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~

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The Anatomy of a DOS-D

It’s been over a month now since I last checked in here on DOS-D, and much has transpired since then.  I did indeed finish my conference talk for the Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress of Research on Dance, flew to the midwest, gave said talk despite a major power outage in the middle of my presentation, and had meetings with each of my committee members.

Of course, the difficulty in meeting with each member separately is the high likelihood that some of their thoughts and suggestions will clash with one another, so I’ve since been trying to resolve some of the conflicts in these suggestions.  BUT, I want to record the conceptual progress I’ve made before I get too caught up in archival research (what follows is probably boring nitty gritty for most readers, so be warned):

  • The main goal of the dissertation (at this juncture) is to document the shifts in staging race and dance on screen at the crucial juncture of the postwar moment, and how this affected male ‘star’ dancers in particular as a result of important shifts in gender and race dynamics of the period that were both much bigger than dance and also being worked out in front of the nation through dance (among other means).
    • There are several other issues bound up in this like differential media technologies, class, and age/generation which will hopefully get traced out (or at least wrapped in) along the way
  • My original interest in the symbiotic relationship between dance cultures and screen cultures remains–there’s clearly a sort of push/pull happening between the two, in which each side wants to blame the other for ruining or cheapening it while also being dependent on it for success, popularity, profit, etc.  Television was concerned about Elvis’s pelvis, of course, and dance was concerned that its Hollywood arm consisted mainly of cheap spectacle.  And yet, even Ed Sullivan knew that Elvis was the key to the ratings jackpot and even Dance Observer admitted that Hollywood is part of what made American dance so innovative.  This invisible exchange needs to be made evident in my diss.
    • That being said, maybe one of the key shifts for me to track is precisely the shift from film to TV (and in Elvis’s case, from TV to film) — maybe medium specificity in this case accounts for more than immediately meets the eye.

Regrettably, I think I’m going to have to move away from including ‘regular people’ (amateur hours & teen dance shows) to make more room for focusing on the big names who, by virtue of being big names, were the bodies across which the most aggressive representational rhetoric was etched out.

Now we get to the hardest part, the part I’m still struggling with and probably will continue to struggle with for some time: organization.  While two of my three committee members thought that the revised plans I’d brought to them seemed much better and more manageable than the initial prospectus, all three offered a slightly different take on what they envision going forward.  In basic terms, these options are:

  1. Structure by figure, and cut out a couple.  So:
    1. The Nicholas Brothers
    2. Gene Kelly
    3. Elvis Presley
  2. Structure by period/media arrangement, and bring the cut fellas back in.  So:
    1. The Nicholas Brothers & Bill Robinson (mainly film)
    2. Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly (film –> TV)
    3. Elvis Presley (TV –> film)
  3. Structure by concept, and maybe bring women & femininity back in.  So (roughly…):
    1. Dance vs. Screen Cultures
    2. Race & Gender
    3. Class & Generation
    4. Film vs. TV

Well, I’m still digesting all this.  I have plans to reach out to a potential fourth committee member who’s currently working on Bill Robinson.  I’ve downloaded Scrivener and imported the images from my digging through 8 years of Dance Observer archives (1934-1941, which is really too early but I wanted to check for precedents) and 2 years of Dance Magazine (1951-1952).  I’ve started a spreadsheet of archives in the LA area whose written records hold promise for me.  AND I’ve begun compiling a list of relevant television episodes for each of the figures listed above, as well as places where I can actually view these episodes.

Gene Kelly for Capezio shoes in a 1952 Dance Magazine

Gene Kelly for Capezio shoes in a 1952 Dance Magazine

So, progress has been made, and I’ll hopefully accomplish a bit more before the holidays so that I’m ready to actually visit all the necessary brick & mortar archives in the new year.