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

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.