even then, I was worried that this might amount to too many images–one certainly doesn’t want the images to overshadow or distract from the actual text. The final file size for the chapter was so large that I had to share it with readers via Google Docs rather than email. The jury’s still out on what my readers think about the image issue, but the file size problem alone really should have given me pause when adding images to this final chapter. Unfortunately, I somehow already have 36 figures in about 45 pages of text. Surely this is too many, but with Elvis I struggle to accurately describe his movements because they are rarely comprised of formal, recognizable dance steps. Thus, I find myself relying on images for all of my descriptive segments.

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Elvis busts out one of his signature moves toward the end of LOVING YOU (1957)–while sporting a Canadian tuxedo!

Even though I know I can easily go back and delete images when I’m revising, I’m worried that my constant use of images to illustrate my points means that the writing itself is far weaker and less nuanced. I already have the tendency, as a writer, to assume that I’ve made my point when I haven’t quite done so on paper (the point is always thoroughly made in my head!), so something tells me that the presence of images is only exacerbating this tendency.

There’s also the issue of readers’ preexisting knowledge. Unlike the Nicholas Brothers or Gene Kelly, Presley was not a formally trained dancer, nor was dancing his primary entertainment form. So most readers think of him first and foremost as a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not dancer. As a result, I feel more compelled to constantly ‘prove’ that Elvis is dancing as I develop my argument about him, partially to reassure readers that he belongs in this dissertation, but also to reassure them that my argument about his dancing is, in fact, different from the familiar and much-rehearsed argument that he appropriated black music…though it is clearly related. On this register, it feels almost as if I am still at least somewhat worried about being “Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal,” a fear I discussed on this blog waaaay back in November of 2014 (over 2 years ago now!). Some things never change, I suppose.

A reasonable solution to this problem would be to restrict myself to 1 or 2 figures per 5 pages of writing, forcing myself to choose my images more wisely and write “better” prose. But it feels like this will slow me down at a time when I need to be writing quite quickly in order to meet all of my deadlines, self imposed or otherwise. Thus, I think I’m going to just continue working whatever way is easiest and hope that future me, in revisions mode, will still approve of the plan to move faster rather than more responsibly forward. With luck, it will be easier to revise when I’ve achieved a bit of distance from this specific chapter and have begun to approach the dissertation as a whole body of work.

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What better way to demonstrate Elvis’s use of eyeliner than with a screenshot? (from The Ed Sullivan Show, November 1956)

 

Well, with this problem noted, I guess I should simply get back to it and push forward. I still want to have this final chapter completed by early January, and I’d say I’m definitely only about halfway through Presley’s screen career. So, there’s much left to do!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I wish you all a less work-heavy winter than mine.

Day 822: Crunch Time

Dear readers, I am here to report that my Fall quarter didn’t exactly elapse as I had planned it (again). Job applications took more time and energy than anticipated, and I spent just about all of November traveling for a conference and archival research. So here I am, in December, with only 8 pages of my final dissertation chapter written. WELLP.

The good news is, I’ve watched all Elvis materials from 1956-1961. What remains is 1962-1968, with the comeback special. The other good news is, I start my second dissertation bootcamp tomorrow.

The bad news is, even if I draft a solid 30ish pages during bootcamp, I’m going to have to do a LOT of work over the holidays. This is obviously unfortunate, but I’m lucky to have a supportive family who’s prepared to see very little of me and serve me meals while I’m hunched over my laptop.

I’m in the midst of finalizing my defense date with my committee, but it’s looking like it will be in mid-April. Thus, I am definitely entering CRUNCH TIME. This chapter has to be done by mid-January, in order for me to have enough time to revise all three body chapters and then properly frame them in an intro and conclusion. It’s going to be tight, and an intense last few months, but my university moved up its filing deadline this year so there’s not really any other option if I want to graduate this spring…and as I mentioned in my previous post, I’m out of funding, so I basically have to.

I must admit, I am generally overwhelmed by the amount of work I am facing in the next few months. Some days, it feels insurmountable. I anticipate having to completely cut out any semblance of a social life; I’ve already been neglecting my friends lately, and that’s only going to get worse as my drop-dead deadline looms and my desperation increases. But, like so much of the seemingly-insurmountable work I’ve faced over the course of graduate school, it MUST get done, so it simply will.

But lately I’ve been pondering: What will I do if I fail the defense? Will I have the mental and emotional fortitude to scrape together some sort of temp work or minimum wage jobs for a year while I try to completely rewrite this behemoth and then go through the whole harrowing defense again? I’m not sure. It seems ridiculous to give up on the PhD at the very last minute, but I am human and I have my limits. Graduate school has already been the most difficult period of my life, and a large part of me just wants it to be over, regardless of how it ends. It’s best not to dwell on the ‘what if?,’ I know…but the anxiety remains even when I don’t think about it.

Anyway, for now I simply need to hunker down. Focus, think, produce. Be a robot. Here goes~~~

On Reaching Third Base: The Final Chapter

Before you ask–no, the title of this post was not meant to bring back middle school memories of the baseball metaphors you used to describe sexual exploration. But it probably did anyway. I’m still going to keep the metaphor, though, because if graduate school as a whole is a marathon, then the dissertation is a baseball game you have to play while you’re running the second half of the marathon. In this mixed metaphor, coming up with your dissertation prospectus is the one moment you get to stop running, stand at the plate, and plan your swinging strategy. The outcome of that prospectus swing then determines just how fast and how far you’ll be able to run for the rest of the marathon. You’ve got to round all three bases and hit the home plate in order to be able to access the finish line of the marathon, but the timing here affects what you face beyond the finish line.

Are you lost? Good, as are we all. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting advice over the years regarding the best way to approach the dissertation as a project (in the humanities–it’s a different beast in the social sciences and especially in STEM). Some say it should be 3-4 longish chapters (so, in the range of 50-70 pages each); others say it should be 4-6 shorter chapters (in the range of 30-45 pages each). Some say you should complete the whole thing in 2-3 years (so, at breakneck speeds); others say you should take a solid 4-6 years (to do a really thorough job with it). Each of these approaches (and many other variations) supposedly has a variously direct or indirect relationships to one’s likelihood of securing a postdoctoral fellowship or a tenure-track professorship. But in all honesty, I don’t think anybody knows what they’re talking about. This advice always comes from a perspective whose supporting data has a severely limited sample size–mentors gather the outcomes of their own career paths (and service on search committees), that of their friends and colleagues, and perhaps their past students/mentees, and boil this down into prescriptive advice. But the experience of a dozen or so people is not indicative of a highly dynamic job market.

All of this is to say  that, while there might be wrong ways to ‘do the dissertation,’ there is certainly no one right way. I have written my DOS-D in something akin to the fast lane–I’m entering my third year working on the project, and I’m beginning my third and final chapter. (Yes, I submitted my honking, 80-page second chapter a couple weeks ago, on Day 739!). It’s hard to tell whether or not this has been an overall good decision for the quality of the project and for my chances on the job market; I only know that this is my year of “extended” funding, meaning I won’t be getting any more, and that the adjuncting-for-cash market is pretty saturated in my field and current city. And unlike some PhD candidates (though I can’t imagine I am in the minority here), I do not have a well-paid partner or a bedroom in my parents’ house or a large enough “cushion” of additional funds and resources to depend on while I’m waiting in purgatory.

So here I am, embarking on my final chapter (and hoping to have it fully drafted by the dawn of 2017 in a little over 3 months). I’m really glad I saved Elvis Presley for last; he has by far the most colossal star text and fan base of my case studies, and my argument for this chapter is both the most obvious and the most seemingly ‘out of line’ with the assumptions generally made about dance-on-screen scholarship. I’ve also heard from friends and colleagues that the last chapter goes the fastest–by this point, you’ve figured out how to write dissertation chapters (both as a general skill and in terms of what tricks and strategies work best for you personally). So, while the first chapter took roughly 6 months to produce (though only 4 to actually write), and the second chapter took 8 months (thanks to teaching and other obligations), I’m pretty confident I can pump this one out in 3 months. The majority of my second chapter (almost half) was written during the two weeks of a dissertation bootcamp, and I’m planning on participating in another one this December, so I really do think this trajectory is feasible if I can get the first half-ish written by early December.

Fortunately, I have once again signed up to give a conference talk on the subject of my chapter. In November, I’ll be presenting “The Power of ‘The Pelvis’: How Elvis Presley Danced Race and Ideology” at the joint annual conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars and Congress of Research in Dance. I will focus less on the “screens” aspect of my work in this talk and more on “ideology” but I nevertheless believe this will jumpstart my last chapter, much as my Gene Kelly talk in March of 2015 did for my first chapter.

So far, I’ve watched a film and some TV episodes, read a few chapters from various books, and have made a plan for what else I need to view and read before I can start writing (ideally by October 1). I guess you could say I’m in the collecting phase–collecting texts and absorbing them in order to then spit out a great deal of analysis! To close, here’s a representative screen shot of Presley dancing on “The Frank Sinatra Timex Special: Welcome Home Elvis” in 1960, upon his return from 2 years of military service in Germany:

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This is from a low-quality kinescope–I’m looking for a better copy–but it’s always interesting to see those hips move sans the encumbrance of a guitar!

See you next time, readers! Happy Fall.

Coming Up Short and Moving On Anyway

Pardon my extended absence, fair readers. I’ve just returned from a very busy three weeks in Germany, and am suddenly confronted with the meeting-heavy craziness of Fall Quarter.

As you may recall from my last post: bootcamp got me within 10 pages of the finish line on my second chapter, but then teaching took over my life, and then moving…and then a trip to Germany. Now, part of my purpose in Germany was to track down and watch a copy of the 1955 film Musik im Blut, which features a performance by the Nicholas brothers. Unfortunately, all I was able to find in various archives was a single program for the film. This was a pretty major letdown for me, as I’ve been quite committed to uncovering more about the brothers’ foreign films–these more obscure films currently represent a major gap in the literature on the Nicholases.

This is a good lesson, I suppose, in letting go of your plans for a chapter when the reality of the archive just doesn’t support those plans. You might say this is why scientists offer hypotheses instead of outright arguments, because sometimes you just can’t prove what you thought you could. As a humanist, I sometimes find the gaps in the archive a difficult reality to face, but all scholars are forced to confront it now and then. Still, a large part of me really wants to keep searching for this elusive text…if I just Google deep enough, find the right repository, comb through the right foreign eBay…

But alas, it is job season (another difficult reality to face!) so I can’t stall on this chapter any longer: I plan to write those last few Nicholas brothers pages over the next few days and send the completed chapter off to my committee sans compelling analysis of a rare German film because I really need my committee to be able to say that they’ve seen 2 of 3 body chapters and that I’m on track to defend in May.

AND SO, as a gesture of my moving on, I spent part of my flight back from Germany embarking on research for my Elvis Presley chapter: I watched and took notes on Love Me Tender (1956).

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At a schoolhouse raising, Elvis’ Clint throws his guitar behind his back to give his female audience a full view of his crotch as he rises up on his toes.

For a film set in 1865, Elvis’s hips are awfully busy when he starts singing–whether for his character’s mother or a crowd of teenage girls. I look forward to describing his gyrations with colorful adjectives!

But before I can really start on the Presley chapter, I’ve got to finish up my first round of job applications! And so, I take my leave for now, but I will check in again in a week or so, I hope…