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~~~

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!

Day 197: First Day of Writing! (Discussion: First Conference Talk; First Chapter Outline)

It’s been more than a month between posts this time, but much has transpired!  I did a great deal of traveling for conferences, archives, and meetings with my DOS-D committee.  In the process, I came up with what I think is the first viable potential title for this beast:

The Flash, The Feet, The Pelvis: Dancing Race and Masculinity across Midcentury Film and TV

(Please, big bad Interwebs, don’t steal that from me.)  “The Flash” represents the Nicholas Brothers, who were often (mistakenly) understood as flash dancers–their acrobatics made them seem to fall in that category, but they were actually jazz tap dancers through and through.  “The Feet” represents Gene Kelly, who was often referred to as such by critics, especially when he was featured alongside Frank Sinatra in films (Sinatra was “The Voice” to his Feet).  And, perhaps most obviously, “The Pelvis” represents Elvis Presley, famous for his naughty hip gyrations on national television.  These four men are the core of my DOS-D chapters, so this seems a fitting first stab at a title.  Many of my colleagues seem to have already settled on their titles but I’m one of those people who can’t finalize a title until literally every other part of a writing project is done.  So the fact that I’ve thought of even one decent title means I’ve come a long way toward conceptualizing the larger work, which is great news since I’m about 6 months in now!

Now then, as I mentioned last post, I had two conference talks to give at the end of March and both went well.  It was a special relief, though, that the second one went well because it was the first time I’ve presented dissertation material to the (academic) public.  In my case, this was a close analysis of Gene Kelly’s 1958 Omnibus special “Dancing, A Man’s Game.”

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

There is a particular fear that comes with presenting initial iterations of your first major ideas–the ideas you’re going to be living with for the next decade (see my first post for more on this problem)–to your “peers,” which I’ve placed in scare quotes because “peers” at this juncture in a young scholar’s career almost invariably actually means older, wiser, published, and successful scholars in one’s field.  If, for example, I had received particularly critical or exasperating comments, if my presentation was not met with enthusiasm, if the experience had been negative in any way, I’d have no doubt felt terribly crushed and feared that these precious initial ideas are silly, ill-conceived, boring, or even Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal.  So I’m proud to report that two famous scholars seemed to thoroughly enjoy the talk (one even said as much), the entire audience (which thankfully consisted of more than 4 people) giggled at my little jokes, and the follow-up questions conveyed sincere interest and constructive commentary rather than annoyed disdain.  A couple people even approached me afterwards with compliments.  In all, I was very pleased and even more relieved.

Not too long after, I finally managed to churn out a coherent outline for Chapter 2 of my dissertation (which I just so happen to be writing first, as it’s the easiest to put together).  Tentatively titled “The Feet: The Marlon Brando of Dance,” the chapter tracks Gene Kelly’s career from film to television, thinking about the ways his dancing presented masculinity to the WWII and postwar public on these different screens and the ways in which this representation intersected with blackness in particular (and racial politics in general) during that period.  (See the featured photo of my last post for a clear visual example from The Pirate, in which Kelly dances with the Nicholas Brothers.)  I was, of course, quite afraid of presenting this outline to my DOS-D advisors because I honestly don’t know the first thing about outlining a 60+ page document.  Even as a PhD candidate, I’ve never written (and therefore never created a detailed outline for) an academic paper longer than about 25 or 30 pages.  (The obvious exceptions, here, are my two undergraduate honors theses, one of which was maybe 40 pages and the other of which was about 100.  But I think we can all agree that an undergraduate thesis hardly requires the level of academic rigor that might be expected of an advanced graduate student.)  The dissertation chapter, then, is a difficult creature to conceptualize in terms of its ebbs, flows, arguments, threads, examples, etc.  Fortunately, I’ve been given the thumbs-up to start writing the chapter as envisioned in my outline.  The only real warnings were:

  1. Don’t forget to include some form of literature review at the beginning, so as to map out the terrain of other scholarship I’ll be referring to throughout the chapter
  2. Since this dissertation is equally about film and television, make sure not to accidentally favor the former because the films are both more easily accessible to watch and more often discussed in that other scholarship mentioned above
  3. Consider your opening anecdote a “first draft” anecdote, because it’s difficult to gauge how appropriate an opening anecdote is until the whole chapter is drafted

In many ways, the dissertation chapter seems to be a gargantuan 3-5 page college essay (of which I’ve now graded hundreds).  What would be a paragraph in these essays is now an entire section; each substantive sentence in the section represents a paragraph or two.  This is a good way, I think, to avoid getting completely lost in a sea of my own prose.  Which is a good realization to have just now, because today I begin writing in earnest.  I’ve opened a new Word document, I’ve got my Scrivener project file open, my outline with annotations from those advisor meetings sits on the table beside my laptop.  After I publish this post, I shall embark on the long journey.  (I’ve promised both myself and my advisors that this chapter will be in “full draft” form by June 12 and ready for workshopping/edits by June 21).

And so, here goes everything!

Tactile Arguments

It’s been nearly a month since my last post so I figure I should check in.  I have two conference talks to give later this month, so those are becoming my primary focus going forward.  The good news: one of them is based on a dissertation chapter, so working on that talk = working on my DOS-D.  (The chapter in question is the Gene Kelly chapter–ergo this post’s primary image from The Pirate).  The bad news: the other talk has nothing to do with my dissertation.  That’s how it goes, though.  Not everything can be about this giant (future) tome looming over my head.

These conferences aside, I’ve spent the majority of the past month on three tasks:

  1. A thorough, annotated reading of Constance Valis Hill’s Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History up through the 1960s.  Many of Hill’s arguments are useful points of entry for my chapter on Gene Kelly.
  2. Watching a lotttt of Gene Kelly films.  I’m viewing as many as possible, and in chronological order, so that I have a general sense of how his onscreen dance style and presence morphed over the course of his career.  I’m flagging some for rewatches.  One of them is The Pirate (1948), which features not only Gene Kelly, but also the Nicholas Brothers.

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate)

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate).

  3. Getting my arguments out.  This has been tricky–I tend to get half-baked ideas at random moments, refuse to write them down because they’re only half-baked, and then regret it when I suddenly feel like I have no ideas at all.  It’s one thing to take notes on specific scenes in a film or a specific claim by another scholar; it’s another thing altogether to formulate, clarify, and articulate my own overarching arguments.  In short, I’m starting to have a lot of supporting thoughts but not enough main points.  SO, I’m trying to make my arguments tactile.  How so, you might ask?  Using index cards!
    Index cards = tactile arguments!  (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies...)

    Index cards = tactile arguments! (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies in the corner…)

    On one side of a card, I’ll write a keyword or three, and on the other side I’ll write a first draft of a sentence stating one of my general arguments for the chapter.  By writing them out instead of typing them into a document, I’m sidestepping the anxiety that comes with actually writing my dissertation, which I still feel a bit unprepared to do.  Hopefully, between these cards and the conference paper I’m putting together, I’ll have the guts to actually write the chapter in April, May, and June.

My cohort and I have been arranging monthly virtual meetings to check in on each other’s progress, and this has been helpful.  We troubleshoot each other’s problems, exchange archive stories, offer feedback on writing, etc.  It has been heartening to see that my colleagues are in roughly the same place I am: we’re all working on outlining or writing our first chapter, and about half of us still have research to wrap up before we can begin writing in earnest.  It still astounds me that every part of the process takes so much time!  Everything moved so much faster during coursework, but making long-term plans helps with the sense of interminability.

The X factor in all of my future DOS-D plans is my archive visits.  I’ve been contacting two archives via phone/email/in person but still haven’t made much headway on accessing what I need from them, which is worrisome.  When I return in April, I’ll also be ready to view the television episodes housed at various LA institutions, so hopefully that will be a little easier to arrange.

Well, onward!

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…