Day 653: “Halfway” Point

Today isn’t literally the chronological halfway point in my dissertation writing (it’s closer to the 2/3rds mark), but I’d say I’ve finally reached the halfway point of the writing itself (which includes 3 body chapters, an intro, and a conclusion) since I’m nearly done with the second of 3 chapters, and the intro/conclusion will each be a bit shorter. Though this second chapter took an inordinately long period of time, I won’t be teaching/TAing next year as I was all three quarters this year, so I hope/imagine/require next year to be a bit more productive, thereby allowing me to draft a third chapter AND my intro & conclusion…and revise the whole damn thing. But ANYWAY~

So here we are: it’s post-bootcamp check-in time, and I’m exhausted. Several of you have IRL-asked for my review of Dissertation Bootcamp, so consider this the more articulate version of whatever I babbled at you in my sleep-deprived, mentally overloaded state.

First, let me be clear: Dissertation Bootcamp (if your institution offers one) is absolutely worth it. Do it, take seriously and follow the rules, and be strict with yourself; you’ll be happy with the results.

As for the details: bootcamp is accurately titled; its accompanying connotations of pushing oneself to the limit in order to be better physically and mentally prepared for the challenges to follow are right on target. The bootcamp wore me out so thoroughly that I didn’t really feel up to the gym while in it, could barely muster the energy to do a load of laundry, and left some of my harder-to-clean dishes in the sink for the entire 2 weeks because the effort required seemed impossible to summon. I didn’t cook much, I didn’t sleep enough…those 2 weeks all fuse together into a single memory of sitting in a cold room drinking cheap tea, munching on a semi-gross granola bar, and forcing myself to keep typing out my analysis of yet another on-screen dance performance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and persistent stereotypes/restrictions around the representation of black masculinity.

Carolina Blues 3

Pardon the super-blurry image capture, but this is pretty much the most Harold Nicholas was ever shown touching a woman onscreen (CAROLINA BLUES, 1944).

 

The coordinator of this particular bootcamp suggested to us that we might be preternaturally productive the first week due to the initial adrenaline rush, that the hardest point would be day 6/7 at the beginning of Week 2, and that we’d hit our stride toward the end. The level of productivity that last few days would be a more accurate indicator of what we should expect ourselves to be capable of when we continue our work going forward. This did not hold entirely true for me. While Monday and Tuesday of Week 2 were rough, Friday might have been the roughest. And while my productivity varied by day, mood, weather, subject matter, my average remained 3-4 pages per day both weeks, with my total output for the duration of bootcamp totaling 36 pages (including images/figures but excluding endnotes). I probably have 5-10 more pages to write for the chapter draft to be ‘complete,’ so I fell short of my goal but not by as much as I thought I would.

BUT, I wouldn’t necessarily say my experience is representative of most, so YMMV. I do think the extent to which you actually unplug and disconnect from everything else (that conference presentation you really should on, that syllabus you haven’t put together yet, those papers that really need to be graded like, yesterday) could affect your productivity, as I’ve found that dissertation writing (for me) is an incredibly immersive process. However, some people do best when they can task-switch, so knowing yourself and how you work is probably key here. I was also careful to enter bootcamp with mostly-writing left to do; if you’re still in the idea stage, research stage, outlining stage, etc., it will of course be harder to measure progress. I personally prefer to conduct all of that work at my own pace, allow for flights of fancy and tangents, etc. because you never know how these will shape your eventual product. I don’t think bootcamp would be the right environment for that kind of work, but again, YMMV.

I alluded to this in my last post, but the two best things about bootcamp were:

  1. Having an excuse to “say no” to EVERYTHING BUT YOUR DISSERTATION. It’s so, so rare for me to successfully push everything else (the needs of various people in my life, emails, chores and errands, upcoming deadlines, teaching, meetings, other writing projects, etc.) out of my sight, brain, and conscience for 4 hours. When I’m not multi-tasking on about 3 of those between the hours of 10am and 10pm, I generally feel guilty. Those of you who have been following this blog since at least the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year know that one of my biggest struggles in dissertation writing has been attending to my many other obligations (most of which have been more immediately time-sensitive than the DOS-D) to the detriment of my dissertation writing needs. Bootcamp provides the structure and rules to not only allow but also require the exclusion of everything else from your headspace for the benefit of your dissertation. Many of my colleagues who are “alumni” of dissertation bootcamp thus try various strategies to replicate this sort of ascetic utopia for productive work on their dissertations, book projects, etc.
  2. Being forced to engage with your dissertation EVERY DAY. One of the worst results of having to juggle and often prioritize so many other obligations is that when I DO come back to my writing, I can’t remember where I was going or what I was saying or how I was approaching my subject-matter when I left off. Now, I frequently leave myself notes about what the argument will be or what will come next, but even those don’t always help me get back into the headspace of my dissertation. In fact, this is why I often need to work in several-hour chunks; the time spent simply trying to re-enter the world of my dissertation lessens when I spend more frequent time or longer, uninterrupted periods there. Bootcamp’s insistence that I sit down and work on my DOS-D every day of the week meant that I could minimize time wasted on re-situating myself.

Ok, this has been a long one but I hope it helped at least some of you consider if/when to participate in a bootcamp and how to mentally prepare for it. For what it’s worth, I’m planning to sign up for the winter bootcamp to be held at the end of Fall quarter, and due to weather/season it promises to be far more miserable than this one but hopefully just as productive.

I now have to prepare for a summer course I’m teaching, which starts in 2 days. It’s on The Hollywood Musical, though, so I’m hoping that the act of teaching this (entirely self-designed!) undergrad seminar will help me make connections and continue to clarify my arguments in the DOS-D. And, with luck, I’ll have time in the coming weeks to ACTUALLY finish this chapter draft and begin working on my third and final chapter on Elvis Presley!

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(Writing) Under Pressure

Hiya, readers. I’m writing to record my progress now that I’m halfway through my first Dissertation Bootcamp. I’ve written 23.5 pages in the last 2 weeks, 18.5 of them at Bootcamp. It’s a difficult environment for me because 1) it starts at 9am sharp, which is too early for my brain to function properly; 2) it’s only got limited access to drinks and snacks (Keurig coffee, tea, and granola bars are provided; I’ve been bringing my own Cheez-its and strawberries); and 3) it’s a total pressure cooker. Which is to say, about 20 of us sit at tables all in a row, surrounded by books and papers and laptops, staring quietly at each in turn. People only really get up for more caffeine or a restroom break, and the room is basically silent for 4 hours. As someone who works best in cafés and sometimes bars (yes, really), I find the silence a bit deafening–thank goodness for headphones!

Still, simply being stuck in this place with my dissertation and no interruptions every day has been good for my productivity; I’ve averaged about 1 page per hour overall, which maybe isn’t amazing but at least it’s steady. I doubt I’ll reach my original goal of completing the chapter by the end of next week, but I’m definitely heading into the final third of it now. Interestingly, the main reason I probably won’t finish it is that my sustained daily practice has led me to make a lot of interesting connections, discoveries, and the like which have enriched my initial plans and structure for the chapter. So, it’s a good thing, really, because now the chapter will be more dynamic (I hope). Given this experience, I’m starting to understand why many people highly recommend trying to work on one’s dissertation every day even if only for half an hour. Keeping your brain in the game, as it were, seems to yield more creative and nuanced thinking–which seems obvious now that I write it down. Of course, making time every day is easier said than done.

I’ve also discovered that, as far as writing a humanities dissertation goes, I’m very lucky that my project moves even this fast. Many of my colleagues have to spend far more time than I do combing through archives, or translating old texts, or slowly working their way through very dense theory. Because my project is historical (not theoretical) but based largely in close readings (rather than the accumulation of many objects) of mostly-available texts, I avoid many of the difficulties of other kinds of projects. Part of my “good luck,” of course, is due to my distinctly bad luck in discovering that I am barred from accessing several of the archives of the major stars I’m writing about, so I was forced to make my project more about readings of media objects themselves rather than their contexts and the discourses that circulated around them. I think we often forget, when we think about the process of dissertation research, writing, and pacing overall, that one size fits very few–even within the humanities.

Well, that’s about all I have to say for now, so to spice up this wall of text a bit, here’s an awesome screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in Orchestra Wives (1942):
Orchestra Wives 4

Day 633: Getting Back in the Saddle

It’s been a little over 2 months since my last post, when I was in a dark place with my dissertation. I have more or less made my way out of the darkness since then, as I’m currently at 25 pages for my second chapter. This isn’t wonderful, but it’s also not nothing–it’s nearly the halfway point! I promised myself I’d be at the halfway point by June 6. Why June 6, you ask?

Well, there’s a nifty little program at my university called “Dissertation Bootcamp” that occurs 3 or 4 times a year. It’s a 2-week commitment, 9am-1pm, and you have to put down a $50 cash deposit as motivation to show up and work (which is returned at the end if you’re a good little dissertator). I’ve heard great things about it, so I’m hoping it will be as productive a time for me as it has been for others, especially because I’m teaching a fast-paced summer course right afterwards so I don’t envision having a lot of time to work on my DOS-D during that time. My official goal is to finish the chapter by the time I arrive in Germany mid-August (for a humanities institute).

Screen Shot 2016-05-29 at 4.18.06 PM

The Nicholas Brothers wearing cute crop tops for the “Cha Cha” number in the German film Bonjour Kathrin (1956)

 

Reflecting on the past 9 months and my very slow writing, I’d say my experience with this chapter overall has been something of a roller coaster; I go through spurts of productivity, confidence, and genuine excitement about my arguments…surrounded by long stretches of boredom, sluggishness, writer’s block, and lack of faith in its importance. I oddly didn’t experience this as much with my first chapter, though it’s objectively no more interesting or revolutionary. I wonder if the main problem is just burnout?

In the next week or so, I’ll be wrapping up my very last quarter as a teaching assistant–this is my 9th and final course as a TA and it’s coming at the end of my 5th year of graduate school. Just writing this makes me feel exhausted, so maybe it really is burnout. I am lucky to have been granted a 6th year of funding by my university, so I plan to complete the dissertation and defend in roughly one year’s time (without that funding, I’d have to seek other means of survival and thus it would take twice as long to finish). This timeline seems fairly reasonable to me; the first chapter took 6 months to create (conceive, research, outline) but only 3 months to write, and this second chapter is taking about 9 months but with consistent interruptions by other obligations like teaching etc. So, the third and final chapter can probably be completed by January 2017 (including one more Bootcamp), leaving me several months to write the intro & conclusion, revise, and defend before the filing deadline (May 5). Phew!

This is a lot to wrap my brain around, because it feels like it was just a few short months ago that I started my DOS-D (and this blog). But in reality, I’m going to be hitting the job market in the fall and telling all the search committees that I plan to defend in the spring (because it’s true!).

And so, in the immortal words of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments (1956): So let it be written; so let it be done.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I admit: sometimes progress is slow not because you don’t have enough time to write but because you don’t have enough confidence to write.

My latest chapter is currently about 8 pages long, and it’s been stuck there for well over a week now. The winter term is over and my students haven’t yet turned in their final projects so I’m trying to take advantage of the blissful gap between the two. I’ve sat down and tried to write, gotten stuck, made outlines and lists of topics to cover, jotted down small ideas to incorporate later, scoured the web for more primary materials, conducted an email exchange with the NYPL, and found a research travel grant to apply for. But I’m still stuck.

My problem, I think, is fear. I’m once again in that dark space where I imagine most writers land at one point or another: writer’s block. I know generally what I want to say, and if pushed I could even articulate what my intervention is. But I just can’t make it happen! Part of the problem is that good old trifecta I wrote about back in November of 2014: the fear of my work being Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal. I am referring more to other scholars for this chapter, and one in particular has said some very similar things about the Nicholas Brothers. In fact, the more I re-read her work, the more it begins to feel like all of my major claims are entirely unoriginal! They have begun to sound like only slight rearrangements of what this other scholar has already made quite clear! And when I do find small claims of my own that I can’t find proof of elsewhere, they sound so obvious or unimportant compared to the bigger claims that feel unoriginal! So it is here that I have trapped myself.

b4e

I’m not even a Spongebob fan, but this is definitely me right now.

 

I know in my heart of hearts that even if this chapter does say roughly the same thing this other scholar said, I am probably paying more attention to medium specificity than her because she is a dance scholar and I am theoretically a scholar of “screens”…and I am putting this analysis in conversation with my other case studies, whereas her entire monograph is an academic biography of just the Nicholases…but that feels dissatisfying. One of my mentors described my current state as a case of “the blahs,” and that definitely registers as accurate. She suggested sitting with them and in them in order to work through and past them but oh how unproductive this makes me feel!

Right now, this dissertation seems interminable…and I’m not even half done yet. A year and a half into the process and not even half done?!? Yeeeesh.

Slow & Steady Wins…An Eventual Book Deal?

Well, this time it’s been a somewhat respectable month since my last post. Since then, I’ve written about 6 pages. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not very good. Reflecting on my process for my first chapter draft, the first few pages definitely went the slowest–things sped up once I got to actual analysis rather than introductory framing. So let’s hope that holds true now, as well!

I’ve found that each time I sit down with the DOS-D (which I’ve learned never to do unless I have at least 3 uninterrupted hours ahead of me), I only manage to crank out about 1.5 pages before I’m completely exhausted. Part of this slowness is due to my meticulous citations & endnotes, which I insist on completing at the time of creation because I’ve heard horror stories about what happens when one leaves too many dissertation citations for “later.” Yesterday, for example, I found myself in a 15-minute endnote black hole while writing an aside-with-citation about the politics of historically black neighborhoods in old northern cities like Philadelphia. What does this have to do with my DOS-D, you may ask? Well, in trying to explain the Nicholas Brothers’ relative privilege within the black community, I point out how, in both Philadelphia and then New York City, their parents were able to move the family into the “wealthy” parts of black neighborhoods. This is easier to explain re: Harlem than it is re: Philadelphia…thus the endnote black hole.

All of this is to say that I am, by all measures, moving “slow and steady” now. This is much preferred to last quarter’s “slower and unsteady,” and I can only hope that moving a little more slowly now will help me out down the road when it’s time to (attempt to) convert this manuscript into a book manuscript. The one compliment from one of my committee members I took most to heart on my previous chapter draft was that she found the prose unusually clear for a first draft of a dissertation chapter. I’m hoping to maintain that advantage as I continue!

In any case, these 6 pages land me at the end of my first section, which is about the Nicholases’ early lives and entry into professional dancing (it’s short because little Harold was only 7 when they went pro!). I skimped on the literature review for now (my most dreaded part of everything I write) so I’ll have to come back to the opening and flesh it out somewhat, but it’s otherwise pretty thorough. I made some notes to myself at the end of my workday yesterday to prepare me for a final paragraph about the brothers’ ongoing contract at the Cotton Club in the 30s, but other than that, I’m ready to (finally) dive into the actual screens part of the chapter.

So, I will leave you today with a screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 screen debut, Pie, Pie Blackbird. This was a 10-ish minute Vitaphone short produced at the end of the Vitaphone era. It’s sort of a miracle that it still exists! And it’s really wonderful, I think, to see the brothers so young, just 2 years into their professional career, and still fresh imports to New York City.

Pie Pie Blackbird (1932)

Harold (left) and Fayard (right) Nicholas in Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932)

Like An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), which I posted a screen shot of in my last post, this film falls before the time period I focus on in my dissertation (roughly 1945-1965…which in actuality spans 1943-1968, I think) but it’s really very important pre-history.

 

Well, until next time, folks!

Day 500! Time Management Fails; Starting 2nd Chapter

While I’ve been remiss in posting for a full three months this time, I was fortunate to remember about my little ol’ dissertation blog JUST IN TIME for DAY 500!  (Although, because I’m a night owl, this won’t actually be posted until the wee hours of day 501 but SHHHH—And yes, I know the reference that comes to mind…I’ve never seen 500 Days of Summer, but something tells me the first 500 days of dissertation writing are 100% less interesting than that movie). So, where am I in the process? Well, I wrote zer0 (DOS-D) words last quarter, and squeezed in maybe 4 days of research, broadly conceived, from September to December. (Which is to say, the hopes and dreams I wrote about in October all came to naught.)

Now, you might be asking yourself, “What does ‘research, broadly conceived’ even mean?” The research I managed to conduct over the entirety of my extremely busy Fall quarter includes:

  • A search for and downloading of variously rare videos of the Nicholas Brothers dancing on film and television (complete with accurate file labeling!, which is harder than you might think with rare media objects)

    1935-fayard_harold_nicholas

    Harold & Fayard Nicholas in AN ALL-COLORED VAUDEVILLE SHOW (1935)

  • Some re-reading through key portions of Constance Valis Hill’s excellent dance-bio of the Nicholas Brothers, Brotherhood in Rhythm (and methodically cross-referencing my own knowledge of the brothers’ dance media with the list Hill provides in the back of her book, being careful to distinguish between what I deem the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ but similarly titled documentaries on them)
  • Attending a special screening+discussion of The Littlest Rebel (1935, featuring tap dancing by both Bill Robinson and little Shirley Temple), hosted by two of my mentors
  • A little revising of Chapter 2, including reshaping its opening anecdote and attempting to clarify its core argument, especially with an eye to its transition out of Chapter 1 (which hadn’t been written yet)

Annnnd that’s about it. How is this excessively low level of productivity over the course of 4 months even possible for someone who spends 3-4 (usually 4) days per week on campus AND who works most of every weekend? One word: Teaching. At this juncture in my experience as a baby academic, I honestly cannot comprehend how early career professors manage to teach 2+ courses per term AND publish articles AND work on their book AND serve on various committees AND attend conferences. I just flipped to an early week of November in my planner, and it involved a guest lecture, 15 student meetings, 2 summer course proposals drafted+submitted, a meeting to discuss previously submitted written reflections on positionality & power with my colleagues in our campus’ Teaching Certificate Program, reading and attending 2 lectures for the course I was Lead TA for, a meeting with the professor and fellow TAs for that course, and teaching 2 discussion sections. Now, bearing in mind that many of these obligations required the dreaded invisible labor of “prep time,” and that I also had other life obligations like attending colleagues’ presentation of their current projects, exercising, cooking and eating the odd meal with my partner, and of course laundry (which I find I’ve now mentioned at least 3 times in this blog about my dissertation…), it’s not entirely surprising that I didn’t get to my DOS-D at all that week. …or most weeks.

All of this being said, it’s simply a scholar’s reality that there is always too much to do in too little time. So, even as I successfully did a lot of non-dissy things last quarter, I still have to consider it an overall time management failure. I had to learn the hard way that teaching will eat up as much time as you let it. I managed many of the same responsibilities a few years ago when I also had a full courseload, so it must be the case that I managed my time a little better back then (although I distinctly remember sleeping much less, having no time to devote to a relationship, and eating 90% microwaved and otherwise prepackaged food).

Thus, one of my “resolutions” for this year, or at least this quarter, is to give over less time to teaching. It hasn’t worked particularly well so far, but I’ve also already put in more DOS-D work in the last week that I did all last quarter! I have:

  • Finished re-reading and re-annotating Brotherhood in Rhythm
  • Read several chapters of Jean & Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance, specifically tracking the essence of jazz dance develop through its prehistories in minstrelsy
  • FINALLY WROTE WORDS for my second chapter (Chapter 1) in the form of an introductory paragraph
  • Started my outline for the chapter
  • Jotted some basic notes about the current state of my anticipated central argument for the chapter

I’m now getting to the point, however, where I feel the need to start planning another visit to the archives…I want to get a stronger sense of the brothers’ choreographic process, and also of their reception, in order to parallel the depth of access I managed for myself in the previous chapter on Gene Kelly. We’ll see if I can find the time and funding to achieve such a visit…until then, I’ll have to depend on the various digital archives I can access online (mostly newspapers). I also need to keep in mind the fact that I told too much of a basic chronological (hi)story in my last chapter–I don’t want to make that mistake again, so I’m going to need to make sure my argument is more present and powerful in my writing this time around. I’m already feeling apprehensive about that, because I worry that my argument is too simple to really carry the weight of the whole history…but that’s a problem for later, I suppose.

In short, Day 500 finds me at the beginning of writing my 2nd chapter, emerging ever so slightly from a long bout of poor time management. And now, onwards~

Day 403: Transitioning Back to “Normalcy”

It’s once again been over two months since my last post, for shame. But in the time elapsed, I’ve moved across the country and started teaching again, so there’s that.

Even now, I have little to report on the DOS-D front. I’ve received comments on that first chapter from my chair, and I’ll be receiving a second set from another advisor in two days. (As a decidedly interdisciplinary scholar, I like to get opinions on my work from different disciplinary perspectives before I chop away at it too much.) Then the editing process will begin, but I’ll only put in a round or two of edits before letting it sit for awhile because I really need to be focusing on the next chapter.

The second chapter currently feels like it will be easier, but something tells me this is a false feeling. At least I’ve already done some of the research-viewing and about half of the research-reading. Still, I’m anxious once again to have something to physically show for myself. And…truth be told, I haven’t done an ounce of work on this second chapter since I arrived back in Chicago just over a month ago.

…All of which brings me to the actual “subject” of this post: reacclimating to a regular schedule of teaching and other campus-related responsibilities has been much tougher than I anticipated. It’s not that I haven’t been able to dust off and apply those good old time management skills, it’s just that I’m out of practice on many things, so they require more work. Grading, for example, is much less efficient than it used to be for me. I am more easily tired out than I used to be after teaching a couple classes, attending a lecture, catching up on email, and doing a little reading–it used to be that I’d have enough energy to go out to dinner and/or a show and/or drinks with friends afterwards but now I can barely drag myself home before collapsing into bed or a hot shower.

It may be that this happens to most academics after a fellowship year where the main priority was working on a manuscript–suddenly the responsibilities have multiplied again and we have to remember how to juggle! The other problem, in my case, is trying to put a home together again. There just isn’t time to go shopping for couches and bedframes when I have 30 papers to grade every week! But I’m slowly remembering how to speed up the various processes that used to be second nature, so hopefully I’ll be able to finish nesting and carve out real chunks of time for my next chapter soon!