Presley Loving You

Image Dependency Issues

Well everyone, I’ve completed my second Dissertation Bootcamp. It was a rough one, because I came down with a pretty nasty cold at the dawn of the 2-week period and battled it throughout the duration. The good news is: in spite of my illness and some bitter cold temperatures during my commute to campus every morning, I wrote about 34 pages during bootcamp! I am therefore roughly half done with my Elvis chapter. The bad news is: I have become image-dependent.

I assume this is a pretty rare problem for most writers, who don’t necessarily plan to include a whole slew of illustrations with their book-length work for adult readers. In my case, one of the pieces of feedback I received on my first chapter was that images would really help readers to visualize and process some of the very specifically visual arguments I am making regarding dance, costuming, and bodily comportment. Thus, my second chapter included 48 figures (all diptychs) over the course of its 76.5 pages (before endnotes). Even then, I was worried that this might amount to too many images–one certainly doesn’t want the images to overshadow or distract from the actual text. The final file size for the chapter was so large that I had to share it with readers via Google Docs rather than email. The jury’s still out on what my readers think about the image issue, but the file size problem alone really should have given me pause when adding images to this final chapter. Unfortunately, I somehow already have 36 figures in about 45 pages of text. Surely this is too many, but with Elvis I struggle to accurately describe his movements because they are rarely comprised of formal, recognizable dance steps. Thus, I find myself relying on images for all of my descriptive segments.

Presley Loving You

Elvis busts out one of his signature moves toward the end of LOVING YOU (1957)–while sporting a Canadian tuxedo!

Even though I know I can easily go back and delete images when I’m revising, I’m worried that my constant use of images to illustrate my points means that the writing itself is far weaker and less nuanced. I already have the tendency, as a writer, to assume that I’ve made my point when I haven’t quite done so on paper (the point is always thoroughly made in my head!), so something tells me that the presence of images is only exacerbating this tendency.

There’s also the issue of readers’ preexisting knowledge. Unlike the Nicholas Brothers or Gene Kelly, Presley was not a formally trained dancer, nor was dancing his primary entertainment form. So most readers think of him first and foremost as a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not dancer. As a result, I feel more compelled to constantly ‘prove’ that Elvis is dancing as I develop my argument about him, partially to reassure readers that he belongs in this dissertation, but also to reassure them that my argument about his dancing is, in fact, different from the familiar and much-rehearsed argument that he appropriated black music…though it is clearly related. On this register, it feels almost as if I am still at least somewhat worried about being “Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal,” a fear I discussed on this blog waaaay back in November of 2014 (over 2 years ago now!). Some things never change, I suppose.

A reasonable solution to this problem would be to restrict myself to 1 or 2 figures per 5 pages of writing, forcing myself to choose my images more wisely and write “better” prose. But it feels like this will slow me down at a time when I need to be writing quite quickly in order to meet all of my deadlines, self imposed or otherwise. Thus, I think I’m going to just continue working whatever way is easiest and hope that future me, in revisions mode, will still approve of the plan to move faster rather than more responsibly forward. With luck, it will be easier to revise when I’ve achieved a bit of distance from this specific chapter and have begun to approach the dissertation as a whole body of work.

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What better way to demonstrate Elvis’s use of eyeliner than with a screenshot? (from The Ed Sullivan Show, November 1956)

 

Well, with this problem noted, I guess I should simply get back to it and push forward. I still want to have this final chapter completed by early January, and I’d say I’m definitely only about halfway through Presley’s screen career. So, there’s much left to do!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I wish you all a less work-heavy winter than mine.

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.

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 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!).

Day 1: Greetings, Introductions, Beginnings

Hello Reader, and welcome to DOS-D.

This blog is in fact not about a heretofore unknown Disk Operating System from the ’90s, nor is it about the Department of Supernatural Defense–though you would perhaps have found those more interesting.  This blog is going to track my dissertation writing process, from its murky beginnings (now) to its very definitive end (a later time, in the future, at some point).  There will be videos and images, so that should be fun, and this should prove an interesting peek into the life of a young academic (especially for friends and family who remain a little mystified by my job description as a newly minted “PhD Candidate”).  There will also be a generous helping of my potentially crazy and probably contradictory thoughts as I try to process my research & writing–this will be less fun for you but hopefully helpful for me when I need to reflect on my choices.

Depending on how you came upon this blog, you may or may not know much about me and my project.  (Pretty sure there’s a widget or two in the righthand sidebar to help you out with the former).  In either case, you’ve no doubt gathered from the blog’s title that my work is concerned with dance on screen.  For the purposes of my dissertation, I am focusing specifically on the intersection of dance cultures with film and television cultures in the US during the middle decades of the 20th century.

A few weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus, but my sage committee found it to be more like “a proposal for an entire career,” and suggested that I narrow down my focus.  So, after moving to a new city and attempting to clear my mind, I am launching into my first year of dissertation work in a confused state; I had a very clear plan before, but now I must reformulate it into something a little less ambitious, and I’m uncertain how I want this new version to look.

It’s a common adage in the humanities fields of academia that your dissertation is your plea for a tenure-track professorship (and thus has to be easily converted into an enticing first book manuscript), but I’ve also frequently been warned that I should be ready to “live with” my dissertation for at least a decade.  That is to say, between the research, the writing, the revising, the defending, the RE-revising, the book proposal, the job applications, the book manuscript, and the first several stand-alone courses taught, I’m going to be spending a whole lot of time with this topic for the next 10 years.  The prospectus I defended before my committee in September bore all this in mind; I worked on it for 4 months and felt confident, upon submission, that I could indeed live with that proposed baby for the next decade.  Now I have about a month to come up with a more streamlined, and thus more attractive, baby that I can love just as much.  And then I have 2-3 years to, uh, produce said baby.

So I sat down today and decided that I have no better way of figuring out the basic contours of my new DOS-D than launching myself into a few weeks of research.  I’ve gotta look at (some of) what there is–watch and re-watch old films and TV clips, read archival materials, re-visit key academic works on surrounding topics–in order to figure out how to structure what I have to say about it all.  I started with a clip of Gene Kelly being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on a December 1958 episode of Person to Person, just days before Kelly’s Omnibus Christmas special “Dancing, A Man’s Game” aired on NBC.  A friend and colleague of mine recently happened upon a microfilm containing the transcript of the episode and generously sent it my way just this morning.

One thing that struck me about the interview was Kelly’s emphasis that the hardest part of the TV special for him was the fact of its TV-ness.  He says, while looking at his floorplans for the episode, “This is a new way to create dances for me because in this strange world of television–and it is strange to me having five or six cameras and one can’t get in the way of the other–but putting on a dance and talking about it is really the same thing.”  So, if we translate this into evidence of a mindset, Kelly is clearly used to working with a single camera for his Hollywood musicals (or none at all while on Broadway) and the only thing putting him at ease while juggling these many TV cameras is his professional knowledge of “putting on dances” because this knowledge, he supposes, will make it easy for him to talk his way through dance and present his argument that it’s not ‘sissy’ stuff, but “a man’s game.”

kelly person to person

A grainy copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Kelly with his floorplans for “Dancing, A Man’s Game”

Then I decided to dive into some of the archival materials I’ve collected from eBay.  Several times during the 1950s and ’60s, Films in Review (the periodical released by The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures since 1950) cover images are stills from dance films, indicating that these films were found to be (at least visually) important at the time.  Reviews echoed Kelly’s concerns in the Person to Person interview in noting technological difficulties.  A 1956 review of Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance complains that, when Kelly dances with animated figures, the “difficult cinematic problems of trick photography and laboratory work…were not too smoothly solved” and that, as a result, “the combination of live and animated action is neither successful technically nor rewarding esthetically.”  A 1960 review of Can-Can makes immediate note that the “interesting things occur on the Todd-AO widescreen during the course of Can-Can‘s 120 minutes” (emphasis mine).

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Dance, dance, dance!

Early drafts of my prospectus harped considerably on the role of dance in pushing the boundaries of technology, or highlighting recent innovations, or problematizing standard practices in film and television cultures.  By the final draft, this argument got watered down, and during my defense my committee and I focused almost exclusively on race and gender questions…..but I wonder if perhaps I should bring the technology angle back, if for no other reason than it certainly seemed to be a strong concern in dance on screen during the period in question.

Wellp, that concludes today’s thoughts.  Sorry this first post has been so long; now that introductions are out of the way, reading will probably be more manageable going forward.