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~~~

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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…

First Chapter Draft: The Aftermath

I admit I’ve been extremely remiss in posting–my last post was over 2 months ago. But I did submit a full chapter draft to my chair about a month ago…and since then I’ve been living in the aftermath.

The original goal for that chapter submission was June 21, but I submitted it July 6 (Day 305!). Not bad, considering that I spent one of those interim weeks at an intensive dance studies seminar and Independence Day was in there, too. (A note about the Mellon Dance Studies Summer Seminar I attended: it is both terrifying and very productive to give a “research talk” about your dissertation project before a group of experts in a field you’re brand new to. I am happy to report that the seminar gave me a much better sense of what my larger contribution is and why people should–and do!–care about my DOS-D.)

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

My whole dissertation compressed into a single slide

With footnotes included, the final chapter draft was indeed 60 pages. But it was still a pretty rough draft–I knew before I even submitted it that I needed to do more archival viewing, and I definitely wish I had more access to some of the paper files that do exist but aren’t publicly available right now. In many ways, the chapter is a product of what was available. If I’m lucky, patience and perseverance will bring me into contact with more materials and this will help me to enhance the basic draft I completed.

Of course, it feels good to have simply produced a “complete” thing. It took me 9 months to gestate that baby, and while it felt like a really long time, I’m told that’s still pretty fast for one’s first chapter. I must admit I got impatient with myself toward the end, because it really did feel interminable to write on the same basic topic for over 50 pages. And of course, this also meant that I started to hate my argument–it felt repetitive and boring by that point, and every example felt the same as the rest, even as it would draw out new concerns and new patterns to be considered in the context of the rest of the evidence. I can already tell I’m not going to be one of those scholars who goes through and does one big edit at the end; every chapter is going to go through a few drafts before it’s ready to be integrated with the rest. There will probably be more drafts of this first chapter since I was still so new to the process when I was writing it, but I just can’t imagine being able to responsibly tie such a large ‘essay’ together without several months’ distance between it and myself, no matter how good I get at the chapter-writing process.

So here I am in the aftermath. What have I been doing with myself? Well, first I gave myself a week off where I didn’t have to think about my DOS-D at all. I watched some movies, did a lot of laundry, painted my nails (in other words, I took some Practical Lost Days and Mental Health Lost Days). Then, as a way to ease myself back into working, I considered the most obvious gaps that came up and decided to collect the data to address them, so I made a few visits to The Paley Center for Media and watched some more programs. I also revamped my personal website to serve as a stronger representation of my academic self. And then I fell ill.

I’m sure a lot of us experienced the post-finals colds and flus that often struck in college or early grad school; when one pushes one’s body to the limit, running on little more than adrenaline for the final push of a marathon, the come-down often involves a weakened and vulnerable immune system. So we get sick. Similarly, many colleagues told me about how sick they got after taking qualifying exams–I did, too–but I hadn’t considered that this would happen after the stress of completing a dissertation chapter, as well. There’s also the problem of age: I’m not a 20-year-old anymore, and my body can’t take being pushed as hard. Quals were really, really too much for me, and I paid for that push with over a month of poor health. I didn’t push myself that hard for the chapter, but still found myself on antibiotics for a week, so my lesson to myself for next time is: I need to ease into those final weeks a little better.

I think I’ve successfully kicked the illness, though, and I’m ready to start reading and archive trips for my next chapter–on The Nicholas Brothers! This means more visits to The Paley Center and reading Marshall & Jean Stearns’ lengthy Jazz Dance, potentially cover-to-cover. I’ve also just submitted a conference paper proposal related to my last chapter: it’s about the relationship between dance movement and film technology in Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly’s musicals. I’ll be exploring their partnerships with Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen, respectively, and conducting a close analysis of both the ways in which dancing for the camera affected their choreography and the ways in which their visions for what I call “impossible” dances required innovation and tricks on the cinematography/production side.

So that’s where I’m at–the tail end of the post-chapter-submission aftermath, getting back on the horse and moving forward. Of course, summer is also coming to a close and I’ll be back to teaching and other institutional responsibilities in about a month so I’ll have those to juggle, too. Hopefully the more structured time will mean more updates here rather than fewer. Until next time, readers!

On Meeting (Dissertation) Celebrities

It’s once again been a little over a month since my last post and, once again, much has transpired.

The good news is, I’ve passed the 15-page mark on my Gene Kelly chapter draft—and I’ve even been keeping up with the footnotes!

The bad news is, I don’t think this whole chapter will be edit-ready by June 21 as I’d hoped.  This chapter is going to be long (like, 60 pages long) and the writing is going slower than expected.  I’ve found that it takes me a good half-hour to get into the right mind space for my argument whenever I sit down to write.  I’m arguing so many things at once, using so many different kinds of evidence, that it’s really easy to lose track of myself as I go along.  I also find myself needing to rewatch a lot of scenes from films, hunt down the author or the month of publication for archival materials, re-read relevant paragraphs of secondary literature, etc.  My brain just can’t seem to hold everything all at once!

I’m told that the first chapter is always the slowest, mainly because of what I discussed in my last post regarding not being trained to write this particular kind of manuscript and therefore learning as I go along.  I think there’s also a rhythm to be found during the writing of the first chapter: every dissertator varies in terms of how much and what kinds of research we need (or think we need) to complete prior to writing, how much can be done along the way, how much this slows us down, etc.  In the case of my own first chapter, my outline breaks down Kelly’s DOS career into four periods, so once I’d watched all the media and read all the appropriate material from the first two periods, I decided I was ready to start writing.  But again, much of this requires re-viewing as I go along, so I didn’t save myself as much writing time as I thought.

But now for the actual subject at hand: meeting (dissertation) celebrities.  During my March & April travels, I was able to spend a week digging through the Gene Kelly Collection at Boston University.  Unfortunately, the holdings available to the public were somewhat scant—almost all newspaper clippings.  The rest of the archival materials on Kelly appear to reside with his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who has been working on Gene’s memoir since his death in 1996 (and for about 8 years prior as well).  Fortunately for me, both myself and Mrs. Kelly reside in Los Angeles so I was able to attend a special Hollywood screening of An American In Paris (1951) where Mrs. Kelly would be in attendance for the Q&A.  We exchanged cards and I told her a bit about my project; I told her I’d love to be able to look through some of the myriad Gene-related materials (like choroegraphic notes scrawled on envelopes) that she is holding on to.  I’m hopeful that this will work out; maybe I’ll be able to help her in deciphering some of Gene’s ballet shorthand (ballerina that I am) so that I can ‘give back’ in my little way.

Mrs. Kelly is also touring with a sort of 1-woman show about Gene's career and legacy

Mrs. Kelly is also touring with a sort of 1-woman show about Gene’s career and legacy

What was odd about this whole exchange was the celebrity factor.  In (historical) dissertation-land, the person who has control of the archival materials is some sort of demigod to be worshipped and revered, as this person holds the key to history.  Thus, Mrs. Kelly is my current dissertation celebrity.  And it just so happens that she is also the widow of an actual celebrity—so she’s also a regular celebrity by extension.  After the screening, some of my fellow audience members asked for photos and autographs, all bathed in bashful smiles and gushing praise.  It felt odd to be asking for none of those things, and instead asking for access—a much scarier request for sure!  I suppose I was starstruck in a different way; for me, Mrs. Kelly holds a lot of power over my baby, the project consuming my entire life for several years.  For them, she’s the last person who lived and daily conversed with the great Gene Kelly, and now she’s guardian of his legacy.  In all, I think I was the most nervous!!  Fingers crossed it all works out….

Day 124: Baby’s First Archive Dive

Every archive has its own set of protocols and procedures, and their range of difference is part of what makes the research process so time-consuming.  Some publish their finding aids, while others do not; some require an account for use of their online request system, while others require a snail-mail application; some allow laptops and cameras, while others prohibit them…etc.  And because they all enforce their regulations to protect both fragile materials and copyright holders, newbie researchers such as myself find the whole business a little stressful.

Thus, I was feeling triumphant after having successfully navigated UCLA’s online request system for its special collections, making my way to campus, and arriving in the basement of its research library (accompanied by a dear colleague–we decided to team up for our first research trip).  I was there to peruse the 6 boxes of RKO Pictures studio records pertaining to Swing Time (1936), hoping to glean something about the production context of Fred Astaire’s famous blackface number, “Bojangles of Harlem.”

A publicity still for the "Bojangles" number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

A publicity still for the “Bojangles” number I found circulating on the Internet (in place of one of my own neat archive photos, protected by copyright and thus withheld from this post)

And while I did manage to request the right series + box alphanumeric combinations and follow all the rules (I’m not allowed to post any of the photos I took on this blog, for example), I also found just about nothing of use for my dissertation in those 6 boxes.  Sure, I now know exactly how much Fred and Ginger were each paid for the film (spoiler alert: she made far less), and saw proof that Astaire the perfectionist did indeed rehearse from 9:30am ’til midnight on more than one occasion, but not even the scores for the Bojangles number offered up any useful margin notes.

It’s a strange kind of excitement to handle a handwritten note that appears to be from Mr. Austerlitz himself, or the original score for “The Way You Look Tonight,” only to realize that there’s nothing you can really do with such gems.  This is just the trouble with research visits; you’re certainly likely to discover interesting bits of historical paraphernalia during your pilgrimage, but it’s a harsh truth that very little of it is going to be directly useful for your particular project.  I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles at the moment so I didn’t waste too many resources on this, my first real trip to the archives, but I can only imagine the level of frustration that must meet those who travel long distances in pursuit of their own diamonds in the rough.  I’m also glad that I used my first research jaunt to excavate the production context of a film not absolutely central to my project (while it’s highly topical, it’s of an earlier era than the core objects of my study), but I suspect that future failures to find useful information will prove increasingly demoralizing.

Perhaps a good strategy going forward is to vary the types of work I do, even on research trips–maybe pepper in some secondary reading or visual analysis to make up for the feeling of failure that ensues when I come out of a 6-hour archive dive empty-handed.  This way I’ll avoid too much moping-induced lack of productivity…I hope?  Anyone have additional tips for coping with post-archive blues?

Day 106: Digital Documents; Brick & Mortar Plans

Hello, long-lost readership (of 3)!  Happy 2015.  I’ve been remiss in posting, but slightly less remiss in holding myself accountable.

I’m working on completing the murky beginning phase of dissertation “prep” and trying to move into actual substantial writing by February.  Until now, I never really understood why it takes people so long to get into ‘the meat’ of actively productive research and writing, but for those of you watching at home, let me testify: there really is a lot of organizational and logistical junk that has to happen first.  It may be common knowledge that you have to research before you can write, but it’s less obvious that you have to figure out what, where, and how to research before you can even start researching proper.  In college and the first few years of graduate school, it was easy to simply follow in the footsteps of people who have already done the difficult initial research on a topic.  I’m now finding that it is much, much harder and far less intuitive when you’re the ‘trailblazer,’ as it were.  This is a good sign that you’re doing original work, of course, but it really goes quite slowly when there’s no blueprint for where (literally: where to travel for which collections) to begin and how to go about getting useful information.

Things achieved in the past 30-45 days (bearing in mind that the holidays were hardly very productive), some of which I mentioned briefly in the last post:

  1. I purchased and downloaded some writing productivity software, at the recommendation of friends and colleagues.  It’s called Scrivener, and so far I’m liking it; it’s organized enough to store all my research in an accessible way, as well as store actual dissertation notes/jottings/writing chunks that might not be ready for a big scary Word document yet.
  2. I collated a fairly exhaustive list of the television episodes I need to (attempt to) view from 1949 through about 1965 (with some later retrospectives for comparison).  These episodes all feature one or more of the dance stars I’ll probably be focusing on no matter what tweaks I make to structure.  (I’ve decided against bringing women back in–it’s just too much.  I’ll have to defend that decision in the introduction.)  There are about 50 essentials and another 20 usefuls…this may grow a bit more over time but it’s a solid start.  The list also includes information on where I can view most of these episodes (I haven’t yet tracked down some of them)–apparently, I’ll be spending a lot of time at the Paley Center this year.
    Part of the TV episodes list in Scrivener

    Part of my TV episodes list in Scrivener

    It’s hard for many of us to comprehend that not everything is floating around on the Internet in some sort of streaming or downloadable form, but much of early television (because it was actually live!) has either been lost or only saved on kinescopes of iffy quality.  Thus, assuming all goes according to plan (fingers crossed!), I’ll be one of the few people to have viewed these episodes since their original airing in the 40s/50s/60s.

  3. I’ve created two spreadsheets of archival collections I’d like to visit, one listing archives here in Los Angeles and the other listing archives elsewhere in the US.  These are mostly-paper collections containing studio memos, personal correspondence, newspaper clippings, contracts, and other ephemera that I’ll be trawling through in hopes of finding exactly what I need, without knowing exactly what that might be…until I find it.  The paper collections I need are proving much more difficult to track down than the TV episodes!  These spreadsheets are going to be continual works in progress.
  4. Per the suggestion of my chair, I’ve created a list of research questions to guide me through those archive visits.  I have questions intended for both the episode viewings and the paper hunts.  This way, I’ll have an idea of the questions I’m trying to answer even if I have no idea of what I’m physically looking for.  To make it feel more palpable, I printed it out today.  [I’ve lately suffered from feeling that I have nothing to show for myself these days because literally everything I ‘do’ for work is digital.]
  5. As part of an application for a summer seminar (which took up about a week of would-be dissertation time), I banged out a current DISSERTATION ABSTRACT.  I struggled with it for longer than I should have, but I think it will serve as a nice guide for me in the coming weeks.  I triumphantly printed this, too, today.  Now it’s real!

I am currently in the process of scheduling visits, requesting materials, etc. at various LA locations (my least favorite part), and will be focusing on more directly productive activities in the coming weeks: re-reading and/or reading for the first time some (more) key texts with which my DOS-D will be in conversation, drafting language, working on more detailed chapter outlines, etc.  Once I actually start finding useful stuff in the archives, I’ll add object analysis and start weaving it all together (I hope!).

Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal

In the two weeks since my first major breakthrough on the DOS-D, I’ve had to switch gears somewhat and focus on the conference talk I’ll be giving at the joint Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress of Research on Dance annual conference in Iowa City this month.  My topic is the Dance Company Film (the first term I’ve coined, I believe) and I’m using the Ruth Page Collection from the Chicago Film Archives as my case study.

As of today, I’ve gotten about 7 pages together for it.  My average length for a conference paper is about 10, so I’m most of the way there but I’ve reached that point–one I reach often with short pieces like this–where everything I’m saying feels obvious.  You can’t take on too much with a 20-30 minute conference talk, especially if you’re using clips, and I usually do.  But as a result, given that I’m mainly thinking about the very big, very complex claims of my DOS-D lately, this little conference talk feels like it’s saying nothing at all, which is one of my greatest fears about my work in general.

In fact, I think the trifecta of fears for most of us humanities scholars is that our work is either obvious, unimportant, or unoriginal.  I know I’ve been through this entire cycle in the past week alone, and will go through it many times again.  For example, regarding my work’s importance: I’m very interested in technology, new media, and the Internet–topics which are undeniably “important” to think about–so studying old and sometimes obscure things can be difficult to justify to myself.  Why put so much effort into understanding the presentation of masculinity in midcentury dance on screen when the key problem today seems to be performances of gender in relation to gaming, coding, technophilia and technophobia?  It can be hard to remember that understanding contemporary problems is always aided by understanding older, only tangentially related problems, and that the building up of knowledge need not be as linear or utilitarian as the current market-driven neoliberal zeitgeist would have me believe.

As for originality, I don’t think I know any young scholars who haven’t experienced the overwhelming panic that accompanies accidental discovery of the article/dissertation/book that “already said EXACTLY what I’m saying.”  It’s already happened to me a couple of times in the past few months, but the wisdom of others indicates that even when it seems like their ideas are exactly like yours, you’ll probably end up saying it differently anyway because you’re probably coming at things from a somewhat different angle/perspective/background.

A still from a film currently entitled "B & H Dupe" (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

A still from a film currently entitled “B & H Dupe” (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to cut the Ruth Page chapter from my dissertation since I’m doing so much work on it lately, but perhaps this means I’ll be able to turn it into a strong article for publication sooner rather than later.  And once I’ve finished drafting the talk, I’ll be able to focus squarely on restructuring my DOS-D in a way befitting my narrower topic.  I really want to avoid a boring person-per-chapter or decade-per-chapter approach, but I don’t completely trust my ability to come up with a more nuanced, synthetic organization before writing a bunch of it.

…which leads me to my biggest current frustration.  I was just telling a close friend and colleague that I’m in a strange, liminal place as a scholar right now: I feel like I ‘know better’ than much of what I read (that is to say, I have viable critiques and can imagine more interesting arguments to make or more compelling presentations of the material I go through) yet I feel unable to express the smart stuff floating around in my brain.  As I said to my colleague, I’m afraid I’m never going to become the caliber of scholar I want myself to be.  Now, this is silly–I’m just now embarking on my dissertation so of course I have a ton of developing left to do.  But, nonetheless, 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.

I’m hoping that forcing myself to come up with a structure I can live with in the next 10 days (before I leave for the midwest, the conference, and check-in meetings with my advisors) will assuage this somewhat, for the time being.  So I guess now I need to figure out the most effective way to force this brilliant structure out of myself.  I think it will involve a little inspirational reading of texts I’d like to emulate (like Murray Forman’s One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television) and maybe some light archival fishing to point me in some direction or other…