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…