Day 653: “Halfway” Point

Today isn’t literally the chronological halfway point in my dissertation writing (it’s closer to the 2/3rds mark), but I’d say I’ve finally reached the halfway point of the writing itself (which includes 3 body chapters, an intro, and a conclusion) since I’m nearly done with the second of 3 chapters, and the intro/conclusion will each be a bit shorter. Though this second chapter took an inordinately long period of time, I won’t be teaching/TAing next year as I was all three quarters this year, so I hope/imagine/require next year to be a bit more productive, thereby allowing me to draft a third chapter AND my intro & conclusion…and revise the whole damn thing. But ANYWAY~

So here we are: it’s post-bootcamp check-in time, and I’m exhausted. Several of you have IRL-asked for my review of Dissertation Bootcamp, so consider this the more articulate version of whatever I babbled at you in my sleep-deprived, mentally overloaded state.

First, let me be clear: Dissertation Bootcamp (if your institution offers one) is absolutely worth it. Do it, take seriously and follow the rules, and be strict with yourself; you’ll be happy with the results.

As for the details: bootcamp is accurately titled; its accompanying connotations of pushing oneself to the limit in order to be better physically and mentally prepared for the challenges to follow are right on target. The bootcamp wore me out so thoroughly that I didn’t really feel up to the gym while in it, could barely muster the energy to do a load of laundry, and left some of my harder-to-clean dishes in the sink for the entire 2 weeks because the effort required seemed impossible to summon. I didn’t cook much, I didn’t sleep enough…those 2 weeks all fuse together into a single memory of sitting in a cold room drinking cheap tea, munching on a semi-gross granola bar, and forcing myself to keep typing out my analysis of yet another on-screen dance performance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and persistent stereotypes/restrictions around the representation of black masculinity.

Carolina Blues 3

Pardon the super-blurry image capture, but this is pretty much the most Harold Nicholas was ever shown touching a woman onscreen (CAROLINA BLUES, 1944).


The coordinator of this particular bootcamp suggested to us that we might be preternaturally productive the first week due to the initial adrenaline rush, that the hardest point would be day 6/7 at the beginning of Week 2, and that we’d hit our stride toward the end. The level of productivity that last few days would be a more accurate indicator of what we should expect ourselves to be capable of when we continue our work going forward. This did not hold entirely true for me. While Monday and Tuesday of Week 2 were rough, Friday might have been the roughest. And while my productivity varied by day, mood, weather, subject matter, my average remained 3-4 pages per day both weeks, with my total output for the duration of bootcamp totaling 36 pages (including images/figures but excluding endnotes). I probably have 5-10 more pages to write for the chapter draft to be ‘complete,’ so I fell short of my goal but not by as much as I thought I would.

BUT, I wouldn’t necessarily say my experience is representative of most, so YMMV. I do think the extent to which you actually unplug and disconnect from everything else (that conference presentation you really should on, that syllabus you haven’t put together yet, those papers that really need to be graded like, yesterday) could affect your productivity, as I’ve found that dissertation writing (for me) is an incredibly immersive process. However, some people do best when they can task-switch, so knowing yourself and how you work is probably key here. I was also careful to enter bootcamp with mostly-writing left to do; if you’re still in the idea stage, research stage, outlining stage, etc., it will of course be harder to measure progress. I personally prefer to conduct all of that work at my own pace, allow for flights of fancy and tangents, etc. because you never know how these will shape your eventual product. I don’t think bootcamp would be the right environment for that kind of work, but again, YMMV.

I alluded to this in my last post, but the two best things about bootcamp were:

  1. Having an excuse to “say no” to EVERYTHING BUT YOUR DISSERTATION. It’s so, so rare for me to successfully push everything else (the needs of various people in my life, emails, chores and errands, upcoming deadlines, teaching, meetings, other writing projects, etc.) out of my sight, brain, and conscience for 4 hours. When I’m not multi-tasking on about 3 of those between the hours of 10am and 10pm, I generally feel guilty. Those of you who have been following this blog since at least the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year know that one of my biggest struggles in dissertation writing has been attending to my many other obligations (most of which have been more immediately time-sensitive than the DOS-D) to the detriment of my dissertation writing needs. Bootcamp provides the structure and rules to not only allow but also require the exclusion of everything else from your headspace for the benefit of your dissertation. Many of my colleagues who are “alumni” of dissertation bootcamp thus try various strategies to replicate this sort of ascetic utopia for productive work on their dissertations, book projects, etc.
  2. Being forced to engage with your dissertation EVERY DAY. One of the worst results of having to juggle and often prioritize so many other obligations is that when I DO come back to my writing, I can’t remember where I was going or what I was saying or how I was approaching my subject-matter when I left off. Now, I frequently leave myself notes about what the argument will be or what will come next, but even those don’t always help me get back into the headspace of my dissertation. In fact, this is why I often need to work in several-hour chunks; the time spent simply trying to re-enter the world of my dissertation lessens when I spend more frequent time or longer, uninterrupted periods there. Bootcamp’s insistence that I sit down and work on my DOS-D every day of the week meant that I could minimize time wasted on re-situating myself.

Ok, this has been a long one but I hope it helped at least some of you consider if/when to participate in a bootcamp and how to mentally prepare for it. For what it’s worth, I’m planning to sign up for the winter bootcamp to be held at the end of Fall quarter, and due to weather/season it promises to be far more miserable than this one but hopefully just as productive.

I now have to prepare for a summer course I’m teaching, which starts in 2 days. It’s on The Hollywood Musical, though, so I’m hoping that the act of teaching this (entirely self-designed!) undergrad seminar will help me make connections and continue to clarify my arguments in the DOS-D. And, with luck, I’ll have time in the coming weeks to ACTUALLY finish this chapter draft and begin working on my third and final chapter on Elvis Presley!

(Writing) Under Pressure

Hiya, readers. I’m writing to record my progress now that I’m halfway through my first Dissertation Bootcamp. I’ve written 23.5 pages in the last 2 weeks, 18.5 of them at Bootcamp. It’s a difficult environment for me because 1) it starts at 9am sharp, which is too early for my brain to function properly; 2) it’s only got limited access to drinks and snacks (Keurig coffee, tea, and granola bars are provided; I’ve been bringing my own Cheez-its and strawberries); and 3) it’s a total pressure cooker. Which is to say, about 20 of us sit at tables all in a row, surrounded by books and papers and laptops, staring quietly at each in turn. People only really get up for more caffeine or a restroom break, and the room is basically silent for 4 hours. As someone who works best in cafés and sometimes bars (yes, really), I find the silence a bit deafening–thank goodness for headphones!

Still, simply being stuck in this place with my dissertation and no interruptions every day has been good for my productivity; I’ve averaged about 1 page per hour overall, which maybe isn’t amazing but at least it’s steady. I doubt I’ll reach my original goal of completing the chapter by the end of next week, but I’m definitely heading into the final third of it now. Interestingly, the main reason I probably won’t finish it is that my sustained daily practice has led me to make a lot of interesting connections, discoveries, and the like which have enriched my initial plans and structure for the chapter. So, it’s a good thing, really, because now the chapter will be more dynamic (I hope). Given this experience, I’m starting to understand why many people highly recommend trying to work on one’s dissertation every day even if only for half an hour. Keeping your brain in the game, as it were, seems to yield more creative and nuanced thinking–which seems obvious now that I write it down. Of course, making time every day is easier said than done.

I’ve also discovered that, as far as writing a humanities dissertation goes, I’m very lucky that my project moves even this fast. Many of my colleagues have to spend far more time than I do combing through archives, or translating old texts, or slowly working their way through very dense theory. Because my project is historical (not theoretical) but based largely in close readings (rather than the accumulation of many objects) of mostly-available texts, I avoid many of the difficulties of other kinds of projects. Part of my “good luck,” of course, is due to my distinctly bad luck in discovering that I am barred from accessing several of the archives of the major stars I’m writing about, so I was forced to make my project more about readings of media objects themselves rather than their contexts and the discourses that circulated around them. I think we often forget, when we think about the process of dissertation research, writing, and pacing overall, that one size fits very few–even within the humanities.

Well, that’s about all I have to say for now, so to spice up this wall of text a bit, here’s an awesome screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in Orchestra Wives (1942):
Orchestra Wives 4